COVID-19: An Opportunity for More Equitable Public Transportation

Photo by taken by bus driver Valerie Jefferson / Valerie Jefferson for WWNO article by Tegan Wendland, April 22, 2020

By Diane Jones Allen, FASLA

These tweets appeared on the Regional Transit Authority (RTA), New Orleans, and NOLA Ready Twitter feeds:

“The following routes will suspend service beginning March 29th: 2- Riverfront Streetcar, 5-Marigny-Bywater, 11-Magazine, 15-Freret, 45-Lakeview, 48-Canal-City Park Streetcar, 51-St. Bernard/St. Anthony, 60-Hayne, 65-Read-Crowder Express, 90-Carrollton, 101-Algiers Point, 106-Auror. Starting tomorrow, April 19, the 39-Tulane will suspend overnight service between 12:00 am to 4:00 am. There is a delay on 62 – Morrison Express. Apr 21 #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 114 – General DeGaulle-Sullen. Apr 20 #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 28 – M.L.King. #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 65 – Read-Crowder Express. Apr 19 #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 57 – Franklin.”

These messages bring to light the nightmare of those who depend on transit in order to maintain a steady job. They are facing a double crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are some of us who have easy access to work, because we do it from home at our laptops, but most aren’t so lucky. Many citizens must ride the bus or take other mass transit to earn a basic living. These are often the essential and frontline workers, those working in grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals, supplying important city services such as trash collection and utility maintenance, and even bus drivers.

Many of these people are already located in Transit Deserts — areas with high transit demand and limited or no access. With bus services cut, people are crowded on to fewer buses. The current situation — which is not only limiting but also eliminating transit service — is exaggerating the existing transportation inequities in already underserved areas. The COVID-19 crisis is exposing how particular segments of our society are more at risk due to historical and structural inequality in many areas, including housing and employment but certainly transportation access.

The current responses to the pandemic also reveal ways to address transit access and some of the inequities this crisis has exposed. I have noticed more people walking and biking in parks and along streets. With the reduction of travel by automobile, this means fewer cars on the road and reduced carbon emissions, creating several health benefits, including cleaner air.

Importantly, the current situation also strengthens the argument that given certain conditions, increased numbers of people will readily give up car travel if they had alternatives or had to, or at least use them less, even in a place as automobile dependent as Texas, where I am making these observations.

It is most likely that once more people are again traveling to work, there still will be a need for social distancing, presenting a major concern for traveling on buses and other forms of mass transit.

Walking on the sidewalk in Arlington, Texas, April 24, 2020 / Diane Jones Allen

Social distancing, brought on by the pandemic crisis, may be key to a solution for increasing transit in a catalytic fashion. If fewer people can be on a bus, then there must be more buses on each route just to maintain the base level of public financed mobility. More buses on a line means greater frequency and less wait time. Less wait time is proven to be a factor in increasing ridership.

While doing research for my book Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access, and Suburban Form, I interviewed several people in a Baltimore neighborhood that lived in walking distance to a bus line that would have taken them directly downtown to their place of work.

When asked why they didn’t take the bus, given it took them straight to work, the majority responded that they didn’t want to wait at the bus stop. I then asked: if the bus came frequently would they take it? The reply was overwhelmingly yes, even if it meant transferring to another frequent line. This is true in most dense urban areas.

Most people are even willing to endure a longer ride time, if the wait time at the point of access is reduced. It can be reduced with frequently arriving buses that also prevent the overcrowding that usually happens, thus allowing people to maintain a safe distance apart. In my view, it is a win win, particularly if the medical cost of maintaining social distances is added on to the funding source for more public transit.

The severity of the Coronavirus pandemic means that things won’t ever get back to “normal.” For those who care about the environment and those in it, it is a time to rethink how we live and move about the urban landscape.

We can create mobility solutions that are equitable, environmentally sound, and protect our health. Of course, it only starts with putting more buses on the line. There is now an opportunity for creative thinking.

Maybe we can invest in on-demand vans, or “VIA” type services, which is a pay-on-demand van service that runs on a fixed route; and other smaller multi-passenger vehicles that are publicly subsidized and capture residents in neighborhoods and connect to frequent larger vehicles on major routes.

There is now an opportunity when people are appreciating the opportunity to take a walk and ride a bike and be healthy, adjusting to not being in cars so much of the time, appreciating clean air and the ability to just breath, and willing to make sacrifices for their neighbors, community, and country.

During times like these, those of us who are moved by problem solving must think outside of the limits of traditional transportation and step up to the challenges of creating an equitable society where there is mobility choice — and everyone has equal access to work, play, and the pursuit of life.

Dr. Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, is professor of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is co-founder and principal at DesignJones, LLC, author of Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access, and Suburban Form (Routledge, 2019), and co-editor of Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity (Island Press, 2017).

Biodiversity and Pandemic Diseases (or How We Came to Know Our World in 2020)

Infectious disease outbreaks in North America / Health Map

By Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA

The close friendships people make during the intensity of design school often last a lifetime. My studio bestie was a funny, talented guy named Merrick Zirtzman. We were like twins, except that he contracted AIDS and I didn’t. We ate garlic cloves together and tried to stay safe. But he died within two years of our graduation, along with about 700,000 other Americans who lost their lives to AIDS.

