Plants are central to a functioning global ecosystem. Plants oxygenate the atmosphere and reduce atmospheric pollutants. Ecological restoration in both developed and developing countries is a primary strategy for mitigating the impacts of climate change. Native plant communities are not only key to the global ecosystem, but also crucial to environmental and human health at the residential and neighborhood scales.
In the United States, urbanization has fragmented what were ecologically-productive landscapes. According to the Audubon Society, the continental U.S. has lost 150 million acres of wildlife habitat and farmland to urban sprawl over the last century. Sustainable residential landscape architecture practices can help build a network of productive landscapes. Native plants can be used to regenerate sustainable plant communities and reconnect fragmented ecosystems in residential areas. Creating a network of productive ecosystems expands wildlife habitat areas and boosts human health and well-being by bringing nature’s benefits right to residential yards and outdoor spaces.
Homeowners can use native plants to reduce the use of excess water, energy, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides that damage natural ecosystems, as well as support pollinators.
Residential landscapes can also be used to grow food at home and in communities. When growing food, gardeners should apply principles of ecological design and permacultural practices to ensure food production and garden systems are integrated with the natural environment and avoid contaminating local watersheds with runoff. Homeowners and communities can create composting systems for efficient waste removal and to increase organic matter in the soil.
And plants can also be used inside the home to improve air quality and human productivity.
Homeowners should be mindful of the quality of the soil on their property. Healthy soils are essential to plant and tree health and enable the infiltration of stormwater into the ground. Years of development and construction can lead to layers of compacted soil that restrict movement of water and air, and limit root growth. Homeowners can achieve credit from The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) by using techniques like subsoiling and adding soil amendments to help rebuild ecosystem function in soil.
Landscape architects partner with communities, non-profit organizations, and local governments to increase public awareness about using sustainable residential design practices that yield productive plant systems and reduce the negative ecological impacts of typical residential development.
Amid the global outcry over President Trump’s remarks that sought to legitimize white supremacists at a press conference earlier this week, we almost missed the fact that Trump rolled-back Obama administration rules to improve the resilience of federally-financed buildings and infrastructure in flood-prone areas and to update important flood risk management standards. In 2015, President Obama required new infrastructure to be built two feet above the 100 year flood plain and three feet for critical infrastructure like hospitals and evacuation centers, and also updated standards that guide flood insurance rates. Beyond undoing these regulatory actions, President Trump announced a new effort to streamline environmental review processes for new infrastructure projects.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates flooding has caused some $260 billion in damages from 1980 to 2013. And in the past decade, flood insurance claims now total $1.6 billion annually, putting further pressure on the already deeply-indebted flood insurance system. As climate change increases both inland flooding and coastal sea level rise, scientists expect flooding to only worsen.
To address increased risks, the Obama administration required federally-financed projects to factor in climate change projections. Now, with a stroke of a pen, the Trump administration has not only put communities at greater risk, but likely reduced the lifespan of infrastructure in flood-prone areas, and their financial efficiency and effectiveness as well.
Former FEMA official Rafael Lemaitre, told Reuters the Obama-era rules were “‘the most significant action taken in a generation’ to safeguard U.S. infrastructure. ‘Eliminating this requirement is self-defeating; we can either build smarter now, or put taxpayers on the hook to pay exponentially more when it floods. And it will.'”
And in New Jersey, which was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy, there was disbelief. John Miller, New Jersey Association of Flood Plain Management, told NJ Spotlight the Obama-era rule was a “solid idea.” He added: “We are going to have worsening conditions. We have to build to future conditions.’’
According to Reuters, both the American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Home Builders praised the move to roll-back the flood risk management standards to the earlier version established by President Carter in 1977, arguing that the Obama-era rules on managing flood risk increased housing costs.
The Obama administration stated that the new standards would only raise housing costs by 0.25 to 1.25 percent, but Republican Congressman Ralph Abraham, from Louisiana, who sponsored legislation that would have blocked Obama’s flood standard, told The New York Timesthe new rules “would have increased the cost of a new home in Louisiana by 25 percent to 30 percent, because most of the state would be put in a federal flood plain.” The overall effect, however, may be to increase risk, as communities continue to live and build in flood plains not be characterized as risky, and then fail to qualify for federal assistance when disaster invariably strikes.
