New Study: Technology Undermines the Restorative Benefits of Nature

Laptop user in a park / istockphoto

We experience “soft fascination” with nature when we sit on a park bench and let our mind wander, taking in the trees and flowers, noticing birds and squirrels, feeling the breeze. This gentle decompression in nature is actually critical to helping us restore our ability to pay attention. We need breaks where our minds can just go slack and subconsciously take in the complexity of the natural world. Researchers are still trying to figure out the ideal “dose” of this green medicine, but benefits have been seen with just 10 minutes.

New research argues those breaks in nature only help if we put down our laptops and other devices. A recent study published in Environment and Behavior contends that using laptops, smartphones, and other technologies while sitting on that park bench undoes all the good attention-boosting benefits of nature.

Attention is an important resource not to be wasted. We need the capacity to pay attention to make our way through our busy lives. According to the study’s authors — Bin Jiang, with the University of Hong Kong; Rose Schmillen, a landscape designer; and William C. Sullivan, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — “a person who cannot focus his or her attention is likely to miss important details and have trouble remembering details. Compared with someone who is not mentally fatigued, a person with low attention functioning is more likely to be irritable, have trouble with self-management, struggle to resist temptations, and miss subtle social cues. When a person is mentally fatigued, he or she is less effective in pursuing goals and interacting with others. A person with depleted attention is more likely to say or do things he/she might regret later, which can affect relationships, work performance, and even personal goals such as losing weight or saving money.”

In their experiment, Bin, Schmillen, and Sullivan set 81 participants (50 women and 31 men), aged 17 to 35, in a few environments to test their theory on how a laptop “substantially counteracts the attention enhancement effects of green spaces.”

After doing 10 minutes of taxing cognitive testing — 5 minutes of subtraction exercises and 5 minutes of memorization indoors — participants were asked to take a 15-minute break. But they were given four different types of breaks: participants either sat in a “barren” outdoor space or a green space filled with trees.

Examples of barren spaces where participants took a break / Environment and Behavior
Examples of green spaces where participants took a break / Environment and Behavior

Some were given a laptop and asked to use them for “non-work” related leisure activities, such as social media, news sites, YouTube, blogs, online games, or shopping. Those given a laptop were asked to “sit on a fixed chair or bench in the shade to maintain a comfortable temperature and to reduce screen glare.” Others didn’t get a laptop. After the break, their ability to pay attention was tested again.

The experiment found “the only condition that produced an increase of attentional functioning was a green setting in which the participants didn’t have a laptop.” The authors believe this confirms the attention-boosting benefits of nature are “undermined by the use of an electronic device.” In an email, Sullivan confirmed the effect of a smartphone or tablet would be “identical” to the laptop.

Top line indicates improvement in attention functioning after a break in a green space without a laptop / Environment and Behavior

For Sullivan and the other authors, this means policymakers, planners, landscape architects and designers need to ensure green spaces are close-by and easily accessible from dense environments, especially workplaces, educational institutions, and hospitals — places where people’s attention is constantly taxed and where nature’s restorative benefits are even more critical.

Landscape architects and designers also need to up their game and create green spaces that can divert our attention from our addictive devices.

Sullivan told me: “The findings here present a challenge for landscape architects. In the past, it was enough to design and build nature-rich cities — just by being in such places, people would get a range of health benefits. But with the ubiquitous use of mobile devices, one of the most important benefits of being in nature-rich urban space might be lost. The challenge is to create even more engaging landscapes — landscapes that encourage people to put their phones down and be in the moment.” Those attention-sustaining features could include “moving water, wildlife, fire, or other natural elements that move and change.”

Controversial WWI Memorial Charts Narrow Path Forward

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Aerial view of the approved conceptual design for the National WWI Memorial at Pershing Park / World War I Centennial Commission

In a circumscribed win for backers of a new national World War I memorial at the site of Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) unanimously granted their support to the latest conceptual design for the memorial at their July 19 meeting.

The revised proposal was presented by David Rubin, ASLA, principal of Land Collective, who joined the World War I Centennial Commission (WWICC) design team in 2017. Other members of the team include architect Joe Weishaar, GWWO, and sculptor Sabin Howard.

The project has generated controversy due to its location at Pershing Park, which was designed by ASLA medal recipient M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA. The park, which opened in 1981, has fallen into disrepair in recent years as maintenance funds have been cut.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) and others have argued the park has historic value and should be rehabilitated as part of any memorial construction, arguing that the park can accommodate new memorial elements without fundamentally altering Friedberg’s original design. The National Park Service (NPS), which operates the park, determined in 2016 the park was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, calling it “an exceptional example of a landscape design of the modern period.”

pershing aerial view
Pershing Park (looking south) / Image courtesy of M. Paul Friedberg & Partners, via The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Backers of the new memorial have pointed to their Congressional mandate, which specifically designates Pershing Park as the site for a national WWI memorial, and have argued that preservation concerns should not take priority over an act of Congress. They have also emphasized that WWI is the only major conflict whose veterans are not memorialized in the nation’s capital.

The approved design concept retains a previously-proposed sculptural wall on the western edge of the park as the memorial’s signature element. The wall would be freestanding and placed in the western end of the park’s original pool, which is currently inoperable. The wall would incorporate cascading water features, referring to the original design’s waterfall at the western edge of the pool.

The proposal also calls for a paved viewing platform to be constructed in the center of the existing pool area, which Rubin said could also be used for events and commemorations. In the concept presented to CFA, the platform would substantially reduce the size and alter the shape of the original pool.

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Perspective view of the proposed viewing platform / World War I Centennial Commission

In granting their support, CFA asked the design team to continue to refine elements of design, including the sculptural wall, the function of the site of an existing unused kiosk on the northeast corner of the site, and the layout of the proposed viewing platform.

Overall, however, CFA was persuaded by the WWICC proposal. “For the first time, the client and designers have talked about the memorial and the park as a whole and understand that the impact of the sculptural wall will be enriched by the spatial sequence through the park,” said CFA vice chairman Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA.

