Decades of redlining and urban renewal, rooted in racist planning and design policies, created the conditions for gentrification to occur in American cities. But the primary concern with gentrification today is displacement, which primarily impacts marginalized communities shaped by a history of being denied access to mortgages. At the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, Matthew Williams, ASLA, with the City of Detroit’s planning department, said in his city there are concerns that new green spaces will increase the market value of homes and “price out marginalized communities.” But investment in green space doesn’t necessarily need to lead to displacement. If these projects are led by marginalized communties, they can be embraced.
For example, efforts to enhance the Dequindre Cut in Detroit by transforming it into a 2-mile-long greenway were rooted in community needs and therefore have been supported. While the planning and design work by SmithGroup on the greenway corridor has led to positive economic impact, including growing nearby entrepreneurship and visitor engagement, it also expanded open space, expanded community development, and lifted up local graffiti artists. “We allowed the graffiti to stay and created canvases for more to come. It’s an avant-garde form of historic preservation, and a way to activate a latent, forgotten place.”
Another project is Ella Fitzgerald Park, in the Fitzgerald community, one of 10 key neighborhoods where the planning department has focused housing, park, and economic development investment. Given the neighborhood is experiencing high levels of bankruptcies and foreclosures, many remaining homeowners in the neighborhood can’t sell their homes. Instead of seeing a new community park and greenway designed by landscape architecture firm Spackman, Mossop, and Michaels and built by the city as a gentrifying force, it was welcomed as a safe place for children to play. “It was a needed change,” Williams said.
The Joe Louis Greenway, named after the famous athlete, spans 27.5-miles from downtown Detroit to Dearborn, once a segregated Black city. A “vision of inclusive design, the project is a form of green reparation,” Williams argued. The city has overlaid where redlining had the most destructive impact in Detroit and surrounding communities and has used green amenities to undo part of the damage. “We can focus on those red areas on the redlining maps, transforming them into productive, innovative, and ecological areas.” Planning and design efforts with SmithGroup included significant community engagement. Strategic green spaces, rooted in community desires, are one of “our best tools to address the mistakes of the past.”
Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, director and professor of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington and current fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, received a 2020 research prize from the SOM Foundation for her work, Reclaiming Black Settlements: A Design Playbook for Historic Communities in the Shadow of Sprawl. Her research has involved mapping Black Freedmen’s communities across Texas and included seven research projects in the Dallas / Ft. Worth area. Along the Trinity River, Allen has been immersing herself in “the bottom lands, the industrial lands” where many Black communities made their home. Despite the long-term environmental justice issues, these communities are still facing displacement pressures. “Riverfronts are hot right now, the place to be,” she said.
The existing community isn’t reacting negatively to Harold Simmons Park, a park planned on the Trinity River by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates because it would create “healthy social spaces along the river.” To ensure housing prices in Black communities near the park don’t go up, a development corporation linked with a local church is “getting ahead of the curve and stabilizing and renovating homes.”
Another community down river, the Garden of Eden, founded by a Black family in 1881, has been impacted by concrete companies that dug industrial gravel pits along the river. Once leases on the land ended, the companies were supposed to fill in those gravel pits but never did. So the community is “reclaiming those pits through green infrastructure, creating recreational spaces.”
And at the last of the seven sites studied along the river, Joppa, a historic Freedmen’s town, there is the Joppee Lakes project, the site of a railroad and concrete plant which is being re-imagined as a stormwater solution for downtown Dallas. The Army Corps of Engineers turned the site over to the City of Dallas, which is in turn working with Black community there to revamp the Honey Springs Branch Park surrounding the lake as a community hub with green infrastructure that can handle both sewage treatment and provide recreation.
To avoid green gentrification, Allen said it’s key to “understand the history of each place. Design has to be grounded, and history is really powerful.” Black Freedmen’s communities along the Trinity River have created a community roundtable and are “envisioning the future together.” They are sharing “funding and grant sources, and talking about the issues.” Freedmen’s town groups are also “linking green spaces, creating a trail that will connect them all.” They are “very smart about the politics and policy and the air quality issues around transportation and cement plants.” Landscape architects can work with communities like these to help them “articulate the issues” and “promote and enhance connections with each other.”
Boston has invested $5 million to re-imagine Frederick Law Olmsted’s Franklin Park in Boston’s Dorchester, Jamaica Plains, and Roxbury neighborhoods. A team led by landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand is spearheading the action plan effort and includes MASS Design Group, which is focusing on the “city edge’s and neighborhood connections,” and Agency Landscape + Planning, which is focusing on public engagement, planning, and programming. According to Sierra Bainbridge, ASLA, a landscape architect and senior principal with MASS Design Group, her organization is seeking to answer questions like: “Can we connect present and future generations to the park? Can the surrounding neighborhoods benefit from the procurement process for a redesigned park?”
Bainbridge argued that park’s ill-conceived boundaries are keeping many people out. The edges, which are “prohibiting access,” include 3-4 lane streets with no lighting for crosswalks. There are also no local businesses along the park, so if food trucks aren’t there, visitors need to bring in their own food and drink. “There is a huge opportunity to increase connections between the park and local community, particularly through large events.”
