Wildfires Are a Land Use Problem

Satellite view of Camp fire / Wikipedia

The Camp Fire that tore through the communities of Concow and Paradise in Northern California in 2018 was the deadliest and costliest in Californian history. Some 150,000 acres burned, causing 50,000 people to flee, 20,000 structures to be destroyed, and some $16.5 billion in damages. 85 people lost their lives.

Strangely, amid all this destruction, which was sparked by downed electrical lines owned by PG&E, the state’s power utility, some homes survived. Why?

Those property owners likely obeyed defensible space laws and used Firewise landscape strategies to protect themselves from wildlife.

At a session at the American Planning Association in San Francisco, wildfire experts explained how to use these approaches as well as the broader importance of land use, community planning, and landscape design in fire safety.

According to Edith Hannigan, with the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, Concow and Paradise and many other communities across the west are at high-risk because they formed in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), which the U.S. Forest Service describes as places where “humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel.” On top of the intrinsic risk of simply existing in the WUI, these communities must now contend with the effect of years of drought, bark beetles onslaughts on surrounding forests, and climate change, which create increasingly dangerous and untenable living conditions.

Living in the WUI raises risks for all property owners, but lot locations, sizes, layouts, and topography impact risk levels. To provide “meaningful reduction of risks for specific situations,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) created a land-use planning program, with two fire chiefs and ten local fire captains, that “reaches out to communities and provides technical assistance,” meeting the goals of the state’s recent strategic fire plan.

For retired Cal Fire captain David Shew, who oversaw the creation of the program and is now a consultant, wildfires “aren’t a fire department problem”; they are really a land use and community design problem. The solution is to respect natural systems and stop developing communities in the WUI. For those communities already there, it’s important to incorporate better planning and design approaches to reduce the danger.

California, like Greece, Australia, Sweden, and other parts of the world, has a “natural fire environment” in which wildfire has evolved an important role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem. Native Americans lived with the natural wildfire cycle for centuries, but the settlers moving across the West in the 1800s were unnerved by constant small wildfires. As settlers formed communities that in turn suppressed fired, the natural fire state ended. It turns out it was “the hubris of mankind to think we can control Mother Nature.” Over the decades, dead plant material that hasn’t been allowed to burn naturally has accumulated, so now when it does burn, the wildfires are larger and more destructive.

Mother Nature has recently made her voice louder. California sees more wildfires than ever before — and now they occur throughout the year. “There is no longer a fire season.” 9 out of 10 of the most destructive fires occurred since 2013. In 2018 alone, there were some 5,800 fires that consumed 1.3 million acres. And greater dangers loom: there are 100 million dead trees in the Sierra Nevada area that will fall over and create more fuel for fires. Shew said: “We have disrupted evolution and the result will be devastating wildfires.” (One solution to prevent this may be controlled or prescribed burns).

Dead trees in the Sierra National Forest / Wikipedia

Wildfires themselves often don’t cause homes to go up in smoke; “it’s flying embers that cause most fires.” Wood fences and gutters often catch first, spreading to homes. Building and landscape “materials are really important, but where a structure sits on the landscape, and where and how homes cluster, also are.”

Michelle Steinberg, director of the wildfire division with the Natural Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) — creator of codes and standards state and local governments use to protect communities and the Firewise USA program, which includes some 1,500 sites — got into the details on how to use smart codes designed for different community types. The codes provide rules for crucial evacuation zones, the materials and layout of residential structures themselves, and the landscape around a home and community, including common spaces.

The residential landscape is re-imagined by NFPA as the “home ignition zone (HIZ),” a concept developed by retired U.S. Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen in the late 1990s, following “some breakthrough experimental research into how homes ignite due to the effects of radiant heat.” The HIZ has three zones: 0-5 feet from the house, which is the immediate zone; 5-30 feet away, the intermediate zone; and 30-100 feet, and out to 200 feet, the extended zone.

In the immediate zone, there can be no trees and vegetation and all materials need to be fire-proof. In the intermediate zone, lawns need to be trimmed, debris cleared, and trees need to be well-spaced and set within small clusters. In the extended zone, all dead trees and plants need to be removed.

