Cleanup Begins in NYC’s Most Polluted Waterway– Next City, 10/18/17
“Now, a long-anticipated cleanup has finally begun. Preliminary dredging began the first week of October, and the full project is anticipated to cost around $500 million, the Architect’s Newspaper reports.”
Memorializing Tragedy in an Era of Constant Mass Assaults – CityLab, 10/24/17
“July 22, 2011, still stands as the bloodiest day in Norway’s history since World War II. Twin attacks that day, first a bomb in Oslo and then, two hours later, a gun massacre on the island of Utøya, claimed 77 lives.”
Augmented reality (AR) comprises technologies that layer location-based data on existing reality. Pokemon Go, the popular game that had thousands out searching their neighborhood for pikachus, is a prime example. Virtual reality (VR) is an “immersive interaction” using 360 video, explained Leonard. 360 videos can take the form of games, animations, or videos of the real world.
In contrast, mixed reality, or hybrid reality, is about “merging virtual and real worlds so you can interact with the world in real-time.” This technology enables a landscape architect to don glasses and create a SketchUp model overlaid on the scene they are looking at in real time, all with the swipe of their hands or pinch of their fingers. Other designers nearby or on the other side of the globe can join in and collaborate as well.
According to Leonard, “creating a hologram of a design on-site is where things are going. The technology won’t stop until that happens.” He also warned that “other professions will dominate this technology fast if landscape architects don’t get on board.”
Within these virtual worlds, landscape architects can appear as avatars, working together or with engineers or construction managers to “create SketchUp models, make changes to design parameters, or solve issues.” Working together in a virtual model, “they can get a sense of the size and scale of objects.”
Leonard noted that the HoloLens is still “first generation, with a limited field of view. It’s like looking at a little pane, so it’s not fully immersive at this point.” Magic Leap, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s new media company, is expected to take mixed-reality up a notch, given they’ve already raised $1.9 billion in funding (see video above).
Leonard went through many of the leading hardware and software options for AR, VR, and mixed reality, but noted “these technologies are just now coming out of their infancy.”
On the software front, Leonard discussed the benefits and drawbacks of AR Media for augmented reality, which costs $300 and uses geo-reference tracking technology so you can mark designs and data in real-world locations.
For virtual reality, he then discussed Lumen RT, which is “integrated into a lot of software and offers moderately-high-end quality, with a plant factory that enables you to make your own plants;” Fuzor 2018, which is “widely used in the construction and design industry, very powerful, and allows you to do ‘drag and drop rendering'”; Revit Live, which is “easy to navigate but doesn’t offer animations of designs”; and Autodesk 3DS Max, which offers “superior rendering, but is challenging to work with.”
For mixed-reality, Leonard mentioned SketchUp for HoloLens.
On the hardware front, for virtual reality, there’s Google cardboard glasses, which are cheap but have major latency issues that can cause fatigue; Samsung Gear VR, which cost around $100 and offers much better quality than the cardboard lens; Oculus Rift, which goes for $399 and is “very high quality;” HTC Vive, which is similar to Oculus Rift; and the just-announced Oculus Go, which will have a “high-resolution LCD screen and no cables or phones — the video will be accessed via WiFi.”
As for bringing these technologies into a design studio, Deane called for “assuming the start-up costs internally — don’t charge clients for this.” But then, moving forward, these technologies can be used to “reassure clients.” And, of course, firm CFOs will say “don’t do it for free.”
Wilkins demonstrated how KTU+A is already using these technologies, creating models, which are then rendered in virtual reality. As part of engagement, community groups are now reviewing proposals using headsets before they are designed and built.
How can landscape architects ensure the spaces they design perform they way they were intended? Landscape architects need site commissioning to accurately determine the performance and impact of their designs.
Site commissioning is the process by which performance standards are established, then measured and verified overtime. The topic has been gaining traction within the field and was the focus of a discussion at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles put together by Jose Alminana, FASLA, principal at Andropogon Associates; Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director of landscape architecture at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA); Lauren Mandel, ASLA, landscape architect and integrated researcher at Andropogon; and Maureen Alonso, regional horticulturalist with the U.S. GSA National Capital.