While planning and zoning changes need to happen to grow local business presence around the park, Bainbridge said procurement is also a powerful tool for increasing community engagement with the revamped Olmsted park. Looking to MASS Design Group’s work in Rwanda as a model, she said training and hiring local artists, masons, and workers was key to creating a sense of ownership around the organization’s community healthcare projects. “The question for many was ‘who is this project for?; we showed them that it is for them.” As a result, community members who worked on the project began to trust in the mission and started going to the care center and hospitals.
In the same vein, Franklin Park can create opportunities for local artists and workers. There is some flexibility in Boston’s procurement procedures if the amounts are under $10,000. “There is potentially a way to also phase larger projects in smaller amounts” to give more local businesses and artists chances to bid. As part of the project, the team is also training small minority- and women-owned businesses to take advantage of these opportunities. “Training costs less than 10 percent of the project, but the impact is multiplied throughout the community. Training is embedded in the plan.”
Why Pittsburgh Is Dimming Its Streetlights — 12/14/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Pittsburgh is becoming the first city in the eastern U.S. to become dark sky compliant, meaning it will switch to LED lightbulbs that reduce light pollution and put the stars in view.”
Trauma-Informed Design Turns an Old Church into a Family Shelter — 12/10/21, Portland Monthly
“Cathy Corlett of Corlett Landscape Architecture planned the Family Village gardens, creating spaces specifically designed to promote joy and play through the use of curves and round forms. ‘You get a sense of freedom with soft and welcoming boundaries,’ Corlett says.”
Ensamble Studio Plans Multipurpose ‘Desert Rocks’ Landscape in Saudi Arabia’s AlUla Region — 12/09/21, DesignBoom
“‘The project departs from identifying iconic rocks of alUla and recognizing their value as places,’ notes the studio. ‘From the nabatean monument of Madain Saleh and the pre-arabic inscriptions of Jabal Ikmah, to the many natural formations – like elephant rock, arch rock or hand rock– the sculptural character and cultural meaning of these stony create strong attraction forces for both visitors and locals alike.'”
Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden Redesign Is Approved — 12/02/21, The New York Times
“The much-debated plan by Hiroshi Sugimoto will overhaul the Brutalist design by Gordon Bunshaft, adding open-air galleries, a new water feature and improved access.”
Landscape architects can play a powerful role in changing lives — possibly in ways most haven’t fully contemplated. The spaces they design have the potential to measurably improve the health and well-being of those who spend time in them.
At Nature Sacred, we have spent the past 25 years creating green spaces – or what we call Sacred Places – with the sole intent of bringing nature to people so they could benefit from this restorative, healing connection. From the very beginning, we asked ourselves: how can we work with communities to create spaces that more fully capture the benefits nature has to offer? How do we incorporate established design principles while, at the same time, create spaces that resonate with people and their lived experiences? We knew instinctively that the two went hand-in-hand.
Working with landscape architects, academics, and on the ground with communities, we honed an approach to creating green spaces where people live, work, play and heal that is a blend of scientific evidence and ground truth. We’re sharing this approach in a new report that we released just two weeks ago at ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville.
The report, written by Nature Sacred’s Neha Srinivasan, MLA; and edited by Nature Sacred Design Advisor and University of Maryland Assistant Professor Naomi A. Sachs, ASLA, PhD, is intended to be a resource for landscape architects interested in creating green spaces that are designed to encourage contemplation and connection with nature.
Over the years, the science around the nature-health connection has continued to grow. While anecdotally, most wouldn’t argue with the statement that time spent in nature is health-building, the scientific evidence proves that nature has remarkable therapeutic benefits. Not to mention, our approach to designing nature spaces in cities is so critical to preserving our natural ecosystems and mitigating the negative health and ecological impacts of global warming.
The role of landscape architect is more influential than at any other point in history.
Using this research, landscape architects and designers can make stronger health-based arguments to decision makers and number crunchers to integrate thoughtful design of green spaces into larger planning projects — nature zones for recharging and wellness that will become magnets for the community.
For the research portion of this paper, we focused our attention on four domains: nature’s impact on individual, community, economic and ecological health. A few highlights of the research:
Individual health: Time spent in nature can reduce cortisol levels and symptoms of depression; research also suggests it can slow cognitive declines in people with dementia and improve memory and concentration — including in children with ADHD.
Community health: Easy access to shared green space and tree canopy in particular can influence drops in acts of aggression, violence and crime by 40-50% especially in public spaces, where trees are 40% more effective at reducing crime than trees on private property.
Economic health: Researchers have observed improvements in health perception comparable to a $10,000 increase in annual income with the addition of just 10 trees.
Ecological health: Healthy natural spaces provide carbon sequestration, filtration of air and water pollutants, reduced load on drainage systems, and decreased intensity of the deadly urban heat island effect.
All of these benefits can be reaped in small instances of nature — a pocket park, for instance.