In a new fact sheet on infrastructure that lays of the Trump administration’s vision for investing $200 billion in the 2018 budget, Trump administration officials took aim at what they describe as onerous environmental review processes for infrastructure projects. “The environmental review and permitting process in the United States is fragmented, inefficient, and unpredictable. Existing statutes have important and laudable objectives, but the lack of cohesiveness in their execution make the delivery of infrastructure projects more costly, unpredictable, and time-consuming, all while adding little environmental protection.”
At his shocking press conference, Trump said a complex highway project can take up to 17 years (but didn’t cite an actual example of this). He called the current approach a “disgrace.” His goal is to reduce environmental reviews for a project to two years and centralize management through a “one Federal review” in which one government agency takes the lead on a project.
Trump said: “It’s going to be quick. It’s going to be a very streamlined process. And by the way, if [a project] doesn’t meet environmental safeguards, we’re not going to approve it — very simple.”
According to BloombergPolitics, the new order “allows the Office of Management and Budget to establish goals for environmental reviews and permitting of infrastructure projects and then track their progress — with automatic elevation to senior agency officials when deadlines are missed or extended. The order calls for tracking the time and costs of conducting environmental reviews and making permitting decisions, and it allows the budget office to consider penalties for agencies that fail to meet established milestones.”
Environmental groups were uniformly opposed to the effort to streamline federal environmental reviews, arguing that a two-year time frame may result in more wasteful and risky projects with damaging environmental impacts.
Republicans argue that excessive regulations are holding up infrastructure projects, while Democrats may agree that some regulations could be streamlined, but, really, the primary issue is there isn’t enough public investment. ABC News reports that a Treasury Department report released earlier this year found “a lack of public funding is by far the most common factor hindering completion” of infrastructure projects.
In other federal environmental and climate news: Scientists from 13 federal agencies released a draft of the National Climate Assessment, which Congress mandates be updated every four years. The New York Times writes: “The study examines every corner of the United States and finds that all of it was touched by climate change. The average annual temperature in the United States will continue to rise, the authors write, making recent record-setting years ‘relatively common’ in the near future.” Perhaps the best that can be hoped for with this administration is the draft review process will be allowed to continue on auto-pilot without political interference.
At the department of interior, The Nation writes, a purge of climate experts is underway, while the word “climate” is being scrubbed from program titles.
And at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): the agency is now implementing national ambient air quality standards, rules created by the Obama administration in 2015, after 15 states and a number of leading organizations sued. Still, there are other worrying developments: Administrator Scott Pruitt’s agenda to reduce regulations and cut staff is largely happening in secret. But that may change: the California attorney general just sued the EPA in attempt to force them to explain how Pruitt will handle conflicts of interest with the fossil fuel industry.
Over the past decade, podcasts have emerged as a popular storytelling platform and captivating way to learn more about the world around us.
Podcasts offer a source of inspiration for designers exploring other disciplines and seeking fresh perspective within their own. For landscape architects, podcasts reveal new opportunities and ways of thinking about the way we design space.
The podcasts on this list seeks to capture the range of topics that influence the field — from interviews with leading landscape architects, to stories on cities, urban planning, communities, and sustainability, as well as insight from creative people in other professions.
99% Invisible:Roman Mars and his team at 99% Invisible pull together seemingly disparate pieces of information to weave compelling stories of why things are the way they are. While not landscape-specific, this podcast is a must-listen for anyone interested in places, people, and design.
Recommended episodes: “Making Up Ground” is all about cities built on constructed land and the modern day implications of reclamation. 22 minutes
American Planning Association: The APA produces a series of podcasts that focus on everything from the people behind plans, to disruptive transportation technologies, to planning for public health and for public space. Together, the podcasts offer a good way to keep up with all things planning.