The initial design for the memorial was selected in 2015 by competition. The winning proposal, “The Weight of Sacrifice,” was submitted by architect Joe Weishaar and sculptor Sabin Howard. It called for replacing Pershing Park’s sunken pool with a flat lawn enclosed on three sides by bronze walls engraved with memorial text and figurative sculptures in bas relief.

In selecting the winning proposal, the jury described it as “elegant and absolute,” praising its simplicity.

original_proposal
The original proposal by Joe Weishaar would have replaced the central pool with a turf panel, enclosed on three sides by bronze walls / World War I Centennial Commission

The competition jury originally included Laurie Olin, FASLA. However, Olin resigned from the jury before the competition began after learning that Pershing Park could be threatened. Olin told Politico earlier this year that he does not support the project.

The WWICC had hoped the new park would be completed in time for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice this coming November. However, approvals for the design have proven difficult to secure because of concerns over the impact on Pershing Park.

In his remarks at the July meeting, TCLF president Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, opposed the option presented by the WWICC design team and instead urged CFA to support an alternative that would place sculptural elements “in-the-round” at the current site of the unused kiosk. That proposal was also supported by Oehme van Sweden, who revised the planting plan for the site with Freidberg in the 1980s, and former ASLA president Darwina Neal, FASLA.

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Perspective view of the “in-the-round” alternative favored by The Cultural Landscape Foundation / World War I Centennial Commission

Neal argued in a written statement that “such a ‘sculpture in the round’ in the kiosk location could seamlessly be added to the existing park.”

However, CFA rejected this alternative in favor of the memorial design team’s preferred configuration, which they felt struck an appropriate balance between Friedberg’s original design and the new memorial elements. “I’m convinced that the wall will not destroy the integrity of this landscape, but in fact will reinterpret it,” said Meyer.

CFA commissioner Edward Dunson agreed: “This is still Friedberg’s space as far as I’m concerned; it just has a different interpretation, and I feel comfort in that.”

“I don’t believe that strict—emphasis on strict—preservation of the original design is more important than the congressional decision to designate the entirety of Pershing Park as a memorial,” said Alex Krieger, a CFA commissioner. “I’m not persuaded that everything about the original design has to be preserved, and therefore the memorial needs to take second standing. I think they must take equivalent standing.”

In an email, Rubin said that “with the approval of a preferred option by the CFA, we have met a significant milestone in the realization of a comprehensive design for the memorial,” but “there are still many design exercises moving forward.”

The WWICC design team will need to resolve the outstanding issues identified by CFA and present a more detailed proposal as well as clear a revised design with other regulatory agencies, including the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) al, before they can begin construction.

New Mariposa Grove Protects Fragile Giant Sequoia Ecosystem

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Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias / Mithun

In the not too distant past, you could park a car in the midst of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) at California’s Yosemite National Park. That is no longer possible thanks to a recently-completed $40 million restoration by the National Park Service (NPS) in partnership with the Yosemite Conservancy and Seattle-based multidisciplinary design firm Mithun.

Now, visitors park at a newly constructed, 300-vehicle-capacity terminal two miles away and take a shuttle bus to a main entry plaza at the lower grove.

“Before, it used to be a pass-through area. People didn’t even really notice it,” says Mithun senior associate Christian Runge, ASLA, about the restored lower grove. “They saw a couple of big trees, but it wasn’t a place. Now, it’s the centerpiece of the whole project.”

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Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias / Susan Olmsted

This transformation didn’t happen for its own sake. Years of heavy visitor traffic and poor planning took their toll on the storied trees, raising alarm about their future health.

The giant sequoia, which grows to approximately 300-feet high and can live for thousands of years, is an endangered species. This tree occupies a narrow ecological niche only 260-miles-wide on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains and requires specific environmental conditions to thrive. The Mariposa Grove is one of the few places on earth where the sequoia is able to reseed on its own.

“The Sequoias exist on the western slopes of the Sierras at a certain elevation, which is essentially at the rain-snow transitional zone,” says Runge. “If you go much lower, it’s all rain; if you go much higher, it’s all snow. That feeds the hydrology of these mountain wetland stream systems, which the sequoias tend to cluster closely around.”

“So, restoring hydrology and improving the natural hydrologic flow in the grove was really an important piece of the restoration puzzle.”

To achieve this, the design team removed the existing network of asphalt roads and paths, which were interfering with the grove’s natural drainage patterns.

One road that connected the lower and upper groves crossed streams and wetlands approximately 30 times, says Runge. “Those culverts were anywhere between 50-60 years old, and a lot of them weren’t even functioning anymore.”

In the place of asphalt and culverts, Mithun designed a series of elevated boardwalks and trails that allow for a variety of visitor experiences and do not interfere with the delicate hydrology needed to sustain the sequoias.

mariposa_paths
New paths and boardwalks have replaced asphalt roads in the lower grove / Susan Olmsted

“If we keep those streams running and hope for the best with snowmelt, then we can imagine those populations will continue to be stable and hopefully grow into mature trees,” Runge says.

However, that outcome is not guaranteed. Giant sequoias are threatened by the effects of climate change, which could reduce the amount of groundwater available to the trees and make it more difficult for seedlings to survive.

Runge acknowledges that in the face of such forces, there is only so much that the project can accomplish.

“The best thing we can really do is improve and maintain the processes that keep the sequoias as healthy as possible in order to provide as much resilience as possible,” says Runge. “Improving those processes was really the focus of the restoration.”

Ensuring the survival of the Mariposa grove also required changes to the visitor experience. In addition to restoring groundwater hydrology, the elevated boardwalks also keep visitors at a distance from the trees in the grove’s most heavily trafficked areas.

“People want to get up close to them. It’s just a human, intuitive thing that you want to be able to do,” Runge says. But, “if everyone did that, there would be too much damage to the tree.”