Some of these benefits are what you might call passive; i.e. the sheer existence of the trees or well-planned green spaces will help address challenges related to carbon sequestration and water pollutants whether the community engages with the space or not. However, for many of the individual and community health benefits to kick in, people must engage with nature. Spend time in the green space.
And this is where Nature Sacred has spent a lot of energy over the past two decades — looking at how to best engage the community and how to best design so that the community embraces, and spends time in, their green space.
Suggestions for design
We grouped specific design suggestions into three outcome categories: making people feel welcomed, encouraging them to explore and play, and giving a site a specific purpose or two.
And central to the Nature Sacred approach: incorporating elements that are familiar to a community or reflective of its culture. This can go a long way toward helping nearby residents see themselves represented in a space, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will spend time in space and that it will become a Nature Sacred’s approach to designing landscapes involves four guiding principles, four design elements and one signature fixture. These ensure that our Sacred Places are optimally suited to meet the needs of the people they serve.
Four guiding principles
Every Sacred Place is designed to be:
Open and welcoming to everyone.
Nearby where people live, work, play and heal. Only when green space is conveniently reachable can it become an integral part of people’s everyday lives.
Community-led — This refers to both the creation and long-term stewardship; this is key ensuring the space is deeply rooted within the spirit of those it will serve.
Sacred — Meaning, this is a community-led space that strengthens ties, restores connection to nature and offers solace and rejuvenation.
Four design elements
Every Sacred Place incorporates a portal, path, destination and surround; a response to humans’ overarching need for cohesive structure in landscape. It’s important to note though that there are as many interpretations of these elements as there are Sacred Places.
Portal — An entry point to the site that indicates that one is stepping into an intentionally created space.
Path — A guide, slowly leading visitors deeper into the space and giving them a journey to follow.
Destination — An end point to which the path leads. In Sacred Places, this is often the Nature Sacred bench, which holds a waterproof journal to collect the thoughts and musings of visitors to the space.
Surround — A design feature that creates the sensation of being embraced and sheltered within the space — a feeling of refuge and safety.
In the paper, we share images, examples, of how these elements have been interpreted by communities in their Sacred Places. For instance, at the Sacred Place at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Falls Church, Virginia, peace poles decorated in the many languages of the diverse immigrant community around the church serve as the portal into the space. And at the Sacred Place at Brooklyn’s Naval Cemetery Landscape, a boardwalk, a suspended path, leads visitors through a wildflower meadow, allowing them to experience it without disturbing the former burial grounds and native plants growing beneath their feet.
More examples of the interpretations of these design elements can be found in the paper as well as on our website.
We believe the research and guidance laid out in this paper, coupled with a landscape architect’s own experience, can lead to the creation of more green spaces that truly improve society on multiple fronts. As advocates for nature, the planet and people, landscape architects are in an ideal position to communicate to clients and partners the crucial need to value and prioritize green space in our built environments.
During Courageous by Design, a day-long conference organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in New York City, women leaders outlined what can be done as landscape architects, designers, and horticulturalists to address the twinned climate and biodiversity crises. From the federal and state to local and site levels, landscape architects can advocate through design to change policies, shift mindsets, and introduce more sustainable and resilient practices. Each landscape project, no matter how small, offers an opportunity for positive change and to set new standards for climate-responsible design.
For Heather Morgan, director of climate risk adaptation at AECOM, partnering with the federal government can be challenging because there are “layers of hundreds of years of rules and regulations.” Furthermore, “federal systems can’t move with the pace, agility, and innovation needed to face our climate crisis.” But she urged landscape architects to take the time to figure out the rules of engagement in the federal system.
She called on landscape architects to improve federal decision-makers’ understanding of nature-based solutions. “Many federal workers want to try these approaches and have a passion for them, so don’t assume they don’t.” Take time to empower public servants through workshops and educational opportunities. Educate Congressional representatives and their staff and invite them on site tours. At the state and local levels, advance the understanding of non-federal sponsors of projects. Infrastructural projects led by the Army Corps of Engineers require 35 percent of funding to come from state and local sources. Those local project sponsors and financing sources can be a more direct way to incorporate nature-based solutions.
Landscape architects can use “funded and real” state-funded projects to “push for more climate positive actions,” said Signe Nielsen, FASLA, a founding principal at MNLA in New York City. She asked landscape architects to “look for opportunities in site constraints to advance climate resilience and circumvent ‘this can’t be done’ attitudes.”
For example, her firm’s work on Hunts Point Riverside Park in the South Bronx, New York (see image at top), the first new park in that underserved community in 60 years, involved navigating complex state and local regulations and required a herculean effort to convince regulators to abandon sewer and water lines to the park so that the totality of an 100-foot easement could be used for the public landscape.
She also told the story of how it took her seven years to convince regulators to incorporate solar-powered, instead of hardwired, street lamps in a new park on the Lower East Side in an area at high risk of flooding. After years of providing testimonials, working with the manufacturer to study prototypes, and sharing findings with regulators, “at last, we prevailed,” and solar-powered street lamps will “be the standard in near-future flood risk areas.” Her lessons learned: “be tenacious, find solutions, and keep persevering — even small projects can make a big impact.”
