High-Profile China Communist Memorial Gets a Boost from American Landscape Architect — 06/30/21, Forbes
“Finished in 2001, a park across from the party congress site known as Taipingqiao Park has taken on new importance as home to the new memorial. Taipingqiao Park and the accompanying Taipingqiao Lake with have received a big facelift in the past year led by Dwight Law, an American landscape architect and principal of Design Land Collaborative in Shanghai.”
Step Inside a Los Angeles Home That’s All About Natural Tones and Clean Lines — 06/29/21, Architectural Digest
“Working with landscape architect Chris Sosa, Woods and Dangaran plotted the house in relation to trees and plantings that soften the emphatically rectilinear lines of the structure. Outside the plaster privacy wall, the front yard is lined with a swath of oak trees and boulders.”
The U.S. Neighborhoods with the Greatest Tree Inequity, Mapped — 06/25/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Neighborhoods with a majority of people of color have, on average, 33% less tree canopy than majority-white communities, according to data from the Tree Equity Score map, a project of the conservation nonprofit American Forests.”
A Black Vision for Development, in the Birthplace of Urban Renewal — 06/24/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“A new $230 million project approved this month by local government authorities to redevelop the neighborhood puts Black people in the driver’s seat of the Hill District’s remaking. It’s a test of the nagging question: Can racist urban redevelopment practices of the past ever be corrected with more urban redevelopment?”
A Piet Oudolf-designed Garden at the Vitra Campus Makes Its Full-bloom Debut — 06/21/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Typical of Oudolf-designed landscapes, the garden at the Vitra campus embraces a naturalistic, almost wild appearance achieved through a rigorous, highly precise planning process and the use of self-regenerating species usually ignored in popular garden design in favor of more decorative plants.”
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is a daily reminder of the awesome power of mother nature to foil the plans of humans. Many scientists, landscape architects, and planners believe the virus, which is theorized to have originated in bats in western China, spread because of human expansion into complex ecosystems and the rise of wet markets where diverse species and humans mix. As humans damage the intricate web of relationships in ecosystems, virus risks increase.
As the second rush of COVID-19 hit Europe in fall 2020, photographer and artist Jörg Gläscher transformed his own concerns about the spread of the virus into a compelling land art project in a forest near Hamburg, Germany.
There, he gathered dead wood, which he organized into nine wave forms. The largest is 13 feet (4 meters) high and 29 feet (9 meters) wide. After photographing a wave, he took the installation apart to form a new one, temporarily re-arranging the forest floor.
Gläscher told Colossal: “I was working (with the idea of) the pure power of nature, the all-destroying force, which brings one of the richest countries in the world to a completely still stand. A wave is a periodic oscillation or a unique disturbance to the state of a system.”
On his website, Gläscher includes a poem about his work, which explores his negotiation with nature and the virus:
“Observations are manifold, individual, not directly transferable and can be experienced in many different ways. A perceived object can generate impact in numerous ways. Is it standing still? Has it moved? Nothing is ever as it seems.
Are appearances therefore deceptive? No, they are not necessarily deceptive, but they join me on a journey, wash over me, swirl through me, make me anxious, retreat, and then rush towards me all over again. ‘But that can’t be’ says the left, ‘but I see and feel it’ says the right half of my brain.
I can go through them, stop them, touch them, but everything comes to a standstill and goes no further. I have to let it go. Standing up, the second wave rolls over me. It is unique, it was unique. I lift my head, take it by the hand and recognize the vibration and the recurring sensation, and with it the fear disappears. Should it come, I will be ready.”
In the final decades of the 19th century, the new art of landscape architecture was born, in large part due to the efforts of Frederick Law Olmsted. This new profession offered “very specific responses” to the social, political, and environmental challenges of the time, argued Charles Waldheim, Hon. ASLA, the John E. Irving professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, in a panel discussion organized as part of the year-long Olmsted 200 program. “Landscape architecture was radical during his time — a whole new field focused on social progress and reform.”