The discussion comes on the heels of a comprehensive new report released this summer by the GSA with Andropogon that makes the case for site commissioning.
“This is something long overdue — it’s a logical follow up to the kinds of values and capacity we expect to obtain from the work that we do — the impact our profession can really have on the systems on which we all depend,” Alminana said.
Currently, buildings are analyzed and commissioned to ensure the quality and function of a project. “Landscapes, if they are going to play that kind of role, also need to be commissioned,” Alminana said. “But it gets complicated, because its not about moving parts and on and off switches. It’s about life, and life that is always evolving and changing.”
Site commissioning pushes the integration of building systems and site systems and establishes a role for the landscape architect early on in the project. Alminana said designers need to first define the goals and objectives of the project and the standards they are trying to meet. The expected environmental and economic benefits of a landscape project need to be clear, and there needs to be metrics to measure performance in achieving those benefits.
“There has been, over the past few decades, an interest in developing site-responsive projects, but there is less definitive knowledge as to what we are actually achieving, how we set our goals, and how we factor processes into broader project delivery methods in design and construction,” Gabriel said.
“The time has come to reinvest in our own processes,” he said, adding that site commissioning could result in a paradigm shift in the field, “and a return to landscape as prime method for conceptualizing new opportunities.”
Mandel explained the process of developing the report, which included learning from case studies of commissioned projects or those with robust site monitoring. One example is the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts by Reed Hilderbrand, which commissioned a complex hydrological system.
“Site commissioning offers strong triple bottom-line benefits,” she said, listing social benefits, like worker productivity; environmental benefits, like stormwater management; as well as financial benefits, like fewer construction errors.
“What we also learned in our research is these benefits are intertwined,” Mandel said. “So when you start to pull out these benefits, like efficient site management, what also gets pulled in is stormwater management and wildlife habitat.”
Alonso underscored a critical need for a continuous management within the site commissioning process to ensure performance and maintenance of the landscape. Project turnover is another instance where communication and management continuity are crucial.
Alonso said metrics the GSA gathers on projects “make the business case for landscapes we are building.”
Over a half of a million people in the United States are homeless. In major cities, homelessness is on the rise, due in part to increasing rent costs and a lack of affordable housing.
Officials and landscape architects addressing homelessness in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Denver shared insights and lessons learned from their cities in a discussion at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. Panelists included Scott Gilmore, deputy executive director of Denver parks and planning; Joe Salaices, city of Los Angeles department of recreation and parks; and Guneet Anand, ASLA, SITELAB urban studio.
“You’re not going to end homeless,” Gilmore said. “There’s always been homelessness, and there will always be homelessness.”
“It can be a very daunting task,” he said about addressing the issue. “But I have hope. There are positive actions to be taken.”
Gilmore noted a series of initiatives in Denver, like the Denver Day Works program, which provides work experience in parks and public spaces for people experiencing homelessness. Gilmore says the program has been an effective recruitment tool for full-time employment with the city. The program also offers storage units for homeless individuals to keep their belongings while they access social or healthcare services.
“People think when you’re homeless you might be a drop out from high school or you don’t have everything together,” he said. “About 25 percent of these people are college educated. That gives you a sense that anybody in this room making the wrong step, or just having bad things happen, can be homeless at anytime.”
In Los Angeles County, homelessness jumped 23 percent last year. Salacies says that trend will likely continue, given the area’s expensive housing market. “We have situations where people become homeless because they miss a paycheck or two.”
Salaices said Los Angeles is working to collect data on the city’s homeless population.
“By collecting data we are able to go back and use it for budget services,” he said. “Without the numbers, the justification to share with elected officials, we’re never going to get the budget and money to improve our situation.”
In San Francisco, the leading cause of new homelessness is eviction. “Even though 44 percent of the homeless population does have a job they are not able to afford homes,” Guneet said.