Home Ignition Zone / NFPA, US Forest Service

Wildfires are a major problem elsewhere in the U.S. Molly Mowery, with Community Planning for Wildlife (CPAW) in Colorado, a joint partnership between Headwaters Economics and Wildfire Planning International, explained how she is helping communities across the country assess risks and apply planning and design solutions to reduce their exposure to wildfire.

For example, working with Summit, Colorado, CPAW helped spur the development of new regulations and zoning that require defensible space zones in subdivisions, prohibit the planting of flammable juniper trees within 30 feet of homes, and require non-combustible fencing and safer firewood storage within 5 feet of homes. Mowery said many communities struggle with seemingly-insignificant things like fences, but they are often the cause of property-destroying conflagarations.

Download a free APA resource — Planning the Wildland Urban Interface, which was partly financed by the U.S. Forest Service. Check out the case for prescribed burns to reduce wildfire risk. And see how landscape architects at Owen Dell and Associates design Firewise gardens.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 16 – 31)

Hirshhorn Museum Sculpture Garden / The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C., image: OLIN

A Hirshhorn Museum Garden Redesign Looks Forward. Others Look Back.The New York Times, 5/16/19
“The vibrant, eye-catching works that fill the sculpture garden at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum make it easy to overlook their environs.”

Inside the Most Spectacular New Stadium in Tennis Architectural Digest, 5/21/19
“Just in time for the 2019 French Open, Court Simonne-Mathieu—complete with its own network of greenhouses—is ready for play.”

Art of the LandComstocks Magazine, 5/22/19
“Public art has always had a place in the designed environment, but art in landscape is becoming more common in the public sphere.”

Landscape Architect Behind Princess Diana Memorial Commissioned For €70M Paris ‘Green Lung’ Around Eiffel Tower The Telegraph, 5/22/19
“Anne Hidalgo has announced plans to transform the passage linking Trocadero Square to the Eiffel Tower into a pedestrianised “green corridor” by 2024.”

2019 ParkScore Rankings Now AvailablePlanetizen, 5/22/19
“Washington, D.C. has the highest ParkScore among the 100 largest U.S. cities, according to an annual ranking announced today by the Trust for Public Land (TPL).”

New ASLA Exhibition: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate exhibition / EPNAC

Across the country, landscape architects are stepping up to face the growing global climate crisis head-on. In 2018, ASLA’s interdisciplinary Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience issued a report that outlined policy recommendations and design best practices for creating resilient, sustainable communities.

The new Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Exhibition showcases 20 diverse case studies that illustrate the success these recommendations can have in harnessing natural systems, reducing carbon emissions, and improving communities’ resilience to climate change.

Some projects lower carbon emissions from transportation by improving access to bicycle lanes and sidewalks and limiting space for vehicles, like the Jackson Street Reconstruction Project in Saint Paul, Minnesota, by Toole Design Group.

Jackson Street Reconstruction, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design

Others show how we can restore natural systems and bring back biodiversity on previously-developed sites, like the Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects.

ASLA 2010 Professional Honor Award in General Design. Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona. Ten Eyck Landscape Architects. / Bill Timmerman

Some projects show how cities can design to prepare for worst-case flooding scenarios using natural systems, like the Buffalo Bayou Promenade in Houston, Texas by SWA Group.

ASLA 2009 Professional Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade, Houston, Texas. SWA Group / Bill Tatham

Others integrate renewable energy facilities into communities, like the Solar Strand project in Buffalo, New York by Hood Design Studio.

Solar Strand project in Buffalo, New York. Hood Design Studio / Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo

The exhibition is free and open to the public at ASLA’s Center for Landscape Architecture (636 I Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20001) every weekday from 10am to 4pm EST (excluding holidays) through May 1, 2020.

ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture / ASLA

There is also an expanded companion to the exhibition at the website: climate.asla.org.

To put on the Smart Politics for a Changing Climate Exhibition, ASLA was awarded an Art Works Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. “These awards, reaching every corner of the United States, are a testament to the artistic richness and diversity in our country,” said Mary Anne Carter, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Organizations such as the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) are giving people in their community the opportunity to learn, create, and be inspired.”

ASLA is also calling for the submissions of further case studies that show how landscape architects design for a changing climate. If you know of a project that fits the bill, please submit at the exhibition website.