Annette Wilkus, FASLA, founding partner of SiteWorks, pivoted the conversation to how to move forward ecological restoration, improve biodiversity, and realize climate-responsible landscapes through permitting, design construction, and maintenance. She said “permitting doesn’t stop when construction begins. Unexpected things happen in construction, which require more permits.” She sees her role as transforming “what landscape architects seek to evoke through their designs” into a reality that can be preserved and maintained over time.
This work involves thinking through the economic sustainability and long-term maintenance plans of new climate-smart projects. As part of the re-imagining of the Houston Botanic Garden, a project planned and designed by landscape architecture firm West 8, Wilkus worked with the garden’s board of trustees to create a staff and budget plan, wading into the organizational chart to determine where new resources need to be added to ensure the new sustainable gardens are well-supported.
And for a new project by MNLA at the 25-acre Roberto Clemente State Park in Bronx, New York, Wilkus created an easy-to-understand and highly visual maintenance manual with the team charged with maintaining the site. “The maintenance staff were ecstatic about it.” She urged the audience to “really think about maintenance” requirements at the beginning to ensure that climate solutions “survive over time.”
The conversation then shifted to how landscape architects can become better stewards of biodiversity in the age of “eco-cide,” which is caused by climate change, habitat loss, and development and a process in which ecosystems are collapsing, more species face extinction, and the number of animals, plants, and insects in our landscapes continues to decline.
At Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP) in Brooklyn, New York, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), the landscape architecture firm that has led the development of the park over the past twenty years, purposefully designed diverse wildlife habitats into a park visited by millions of people each year, said Rebecca McMackin, the park’s director of horticulture. BBP includes wetlands and grasslands, providing critical habitat for a range of birds that fly over. Even these relatively small stop-over points are vitally important given the U.S. has lost 30 percent of its bird population in the last 50 years and over 50 percent of grassland birds.
Together with the BBP team, they crafted an ecological approach rooted in “adaptive evolution” that enabled the park to thrive as a biodiverse hub in the midst of the city. While most urban landscapes are designed with plants in a fixed place, MVVA created a series of landscapes that function like ecosystems, with plants duking it out over light, water, and resources, creating a subtly shifting park in which plants “compete, die, and reproduce.” This requires a new approach to stewardship.
McMackin evoked a sense of wonder at the profound impact of trees. When a tree shed its leaves in the fall, those leaves provide a layer that protects the tree’s roots during the winter but also creates a very “biologically active space” for beetles, bumblebees, and other insects. She showed photos of foxes and owls diving into this layer for food during lean, cold months. Those leaves also decompose and turn into soil that in turn nourishes the tree and aids carbon uptake. She explained all of this to say that “it’s important to leave the leaves, which enables all of this to happen. Gardeners at BBP have been trained to get out of the way of the natural cycle.” In the meadows, gardeners are careful when they cut back the grasses in the spring to leave seeds on the ground for birds that have nested. When trimming back Aster trees, they also do this carefully to not disturb the caterpillars that live on the roots at the base of the trees.
All of this precision stewardship of the wildlife has great benefits for park visitors, too. Katydids have transformed the park with their music, creating a biophilic response that aids in relaxation. Because BBP doesn’t spray herbicides in the park, aphids have survived, which in turns attracts charming ladybugs. Walking Stick insects have been recently spotted in the park; “they haven’t been seen in NYC for ages.” BBP is also now home to a very rare bee — the blueberry digger bee. Brooklyn Bridge Park shows that organically-managed parks, with organically-grown native plants and trees, can “become an ecological refuge in cities.” Over the long-term, “respectful, adaptive management” is key to success (and so is buying native plants not treated with any chemicals).
Deeply concerned about the impact of climate change on the next generation, and their already tenuous connection with nature, Barbara Wilks, FASLA, founding principal of W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, cited a recent survey of 1,000 park goers in New York City that found 50 percent haven’t experienced nature outside of the five boroughs. With this understanding, it’s crucial that every available space be used to advance climate positive design and also to provide pockets of biodiversity, which can forge those connections to nature so critical to future stewardship. “Landscape architects can bring systemic thinking to the small scale,” and these smaller projects can be connected into “large-scale infrastructure.”
Urban forestry presents a major opportunity to address the climate crisis and increase biodiversity. A broad-based campaign among non-profit groups in the city calls for achieving a 30 percent tree canopy by 2035; currently, only 21 percent of the city is estimated to be covered by trees, far lower than other major American cities. Her streetscape projects in the city over the past twenty years have layered in diverse tree species in urban woodlands that go beyond the typical street tree format. Wilks has also proposed “marine streets” where dead-end streets that come to the water could be transformed into living, dynamic edges. “Give nature agency” wherever possible, “keep it wild,” and embrace “the dynamics of messy landscapes.”
“Every landscape needs to be an act of activism on biodiversity,” argued East Hampton, New York-based landscape designer Edwina Von Gal, Affil. ASLA, founder of the Perfect Earth Project. Her organization is focused on creating non-toxic landscapes free of pesticides and filled with native plants.
