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 Lindsey, a senior lecture 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.

In the Batture, Living with Constant Risk Increases Safety

Home in the Batture, New Orleans / Curbed NOLA

The Batture, a historic squatter community nestled between the levee and the Mississippi River in New Orleans is an unconventional model of a resilient community. But as climate change forces more coastal communities to deal with greater risks, their approach offers some important lessons.

This tiny community of now only 12 homes, which has fought eviction by the city government for generations, is constantly exposed to flood risk. But living right on the banks of the Mississippi has given the community a deeper understanding of the river’s ebbs and flows. The residents of the Batture are always watching the weather, know when flooding will occur, and are therefore better prepared for disaster. By constantly living with risk, the community has in turn become more adaptable and safer.

In a talk at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) in Oklahoma City, Carey Clouse, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the Batture is an important contrast to other communities in New Orleans that were separated from the river by the levee — communities that literally couldn’t see the river, canals, or other water bodies. With the great risk posed by the Mississippi and other water bodies out of view, these communities became “overconfident” about the safety of the levee system.

In reality, many communities were made even more vulnerable because they didn’t know what was coming. As the levees failed, the result of Hurricane Katrina was some 400,000 were displaced and 100,000 homes were destroyed. “Sadly, vulnerable people had no awareness of where they were in regards to sea level. The Army Corps of Engineers and insurance companies obscured the risks. 400,000 people were blind to topography.”

But the Batture, a “self-sufficient, resilient, and adaptive community, suffered almost no damage in the Katrina flooding.”

In the liminal space between the river and the embankment, the Batture was created through “Do-It-Yourself (DIY) urbanism, a homesteader’s approach.” Clouse spent time researching the community and found it was a “hidden landscape, filled with self-built structures” on pylons. The river is ever present. “It’s 50 feet away from houses but can pass right below their feet during storms.” Each resident has created homemade protections against floating debris.

Clouse believes residents of the Batture are “more secure having taken risk into their own hands, rather than relying on the city government.” In this “quirky, escapist, anti-urbanist community,” there is “great toughness and resilience,” rooted in a deep connection to place and the river.

The Batture began in the early 1900s as a squatter community for people who worked in fishing and other marine trades. In the Great Depression, the Batture swelled to hundreds of homes, becoming a Hooverville on the river. Settlers built homes out of driftwood, creating a “ramshackle shanty town.” There was a tiny school and church, but no roads, water, or electricity. In the 1990s, the New Orleans government came in removed many of the homes.

Early Batture settlement / New Orleans Public Library, from Oliver Houck’s book Down on the Batture, via NPR

Today, there are just 12 homes left, from “the humble to the post-modern.” Batture residents can’t legally buy or sell their own properties, have no access to insurance or protection by the city or state, but they do have now access to “city fire, water, electricity, and P.O. boxes.” A local lawyer has sued the residents, claiming to own the entire Batture and is trying to remove the last remaining residents, but judges have recognized the rights of the existing tenants. “Many believe they deserve to stay.”

For Clouse, the lesson of the Batture is that “with incremental exposure to risk, communities can alter their landscapes and lifestyles to manage that risk.” Levees, with their air of safety and permanence, may actually “invoke crises.” But in communities like the Batture, where people live in close contact with nature and risk, “they can cope, thrive; they can take matters into their own hands.”

Roberto Burle Marx, in His Own Words

Cover
Roberto Burle Marx Lectures: Landscape As Art and Urbanism / Lars Müller Publishers

Roberto Burle Marx stands as one of the towering figures of 20th century landscape architecture, yet he left relatively little in the way of writing that describes, defends, or otherwise elucidates his work. A new collection of lectures, edited by Gareth Doherty, ASLA, helps fill that void.

Roberto Burle Marx Lectures: Landscape as Art and Urbanism consists of twelve lectures written and delivered by Burle Marx over the latter half of his career. In the preface, Doherty explains he first learned of these lectures as an intern at the Roberto Burle Marx Studio in the summer of 1996, two years after Burle Marx’s death.

“As a parting gift, Haruyoshi Ono, Burle Marx’s successor as director of the studio, presented me a photocopy of every lecture they then had that Burle Marx had delivered in English,” he writes. “I had little to no Portuguese, and they felt this was the one way I could carry something of Roberto with me and get to know him better.”

The lectures Doherty received in 1996 form the basis of this volume. Like Doherty, many of today’s practitioners never had the opportunity to hear Burle Marx present his work, let alone meet him. In this context, Lectures: Landscape As Art and Urbanism is a valuable resource that helps reinforce Burle Marx’s legacy.

Copacobana-Beach
Copacobana Beachfront (Avenida Atlântica), Rio de Janeiro, 1970 / Leonardo Finotti, Lars Müller Publishers

As the book’s title suggests, the lectures shed light on Burle Marx the urbanist. He recognized the city was “the ‘habitat’ of modern man, offering him simultaneously a great variety of choice in his job and in his way of life.” The price for this variety, however, was “many difficulties which hamper his creative capacity due to deficient housing facilities, inadequate transportation, noise and sounds which tear him to pieces; not to mention other deeper difficulties in his work relationship, the opportunities of education, and in the enjoyment of the pleasures the city offers him.”