Restoring the Remnant Ecosystems of San Francisco

Twin Peaks Nature Area / Jared Green

San Francisco is part of the California Floristic Province, which stretches from Baja into Oregon and is one of just 36 global hot spots for biodiversity. A hot spot is an area of extraordinarily rich flora and fauna, where there are high numbers of endemic species, which means they are found nowhere else on Earth. In this coastal region, there are some 7,000-8,000 native plants and more than 2,000 endemic ones.

According to the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, the California Floristic Province also has an amazing diversity of ecosystems, including: the sagebrush steppe; prickly pear shrubland; coastal sage scrub; chaparral; juniper-pine woodland; upper montane-subalpine, alpine, riparian, cypress, mixed evergreen, Douglas fir, sequoia, and redwood forests; coastal dunes and salt marshes.

In addition to the temperate climate, it’s this wondrous abundance of biodiversity that perhaps lures so many people to California. But over-development has put remaining wild places at risk — just a quarter of original ecosystems are in pristine condition.

And in San Francisco, the amount of space for these ecosystems is far less — only 5 percent of the city, which makes them even more precious. On a tour at American Planning Association conference, we learned about the ambitious efforts of the San Francisco city government to both protect and restore remnant ecosystems.

Peter Brastow is the city’s biodiversity czar. As our tour bus wheezed its way up precipitous hills, he explained how the city recently formulated a biodiversity policy, formalized through a Board of Supervisors’ resolution, which gives extra support to his department’s efforts to coordinate biodiversity programs across the government and non-profits in the city.

The resolution bolstered the new urban forest plan, approved by city voters in 2016, which transferred ownership of the city’s 124,000 street trees from private property owners to the city’s public works department. San Franciscans saw this as important because the city falls way behind others in its total tree coverage at just 13.7 percent, far less than the nearly 30 percent found in Washington, D.C. The goal is to add another 50,000 trees by 2035, many of which will be native and support native insect and bird species.

The resolution also supports the city’s green connections program, which aims to get more San Franciscans into parks and educated about local biodiversity though a set of ecological guides, explained Scott Edmonston, San Francisco’s strategic sustainability planner, who co-organized the tour.

At our first stop, powerful blasts of cold wind greet us. This means it’s early summer at the Twin Peaks Natural Area, some 900 feet above sea level and near the center of the peninsula. The photogenic pair of hills are a remnant of the coastal shrubland ecosystem and home to the endangered Mission Blue butterfly, which relies solely on lupine plants. Brastow explained that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service re-introduced the butterfly on the peak with specimens from the San Bruno Mountain. The San Francisco parks and recreation department has been restoring the native shrubland and removing invasive plants.

Twin Peaks Nature Area / Jared Green

Twin Peaks shows why the city has so much biodiversity, even in tiny pockets. Because of the city’s unique topography, the fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean covers some areas in moisture more than others. This results in micro-climates that in turn lead to unique micro-assemblages of plants. Hill tops, ridges, river bed landscapes introduce more complexity.

Edmonston said the problem for those restoring assemblages is that climate change may cause fog patterns to change. So the city and its partners can’t just restore ecosystems to what they were previously; they must instead plant what can survive a changing climate. “There is a lot of uncertainty now. The plant palletes we use now are much drier-loving. We really just need to restore more of nature, so she can be more resilient.”

For Brastow, the city needs to better identify the value of ecosystem services provided by remaining habitats and use those to push for reincorporating nature into more of the city. “That’s the frontier that can guide restoration ecology, landscape architecture, and urban design.”

The bus struggled mightily trying to reach the Sutro native plant nursery found at the top of a sheer slope at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center. There, volunteers have grown more than 6,000 plants from 150 native species, which are being planted in 30 restoration sites in the 61-acre Mount Sutro area that includes UCSF’s campus. “The goal is to improve native plant diversity,” Brastow said.

Sutro Native Plant Nursery / Jared Green

For many in San Francisco, truly restoring native plant diversity on a broader scale means removing the groves of towering non-native Eucalyptus trees. But others are very protective of the Tasmanian trees and efforts to remove them have led to major protests. “For generations, Californians grew up smelling the trees — and they love it.” (A recent article in The Atlantic provides more context: “The Bay Area’s Great Eucalyptus Debate.”) There is one important reason to support their removal: “they are highly flammable.” And as the city gets drier with climate change, “some day we will have a big fire here.”