“We’ve lost 2.9 billion birds over the past 50 years. Birds have been impacted by a loss of habitat, pesticides, and loss of insect populations.” To address this crisis, she has also launched a campaign — two-thirds for the birds and asked for a commitment from the audience of hundreds of designers to design better habitat for birds, with at least two-thirds native plants in every project. “That means two native plants for every other plant” and zero pesticides.
She also called for “less mow and blow, less pollution, cleaner water, more on-site composting and biomassing.” Appalled by pristine landscapes free of fallen leaves and insects, she said “design has become so reduced, simplistic, and controlled. That tidy look is the direction we can’t go; that sanitized look can no longer be aspirational. Nature is so beautifully designed and messy. We need to support all the little wild lives that support us.”
As British environmental writer George Monbiot argues, “human survival is now a niche interest.” Von Gal took this further, arguing that landscape architects and designers “can create places for biodiversity — nature-based places — and massively enlarge the niche.”
During another turbulent year, books remain a respite, enabling us to recharge and regroup in our efforts to tackle some of the most pressing problems. Over the holidays, now is a great time to delve into new books that offer fresh perspectives and help us reimagine what is possible. Whether you are looking for the perfect gift for your favorite designer or something to read yourself, explore THE DIRT’s 11bestbooks of 2021:
Landscape architect B. Cannon Ivers, the London-based director of LDA Design, was inspired by architecture critic and educator Michael Sorkin, who authored 250 Things an Architect Should Know and passed away from COVID-19 in 2020. Ivers brings together 50 leading landscape architects, designers, and educators from around the world, including Anita Berrizbeita, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, James Corner, ASLA, Gina Ford, FASLA, Kongjian Yu, FASLA, and Sara Zewde, who each offer five brief musings, exhortations, poems, or reminders, accompanied by an image. Of the 250 things included: “Know when to throw confetti,” by Martí Franch; “Bitches get stuff done,” by Kate Orff, FASLA; and “Waterscape urbanism as the way forward” by Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA.
“Everyone should read this book [by Carolyn Kousky, Billy Fleming, ASLA, and Alan M. Berger] to see how the field of landscape architecture might help cities adapt to a changing climate, particularly with new federally-funded infrastructure investments. Each chapter of this book reaches beyond the conventional limits of our professional knowledge, by degrees or by leaps,” writes Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, associate professor of landscape architecture, environmental planning, and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley in her review. “The most important bar this anthology has set for other books about adaptation is to place questions about funding and policy side-by-side with design proposals. For setting that bar higher, we should all thank the editors.” Read the full review.
Barbara Wilks, FASLA, founding principal of W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, shares her firm’s work in this new monograph filled with inviting images. In her review, Grace Mitchell Tada, Assoc. ASLA, writes: “As our climate shifts in increasingly surprising ways, the landscape architect’s challenge is to predict how and at what rate our world will change and to create designs that will adapt accordingly. Perhaps, like Wilks argues, allowing for nature’s agency is the key to effective adaptation.” Read the full review.
This comprehensive, 635-page how-to guide by Bruce Dvorak, ASLA, associate professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at Texas A&M University, and a slew of contributors — the rare book that wins an ASLA Professional Research Honor Award — is for any landscape architect or designer serious about integrating biodiversity into their green roof projects. In the forward, landscape architect David Yocca, FASLA, chair of the Green Infrastructure Foundation, says the book makes the case for “greater exploration, trials, and research for ecological surfaces in the face of a rapidly changing climate and substantial investment in the renewal of our cities over the next 50 years and beyond. It is also a satisfying read that ties together often disparate concepts, uniting ecology, technology, and long-term maintenance and stewardship. The [book] makes very real some of the bold visions of future green neighborhoods, villages, and cities…”
“København (Copenhagen), the capital of Denmark, is at the forefront of many landscape architects and planners’ minds for both its groundbreaking moves towards sustainability and cutting-edge public spaces, bicycle culture, architecture, and food scenes.” In his review, John Bela, ASLA, said “the many innovative ideas and projects described in this book, and the exploration of some of the values and motivations that drive the work, are what make København a valuable resource for landscape architects and planners in the U.S. or anywhere in the world.” Read the full review.
Sean Anderson, associate professor at Cornell University, and Mabel O. Wilson, professor at Columbia University and winner of this year’s Vincent Scully Prize from the National Building Museum, are co-curators of a ground-breaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City that issued a “creative challenge” in the form of case studies in ten American cities, which aim to “re-conceive and reconstruct our built environment rather than continue giving shape to buildings, infrastructure, and urban plans that have, for generations, embodied and sustained anti-Black racism.” Walter Hood, ASLA, contributed his multimedia art work Black Towers / Black Power, imagining a set of ten 30-story skyscrapers in Oakland, California for non-profit organizations.
