Are Modernist Landscapes Worth Saving?

Freeway Park, Seattle by Lawrence Halprin / The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Charles Birnbaum

As our cities evolve, and what people want from their public spaces changes, should Modernist parks, plazas, and streets be saved? For lovers of Modernism, the answer is always yes. But, in reality, if the public, and their representatives, choose to keep these spaces, many will need to better respond to contemporary expectations. The question then is how can they be “respectfully honored and adapted?,” asked Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, in an event at the National Building Museum at Washington, D.C.

First, we better answer: what are Modernist landscapes? For Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, they are characterized by their use of “spatial free plans, which have intentionally volumetric spaces that are not bound.” These landscapes came out of the functionalism movement, other Modernist arts and design fields, and asymmetrical aesthetics. These parks, plazas, and streets were designed and constructed after World War II and into the 80s. They often feature a juxtaposition of forms, textures, and colors, creating duality between “soft and hard, permanent and ephemeral.”

Modernist landscapes can’t be separated from the economic, political, and social factors that led to them being built. Many Modernist urban parks and plazas are deeply political, loaded sites. Many are intrinsically linked with the mistakes of urban renewal, in which communities were uprooted, due to racism, and replaced with a new era of “monumental” buildings, infrastructure, and public spaces.

But they also came out stated good intentions, or at least some would argue: The goal behind those moves was to “improve the quality of life for everyone,” Meyer said. President Lyndon Johnson and his 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty, which was greatly influenced by his wife Lady Bird Johnson, argued that “everyone had the right to live in decent surroundings.” The American inner city, with its blight and poverty, then became a target for revitalization. The idea was to create new monuments, a modern urban world to replace the dysfunction of the old.

And these landscapes were the result of innovation: Modernist landscape architecture created new forms of public spaces, “hybrid spaces” that mixed plazas, parks, and playgrounds in new combinations, and built public spaces where none existed before. For example, in Seattle, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin turned an industrial site into a park and capped a freeway with another park (see image at top).

Beyond the racist history associated with some of these places, Meyer seemed to argue that Modernism doesn’t really work well at the grand scale of urban renewal. “The qualities of these spaces don’t operate when construed just as openness.” Despite the intentions of the designers, the reality is many of these places make visitors feel small and isolated. For example, the expansive plaza around Boston City Hall creates a “sense of exposure and unease, not sensuousness. It’s a difficult place to love.”

Boston City Hall and plaza / The Boston Globe

As noted urban designer Jan Gehl, author of Cities for People, remarked on Brasilia, the Modernist capital of Brazil, which was created by architect Oscar Niemeyer: “From the air it’s very interesting. It’s interesting for a bird or eagle. From the helicopter view, it has got wonderful districts with sharp and precise government buildings and residential buildings. However, nobody spent three minutes to think about what Brasilia would look like at the eye level.”

Brasilia from the air / Image © Joana França, via ArchDaily

So why preserve these places, some of which don’t work well for people who don’t have helicopters? Meyer seemed to argue that it’s important to keep some Modernist landscapes, because they are a record of an “era of modernization and urbanization.” Neighborhoods where poor African Americans and immigrants lived were bulldozed to make way “large new landscapes.” But also equally as important were the “small urban spaces” that were inserted into the existing urban fabric and meant to improve quality of life. “They were part of urban renewal efforts, too.”

Paley Park / Pinterest

Modernist landscapes were also the result of design and material innovations, as the field of landscape architecture grew dramatically in the post-war era. Given these spaces can be defined by experimentation, “it’s not surprising that some have failed. Some can’t survive.” But some can and should. As an example, Meyer pointed to the landscape created by I.M. Pei and Dan Kiley between the east and west wings of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. as a masterpiece.

National Gallery of Art East Wing Plaza by I.M. Pei and Dan Kiley / Pinterest

And she argued that instead of letting these places decline due to lack of maintenance, they should be adapted, especially for climate change. Many of these “experiments for living” can benefit from strategic interventions to make them acceptable and relevant again while preserving their unique spatial designs.

Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, a co-founder of Reed Hilderbrand, showed his firm’s efforts at respectfully update Modernist landscapes in Boston — the Boston City Hall Plaza, a “whopper,” and the Christian Science Plaza. For Hilderbrand, it’s important to “understand the original design intention and then how to interpret it” for our current era.

For the Boston City Hall, the intention was to create a “sense of monumentality.” Furthermore, the entire government center master plan by I.M. Pei aimed to create a sense of openness and connection between the city and state government offices. “Boston had been a corrupt place for 50 years. They were pitching a new Boston and using the landscape as a recuperative device.”

Boston City Hall by Steve Rosenthal / Friends of Boston City Hall

Clearing city block after block, which had been red-lined for disinvestment, the city government built a new center in the late 1960s.

Hilderbrand said the “problem was the new buildings were too large and the spaces were too vast.” While the plaza was envisioned as a civic event space, and has been used as such in the past, it’s now windy and feels barren.

After Mayor Marty Walsh launched an ideas competition that Reed Hilderbrand won, design work has begun to move public functions in City Hall down to the ground level; punch holes for more windows in the looming Brutalist building, which was designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles and Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty; create ramps up to the building; and add 100 trees to the courtyard. “We will increase shade cover from 3 percent to 9-10 percent, treat stormwater, and get people to the door accessibly. This is actually a return to some of the original intentions.”

Proposal for Boston City Hall Plaza by Reed Hilderbrand / The Architect’s Newspaper

And Reed Hilderbrand helped persuade the Christian Science Church not to cut a pathway through the 700-foot-long reflecting pool in their 14-acre Christian Science Plaza, designed by Araldo Cossutta of I. M. Pei & Associates and landscape architects at Sasaski Associates. Hilderbrand’s firm created a healthier environment for the 200 original Linden trees, arranged in allees, and created new sustainable gardens amid the seating along the pool. He said there’s a “compulsion to move around the pool.” It’s another vast space without much shade.

