The Colombian civil war that began in the 1960s killed some 220,000 people and displaced another 5 million, creating one of the largest groups of internally-displaced people in history.
In a session at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting & EXPO in Philadelphia, Maria Bellalta, ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at the Boston Architectural College (BAC), said the civil war was the terrible legacy of Spanish colonialism, which created a deeply unequal economic and social system that exploited both the environment and native peoples.
Colombians displaced from their farms in the countryside and severed from the natural environment by “greed and violence” ended up in cities like Medellín. There, the chaos of government and guerilla warfare, endemic poverty and great inequality, and the legacy of environmental destruction contributed to the rise of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, who ruled from the neighborhoods at the outer lip of the valley that gives form to the city.
All the violence and corruption scarred not only the city but also the landscape, said Bellalta, who has been bringing her students to Medellín to see and learn for the past few years. But a decade after the death of Escobar in 1993, Medellin invented a new approach, which then-Mayor Sergio Fajardo called “social urbanism.” The goal was to use urban design — and importantly, landscape architecture — to reduce inequality and heal the environmental damage.
Fajardo “invited disregarded communities to participate in planning efforts,” which resulted in major investments in new subways, aerial tramways, bicycle infrastructure, libraries, and beautiful parks — with the majority of the new amenities created in underserved communities. Efforts to “change the social dynamic” yielded new networks of aerial trams and lengthy escalators built into steep hills. These inventive, low-cost transportation systems created new connections to the city center for the once-isolated, difficult-to-reach communities with high numbers of low-income residents. World-class libraries and green spaces were purposefully built in the places that had no parks.
The city was also smart to re-use existing infrastructure. Unidades de Vida Articulada (UVAS), which Bellalta said are equivalent to our YMCAs, were “strategically created by re-purposing existing water tanks that form part of the city’s hydraulic system.”
Bellalta noted an important public work that has also helped Medellin and Colombia heal: the Museum of Memory, a “poignant tribute to those who died or disappeared during the civil revolution.” The museum is found alongside a linear park that follows the Santa Elena stream. The park is designed to “offer relief through a magical re-encounter with nature and the cleansing attributes of water.”
Lina Escobar, director of the landscape architecture program at the Universidad Pontifica Bolivariana in Medellín, further explained how the city is cleansing itself with water and nature.
Since its founding, the city has been intertwined with the Aburrá river — or Medellín river — and the Santa Elena creek, its primary tributary. “Medellín’s geography is determined by the river and tributaries that crosses the valley,” which has shaped the city’s orientation and patterns of development. In the 1940s, a 30-kilometer stretch of the Medellín river was put in a concrete channel to reduce flooding. As the population started to swell in the 1950s, the city developed around the river.
Then in 2014, Medellín city government launched an international design competition to envision a new Medellín River Park (Parques del Rio). The competition asked firms to create a master plan for the entire length of the river as it cuts through the city and then focus in on the central zone — the 9-kilometer stretch through the core of the city.
Medellín-based firm Latitude beat out the competition with their concept for a “botanical park that recovers connections to water systems through a revitalized biotic metropolitan corridor.” The park developers will take parts of the concrete channel out, bury an adjacent highway, and create a new, lush green spine, with tendrils spreading throughout the valley.
Escobar said the new park, which is now in development, is not only a “new ecological structure for the region, but also re-frames people’s relationships with each other and nature after years of conflict.”
Daniela Coray, who was a graduate student of Bellalta’s at BAC, said there are so many other opportunities to heal the rupture between city and nature. Her master’s thesis project looked at ways to restore the polluted Santa Elena stream, particularly near the emotionally-resonant Museum of Memory. “The stream holds the memory of geographical and social divisions that could begin a process of healing.”
Through an interesting aside that took us out of Medellín, Ken Smith, FASLA, founder of Ken Smith Workshop, related how principles of social urbanism could be applied at the landscape-scale in other cities. He “deliberately engineered” the East River Waterfront Esplanade in Manhattan for social interaction through inventive “social seating,” a dog park, and meandering paths that force people to see each other. “The paths curve because it’s impossible to meander in a straight line.”
