Harnessing the Power of Nature to Improve Our Cities

Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design / Island Press
Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design / Island Press

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.

Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore / Travelog
Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore / Travelog

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.

Please touch community garden / Ekevara Kitpowsong, for S.F. Examiner
Please touch community garden / Ekevara Kitpowsong, for S.F. Examiner

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.

Paley Park / Pinterest
Paley Park / Pinterest

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. 

The First Phase of the QueensWay Takes Shape

QueensWay elevated track / The New York Times.
QueensWay elevated track / The New York Times.

“The QueensWay reminds me of those dreams all New Yorkers have of finding a room in your apartment you never knew was there. It’s as if we’ve found 47 acres of parkland that had been sitting in the middle of Queens, unnoticed all these years,” said Gregory Wessner, executive director of Open House New York, host of a discussion on the QueensWay, a linear park being built on an abandoned rail line in Queens. In a city where space is at a premium, the prospect of a new 47-acre park creates a lot of buzz. After many years of discussion and planning, designs for the QueensWay are finally moving forward.

The 3.5-mile rail line that will become the QueensWay was the northern stretch of the Long Island Rail Road’s Rockaway Beach line, which was closed in 1962 and left abandoned. It runs through six neighborhoods that are some of the most culturally-diverse areas on the planet, as well as the 538-acre Forest Park.

In 2011, a group of people who live near the rail line came together as Friends of the QueensWay to advocate for the park’s creation. They partnered with the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and together made a strong case for the QueensWay — at least 322,000 people live within a mile radius of it.

“Just to put this into perspective, if this area were an actual city, it would be larger than St. Louis, Pittsburgh, or Orlando,” said Travis Terry, with the Friends of the QueensWay steering committee.

The QueensWay will provide a safe north-south bike route. Parts of the rail line are dark, strewn with litter, with evidence of drug use. Turning it into a park will improve lighting and security. Twelve public schools and two little league facilities are within a 5-minute walk. Those nearby schools lack open space. One of the schools doesn’t even have a playground, so to give the kids the exercise required by the department of education, teachers must walk them around the block. The QueensWay will give this school and others space to take students for recess or outdoor classroom experiences.

The QueensWay started with a grant from the state of New York, and, with this, the Friends of the QueensWay and TPL conducted a feasibility study, developed a plan, and held community workshops. With endorsements from elected officials, they received another state grant to cover the design of the first half mile, which is called the Metro Hub and will serve as a prototype that can help attract funding for the remaining 3 miles of the park. The team is about halfway through schematic designs for the first phase, which are being created by landscape architects at DLANDstudio and urban designers and planners with WXY Studio. The project is expected to cost some $120 million in total.

QueensWay phase 1 design / DLANDstudio
QueensWay phase 1 design / DLANDstudio

Susannah Drake, FASLA, DLANDstudio, showed an image of the current rail line, lush and green. “Parts of the rail line are incredibly beautiful. It almost looks like the Adirondacks. We want to draw upon that poetry and beauty and bring that to the project.” This beauty, along with a rigorous process for gathering community input, will guide the design.

QueensWay trail / The New York Times
QueensWay trail / The New York Times

The richly varied conditions, and their juxtaposition with the surrounding urban fabric, fascinate Drake. Since rail lines need to stay relatively flat, the southern portion runs through an embankment. In the middle stretch, where the terminal moraine of a past glacier rises up, the rail passes over a ravine. And at the north end, it becomes a raised structure.

“Fundamentally, what we are dealing with are landscape layers: we have ground, understory, and canopy layers. What we’re trying to do is make very careful adjustments to these layers so they function better and are more beautiful.”

Many of the existing trees will be kept, but the tangled underbrush will be removed. “Here we have a landscape that has grown, un-bothered, for 60 years. You just can’t buy that time, you couldn’t put in 60 year old trees,” said Drake.

The landscape design refers to the past practice of the Dutch farmers of Queens: it delineates spaces with walls built with stones from the moraine. In areas that run through dense residential neighborhoods, the design will encourage trail users to move through quickly, so they remain quiet and secure.