Christian Science Plaza / Boston Planning and Development Agency

The debate over whether Modernism is good for cities will no likely continue, but some argue that remnants of this singular era in American urban planning and design shouldn’t be destroyed but renewed. Preservationists, like The Cultural Landscape Foundation, have worked with the National Park Service (NPS), to promote case studies, develop standards, and create models for adaptation. As McKee noted, “just ‘pickling’ a project,” meaning preserving a project exactly like it was when it was created, “doesn’t work anymore.”

The Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities (Part 1)

LiDAR-generated hillshade showing terracing, household remains and field boundaries in present-day Yucatan, Mexico / Journal of Archaeological Science

John Beardsley, director of garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks, opened the Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities symposium in Washington, D.C. with a promise that the invited speakers would explore “the origins and future trajectories of urban landscapes” — shedding light, through case studies spanning millennia, on the complex evolutions and experiences of urban settlements over time.

Two days later, after 13 scholars of archaeology, art, and anthropology had presented their work, Beardsley, asked: “When we look back at these pre-industrial cities, are we seeing what we want to see? I’ve heard a lot about flexibility, resilience, multiplicity, diversity, ecological socialism, self-organization — these are all very contemporary values and things that we want to see in our cities now.” Beardsley posed: “Are we projecting these values back in a mistaken way, or are we excavating earlier adaptations that provide useful lessons for us?”

Tim Murtha, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, offered a response: “I think the answer is both. And that’s the hardest thing for an archaeologist to say, but I’m okay saying it because I teach in a landscape architecture department.”

Murtha continued: “What if that’s not a problem? What if that allows us to start thinking about present cities and future cities and exposing those values as part of our archaeological imagination?”

Murtha’s work in the ancient Mayan lowlands has challenged the archaeological imagination of his predecessors, who largely focused on the structural and engineering feats of population centers and treated regional landscapes as peripheral and less significant. Murtha has used LiDAR, a remote sensing technology, and climate and hydrologic modeling to explore regional landscapes from eastern Veracruz to the northern tip of Yucatan (see image above).

He found evidence of intricate and highly-varied patterns of terraces, reservoirs, and field boundaries, seemingly formed in response to their geological surroundings and without reference or connection to the nearest city.

“Households dominated these landscapes in a regionally-expressive mosaic,” Murtha said, suggesting that archaeologists and planners “need to concentrate less on the potential exceptionalism of our places and density-dependent analysis, and pay more attention to the regional narratives of landscapes and households as expressions of coupled human and natural systems.”

Archaeologists are also using LiDAR in Cambodia to enrich our understanding of an ancient landscape that today is dominated by temple architecture. J. B. Chevance, with the Archaeology and Development Foundation’s Phnom Kulen Program in Cambodia, and Christophe Pottier, Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient in Paris, said remote sensing technology coupled with field work has allowed archaeologists to situate the spectacular historic temples of Angkor within a similarly spectacular historic landscape, which over hundreds of years saw deforestation, diversion of rivers, and the construction of hydraulic channels and agricultural fields to serve shifting human settlements.

Chevance’s work focuses on Phnom Kulen, the birthplace and early capital of the Khmer empire, located close to the Angkor World Heritage Site but largely unexplored. Chevance said that for years the archaeological approach to the Khmer empire considered only the remains of monumental architecture, sculpture, and inscriptions. “Studies were therefore mostly oriented toward the elites, religious architecture and religion, whereas the common life and the territorial approach were not relayed.”

Temple of Damrei Krap, Phnom Kulen, Cambodia / Archaeology and Development Foundation

Pottier said the emergence of LiDAR technology in the mid-1990s allowed archaeologists to see beyond the narrative of Angkor urbanism as “a story of boxes and squares,” a narrative that he said was developed largely by architects taken by the geometries of Angkor’s monumental remains.

Pottier instead traced the more recent LiDAR-enabled discoveries of regional networks of roads, canals, rice fields, and small-scale ponds and temples that defined the forms of dispersed population centers, which themselves shifted over hundreds of years, often rebuilding in a way that incorporated sites that had been abandoned but were formerly significant. He contrasted this new understanding of a complex human landscape with the popular vision of Angkor as a city of temples amid a green jungle.

“These are two completely different versions of urbanism and territorial development,” Pottier said. “The vision of Angkor itself is only a matter of how you map it.”

Georges Farhat, a symposium organizer from the University of Toronto, also addressed the role of representation, along with the potential pitfalls of examining ancient cities through a modern Western lens.

“We heard over the course of these two days issues of representation suggesting that what we see defines what we think, and what we are able to visualize will determine what we will be able to understand,” Farhat said. “We also heard about the importance of excavating patterns the way you excavate fossils — it determines what you conclude or draw from the field.”

Timothy Pauketat, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said that in his work to understand Cahokia, a pre-historic Native American city in present-day Illinois, he attempts to align his “scientific Western approach” with a sensory one, imagining how the experience of the swampy site along the Mississippi River might have inspired the people who built the waterways, residential neighborhoods, and monumental precincts that defined Cahokian urbanism.

Cahokia Mounds / Cahokiamounds.org

Early archaeologists at Cahokia assumed the site was never inhabited by humans, Pauketat said, because of their own inability to imagine that people might select to live among what Charles Dickens described, when he passed through Cahokia’s eroding earthen monuments on an American tour, as “a swamp, the bush, the perpetual chorus of frogs, the rank unseemly growth and the unwholesome steaming earth.”

Pauketat offered: “But what if the auditory affects of the frogs that bedeviled Dickens were positive, entangled with the experiential aspects of a place of fertile soil, life-giving rains, and sweet flavors of an exotic and water-sensitive plant? That it’s quite possibly the pre-urban landscape of this region, with embodied spiritual energies of water and weather and fertility, that might attract people?”

Michael Heckenberger, a professor at University of Florida who studies the experiential aspects of past and present Amazonian building and planning practices, has worked with the indigenous Kuikuro community in the Upper Xingu region of Brazil to uncover pre-Columbian roads that connected a dense network of towns and villages nestled within the Amazon. Heckenberger said that from the scale of the house to the scale of the region, the design of places was in relation and proportion to the human form and physical context, in what he called “a corporeal and relational calculus.”