Before founding the profession of landscape architecture, Olmsted had been a reporter and superintendent of Central Park in New York City, a commission he had won with a design created with Calvert Vaux. Waldheim argued that the 1857 economic shock was a “hinge point” that created demand for a “whole new set of practices, focused on social justice, equity, and public reform.” Economic change created the conditions for landscape architecture.
According to John Stauffer, the Sumner R. and Marshall S. Kates professor of English and African and African American studies at Harvard, Olmsted was long interested in social reform, particularly in the South, where he traveled as a reporter for The New York Daily Times, which later became The New York Times. His reporting formed the basis of three books, which were later packaged in a single, more staunchly abolitionist book on the eve of the Civil War: The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveler’s Observations on Cotton And Slavery in the American Slave States, 1853-1861. “As a writer focused on slavery, he illuminated the South for the North,” Stauffer said. And his writings has enormous political impact: “Olmsted’s books convinced England to not recognize the Confederacy.”
Other than the first-person narratives by slaves in the South, Olmsted’s writings are the most “detailed and accurate slave narratives” available, Stauffer contends. While Olmsted wasn’t an abolitionist at least at first, he “gradually become anti-slavery.”
His early focus was on “improving the land, self, and society — and he championed restoration and regeneration.” He believed American regeneration required infrastructure, which in turn required broad public support and engagement with communities. He wanted to see the South and the rest of the country build public and democratically accessible canals, roads, town squares, parks, schools, and libraries.
While town squares and parks “partially existed in the South,” he found through his travels there were “very few roads and schools, and no restaurants or libraries.” The South had no public realm; it was all private land in the form of massive plantations. Through his depictions in his articles and books, he subtly spoke out about life on southern plantations and slavery.
He painted a portrait of plantations as “primitives places” where everyone working there was “mostly illiterate.” He saw plantations as small universes upon themselves, feudal societies, where the plantation owner was “judge and executioner.” He was horrified by the southern criminal system in which no slave was allowed to testify. His time living on plantations drove him to call for “public infrastructure for a democratic community.”
In the South, capital was invested in private land and human bodies and little in anything else. “Olmsted saw frontier conditions everywhere, dilapidation and carelessness.” While Southern romantic visions of an immaculate white house in a plantation were widespread, he found the reality was “less than 1 percent of the population were wealthy white planters; the rest lived in rude dwellings.” No aesthetic improvements were made for the non-elites, which created a “sense of backwardness” in the whole society.
Olmsted was anti-slavery, but he also wrote statements that are understood to be racist. While in his reporting he sought to be balanced — reporting both the perspective of the white landowner and the slave — he made comments such as “some slaves prefer being slaves.” But in his writings, he was also sympathetic to Black yeoman and subsistence farmers, Stauffer said.
Olmsted was a reformer in political, aesthetic, cultural, intellectual, and material senses. “His reform vision took an aesthetic form” in the design of a system of public parks and boulevards in so many cities. “Central Park is how he would have liked to improve the South, with all classes mixing.” However, it’s important to recognize that the creation of Central Park involved the displacement of Seneca Village, a Black middle class community, by the New York City government.
According to Sara Zewde, assistant professor in the practice of landscape architecture at Harvard University and founder of Studio Zewde, Olmsted forged the new field of landscape architecture as a way to “triangulate between his interests in farming, law, and politics.” There was no existing profession that brought all his interests together. And while the prevailing narrative about Olmsted is that he was first a journalist and then pivoted to become landscape architect, Zewde sees a “linearity in these interests.”
At the start of the Civil War, Olmsted was working on the same social reform and anti-slavery causes through his writings, advocacy, and design projects. “If we look chronologically at his works, he went back and forth between travel, advocacy, and landscape architecture practice. They were all very much part of the same project.”
For Zewde, a landscape architect, educator, and “Black woman raised in the South,” this is perhaps Olmsted’s most important legacy to the field of landscape architecture — he demonstrated its potential to work at multiple scales and in multiple formats, through writing, advocacy, and design.