The important but unspoken message was that the smart design strategies of social urbanism need to be more widely applied around the globe.
Structures of Coastal Resilience, a new book by landscape architect Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, engineer Guy Nordenson, and architect Julia Chapman, draws on years of research in design, art, policy, and engineering to argue for a new vision of our coasts. As an analysis of trends in representation, mapping, and coastal design work, the book more than justifies its existence. But it is the thought paid to the evolution of these subjects over time that affords the reader a new view of coasts and establishes Structures as a significant contribution to the body of research on coastal resilience.
Architecture critic Michael Kimmelman writes in the book’s introduction that “there is no bigger challenge today than the management of coastal ecologies.” Landscape architects have laudably embraced this challenge and the attendant challenges of environmental and social justice, with no more recent and prominent national example than the Resilient by Design: Bay Area competition. Structures’ authors have concerned themselves with questions of coastal resilience for over a decade — and much of their own design work is featured in the book. The resulting research spans ecology, policy-making, engineering, and design, all of which contribute the physical and institutional structures of resilience.
For someone unfamiliar with the topic of resilience or wondering why the treatment of our coasts needs addressing, the authors’ premise is clear. Our attitude toward the coast has generally been to seek steady conditions. But ecological resilience theory, along with our own observations of this centuries’ worst flooding events, proves that the steady state is a myth. Ecosystems are in constant flux between states. Our coastal works should reflect this reality, with design leading the way.
In order to do so, landscape architects must learn how to better represent the dynamism of the coast. Historically, landscape architects, engineers, and cartographers have relied on motifs of the hydrological systems as static, with a defined line between water and land. This in turn has contributed to our proclivity for sea walls and levees for flood defenses.
Dynamic representations suggest and inspire dynamic treatments of the coast. The authors mine recent history for examples of dynamic representation, from Harold Fisk’s Map of Ancient Courses of the Mississippi River Belt to coastal section drawings produced by landscape architects Anu Mathur and Dilip da Cunha. These drawings do away with the water/land boundary in favor of a gradient of conditions that shifts and pulses over time.
The authors provide a rich exploration of that gradient, its qualities and potential, in the chapter “Reimagining the Floodplain.” As they do with the subject of each chapter, the authors trace the history of ideas and attitudes towards the floodplain and evaluate new methods for engaging it as a site of design. The ideas profiled are speculative within reason, such as landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, and Rosetta Elkins’ coastal forests for Narragansett Bay, which faces issues of coastal flooding and saltwater intrusion. The strategy for increasing resilience varies along the bay’s length, but generally relies on the planting of forests and shrub lands that attenuate high winds, reduce erosion, and shield community assets.
The strategies Van Valkenburgh and Elkins employ also involve moving community assets out of the floodplain. This strategic retreat from the coast will become more common as climate change exacerbates flood events. The authors also describe a strategy of adaptation through vertical retreat, which sees the lifting of buildings and critical infrastructure above the floodplain and, in phases, replaces lots and alleys with a system of canals and protective wetlands. Such strategies will have to be considered on a case-by-case basis, but what emerges out of the book is a portfolio of ideas and novel thinking that one can imagine being adapted to certain contexts.
In the last couple of decades, the democratization of visualization technologies and data have helped to dissolve the boundaries between the disciplines involved with coastal resilience. This has provided landscape architects with exciting new ways of engaging with and designing for coastal environments. Using hydraulic modeling, bathymetric and topographical information, and environmental data, landscape architects can rapidly image an environment and the impact of proposed design interventions on that environment.
One crude example of this is the water tank model, which the authors used to evaluate a proposed intervention in Palisade Bay. While the method isn’t specific to the bay, the authors were able to design a series of wave-attenuating land forms, visualizing their effect on the Bay’s hydraulic conditions. The authors evaluate the impact of these and other technologies throughout the book.
Structures of Coastal Resilience is an excellent collation of current design research and trends related to our coasts. And through historical analysis, ecological research, and an exploration of representation, the book suggests new ways of seeing and responding to the opportunities our coasts provide.