Amid the hills of the Sunset neighborhood that rest on ancient sand dunes, we come across a derelict hilltop right-of-way alongside staircases that was transformed into a native plant park and habitat for the Green Hairstreak Butterfly. In neighborhood rights-of-way, parks, and other green spaces, the city finds local site stewards, small non-profits, to manage upkeep.

Peter Brastow in restored park in Sunset / Jeremy Stapleton, Sonoran Institute

Last stop was the Presidio, the only U.S. national park that gets 30 percent of its budget from renting out its restored U.S. Army military housing. There, we saw the results of the U.S. department of defense’s base realignment and closure (BRAC) environmental restoration program. A deep ravine that was once a garbage dump was transformed back into a native shrub habitat, thanks to a multi-million-dollar restoration effort and countless National Park Service volunteer hours.

Restored landscape of the Presidio / Jeremy Stapleton, Sonoran Institute

As we drove back to the Moscone Convention Center, Brastow pointed out the ubiquitous London Planetrees that line Market Street. While not native to San Francisco, they are a cultivar related to the Sycamore tree.

Canyons are the natural home of the Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly. Market Street appears to them like a canyon formed by tall buildings on either side. London planetrees are close to their host Sycamores, and there is water in fountains along the street, so these insects have made a home there. “This is an example of how nature is also adapting to the city.”

Tracing Olmsted’s Journey Through the South

 

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide / Penguin Press

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide, a new book about Frederick Law Olmsted by journalist Tony Horwitz, is difficult to classify. It is popular history and a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, his America, and his writings. It is also reportage from rural America and a thoughtful reflection on our times.

In Spying on the South, Horwitz travels in the footsteps of Olmsted, who was himself a political journalist before becoming the father of American landscape architecture we’re most familiar with. It’s worth noting that Horwitz seems to have been put on to Olmsted by his friend Charles McLaughlin, founding editor of the Olmsted Papers Project.

This recreation of Olmsted’s journeys takes Horwitz through the American south and Texas, towns and regions “hollowed out by economic and social decay” as well as environmental degradation.

Horwitz begins the book in the run-up to the 2016 election, and ample connections are drawn to Olmsted’s own political reporting, which occurred in the years precipitating the Civil War. Olmsted’s writing was commissioned to serve as a window into southern society in a time of rising tensions. Spying on the South fills a similar niche.

The book holds obvious value to landscape architects, outside of those interested in dispatches from rural America. As landscape architects have become more self-aware and self-critiquing, we have logically looked to re-consider our heroes.

Frederick Law Olmsted, a paragon of American landscape designers, has been the subject of such re-consideration. Many have found him lacking for several reasons, including his friendly disposition towards the aristocracy and what we now recognize as some flawed urban design practices. Others, willing to see past Olmsted’s mistakes, ascribe them to the times in which he operated.

Horwitz seems to fall in the latter group, but has his reasons. Spying on the South’s most profound insight is that attitudes do not merely progress, but rise and fall. Horwitz describes Olmsted’s attitude towards slavery transforming from opposition on economic terms, to moral opposition, to righteous anger, to outright hatred of it and the society it supported. Unsurprisingly, these attitudes coincide precisely with escalation in the conflict between North and South.

After the war, Olmsted’s attitude towards the south warmed, as did society’s at large. The south had atoned through suffering, Olmsted believed. A well-known landscape architect at this point, Olmsted was more than willing to do business there. This, despite the continued efforts of southern states to oppress their black populations.

Horwitz’s suggestion that our political beliefs are more tied to our zeitgeist than we know is a fascinating one. Of course, we ourselves inform the zeitgeist. Perhaps the best we can do is raise the bar as far as we can before falling back into complacency. The sort of achievement, for instance, Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had with Central Park.

Central Park, NYC / Wikipedia

Horwitz describes how Olmsted envisioned such a place long before he was in any position to deliver it, a vision informed by his travels in the south. Olmsted saw Central Park as an opportunity to showcase the democratic values he supported. The park, shared by the city’s inhabitants, would be a rebuke to the aristocracy of the American south and Europe, which were both economically and morally invested in keeping society stratified.

Olmsted saw himself, his brother, and his peers as social engineers, and wished to “get up parks, gardens, music, dancing schools, reunions, which will be so attractive as to force into contact the good & bad, the gentlemanly and rowdy.”

Again, some of the language Olmsted uses in describing his ideas would put off those of us who don’t equate poverty with moral deficiency. But one senses his heart was in the right place.