With the beginning of the Civil War, he thought the institution of slavery was “corrosive” on southern society. “People who owned slaves had lost the ability to investment in themselves or their society. The health of soils, the landscape, and economy were all skewed. There was no innovation or culture, art, or civic ground.” Leaving Central Park while it’s still being constructed to re-write his articles for Cotton Kingdom is the “clearest articulation of how singular his interests are,” Zewde argued.
He also produced a spatial analysis of the Cotton Kingdom, mapping the concentration of enslaved people and the health of each southern state economy in order to show the “inverse relationship between ecological health and the distribution of resources and slavery.”
In 2013, Zewde followed the path of Olmsted’s journeys through the South to better understand his contribution to landscape-scale thinking. Retracing his steps, Zewde reached the conclusion that the socio-economic conditions Olmsted witnessed remain persistent 165 years later, but the physical conditions have changed. The landscapes of slavery have been “recast, obscured, and erased.”
Zewde wondered what Olmsted would think of landscape architecture being “used as a tool or weapon to untell stories.” For example, visiting Whole Field Square in Savannah, Georgia, Olmsted “took great care in transcribing the names on headstones in an African burial ground. He was very descriptive and expository.” But while visiting the site, Zewde found “no sign or marker of the existence of what he found.” Landscape architecture had recast the story of the place. Talking to visitors, “everyone had no idea what Olmsted witnessed or that were Black bodies buried there. The headstones had been removed to another part of the city, the ‘other side of the tracks.'”
Olmsted advocated for how the profession should be used — in the same tradition as his vision for reform. “Olmsted offered a methodological proposition — a multi-scalar approach looking at macro-ecologies and economies, down to the level of social interaction.” Following his model, landscape architecture is as focused on the “national state of democracy as what that means for a path in the park.”
In the Q&A, Waldheim noted that the idea of site design and politics as somehow in opposition is false. For Olmsted, “they were one in the same.”
For example, Stauffer noted that Olmsted was deeply suspicious of “privatized things,” like he found everywhere in the South. “He criticized that he couldn’t find a hotel room or restaurant anywhere on his travels.” For him, to improve a “community aesthetically and culturally was also political.”
While he isn’t sure Olmsted read Frederick Douglass’ writings on aesthetics and reform, he believed Olmsted, like Douglass, thought that “true art breaks down racial barriers because it highlights the essential equality of all people. Douglass’ aesthetic vision was: within unity, there is diversity, and within diversity, there is unity.” The poet Walt Whitman had a similar sentiment with “every blade of grass. Out of many one. Every human being is different, but equal despite differences.”
Zewde said in his personal letters Olmsted was much more “forthcoming and explicit” about his objections to slavery, but in his public writings was “more subversive in order to not lose his southern audience.”
His writings would describe the aesthetic qualities of the land, such as the light at dusk, which was then “paired with a shocking description of torture of a slave.” His writings were also “peppered with compelling conversations with enslaved people,” asking them what is most important to them. He relayed their “striving for life” amid details of the landscape. The “proposition is quite profound” — life and freedom are also about aesthetics. “The cultural and aesthetic framing of life makes it worth living.”
Speaking to one enslaved person, Olmsted asks them what they hope for if they became free. They said they wish to “have a home, plot of land, and a wife, to work the land.” Zewde believes this was a notable moment for Olmsted, who then carried these ideas back to New York and his future work creating public spaces.
The entire hour-long session posted by Olmsted 200 can also be watched below:
This Olmsted 200 program was co-sponsored and co-organized by ASLA and the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA).
Are European eco-cities models for the future or do they reflect poor urban design practices? During the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering, a group of architects and urban designers debated the merits of a few well-known sustainable cities, including Vauban in Freiburg, Germany; Bo01 in Malmö, Sweden; Kronsberg in Germany; and Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm, Sweden. While there was agreement on the need to densify cities through new compact low-carbon development, there was a lack of consensus on the best way to make sustainable communities more walkable and aesthetically pleasing and how to best incorporate landscape and access to nature.
According to Dhiru Thadani, an architect and urbanist, the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.2 billion by 2050. “Where will all these people live?,” he wondered.
Land scarcity isn’t the issue. “We could fit 14 billion people into the state of Texas if it was as dense as Paris.” But creating enough dense low-carbon communities is.