She explained how SITELAB urban studio has been working with Lava Mae, which repurposes old buses into showers and toilets to serve homeless populations in San Francisco. Together, they developed the Lava Mae popup care village, which explores how the design of public space can better serve vulnerable populations.
“Care is the most important when you’re doing work that relates to the homeless, ” she said, adding that we are “sometimes desensitized because it is so present in our cities. We often walk past encampments and don’t think twice about what we can change or what we can do differently.”
Brie Hensold, ASLA, a principal at Sasaki and moderator of the session, noted a common thread between each of the cities is an effort to listen to the individuals and build relationship with the homeless communities, pointing to examples where “key individuals in the homeless population have become ambassadors and problem solvers.”
One such instance is found Gladys Park in Los Angeles, which has a large homeless population.
“A couple of the individuals started taking charge,” said Salaices. He added that the city has started hiring these people to help with maintaining spaces like the restrooms and grounds within the park.
“Principles of sustainability have to be at the center, not at the margins of design,” according filmmaker and eco-activist Shalini Kantayya, particularly in our era of dramatic population growth and resource scarcity. “Sustainability can no longer be a thing of the privilege, but something that is accessible to all sectors of society and the masses.”
Her films demonstrate the power of storytelling in inciting positive change. “The stories we tell as a culture have the power to shape the future,” Kantayya said.
She began with a clip from, A Drop of Life, her film about two women, on opposite sides of the world, and their access to water.
Kantayya used the film to underscore the fact that global potable water scarcity is an increasingly dire situation. Today, more than 2 billion people lack access to clean and safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization.
“80 percent of illnesses in the developing world are due to water-related illnesses,” she said. “There are just no borders on this crisis.”
Kantayya pointed to the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico where millions of American citizens are still without electricity, healthcare, and clean water a month after Hurricane Maria hit the island.
“This is a failure of a story. That somehow we have failed to frame this story as an American crisis, that this is happening to our fellow citizens,” she said.
In light of the lack of environmental leadership at the federal level, states, cities and communities can act to advance a more sustainable future.
Her film Catching the Sun is about the global transition to a clean energy economy. She tells stories of people working in the solar industry to illustrate the economic, social, and environmental impact of the movement.
Globally, the transition is moving rapidly ahead. China is the leader in solar with over 43 gigawatts of solar capacity, compared to the United States capacity of just over 27 gigawatts.
“You have seen China, in the last ten years, move from the factory of the world to the clean tech laboratory of the world,” she said, adding that the United States needs to better capitalize on this movement.
“What we need is smart policy, decisive leadership, and visionary landscape architecture that bring sustainable solutions into public spaces and to scale,” Kantayya said.
Over the past decade, the Los Angeles River has become a source of excitement, inspiration, and concern for residents, city officials, and planners and landscape architects as renewed attention is being paid to its revitalization.
At the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, Barbara Romero, deputy mayor of city services for Los Angeles; Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder and president of Studio-MLA; and Teresa Villegas, office of Los Angeles County supervisor Hilda L. Solis offered background on the river and planning and design efforts already underway.
Historically, the Los Angeles River, a 51-mile stretch of waterway, served as a vital water source for agriculture, but its constantly-changing course led to massive flooding that killed 115 people in 1938; and its unpredictability hindered development. By the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers began channelizing the river, encasing it in concrete.
As a result, today, “the river resembles a freeway more than a waterway,” said Frances Anderton, host of DnA and moderator of the panel.
The river is at the center of complex jurisdictional overlays, with a number of organizations and agencies, like the city of Los Angeles, the county department of public works, and the Army Corps of Engineers, to name a few, sharing responsibility over its maintenance and future plans.
Thirty-two miles of the river falls within the boundaries of the city of Los Angeles. Romero explained how the city is working to implement their 2007 master plan, focusing on reconnecting people, particularly in adjacent neighborhoods, to the river.