Recommended episode: In “Planning for Parks in Washington D.C.’s NoMa,” APA’s Mike Johnson interviews Robin-Eve Jasper and Stacie West, who are shaping the future of a D.C. neighborhood where, in an era of rapid development, almost no land was set aside for public parks. 23 minutes
Design Matters: If you’re in the design world and don’t know how Debbie Millman is, this podcast is a great introduction. Her podcast, Design Matters, has been around since podcasts about design have been a thing. She has interviewed influential people from a multitude of creative industries. Their stories are inspiring for designers in any field.
Recommended episode: Interview with architect Pierluigi Serraino about what creative people have in common. 28 minutes
Infinite Earth Radio: This weekly podcast explores solutions for a more sustainable world. Hosts Mike Hancox and Vernice Miller-Travis interview people — from government officials to local entrepreneurs — who are working to advance more equitable, resilient communities.
Recommended episode: “Bottom Up Water Solutions” talks about freshwater, keeping our streams clean, and smart growth in the face of climate change. 28 minutes
The Landscape Architect Podcast: This podcast, which is focused on landscape architecture, broadens the discourse within the profession by talking to leaders from all areas of the field. Host Michael Todoran with co-host Margaret Gerhart hold candid discussions with professionals in landscape architecture, as well as writers, researchers, and innovative thinkers influencing the future of the profession.
Recommended episode: “Feng Shui & Landscape Architecture” discusses movement and the environment with landscape architect Shelley Sparks as she analyzes Feng Shui for homes, business, and gardens. 53 minutes
Placemakers:Slate is a major hub for podcasts, and their Placemakers is a story-driven show about urban design and planning. Host Rebecca Sheir and the producers at Slate explore how innovative communities are tackling environmental and social issues.
Roots of Design: This podcast is by landscape architects for landscape architects. Produced by the New York Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), hosts Frank Varro and a variety of co-hosts discuss the breadth of opportunity in the profession through interviews with leaders in the field. It fills a crucial need for a landscape architecture-exclusive podcast and raises awareness of an often misunderstood field.
The Urbanist: For a global perspective, listen to Monocle’s The Urbanist. Host Andrew Tuck covers everything from urban policy to environmentalism to art. This podcast packs a variety of topics in each 30-minute episode, providing a well-rounded but thorough update on urban developments each week.
Recommended episode: “River crossing” on how rivers and bridges can both connect and divide urban areas. 26 minutes
What did I miss? Comment below and share your favorite podcasts.
Any residential landscape can be designed to both conserve water in times of water scarcity and reduce flooding during storms. Homeowners can use green infrastructure approaches, like bioswales and bioretention ponds; rain gardens; rain water harvesting; water recycling; and drip irrigation to more sustainably manage water.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates flooding has caused some $260 billion in damages from 1980 to 2013. And in the past decade, flood insurance claims now total $1.6 billion annually, putting further pressure on the already deeply-indebted flood insurance system. Sustainable landscape architecture practices — including green infrastructure — can significantly reduce the impacts of flooding on residences.
Homeowners also waste water by irrigating their lawns with water that should be reserved for human consumption. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nearly 9 billion gallons of water is used for residential outdoor water use, mainly for landscape irrigation, some 30 percent of total residential water use.
Sustainable residential landscape architecture—if part of an integrated site design, a comprehensive approach to sustainable building and site design—can dramatically reduce water usage while creating a healthy residential environment.
Homeowners can promote the infiltration, storing, and recycling of water, and limit the use of valuable potable water for landscapes. Bioswales / bioretention ponds, rainwater gardens, and local sustainable water recycling and drip irrigation systems can all be used to efficiently manage water. Homeowners can recycle and reuse greywater (and even blackwater) for landscape maintenance, car washing, and toilet flushing.
It’s important to note that degraded and compacted soil will reduce water and air infiltration into the ground. Homeowners can maximize the benefits of natural stormwater systems by improving the quality of soil on their property though remediation techniques.
Homes that include natural green infrastructure not only better manage stormwater runoff, but also reduce the massive energy costs associated with running complex water management systems. Water and waste utilities are heavy users of energy and major producers of greenhouse gas emissions.
