Retrofitting with Green Infrastructure

California Avenue Rain Garden, University of Calinfornia, Davis / Kevin Robert Perry

Why retrofit cities and suburbs with green infrastructure? Re-inserting the landscape back into the built environment helps us strike a better balance with nature, boost neighborhood health, and solve stormwater management problems. In a session at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) in Savannah, Georgia, a landscape architect, an urban designer, and a civil engineer offered fresh takes on why green infrastructure is so valuable.

According to landscape architect Kevin Robert Perry, ASLA, founder of Urban Rain Design, the issue is the sheer amount of impervious surfaces, the oceans of asphalt in our cities and suburbs, which can account for half of the built environment. “We need to get more water into the ground.” He said communities should take a “decentralized, natural approach” to getting more stormwater off pavement and into the ground, where it can recharge underlying aquifers.

In increasing levels of optimization, communities can maximize landscape along streets; increase their tree canopies; create park-like streets, sidewalks, and driveways; scale up networks of green, complete, streets; or build an “entire green envelope, covering buildings and streets” across the entire city or suburb.

But Perry noted the need to keep actual green infrastructure solutions simple and low-cost. His well-known Siskiyou Green Street in Portland, Oregon, cost just $20,000.

ASLA 2007 Professional General Design Honor Award. Siskiyou Green Street, Portland, Oregon / Kevin Robert Perry

Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of urban design at Georgia Tech and author of Designing Suburban Futures, and her students collaborated with the Atlanta city government, as it begins to realize its vision of a new city design, which is rooted in Atlantans’ love of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr, who was born and raised there, and the city’s luxuriant tree canopy, which covers some 45 percent of the city. The design paints a picture of equitable growth in an urban forest.

Dunham-Jones and her students began to examine how a city expecting to triple in population could still maintain its tree canopy, with all its health and stormwater management benefits.

Beyond concentrating development in centers and corridors, so as to protect old growth trees, another way to do this is to retrofit trees into neighborhoods through novel regulations.

Using the Cascade Road neighborhood, a majority African American community in southwest Atlanta, as a study site, she sent out seven pairs of students to identify some options. Her team recommended re-planting or relocating trees off private property into nearby public conservation easements, and “fee-simple” donations of wetlands and flood zones that have mature trees to the city government.

“The idea is to move more trees into the public realm. We can protect them better if they are on public property; and we can also protect the rights of private property owners.”

She said Atlanta hopes to enshrine many of these ideas in a new, more stringent “nature ordinance,” designed to replace the current tree ordinance, which has relatively lax rules on tree removal.

And Paul Crabtree, a civil engineer who runs the Crabtree Group, concluded that those who are forging innovative green infrastructure solutions in communities should be considered “shock troops, highly-skilled soldiers on the front line, taking heavy casualties, even when successful.” After much persuasion and many grants, he managed to create an innovative “tree zipper” in the middle of a street in Ojai, California.

One Year Later, Climate Leaders Are Forging Ahead — Without the Trump Administration

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President Trump’s climate speech at the White House in 2017 / Mashable

One year ago, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, raising uncertainty about the future of the landmark agreement. Last week, the World Resources Institute (WRI) convened a panel of climate policy leaders to ask the question: Has the world moved on since President Trump’s announcement?

In a panel moderated by WRI senior fellow Andrew Light, Paula Caballero, global director of climate for WRI, gave the room reasons for both optimism and caution. “Trump can announce what he will, but the reality in the US and around the world is that efforts to tackle climate continue.”

States and businesses are doing what they can to fill the void left by federal inaction, which is reflected in bipartisan initiatives, such as the U.S. Climate Alliance and America’s Pledge. “States, cities, and businesses representing more than half of the United States population have adopted GHG targets,” said Caballero, adding that “if they were a country, these US states and cities alone would be the third largest economy in the world.” Still, Caballero cautioned that “if we’re really honest, we need a lot more ambition.”