Subsequent research determined that HIV originated in chimpanzees in West Africa, showing that it became a human disease because humans ate chimpanzees. According to Michael Lai at the University of Southern California and his team of disease detectives, the chimps got it by eating monkeys that hosted a similar virus (red-capped mangabeys and greater spot-nosed monkeys, to be exact). This sounds like a version of saying you are what you eat: a food web in an ecosystem of viruses, hosts, predators, and habitat.

When I wrote and spoke about the research connecting biodiversity to infectious diseases in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was one of very few in our field who would broach the subject. At the time, if HIV/AIDS hadn’t roared through your friends, a pandemic seemed unlikely. Worrying about it seemed paranoid. After all, people said, contemporary medicine has made so many advances!

The last time I spoke about biodiversity and its role in suppressing pandemics was at the Large Parks conference at Harvard University in 2004. After that, my work centered on adapting to climate change, and there was so much other science to talk about. Eventually, pandemics dropped out of my slide set.

Every year, the World Economic Forum organizes a gathering of the global 1% in Davos, Switzerland, and produces a document to communicate the anxieties of money managers, called the Global Risk Report. In 2019, the Global Risk Report had a special section on health risks, titled “Going Viral.” It noted that there has been an increase in the frequency of new infectious disease outbreaks over the last few decades. There were more than 12,000 outbreaks between 1980 and 2013. But in June 2018, there were outbreaks in six of the eight categories of the especially dangerous priority diseases tracked by the World Health Organization (WHO).

For the first time, WHO included “Disease X” in its 2018 list of priority diseases to promote research on new zoonotic diseases that had not yet passed to humans. People who track diseases were expecting new ones, because the number of animal-to-human outbreaks has increased dramatically. The UN Environment Program also stated that a new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months now, and that 75 percent of those come from wild or domesticated animals.

The 2019 Davos Risk Report noted five main reasons for this alarming trend:

  • First, huge increases in the volume of inter-continental travel make it possible for a virus from an isolated village to infect major cities within days.
  • Second, an increasing percentage of the world’s growing population lives in dense urban districts.
  • Third, people are cutting the forests that provide habitat for animals like bats and primates that carry diseases, which humans can catch.
  • Fourth, climate change may accelerate disease transmission by extending the range of some key animal vectors, like mosquitos, but in other complex ways as well.
  • And fifth, poverty drives a lot of people to hunt bushmeat or to raise undernourished domestic animals.

Also, desperate refugees trying to escape wars or climate stressors often live in dense, unhygienic conditions created by societies who want to keep them out, producing hotspots of infectious diseases. The 2019 Risk Report concluded that “globalization has made the world more vulnerable to societal and economic impacts from infectious-disease outbreaks.”

Remember, this isn’t ecologists talking, this is the 1%, the people who spent the last 400 years profiting from the removal of “barriers” to global markets and building a world of white privilege through racism, armed colonization, and enslaved labor. Not to put too fine a point on it.

Ecologists who write about the links between biodiversity and disease typically emphasize the need to limit human impacts on animals that harbor the greatest number of viruses that can spillover to humans: waterfowl, primates, and bats.

When E.O. Wilson published Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life in 2016 and established the Half Earth Project, it sounded crazy to economists and governments to say we should protect half the earth’s land and seas from development.

Half Earth Project

Even sociologists who focus on poverty and development, like Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, slammed Wilson’s proposal. They saw it as a trade-off: protect biodiversity at the expense of the rural poor, who would then be arrested as poachers in their own traditional lands.

But social inequality will not be erased if biodiversity losses continue. Less biodiversity means more disease pandemics and more poverty. I think we can all see that now.

In the 21st century, globalized economic growth has reached the end of its rope. Economies can’t continue to expand without creating new pandemic risks, as more people press up against the habitat of more wildlife or raise domestic animals in unhealthy conditions. We’re now part of one big, highly connected planetary ecosystem that’s going to bite us back hard if we step on it the wrong way.

A lot of news stories are ascribing intention to viruses as if they make plans. While that creates a compelling bad guy, they’re not actually living things. We’re the sentient beings here.

New planetary health concepts advocated by many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provide the framework we need to see through metaphors about viruses invading our country with evil intentions, and the associated imagery of a refugee invasion from some place we imagine to be far away, disconnected from us. In fact, the U.S. is a global hotspot of emerging animal-to-human diseases.

What does this mean for landscape architecture, as a discipline that shapes urban and regional planning?

The challenge is to use our projects and our advocacy to fight for biodiversity (if only for our own survival), genuinely reduce economic inequality, and promote a culture that celebrates rather than denies the inherent limits to growth that come with sharing a single planet.

As Kate Jones, Chair of Ecology at University College London, has noted, pandemics are now “a hidden cost of human economic development…We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.”

Landscape architects and planners can take on this work in three important ways:

First, we can educate clients about the role that native habitat plays in preventing disease outbreaks. Here in California, recent research has revealed that our low rate of Lyme disease can be attributed to our remaining biodiversity. Both mountain lions and western fence lizards play key roles in limiting Lyme disease. Lions keep the deer population low, especially near urban areas where they kill fifty percent more deer per year, perhaps because they are interrupted in the act of eating their kill more often by humans. Our native lizard has proteins in its blood that seem to “turn off” the infection in ticks that bite the lizards, creating a less dangerous tick population that doesn’t host the Lyme bacteria. None of this would work if there were no lion or lizard habitat, no lions, and no lizards.