QueensWay Phase 1 design / DLANDstudio
QueensWay Phase 1 design / DLANDstudio

The incredibly popular High Line in Manhattan looms large in discussions about the QueensWay. In truth, the projects are quite different. The Queensway is not expected to be the tourist magnet the High Line is. At least 95 percent of visitors to the High Line are tourists from other parts of New York City or outside the city, whereas early projections predict that 75 percent of visitors to the QueensWay will be from adjacent neighborhoods. The Queensway will allow bikes and dogs while the High Line does not. And the QueensWay will be 2.5-times longer than the High Line.

With the High Line came a wave of high-rise development, causing property values and rents to explode in the surrounding area. The rapid change that came in Chelsea has some Queens residents nervous. Will the QueensWay lead to new development that displaces existing residents? The speakers said no.

The surrounding neighborhoods enjoy a relatively high rate of home ownership and residential zoning laws allow for only one or two family homes. While they hope the flow of people along the linear park will invigorate existing businesses, they don’t expect it to significantly change the demographics of the neighborhoods.

“New York has for a long time been a leader in the transformation of leftover and non-traditional spaces” said Andy Stone, with TPL. This project promises to be another in this lineage, but perhaps without the gentrifying effects.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, a recent master’s of landscape architecture graduate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design. 

Clean Water for Everyone Who Lives in a City

Water Infrastructure / Columbia University Press
Water Infrastructure / Columbia University Press

Water Infrastructure: Equitable Deployment of Resilient Systems is an important, timely book. Synthesized from discussions leading up to Habitat III, the United Nations conference on housing and sustainable urban development, held in Quito, Ecuador last October, the book explains how to better provide clean water to everyone in the world’s cities by making water systems more equitable and resilient to shocks. A perfunctory foreword by Kate Orff, ASLA, demonstrates how refreshingly unpretentious this book is: lines crammed together, a minor typo halfway through, as if to say, who cares about formatting? Get the ideas out there.

With that, Water Infrastructure, written by Columbia University professors S. Bry Sarte and Morana Stipisic, hits the ground running. What threatens the sources of clean water in cities? The authors offer a highly-visual drive-by tour of the risks: water pollution, sea level rise, terrestrial flooding, drought, and failing infrastructure. The tremendous speed of urbanization increases the risks and leaves us in need of better solutions.

Water Infrastructure doesn’t offer sure-fire solutions, but does provide exciting real-world innovations. These innovations aren’t just technological, but fall into the realms of ecology, finance, and equity. All share a similar DNA: they’re decentralized, adaptable, and rational.

The book diagrams which innovations can be applied to specific risks. Confronted with aging infrastructure? Integrated micro-infrastructure centers (IMICs) could help. These are modular water systems that can stand alone or complement aging infrastructure. They can be tailored to local conditions and mitigate damage in case of a centralized system’s failure. IMICs are an ideal response to aging infrastructure, but one can see how they could help reduce water pollution by reducing the overall load on a system.

emory-waterhub
Emory University’s IMIC reduces the load on public water infrastrucuture / Water Infrastructure

Landscape architects will be familiar with the ecological innovations Water Infrastructure touts. “The integration of high performance ecology in an urban context” (the unartful name of one innovation) covers both hard and soft coastal buffers, floodable parks and public spaces, and methods for reducing the urban heat island effect. It’s a concern, though, that these items are considered innovations, with the edginess that label connotes, and not standard practice. But one should consider that 20 years ago, at the time of the Habitat II conference, these ideas were fringe at best. Resilient and sustainable landscape design has come a long way.

What constitutes a financial innovation? New ways of sourcing money, and new sources of said money. This section is a bit light. And some of the innovations’ intent could be compromised through privatization. The authors make two useful suggestions: encourage community-based implementation of water infrastructure, akin to Grameen Bank’s model, and use public health benefits to drive funding for these systems.