Increased density of human settlements is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Walkable, bikeable communities, with access to low-carbon transit, have the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any development model. The key to encouraging denser development is making these communities as livable and beautiful as possible.
Architect and academic Michael Dennis, author of Architecture & The City: Selected Essays, argued that “dense urbanism is the most efficient” way to live. He also believes that ecology can be integrated into compact developments — “density doesn’t preclude ecological considerations; ecology and density are fraternal twins.”
But he believes density must be the priority with any new development. Two-thirds of Americans now live in suburban environments where they are dependent on cars that use fossil fuels. These sprawled-out, car-based communities continues our dependence on the “oil empire.”
Citing arguments made in the books Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change by urban planner Peter Calthorpe and Green Metropolis by The New Yorker writer David Owen, Dennis argued that dense urbanism “uses less land, carbon, and energy, and is the best climate solution.” To stave off the climate crisis, “we have 10-15 years left to make major changes,” which he argues involves transforming our communities into higher-density ones. He added that “stormwater and recycling issues didn’t create this crisis.”
While contemporary European eco-cities offer a model for how to maximize density and incorporate ecological landscape design, his issue is with their urban forms, “which aren’t good.” He believes that the issue is “confusion in terms of the role of landscape: the urbanism-to-building connection.”
Dennis believes ecological systems can be integrated into traditional dense and humane European community forms, but European eco-cities haven’t created the right connections between urban form, buildings, landscape, and people. These communities have an urban design problem.
Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, which is one of the original European eco-cities built on the site of a former military base, “still looks like army barracks.” While Freiburg is a “beautiful traditional European city,” Vauban “looks like a trailer park on steroids, invaded by an untamed landscape that looks like a jungle.” Its environmental merits are solid — the development is powered by solar energy and includes all ultra-low energy passive house buildings — but “the landscape is confused and unclear.” It’s a “good environmental solution, but not necessarily good urbanism.” (Dennis didn’t mention the wealth of research on the health benefits of nearby nature).
As for Bo01, a development designed in the early 00s that is powered entirely by renewable energy, the community is too distinct from the beautiful streets and squares of Malmö. In Bo01, “there are no squares or real streets; it’s an architectural project, not an urbanism project. It’s formed of architectural lego blocks.”
For Dennis, Kronsberg was “so awful I couldn’t spend time on it.” Hammarby in Stockholm is the best of the set, but “it’s still problematic — it has an architectural design, not an urban design.”
John Ellis, a consulting principal, architect, and urban designer at Mithun, disagreed. “Hammarby isn’t as bad as Michael says.” The project, which transformed a polluted brownfield site, was created as part of an Olympics bid the city didn’t win. The development, which now has 20,000 residents and 11,000 jobs, was designed to extend public transit in a ring loop and provide close proximity to a number of other jobs in Stockholm. Hammarby is powered by 50 percent renewable energy and 50 percent biogas from waste.
There is a transit stop every 984 feet (300 meters), and the tram arrives every 12 minutes. Studies found that 80 percent of trips in Hammarby occur through walking, biking, or public transit.
Blocks were scaled at 200 feet by 360 feet, and buildings are all U-shaped in order to give everyone views of the surrounding lake. There are networks of landscaped pathways that criss-cross the development, adding green space and alternative ways to traverse the community. The development includes a high school and childcare facilities. “While there is a certain monotony, there are many ingredients that create a good urban pattern. And with buildings 5-8 stories tall, Hammarby is 2.5 times as dense as San Francisco,” Ellis said.
Architect Doug Farr, who Planetizen called one of the top 100 most influential urbanists, said the world is now facing a climate emergency, so we need to move on from the traditional urbanism of the past. A leading sustainable architect, he has also found design inspiration in Freiburg and Vauban, which he has studied in depth in person.
“Traditional urbanism is part of the fabric of 19th century Europe. But we are facing 21st century questions. Traditional urbanism is good for creating walkability, but development models can’t be fixed in amber. They need to evolve to meet the challenges of today.”