Lyme disease in California / Kristina Hill

We can work to genuinely promote social equality. Step one is to stop pretending that development investments, or even new parks, create benefits for everyone. In fact, investments in parks typically displace low-income residents (anyone been to the High Line?). Setha Low’s anthropological research in New York City showed that upscale materials or finishes, like brushed aluminum or polished rock, can make lower-income people of color feel unwelcome, setting them up to be followed and harassed because Caucasian park visitors think they don’t belong there. Creating new upscale mixed-use districts in historically African-American, Native American, and Hispanic spaces raises the likelihood that police will kill more people of color. Trickle-down public benefits from private real estate investments are a myth. We can stop repeating it and instead work to increase the health, wealth, and stability of low-income communities directly. In the San Francisco Bay Resilient by Design Challenge, our ABC Team re-thought our work in East Oakland to focus more on supporting local businesses and health, rather than trying to imagine the trickle-down benefits of big new real estate investments.

Third, we can promote a culture of restraint to protect local habitat areas. Persuading humans to back off and respect the territory of other cultures or other forms of life is the real “balance of nature,” created by our own sense of restraint. We can design windows in “walls” that surround key vegetated areas, instead of designing paths through them. Maybe these are literal walls, like the habitat island at Parc Henri Matisse in Lille, France by Gilles Clément. Or maybe they’re thorny hedge plants or wetland “moats” with an overlook platform. Physical trampling, noise, and pets exert real limits on biodiversity. And cultural self-restraint can be sexy—it can be theatrical and negotiated. Not going somewhere can make that special place valuable and mysterious. Bring back the sacred Greek temenos, and the hortus conclusus. Limits and social negotiation create deeper design opportunities and better designers.

Parc Henri Matisse in Lille, France / Gilles Clément

There’s more: are you designing new urban districts in China, Africa, or the Middle East? It’s time to reconsider taking that work unless it’s an infill strategy.

And we should all stop flying so much, considering its impact on our climate and our health — and now that we’ve mastered Zoom.

Prevent urban and agricultural sprawl into native vegetation. Promote increased wealth and self-sufficiency for the global poor. Support animal welfare by becoming an activist against large-scale animal farming.

Landscape architects can lead a re-think of how to design for biodiversity, cities, and health on our one little planet.

Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, is associate professor of landscape architecture, environmental planning, and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley College of Environmental Design.

APA and CNU Offer Virtual Conferences

NPC20 @ Home / APA

Our friends at the American Planning Association (APA) and Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) had to cancel their national conferences due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To support these vital organizations, you can attend their upcoming virtual conferences.

National Planning Conference (NPC20) @ Home
April 29 – May 1, 2020

APA is hosting a three-day digital conference in the spirit of their annual conference, which was to be in Houston.

According to APA, the virtual conference will offer a “concentrated offering of essential planning trends and topics, focusing on rebuilding community, planning in the digital era, and navigating the future of planning.” There will be more than 25 sessions and networking activities in real time. Sessions were curated from the NPC20 peer-reviewed program.

Registration is just $125, and $25 for students.

CNU Virtual Gathering / CNU

Congress for New Urbanism: A Virtual Gathering
June 10-13, 2020

CNU had to cancel their in-person conference scheduled for the Twin Cities in Minnesota in June. Instead, they will host a virtual conference that will offer 55-70 sessions.

The CNU states that “this online event will have many of the elements you would expect from our annual Congress: thought provoking sessions, live Q and A opportunities with speakers, social gatherings, art room sessions, plenaries, and pre-Congress events.” Most sessions will be LA CES approved.

Registration rates range from $300 to $600. There is also the option to attend just one session for $20 or a full day for $100-$200.

Landscape architects can also find many opportunities to learn at home through ASLA Online Learning and LA CES. ASLA members can earn 1 free PDH per month through ASLA Online Learning and receive discounts of 75 percent on all courses.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (April 1-15)

Slow streets in Oakland, California / Oakland department of transportation, via Streetsblog

Eyes on the Street: A Quick Look at Oakland’s “Slow Streets”Streetsblog, 04/14/20
“The plan is to eventually open 74 miles of Oakland streets for local residents to go for a walk, bike, jog and generally avoid going stir crazy, all while maintaining six feet of distance from one another.”

Your Maps of Life Under LockdownCityLab, 04/15/20
“CityLab recently invited readers to draw maps of their worlds in the time of coronavirus. Already, nearly 150 of you have responded to our call with an incredible range of interpretative maps, submitted from all over the world.”

Burning Man 2020 Won’t Go Ahead After All, Moves OnlineThe Architects’ Newspaper, 04/13/20
“The virtual version of the ‘Playa,’ VBRC, will be available to access for a fee—and participants still need to reserve tickets—and Burning Man organizers have estimated that they’ll see attendance around 100,000 this year as a result. ”

Even Parks Are Going Online During the PandemicNext City, 04/09/20
“Shortly after schools closed indefinitely in New York City, the Department of Parks and Recreation pushed out their ‘Parks at Home’ initiative — an online portal virtually bringing environmental education and recreation to viewers, from the comfort of their homes.”