Instead, Mithun created a series of loops that become progressively less contained as they lead further from the main entry plaza. “Each loop takes you further out and is closer to a wilderness experience. If you want to go up into the upper grove, that’s something that can only really be hiked into.”

In addition to the new trails, enhancements to the visitor experience include a new visitor center and comfort stations designed by Mithun architects Brendan Connolly and Susan Olmsted, ASLA.

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Rendering of the new shuttle bus terminal / Mithun

While the design language and material choices were in some way constrained by the need to work within the rustic National Park aesthetic of stone and timber, Runge says the design team found room for creativity in the details.

“We didn’t argue about modern versus historic, but we did push for quality detailing and structural systems, thinking through stonework, and trying to understand what the Works Progress Administration (WPA)-era standards were in reality versus just giving the impression of something being historic. Making something that is durable, long-lasting, and in some sense beautiful was the key goal for us both in terms of the architectural elements and site elements, like the boardwalk.”

For Runge, striking this balance between ecology and the visitor experience defined Mithun’s approach to the project. “Ultimately, I feel like we got there,” he says. “It feels like a transformed place.”

To Survive Climate Change, Coastal Cities Need Strong Communities

Extreme Cities / Sierra Club

Ashley Dawson, author of Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change believes cities, which now hold 70 percent of the world’s population, are “ground zero” for climate change. This is because they contribute the largest amount of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and are also the most vulnerable to rising sea levels. Mega cities, which are mostly found in coastal areas, are not “adequately prepared for the floods that will increasingly menace their shores.” Instead, the pursuit of development-as-usual — with the seemingly-unending growth of luxury condos and insulated “live work play” communities — means many coastal cities have effectively stuck their heads in the sand. Efforts to bolster cities’ protections through resilient planning and design have largely been superficial and won’t protect the most vulnerable.

Despite the warning signs of impacts to come, like Hurricane Sandy in the Tri-state region, cities remain focused on growth, growth, growth. Dawson cites the economist David Harvey, who argues that a “‘healthy’ capitalist economy must expand at annual rate of 3 percent. If it ceases to do so, it goes into crisis, as it did in 2008.”

In our capitalist system, continuous growth has resulted in great gains, so the world is now “awash with ‘surplus liquity'” or excess capital. And all of that money needs a place to go: “Capital has turned to the city, where fixed plots of land promise to increase in value as more of the world’s population migrates to urban centers. Real-estate speculation provides a way for economies to grow as production declines. In other words, the city is a growth machine, and speculative real estate development functions as a sink for surplus capital. Sixty percent of global wealth today is invested in real estate.”

The resulting real estate boom, and rise in housing costs, can be seen everywhere from New York City to Rio de Janeiro, from Los Angeles to Shanghai. And for Dawson, it’s no accident that coastal cities are also the starting point for mass movements fighting inequality, like Occupy Wall Street, which began in NYC’s Zuccotti Park with its call to heed the “99 percent,” and the mass protests that began in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park.

Over-development in coastal cities has caused other problems beyond increasing social tensions and inequities. Market forces are driving development to “produce greater risk, vulnerability, and environmental disasters.” Cities are not only wrecking their immediate environments, but also causing deforestation, with their demand for commodities, and climate change, with their incredible heating and cooling needs, urban industries, and inefficient transportation systems. “As Mike Davis outs it, ‘city life is rapidly destroying the ecological niche — Holocene climate stability — which made its evolution into complexity possible.”

The “luxury city” — the most-elite slice of urban life — is even more destructive. In New York City, high-end condos are the most polluting. “In a report entitled Elite Emissions, the Climate Works for All coalition notes that ‘a mere two percent of the city’s one million buildings use 45 percent of all the city’s energy.”

While he sprinkles in cases from Jakarta, New Orleans, Rotterdam, and other cities, Dawson mostly focuses on New York City, where he examines how the city’s leadership and communities have responded to increased vulnerability to climate change. He is largely critical of governmental efforts, but sees hope in how local community groups have formed to devise solutions, like the Sandy Regional Assembly, an alliance of forty groups that came together in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to create a more equitable city-wide resilience strategy.

He is particularly critical of PlaNYC, a comprehensive planning effort by the administration of mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007 to address climate change. It’s described as “an effort to promote an urban sustainability fix, a solution to capitalism’s periodic crises of accumulation that combines rampant real estate speculation with a variety of enticing yet relatively superficial greening initiatives.”

While the Bloomberg administration pushed for emissions reductions through PlaNYC — largely through energy-efficient buildings and switching from coal to natural gas — it also promoted waterfront development at a massive scale in Lower Manhattan, far west side, and in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg, DUMBO, Red Hook, Gowanus, and Coney Island. All this waterfront development had the unfortunate side effect of making coastal communities even more vulnerable.

Dawson argues that in reality, a serious climate plan “would involve moving people and buildings out of flood zones,” an approach the Bloomberg administration opposed as it ran counter to their “ambitious — and lucrative — plans for developing the city’s nearly 600 miles of waterfront.” Others called for the city to buy up waterfront property in order to prevent development — reserving these spaces as green buffers, which also failed to occur.

In later chapters, Dawson describes how environmental “blowback” is already having a major impact on coastal cities. As the estuaries upon which coastal megacities are built are being destroyed, it’s becoming even clearer the vital ecological role those underlying systems play.

Natural systems that once served as critical buffers to storm surges — like Jamaica Bay in Queens, New York — are degrading. And he argues “the transformation of devalued landscapes like Jamaica Bay’s marshes has also exposed nearby residents to even greater risk.” While restoration efforts are underway, there is no guarantee of success given the conditions of the area are shifting so fast with climate change.

In a chapter entitled “the Jargon of Resilience,” Dawson warns against the “utopian hopes of modern architects and urban planners,” particularly those associated with the Rebuild by Design program initiated by the Rockefeller Foundation, because they create a “false sense of security, leading people to build up risk in fundamentally unsustainable sites.”