In describing his ongoing partnership with the Kuikuro, Heckenberger advocated more broadly for dialogue with peoples and places that can offer lessons about the design of settlements that serve human and ecological health.

Priyaleen Singh, at the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi, advocated the same in her case studies on the disparate development trajectories of Old and New Bhubaneswar in India. Old Bhubaneswar was built from the sixth to ninth centuries C.E. as a pilgrimage center, with distinctive temple architecture, a network of pools, or tanks, and a wealth of open spaces integrated into the urban fabric in the form of courtyards and shade-giving groves. New Bhubaneswar, planned by Otto Koenigsberger in the 1950s, adhered to Western planning practices of the time, separating districts by use and, Singh argues, eschewing the human scale.

Tenth-century temple and open space with newer development in the background, Bhubaneswar, India / Bernard Gagnon

“Natural ecology and cultural ecology were overtly interwoven and expressed in design forms and other cultural expressions of the open spaces in Old Bhubaneswar,” Singh said. “Temple tanks and groves — besides constituting the genius of the place and giving meaning to the landscape — also ensured that nature was both respected and integrated with the everyday life and experience of the people. Traditional design vocabularies encouraged a participatory relationship with nature, encouraging an experiential aesthetics as opposed to a purely visual one.”

Singh pointed in contrast to mono-functional green spaces, slick nature-themed marketing, and the growing dominance of non-native plant species within New Bhubaneswar development. “In New Bhubaneswar, nature and its elements have been reduced to a mere beautification exercise, and image-making has overshadowed the more real ecological demands.”

Read part 2.

This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.

The Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities (Part 2)

Cana palace remains in present-day Benin / J. Cameron Monroe

Over two days, speakers at the Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities symposium at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. grappled with questions like: How do cities evolve? Why do they form in the first place? To what extent are they shaped by their place, and to what extent by their inhabitants?

Monica Smith, University of California at Los Angeles, made a claim that continued to surface and provoke throughout the symposium: “Rural places do not need cities,” she said. “After all, dispersed rural settlement is the ancestral condition of our species. For a million years, our species was grouped into configurations no larger than the number of people in this room.”

Smith studies the history of human settlement in the “monsoon belt” of the Indian subcontinent, where sweltering-hot summers end with long deluges of rain. Smith is interested in how dramatic climates and abundant water affect the form and lived experience of cities and how they define the relationship between cities and their rural hinterlands.

She described “landscapes of provisioning,” in which urban cores draw food, resources, and labor from their rural surroundings, and in which a variety of rural settlements, including small towns and monasteries, continue the flow of resources to cities, even in times of catastrophic flood or earthquake.

Despite the risks in relying on such an arrangement, Smith said, “in the relatively short archaeological time period of about 6,000 years, we went from a world that had no cities, to a world that is full of cities, and there must have been something in our cognitive makeup that made that possible, necessary, and compelling.”

Many speakers outlined ancient processes of urbanization that were organic and self-organizing. A dramatic exception was J. Cameron Monroe, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who has been surveying urban settlement systems in tropical West Africa. He believes that 18th-century urban settlement and growth in Cana, a Dahomey city in present-day Benin, was the direct result of the Atlantic slave trade.

Monroe’s surveys and oral histories with local residents suggest that predatory slave raids depleted rural populations. As Cana emerged as a major player in the slave trade, other people migrated to the city in search of job opportunities created by the wealthy elite. The political, social, and economic dynamics of the slave trade “drove the process of urbanism itself.” (see image above).

Jason Ur, Harvard University, offered a different vision of urbanization, using the example of early Mesopotamian cities. He argued against previous archaeological theories that those cities, with their walls and geometric forms, must have been the result of top-down planning.

“These interpretations share the assumption that behind structured features, at the scale of the neighborhood or the entire city, one or a few powerful decision-makers must be lurking,” Ur said. “In some cases. these top-down processes are plausible. In most cases, however, such thinking limits agency to a subset of humanity and renders the rest as pliable non-actors.”

Ur instead suggested that Mesopotamian cities first emerged as informal settlements ringed by agricultural fields. Farmers and herders walked to the fields by the shortest paths possible without trampling crops. And as the population grew, settlement areas expanded into the closest possible farmland. Ur says these basic social and spatial principles established the earliest forms of roads and settlements, which were later formalized and walled-in as cities grew in size and sophistication.

Ancient Babylonian wall / Looklex

A term uttered often at the symposium was palimpsest, or something that has taken multiple shapes over time but still bears traces of its earlier form. It’s an apt term to describe urban landscapes and cities’ accumulated layers of history, culture, significance and meaning. Hendrick Dey, a professor at Hunter College City University of New York, shared stories of the physical layers that shed light on 12th-century planning and development in Rome.

Dey described a history in Rome characterized by population decline and recovery; multiple new cities emerging within the structures of the old; and earthquakes and maintenance decisions that saw the crumbling of monuments that once lined the Via Triumphalis, the route for Roman imperial processions. As that route transformed into a commercial center and as flooding and maintenance backlogs left it regularly in poor shape, Dey argues that church leaders of the 12th century made the decision to move the papal procession route just north to the Via Papalis — and to elevate the entire length of that road by three meters to protect it from flooding.

“How do you increase ground levels by three meters? Rome provides you with the greatest store of rubble that any ancient city could possibly have,” Dey said. “We have this complex interaction between the surviving bones of the Roman city, the natural environment, and the priorities of the human actors who are animating it as it becomes this densely developed settlement in the 12th century. None of it would have been possible without the fact of the largest field of ruins that exist anywhere in the western world.”

Necropolli della Via Triumphalis today, Vatican City / Pinterest

Jordan Pickett, University of Michigan, focused on the farthest reaches of the Roman empire from the first to eighth centuries where massive aqueducts were constructed to carry coveted spring water to even the most arid urban areas. Pickett traces the empire from the first century — defined by elite and monumental cities, and the power conveyed by conspicuous consumption and advanced engineering — to the Byzantine world centuries later, when aqueducts were most often abandoned as impractical or adapted to serve new industrial or agricultural uses, providing “a flexible framework from which a new set of alternatives for low-density, ruralized cities, fragmented and decentralized, could emerge.”