Artist Jill Bliss organizes the vibrant mushrooms of the Salish Sea ecosystem into collages, which she then photographs. These exuberant works showcase the rich biodiversity of this unique region, which covers the coastal waterways of northern Washington state and the southern part of Canadian British Columbia. For her, “nature is my church.”
Many of her mushroom collages are assembled on islands — Decatur Island, San Juan Island, and Cortes Island, among others.
Bliss states that since discovering the Salish Sea, “I’ve been living, working, traveling and exploring” here ever since.
By trade, she works as a naturalist aboard a tour boat exploring the Cascadia region.
However, when tourist season is over, “I satisfy my nomadic nature by holing up in various off-grid cabins, preferably with wild animals and semi-feral people for neighbors, mentors, and muses. These are the months for hibernation, quiet reflection, close observations of discreet moments in nature, and art making.”
Take a dip in the Chicago River? Those familiar with its history might think twice.
The Chicago River has a notoriously waste-filled past. Originally, the 150-mile-long waterway was used to fuel booming industry in the Midwest city. Little attention was paid to its environmental and civic value. By the turn of the century, it was contaminated with sewage and factory waste. When a storm cause the Chicago River to overflow, it would spill into Lake Michigan, the source of the city’s drinking water, posing such an acute risk to residents’ health that in 1900 the city turned it around, reverse-engineering its flow and diverting wastewater away from Lake Michigan and out of the region to the Mississippi. The reversal was crucial to protecting thousands of Chicagoans a year from waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera.
By 1930, after legal complaints from cities downstream, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Chicago to address the pollution problem. Since then, efforts have been ongoing to clean up the waterway. Recently, the city has stepped up those efforts again with hopes of increase activity along and in the river, including swimming.
In 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Metropolitan Planning Council announced the Great Rivers Chicago effort, a city-wide “visioning process” to develop a long-term plan to clean up and reintegrate into city life the three rivers of the Chicago system – the Chicago, Calumet, and Des Plaines Rivers.
The vision, released last year, lays out a series of goals that aim to make the river “inviting, productive and living” with benchmarks at 2020, 2030, and 2040. Ultimately, the city wants to draw more people to a river front that’s safer and more engaging with improve water quality.
And by 2030, they hope to make the river swimmable.
But despite reversing the Chicago River, the city’s combined sewage and stormwater system is still inundated during large storm events and can overflow into the rivers, canals, and Lake Michigan. According to The Chicago Tribune, 18.2 billion gallons of pollution entered the river last year. Chicago plans to eliminate the system’s overflows through green infrastructure and completing the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, known as the Deep Tunnel project, which started in 1975 and the city hopes to complete by 2029.
For recreation purposes, the rivers need to achieve the “primary contact” water quality standards set for them by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, which would allow for safe swimming, paddling, and fishing.
Each year, 1.5 million Chicagoans and tourists flock to the popular Riverwalk, a 1.25 mile pedestrian walkway that runs from Lake Shore Drive to Lake Street on the south bank of the Chicago River in the city’s downtown. A new $108-million segment designed by the landscape architecture firm Sasaki, Ross Barney Architects, and Collins Engineers that just saw its official opening has generated even more interest in the river.
Paddling is already happening on the river. And a floating museum, or barge-turned moveable entertainment center, which launched this week, will travel along the Chicago River through August, eventually landing at Navy Pier.
New cleanup efforts are happening right alongside all the activity. Last month, the city tested a trash skimmer to collect garbage pooling along the Riverwalk. According to The Chicago Tribune, the floating dumpster is an $11,000 pilot program running through the fall that “sucks in the bacteria-laden water and uses a mesh screen to catch oil pollutants and floating garbage.”
Some residents are ready to take the plunge now, but getting much of the public past the initial “ew factor” of swimming in infamously-polluted waters may take time. Regardless, beyond swimmable urban waterways, this aspiring scheme could offer a unique way of looking at a role of a river can play in connecting a city.
The NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide should first be commended for the sheer amount of information it compresses into a succinct guide that touches upon nearly every consideration in the planning and design of green streets. I can only imagine the amount of coordination that took place to assemble the different national green street case studies, as well as the nearly impossible task of reigning in different perspectives on streetscape design from various planning and design disciplines.