Pulse, a new work by artist Janet Echelman, may be the stickiest public art ever conceived. Sticky is a term used by web developers to explain compelling design elements that bring users back again and again. In the case of Pulse found in Dilworth Park, at the western edge of Philadelphia City Hall, you wait there — and also return later — because you are uncertain when the sculpture made of light and mist will appear and, once it does, each sequence of color and motion is unique. Later, you realize the blasts of atomized water and light actually mark the arrival in real-time of the green line subway pulling into the central transit station just beneath the park.
Dilworth Park opened in 2015 after a two-year, $55-million revamp by landscape architects at OLIN and architects at KieranTimberlake, as part of an effort led by the Center City District. The new park — perhaps really more a plaza — was designed to be a flexible event space, with fountains, a small lawn, restaurant, and moveable tables and chairs set within lush gardens. But the park itself was designed from the beginning to incorporate the work of Janet Echelman. As Susan Weiler, FASLA, partner at OLIN explained, “there was a consensus decision to integrate Pulse into the project, which removed the potential of it not being installed later.”
Echelman is known for deeply researching a site where her works will be. This research adds depth and meaning to her enigmatic, enveloping sculptures. Echelman said two elements of Philadelphia history inspired her: water and transportation.
Philadelphia’s industrial and manufacturing success was only made possible by the Schuykill and Delaware Rivers that flank its sides. “So I decided water needed to be used as a material.”
Transportation has also been critical to Philly’s development. “In the 1960s, they tore down the old Penn railroad, but from vintage photographs, you can see trains running on steam.”
Furthermore, just below Dilworth Park is a central transit hub for the subway — a key node in the city’s circulatory system. “I wanted to reveal through a simple gesture above ground what was happening below ground.”
Pulse actually pulsates with mist — mimicking the steam trains of old, but also to express “the pulse of the city.” Echelman didn’t want the pulsations, which only appear when the green line train pulls in below, to be predictable, but “fun and playful.” Indeed, when I visited kids were lined up on the pathways between fountains waiting for the explosions of steam to envelope them and would joyfully scream when they did.
The light that infuses the mist is made of three different colors — a predominant color that is tied to the subway line’s color and two undertone colors — that are programmed via computer algorithm to never be exactly alike. Thirteen different pulsations are sequenced that way, too. The result is each combination of pulsation and color is unique.
“God bless OLIN for protecting the artwork.” By working Pulse into the final construction documents, the landscape architects prevented the artwork from being value engineered later. Pulse was purposefully embedded into the entire park’s complex water and energy systems.
Weiler said the project was a “huge collaboration” between Echelman, OLIN, CMS Collaborative (the fountain designers), and Arup (the lighting designers). In Palm Springs, California, the team evaluated full-scale mock-ups of the art work, tinkering to make sure the system would work in a highly-trafficked area amid Philly’s rugged environment.
There was a multi-year lag in building Pulse because when the park opened, “there wasn’t money for the art,” Weiler said. Philadelphia-based philanthropists and foundations stepped in to make it happen.
The artful illumination of the green line is just the beginning. A similar art work for the orange line will soon cut through the length of the park, and one for the blue line will run perpendicular to the west entrance of Philadelphia City Hall. Also, worth noting: the center court of City Hall will soon be revamped by WRT.
Hitesh Mehta, FASLA, is president of HM Design, which has completed planning, architecture, and landscape architecture projects in more than 60 countries. He is an international expert in sustainable tourism, including wildlife conservancy planning and eco-lodge development. Mehta is also the author of Authentic Ecolodges (Harper Design).
In more than 60 countries, you have worked on some of the finest sustainable tourism planning and eco-lodge projects in the world, including the Crosswaters Ecolodge in China, which won two ASLA professional awards. National Geographic has called you a pioneer of sustainable tourism. What are the top three lessons you have learned from your many projects working with local and indigenous communities?
Lesson number one: Never judge people from the way they look. Indigenous people have lived on their land for thousands of years. Through storytelling and personal experiences that have been passed over generations, they have built knowledge and wisdom crucial to every project.