Pickett emphasized that Byzantine administrations had retained the capacity to maintain and repair the aqueduct network; what changed was the cultural and political approach to water. “This system was walked back, there was in fact a withdrawal,” Pickett said. “There was a decision to walk it back and to say this is a system that shouldn’t exist everywhere.”

Roman aqueduct, Istanbul, Turkey / World Travel Writing

The fluidity of city forms was apparent across the presentations and the places and times explored. Urban populations could change dramatically across wet and dry seasons. Past infrastructures could be put to new use or rendered obsolete. In Cahokia, the entire settlement of monuments, waterways, and neighborhoods might have been intended as a temporary religious installation.

Even in the study of walled cities in early West Africa, Suzanne Preston Blier, a professor of African art and history at Harvard, rejected the idea that walls denote a static or fixed order, particularly within an aesthetic culture that often intentionally rejected symmetry and rigidity. Blier called the West African city walls “lines of multiplexity” that demonstrated “the ability of one form, one way of engagement, one kind of plan, to carry multiple meanings, like a telegraph wire.” She said the walls were adaptable, built in reaction to their context, and used to order interior spaces and reflect shifting social patterns, rather than to define hard boundaries.

Attempts to define or reject urban boundaries animated discussions throughout the symposium. Alan Kolata, University of Chicago, proposed that we can have it both ways, recognizing the physical and cultural demarcations of cities and urban centers, in addition to the physical and cultural networks that render them part of their regional surroundings.

Kolata applies the concept of autopoiesis to his work uncovering the political and physical makeups of indigenous cities in the Americas. In its earliest biological definition, autopoiesis  refers to the ability of a living cell to maintain and reproduce itself. Kolata draws from the term’s later use in systems and communications theories, in which the focus is on a system’s ability to maintain and reproduce its distinct identity, even as it is connected to and interacts with larger surrounding systems.

He uses autopoiesis as a metaphor that describes not only the importance of cities as complex social and ecological systems, but also as the settings for complex individual lives — “macro sociological features and processes of urban life with the micro sociological realities of lived human experience.” Kolata proposed this idea: “Cities are inherently autopoietic phenomena, deploying multiple social networks of communication to sustain the material requirements of life as well as to create a sense of urban identity — that is to say, a culture of place.”

This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.

Will Autonomous Vehicles Be Good for Cities?

Google self-driving Lexus cars / AP Photo/Eric Risberg, via Curbed

A New Yorker can put their arm up in the street in Manhattan and flag down a taxi in a few minutes. Taxis are readily available because it’s a dense urban environment. But with a smart phone and an app like Uber or Lyft, anyone can experience the benefits of density without needing to live in it. Furthermore, autonomous vehicles (AVs) — which will likely travel in highly-efficient packs via routes optimized for demand — could bring even more of the advantages of dense places to those that aren’t. Rohit Aggarwala, former director of NYC’s office of long-term planning and sustainability and now co-head of Sidewalk Labs, wonders whether autonomous vehicles will then be good for cities. Will they further reduce the relative benefits of city life? Will they even encourage sprawl?

According to Aggarwala, who spoke at the American Planning Association (APA) annual meeting in New York City, there are six primary attributes of density — three positive efficiencies and three causes of “friction,” or disadvantages. On the positive side, high levels of density mean lower consumption of energy, water, and carbon on a per capita basis. “If you have less space, you consume less.” There is also higher asset utilization — less space and resources are wasted. There are easier physical interactions. With density, the number of unplanned interactions — so critical to everything from market and community development to finding friends and a life partner — increase.

Frictions include a greater reliance on central systems, which can cause problems if those systems are over-capacity or break down. There’s also a greater need for courtesy. In dense places where people are nearly on top of each other all the time, people must expend more energy to avoid annoying each other. And there’s also the need for more coordination. “There are more hassles in dense urban life, hence the need for more coordination to resolve them.”

If there is a positive balance between the efficiencies and frictions, people move into cities. If the costs get too high, they move out, Aggarwala contends. Technology plays a critical role in maintaining this balance. Technology can either make urban living easier or, if these systems are poorly applied, add to the costs. And if they make the many benefits of density, such as physical interaction, less important, that also serves to undermine the value of places like Manhattan.

Aggarwala argued that the telephone, one of the most important technologies of the last century, “undermined physical interaction. The telephone became the agent of sprawl.” In the same way, Uber and Lyft also make hailing a taxi, which used to require physical interaction, something digital that “works in sprawl.” Over time, the “urban convenience of hailing a taxi has become universal.”

Now imagine a highly-efficient, high-speed, coordinated system of AVs, which could make access to centralized transportation systems even less of a necessity. There will no longer be a need to live near a subway, bus, or rail station, or even own a car, with a community sharing rides in AVs. Furthermore, “if everyone is their own transit stop, will we even need transit-oriented development?”

With delivery of products via drones or autonomous delivery services, there is also less of a need to live near a shopping district. “Shopping could just become a destination luxury experience.” With the rise of ubiquitous, high-speed broadband, working from home will be even easier, as employees can create tele-presences for themselves in virtual work environments. And with distributed renewable energy facilities, suburbs could become as energy-efficient as dense cities, removing the appeal of living an environmental lifestyle in the city.

With these expected changes coming, will the value of density continue to outweigh the disadvantages in the future?

For Aggarwala, it will be critical for cities to get technology right in order to further reduce the frictions of density and make future urban life as pleasing as possible. “We need to use big data to make centralized systems higher performing.” For example, that will mean using data to make New York City’s urban transportation system much smarter and more responsive.

Today, the city’s subway seems to be a near-universal source of frustration, as outdated systems mean a power outage shuts down whole lines for hours and rush hour congestion makes the daily commute nearly unbearable. The answer, for Aggarwala, is to “layer digital and physical infrastructure” to make these systems work better.