“The scale of this is enormous,” Romero said, underscoring the jurisdictional complexity of the revitalization efforts. Within the existing master plan there are 240 projects that incorporated community engagement, representing some $500 million in investment.
Romero pointed to the city’s collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers to restore ecological function and public access to an 11-mile portion of the river. Within this segment is Taylor Yard, a 42-acre parcel, purchased in March from Union Pacific Railroad Company for $60 million. Work is underway with Studio-MLA and WSP to make it a public park, after cleaning up the contaminated brownfield site.
“If we’re really going to revitalize the river; if we’re really going to change the course of the river; if we’re really going to look at this ambitious plan, we needed to get this parcel into public ownership,” Romero said, referring to how acquiring Taylor Yard fit into the city’s revitalization plans.
Lehrer and her studio is designing public spaces in Taylor Yard, which is at mile 25, almost half way down the river.Her design studio is also situated on the river, and its revitalization has been a “passion project” of hers for three decades.
Lehrer said there is an opportunity to connect neighborhoods to the river while addressing environmental concerns like soil contamination and incorporating green infrastructure and creating new wildlife habitat. Lehrer also said there is an opportunity to use the river to create green infrastructure projects that recharge groundwater and get more water down into underlying aquifers.
“We think it’s good these 51-miles of infrastructure were kept away from any other kind of development. It has become an opportunity to bring the communities together to address environmental ills.” She added that “we want it to be resilient, inclusive, and an inspiration for Los Angeles.”
Villegas is coordinating revitalization efforts at the county scale. “We will be dusting off the old plan, opening it up, and adding to it,” she said, referring to the county’s master plan, which was last updated in 1996. They have created a stakeholder group of about 40 people.
The group is focused on the southern portion of the Los Angeles river. A park needs assessment completed last year showed a critical lack of access to green space. “We know we need additional park space in the lower Los Angeles River because it is densely populated.”
Revitalization efforts will coincide with the city’s preparation to host the 2028 summer Olympics. Romero said the major event can serve as a framework to invest resources. “This is not about bringing the world here for two weeks — it’s about reframing the discussion we want to have in our city,” she said.
As revitalization efforts reach a new stage on major sections of the Los Angeles River, including the creation of a new park at Taylor Yard, an old railroad station, a team of architects, landscape architects, and civil engineers are building off of the approved 2007 Los Angeles River revitalization master plan and 1996 county master plan guiding city, county, and Army Corps of Engineers work. The team comprised of Gehry Partners, OLIN, and Geosyntec — who are now working “pro-bono” and claim to have volunteered $3 million in time — is undertaking a multi-year, “data-driven” research effort to better understand the trade-offs involved in greening the concrete culverts that now define the Los Angeles River in much of its 51-mile span. Mayor Eric Garcetti and the non-profit River LA, formerly known as the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, have lent support to Gehry’s new planning effort.
At a session at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, civil engineer Mark Hanna, Geosyntec, explained that the Los Angeles River is highly variable in its outflow, which makes it dangerous. In 2007, some 48,000 acre feet of water flowed out of the mouth of the river, while just two earlier, there had been 950,000 acre feet. “The variation is extreme.”
Along the course of the channelized river, there are different zones designed by the Army Corps of Engineers to move water rapidly through or hold it. “The channel morphs — there are culverts and also reservoirs. There are narrow box culverts and wider trapezoidal ones. There is a ‘soft bottom reach.’ And then the river widens out as it reaches the estuary by the sea.”
However, Hanna cautioned, even with all the engineering, there are still flood risks. The Los Angeles River was originally channeled because it used to meander and spread wide across the flat flood plain, damaging properties and even claiming more than a hundred lives. The current system has been designed to handle the 100-year storm in most parts, but there are still around 3,300 homes at risk if that level of storm hits the city.
While there are plans underway to return more ecological function to the river zone, there are more calls to make the actual concrete culverts green. “There’s 2,000 acres of open space that is now hot and unwelcoming.”