Lesson number two: Empower local people from day one, especially women and children. At home, women make a lot of the decisions, and youth are the future. Bringing them into a project on day one helps ensure a sustainable project. You want to give them ownership. It’s a ground-up approach rather than top-down.
Lesson number three: No matter how much of an international expert you are, no matter how much research you have done, and how much knowledge you have acquired, always go into every project without an ego. Go with good listening skills first. Once you’ve heard local peoples aspirations, needs, etc.; gathered on-site information; walked the site with the locals; and have conducted a metaphysical site analysis, slowly share what you can bring to the table, making sure you let them know what they bring to the table is equally important.
Indigenous communities are in the front lines in the fight against climate change. How do you empower them in their fight to protect endangered ecosystems and their own livelihoods? Are there any projects that serve as models?
Indigenous communities, especially in the less developing world, are greatly affected by climate change. A lot of these communities live in the tropics. Especially in Africa, drought and the lack of drinking water are big issues. This in turn, causes food security problems. In Kenya, where I am still a citizen, the Maasai look at their cattle as their economic lifeline. That’s what keeps them going. If there is drought, there is no grass. There’s nothing to feed the cattle, and it can become a serious issue, because this is their security.
A project that serves as an exemplary model is one in which I led a team of local Kenyan consultants and where we worked together with the clients — the Koiyaki Maasai community — to help create an ecotourism and conservation destination called Naboisho Wildlife Conservancy. Previous to our intervention, the community had subdivided their 50,000-acre land into 50-acre parcels owned by 500 families. But every family had their cattle and goats, which caused the land to be overgrazed. Lack of grass and presence of cattle kept all the wild animals away.
The Maasai decided to consolidate all their land and brought in private lodge operators — eco-tourism companies — as a way to generate income for them. The Maasai all moved to neighboring lands they also owned. The private partners contracted us as protected area ecotourism planners, and, together with the Maasai, tourism and conservation stakeholders, we created an integrated sustainable tourism, biodiversity, and grazing master plan for the conservancy.
With five small twelve-room tents and lodges, money started flowing directly into every Maasai’s home at the end of each month via their mobile cell-phones. They no longer had to rely solely on cattle for their livelihood. Wild animals started coming back, because cattle mainly grazed in neighboring areas. And the tourists are paying big bucks to have quality guided safari experiences. Creating a wildlife conservancy was a win/win for everyone: the tourists, the private partners, flora and fauna and of course the Maasai and their cattle. During droughts, cattle are only allowed into the conservancy in certain controlled areas. The conservancy fees provide the Maasai community with a sustainable livelihood and ensure the conservation of the wildlife in this vital corridor of the Maasai Mara ecosystem.
As populations grow around the world, but also in sub-Saharan Africa, human and wildlife conflicts are becoming more prevalent. How can we protect endangered species while also ensuring people’s livelihoods? Are there models that show the way?
There are many models, particularly in Africa, and it has become mainstream to go in this direction. A project that I worked on many years ago that is still a good case study is the Virunga Massif Trans-Boundary protected area. Virunga Massif straddles and borders of three East and Central African countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Each country has a national park along their respective borders. This region protects the only remaining populations in the world of mountain gorillas. The parks are bordered by dense populations of local peoples, and there are human-wildlife conflicts with gorillas going out into the fields. We prepared an integrated sustainable tourism and biodiversity master plan for the whole region. When we began the master plan in 2005, there were only 600 mountain gorillas, and the latest count is 1,004!
Apart from conserving important habitat, the master plan also proposed several eco-lodges at the edge of the parks. All of them have now been built and are financially successful. The demand to see the mountain gorillas is so high that eco-tourists are paying $1,500 for one hour to be with these great apes. There’s a one-year waiting list!
What’s great is that some money is channeled straight to local communities, which now see the importance of maintaining the gorillas’ habitat. The communities no longer take firewood from the forest because they earn a living from gorilla tourism and the eco-lodges bring in a lot of money from guests, with part of the profits used to benefit these communities.