Furthermore, “we need apps that enable people to share things more easily. We need ubiquitous monitoring systems, so police will treat people better. We need to reduce the coordination problems.” We need subways and bike share systems to connect seamlessly with AV stations.

“Technology can make density more attractive or not, urban life better or not. And reduce demand for cities and increase sprawl, or not.” It will really depend on urban communities and their political leaders to drive improvements that will maintain the appeal of city life and save the environment from sprawl.

Change Is Scary, But We Will Get Through the Current Transition

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California’s Mojave Desert / Utility Dive

“In a fractured, perplexing world, it’s easy to be pessimistic. But if we pull back, we can see there are deeper, more coherent forces at work. If we looked at today from 500 years in the future, we would see we are at an extraordinary moment in history. What’s really happening is the reinvention of America,” argued Peter Leyden, author of The Long Boom, and What’s Next?, at the opening plenary of the American Planning Association (APA) annual meeting in New York City. He added that: “no country can go through this kind of transition without experiencing major political change. There is intense polarization and paralysis at the beginning of every transition. President Trump is a classic reaction to change. Change is hard and scary; it’s very appealing to go back. But what happens next is we will get through the transition.”

The United States has experienced four eras of deep structural change, each taking a number of years to take root. “We are in the fifth transition now.” From 1800-1850, the country saw a transformation to mechanized agriculture; from 1850-1900, we shifted to the early industrial era; from 1900-1950, America moved to the urban industrial era; and from 1950-2000, we saw the rise of the post-war suburban era. At the beginning of each of these major transitions, there was political paralysis and efforts to stop change, but deeper forces pushed us towards a new economy and society.

Beginning in 2000, Leyden argued, the U.S. began the latest massive transformation, characterized by “the digitization of everything.” Connecting all computers in the world was a “world historical event.” With technology organized on a global scale, “we also started the globalization of everything.”

The “unprecedented challenges” facing the world today — climate change, mass migration, rising inequality, education system failures, and pandemics — are “the classic symptoms of systemic change.”

Leyden is optimistic we can make our way through these challenges, just as we have in the past. “I believe this story has a happy ending.”

Leyden outlined some of the deeper forces at work today:

Digitalization: Today, computers are 25 times more powerful than they were 40 years ago. In 1975, 200 mega flops cost $31 million; today, 300 giga flops costs $649, the price of a new iphone. In 1981, one gigabyte of storage cost $700,000; today, the same amount costs 4 cents. From before the birth of Christ to 2003, humans created around 5 exabytes of data; today, we create the same amount of data every two days. Before 1990, 6 percent of data was digitized; now, “data is all digital.”

In 2000, just 5 percent of the world was online; today, 40 percent are, and soon everyone will be. Already, 75 percent of the planet has a cell phone. “Soon everyone will have 4G and the entire world will be able to send videos.” And there are “more technological wonders to come, with artificial intelligence and robotics.”

But the downside is an estimated 47 percent of all jobs in the U.S. will be “vulnerable to automation in the next 20 years. Routine, non-creative jobs will go away.” Still, Leyden believes new types of jobs will take the place of old ones, just as has occurred in past transitions. The total number of jobs has always increased.

Globalization: The world economy and financial markets are increasingly inter-connected. People are more connected than ever, too. Some $7.4 trillion, or 10 percent of global GDP, is associated with travel and tourism, more than the share of the global economy associated with oil, which is around $5 trillion. In addition, the world’s most valuable companies today, including Apple and Facebook, are all about facilitating global communications. Amid worries the U.S. is falling behind on the innovation front, Leyden reminded us U.S. firms dominate the list of most valuable companies.

“Integrated markets and new technologies are driving global economic growth.” However, while productivity rates have increased, family incomes in the U.S. have stagnated. This is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Demographic shifts: In the U.S., 10,000 baby boomers retire every day. At the same time, millennials have now surpassed the boomers as the largest generation, and they make up the majority of the workforce today.

Like all up-and-coming generations, “millennials will reinvent the world. They are tech-savvy, civic-minded, collaborative, diverse, global, and green.” They are also moving into cities in great number and driving less. Today, 63 percent of the American population lives in cities; that number will go even higher. Millennials are also more diverse, and their children will be, too. “By 2050, whites will be a minority, just like they are in California today.”

Environmental change: There are now 399 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Sixteen of the hottest days on record happened since 2001. But there are glimpses of a positive, sustainable future.

“Solar and wind will soon be cheaper than oil, coal, and gas.” And while we are well into the information technology revolution, the energy technology revolution is just in its early stages. Once inter-state energy grids are rebuilt to more-easily enable the flow of solar and wind power across state lines, we’ll see renewables take over.

Leyden likened the national political dysfunction happening today to what happened in California in the 90s and 00s. As whites became a minority and the economy shifted, there was extended deadlock in Sacramento. But eventually a new consensus was reached, and California is once again leading the way forward, with the fastest and most sustainable economy in the country.

The last time the U.S. went through a major national transition right after World War II, just 5 percent of the population had a college degree. Today, more than 30 percent do. With all those extra skills, Leyden is confident our current transition will be smoother and faster. It’s the next one in 2050 or sooner that he’s now focused on — will it be nano-technology-driven?

#WLAM2017 Reaches 2.9 Million

Each April World Landscape Architecture Month (WLAM) celebrates all aspects of landscape architecture. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) asked its members and followers to share pictures of their favorite examples of landscape architecture on social media with #WLAM2017 and a card that reads, “This Is Landscape Architecture.” The goal of the campaign is to educate the public about the profession and all it entails.

This year, approximately 1,700 people from 57 different countries posted nearly 7,000 times with #WLAM2017, reaching 2.9 million people. Each day during WLAM a different ASLA chapter took over our Instagram so we could show the breadth of the field.

For example, the Iowa Chapter decided to highlight off some of its public spaces.

The Louisiana Chapter stressed the importance of advocacy within the profession.

Our Southern California Chapter wanted to give our followers a glimpse into the future of landscape architecture with its four local student chapters.