Location Data Says It All: Staying at Home During Coronavirus Is a LuxuryThe New York Times, 04/03/20
“It has been about two weeks since the Illinois governor ordered residents to stay at home, but nothing has changed about Adarra Benjamin’s responsibilities. She gets on a bus nearly every morning in Chicago, traveling 20 miles round trip some days to cook, clean and shop for her clients, who are older or have health problems that make such tasks difficult.”

Interview with Kate Orff on Earth Day 2020: The 50th Anniversary

Kate Orff, FASLA

Kate Orff, RLA, FASLA, is the founder and principal of SCAPE and also director of the Urban Design Program and Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). In 2017, Orff was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and, in 2019, SCAPE received the National Design Award in landscape architecture from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans, which at that time was some 10 percent of the population, took to the streets during the first Earth Day, demanding greater protections for the environment and decisive action to improve human health and well-being. 50 years later, the movement is now global, with an estimated one billion participating each year. What role does collective action play in solving today’s climate and ecological crises? What role do landscape architects play?

Earth Day is a chance to pause, take stock of the planet that sustains us, and think and act beyond ourselves to reach the scale of the globe and all its inhabitants. Landscape architects are largely concerned with the “middle scale,” but Earth Day forces us to conceive of the planetary landscape, and what our role is in retrieving the Earth from its climate emergency status.

Our book Toward an Urban Ecology describes the potential of collective action at a landscape scale and gives many examples of digging in, showing up, ripping out, and gardening with your neighbors. At the same time, it’s important to keep focus on the more radical, insidious challenges in our carbon-intensive economy mapped out at a national scale in Petrochemical America, which depicts the American landscape as a machine for consuming oil and petrochemicals with profound impacts on ecosystems and communities.

I guess the lesson here is that on an individual level, we have to consume less. At a neighborhood level, we can work together to repair the landscapes in our immediate environs through community oyster gardening or invasive species removal in a patch of forest. And at a global scale, we have to radically and equitably decarbonize our economy and rebuild the wetland and intertidal landscapes disappearing before our eyes. Our installation at the Venice Biennale called Ecological Citizens bridges these scales of thought and action. Plenty to do!

What connections do you see between the COVID-19 pandemic and our climate and ecological problems? How are environmental and human health connected?

COVID 19 shines a spotlight on our health care system and existing social inequity. The pandemic is truly playing out as a human tragedy on so many levels. It also reveals the incredible and irreversible harm we are inflicting upon non-human species and our extreme interdependence on each other and the natural world.

Whether the virus was transmitted through a bat or pangolin, it’s a parable about the exploitation of “the other” that must stop. This April, 25 tons of pangolin scales were seized in Singapore, taken from nearly 40,000 of these endangered creatures. An estimated 2.7 million are poached every year. It boggles the mind.

On a positive note, one can imagine our “stay at home” behavior, which is intended to curb the pandemic, has the unintended consequences of lowering our personal carbon footprints; and leading us to care for each other more, make time to mend the landscapes in which we live, and prioritize the basics of happiness and survival — food, shelter, clean water, clean air, neighbors, family, and the core of what matters to you.

You founded SCAPE in 2007. Your office’s stated mission is to “enable positive change in communities through the creation of regenerative living infrastructure and public landscapes.” What is regenerative living infrastructure and why do communities need it?

Today’s society faces compounding risks: a climate emergency, increasing social and income stratification, and a biological apocalypse termed “the sixth extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert in her 2014 book of the same name. Together, these forces are rapidly tearing at the fabric of our entangled social and natural worlds. In every SCAPE project, we identify the capacity of design to repair that fabric and regenerate connections over time.

The aim is to not just deliver built work, but envision a program that begins to generate new ties between communities working in, living in, understanding, and loving the landscapes that sustain them. This could take the form of unlocking sediment trapped upstream to nourish protective bay landscapes and cushion the impacts of extreme weather and sea level rise.

ASLA 2019 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Public Sediment for Alameda Creek, Alameda County, California / SCAPE and Public Sediment team

It might manifest as the integration of a state-certified science curriculum with an offshore reef rebuilding project, or reclaiming a forgotten canal and retrofitting it as a public park and water treatment system in partnership with a community-based organization devoted to its stewardship.

The Gowanus Lowlands, Brookyln, New York / SCAPE

For decades, infrastructure has been constructed as “single-purpose,” often designed by engineers to isolate one element of a system and solve for one problem. For example, on Staten Island, during Superstorm Sandy, a levee designed to keep water out was overtopped, resulting in a “bathtub effect” of trapping water inside a neighborhood rather than keeping it out. People perished because of this catastrophic failure. In many places, metal bulkhead walls are being raised in anticipation of sea-level rise only to block drainage during major rain events, flooding adjacent blocks.

Regenerative landscape infrastructure helps to maintain the structure and function of ecosystems embedded in the built environment, accounting for complex systems. This has been the organizing mission of SCAPE: to bring holistic, landscape-driven, and time-based thinking into the places we inhabit.