Thankfully, Birkhäuser has translated this new book by Elke Mertens, a professor of landscape sciences and geomatics at the Neubrandenburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany, into English. A dive into 11 in-depth case studies of cities across North and South America, this well-researched book makes the case for landscape architecture as the new infrastructure cities need to adapt to climate change. Mertens gets to the heart of the transformation that needs to happen: “Making cities more resilient means equipping them so that extreme climatic and weather events do not have a lasting impact on the inhabitants and infrastructure of a city, but that urban functions can be resumed, or at least rapidly restored, without permanent impairment.”
Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, and an evangelical Christian living in a conservative part of Texas, outlines how to have meaningful, impactful conversations about climate change with people of different politics, beliefs, and backgrounds. Like a true scientist, she assembles evidence about what approaches work in communicating climate change, and also relays her own successes and failures. She calls for avoiding shaming people into changing their views: “When others attempt to impose their value system on us, we understand, fundamentally, that it is about making themselves feel better at our expense.” Hayhoe also says to avoid spending time trying to persuade the 7 percent of the U.S. population who can be characterized as angry climate “dismissives.”
As school communities continue to grapple with gun violence, racism, drugs, and COVID-19, which all undermine a sense of safety and in turn inhibit growth and development, Claire Latané, ASLA, assistant professor of landscape architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and former Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Fellow for Leadership and Innovation, has written a timely, critically important volume on how to incorporate nature-based solutions to improve mental, social, and physical health on school campuses. Latané methodically builds her argument for designing healthy, green learning environments for young people, with spot-on case studies and research. This book should be read by every educational policymaker, school superintendent, and PTA group — and every landscape architect who wants to help them.
Marc Trieb and Susan Herrington have managed to do justice to Canadian landscape architect Claude Cormier’s bold, often humorous landscapes, which they argue are far from frivolous, but instead rooted in serious technical and ecological considerations. Landscape and public art projects designed by Cormier and his team offer a rich exploration of “kitsch and camp, gender, technical and biological expertise, and political, environmental, aesthetic, and humanistic aspects.” Immersive photography of the playful Sugar Beach and Berczy Park, with its pop-art dog sculpture fountain, in Toronto, and 18 Shades of Gay, a celebration of Montréal’s gayborhood, are complemented by those of his deeply ecological design at Evergreen Brick Works.
Gabriel Díaz Montemayor, ASLA, said this book by Maria Bellalta, ASLA, dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at the Boston Architectural College, is “a welcome addition to the growing number of publications on the social justice-oriented form of urbanism, architecture, and public space emanating from Medellín and Colombia. The fact that the book avoids a design focus is refreshing. Social Urbanism instead targets the social and political processes that enabled these projects to exist.” Read the full review.
“As far as I can tell, this is mankind’s most honest cognitive project,” writes Nobel-prize winning author Olga Tokarczuk in her book Flights. Her subject is Wikipedia. She continues, “It is frank about the fact that all the information we have about the world comes straight out of our own heads.”
Sometimes she doubts the project: “After all, what it has can only be what we can put into words — what we have words for. And in that sense, it wouldn’t be able to hold everything at all.”
Tokarczuk’s sentiment echoed while reading Visualizing Nature: Essays on Truth, Spirit, and Philosophy, a svelte tome edited by Stuart Kestenbaum. The 21 authors included in the book also understand the limits of what can be put into words, particularly given the subject at hand. Bringing expertise as entomologist, landscape architect, farmer, and more, they variously contemplate themes within Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature to yield essays that consider topics such as climate change, racism, and the imprint of childhood landscapes on a psyche. Across the essays, there remains one constant: the authors’ moving human attempts to articulate the natural world knowingly can only go so far. But perhaps that is the point.
At the book’s beginning, Emerson is quoted: “Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word…I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue.” In Kestenbaum’s view, the writers included in Visualizing Nature “continue to learn and speak this same language.” It is likely an infinite striving, and one that can never be fully articulated in our own dialects.
The essays touch on what each author experiences by nature, or in nature, a word defined in the last essay by Rachel Carson, as “the part of the world that man did not make.” Topics concern the intersection of the personal and the natural world: nature as balm, nature as escape, nature as ancestral connection. They probe nature as joy and mystery, as provocateur of sorrow, as prompt for action.
It’s a subject matter that could easily veer saccharine, though most essays do not. Rather than letting romanticized nature obscure daily realities, as nature writing can easily do, many authors use nature to address them. Journalist Juan Michael Porter II writes of the freedom he finds in nature, a freedom absent from New York City, which is hampered by “strictures of decorum and race.” Even if nature’s “invitation to breathe freely…is constantly challenged by those who refuse to see me beyond the fear that they project onto Black men,” he remains grateful. Nature, after all, doesn’t take sides. “Nature cannot protect me,” Porter writes, “but nor will it deny me my divine right to its bounty.”
Others write about the transformative powers of nature. Thomas Woltz, FASLA, owner of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, likens the evolution of friendships to the fluid, aqueous geographic contexts that he finds himself in, both in work and life.