Despite Olmsted’s flaws, something he and posterity have in common is the value we place on Central Park. Vaux, in a letter to Olmsted late in life, calls it “the big art work of the republic.” And in many ways, the progressive values that shaped Central Park were the result of Olmsted’s travels in the south.

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

Wilson-Lagoon-1260x800
A lagoon is planned for the southern end of LaSalle Park, Buffalo, New York / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

In the Hudson’s Image Urban Omnibus, 5/2/19
“Over the last two centuries, artists have painted, sketched and photographed the Hudson, while scientists, surveyors and others have mapped the river landscape as a first step to shaping it with human hands.”

For Colleges, Climate Change Means Making Tough Choices The Chronicle of Higher Education
“The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation’s awarding of $100 million to reinvent LaSalle Park and to complete a regional trail system represents the largest philanthropic gift ever in Western New York.”

Editorial: A Welcome Grand Vision for Transforming Lasalle Park The Buffalo News, 5/6/19
“The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation’s awarding of $100 million to reinvent LaSalle Park and to complete a regional trail system represents the largest philanthropic gift ever in Western New York.”

Smithsonian Readies $650M Initial Phase of South Campus Overhaul The Washington Business Journal, 5/6/19
“The Smithsonian Institution is inching closer to kicking off work on its massive renovation of its 17-acre South Mall campus, which includes the historic Smithsonian Castle.”

Curator Will Plant 299 Trees in a Stadium to Make Statement on Climate ChangeSmithsonian, 5/8/19
“A large-scale public art installation scheduled to go on view in the Austrian city of Klagenfurt this fall will ask viewers to imagine a world in which trees, like nearly extinct animals found only in zoos, thrive solely in specially designated spaces such as soccer stadiums.”

Norfolk Forges a Path to a Resilient Future

Norfolk flood zones in orange / Norfolk Vision 2100

Surrounded by water along 144 miles of shoreline, Norfolk is highly vulnerable to sea level rise. The city is the second largest in Virginia, with a population of 250,000. It’s home to the world’s largest naval base, which hosts 100,000 federal workers and function as a city within the city. Its port is the third busiest in the country. The core of the city is the employment center for a region of 1.5 million people. All of this is under significant threat.

To better prepare for a changing future, Norfolk has undertaken an impressive set of resilience planning efforts, which have culminated in Vision 2100, a comprehensive 2030 plan, a new green infrastructure plan, and, finally, a new resilience zoning code approved last year. These efforts were supported by Dutch government water experts through a series of “dialogues,” the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, and a $115 million grant from the National Disaster Relief Competition, a program organized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to build resilience in the Ohio Creek watershed, which encompasses the Norfolk State University campus and the low-income Chesterfield Heights neighborhood.

At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, we heard about Norfolk’s recent efforts to live with with water while protecting vulnerable low-income areas, revitalizing and creating new urban centers, and ceding some parts of the city back to the ocean.

According to Martin Thomas, vice mayor of Norfolk, the question is: “how do we create a high quality of live given we are facing rising waters?” The answer involves creative economic, social, and environmental solutions that will lead to a transformed city.

Thomas said 30-40 percent of the regional economy is dependent on federal funding, “so we are diversifying the local economy.” There are disconnected communities with concentrated levels of poverty, so the city is investing in mixed-income redevelopment projects. There is recurrent flooding that can result in 2-3 feet of water rise, so the city is creating the “designed coastal systems of the future.”

An example of what Norfolk is dealing with is the highly vulnerable area of Willoughby Spit, which is 3 miles long and 3 blocks wide and where thousands of residents live. This area is a chunk of the local tax base, but “it won’t exist in a few decades.”

Willougby Spit / Pinterest

Through its Vision 2100 process, Norfolk mapped its most valuable assets, which included the Naval base, airport, botanical gardens, and the historic downtown core. Through comprehensive public meetings, city policymakers, planners, and residents created a map of where flooding is expected to worsen, where investments in hard protections and green infrastructure will be focused, and where the “future urban growth of the city will be built.”

The vision organizes the city into four zones: red, yellow, green, and purple.