Through Living Breakwaters in Tottenville, on Staten Island in New York, SCAPE created a layered approach to ecological and social resilience, including oyster habitat restoration on a series of near-shore breakwaters. Working with communities in Boston, SCAPE has developed visions for a more resilient Boston Harbor and Dorchester neighborhoods. What are the benefits of these resilient landscape approaches?

The resilience benefits of these projects are clear. We can’t just look at one facet of the future: We have to synthesize how climate shocks and stressors compound each other. Extreme heat will increase drought and poverty. Extreme hurricanes will increase long-term rainfall projections used as a base for design efforts. How will these shocks and stressors combine to impact people and shape our future?

Robust, intact landscapes can’t do everything, but they can absorb a range of intersectional challenges and create immense protective value. Part of SCAPE’s approach is to begin to address the “sixth extinction” in the intertidal zone, restoring landscapes and habitats for marine critters that could be a lifeline to the future. We not only envisioned the Living Breakwaters project. Over many years, we navigated a federal, state, and local regulatory and budget environment to make it happen. We have a unique perspective on how to advance these kinds of projects despite many roadblocks and challenges.

Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NY / SCAPE
Resilient Boston Harbor Vision, Boston, Massachusetts / SCAPE

Our team just completed a long-term vision for the rapidly eroding Barataria Basin in Louisiana with an array of collaborators. This project combines marsh creation with bottomland reforestation, sediment diversions, and related landscape restoration and job creation strategies. A healthy and bountiful landscape means better economic opportunities for a wider range of people, rebounding shellfish and fisheries, and a coastal landscape that can absorb and adapt to a range of climate risks on the immediate horizon.

Your firm is also now planning a linear network of greenways and blueways along the Chattahoochee River, which spans 100 miles across the Metro Atlanta region. How does planning and design focused on rivers improve ecological and community resilience? With the risk of flooding increasing, how can communities better live with their rivers?

The Chattahoochee RiverLands is a vision to reconnect Metro Atlanta to its seminal river, building on a decades-long legacy of community planning in collaboration with the Trust for Public Land, Atlanta Regional Commission, Cobb County, and the City of Atlanta. It’s a radical effort to stitch together a historically fragmented public realm along a primary conduit – 125 miles of trail winding along the Chattahoochee that showcase the river’s ecology, history, and link into ongoing restoration and education efforts.

Rivers have such power to bring people together, link up disjointed places, and bring life and mobility into cities. For this project, we cut through red tape, charting a path of access through a mosaic of public and private lands. The overall vision was grounded in over 80 stakeholder and community sessions and events like “river rambles,” educational outings for focus groups to provide hands-on learning experiences.

Public engagement session for the Chattahoochee RiverLands greenway study, Atlanta, Georgia. / SCAPE

Beyond its physical footprint, the goal of the RiverLands is to raise public awareness, improve connections and access, address a long legacy of environmental racism, expand mobility for underserved communities, and build on a strong regional legacy of water resource conservation and protection.

This effort is a testament to open and inclusive design processes structured to empower residents and to shift from conceiving design as a “master” plan to a method of workshopping and co-creating with constituents. Advanced floodplain warning systems and sensors can be integrated into these linear landscapes to ensure public safety.

Lastly, you are also a Professor at Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP), where you are director of the Urban Design program. What have you learned from your students – the next generation of leaders – about how to solve our challenges? What new ideas have really astounded you?

Over the past five years, I’ve done a series of studios focused on Water Urbanism – global studios to uncover how water, climate, and migration patterns combine to shape the future of cities. I’ve learned so much from this endeavor and working alongside my incredible co-teachers Geeta Mehta, Dilip Da Cunha, Thaddeus Pawlowski, Julia Watson, and others. We’ve traveled to Amman and Aqaba, Jordan; Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil; Can Tho, Vietnam; and four cities in India: Kolkata, Madurai, Varanasi and Pune, among others.

From our collaborators and students, I’ve learned that excellence emerges in the space between people – in open dialogue, hard work, and collaboration among people with diverse and international backgrounds with a shared purpose.

Columbia University urban design studio in Pune, India / SCAPE

A few years back, I hosted “Water and Social Life in India,” a panel at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture with Geeta, Dilip, and Alpa Nawre. This session captured some of the big lessons for me. Over the years, we have learned water is not an abstract “issue” to be solved. To embrace a water-resilient future, we have to learn from past practices and small communities managing and communicating with each other. Designing with water is not just about adapting to changing conditions – it is also crucially about fostering forms of social life, maintenance, and care.

From Shopping Mall to Urban Lagoon

Tainan Spring / Daria Scagliola, MVRDV

In Tainan, a city of 1.8 million on the southwest coast of Taiwan, a defunct shopping mall has been transformed into Tainan Spring, an urban lagoon park. This ingenious new public space, which reuses remnants of the mall’s concrete parking garage, is at the heart of an ambitious effort to bring people and nature back to the waterfront of Taiwan’s oldest city. Commissioned by the urban development bureau of the Tainan city government, the new 581,000 square foot (54,000 square meter) landscape forms a green axis with a kilometer-long stretch of Haian Road that has been redesigned for pedestrians.