A heart-warming part of the master plan just got realized five months ago on the Uganda side of the Virunga Massif in Mgahinga National Park. The Batwa, indigenous peoples, who used to live in the forest but had been chased out when the National Park was created in 1991, have now been re-located to a new village at the edge of the park and act as guides, taking visitors into the forest in the National Park, and showing them about their lives and connections with the forest. An eco-lodge where I had provided site planning consultancy, funded the Batwa village and Visitor Center, so the Batwa community could share their culture and live closer to the forest instead of the nearby urban town of Kisoro.
You have said we cannot have true sustainability without incorporating the spiritual. This belief is central to your metaphysical or sixth-sense approach to planning and designing projects, which you have also trained other planners and designers to apply. What is the core idea you want people to understand?
For the longest time, pragmatic environmentalists have been talking about the triple bottom line of sustainability — environmental, economic, and social. But in my work, I have found that without respecting the fourth element — spiritual — one cannot have sustainability. What do I mean by spiritual? Spirituality is the energy embodied in any place. The metaphysics of a place. The intangible aspects that cannot be measured by modern science. We need to respect this embodied energy to create a sense of place. The sacred space.
Feng Shui is a well-used example of the spiritual aspects of sustainability — the yin and the yang, the chi, and how to use that energy to create an amazing experience in which you have a spiritual connection with the site. Similarly, for over 8,000 years, the Indians have been applying principles of design, layout, measurements, ground preparation, space arrangement, and spatial geometry called Vastu Shastra, which is even older than Feng Shui. Vastu Shastra is the ancient Indian science of harmony and prosperous living by eliminating negative energies and enhancing positive energies.
Native Americans also have a strong spiritual connection with their lands. When they take you on a walk of their country, they will point at a hill and say “this is our sacred hill” and when you look around, there are probably several others that look the same. So why is that hill sacred and not the others? It’s because there is a sacred energy embodied in that particular hill. My job as a landscape architect is to work with indigenous communities, so they can identify all those areas sacred to them. And then protect them.
If the clients do not believe in these traditional ways of looking at the land, I propose the use of each one of our six senses to immerse into the site to understand the energy. Connect deeply to the land through the ears, mouth, eyes, nose, fingers, but most importantly through the sixth sense: when you become a part of the site and feel its energy. That is the crucial element of trying to create a project that’s sustainable, but also which creates a beautiful sense of place.
As part of your work of Landscape Architects Without Borders, you have provided pro-bono planning and design services to aboriginal tribes in Australia and other communities. How do you enable them to incorporate their landscape spirituality into a contemporary place designed for themselves but also tourists?
We worked with the Quandamooka peoples of Queensland in Australia. They were the first aboriginal tribe that managed to get their land back from the white government in an area so close to a major city; Brisbane in this case. The land they got back was part of an island and has the second most popular camping sites in Australia.
However, the aboriginal peoples do not have camping site management experience, so we came in to help them build an ecotourism experience that would help them share their culture with guests and help make more money than before. We designed and built two glamping eco-shacks as examples of what they can achieve with enhanced camping experiences.
In the gardens, we proposed for the planting of bush tucker plants. The aboriginal peoples, who live in the outback have these special plants they eat called bush tucker. With their knowledge and wisdom, we created a beautiful indigenous garden that included both bush tucker and medicinal plants.
You are a proponent of ego-less design, which is characterized by a deep respect for the environment and all of its inhabitants, existing cultures, and vernacular styles. Can you explain how you came across this design philosophy? What about your upbringing, your religious heritage, shaped that?
My childhood has heavily influenced the work I do in landscape architecture. My upbringing is in the philosophy of Jainism, which is one of the four main philosophies that came out of India. It’s by far the least known, because Jains don’t believe in preaching.
One of the main tenets of this philosophy is a Sanskrit concept called Ahimsa, which means non-violence to fellow beings, and non-violence to all other beings as well. In my family, we’ve been vegetarians for at least 3,000 years. The respect is so deep for other beings that Jain monks in India sweep the floor before they walk so they do not step on and kill any ants.