He argues projects that came out of Rebuild by Design effort, like the Big U in Lower Manhattan, which will use parks made of berms and flood gates to protect the financial district and other neighborhoods, “actually increase risk rather than diminishing it.” Furthermore, the BIG U will just displace water to other places: “Where will the water that the BIG U turns aside go? It is likely to end up in adjacent communities with large poor populations such as Red Hook, where Hurricane Sandy hit public housing particularly hard.”

Dawson appreciates the ecological logic of the much-celebrated Living Breakwaters project by SCAPE Landscape Architecture but argues that it “confronts a number of intractable environmental problems that are likely to make it unsustainable in the long term.”

Dawson’s essential critique is that too much of the climate adaptation and resilience efforts of city governments in New York City and elsewhere have been top-down, without much real community input. He believes truly equitable resilience planning can only come if strong local communities make their voices heard. Socially-resilient communities can demand “radical adaptation” — “new forms of collective, democratic planning.” Empowered, informed communities can figure out the resilient plans and designs they need to protect themselves. And only these communities can survive the next storm and rebuild.

Waking up to the new realities requires getting a clear view of the risks — and even increasing exposure to them. For Dawson, landscape architects like Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, and educators like University of Pennslvania landscape architecture professor Anuradha Matur, and Harvard University planner Dilip da Cunha potentially have the answers, with their call for “soft” defenses that would buffer communities from storms but also be visible and integrated into the ecosystems of the coastal city.

The mega-city of the near future can build “more permeable borders, allowing for natural flux and for the flourishing of inter-tidal habitats such as wetlands and marshes.” This vision will require a re-balancing between city and nature, a retreat from high-risk areas, along with an end to luxury development on waterfronts.

Videos: ASLA 2018 Diversity Summit

The Color of Landscape Architecture presented by Richard Jones, ASLA, President of Mahan Rykiel Associates.

Since 2013, the American Society of Landscape Architects has convened an annual Diversity Summit with the goal of developing a deeper understanding of how landscape architecture can better represent the communities and people it serves.

On June 22-24, ASLA hosted the 2018 Diversity Summit at the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C. For this year’s summit, five professionals from the 2017 Diversity SuperSummit were invited back, and nine new participants were selected from a call for interest to add valuable input to discussions and resource development.

ASLA 2018 Diversity Summit participants / EPNAC.com

The goals of the 2018 Diversity Summit were to review benchmarks prioritized from the 2017 Diversity SuperSummit and create opportunities for participants to research and workshop resources for ASLA’s career discovery and diversity program.

Review of 2017-2018 work plan and 2017 Diversity SuperSummit priority survey, presented by Shawn Balon, ASLA, career discovery and diversity manager at ASLA.

Throughout the weekend, participants offered ideas for the development of two resources that can assist professionals in implementing diversity and inclusion practices into business strategies and help ASLA National and ASLA Chapters create programs to reach youth and communities.

Discussions at ASLA 2018 Diversity Summit / EPNAC.com
Discussions at ASLA 2018 Diversity Summit / EPNAC.com
Discussions at ASLA 2018 Diversity Summit / EPNAC.com

Read more about the ASLA 2018 Diversity Summit report — in this summary or the full report. Feedback from summit participants will serve as an actionable guide for the ASLA career discovery and diversity manager for the upcoming year.

Also, explore resources from the past six years of Diversity Summits, including handouts, videos, presentations, news articles, and reports.

This post is by Dan Li, Student ASLA, education programs summer intern at the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Ambitious Parks Aim to Transform Oklahoma’s Cities

Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City / Hargreaves Associates
The Gathering Place / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

In Oklahoma City and Tulsa, massive, city-changing riverfront parks will open over the coming year. In Oklahoma City, Hargreaves Associates is now building the 70-acre, $130-million Scissortail Park to revitalize its downtown. In Tulsa, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) is building the 100-acre, $485 million Gathering Place designed to bridge the racial divide and bring reconciliation. Oklahoma’s smart urban leadership — former OKC Mayor Mick Cornett and current Mayor of Tulsa GT Bynum — know big city parks can transform a city. At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA), the mayors outlined how these parks came about and what these spaces are expected to accomplish.

Scissortail Park in OKC

Scissortail Park is the city’s response to the removal of the Interstate highway that once cut through downtown. With its relocation five blocks south, a large space opened up. “We knew it was a one time and forever opportunity,” said Cornett, former Mayor of Oklahoma City and now Republican candidate for Governor of Oklahoma.

Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City / Hargreaves Associates

With funds from OKC’s innovative MAP3 program, which has brought in hundreds of millions for public space improvements through a penny sales tax, the leadership of the city, over multiple mayors, were able to implement a 20-year plan for transforming downtown, including new sidewalks and bicycle infrastructure, streetcars, a convention center, and grand central park. In this conservative state, the modest sales tax ensured no debt was generated by the public projects. “We built as we collected the money.”

Cornett said “25 years ago, downtown was terrible.” Today, the transformation is already apparent: the downtown is walkable and bikable, the streetcar and park are coming in, and designs for a new convention center were just approved.

Cornett sees Scissortail Park, which is expected to open next year, primarily as an economic development tool. New retail, commercial, and residential buildings will form a mixed-use neighborhood, with affordable housing, surrounding the park. The city aims to “re-populate the urban core” in order to fight sprawl and bring more people down to the Oklahoma River.

Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City / Hargreaves Associates

Models for Scissortail are Millennium Park in Chicago and Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. OKC’s leadership and a citizens’ advisory group went to visit these parks to see what they could learn. Then, they worked with Hargreaves Associates to customize the park. The citizens advisory group “came up with most aspects of the park.” Cornett believes this is how it should work: “the Mayor’s job is to create the framework and organize financing; the public does the details.”

Cornett emphasized that in today’s digital world, “you can’t have enough citizens’ involvement. We created the most inclusive process you can imagine.” But still there were complaints about a lack of transparency.

The land for the park is owned by the city, but Scissortail will be operated by a non-profit. The city will provide the non-profit a subsidy in its first few years, but the support will drop off as private sponsorships increase. “It’s the Central Park Conservancy model. We hope to quickly get to zero city financing.”