According to project designer MVRDV, a Dutch architecture and urban design firm that led a multidisciplinary team including Taiwanese landscape design firm The Urbanists Collaborative, Tainan’s network of waterways have enabled the city’s marine and fishing industries since the 17th century. But in the 1980s, the city began to over-develop its waterfront. The ChinaTown Mall was constructed on top of the old harbor next to the Tainan Canal. Decades later, as the abandoned shopping center became a “drain on the vitality of downtown,” the city developed plans to turn it into a destination park.

The Tainan city government required that the old mall be deconstructed and its concrete “meticulously recycled.” Given the embodied carbon in concrete, the decision was made to also reuse a level of the underground parking garage as part of the structure of the $4.7 million sunken park.

Tainan Spring / Daria Scagliola, MVRDV

Concrete structures have been mostly integrated with a new pedestrian promenade that loops the park. Below the promenade, nooks have formed that will soon host small shops and restaurants.

Tainan Spring / Daria Scagliola, MVRDV

MVRDV created multiple layers to create a sense of history and place. Within the curvilinear lagoon, pillars of the garage structure jut out, creating a shopping mall-version of a Roman ruin.

Tainan Spring / Daria Scagliola, MVRDV

Remnants structures provide watery play spaces and shade. One part of the park contains a glass floor that offers a glimpse deep into the old infrastructural layers below.

Tainan Spring / Daria Scagliola, MVRDV

The lagoon is planted with multiple layers of plants and trees, which are expected to grow over the next few years into a stylized jungle. The plant life will cool and shade gathering areas, playgrounds, and a performance stage.

Tainan Spring / Daria Scagliola, MVRDV

The lagoon itself is also designed to be responsive to the environment. “Water levels within the lagoon rise and fall in response to the rainy and dry seasons,” MVRDV states. During Tainan’s steamy summer, mist sprayers will help reduce ambient air temperatures.

Tainan Spring / Daria Scagliola, MVRDV
Tainan Spring / Daria Scagliola, MVRDV

“People can bathe in the overgrown remains of a shopping mall. Children can swim in the ruins of the past,” said Winy Maas, founding partner of MVRDV. “How fantastic is that?”

The team’s renovation of Haian Road reduced traffic to one lane in each direction. The new road uses pavers to create a uniform identity and incorporates more of the jungle plant palette. Maas added that “Tainan is a very grey city. With the reintroduction of the jungle every place possible, the city is reintegrating into the surrounding landscape.”

Videos: Glimpses of Life Amid Empty Streets

The empty streets of our cities are a cause of anxiety but also wonder. With our ability to travel now limited, we can get a sense of the strange, melancholy state of the world’s urban centers from the constant stream of video uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo.

The New Yorker captures life during quarantine in New York City — the largely uninhabited streets, parks, and landmarks. One scene pans New Yorkers lined up down the block to get into a Whole Foods supermarket. Another features overflowing Amazon boxes sorted by delivery workers on a make-shift tarp on a street. One store’s sign reads: “Temporarily closed. Focus on the positive.”

The smooth, robotic pace of a drone adds to the otherworldly feel of San Francisco’s barren streets. Citing the Grateful Dead’s song, Touch of Grey, one store’s sign reads: “We Will Get By. We Will Survive.” Another shot pans a building-sized mural of climate activist Greta Thunberg. With a lack of people, birds become a focal point in many of the vistas.

Meanwhile in Amsterdam, a video by cinematographer and film maker Jean Counet, has gotten attention for capturing the strangeness and beauty of the Dutch city without street life. (Watch video). Street trams weave their way through the old city, but without passengers. A lone kayaker makes their way down a canal.

Meanwhile in Amsterdam / Jean Counet

Counet told art blog This Is Colossal, “we walked through the old city center of Amsterdam between 8:30 (and) 13:30, which is normally teemed by walking people and bicycles. What we witnessed felt like a dream. Sometimes beautiful and mesmerizing, sometimes scary and worrying.”

As people stay home and noise and pollution have abated, wildlife have expanded their boundaries and started exploring the built environment with confidence. In this amazing compilation, sheep explore a Welsh town, a coyote strolls through San Francisco, deer use the crosswalks in Japan, and Nubian Ibexes walk down a promenade in Israel.

With the absence of people and maritime activity, shoals of fish can be seen in Venice’s canals and dolphins have reclaimed a port in Sardinia.

How Can We Design with Communities While Apart?

Video can be a reciprocal tool for designers and community members to document observations and share posts for discussions. This media was explored by Nicky Bloom, a Mithun landscape designer, in her University of Washington College of the Built Environment thesis called “Tideflat Tales.” / Nicky Bloom

By Deb Guenther, FASLA

In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, do we wait for social distancing to end or start experimenting and adapting our community outreach models?

Public agencies, design teams, and communities face uncharted territories, not without risk. Our ability to advance projects relies on the insights and magic that emerge from interactive, person-to-person community gatherings.

Can we successfully forge camaraderie and casual interaction online? What are the real and perceived barriers to equitable access to online interaction and how can they be addressed?

Does the pandemic actually present an opportunity to widen audiences and level the playing field?