When Monuments Go Bad — 06/08/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“The Chicago Monuments Project is leading a city-wide dialogue in search of ways to resolve its landscape of problematic statues, and make room for a new, different kind of public memorial.”
Explore the Modernist Landscapes of Washington, D.C., with This New Illustrated Guide— 06/08/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Now, D.C.’s modernist landscapes are taking center stage with a new illustrated guide produced by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in partnership with the National Park Service. Titled D.C. Modernism, the handheld device-optimized, GPS-enabled city guide is the 18th of its kind to be produced by TCLF as part of the What’s Out There series.”
Van Buren believes that unearthing and rooting out “ingrained racism and patriarchy” requires daily practice because these issues are so embedded in our society. “There have been hundreds of years of displacement and disenfranchisement — redlining, ‘urban renewal,’ and reverse redlining in the form of predatory lending.” In too many communities, “there is a continued manifestation of racism through the co-location of toxic waste sites, freeways that cut through cultural hearts, inadequate housing, and food deserts.”
To bring equity to the built environment, architects, landscape architects, planners, and developers need to “stop creating prettier versions of racist systems.” Instead, planning and design professionals should focus on restorative justice, a system of justice “not anchored in enslavement, but in indigenous processes.”
Restorative justice is a process in which those who have created harm can make amends and heal the people they have hurt. In many communities, restorative justice is increasingly becoming a viable alternative to the conventional justice system. Cases are being steered out of court to mediators trained in restorative justice.
“The process involves Native American peace making approaches,” Van Buren explained. Peace making is led by a trusted elder figure, a “circle keeper,” who can facilitate the addressing of wrongs. Someone who stole a car or committed a theft at gunpoint sits in a circle across from the person they have wronged. Peace making has to be “hyper local but also happen on neutral ground.”
Her planning, design, and development projects all aim to replace the conventional justice system with a new holistic approach rooted in community needs.
In Syracuse, New York, her organization designed the Center for Court Innovation, a peace making center out of an abandoned house, creating a space that feels like a home, not a court, and include circles of chairs, sofas, a kitchen, and gardens. The center is a safe place and has become a true community mecca that offers food and drink and space for other events, even engagement parties.
Van Buren hopes restorative justice system will become the primary way to provide justice. She envisions a network of restorative justice centers distributed in neutral places, outside of gang zones, across communities.
In Oakland, California, she has been realizing this vision through Restore Oakland, which will host a “constellation of non-profit organizations” that provide both restorative justice and economics. In addition to peace making spaces, the center will include community organizing spaces and a restaurant on the ground floor that trains people to work in fine dining. “It will be an anchor for this entire community.”
To create more equitable and safe communities in the Bay Area, Van Buren and her team are also co-organizing pop-up villages with custom-crafted wood stalls. “These are temporary projects designed for impact.” Visitors can have everything from a breast cancer screening to an AIDS test to a haircut. “These villages help build community relationships, which is how we keep people safe and also support local businesses.”
In another project, Van Buren’s organization re-imagined a re-entry center for incarcerated women. “When they get out of prison, they are confronted with so many barriers.” Her team collaborated with women just released to design a mobile refuge that provides a safe space to get oriented before moving to transitional housing and its dormitory living. The mobile refuge provides therapy and social services.
Another goal is repurposing hundreds of downtown jails that have closed in recent years. “These are toxic holes in downtowns that can be re-imagined as community centers,” she said.
Van Buren has worked with community groups to re-imagine the Atlanta City detention center as a community center with co-located city services and new revenue streams. One option is to daylight the old jail, creating daycare space and meeting rooms. With the right broadband infrastructure, the dark spaces in the bowels of the building could be rented out as server farms. Another option is to simply tear the existing building down and distribute restorative justice centers across the city.
And over the long-term, Van Buren wants to see more wealth come to underserved communities. This can happen if more low-income residents can purchase their own homes or earn profits from development projects.
In Detroit, Van Buren’s team and a number of partners are working on an ambitious community land trust — the Love Campus, which aims to “build the infrastructure to end mass incarceration by creating re-investments that can divert funding from criminal justice into restorative community assets.”