The problem is any greenery added to the culverts “create friction and therefore slows water down.” Hanna said replacing all the culverts with natural systems would in turn require widening the river by five times, an impossibility given communities now line the concrete channel. Greening the culverts without widening could then in effect create a major flood risk.
“Just adding trees to the banks would reduce flood capacity by 60 percent; turf, grasses and shrubs along the bottom of the culvert would reduce by 45 percent; just grasses, 25 percent; trees in the middle band alone, 20 percent; and grass along the middle stretch, 5 percent,” explained Hanna.
For Richard Jackson, former head of environmental health for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and professor at University of California at Los Angeles, adding more green is the goal, but not at the cost of future flood deaths. Still, he wants to see a revitalized river become a positive change agent, instead of a contributor to health problems, as it is now.
Using California’s EnviroScreen, a tool he helped develop, he found those communities “most at risk of severe health problems are near the river.” High levels of asthma and obesity are co-located along the river because many of the communities near the river lack parks, access to healthy foods, and are also near pollutant-spewing highways and freeways.
Richard Roark, ASLA, a partner at landscape architecture firm OLIN, also wants to see a new Los Angeles River creating a healthy environment for both people and wildlife. “If restoring the ecological function of the Los Angeles River costs $100 million a mile, at a total cost of $5 billion, think about what it could be preventing in terms of healthcare costs.” Indeed, Jackson estimated the total public health costs of a poor environment in Los Angeles to be around $25 billion.
Roark called for using “designed ecologies” to improve the quality of life for the communities near the river, by creating fresh air and cleaner water and wildlife habitat. But he cautioned that “we can’t think about restoring the river to its original form; we can’t free it. Within the urban matrix, we have to control it.” Roark also called for a green infrastructure network in the neighborhoods surrounding the river and its primary tributaries.
When landscape architects in the audience questioned why the team didn’t look more closely at distributed options that could make greening the entire river a viable option — including more upland green infrastructure, including reforestation; using structural soils to slow down and store water; or building underground channels to convey water — Hanna cautioned that the models show these systems would help with regular storm events, but not the 100 year storm the culverts are designed to handle.
Still, many of the landscape architects called for much bolder thinking and a renewed effort, given the LA River now functions as “a giant urinal.”
“Housing is where jobs go to sleep at night. Affordable housing is where essential jobs go to sleep at night,” explained David Smith, CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute at the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. The farther apart a home is from a workplace, “the more stress” is placed on the transportation system. As essential workers are forced to look farther and farther from the urban core for affordable housing, they reinforce patterns of sprawl, increase traffic, and reduce economic efficiency, not through any fault of their own. A few solutions, according to the panel, are building new affordable housing in smaller lots and through more “moderately-dense” infill development.
As the world urbanizes, particularly the developing world, meeting the housing needs of rapidly-growing urban populations has become increasingly difficult. According to Smith, almost every city in the world is now experiencing an affordable housing crisis. This is reflected in the fact that “every fast-growing city has a slum.” Those slums tend to formalize over time, but their appearance reflects a housing marketplace out of synch — they reflect a community that can’t give essential workers jobs near their employer.
Smith defined affordable housing as “quality accommodations affordable to a target population, secure in tenure, affordable over a duration that operate independently as a business.”
Interestingly, the challenges facing seemingly vastly-different regions are similar. In the case of southern California and Saudi Arabia, for example, both “fetishize horizontal growth; are infatuated with car-based transportation; depend on immigrant or expatriate workers, but don’t acknowledge them; underuse verticality; and demonstrate a massive cultural resistance to affordable housing.”
Looking at Saudi Arabia, landscape architect Charles Ware, ASLA, explained how “development patterns are sprawling, wasteful, and alienating.” Beyond the 9 million temporary workers brought in from South Asia, who must live in basic dormitory conditions, some 85 percent of Saudis “can’t afford basic housing.” But amid great social change, a growing youth population is “demanding a better quality of life.”
According to Ware, estimates run from half a million to two million fewer homes than what is needed. Land development costs are high, so there are low financial returns for developers. And it’s difficult for them to access finance. “Saudi Arabia is in trouble.”