As we adjust our short- and long-term approaches, here are a few considerations:

Put equity front and center

Do we really know what we think we know? Assumptions about the digital divide – who has Internet access and who doesn’t – can be misunderstood, as reported by the Center for Internet Society. Remember this mantra about the importance of a community input: “nothing about us, without us, is for us.”

It is critical to hear directly from the community what the barriers are. This takes more time. Some of the barriers include English as a second language; childcare and eldercare at a time when health issues are even more pressing; and a lack of or limited Internet access and associated support.

There are many relatively inexpensive solutions such as free webcams, hot spots, or phone data top ups. Filling the gaps identified by community members can help support advisory councils and allow community informed work to continue.

The health crisis could push the landscape architecture profession to make initial outreach about barriers to access commonplace.

Build a welcoming atmosphere

Create personal connections, stimulate creativity, and support trust. In order to achieve these goals, consider the context of our revised daily lives: localized experiences; more free time for some, less for others; individualized experiences as well as more multi-generational interaction; interpersonal tensions and mental health challenges; more time outside for some and more time inside for others.

How can we adapt our familiar community engagement goals – diverse communication style choices, interaction between residents, reporting back to the group – to the new normal?

Some ideas include self-care and personal experience check-ins; self-guided walking tours; scavenger hunts; general gamification of activities; sharing on-site design team and community member smart phone videos; and prompting storytelling through video, written or illustrated media.

There are exciting possibilities for video analysis, which builds on the power of emotion in a way traditional analysis does not.

An exploration of site analysis through accessible media of video and audio suggests these tools can create more emotive connections and understanding of sites. “Tideflat Tales” / Nicky Bloom
Temporary art by local students installed along shared public trails raise spirits and awareness and builds pride around community participation. / Mithun

Remain flexible and appreciative

Plan the first meeting and adapt with the next. It’s hard to anticipate right now what will matter. Each community is having collective and unique experiences that will influence their priorities going forward. Keep the outlines broad and any necessary expectations clear. Reflect on those expectations to ensure they are truly the basic ones.

Share back what was heard and confirm the value of participation. Constantly tailor the process to the audience interests and needs to influence how the interaction occurs and how it is curated.

Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic can be the advent of a much more inclusive process.

Design intentional, substantive participation experiences

Establish stipends for community ambassadors and residents who co-create with the design team and bring the expertise of their lived experience to the project. Ask what types of leadership and mentorship opportunities could be built into the process to provide career opportunities during uncertain times.

This is where diversity, equity, and inclusion considerations meets design – where designed process outcomes are much broader and long lasting than the physical design itself.

An intentional process in this pandemic-conscious world could also result in valuable policy input and revisions as agencies scramble to keep their work meaningful and valuable to constituents. Building in opportunities to inform policy helps people connect with the democratic process, which is increasingly critical when chaos is also an opening for autocracy.

There is opportunity for this health crisis to accelerate democratic, community-driven design.

Be alert. Create space for true narrative

A silver lining of disruption is that previously unheard narratives can emerge and provide a more holistic picture of our world. In public settings, social norms tamp down sharing of difficult stories. But difficult stories are the foundation of racial reconciliation and transparency. It leads us to acknowledge we operate in a gray world, not black and white.

Challenging stories are the foundation of building trust. As research demonstrates, compelling stories stick with people. We can create safe space by consistently providing a venue to share those stories, celebrating the sharing of stories and their impact, and curating them to create a constructive environment.

Repeating the invitation to share stories in multiple meetings communicates this is a deep desire, not a superficial request, and will prompt different results in different times and settings among people.

The pandemic could result in greater listening – the ability to hear another person’s story, one that may be in conflict with your own beliefs or assumptions.

With thoughtful outreach, but acknowledgement that we will make mistakes, we can bring our design creativity to a community-informed design process. Much can emerge from this crisis that will improve business as usual.

Let’s keep sharing the many ways to accelerate relationship building apart and together. We look forward to hearing the collective wisdom.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Deb Guenther, FASLA, is a design partner at Mithun, an interdisciplinary firm focused on design for positive change and located in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles. She is working with community members, utility districts, and transit agencies to shape city infrastructure together.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (March 16-31)

MARABAR by Elyn Zimmerman / Courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

National Geographic Headquarters Plaza Redesign Threatens Historically Significant Sculpture3/31/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“In 1984, the scientific and educational organization, the National Geographic Society commissioned Elyn Zimmerman—a then up-and-coming New York-based artist—to produce a sculpture within the modernist plaza of its Washington, D.C., headquarters.”

How COVID-19 Is Affecting Architecture Students and Educators on an Emotional Level — 3/31/20, Archinect
“Archinect asked for responses from its global community via the ongoing survey How is your school dealing with the coronavirus outbreak? to learn how students and educators in the architecture field were dealing with the transition.”

How Essential Is Construction During the Coronavirus Pandemic? — 3/30/20, Curbed
“While some cities and states are shutting construction down, others are granting exceptions, particularly where it relates to the nationwide housing shortage. Meanwhile, industry groups are pushing for federal-level designation of construction as an essential business.”