In true Jainism, they believe plants have feelings. In fact, modern science is confirming this, but my ancestors have believed this since 1,000 BC. True Jains don’t eat anything that grows below the ground — no potatoes or carrots — because every time you pick that plant, it’s dead. So you only pick a vegetable or fruit from a tree that continues living after you picked what you want. That is deep respect, even to plants. It’s all about low-impact living. This is the conservation ethic I practice in my work.
My projects are low-impact designs that respect everything. I practice a non-homocentric approach to planning, where everything is equal. You can call it vegan or ahimsa design and planning. I design non-violent spaces. For example, I identify all native species and make sure none of them are cut. And in all our projects, we only specify native plants.
And, personally, I have been practicing a vegan lifestyle for 13 years.
Lastly, you have called yourself a “holistic, contextual designer.” How do you think this is different from being a planner or landscape architect?
For me, there’s a big difference between holistic and contextual design. Holistic is when in my projects I look at animals and plants as my clients, too. So, when human clients come to me, I tell them: I see you as half of my clients, but the other half are the animals and plants. And when I perform a beautiful marriage of the two, we will have a holistic yet sustainable project.
Local communities are an important part of the holistic process. I involve them from the beginning. Local consultants also bring in amazing knowledge and wisdom. So, I consider the local consultants and communities, fauna, flora, and, of course, the clients’ financial needs, because a project has to be profitable for it to function. That is the holistic side.
I also look at myself as a contextual designer. I like to create projects in context with their cultural and physical environments. For me, placing in a glass, aluminum, and concrete building in the middle of a remote area with rich cultural architectural heritage is not contextual. My office carries out research both off-site and on-site in order to discover the local vernacular styles before starting on any project. We use a landscape design approach called the “continuity of the vernacular.”
In her new book Resilience for All: Striving for Equity through Community-Driven Design, author Barbara Brown Wilson seeks to confront the failings of traditional planning and design practices in vulnerable low-income communities. While others have pursued landscape-based solutions to this issue — think community gardens — Brown suggests there is a larger role for landscape architecture and urban design in resilient, equitable community development.
The communities featured in Resilience for All struggle with many of the same afflictions: environmental injustice, neglect, and lack of resources. These are vulnerable communities that face high exposure to economic and environmental shocks and disinvestment. Landscape and urban design improvements are relatively cheap, widely-accessible method of addressing these issues. Green infrastructure and streetscape improvements figure prominently in the book’s many case studies.
Importantly, Brown believes there is a fundamental relationship between social and ecological systems that, when leveraged, benefit both communities and their environments.
Consider the case of Cully, a low-income, ethnically diverse neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, that suffers from flooding streets, a lack of sidewalks, and languishing parks. Gentrification is also making its inroads.
Ordinarily, progress on the infrastructure front might invite gentrification. But a neighborhood coalition of community members and non-profits has made a point of linking infrastructure goals with wealth-building and anti-displacement goals. This means new parks associated with new affordable housing, construction on these projects performed by community members, and training provided by community organizations. This holistic approach has led to notable successes by Cully’s residents.
As Brown writes, green infrastructure improvements provide economic and health benefits. It’s logical to ensure those benefits serve communities directly and in as many ways as possible. Brown calls this approach “green infrastructure as antipoverty strategy.”
Resilience for All shows community development progress comes in phases, with one success usually priming the next.
In the neighborhood of Denby in Detroit, the local high school worked with non-profits to introduce urban planning and city improvements into the senior class curriculum. Students, concerned with local crime, initially set their sights on getting a nearby abandoned apartment building torn down. They aggregated resident organizations into the Denby Neighborhood Alliance and adopted a vision to target blight on a larger scale. They and thousands of volunteers combined efforts to board up vacant homes and reduce blight on more than 300 city blocks and used this cleanup effort to install wayfinding artwork and planter boxes to mark new safe routes to Skinner Playfield, their revitalized school playground.
Landscape improvements did not come to these communities without considerable effort and without help from a network of friendly actors. And the projects often operate on a humble scale.