To address these problems, King Abdullah, who passed away two years ago, created a national strategy of economic diversification, with affordable housing as a central component of a sustainable future path. For Ware, this means smaller lots than what Saudis are currently accustomed to, which would use less water, energy, and land.
Working on a Parsons-led project with the Saudi Ministry of Housing, David Keenan, City Lights Design Alliance, explained how the kingdom is undertaking the development of 500,000 new housing units, set in brand-new sustainable, compact, walkable mixed-use communities. These communities feature “smaller lot sizes, reduced street sizes, and smaller public spaces.”
Delving into the details of Parson’s project in Dammam, found in eastern Saudi Arabia, landscape architect David Carlson, ASLA, detailed walkable 300-meter-radius clusters centered around a mosque, kindergarten, park, and retail zone. From the onset, the community was designed to reuse grey water from homes to irrigate the landscapes of public spaces, and light-colored building materials were used to reduce the urban heat island effect.
University of Southern California professor and architect John Mutlow then discussed affordable housing challenges in the Golden State. Beginning in the 80s, the focus was on creating family housing, but that shifted to create homes for those with special needs, and then HIV, veterans, and, now the homeless. Homelessness has exploded in the past few years, with nearly 60,000 homeless on the streets and in shelters in Los Angeles county today. The situation has gotten so dire that “homeless are now creating shelters for themselves in residential neighborhoods.”
To address the lack of affordable housing for homeless, California government put Measure H on the ballot, which was approved by voters and provides some $355 million, but mostly for “social services instead of financing for actual new housing.” Another 15 more housing bills designed to speed up the housing review and approval process and increase density have made their way through the legislature and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, but these actions just “nip at the edges of the problem.” Mutlow said another $4 billion affordable housing proposal coming up next year.
More than 60 non-profit community-based housing corporations have sprung up in southern California alone to make up for the lack of government action and bring together state and federal funds to make projects happen. However, for Mutlow, the main problem remains the high cost of building affordable housing in California. With not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) concerns, high labor and material costs, affordable housing is “$200 per square foot in California, at a minimum; it’s about $100 per square foot in the Deep South.” Still, he saw “moderately-dense” infill development as the solution, at least in his case studies.
Smith had the last word: “Every government wants more and more affordable housing. And they have the means to create more. They have money, own land, can upzone, use taxes and incentives — they have the means. Unfortunately, governments seldom have the will.”
At the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C., Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of OLIN, became the first landscape architect to win this prestigious prize, joining Jane Jacobs, His Royal Highness Prince Charles, Phyllis Lambert, and Andres Duany in NBM’s pantheon of those deemed most influential in shaping our built environment.
Some highlights from the wide-ranging lecture and conversation with Corner:
“I aim for creating a sense of calm resolve, a quiet seamlessness. The heavy lifting is hidden; I want to make it look effortless. This, however, can cause problems for me: people will see my projects and ask: ‘Why did it cost so much? What took so long?'”
“Landscape architecture is not the sauce you pour over something; it’s part of the structure of an environment. When talking to people who don’t know what landscape architecture is, steer the conversation to another level. Landscape is a device for that.”
“Many things have changed since I started practicing in the 1970s. Many processes have changed for the better, thanks to new technologies. However, our faster world has caused impatience among clients. They say: ‘Why isn’t this done? We just emailed you yesterday.’ Digital technologies have made it harder to take time to slow down, stop, and think. Projects that take longer, that stall, are better because of the slowness. There is more time to consider. Landscape architecture is the slow food of design.”
“In the 1970s, most landscape architects were working in the suburbs; today, they are fully engaged in the city, because that’s where the people are. Then, just getting an urban mini-park built was seen as a major triumph; today, landscape architects are creating larger urban parks and even regional plans.”
On working with “starchitects” like Frank Gehry, Norman Forster, and Richard Meier: “Architects are control freaks. They have to be. It’s hard to get things done, or even done well, and especially hard to get something done brilliantly. So they become maniacs. It’s important to learn their ways of thinking, but then you have to push back.”