Retrofitted buildings will become an arts and culture hub, with low-cost gallery space, digital fabrication tools, and industrial design spaces. The community development will also include housing; job training, because “people don’t kill each other when they have jobs;” and a youth center, because “youth have no place to go.” The project will be crowd-funded so people who don’t meet minimum real estate investment thresholds can participate in wealth generation. “Affordable housing is a poverty trap; people need to own their own homes.”
These projects demonstrate that designers play an important role — they can “ignite radical imagination, create a co-learning process and democratic tools for change.”
People living in dense cities are among the least happy. Their rates of depression are 40 percent higher than other populations; and their rates of anxiety are 20 percent higher. Why? Because the built environment is directly linked with happiness and well-being, and too often urban environments fail to put people at ease.
In a session at the American Planning Association’s virtual conference, Justin Hollander, professor of urban and environmental planning and policy at Tufts University, said planners, landscape architects, and architects have a responsibility to design a built environment that increases well-being. Through his fascinating research on cognitive architecture, he has found “we are deeply influenced by our surroundings” — even more than we know.
“We have an automatic (non-conscious) response to shapes, patterns, and colors. Our minds are like icebergs — we are only aware of less than 5 percent of our responses to our environment,” Hollander said. These findings, which are covered in greater detail in his book Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, co-authored with Ann Sussman, have significant implications for the planning and design of communities.
Hollander argued that “humans are wall-hugging species. Well-defined corridors and streets encourage our walking.” (see image at top)
On an innate level, humans are also “programmed to look for faces everywhere.” This may be why many traditional or vernacular buildings almost look like faces, with a central door and windows on either side.
Humans connect with these forms because they help us tell stories about buildings and places. “We go to places because of stories we tell ourselves. We can imagine identities in these places. Tourist attractions always tell a story.”
Given nature is our original context, humans also have an innate biophilia — a deep attraction to and affinity for nature. “It’s an artifact of evolution.”
As we now understand, humans are drawn to landscapes that provide a refuge, a sense of safety, and prospect, a view of the entire scene, which supports that sense of safety. Storytelling is also important in landscapes, whether they are gardens, parks, or streetscapes. Humans are drawn to landscapes that provide clear sequences.
In his lab, Hollander uses 3M’s visual attention software to map the path students’ eyes take across an image — where they fixate and experience an unconscious response to visual stimuli. In a study of 30 students, Hollander found they universally looked at the entrance and windows on a traditonal building first, ignoring the blank areas. And when he showed students’ eye tracks of a contemporary all-glass library, they fixated briefly on the edges, but the glass facade itself seemed faceless, almost invisible. They just looked at the sky because the image simply caused too much cognitive stress. (In the image below, the areas of highest fixation are in red, followed by orange, with blue indicating the least attention).
Hollander said eye tracking software shows that New Urbanist-style communities, which have homes closer to the street; traditional architecture that mimic faces; and sidewalks all “encourage walking.” If a pedestrian can see a sequence — one, two, three, four homes in a row — they are more likely to want to walk down that row. He knows this because he could see the students unconsciously looking at all the facades down the street in a sequence.
In contrast, an image of a row of parking garages, with no clear doors or windows, caused students to scan for windows, quickly give up, and again look at the sky. “There was far less visual intensity, and it’s a less walkable environment.”
Flags and columns succeed in grabbing attention, which has been known for millennia. Flags predate permanent settlements, and the ancient Greeks and Romans used columns in their architecture.
Why does this matter? Hollander argues that environments that are easier to fixate on cause less cognitive stress.
Megan Oliver, an urbanist based in Baltimore, Maryland, and founder of Hello Happy Design, said the research of Hollander and others is critical, because there is a “mental health crisis” in the U.S., particularly American cities.
People are constantly responding to the built environment and in turn trying to shape it in order to reduce the impact of environmental stressors, such as blank glass or concrete building facades, crowds, noise, and air pollution. These stressors combine to make people anxious, sick, and unhappy.