Burle Marx’s solution was to bring nature into the city. “The brutality of present urban conditions make the garden a compelling necessity,” he wrote. “One must bring nature into the reach of man and, above all, take man back to nature.” The garden was the tool for achieving this goal, a place where one could “find rest, relaxation, recreation, and above all the feeling that his is living in, and integrated into, this space.”

Petrobas-Rio
Petrobas, Rio de Janeiro, 1969 / Leonardo Finotti, Lars Müller Publishers

He even saw gardens as having a didactic role: “The sight of that association of plants gives us the impression of a covenant for living together.” A garden was “a spatial condition of community life…a place which provides the desire any man has to communicate with his fellow men, and with nature as an aesthetic phenomenon and as a manifestation of life.”

Burle Marx also viewed landscape architecture as a tool for preservation. “It seems to be to be almost an obligation of the landscape architect to combat destruction and to preserve certain ill-fated species in danger of extinction, in order that they may survive for the education and enjoyment of future generations.”

Burle Marx was deeply concerned about the impact of development practices and their impact on the landscape, and saw landscape architects as defenders of the natural environment, prefiguring today’s focus on environmental issues within the profession.

What these lectures illustrate most clearly, however, is the depth of Burle Marx’s love of plants. “Plants have always been an integral part of my life,” he wrote in a lecture simply titled “The Plant.” And in “The Garden as a Way of Life,” he declared that the plant is the “the most basic element of composition.”

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Sítio Santo Antônio da Bica, Barra de Guaratiba, Rio de Janeiro, 1949-1994 / Leonardo Finotti, Lars Müller Publishers

Of course, this is not exactly a revelation for those familiar with Burle Marx’s life and career. He was obsessed with plants from an early age, an obsession that guided his career and manifested itself in both his designs and in his personal collection of thousands of plants culled from the Brazilian countryside.

Still, Lectures provides valuable insight into this obsession. Botanical names litter the pages. He writes lovingly of bromeliads, philodendrons, and heliconia. When describing his own designs, he devotes the most attention not to form or spatial qualities, but to plant selection and arrangement, underscoring their importance to his design process.

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Sítio Santo Antônio da Bica, Barra de Guaratiba, Rio de Janeiro, 1949-1994 / Leonardo Finotti, Lars Müller Publishers

Intriguingly, much of Burle Marx’s writing in this area prefigures the trends that have shaped planting design over the last 20 years. He proclaims the importance of native plants, saying that “ideally, we should only plant species native to the area.”  Elsewhere, he explains “the garden that has the best chances of survival and needs the minimum amount of care for such survival will be indigenous.”

Furthermore, he understood designed plant combinations as informed not only by aesthetic considerations, but by ecological ones as well. “Observing the demands of ecology and aesthetic compatibility, the landscape architect is able to create artificial associations of the greatest expressiveness,” he writes.

“To make artificial landscapes means neither to deny nor to imitate nature slavishly. It means, instead, to know how to transport and associate, with personal, selective judgement, the results of a long, loving, and intense observation.”

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Residência Edmundo Cavallenas, Petrópolis, RJ, 1954 / Leonardo, Finotti, Lars Müller Publishers

In the current context — in which many landscape architecture educational programs dedicate minimal time to plant material and planting design is sometimes seen as a specialized skill set — Burle Marx’s love of plants and the role that they played in his design process stands out.

While this is overall a handsomely presented collection, there are certain design choices that make reading it more difficult than necessary. The lectures are printed with narrow margins, which make Burle Marx’s words seem as though they are liable to scatter off the page. The effect is heightened by the book designers’ decision to present selected sentences in a larger type than others for emphasis. The result is not wholly satisfying.

The book also includes breathtaking photos of Burle Marx’s built works captured by Leonardo Finotti, but they are not keyed to references in the text itself, which can make for a frustrating experience. Those looking for clear, visual illustrations of Burle Marx’s comments may want to keep Google close at hand while reading.

In all, though, Roberto Burle Marx Lectures: Landscape as Art and Urbanism is an immensely valuable resource for those of us, like Doherty, with little to no Portuguese. It gives those of us in the English-speaking world an unmediated line to Roberto Burle Marx; that alone is worth the price of admission.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (June 16 – 30)

The Gateway Arch Park, St. Louis / Gateway Arch Park Foundation

Flock of Plastic Flamingos in Buffalo Parks Sets World Record The Buffalo News, 6/21/18
It started as an inside joke that Stephanie Crockatt thought only she and her colleagues in the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy would understand.

Here’s D.C.’s Memorial For Native American Veterans CityLab, 6/26/18
“Unlike other war memorials in D.C., the National Native American Veterans Memorial does not highlight a specific conflict, but rather an entire people.”

Central Park Love SongThe New York Times, 6/28/18
“Even though Central Park, like the rest of Manhattan, is largely man-made, not natural, it is a place to experience in person, not secondhand through images, regardless of their authenticity, nor through narratives, no matter how illustrative.”

Gateway to What? Curbed, 6/28/18
“The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Gateway Arch, a 630-foot-tall catenary curve—designed by Eero Saarinen and clad in stainless steel—stands on the west bank of the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri. But really, it stands everywhere in St. Louis.”

Why Does it Take So Long for Memorials to Be Built in Washington? – The Washington Post, 6/29/18
It took more than three years for the leaders behind a proposed Desert Storm memorial to secure the plot of federal land they want to build their project.”