D.C. Planted Nearly 80 Trees a Day to Reach a Canopy Target. It’s Running out of Space —3/27/20, The Washington Post
“Midway through a years-long tree campaign, the same economic successes that ushered in new residents and transformed neighborhoods across Washington are threatening to stymie the city’s woodland progress.”

Here’s What Our Cities Will Look Like After the Coronavirus Epidemic — 3/26/20, Kinder Institute for Urban Research
“The threat of infectious disease is likely to ramp up urban design as a solution — perhaps, for example, by creating more separation in public spaces like restaurants and parks.”

Is COVID-19 Making You Stay at Home? Turn Your Home Into a Healing Space — 3/24/20, University of Arizona News
“’A few simple interventions can turn your home from a stressful space into a healing one,’ says Esther Sternberg, who holds the Andrew Weil Chair for Research in Integrative Medicine.”

During Life under Lockdown, City Parks Become Sanctuaries

Central Park, New York City / Wikipedia

In these stressful and uncertain times, parks have become even more central to our physical and mental health, and safe access to them must be maintained. That was the key message from a packed webinar organized by the City Parks Alliance with brave and exhausted city park leaders from New York City, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco.

Mitchell Silver, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, said that New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., is allowing people to use parks and exercise outside if they follow social distancing guidelines, but the department has closed sports fields and playgrounds. “Solitary exercise is OK but not group exercise.”

Silver said the situation is changing “hour by hour and day by day,” and they are following the latest guidance from the health department, which is in the lead on setting rules.

That is not to say that NYC Parks and Recreation hasn’t made their voice heard in internal city government discussions. They have repeatedly made the case for keeping parks open so people can get “fresh air and access to green space, which are critical to mental health and boosting immune systems.”

“All indoor and outdoor programs have ended,” explained Phil Ginsburg, general manager with San Francisco Recreation and Parks. Large parks are still open, but the city has closed smaller parks, playgrounds, and play structures where it’s impossible to maintain social distancing.

The San Francisco parks department is very focused on equity issues, as a portion of the city’s population relies on programs and services at their recreational centers. Many of those facilities have have been converted into childcare centers for the children of front line healthcare workers. Children can get three meals a day there.

The pandemic shows why cities need green open spaces. “Parks are more important than they have ever been. Before, they were a nice-to-have, but now we’re seeing heavier park use than we’ve ever seen.”

San Franciscans are by and large complying with social distancing guidelines. “But the problem is that they are all complying at the same time. We tell people not to gather, to find their own space in parks.”

Crissy Field, San Francisco / Hargreaves Jones

“Park use is up and social media use in parks is also up,” said Jayne Miller, President & CEO of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, a non-profit that works in conjunction with the city’s parks department and is active in 22 parks throughout the city. She said parks are open for running, walking, bicycling, or sitting 6 feet apart from others.

The Conservancy is blasting out public safety messages to align with city-issued rules and guidelines. They have also suggested new activities people can do from the safety of their home, like virtual environmental education webinars, and videos. To reach all audiences young and older, they are creating graphics, memes, FAQs, and emails.

Frick Park, Pittsburgh / Pittsburgh Park Conservancy

Nancy Goldenberg, co-chair of the board at the City Parks Alliance, asked each park leader how parks departments are coordinating with health departments.

Silver said that the parks department is assisting with contigency planning with the city’s operational center during the crisis. The park has 3,200 essential workers who are still coming into the office. If one essential worker comes into contact with someone with the virus or is infected themselves, they have policies for disinfecting work spaces and then unaffected staff returning to work.

In San Francisco, there is an integrated command structure that became operational under the state of emergency. A city-wide policy group meets every week.

“The health department is now in charge and issuing directives that we then implement. They are prioritizing health with every decision.” But he said the parks department continues to make the case that “parks are an essential part of maintaining physical and mental heath and well-being.”

The parks department also wanted more streets closed to cars to create more walkable open space but the health department didn’t support the proposal. They worried the move would create a sense of “over-exuberance and bring too many people outside.”

Another question related to how city parks are helping vulnerable populations in a time when fewer programs and services can be offered.

In San Francisco, Chinese speaking park rangers have been assigned full-time to public spaces in Chinatown where they urge residents “not to gather or conduct business as usual,” Ginsburg said.

He was concerned that many smaller parks and playground where they can’t guarantee social distancing guidelines are being closed. Dense urban communities rely on these tiny parks. “Many are living in small, cramped apartments but we have to be mindful. There are trade-offs.”

He is worried that low-income residents will have fewer places to go outside. Those with a car or who live near Golden Gate Park or the Marin headlands have access to vast outdoor spaces that low-income residents won’t be able to get to. “I have some angst about that.”

In New York City, many schools, even while closed, are offering three meals a day to children of families that rely on those meals. Senior populations are also being delivered meals.

One final question was about the financial implications of COVID-19 on city parks.

Ginsburg indicated that their three primary revenue streams — fees from park-owned spaces, permits, and taxes from home sales — have all plummeted to nearly zero. “Resources were already stretched thin. Looking three months out, the budget consequences are dire.”

NYC’s annual parks budget, which is much higher than San Francisco’s, is also facing major challenges. Silver said “everything is now on hold. It’s not looking good.”

More money from state governments will be needed to keep parks, which are vital social and public health infrastructure, open during the crisis.