@socalasla is home to four landscape architecture schools! Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly Pomona, UCLA Extension, and USC. We are proud of the faculty, staff, and students at each school. Our students learn all they can for their professional career, and they have certainly learned how to have fun too! Each of our schools have their student chapters. They do a lot for their fellow classmates, and when they can all four schools get together for trips and events. #wlam2017 #worldlandscapearchitecturemonth #asla #sccasla #socalasla #socalchapterasla #socal #california #southerncalifornia #cali #landscape #landscapearchitecture #landarch #landscapedesign #thisislandscapearchitecture #landscape_lovers #cppla #calpolyslo #uclaextension #usc #ucla

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The North Carolina Chapter reminded people some projects start from a hand-drawn rendering.

The California Sierra Chapter showed us the power of tactical urbanism.

Our Colorado Chapter gave us an example of what landscape architects can do with residential projects.

Finally, the New York Chapter showed us an iconic park.

The Instagram takeover will continue until May 19, so keep following to see the best of landscape architecture from our chapters.

Sowing Beauty: A Guide to Designing Meadows

sowing-beauty-cover
Sowing Beauty. Copyright 2017 by James Hitchmough. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

In Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed, James Hitchmough tells us about what we’ve lost. “Meadow-like vegetation” was once “much more abundant.” He traces its decline to industrial agriculture and development.

Hitchmough saw the design potential of meadow communities early in his career as a horticultural ecologist. He has spent the last few decades studying their characteristics and experimenting with their composition. The resulting knowledge compiled in Sowing Beauty will push meadow design forward.

Planting meadows is a departure from planting gardens. It isn’t planting with particularity; it’s painting with broad strokes. That isn’t to say meadows lack sophistication. Change can be observed in sown communities, and there is “nearly endless variation.” Spontaneity informs meadow communities more than gardens, which partially explains their charisma.

Artistic intention in the design of meadows appears through seed mixes, what you scatter on the soil to materialize a meadow. A good seed mix requires an understanding of how natural meadow communities occur and function. However, seed mixes don’t have to have to be identical to naturally-occurring communities. Hitchmough encourages experimenting with seemingly incongruous seeds to produce novel results.

Southern Hemisphere Garden, London Olympics park / James Hitchmough

“The choice of plants is the central challenge in all planting design,” Hitchmough writes. The planting site must factor heavily into any decisions. Meadows are complex communities, with ground, middle canopy, and upper emergent layers to consider.

Oxford Botanic Garden, UK / James Hitchmough
Meadow garden / James Hitchmough

Management of meadows must also be considered. Cutting helps manage weeds, but the cut material must be removed. Other practices, such as grazing and mowing are more suitable in some climactic zones or scales.

The complexity of meadows offers a lot of opportunities for the meadow designer, but also several possible pitfalls. Sowing Beauty, gracefully, does not deal in vagaries. Need to know a handful of species with high-design potential found within Rocky Mountain steppe communities? That’s on page 77.

The back half of the book is composed of case studies of Hitchmough’s own projects. Each case study is documented with species used, target numbers for seedlings, and the total plants required for each project. The projects discussed range in scale a from a couple hundred feet to over 24 acres (Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London). Each study has a “What Worked and What Didn’t” section, where Hitchmough discusses in detail the successes and failures of the project.

Planting a meadow / James Hitchmough
James Hitchmough at work / James Hitchmough

At one point during the film, I Heart Huckabee’s, the main character, an environmental activist, bemoans the over development of our landscape to the point “you can’t remember what happens when you stand in a meadow at dusk.”

“What happens in the meadow at dusk?,” asks an earnest Jonah Hill.

Some of us might smile at Hill’s ignorance, but too many others can relate. It would be wonderful if the advice and knowledge offered in Sowing Beauty resulted in many more of these endlessly-interesting and beautiful landscapes.

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

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“Houston Bridges,” designed by SWA Group / Godofredo A. Vasquez, Houston Chronicle

The Next Trend in Luxury Apartments Is Having Personal Rooftop Farms for Residents Business Insider, 5/3/17
“The farm-to-table movement is taking hold at a luxury New York City condo complex.”

How the Obama Presidential Center Could Reshape Jackson Park Curbed Chicago, 5/3/17
“The Obama Foundation has finally taken the wraps off of the preliminary design for the upcoming Obama Presidential Center for Chicago’s Woodlawn community.”

The High Line Conundrum Slate, 5/9/17
“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A city in the throes of rapid demographic change, where rents are going through the roof, wants to convert an overgrown freight railway into a selfie-ready linear park.”

Making Houston Freeways a Little Less Ugly The Houston Chronicle, 5/9/17
“Billboards notwithstanding, nothing installed along the freeway can be too distracting, the Texas Department of Transportation mandates. It’s a safety issue.”

NYC’s Awards for Excellence in Design Winners Emphasize Resilience Post-Hurricane Sandy Curbed New York, 5/11/17
“The projects this year were lauded for their sustainable designs, for the attention they paid to enhancing the community, and their detail to preserving historic elements (where it mattered).”

Landscape Architecture Gets Its Rightful Due in Exhibit, Book The Chicago Tribune, 5/12/17
“Landscape architecture is all too often viewed as a stepchild of architecture — a mere adornment rather than an integral part of the environment that shapes how we live.

Visions for the Next Generation of American Infrastructure

Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, 2007 / AP Photo, Morry Gash via Wired

In March, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its infrastructure report card, the first in four years. After crunching the data, they gave the U.S. a D+, explained Tom Smith, executive director, ASCE, at the American Society of Landscape Architect (ASLA)’s mid-year board meeting. “We have a lot of infrastructure at the end of its useful life. And we have a $2 trillion infrastructure investment gap over the next decade.”

Given America’s infrastructure is nearly failing, how should we rebuild? And where do we find the money?

In a panel moderated by ASLA CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, Smith argued “we can’t just rebuild our grandparent’s infrastructure. We can’t just add more lanes to the highways. We need to focus on land-use planning, sustainability, and resilience. Autonomous vehicles will also be huge.”