For Todd Stern, former U.S. special envoy for climate change, the global response to President Trump’s announcement has been a “mixed bag.” On one hand, other countries have remained in the agreement, something that “wasn’t a foregone conclusion.” On the other hand, “it’s really damaging for the United States to be on the way out.”

Stern said the absence of the US could lead some countries to pull back on their commitments and undermine the development of “global norms and expectations” around carbon dioxide emissions.

Selwin Hart, Ambassador of Barbados to the US, said “the coalition that delivered the Paris agreement remains strong,” but “it is absolutely imperative to have the US at the table,” adding that “were it not for the leadership of the United States, we would not have had the Paris agreement.” Still, “countries are not going to wait” for the US to take action.

WRI’s David Waskow echoed this point, citing international determination in response to the US withdrawal, including the India-led International Solar Alliance and the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative, which are examples of “a change, globally, in the types of leadership that we have,” with “many more actors in the mix and driving forward action.”

This new kind of leadership can also be found at the state, business, and non-governmental organization (NGO) levels. Valerie Smith, global head of corporate sustainability at Citigroup, pointed to her firm’s financing of climate solutions as an example of both good global citizenship and good business.

Maryland secretary of the environment Ben Grumbles noted he was sent to the recent COP23 in Bonn, Germany by Republican governor Larry Hogan, suggesting the climate need not be a partisan issue.

Virginia deputy secretary of commerce and trade Angela Navarro stated that, prior to the Paris Agreement, “a lot of the climate action in the United States was happening at the state level,” but “the importance of the work states are doing has only been amplified since the announcement from President Trump a year ago.” An example of this state-level work can be found in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a coalition of Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic States founded in 2009 to price CO2 emissions from the energy sector.

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Power Plant in Halifax County, Virginia / Flickr user David Hoffman

Secretary Grumbles (also chair of the RGGI Board of Directors) touted RGGI’s track record, saying that it had slashed emissions while raising $2.9 billion for member states to invest in climate solutions.

Virginia is working to join RGGI, which would make it the first southeastern state to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. New Jersey, formerly a member state, is also eager to re-join the coalition. “With these eleven states,” said Grumbles, “we’ll have somewhere between the fourth and the fifth-largest economy in the world.”

The lingering question, however, is whether these state and market efforts will be enough for the US to meet its Paris goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025 in the absence of leadership from the U.S. federal government.

While new leadership may be emerging to fill that void, the environment is already sending dangerous warning signals. This last winter, the maximum extent of arctic sea ice hit a near-record low.

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Aerial photo of melting arctic sea ice / NASA

Meanwhile, arctic permafrost is beginning to melt, releasing frozen carbon and methane gas stored in the soil into the atmosphere and raising fears of initiating a dangerous warming feedback loop that has been called “a ticking time bomb.”

Scientists have found that rainfall from Hurricane Harvey was made worse because of climate change, foreshadowing what could be a more frequent phenomenon in the future. And in Puerto Rico, researchers now estimate that more than 4,600 Americans died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, making that storm more than twice as deadly as Hurricane Katrina.

With this in mind, the call to action sounded by Caballero at the beginning of the panel rang the loudest at its end: “Whether we do act today — or whether we don’t act today — is going to determine what the world will look like for centuries to come.”

The Planning and Architectural Legacy of the Manhattan Project

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Road to Los Alamos, ca. 1943-45 / Los Alamos National Laboratory Archives

The Manhattan Project, the secret US government program that produced the world’s first atomic weapons during World War II, left a complicated legacy in its wake. It brought the second world war to a close, but laid the groundwork for the Cold War. It was responsible for the deaths of over 125,000 Japanese citizens, the majority of whom were civilians. It ushered in the atomic age as scientists and businesses sought ways to use “atoms for peace,” leading to advances in medical imaging, the rise of nuclear energy, and even “atomic gardening.”