And he noted that Hargreaves Associates principal Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, promised him they wouldn’t build something OKC “couldn’t afford to operate.”

Sources of revenue are built into the park. Low-maintenance native plants are being incorporated. Dirt from a large lake carved into Scissortail was used to build a hill, saving money.

Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City / Hargreaves Associates

The Gathering Place in Tulsa

Tulsa, the second largest city in Oklahoma, has a “challenging history around race.” In 1921, the city experienced the “worst race riot in the country’s history” — some 300 African Americans were killed. Tulsa has been a segregated city ever since.

Mayor Bynum said years of “honest conversation helped change the dynamics about unofficial segregation and created greater understanding.” Latinos, who now make up 15 percent of the population, were also brought into the city-wide conversation about the future.

That dialogue led to new questions: “What draws people together? How can we pull people out of their bubbles?” The city’s leadership heard from the people: an ambitious park was the answer.

Space for a unity park appeared along the Arkansas River in one of Tulsa’s wealthiest neighborhoods. The large estates of private homes were purchased and merged to form the basis for a new landscape. Apartment complexes on the site were bought, then demolished. Dozens of donors and philanthropists came together to make it happen.

The resulting park — the Gathering Place — will be the “largest gift park in any city in US history,” said Mayor Bynum. By “gift park,” Bynum means it was entirely financed with private donations. Half of the $485 million goes to capital investment, while the other half is for an endowment for long-term operations and maintenance. The park will be free to all.

The Gathering Place / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

In contrast to Scissortail Park, the Gathering Place will be designed to “socialize people in Tulsa” — it primarily has a cultural and social mission. But Bynum admitted Tulsa already sees this as a major tourist draw, attracting some one million visitors annually, and he’s worried whether the transportation and hotel infrastructure can keep pace.

“Exhaustive public participation,” including input gathered from over 100 town hall meetings, fed the planning and design of the park. “Scale models, created at no lack of expense, were set up in various places around the city, and we asked for feedback.” Tulsans went into 3-D tents so they could experience the park.

The Gathering Place will offer some 60 miles of trails, connecting the park to the Arkansas River and the rest of the city. MVVA designed land bridges to cover Riverside Drive, a major commuter route, helping to instill the sense of “being in the outdoors.” The bridges will “muffle vehicle noise pollution.” The problem now, Mayor Bynum said, is “everyone in Tulsa wants a land bridge — and they cost about $30 million a pop.”

The Gathering Place / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
The Gathering Place / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

MVVA is also building a lake in the river corridor and a bridge that will connect the Gathering Place to the west bank of the river.

At the opening in early September, The Roots will play a free concert. “They appeal to all parts of the city, but particularly the younger crowd.” Mayor Bynum said achieving multi-racial buy-in is critical to the park’s success: “Will the park be fully embraced by everyone?” The city seeks to ensure that’s the case.

The city has been organizing tours of the park with school kids from every district. “The kids then go home and tell their parents about the park and how they met other kids there they’ve never interacted with before.” With the Gathering Place, the city seeks to change — to break down segregation and create a more diverse and resilient Tulsa.

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

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Miami Beach / Lorraine Boogich, Architectural Digest

The Van Alen Institute, in Partnership with the New Yorker, Explores Climate Change in Miami Architectural Digest, 7/3/18
“The results are visible,” says landscape architect Jennifer Bolstad of the effects of climate change on Miami. “Even if people say they don’t believe in climate change, they believe in an octopus in the middle of their street.”

10 Streets That Changed America Curbed, 7/5/18
“Americans define their homes in many different ways, but few parts of the landscape capture the culture of a city or the rhythm of daily life better than a signature street.”

How to Design a Wildlife-Friendly City Undark, 7/5/18
“Whether it’s giving endangered species a break or providing our children with a firsthand look at nature, the benefits of biodiversity are bountiful.”

S.F.’s Long-Awaited Salesforce Transit Center Sets Opening Date for Aug. 12 The San Francisco Chronicle, 7/10/18
“Eight years after its predecessor was demolished and 17 years after planning began, San Francisco’s new transit center has an official opening date.”

Pier 3 at Brooklyn Bridge Park Is Now Open, Making the Parkland 90% Complete Architect’s Newspaper, 7/11/18
“Another five acres of permanent green space was added to New York City yesterday with the opening of Pier 3 in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Now 90 percent complete, the beloved, 85-acre waterfront parkland designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates is almost finished after nearly 20 years in the making.”

Co-Designing with Kids

Blessed Sacrament playground tree planting / Craig Glover, London Free Press

Three case studies from an upcoming book on co-designing with children were presented at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) in Oklahoma City. An environmental designer, landscape architect, and landscape educator explained how kids — if properly motivated and trained — can lead planning and design processes. Working within a framework and with a motivated youth coordinator, kids of all ages can identify and solve design challenges.

Janet Loebach, an environmental designer based in Toronto, partnered with a group of mostly-immigrant kids at Blessed Sacrament school in London, Ontario, to create a new combined playground and garden. The school grounds were redesigned not only as a space for students and teachers but also as a park for the neighborhood.

The space is alongside a busy four-lane road that averages 30,000 cars a day, and where more than one car has plowed through the fence. Being so close to a busy arterial road is not only dangerous but also unhealthy for the kids — as exhaust fumes fill play spaces. With a $25,000 grant from the London Community Foundation, Loebach organized a project with students to create a green buffer of large trees for the new community space.

Over three months, a group comprised of 24 grade-8 students, aged 12-13 — that named themselves Green Direction — met for two hours a week over three months to create a design. They decided on “who’s doing what — the goals and processes. They were the primary researchers and designers.” Six groups of four students created designs, based in site measurements, inventory, and analysis; interviews with students and teachers; and activity and behavior mapping based on the age ranges of users.