While past NACTO guidebooks have successfully focused solely on street, bikeway, or transit design, the Urban Street Stormwater Guide delivers one of the most comprehensive guides on how to combine complete street design and green infrastructure stormwater management. Having a volume like this on one’s shelf is extremely helpful to anyone who is engaged in even general streetscape planning and design, as it points out the importance of having green infrastructure integrated into the right-of-way.
Design guidebooks are always a unique snapshot in time. They highlight our current understanding of design application and what, at the moment, can be implemented. This is an important consideration for the Urban Street Stormwater Guide — it reflects our design comprehension of green infrastructure at the current moment. This too will, and must, evolve over time.
Early sections of the guide provide a powerful argument for why “Streets are Ecosystems.” Stormwater runoff is no longer treated as a waste but as a valuable resource that should be managed in the right-of-way using a green infrastructure approach. The design community, I believe, comprehends and embraces this basic premise, but there is still a lack of understanding, which is reflected in this guidebook and reverberates in today’s built green street projects.
While stormwater runoff is now not considered a waste, it is still mistakenly labeled as a source of the problem of urban stormwater management. Runoff is not the source, but a symptom and result of the larger problem that urbanization has dramatically removed natural landscape systems and replaced them with impervious area.
We now focus on treating the symptom of “too much stormwater runoff” by designing small-footprint, deep-profile “landscapes” that force water back into the ground to prevent urban flooding, reduce the burden on grey stormwater infrastructure systems, or comply with state and federal regulations.
While reducing flooding and infrastructure capacity issues are important, these approaches create a water-centric approach very much reflected in this guidebook, which dilutes the focus and urgency to address the real problem of landscape loss. The only way to address this issue is to dramatically spread the footprint of vegetation and perviousness in our built environments. Only when we advocate and create a greater balance of green space and perviousness in our cities can we then accurately label our streets as “ecosystems.”
The Urban Street Stormwater Guide provides a series of “stormwater streets” as hypothetical scenarios of different urban conditions, such as a green transitway, ultra-urban green street, boulevard, neighborhood main street, and a host of other urban contexts. These are valuable glimpses of the possibilities of introducing vegetated swales, stormwater planters, pervious paving, rain gardens, and other green infrastructure and complete street elements into urban conditions.
However, the models shown have a definite tilt towards very urban conditions with the huge rights-of-way commonly found in larger American cities. The hypothetical boulevards, transit streets, and even the neighborhood main streets green street examples in the guidebook look nothing like those that I have worked on in smaller cities. Where are the examples outside of the big city? How about strip mall or big-box arterial streets, small-town main streets with tight sidewalks and packed with on-street parking, and the ultra-wide suburban residential streets that have covered mass landscapes in this country?
I raise this question, because these latter streets are just as impervious and incomplete. They produce massive amounts of stormwater runoff, just like our big city downtown streets, but are completely forgotten in the Urban Street Stormwater Guide vernacular.
From a stormwater management perspective, I define an urban street as any street that has a curb, gutter, and sidewalk that produces excessive stormwater runoff. It appears that the Urban Street Stormwater Guide defines an urban street similarly, but focuses largely in ultra-urban downtown conditions. Perhaps there is an opportunity to follow up this guide with a “less-urban” street stormwater companion guide.
I think that this omission is largely due, again, to the “snapshot in time” effect and focuses more on examples where green streets are currently being implemented: in big cities that are trying to comply with stormwater consent decrees and/or dealing with infrastructure capacity issues. The truth is that we need green streets in all urban contexts, and those should be better represented in this guide.
As I mentioned before, the Urban Street Stormwater Guide packs in an incredible amount of information in a finite number of pages. It feels almost too dense, where some graphics and photos are reduced to a miniscule scale, and text flows as if one is simply reading a series of bullet points (albeit good bullet points). In fact, some of the very important cross-sections of types of stormwater facilities are so cryptic, with minimal or no text call-outs or dimensions, that they remind me of the pictures illustrated when one is trying to follow an IKEA shelve assembly instructions manual. When dealing with urban stormwater, cross-sections illustrating very specific horizontal and vertical layout are critical.