Patrick Phillips, Global CEO, Urban Land Institute (ULI), said compact transit-oriented development could “reduce the need for infrastructure.” He believes infrastructure in the future needs to be more smartly targeted to achieve economic development goals but also improve equity. A focus on inclusiveness can lead to new possibilities and a fairer future.

Rachel Minnery, senior director of sustainability policy at American Institute of Architects (AIA) wants to see new infrastructure investments help deal with climate challenges by improving our resilience. “We have a vast stock of existing buildings” that must be made more resilient. “We need a new era of visionary planning.”

“Parks and green infrastructure should be an investment priority,” said David Rouse, ASLA, research director at American Planning Association (APA), echoing APA’s official position on infrastructure. “Green infrastructure creates jobs. We can’t just recreate grey infrastructure.”

And Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, director of federal government affairs, ASLA, agreed, arguing that more investment is needed in “parks and national lands, which are also infrastructure.” National parks in particular are “overburdened,” said Smith, who noted that parks went down in the latest ASCE infrastructure report card. He added: “treating parks as infrastructure is an idea that resonates with people.”

Blackwell also made the case for increasing investments in “active transportation,” a term for infrastructure such as sidewalks and bike lanes, arguing that any major infrastructure investment must be comprehensive, and not just be about repairing highways and bridges.

So how to pay for the many trillions required for new infrastructure?

While states — even red ones — have raised gas taxes, the federal government hasn’t in decades and isn’t likely to in the future. President Trump has called for an increase in private investment in infrastructure through public-private partnerships (PPPs), but Somerville noted that PPPs usually privilege communities that can easily attract private investment. A private-sector led approach can then be expected to be leave poorer communities farther behind.

Phillips said there is “no silver bullet. We need a mix of private and public funds. Other countries are more effective at PPPs than us. Infrastructure can unlock opportunities in poorer neighborhoods. But, if poorly structured, a PPP doesn’t help.”

Minnery thinks the market will shift development and infrastructure investment patterns. Already the credit ratings of cities on coasts, which are most vulnerable to rising seas and storms, are taking a hit. As climate refugees increase in number and head inland, those cities will face pressure to increase development. “We have to think holistically as a nation about what this means.”

And, lastly, President Trump wants to speed up the process of building infrastructure. He is considering a new rule to requires states to start projects within 90 days of receiving federal funding. Is this possible?, Somerville asked.

Minnery said there’s often a delay at the state level, because of a lack of resources in planning departments. These departments have huge stacks of projects awaiting review. “Planning departments never recovered from cuts after the 2008 recession.” Rouse also noted that if the planned EPA cuts go through, “that stack of project reviews will get even higher.”

He said “successful infrastructure projects are rooted in local visions and strong regional planning.” To move projects forward quickly, communities must have planning infrastructure in place.

Blackwell wondered if more infrastructure project review responsibilities could be devolved to states. Through the FAST Act, federal lawmakers enabled California, Florida, Ohio, Texas and Utah to conduct their own National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews on behalf of the federal government. The Hill reports that Ohio saved $4.6 million in the first three months of doing the reviews itself.

Reasons to Be Optimistic About the Future of the Environment (Part 1)

Securing natural capital and expanding equity to rescale civilization, Nature. / Paul R. Ehrlich, Peter M. Kareiva & Gretchen C. Daily

“It’s easy to be cynical or pessimistic” about the the state of the global environment, said David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian, at the opening of the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C. “We’re not blind to the realities, but if organizations and individuals work together, obstacles can be overcome.” Over three days, an audience of 1,400 heard one inspiring environmental success story after another. While no one forgot that climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem degradation have created a global environmental emergency, there was a concerted effort to change the narrative — from one of relentless anger and despair to one of progress and a cautious optimism about the future. The goal was to highlight was is working today and figure out the ways to replicate and scale up successes.

Highlighted are a few of the success stories heard at the summit:

China Is Valuing Its Ecosystem Services: Gretchen Daly, professor of environmental science at Stanford University and founder of the Natural Capital Project, said more cities and countries are starting to put financial value on the many ecosystem services nature provides. Some success stories: New York realized that investing in the ecological functions of the watershed surrounding New York City was cheaper than building a massive filtration plant. Costa Rica has initiated a payment system for conserving nature.

And China has undertaken a massive planning effort to identify and value its critical ecological assets in an effort to become the “ecological civilization of the 21st century.” Some 4,000 officials in 31 provinces have been trained with Daly’s InVest software, which has helped Chinese policymakers identify “priority zones for carbon absorption, biodiversity, flood control, sandstorm control, and water purification.” Today, some 200 million Chinese are now getting paid to restore natural capital. Hainan has become the first “eco-province.” Daly said some 50 countries and cities are using the Natural Capital Project’s ecosystem service management system.

Truly inspiring, but it only happened after “China kissed disaster,” getting close to total environmental collapse. And China has decades of work ahead before its environment can be deemed healthy. Let’s hope the rest of the planet doesn’t have to get to the brink of catastrophe before it values increasingly-scarce resources.

In the U.S, Renewable Energy Is Where the Growth Is: In the U.S., all new power generation last year was renewable. Wind and solar power are the now the cheapest energy options, even when you remove the government subsidies. “This has been a huge change in the past decade,” said David Crane, Pegasus Capital Advisers. The model of financing solar panels in the U.S., which basically involving leasing someone’s roof space in return for giving them a discount on their home energy bills, made the solar revolution possible. That model has mobilized $1 trillion in capital and generated 250,000 megawatts of energy, explained Jigar Shah, with Generate Capital and SunEdison.

Renewable energy is no longer just a favorite cause of green Democrats either. Dale Ross, the mayor of deep-red Georgetown, Texas, a growing city of about 50,000, explained how he made a long-term agreement with wind and solar companies to power his city’s growth. Ross believes the U.S. will have 80 percent of its energy generated by wind and solar by 2025 if states are allowed to sell more power across borders. But Crane was less optimistic, pointing out that only 1.5 million homes now have solar panels, whereas there should be 50-55 million homes. “The power industry is a monopoly fighting rooftop solar. People need to stand up and pressure companies and regulators.”