Vision 2100 map / Norfolk city government

Red areas on the map are vital areas that will see “expanded flood protection zones; a comprehensive 24-hour transportation network; denser mixed-use developments; diversified housing options; and strengthened economic options.” These include the naval base, universities, ports, shipyards, and medical facilities that can’t be moved. Future housing and economic growth will be steered into these areas, which will be made denser. The red zone will receive priority levels of investment in both hard and green resilient infrastructure while maintaining access to the water.

The yellow zone will be where the city helps Norfolk residents adapt to rising waters and where it also cedes land back to the water. Programs there will aim to “exploit new and innovative technologies to reduce flood risk to the built environment; focus infrastructure investments on improvements that extend resilience; educate current residents about the risks of recurrent flooding; develop mechanisms to enable property owners to recoup the economic value lost to sea level rise; and develop a solution for sea level rise adaptation in historic neighborhoods.” Here, the focus is on more resilient housing, raised 3-feet above flood levels, and the widespread incorporation of green infrastructure.

The green zone features communities already on higher ground, safe from flooding, where Norfolk will create new transit-oriented development and resilient urban centers that can accommodate future growth.

The purple zone is where Norfolk will create the “neighborhoods of the future,” improving connections to key assets, creating affordable housing, and redeveloping under-performing residential and commercial areas. According to Vision 2100, the city found that 40 out of 125 neighborhoods were deemed assets and therefore not subject to major “transformation” — a euphemism for redevelopment or letting them be subsumed by rising waters. In many of these historic neighborhoods, which are found in the purple zones, small-scale improvements will be made to improve the quality of life — more parks, sidewalks, libraries, and community centers.

Norfolk’s 2030 comprehensive plan, green infrastructure plan, and resilience zoning code are the primary ways in which the city is moving towards this vision.

George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director, said that zoning requirements are a “blunt instrument” that they tried to make more flexible through a “resilient zoning quotient,” a system that developers and property owners can use to accumulate points to meet requirements. The zoning system itemizes “must do’s, should do’s, and nice to do’s (bonuses) for developers.”

Requirements differ depending on the expected level of risk to water rise, but must-do’s include green infrastructure for stormwater management, risk reduction through raising homes by 3-feet above flood levels, and energy self-sufficiency. The zoning ordinance seems critical to achieving the city’s ambitious green infrastructure plan, which also fits together with the vision and 2030 plan.

Green infrastructure plan for Norfolk, VA / City of Norfolk

Back-up power generation is not only required for the usual places like hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities, but also important community utilities like pharmacies, grocery stores, banks, and gas stations.

Vlad Gavrilovic with EPK, planning consultants to Norfolk, further explained that the new zoning code built off of existing neighborhood, landscape, and building design standards, the “pattern language” so critical to informing neighborhood character.

Homewood believes “climate change and sea level rise are very real to the folks who suffer from recurrent flooding.” But rolling-out the new, more complex zoning ordinance hasn’t been without its challenges, and the city planning department is on their fourth round of tweaks to address “unintended consequences.” Perhaps that is to be expected given it’s the “first, most-resilience focused zoning ordinance in the country.”

In a later conversation, Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA president and long-time resident of Norfolk, who was deeply involved in these planning efforts for decades, said that Old Dominion University in downtown Norfolk was key to kick-starting the multi-decade-long effort to make Norfolk more resilient. “Back in 2010, the university started an initiative to prepare Norfolk for sea level rise, asking Larry Atkinson in the oceanography department to lead a cross-disciplinary effort and create a coalition with the community that exists to this day. That was many years ago, but it was then that the seeds were planted for the approach we see today.” That approach, Rinner said, uses public-private partnerships and creates bottom-up, community-driven solutions that transcend politics. “Environmental issues are so close to people in Norfolk and Hampton Roads; it doesn’t matter if you are Democrat or Republican.”

For her, Norfolk’s resilience plans and codes are a true model for other communities because they show what can happen after years of effort — “major change seems to coalesce all of the sudden.”

More than 150 Cities Compete to Document Wild Urban Nature

Washington D.C. City Nature Challenge

In 2016, Lila Higgins at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and Alison Young at the California Academy of Sciences started a friendly competition to see which of their cities — Los Angeles or San Francisco — could identify the most species of plants and animals over a week. Harnessing the enthusiasm of citizen scientists, they launched the City Nature Challenge. Three years later, 159 cities around the world participated in this year’s competition, making some 960,000 wildlife observations, identifying tens of thousands of species, and discovering new ones in the process.