In contrast, happy places are designed to encourage pro-social behavior. This is because “people need social connections in order to thrive.” Happy places help create layers of social relations, including “weak ties,” which are actually very important. “Weak ties create a sense of belonging and identity. They build trust, which helps pull communities through challenges.” Communities with higher weak ties and trust fought the COVID-19 pandemic better.
Oliver argued that communities with pro-social behavior are also more inclusive and participatory and therefore better at shaping the built environment to meet their needs. The ethos in these communities is “change ourselves by changing the city.” These communities shape their spaces, creating shared identity through gardens, public art, and other improvements that help reduce stressors. Happy places then go beyond “places we inhabit and become extensions of ourselves.” These places enable us to “bond with the environment around us.”
Architect Don Ruggles, CEO of Ruggles Mabe Studio, argued that “humans are always looking for safe spaces. We think about survival every minute of the day. But beauty is equally as important. We have an intuitive response — it creates a sense of pleasure.”
The problem, he argues, is that “our survival instinct is about five-to-seven times stronger than our pleasure instinct,” so anything in the built environment that is a stressor overwhelms our ability to experience beauty. He called for designers to focus on projects that engage our parasympathetic system that create deep relaxation so that pleasure can be experienced.
According to Nikos Salingaros, professor of mathematics, architecture, urban, and complexity theory at the University of Texas at San Antonio, architects today are wed to a style rooted in 1920s Germany — the Bauhaus — that creates an unhealthy built environment. “Trillions of dollars are wasted on creating stylistically irrelevant glass boxes that are essentially invisible to people. Whole cities — districts, neighborhoods, and downtowns — have become invisible, because of the geometries and math of the structures built.” Given humans are cognitively stressed by Modernist or contemporary glass buildings, these places are “close to malpractice, based on the medical evidence.”
Instead, Salingaros called for privileging human connections through walkable, bikeable places. “Start with network connectivity. No giant blocks. Create intimate networks that are comfortable to humans.” Furthermore, all urban spaces should be “continuations of those people-centric networks. Use the correct dimensions, apply pattern languages, and make the boundaries of buildings and spaces permeable.”
Urban designers, architects, and landscape architects should be “applying mathematical symmetries at multiple scales. The urban, landscape, architectural, and ornamental scale should all be aligned through sub-symmetries” — or the entire design will fail. “The measure of success will be the flow of people.”
He especially cautioned against contemporary buildings that purposefully try to be disharmonious — “these place intentionally violate symmetry laws,” creating stress in their attempt to grab attention.
For Ann Sussman, an architect, author, and researcher, designers can retrofit environments that create stress and anxiety, but only to a degree. She pointed to a project in Somerville, Massachusetts, where the negative impact of the blank concrete wall of a parking garage was mitigated through public art and greenery. Students shown the blank wall and then an image of the redesigned wall while wearing eye-tracking monitors experienced higher visual fixation on the art.
But in the case of a car-centric suburb, with a wide road with few houses along it, even adding in sidewalks would do little to reduce the impact of its inherent car-centric nature. “As people look down the street, they can’t fixate on the sidewalk and therefore safety. There are some suburbs built in the 1950s and 60s that just will never be walkable. These places are too foreign to our brain architecture.”
Unfortunately, new developments can have the same problems. Sussman asked: “Why is the Seaport district in South Boston so loathed? It’s because people can’t focus on it — they can’t anchor their sight on the glass buildings, so their fixation is anchored to the sky.”
During the pandemic, many neighborhoods that were once bounded by streets designed primarily for cars became permeable and open. With the spread of open, slow, or shared streets, pedestrians and cyclists quickly took over traffic lanes, creating an expanded, often safer public realm. Vehicular traffic into downtowns and town centers also saw a dramatic decline, which made wider streets and boulevards and expansive parking lots ripe for transformation into safe spaces for exercise and socially-distanced community events.
Now that the coronavirus is ebbing, at least in many parts of the U.S., communities are wrestling with the legacy of their open streets initiatives. Should some streets remain pedestrian and bicyclist-first spaces? Should temporary changes to slow or ban cars be made permanent? How can landscape architects and planners sort through the options?