“Some people will say they can see a project and know it’s my work. But I don’t have a style. They are looking more at the handwriting than the style.”
On the controversial new 150-acre Apple campus in Silicon Valley, a collaboration with architect Norman Forster: “Steve Job’s idea was a forest — a big park — for his campus for tens of thousands of employees. He believed in nature and the health benefits of the natural world. His favorite park was Hyde Park in London. He was also a fan of Frederick Law Olmsted and studied his work. His vision was a park that was also an everyday workplace, where employees could go have walks and meetings under a tree. I agreed with this vision.”
On the role of new parks in gentrification: “We need a green public realm for the health of our populations. We need places where citizens can come together. We need to spend money and build things well.” The way to address gentrification is to “eliminate the inequalities” in access to great parks. “We need to bring great parks to places like North Philadelphia.”
“Fears about community, other people, or terrorism negatively affect our public spaces. I believe in an open society and open environment. We can bring optimism and resistance — we can push back with good design.”
On President Trump’s proposed wall along the southern border with Mexico: “I disapprove of that on ecological, environmental grounds alone. The climate, ecosystems, and geology — and the people — run north south. You can’t divide people. I totally disagree.”
Olin’s new book Be Seated examines the role of seating in the public realm and includes many of his original drawings and watercolors.
In other awards news: Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, became the first landscape architect to win the MacArthur “genius” grant for her work “designing adaptive and resilient urban habitats and encouraging residents to be active stewards of the ecological systems underlying our built environment.” Also, urban designer and planner Damon Rich, one of the leaders behind the equitable revitalization of the Newark post-industrial waterfront and creation of the Newark Riverfront Park, also won.
Sometimes things happen that make you question everything.
Two weeks ago, I walked along 103rd Street toward the corner of Grape in Watts with several community advocates and a selection committee from the California Natural Resources Agency. Viviana Franco and Maria De Leon from From Lot to Spot, the non-profit who applied for an urban greening grant, led us past Jordan High School and the Jordan Downs public housing development that is under redevelopment.
We described our proposal to the Agency, pointing out the portions of sidewalk to replace with shade trees and planting. Viviana had us meet in the beloved Heart of Watts community garden they installed a year ago, and showed us the parkway plantings and new concrete that brought patches of life and pride amid the crumbling curbs. As we walked, we talked about which trees would best shade people walking by and cool the apartment homes, which have no air conditioning. We noted the phone lines overhead, and the weeds and litter underfoot. We discussed native species and biodiversity. And maintenance.
A young man in a white suit and several teenage girls passed by on their way to school. Otherwise the sidewalk was empty.
Our group included John Jones from Council District 15, Haleemah Henderson of Watts Labor Community Action Committee, Amada Valle from the Heart of Watts garden, and Watts Gang Taskforce member Pinkus Crowther. We stopped at the corner of Grape at a large fenced lot where Mudtown Farms Agriculture Park will soon be. A few scraggly trees and one large one lined the fence opposite us on 102nd Street.
The light was red where Grape Street dead-ended into 103rd. A line of cars gathered. One driver leaned out his window to complain, laughing, to John about a new sign reading “No Right on Red.” John told him, “The community asked for it.”
Pinkus and I talked about the huge change trees could bring to the street.
“I just hope they don’t come cut their branches,” he said. “We plant trees and as soon as they start growing, they cut the branches so the police can see.” He turned to John, “Do you know if the police came to cut the trees yet?”
“Not yet, but they need to,” John said. He pointed across the lot at the big tree. “That big one. That’s where one of the toughest gangs in LA hangs out. The police need to cut it so they can see who is there.”
As we walked back towards the Heart of Watts, I said to Pinkus, “I know nothing of the situation here. But how do we balance immediate security with providing the very thing that can improve social cohesion, reduce criminal behavior, improve self-esteem, and build a community? Because we know trees and gardens can do that.”