According to this year’s “leadership board” at the City Nature Challenge, Cape Town, South Africa took the top prize with 53,000 observations and 4,500 identified species, contributed by 1,100 citizen scientists. La Paz, Bolivia, made 46,000 observations and identified 3,000 species, with the help of 1,500. In third place is San Diego county, California, which made 38,000 observations and identified 3,000 species through the work of 1,100 locals.

Stella Tarnay, co-founder of Capital Nature (formerly Biophilic DC), said that Washington, D.C. placed in the top 20 in terms of the number of participating citizen scientists, observations, and species identifications. Some 1,200 people got involved through 120 events to collect nearly 30,000 observations and identify 2,250 species. While D.C. did well on observations, the city fell short on species identification.

Around the world, City Nature Challenge citizen scientists used the free iNaturalist app, which was created by the National Geographic Society and the California Academy of Sciences a decade ago, to crowdsource the identification of biodiversity. More than a million citizen and real scientists are now active on the app and have helped each other identify 180,000 species observed 16 million times in cities and the wild. The app is now also assisted by artificial intelligence.

Data was aggregated into local city challenge groups within iNaturalist. Once set up on the app, citizen scientists take photos of native or cultivated trees and plants, as well as fungi, insects, reptiles, and mammals. According to Tarnay, the scientists who run iNaturalist prefer “volunteer” plants, meaning they grew wild in a particular spot and weren’t planted there.

iNaturalist encourages users to take multiple photos of a species, add in notes, and mark the location of the species. Once uploaded, the app then considers that an observation and then offers up possible identifications. Once someone has confirmed the identity of a species, it becomes a “casual grade” identification. Once two users on the app have verified the species, the identification is determined to be “research grade.”

Research grade identification of Mayapple / iNaturalist

For one observational adventure on the National Mall — organized by the Potomac Chapter of ASLA and AIA DC’s committees on well-being and urban design and supported by Capital Nature — urban designer Michiel de Houwer created a handy map, identifying where different types of animals may be found via 5-minute walk zones. Smartphones in hand, we trekked to the National Museum of the American Indian to find native plants.

Map of biodiversity by walking zone / Michiel de Houwer

National Museum of the American Indian, designed by EDAW (now AECOM), Washington, D.C. / photo by OLIN, from the Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C.

At the end of the week-long bioblitz in D.C., Tarnay said the most identified species were:

Plant: Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) – 279
Bird: American Robin (Turdus migratorius) – 143
Mammal: White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) – 111
Butterfly: Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) – 68
Amphibian: Eastern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) – 66

In addition to helping map the extent of biodiversity and getting more young people outdoors to connect with nature, City Nature Challenge has led to the discovery of new species. One estimate find there are 8-9 million species on the planet, but only around 1.75 million have been discovered, identified, and catalogued, leaving 80 percent unknown. More recently, a group of scientists estimated that there could be up 1 trillion species on the globe if we include bacteria, archaea, and microscopic fungi, which could mean some 99.99 percent remain undiscovered.

The latest dire report from the United Nations makes clear why the public needs to engage with biodiversity. The 1,500-page report produced by 145 scientists from 50 countries found that up to one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction due to our degradation of the natural environment and climate change. Today, less than 70 percent of the forests that existed prior to the Industrial Revolution remain, with 100 million hectares cleared since 1980. Some 50 percent of coral reefs and 85 percent of wetland have been lost, while a third of the planet is now used for agriculture. The world’s most famous biologist — E.O. Wilson — has called for preserving half the Earth before it’s too late.

As this year’s challenge shows, cities like Cape Town are actually biodiversity “hot spots.” Documenting and then protecting pockets of biodiversity in cities may seem small in the grand scheme of things, but urban wildlife refuges are critical for the plants and animals that rely on them. More cities are becoming destinations for animals turned out of their natural habitats, spurring on further adaptation and evolution in ways we don’t yet understand.

In the end, the sustainability and resilience of humanity depends on the preservation of Earth’s biodiversity.

Debate: How to Spend $2 Trillion on Infrastructure

Jackson Street Reconstruction, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design

In a dark conference room in the heart of Washington, D.C., amidst the clink of glasses and silverware, an interdisciplinary panel of experts discussed the future of infrastructure policy in America.