In a session at the American Planning Association’s virtual conference, Lian Farhi, senior transportation planner with Sam Schwartz in Brooklyn, New York, said when reevaluating new shared spaces and deciding whether to make them permanent, communities should first ask: “what is their added value?”
Communities need a “decision-making framework, with overall goals and objectives,” she said. Temporary street closures, pop-up parklets, painted sidewalks and bike lanes, and other new shared outdoor dining and recreational spaces should be evaluated in terms of “usage, safety, accessibility, equity, diversity, mobility, and maintenance requirements.”
The city government of New York City, which opened up 60 miles of streets in five boroughs to pedestrian and bicycle use during the height of the pandemic, is now looking again at some of their temporary open streets.
Irene Figueroa-Ortiz, senior project manager with NYC’s department of transportation, said of all their pilot open streets, 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, was the most successful. “26 continuous blocks were closed to cars and immediately taken over by people.” Parts of the avenue in front of schools became expanded playgrounds and used as educational spaces. Figueroa-Ortiz said “there’s now broad public support for this new public space. The community wants to make it permanent.”
To determine whether to keep 34th Avenue open, the city needs to measure impact. Her department has undertaken an extensive multi-cultural community engagement process in Jackson Heights, one of the most diverse communities in the country, with surveys, webinars, and design workshops, supported by real-time translation in numerous languages.
The department of transportation received more than 2,000 responses to their requests for input, whereas before they would expect around 100 responses. The feedback is helping to map out safety concerns, determine community members’ satisfaction, and re-imagine traffic lights and flow to enhance safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Figueroa-Ortiz said that survey results also show that open streets in New York City “weren’t successful in underserved communities, because of higher crime rates and the fact that essential workers were too busy to take advantage of the spaces. But overall, only a handful of shared streets in NYC were deemed unsuccessful.”
Steven Bossler, a landscape architect and planner who founded Shift Planning and Design in Denver, Colorado, said putting together packages of small federal, state, and local recovery grants has been critical to making temporary COVID-19 park and streetscape improvement projects come together — and more financing will be needed to make them permanent.
Olde Town Arvada, a community in Colorado, found the funds to reimagine their streets as public spaces free of cars. Restaurants and stores lining the street saw a 200 percent increase in foot traffic, which was matched by a 200 percent increase in sales tax receipts. Now coming out of the worst of the pandemic, “80 percent of residents say the open street should continue.”
But in Paonia, Colorado, which used $46,000 in state grants matched with $8,000 in local funds to undertake temporary tactical urbanism projects, the results were less positive. Projects included vibrant painted crosswalks, bump-out parklets, and bike lanes. “Residents liked the greenery and colorful sidewalks, but didn’t like that parking was removed for the new bike lanes,” Bossler said. (The survey results are worth a read).
Jenny Baker, a land use consultant with Clarion Associates in Denver, Colorado, said communities can better leverage their zoning code to make long-term changes now that the coronoavirus is being contained by greater numbers of vaccinated people. “Codes can be used, for example, to enable outdoor seating. Parking requirements can also be revisited.”
Baker said much still needs to be figured out to make these new open streets permanent. “Where do the intersections begin and end? If there are now different visual cues at intersections, how do people navigate safely? Are shared streets legally the right-of-way or park space? Do the agencies managing these spaces need to change? Some of these things are a little difficult to answer.”
Just as temporary COVID-19 solutions were largely driven by local needs, long-term changes will be as well. But, hopefully, greater flexibility and experimentation are here to stay.
Anna Halprin, Teacher and Choreographer Who Embraced Improvisational Style, Dies — 05/25/21, The Washington Post
“Mrs. Halprin [wife of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin] made a bold statement by making California her base. ‘I’m accused of being touchy-feely,’ she once said. ‘Well, I am. California is a very sensual place, and its landscape has become my theater. I’ve found much inspiration in the way nature operates.'”
Canadian Landscape Architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Dies at 99 — 05/24/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“German-born Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, who revolutionized mid-20th century urban play spaces and cleared the path for women in the profession, has died in Vancouver, British Columbia, just weeks ahead of what would have been her centenary on June 20.”