The students created concept and bubble diagrams, scale drawings, and models; gave presentations and collected feedback; and undertook costing exercises. At the end of the process, Loebach synthesized the priority elements and refined the merged design.

Loebach said the process showed “youth benefit from authentic engagement and involvement in decision making around place-making. Kids can articulate needs and designs when they are given the proper tools.”

The resulting landscape had large shade trees, meandering paths, a pergola, and a vegetable garden. While used by all students, it has become especially useful for kids who are struggling, who need a “green time-out.” They are sent to water the garden for 15 minutes and benefit from the time in nature.

Rebecca Colbert, a landscape architect with MIG’s Denver office, explained how lottery funds in Colorado have been set aside for Great Outdoors Colorado, a program to preserve and protect natural resources and also improve children’s connection with nature. A $14 million grant program required applying communities to form diverse coalitions and undertake a collaborative planning process that is “youth-led or driven.” Initial planning grants of $75,000-100,000 led to implementation grants for the winners.

In Garfield county, Colorado — a struggling area an hour west of Vail with a “boom bust extraction economy” that includes the towns of Silt, Rifle, and New Castle — Colbert served as a youth engagement consultant with a coalition putting together a grant application. The team’s members included representatives from non-profits and state education, health, parks, and wildlife departments. A youth advisory council was formed, in which each high school student was paid a stipend of $1,000 over 9 months, all coordinated by an adult liaison.

Garfield county flattops / Colorado State University

The youth council undertook a multi-stage process, starting with team building, tours of places where children could better connect with nature, and outreach to other students. At libraries, they created a visioning process and mapped the barriers to accessing nature. They were creative about bringing other kids into the process: smaller children were asked to draw their favorite things in nature, and gamers at home were reached via an online survey in English and Spanish.

The process identified key goals for activity in nature, which included: team sports, cycling, walking and biking, nature play, camping, rock climbing, stand-up paddle boarding, archery, and horse-back riding. The youth group also found the obstacles preventing deeper engagement with these activities: “not having the right gear or know-how, or lack of access or funds.”

The youth council presented their recommended projects and programs to decision makers. The team ended up winning a $1.5 million grant, which has gone to an outdoor classroom featuring nature play, wilderness skills training, expeditions for kids along the Colorado River, and mentorship programs for outdoor jobs. Colbert said the experience for the youth council members was a “good learning experience — their voices were heard and they made an impact as citizens.”

Lastly, Patsy Eubanks Owens, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at University of California at Davis, explained how the Reach Youth Coalition, a group of 12-16 year-olds in Vacaville, California, came together to turn an abandoned railroad, which they had been using as a shortcut to get to school, into a safe, paved pathway for the community.

With financing from the Sierra Health Foundation, the group, assisted by a youth coordinator, started a campaign to improve the 3/4-mile Rocky Hill trail. “They were concerned that it was hard to navigate — it was so muddy they had to wear grocery bags on their feet to go to school. And it was unsafe — there were gang fights, and drug needles could be found near the homeless encampment.” Students traveling along the trail at all hours knew to go with a friend.

The coalition surveyed some 1,700 middle school students who use the trail, yielding short-term and long-term goals. According to Owens, a video produced by the coalition was critical to gaining support. “The video was a turning point. Before, the mayor didn’t even know the trail existed.” After the city council watched the video, they voted to allocate $75,000 to build a new trail.

In 2016, eight years after the coalition was formed, a new trail was finally dedicated. Neighbors and a church along the trail organized a clean-up, and new community gardens were planted. To date, some $230,000 was raised by the team, with in-kind support from neighbors and residents. Currently, only some areas are lit, but the entire length will be soon.

“Youth leadership changed the opinions of leaders. There is now a real pride in participation and place,” Owens said.

Interview with Robert Gibbs: Trees Cause You to Spend More

Robert Gibbs, ASLA / Gibbs Planning Group

Robert Gibbs, ASLA, is president of the Gibbs Planning Group, which has advised and planned commercial areas in some 500 town centers and historic cities in the U.S. and abroad. Gibbs is a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, a lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, author of Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development, and co-author of eight books.

In 2017, retail e-commerce grew 16 percent to $453 billion, and it now accounts for 9 percent of all sales. Furthermore, 2/3 of millennials prefer online shopping to brick and mortar stores. What does this mean for the future of America’s retail streets, districts, and malls – for all those physical stores?

There’s going to be hundreds of stores closing. In 2018 already more stores have closed than in 2017. What this means for the industry: a lot of retailers are moving stores into downtowns.

Research shows millennials and other shoppers want the experience of being in an urban environment rather than just buying a pair of pants online. So mall closures are good for cities. You’re going to see retailers moving back into cities, and many Internet-based companies opening brick and mortar stores.

Warby Parker, an online eyeglass company, is opening physical stores, and Amazon’s opening two hundred bookstores in cities. Internet-based companies have found when they open a brick-and-mortar store, their online sales go up 10-15 percent.

One prediction is a quarter of existing malls will close in the next 5 years (some 300 out of the 1,100). Anchor stores – the big department stores – are closing hundreds of branches, while some 35 major retailers filed for bankruptcy in 2017 alone. As many malls die off, what characteristics do the malls that are surviving, and even thriving, share?

About a fourth-to-a-half of malls will close in the next five to ten years.

The malls that are going to be sustainable — after what I call post-mall period — will be ones well-positioned, with really strong demographics — either high-end demographics or strong middle-class demographics. They’ll have good locations with access to regional transportation.

Only malls that keep their department stores will survive. A mall cannot function without department stores. So when they lose all but one or all of their department stores, they have to close.

The other factor for successful malls is to be mixed use and incorporating residential, office, and civic space into their properties. Just being a retail destination alone is not sustainable right now.

Transitioning to mixed use is not that hard to do because malls were built with more than twice the parking that is necessary by today’s standards. So, about half of the parking lots can be converted into other land uses.