“At the beginning of the week, I was optimistic,” said Roxanne Blackwell, Esq., Hon. ASLA, federal affairs director at the American Society of Landscape Architecture (ASLA). “For the first time the Democratic leadership went up to the White House to talk about infrastructure investment. Everyone comes out smiling, everyone using terms like ‘bigger,’ ‘bolder.’ Then by Wednesday or Thursday, we were just back to politics as usual.”

The panel, moderated by Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO and executive vice president of ASLA, was convened the day after landscape architects from all across the country descended on Capitol Hill for ASLA Advocacy Day 2019. Nearly 200 ASLA members attended 221 meetings with lawmakers and staff, urging them to steer federal dollars into much-needed infrastructure projects that promote resilience and sustainability.

Panelists from the American Planning Association (APA) and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) expressed optimism for change, citing encouraging sign of progress in Congress. But Calvin Gladney, President and CEO of Smart Growth America, brought the conversation to a somber note.

“All of this optimism,” he sighed. “Let me take a more contrarian view.”

Gladney talked about what was wrong about the infrastructure conversation in Washington. “Right now, the conversation is about the number,” he said. “But the real conversation should be about what is the policy that underlies the number.”

“The number” Gladney is referring to is $2 trillion – the amount of infrastructure investment the U.S. needs, according to ASCE in their annual Infrastructure Report Card. ASCE assesses the current state of America’s roads, tunnels, ports, bridges, and other infrastructure, looks at current funding levels, and calculates the amount of investment needed to bring America’s infrastructure to an acceptable standard. Leaders in Congress and the White House have recently used that number as a benchmark for the amount of funding they’d like to see in a large infrastructure investment package that has yet to materialize.

But the number isn’t nearly as important as what lies behind it.

“If we’re going to make progress, we need to change the conversation,” said Thomas W. Smith III, secretary and executive director of ASCE. “Being car-centric is not going to solve the problems we have.”

When it comes to federal investment in sustainable projects, the availability of funding falls woefully short of demand. The Rails to Trails Conservancy found that nearly half of the projects that applied for federal funding through the Transportation Alternatives program in 2017 went unfunded. The program is meant to fund small-scale active transportation projects such as trails, pedestrian walks, and bike paths.

The Clean Water State Revolving Fund, meant to provide states and localities with money to upgrade and maintain water and stormwater management systems, has not been reauthorized in nearly thirty years. Out national park system has a $12 billion backlog of infrastructure projects, left undone due to lack of funds.

And those are just a few of the problems with fund availability for our current infrastructure. Panelists contend that if we want a new infrastructure bill to be successful, we cannot just look at the past — we must plan for the technologies of the future.

What we consider “infrastructure” also must change. “Broadband is infrastructure. Passenger rail is infrastructure,” said Gladney. “If we are gonna to do ‘new,’ let’s make it multi-modal. And let’s also expand what we consider infrastructure, so we’re building for the future.”

From electric cars to electric scooters and autonomous vehicles, technology is changing the face of infrastructure. Accommodating the people who use these technologies is an important part of infrastructure planning — and needs to be part of the conversation now.

“While technology changes at a rapid rate, investments in communities don’t,” said Kurt Christiansen, president of the American Planning Association (APA). “We need to start working new technology into our plans now. If we don’t, we’ll have more problems than we had before.”

Also lost in Washington’s obsession with numbers is the problem of equity. Research by the National Recreation and Parks Association found that people who live in low-income have lower access to parks and open spaces, which leads to a higher rate of negative health effects like obesity. These populations are often overlooked when infrastructure investments are planned.

“We have to make sure we don’t leave anyone behind,” said Smith, from ASCE.

And, of course, panelists pointed out that any future infrastructure investments must be planned with an eye toward resilience and sustainability in the face of climate change. All four panelists agreed that to be effective, federal funds in any new infrastructure initiative cannot simply go to rebuilding the infrastructure of the past.

“We need a paradigm shift,” said Blackwell. “Of course, at ASLA, we’d like to see all of the recommendations from our Smart Policies for a Changing Climate report to be implemented.”

But real change may not come in one sweeping package. Small, incremental steps may be the only way forward.

“I don’t see a lot of change happening big-and-bold,” said Christiansen. “But we’re starting to see glimmers.” If we continue to push for change together, bit by bit, our persistence and optimism can pay off.