Each case in Resilience for All represents innovation and progress for the communities and is fleshed out by a mix of empirical research and Brown’s own analysis to paint a picture of what worked, what didn’t, and how those lessons might be absorbed and applied elsewhere. Resilience for All is also bookended by two useful sections: a brief history of community-driven design and an encapsulation of the case studies’ lessons.
Resilience for All is a useful handbook for landscape architect’s wondering how their skill sets might apply to community-led planning and design. It demonstrates how landscape can be a powerful resource for vulnerable communities. And it also shows how communities can positively impact landscapes.
A class action lawsuit in Houston asks that question. The residents of a master-planned community that flooded during Hurricane Harvey are suing the engineering firm that designed the neighborhood’s stormwater management system.
While that suit targets engineers, it nonetheless represents the heightened risk landscape architects face from climate impacts on their projects.
In a panel discussion at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) director of environmental planning Deanna Moran and CLF attorney Elena Mihaly gave a crash course on the changing landscape of liability in the age of climate change.
“Climate impacts are becoming more and more evident,” said Moran. “What does that mean for us when we know these impacts exist? When there is more public recognition of them, but we aren’t addressing them or acknowledging them in a concrete way?”
“How might a design professional –– like a landscape architect –– expose themselves to legal liability for failing to account for and adapt to climate impacts?”
Moran and Mihaly have studied these and other questions, releasing their findings earlier this year in a report published by the CLF.
Moran said there are three factors contributing to climate liability risk for design professionals:
First, increased media coverage and general awareness of climate change means landscape architects are increasingly obligated to understand the climate-related risks that might apply to any given project.
“The more we talk about risks publicly,” the greater “the foreseeability of climate impacts,” increasing potential exposure to liability, Moran said.
Second, government agencies are investing in increasingly-powerful modeling tools to conduct vulnerability assessments and climate adaptation planning. Often, agencies make this information public and open-source.
“These tools are more sophisticated and accurate than they’ve ever been,” giving landscape architects access to high-quality modeling of potential impacts from climate change at a local level. With that increased access comes an increased expectation that designers and engineers will factor in potential climate impacts.
Finally, Moran argued the failure of previous litigation against major greenhouse gas emitters could lead to “a shift in focus on the design community as defendants” in the realm of climate change litigation.
Mihaly said the first two factors –– public awareness and readily-available data –– contribute to what is known as a “standard of care,” a key concept in negligence litigation.
The standard of care owed by a design professional is determined by the courts on a case-by-case basis. Courts will look at a number of different factors to determine the standard of care owed by a landscape architect in any given case, including specific contract language, applicable codes and regulations, industry customs, and the foreseeability of harm.
When it comes to knowledge of future events or the foreseeability of harm, Mihaly said: “it’s not just a question of ‘did you know this could happen?,’ but ‘should you have known that this could happen?”
Because of the growing awareness of climate impacts and access to models and data, the answer to that question will increasingly be “yes.”
Mihaly cautioned that the inherently uncertain nature of climate change is not a sufficient defense in a negligence lawsuit. “Even unprecedented events have been held, in courts of law, as being foreseeable due to modeling.”
She also warned that mere compliance with a jurisdiction’s building or zoning codes does not protect a designer from liability if the codes do not actually prevent the harm that the designer has a responsibility to avoid.
“Compliance alone isn’t necessarily a liability shield. The key question is: do those codes and standards actually contemplate the harm you are trying to prevent against?”
Industry standards and customs also offer scant protection. “A whole practice could be relying on an unreasonable behavior, and that doesn’t necessarily make it reasonable,” Mihaly said, referring to the 1932 case T.J. Hooper v. Northern Barge Corp.
In that case, a tugboat operator was found liable for cargo lost at sea because the operator did not use a radio system to receive advance warning of a dangerous weather system. At the time, it was not common industry practice for tugboat operators to use such systems, even though they were readily available.
Judge Learned Hand, writing for the court, held that while “a whole calling may have unduly lagged in the adoption of and available devices, there are precautions so imperative that even their universal disregard will not excuse their omission.”