Lastly, I worry that many of the cross-sections, and even the built project photo examples, suggest too much hardscape in the form of vertical walls to contain landscape and soil. Excessively-engineered green street facilities go against the very principles of green infrastructure to keep things simple, shallow, cost-effective, and beautiful.
One of the most successful elements in the Urban Street Stormwater Guide is the numerous design, planning, and policy case study examples shown throughout the United States. Each case study describes the project’s goals, project overview, design details, keys to success, lessons learned, and qualitative and quantitative outcomes. There are excellent pictures of projects shown in action.
Some case projects are clearly more successful than others, but it is extremely valuable for everyone to understand what has been built and how the project is performing, regardless of its real or perceived level of success.
Another very successful piece of the guide is Section 5: Partnerships and Performance, which highlights successful green street programs and policies from around the United States, details the need for inter-agency and private-public partnerships, and outlines operation and maintenance roles and responsibilities. The discussion of operations and maintenance should take a more formative role earlier in the guide, as maintenance often defines what can be built, to what extent, and how it will perform in the long-term.
In conclusion, the Urban Street Stormwater Guide is an valuable resource to those planning and designing green street projects. It makes a very strong argument that green streets and complete streets can live symbiotically and details different examples on how to combine these design strategies.
This guide is a wonderful snapshot in time of what has been built, but the guide also shows that we still have much to learn and that green infrastructure strategies are still evolving. I again really commend the amount of information provided in the guide and the level of coordination that was needed to complete it. I look forward to the next edition of the Urban Street Stormwater Guide.
The health benefits of nature have been well-established. From improved well-being to a reduction in respiratory illnesses, access to green space is crucial to improving public health in urban areas. The problem, according to Dr. Cecil Konijnendijk van den Bosch, is that “nature is still not an integral part of our healthcare system.”
Konijnendijk van den Bosch, along with his wife, Matilda van den Bosch, are professors at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Their research focuses on trees, green spaces, and public health in urban environments.
Studies published in prestigious journals like the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), BMC Public Health, and Nature affirm the health benefits of nature. Summarizing the research, Konijnendijk van den Bosch said tree canopies and green space can reduce the health gap caused by socioeconomic inequality; and lower rates of ADHD, cardiovascular and respiratory illness, depression, and overall mortality while boosting cognition and happiness.
“There’s so much potential in these benefits,” but they are not being widely translated into our healthcare systems, despite all of the credible research.
“Things are happening here and there. Step by step,” he said. “It’s not a major campaign. It’s not a movement of integrating green space and trees into our healthcare systems.”
So far, urban foresters have failed to promote the public health benefits of their work. Konijnendijk van den Bosch gives a number of reasons for this: cognitive bias; barriers between research and practice; unbalanced messaging on issues like outdoor safety for children and the risks posed by nature; and competing interests for already cash-strapped city budgets.
So what can urban foresters, landscape architects and designers, and advocates do to inject nature into the discourse on healthcare?
“We have to change people’s mindset,” he said.
First, Konijnendijk van den Bosch argued, medical professionals and urban foresters need to build alliances. “If you want to get this message across, if you really want to be successful, you need to the doctors. You need them to tell the story,” he said, citing the credibility that comes with having a medical degree. While a number of pioneering doctors are already prescribing time in a park, the medical education system does not yet teach the preventative healthcare benefits of green spaces.
Second, urban foresters need to build strategic partnerships with organizations like the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), American Planning Association (APA), American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and American Institute of Architects (AIA) to create a cross-disciplinary approach.
Lastly, more public outreach can raise awareness of nature’s health benefits. But we need to be creative about fostering deeper emotional connections with nature. Take Amsterdam, for example. The city lost many of its Elm trees to Dutch Elm disease. Now there’s a perfume that bottles that now-nostalgic scent. It’s a marketing tactic that’s “tapping into something. It’s tapping into people’s emotions,” he said.