Maulian Dana, the Tribal Ambassador for the Penobscot Nation in Maine, writes about her first time sitting in a sweat lodge, an experience of rebirth for tribal members like herself. “The sweat lodge taught me how to be a mother because it brought me face-to-face with parts of myself that needed to learn and suffer in order to be worthy and closer to my mother, the earth.”
Many authors discuss observation of nature. Whatever shortcomings our language may have in face of the natural world, it’s also a form of observation that gives us agency: “The specificity of such [nature] language empowers more detailed seeing of particulars in the dense wild,” notes writer Kim Stafford. She mourns the loss of words like nectar and kingfisher from the dictionary to make room for attachment and bullet point. She points to the language of Hawaii, which employs not merely rain and drizzle and downpour, but words for “fine light rain, bitter rain of grief, rainbow-hued rain, light-moving rain, and lunar rainbow.” For Stafford, language becomes a way to “make peace” with the earth, and to restore “our buoyancy daily.”
The essays themselves might facilitate that. They are short, a few pages each, and the book makes for a tranquil read despite its myriad serious topics. Words may have limits, but that should serve most saliently to move the reader from the page to the outdoors, reminding us of nature’s power over us and the responsibility we have to it. As Carson entreats, “Go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before.”
København (Copenhagen), the capital of Denmark, is at the forefront of many landscape architects and planners’ minds for both its groundbreaking moves towards sustainability and cutting-edge public spaces, bicycle culture, architecture, and food scenes.
Having spent a significant amount of time in the city over the last decade, I’ve had the opportunity to begin to get to know the city and its people. One of the striking things about the city, perceptible in even my time there, is its continued trajectory of improvement. A chorus of people working diligently for decades to optimize the city for the everyday lives of its inhabitants have been laying the groundwork for what is possible today. I’ve been in Copenhagen in every season — in the depths of winter when the term Hygge takes on a deeper meaning and the scant hours of sunlight and the chilly winds inspire the strong desire to gather together by the soft light of a fire or candlelight to pass the dark hours. And during the summer months when the long hours of sunlight inspire a collective feeling of exultation and the city’s public spaces: the streets, parks, plazas, waterfront, and the harbor itself are teeming with life and energy. This was not so 20 or 30 years ago. The character of the city has radically changed and the new book København: Urban Architecture and Public Spaces, edited by Sandra Hofmeister, beautifully captures the new spirit of the city.
The book features many places in the Danish capital that have made a significant impact in public space and public life over the past several decades and groups them into four chapters: public spaces, sports and leisure, culture and education, and housing. Well-illustrated project descriptions are complemented by a series of interviews and essays with some of the most prominent and thoughtful designers part of the city’s design scene today.
One of the many featured projects in the public spaces section of the book offers a useful inspiration for what could be possible in U.S. cities if we recognize the value of urban spaces now occupied by parking and remake them in ways that draw public life, commerce, and play.
The Flying Carpet: Israel’s Plads (Israel Square) is a great example of the transformation of public spaces taking place in Copenhagen over several decades. A former vegetable market site near one of the busiest transit stations had degenerated into a parking lot and eyesore. The municipality led the transformation of the site by erecting two covered market halls (the wonderful Torvehallerne) and a public plaza that hosts a weekend farmers market.
Across the street, the city issued a design brief outlining that the former parking lot should be converted into a new public space. The winning competition by Cobe, a Copenhagen-based multidisciplinary planning and design firm composed of landscape architects, planners, and architects, envisaged a “flying carpet” across the entire square. The cars would be “swept under the rug” with underground parking. In the completed design, organically shaped areas punched out of a neatly paved surface provide a variety of public recreational functions. As one the city’s largest new public spaces, Israel Plads is an “informal uncoded space that enables the public to enjoy urban life.”
What you don’t get from the beautiful images and plans featured in the project description — and what is so useful for those of us in the planning and design professions — is covered in an essay that follows. The lead designer for the plaza, Dan Stubbergard from Cobe, illuminates some the underlying processes and struggles that were fought and won and resulted in a new plaza that functions as a diverse and active public space.
Stubbergard notes that “infrastructure had a very important role in defining our cities from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. Public spaces and zones in between buildings became carspaces, and this affected everyday life. But today we know that we have to combine infrastructure with the public quality of urban space. Be it a bicycle parking lot, a metro station, or a streetscape, you need to insist that all infrastructure is also a social and public space.”
Cobe has been leading some of the most impactful urban design efforts in Copenhagen. Their approach to Israel’s Plads reflects the deeply collaborative and creative approach of the practice that co-designs with communities. Dan continues: “Israels Plads is the biggest public space in Copenhagen, but it’s also a schoolyard shared by two schools – we argued it should be an open space nevertheless…We created a discrete boundary and that’s how we persuaded the school to have a safe zone in the middle of the city and an open environment at the same time. The challenge for [landscape] architects is to offer new ways of living together and to foster a lively everyday life.”