On the positive side: GM, a fairly traditional company, just announced it will be 100 percent powered by renewable energy by 2040. And Walmart aims for 50 percent renewable energy sources by 2025. Architect William McDonough believes these companies will help “wage peace through commerce.” The leaders of the firms decided to “do the right thing and set positive goals.” These goals would have seemed impossible a decade ago.

Food Waste Is Now on Our Radar: There is a growing momentum across the developed world to end the egregious waste from the industrial agriculture and food retail industries. Food production is by far the biggest environmental impact humans have on the Earth, with agriculture covering a third of the surface. With the global population expected to hit 9-10 billion by 2050, many argue that food production will need to increase 50-70 percent. But Tristram Stuart, founder of Feedback and Toast Ale, argues that we actually already grow enough food to feed 12 billion people. Food overproduction is really the issue. As a result, we are creating not only huge amounts of waste but also producing obese populations. Globally, some one-third of food is wasted. In the U.S. and Europe, people are eating 1.5 to 2 times what they need.

Stuart said there are positive trends though, because “governments are starting to act and create measurable change.” In the UK, food waste has been reduced 27 percent since 2007. Taking on some of the “blatantly stupid waste of resources” perpetuated through the supply chains of supermarkets, his organization has used campaigns to show how waste can be reduced. For example, he convinced some UK supermarket chains to stop selling cut green beans, imported from Kenya, in favor of full beans that will not only stay fresh longer but reduce the amount of bean wasted in the process. His other company, Toast Ale, uses left-over ends of bread to craft beer. “You can get wasted on waste.”

Communities Are Organizing to Save Coastal Ecosystems: Ayana Johnson, founder of Ocean Collectiv, said there is now a greater understanding of coastal ecosystems and how they sequester far more carbon than terrestrial forests. As such, more coastal communities are making it much harder for corporations to privatize or over-develop coasts. There is a new awareness of the importance of preserving and restoring mangroves, even though some efforts to actually restore mangroves have not succeeded. Furthermore, “oyster restoration is gaining steam,” as communities realize they play an important role in buffering wave forces and filtering water.

In the Caribbean, where Johnson focuses her coastal community development work, there is a growing awareness that conserving ocean resources is a “social justice issue.” When marine reserves are established, “fish populations bounce back.” On the negative side, only 2-3 percent of the ocean is now protected, and scientists think it needs to be around 30 percent.

Not to sugarcoat: the future challenges facing our coastal communities are daunting. With warming waters, many fisheries are expected to migrate towards the poles, threatening millions of livelihoods. It’s not clear what shifting fisheries mean for the “half of the world who depend on seafood for their protein.”

Cities Are Rebuilding Connections to Nature: The old model in which cities were totally cut off from their waterfronts — either by highways or industrial facilities — seems to be ending in the developed world at least. Damon Rich, head of Hector Urban Design, walked us through one prime example of how communities are reconnecting to their waterfront in Newark, New Jersey, which transformed some of the edges of the Passaic River from “toxic nastiness” into the site of the 20-acre, $35 million Newark Riverfront Park that uses a “symbolic system” of bright orange to “reflect this is an anti-racist space.” To accomplish something like this, Rich said you need to “bring together the conservation, organizing, and design communities together and invite them to the same party.”

Newark Riverfront Park / Smartgrowth.org

And then there are individuals who aren’t waiting around for the government to do something, but are starting their own new companies, schools, and movements. David Auerbach launched a company in the Mukuru slum of Kenya called Sanergy, which offers more sanitary restrooms than the standard pit latrine through a novel franchising model and significantly reduces urban water pollution. Users pay a small fee to the Sanergy restroom franchisee to use the restroom. Franchisees then safely collect the waste, which Sanergy picks up and turns into safe, organic fertilizer. Sanergy offers a promising solution to a “crappy problem”: 1 billion live in urban slums and 2 billion will by 2030. 4 billion live in communities where “waste is never treated.” There are 1 million deaths caused by poor sanitation each year.

At the age of 27, Murray Fisher started the public New York Harbor School, which teaches students in New York City maritime trades. Years later, the school moved to a new campus on Governor’s Island and now has 475 high school students, where they can receive credentials in aquaculture, vessel operations, marine biology, and more. After starting a new foundation, Fisher began the Billion Oyster Project, which aims to bring back that many oysters to New York City’s waters. The school engages the students in measuring the oysters the 20 million oysters they’ve planted, welding the reefs, and monitoring water quality. His goal is to “insert the local ecosystem back into the educational system” and eventually export his novel environmental education curricula to other communities who have eager students and significant unmet conservation and restoration needs. “Why can’t young people work on restoring ecosystems in school?”

Billion oyster project and NY Harbor School students / Energy Factor

And, lastly, Afroz Shah, a lawyer who lives in Mumbai, India, and was one of the most inspiring speakers at the summit, explained how he went from picking up trash by himself on the beloved beach where he used to play as a child to leading a movement of thousands who are cleaning up miles of urban Indian beaches. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) calls Shah’s effort the “world’s biggest beach clean-up,” with more than five million pieces of trash, mostly plastic bags, picked up.

Afroz Shah at a beach clean up / The Logical Indian

He wants everyone to ask themselves: “What are you doing to rectify things?” You can “complain on social media or sign a petition and wait for someone else to do something,” or get out there yourself and do something to make things better. “We have a fundamental duty to our oceans.”

And Some Species Have Even Found Opportunities in Suburbs and Cities: Animals are also seizing space in our cities, without waiting for an invitation. Roland Kays, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, explained how predatory fishers, which are like large weasels, are making a comeback in the suburbs of Albany, after being brought to the brink of extinction. Coyotes, which are hunted in rural areas, have discovered they are safer in suburbs and cities where residents are not allowed to fire a gun or run traps. Coyotes are now killing pets — “they really don’t like chihuahuas” — but they are helping to limit some pests, like geese. Wolves are now found in the Great Lakes region, mountain lions in Colorado and California, and leopards in urban India. “They are adapting to survive. If we give species a chance, they can survive.”