The Grove in Los Angeles and 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica offer highly-stylized versions of urban forms – in the case of the Grove, an old European urban downtown, and 3rd Street Promenade, the American main street. Are successful contemporary shopping districts about re-using familiar urban forms in new ways?

Oh, very much so. The traditional grid or traditional straight main street is the best format for the new town centers being developed. There has been a lot of experimentation with curvilinear forms with parallel streets, and those haven’t worked too well. It has to be a simple main street.

We find the best shopping districts are only about a quarter of a mile long, about 1,200 feet. If you have a longer corridor, then we break it into sections. Where they come together, we anchor it with some form of civic or retail space. So, just the old fashioned street works the best, or with the very-slight deflection.

Some background on promenades like the one on 3rd Street in Santa Monica: In the 1960s and 70s, many downtowns declined and lost significant market share to large suburban shopping malls. In a well-intended response, over 250 downtowns imitated shopping centers and closed their main streets to vehicles in order to create outdoor pedestrian malls. Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Fresno, California, were pioneers in this experiment.

Unfortunately, all but ten of the pedestrian malls were a failure (the ones that survived are mostly in college towns). Most of the downtowns declined even further and remained almost entirely-vacant for decades. Even Santa Monica’s Third Street promenade and Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road were initially overwhelming failures. Without department stores, the pedestrian malls lacked the necessary critical mass of shopping to justify the inconvenience of parking in remote decks. Small retailers cannot afford much advertising and rely on drive-by impulse traffic for sales.

Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica / Wikipedia

We have been advising several downtowns, including Fresno, to re-open their streets to cars with generous parallel parking. The key is to implement modern traffic-calming measures, an attractive public realm, and realistic codes to enable walkability and cross-shopping.

What are the core components of a successful retail district layout? How do you get density, inter-connectivity, and scale right? On the one hand, there is the model of Soho in NYC, with its grid layout, but you also have the standard outlet mall, defined by an arterial form.

A fairly straight or simple, deflected street works the best. It’s essential a retail district have multiple uses. All four land uses are best: commercial, office, civic, and residential. It’s also essential to have a good public realms in these centers and appropriate sidewalks for the type of transect that it is, whether it be a town or a city or hamlet. There has to be a good public space, such as a square or a plaza.

Old Town Alexandria, King Street / Robert Gibbs

Retailers have higher sales and are willing to pay higher rents when they’re located on a square. We have found retailers who will give up exposure on the end caps of a street in exchange for being on the square, because that is where more people are and where they will achieve higher sales.

Troy, Michigan town center / Gibbs Planning Group

It’s really important for landscape architects to embrace the public realm, to be strong advocates for parks and plazas, a nice streetscape.

Retail has been described as a tool for revitalizing small town main streets and the downtowns of major cities. What else needs to come with retail to make the revitalization effort work?

Retail alone can’t revitalize a downtown. One of the most important elements is transportation. Streets have to be calmed from highways into real, walkable streets. Many downtowns are suffering just for lack of on-street parking or because the streets are too wide and traffic is too fast.

In addition, it is important to have a strong civic component: the library, city hall, courthouses should be in the downtown, not in the suburbs. For example, we find a good library can bring an average of 1,200 people per day — that’s as many as a good department store.

High density residential and office space are important as well. The Urban Land Institute (ULI) recently did a study that found every office worker directly supports twenty-five square feet of retail and restaurant space. If we can get office workers downtown, you can share parking with the office, because of off-peak times with retail.

So downtowns have to return to being real mixed-use, urban, walkable centers.

What is the role of landscape architecture in successful retail environments?

The leaders of many shopping center developers we work with are landscape architects. Many of our clients are former landscape architects or practicing landscape architects.

More than the engineers, architects or the MBA types, we find landscape architects have a holistic approach, and we enjoy working with them. They understand the physical realm and design, but also politics, the environment, and a little bit of engineering and economics.

More broadly, the landscape architect working on a retail environment has to advocate for good place-making: a nice public realm — public squares of plazas; traffic calming; and the right height-to-width ratios on the streets so streets aren’t too wide.

Do trees and other green features increase sales?

Trees are really essential for a competitive shopping district. There was a study by Kathleen Wolfe that indicated trees increase price elasticity by 9-12 percent. In other words, people feel comfortable paying up to twelve percent more for the same product if they purchase in a well-landscaped place with nice streets. Also, when properly located, street trees keep people in the downtown district longer. They feel more relaxed and are more likely to spend more money.

Shoppers in Naples, Florida / Robert Gibbs
Shoppers in Naples, Florida / Robert Gibbs

We’re working in Palm Desert, California, and found the shady side of the street has significantly higher sales and rents than the sunny side of the street. We’re redesigning the street to be asymmetrical, so that the sunny side will have a wider sidewalk so that we can put in a triple bosque of trees for shade. In this case, the shade is directly responsible for higher sales in retail. Research indicates that, too.

The one pet peeve I have is that many landscape architects — including myself (as I’ve done this) — tend to put street trees on an arbitrary grid, 22 feet or 28 feet on center, whatever. Very often the trees end up blocking a merchant’s storefront, sign, or window display.

We believe developers and communities should put in a lot of street trees but use common sense when locating them. Street trees should be on the property lines of commercial buildings rather than in middle and in front of buildings.

Street trees are very important for retail sales, and that’s been proven. Also, for residential values, there are studies that indicate home values are much higher on shady streets than streets without trees.

Urban stores of retailers like Bonobo, Apple, and others are essentially show-rooms, where you try out goods and then purchase online and receive products by mail. What other technology-enabled retail innovations do you see coming to the built environment?

Technology has been good and bad. One negative is many online manufacturers are selling directly to the customers, and they are not sending merchandise to small retailers. They’re cutting the retailer out of the better merchandise, which is hurting their sales.

A positive is many stores are getting rid of cash registers so you can walk in and out.

Another positive: Store are becoming warehouse and distribution centers. Department stores are now places where you can do a same-day pick-up of an order you made online. Physical stores are becoming return centers for Amazon and other online sites. For example, Kohl’s is partnering with Amazon to be a return center. This helps bring people to that shopping district who ordinarily wouldn’t go there. They’re going to make a return and then while they are making their return, they will go to restaurants or other shops.