It’s clear “the standard of care expected of a design professional is rising due to climate change and improvements in climate science. The threat of liability is real, and there is already litigation in this space,” Mihaly said, referring to the lawsuit in Houston.
“Design professionals are the target we’re seeing crop up more and more,” she added.
While this changing nature of liability in an age of climate change may appear threatening, Moran and Mihaly instead argued for a positive outlook. “Liability lawsuits are incredibly effective at shifting industry perceptions and behavior,” Moran noted.
“This could be an opportunity for the design community to really pioneer this space and use liability to proactive in the face of climate impacts,” added Mihaly. “The threat of liability can turn what is dreamed about into the standard.”
Neurosurgeon Edie Zusman, a real-life Doogie Howser who started medical school at 19 and has completed some 6,000 brain and spinal surgeries, said what landscape architects do saves far more lives than what she does. The early prevention of disease reduces the need for surgeries. Prevention is made possible by eating healthy foods and walking and getting exercise in green environments that lower stress and improve well-being.
At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting, Zusman and a number of landscape architecture professors delved into research proving that access to nature improves our health and well-being.
According to Sara Jensen Carr, a professor at Northeastern University, landscape architecture and public health have been intertwined since the beginning. Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of the profession, started his career as a public health officer and writer. His first projects were the “siting and planning of camps so soldiers wouldn’t get sick.”
In our contemporary era of science, the brilliant intuition of Olmsted has only been proven by study after study. Most recently, a study in Philadelphia by five doctors with the University of Pennsylvania found that greening vacant, derelict lots led to “significant decreases” in feelings of depression and worthlessness among those in low-income communities living near the lots.
Studies on the health benefits of integrating nature into the built environment are also being conducted by design professors. William Sullivan, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been trying to figure out the “dose of nature” people need to recover from stress and regain the ability to pay attention.
He gave an overview of his intriguing research into how views of green streets “increase the rate of recovery from stress.” In one study with his associate Dr. Bin Jiang, the research team purposefully elevated stress levels in a few good-natured human guinea pigs, then asked them to watch videos of streets with different degrees of tree canopies — ranging from 2 percent tree cover to 62 percent. He found that “the greater the percentage increase of tree canopy, the faster the recovery.”
And in another study, Sullivan and his associate Dongying Li randomly assigned 94 students, equally male and female, to three settings: a classroom with no windows, one with a window view looking out on a barren landscape, or one with a window view looking out over greenery.
After students had completed 30 minutes of classroom activities in these different rooms, the students were given a 10 minute break. Sullivan and Li discovered those who had a green view bounced back, attention-wise, and were less stressed. This group “performed significantly better on standard tests of attention and showed significantly greater stress recovery than their peers who were assigned to classrooms without a green view.”
Then Jenny Roe, an environmental psychologist who is director of the center for health and design at the University of Virginia, explained her research in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her team got some game folks to wear a device measuring alpha and beta brain waves, which looked somewhat similar to what Rick Moranis’ character was asked to wear in the Ghostbusters to determine if he was human or gatekeeper (see image at top).
Some very extroverted locals — who else who parade through town wearing EEG measurement devices? — followed a path through Leith, Edinburgh, a “rough area,” to a park. Others simply meandered through the city with their brain meter on. Roe found that among her research subjects, soothing alpha waves increased in the park while alert-state beta waves decreased. Alpha waves also decreased in busy urban areas.
But she found that “irrespective of which route people took” — through city or nature — “everyone’s stress levels were reduced after a 10-15 minute walk.” Walks, particularly for her older research subjects, increased exposure to “nature, color, wildlife, memories, and social interaction” — all good things.
Sullivan said all this research is meant to arm landscape architects, planners, and others who care about this with the facts they need to make the case to policy makers and legislators in their community.
Zusman wants designers to influence the big decisions — those key pivot points — that can help shape a healthier built environment. In Sacramento, where she practices medicine, Zusman is now part of the Design 4 Active advisory board, a multi-disciplinary group of health providers, planners, and design professionals, helping to integrate healthy design principles and guidelines into city projects.