“I don’t know,” he responded. I don’t know either.
This is where the tension lies. Which approach would you choose: fear, or love?
The night after I walked through Watts for the first time, my son’s best friend was killed there, on the same street I had walked on the day before. He and two friends went to a birthday party meant to bring youth from different communities together. They left the party without a ride, were attacked by a group of men, and beaten until he lay unconscious against an alley wall. One of the men pointed a gun at his friends. They ran for their lives. Two gunshots sounded. They returned to their friend, called 911, and tried to stop his bleeding. He died while they watched over him.
His friends are devastated. My eyes ache from crying. I cannot imagine the pain his family is going through. We all loved him. I will miss his kind smile and gentle nature and the days and weeks he spent with us. I will miss the unconditional love and support he gave my son during our own family struggles.
I’m grieving the only way I know how, by writing. As I grieve, I cannot help thinking about that tree as a symbol of the lives that are lost in places like Watts.
Trees provide the air we breathe. They cool our homes and our cities, protecting us from deadly heat waves. They absorb rainwater and protect us from floods. Planting more trees may even prevent senseless deaths like our dear one’s.
Drs. Frances Kuo and William Sullivan, ASLA compared Chicago public housing projects and found that trees and grass in the courtyard correlated with a greater sense of community, greater feeling of safety, less aggressive and violent behavior, and less impulsivity and irritability. A study with their colleague Dr. Andrea Faber Taylor found greater self-discipline (and fewer pregnancies) in teenage girls who lived in housing where trees and grass were. These studies illuminate the power of nature to improve mental health — to reduce the stresses and irritability that can lead to violence.
The systems so many (cities, school districts, housing developments, detention centers) have in place now — security cameras, security fencing, security guards, Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED), helicopter policing, reducing growth of trees and shrubs so people cannot hide behind them — these are based on fear. Fear of somebody doing something if we don’t control our environment.
This is the same fear felt by parents who keep their children inside and over-scheduled after the freer attitudes of the 60s and 70s when so many of us roamed our neighborhoods and creeks and parks by ourselves.
But what about design born of love? Love lets us imagine the best for all of our communities. Tree-lined, clean streets with safe sidewalks, public plazas and gardens for people to gather, public restrooms and parks where families feel safe. Shaded bus stops with benches and green schools with playgrounds open to the community at all hours. Jane Jacobs summed up a safe neighborhood with four words: eyes on the street.
I grew up in a neighborhood like this in the 70s. When our classmate was brutally murdered while walking home from school, our schools and parents taught us to walk in groups and know our neighbors, not to stay inside and hide. I lived in a neighborhood riddled with crack in the 80s, where gunshots went off regularly, few dared to walk after midnight, and our roommate was held at gunpoint at the corner deli. I’ve lived in a lot of situations in between, and I’ve known love and fear in all of them.
We need to overhaul the racist lending, housing, and justice systems that paved the way to where Watts and neighborhoods like it are today. Instead of the fear-based approach that led to barren projects surrounded by crumbling streets and punitive law enforcement, people deserve to be treated with compassion, humanity, and dignity. These communities need empathetic justice, medical and mental health care, education, job training, decent shelter, clean water, healthy food, and purpose.
People also need a respite from stress, a sense of community, self-esteem, beauty, and hope. These are things trees and gardens provide. Our children and teenagers, who are drowning in anxiety, need and deserve relief.
There are non-profits all over the city working for environmental justice. WORKS is a non-profit developer building affordable and sustainable residences with mental health services in LA’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. The Trust for Public Land in LA has created 10 parks in the last eight years, including Watts Serenity Park, which opened in 2015. From Lot to Spot sees a more humane and beautiful Watts through planting street trees and community gardens. The Watts Labor Community Action Committee is leading the effort to build Mudtown Farms Agriculture Park.
We need to support these efforts, and others like them, by advocating for funds, programs, and services to help build healthier, safer communities without displacing people — to work towards social and environmental justice. Fear has had its chance, and it isn’t working. Let’s try more love.