It also gave us the cities of Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Richland and Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico, cities that were created as part of the Manhattan Project and whose existence remained a closely-held secret during the war. These cities are the subject of Secret Cities: The Architecture and Planning of the Manhattan Project, an exhibition currently on display at The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

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Aerial view of Hanford Construction Camp, ca. 1945 / U.S. Department of Energy, Hanford Collection

At a recent lecture, senior curator Martin Moeller delved into the planning, architecture, and cultural legacy of these cities — their lasting impact on the industries of the built environment. He began by pointing out that, in terms of design, there was little revolutionary about these towns. Precedents for planned communities existed in developments such as Olmsted and Vaux’s Riverside, Illinois; the Garden City Movement; and the work of Scottish biologist and city planner Sir Patrick Geddes.

What makes the cities of the Manhattan Project significant, however, was the scale of their design and speed of their construction. Moeller pointed out that, unlike earlier examples of community planning, these cities had to be entirely self-contained due to the nature of the work being carried out there.

In the case of Oak Ridge, architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) was responsible for the design of an entire city that would be home to 75,000 residents by the end of the war.

Hutments at Oak Ridge / Southern Spaces

Moeller explained that SOM went from “being architects to being planners and civil engineers, and soon they were going to becoming construction engineers, interior designers, and even designers of the school curricula in the schools within Oak Ridge.”

In addition to being planned in utmost secrecy, Oak Ridge and other Manhattan Project cities had to be constructed at a breakneck pace. “During the height of the war, the contractors building these houses were turning over the keys to the government to one house every thirty minutes,” said Moeller.

The speed of construction was possible thanks to advances in prefabrication technology. Houses at Oak Ridge were constructed using Cemesto boards, a prefabricated product made of compressed cement and asbestos fibers, and were built in an assembly line fashion, a technique that developer William Levitt would later use in the construction of his Levittown developments.

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“Flat Top” house, Oak Ridge, 1944 / National Archives and Records Administration

Given the speed at which these cities were constructed, one of the more remarkable aspects of their design is the inclusion of green, walkable community space. “This is extraordinary,” argues Moeller. “This is an emergency situation, where people are thinking that we are in a race against time, and we’re being careful to preserve large trees and create greenbelt spaces between houses.”

This also raises provocative questions about modern day development practices. If the planners of these communities were able to take the time to preserve existing natural features and integrate green space under extraordinary circumstances, why do we find it so difficult to do the same thing today?

There were darker aspects to these cities as well. Land for the developments was seized from existing residents via eminent domain; property owners were told that the land was needed for a “demolition range.” In Oak Ridge, this primarily impacted poor subsistence farmers. In Washington, the government seized land from the Wanapum people, a Native American group that traces its identity to the region and the Columbia River that runs through it.

Race also played a part in the story of these cities. For example, segregation was designed into the plan for Oak Ridge. African American residents were forced to live in “hutments,” small, single-room structures with minimal protection from the elements. The hutments were separated from the city and further segregated by sex, dividing up families and adding further insult to the indignity of being forced to live in substandard housing.

Life-at-Hutments
African American women hanging laundry in a hutment area, Oak Ridge, 1945 / Edward Westcott. National Archives and Records Administration

Despite a complicated social and political legacy, for Moeller, the urban design legacy of the Manhattan Project is clear. “The real thing to come out of this, in terms of architectural and planning history, is the emergence of the modern architecture-engineering-construction firm.”

By the end of WWII, SOM had grown to 650 employees, and would eventually become “arguably the single most influential corporate architectural firm in the post war era.”

In their work on Oak Ridge, SOM took on an expanded role as “architect, engineer, planner — all these things really beyond the scope of what architects had ever done.” Because of this experience, “they were uniquely prepared coming out of WWII to design for the new world, creating corporate campuses and communities on a scale that we wouldn’t have even been conceived of before.” They paved the way for the business model that would come to define the planning and design industries in the second half of the 20th century.

Secret Cities: The Architecture and Planning of The Manhattan Project is on display at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. through March 3, 2019.