Intriguing Findings from the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA)

The Solar Settlement in Schlierberg, Freiburg, Germany / Wikipedia

In Oklahoma City, a unique mix of landscape architects and designers, educators, and technologists revealed the results of their explorations into the world of environmental design. Drawing attendees from around the globe, the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) offered thought-provoking, sometimes challenging takes on the human and environmental forces shaping our communities.

A brief recap of short lectures, highlighting interesting research:

“What makes homeowners adopt sustainable practices? How do we reach the mainstream homeowner?,” asked Marina Murarolli, a professor of languages at the University of Missouri. Studying the psychological traits of 209 homeowners across the U.S., which she said constitutes a national sample, she found early adopters of green residential practices — like adding solar panels and buying energy-efficient appliances — were largely driven by “altruistic and biospheric motivations.” An altruistic mindset will cause someone to take action for “the sake of doing good.” Someone motivated by biospheric concerns is guided by a sense of interconnection of living things, the ecology of the planet. “It’s a hippie, granola way of thinking.”

Despite the reputation of Americans as being highly egocentric, that motivation didn’t register in her findings. Green homeowners aren’t buying Energy Star dish washers and hybrid cars to save money or show off to their neighbors.

And this conclusion may be frustrating to marketers everywhere: “We can’t profile green homeowner early adopters, other to say they are wealthier than the general population. There are inconsistent demographic results.”

Still, Murarolli thinks “any American could become an adopter.” And the research tells her potential adopters are more motivated by altruism and the planet’s health than looking cool.

Science museums with LEED-accredited facilities get millions of visitors each year, but not all teach the public about sustainability. The culture and political ecosystem of the museum influences how much or how little they address the topic, said Georgia Lindsay, a senior instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Laura Cole, assistant professor at the University of Missouri.

Lindsey said science institutions in the Midwest must be finely attuned to the politics of climate change and sustainability. “Science museums are publicly funded so they can’t grand stand.” Instead, they use less inflammatory language to tell their story or avoid that aspect all together.

At the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, Kansas, which focuses on educating the public about the prairie ecosystem, there was a concerted effort to teach Kansans about sustainability — but in terms they can relate to. Roof gardens, a native plant walk, and biomimetic design, and natural features help integrate the building with its landscape. But the museum uses the language of “cowboy sustainability — the words ‘natural resources’ and ‘conservation’ instead of sustainability.” Conservatives respond better to neutral terms like conservation and stewardship.

Flint Hills Discovery Center / VernonJohnson

The St. Louis Science Center offers “no bad news, nothing on climate change. They have to tread carefully as they have a mixed audience.” They don’t use their green building in their pedagogy. The sentiment is: “that is not our mission.”

Health impact assessments (HIAs) have been conducted in Europe and New Zealand for more than 30 years. Relatively recently, they have taken off in the U.S., explained Debarati “Mimi” Majumdar Narayan, with the Health Impact Project, a partnership of the Pew Charitable Trust and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. To date, there have been some 400 HIAs conducted; 100 by the Health Impact Project alone.

An HIA is a tool, a research method for examining whether a plan or project will adversely impact the health of a community. In contemporary America, where communities once red-lined now suffer from extreme health disparities, and zip codes can determine life spans, HIAs can help reduce further inequalities by exposing potential health impacts before they have a chance to do damage.

For example, an HIA conducted on a proposed Baltimore-Washington Rail Intermodal facility in the low-income communities of Morrell Park and Violettville in Baltimore found already “high rates of morbidity and disease” would be exacerbated by the “increased light exposure, high particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, traffic congestion, noise, and reduced property values” that would result from the facility. The project would have “created an inequity” for the people who had to live near it. “That facility didn’t move forward; the community used the HIA to advocate and organize themselves.”

HIAs can be used to explore a range of social and mental health issues, too. Planners of the Englewood Line Trail in Chicago used an HIA to discover the proposed route, which could bring much-needed green space and access to food gardens to an underserved African American community, could also “create a lack of social cohesion.” And they discovered the city had not investigated potential mental health outcomes — positive or negative — of the trail.

Englewood Line Trail / Streetsblog

Lastly, Sahera Bleibleh, a professor at United Arab Emirates University, said Palestinians strive to preserve memories associated with home in the Jenin refugee camp in West Bank, Palestine Authority. In Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, the Israeli army invaded the camp to fight terrorists, killing more than 50 Palestinians, and occupying it for 10 days, leaving 2,500 families homeless. Entire neighborhoods of the 70-year-old, UN-designed camp, which housed 13,000 Palestinians, were destroyed. In the aftermath, a $27 million donation to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) financed a camp improvement program that created new neighborhoods but didn’t restore the structure and feel of the original, dense, intimate neighborhoods, which the Palestinians had built over the years. Israelis said those old neighborhoods, with their network of alleys, more-easily allowed terrorist to find safe shelter.

UNRWA worked with a committee organized by the camp leadership to create an urban design that resulted in “totally new single-family households,” much different from the multi-family households of the old camp. “The widths of roads were increased so it would be easier for Israelis to re-invade. And the camp was re-invaded multiple times during reconstruction.” But Bleibleh said streets were also widened to make the camp more accessible to residents with cars. “Before, you walked in the camp; now everyone has a car.” Bleibleh admitted “some like the new plan — that you can drive in.”

Jenin refugee camp / © 2015 UNRWA Photo by Dominiek Benoot

Given the more sprawling, car-friendly urban design, not all of the 2,500 displaced families could return to their original camp neighborhood. They were displaced once again. “In the new camp, there are no memories. Displacement is a struggle of feelings. The goal is to make people feel weaker — kill them, kill their houses.” While the intention of the design was to create “no social spaces,” the community fashioned a memorial and built a monument — a horse made of pieces of metal from destroyed cars.