Innovations in equity, leadership, and governance pick up where these community-centric ideas leave off. The authors’ key policy suggestions here include designing legal and financial systems for community ownership of water infrastructure. The authors write that the “personality of a community can be expressed by the choice of infrastructure and its implementation.” More than that, communities would hold a vested interest in that infrastructure, which would likely lead to greater appreciation and upkeep.

A noteworthy recommendation is leveraging infrastructure’s “cool factor” to create more of it. This is an astonishing comment on the state of things, that plumbing can be art. Any yet it’s increasingly the case, with examples such as Google’s data Center in Douglas County, Georgia, and Ned Kahn’s Cloud Portal in San Francisco.

google-pipes
Google’s data center in Georgia uses recycled water for cooling operations. / Georgia Globe Design News

Leveraging coolness in a project isn’t always possible. And this recommendation, while alluring, shouldn’t overshadow the book’s other solid and potentially transforming ideas. But its inclusion shows that the authors and participants of Habitat III have considered all aspects of water infrastructure and are excited to share their findings.

ASLA Announces 2017 Professional and Student Awards Call for Entries

ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. Grand Teton National Park Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, Swift Company / Nic Lehoux
ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. Grand Teton National Park Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, Swift Company / Nic Lehoux

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) announces its calls for entries for the 2017 Professional and Student Awards, the world’s most prestigious juried landscape architecture competition. Each year, the ASLA Professional Awards honor the best in landscape architecture from around the globe, while the ASLA Student Awards give us a glimpse into the future of the profession.

Award-winning submissions will be featured in Landscape Architecture Magazine and in many other design and construction industry and general-interest media. Award recipients, their clients and student advisors also will be honored at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in Los Angeles, October 20-23, 2017. Award-winning submissions will also be featured in a video presentation at the ceremony and on the awards website following the event.

The prestige of the ASLA awards programs relies on the high-caliber juries that are convened each year to review submissions. Members of this year’s professional awards jury are:

  • Elizabeth Miller, FASLA, chair, National Capital Planning Commission, Washington, D.C.
  • Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, DesignJones LLC, New Orleans
  • Maureen Alonso, U.S. General Services Administration, Washington, D.C.
  • James Brasuell, Planetizen, Los Angeles
  • James Lord, ASLA, Surfacedesign Inc., San Francisco
  • Janet Rosenberg, FASLA, Janet Rosenberg Studio, Toronto, Ontario
  • Glen Schmidt, FASLA, Schmidt Design Group Inc., San Diego
  • Todd Wichman, FASLA, Stantec, St. Paul, Minn.
  • Barbara Wyatt, ASLA, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.

Joining the jury for the selection of the Research Category will be M. Elen Deming, ASLA, University of Illinois, Champaign, Ill., on behalf of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and Charlene LeBleu, FASLA, Auburn University, Auburn, Ala., on behalf of the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA).

Members of the student awards jury are:

  • Barbara Swift, FASLA, chair, Swift Company llc, Seattle
  • Michael Albert, ASLA, Design Workshop, Aspen, Colo.
  • Meg Calkins, FASLA, Ball State University, Muncie, Ind.
  • Mark Focht, FASLA, New York City Parks & Recreation, New York
  • Robert Page, FASLA, Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, Boston
  • James Richards, FASLA, Townscape Inc., Fort Worth, Texas
  • Roberto Rovira, ASLA, Florida International University, Studio Roberto Rovira, Miami
  • Meghan Stromberg, American Planning Association, Chicago
  • Mercedes Ward, ASLA, New York City Parks and Recreation, Flushing, N.Y.

Both the ASLA Professional and Student awards feature five categories: General Design; Residential Design; Analysis and Planning; Communications; and Research. The Professional Awards also include The Landmark Award, while the Student Awards include the Student Community Service Award and Student Collaboration categories.

Entry submissions and payment must be received by April 17, 2017 for ASLA Professional Awards and May 15, 2017 for ASLA Student Awards.