Swimming in the Harbor
You can’t comprehend Copenhagen today without understanding its changing relationship to the water. The book’s sports and leisure section describes one of the city’s newest ways to interact with the water: the Kalvebog Bolge (Kalvebod Waves). “An undulating sculptural promenade…the complex stretches out over the water like a park landscape, leading back to land with walkways that rise to different levels. Benches, play areas, and lookout points invite visitors to linger. What may seem coincidental follows a precise plan. Rough winds in the exposed location were considered in the positioning, as well as the course of the sun and the shadows created by surrounding buildings.”
As is typical of the projects described in the book, the space combines various programs in interesting ways. The “wave” stacks many functions: a kayak and canoe club, a swimming basin, a floating mini-hotel for canoeists, and a platform for cultural events all come together in this prominent harborside location. Furthermore, “the site’s cradle to cradle approach ensures that all materials can be separated by type at the end of their service life so they can be recycled or reused.”
The Kalvebod Wave harbor bath and others like it in different parts of the city are emblematic of the radical transformation that has occurred regarding the city’s relationship to the water. As in many former industrial waterfronts, the harbor water, as recently as the 1980’s, was polluted and dangerous, and one would not conceive of diving into it headlong as you see so many young and old people doing today.
In an essay, Hofmeister unpacks the process of transforming both the physical quality of the water and the harborfront as well as its mental image in the mind of Copenhageners. “With the shift from an industrial city to an eco-conscious city not only has the quality of life improved, but also the water quality…thanks to targeted measures in wastewater management and modernization of the sewage system. Today living on the waterfront is integral to the city’s image.”
These critical water quality improvements laid the foundation for a fundamental restructuring of the city’s relationship and orientation to the waterfront and a re-conception of the harbor from the “back of the city” to a blue-green central park. So many of the projects featured in the book show how to take advantage of this new orientation. The areas along the harbor offer high quality waterfront living and opportunities to swim or gather to watch the sunset. This is where the city opens up to offer wide views. The city’s master plans stipulate that all harborfront areas must not only be accessible to the public but also enlivened by the public.
This orientation of the city around the harbor as its central park is enabled by a steadily growing set of landscape, open space, pedestrian, and bike circulation connections around and across the harbor that provide continuous access around the water’s edge and have opened up new areas for the city’s famous pedestrian and bicycle culture. There are important lessons here for landscape architects and planners working in the U.S.
The first is that protecting, enhancing, and restoring the ecological health of extant water bodies and open spaces is crucial for laying the groundwork for future public access and enjoyment. The second is that a powerful vision in the form of a masterplan framework must be established that can live beyond short-term political cycles to guide the actions of many actors over time. The third is that landscape architects must conceive of each intervention, even if it is a small piece of a larger puzzle, as contributing to the realization of the larger vision that will, eventually, result in a radical transformation of place.
The first carbon-neutral capital
Copenhagen, as in many cities with ambitious leaders across the globe, is leading the way towards a more equitable and sustainable future for its inhabitants. By 2025, Copenhagen is to be the first-ever carbon-neutral capital city. Switching from cars to bicycles plays a decisive role.
As described in an essay on cycling culture and quality of life, the city’s bicycle culture is well known to urbanists throughout the world, and it’s a powerful experience to be immersed in it. But what is less well known are the other factors that contribute to making Copenhagen a city where you can actually live without a car, such as the provision of dense, human-scale, compact, and transit-connected urban infill for areas of new development and providing citizens with mobility choice in the form of a world-class transit system. As the city gradually implemented and expanded its famous bicycle infrastructure, there has been commensurate major investment in expanding mass transit, including the brand new Cityringen line completed in 2019.
The wonderful essay by Jacob Shoof unpacks the critical role of innovative public-private partnerships, a role played by redevelopment agencies in the U.S. These partnerships have been charged with re-imagining some of the city’s most valuable port lands and new development areas, financing the construction of major public transport projects such as the Cityringen, as well as leading the re-imagining of the city’s largest new development area, Nordhavn, under its masterplan by Cobe.
One essay goes into the details of one private-public partnership focused on the port: “The City of Copenhagen and the Danish state the laid foundations for this in 2007 with the founding of the project development company By & Havn (City and Harbour)…the new company has two main tasks: to manage and regulate the use of Copenhagen’s port waters and shore facilities and to promote the conversion of disused port areas…the company operates like a private company largely free from political influence, and can therefore pursue long-term strategies…the business model of By & Havn is to use sales proceeds [of port lands] to build public infrastructure in the newly developed areas. The new Cityringen (City Circle line) of the Copenhagen Metro has been running under the city since 2019 and was also planned by By & Havn. In order to pre-refinance the development of the infrastructure without having to rush property sales the company has taken out long-term loans, using land in its possession as security.”
Innovative financial models and thoughtful long-term planning for public infrastructure investment from bicycle lanes to the new underground metro line are critical to making a thriving and successful public realm as well as incentivizing active mobility and transit use, and therefore enabling the city to meet their ambitious long-term sustainability goals
Dense, diverse, and green. Is it possible?
As with so many urban areas around the globe, Copenhagen is experiencing an urban renaissance as more people choose to reside in dense, amenity rich, and socially diverse urban neighborhoods. But how has the city managed to maintain affordability and access for people at the beginning of their careers or those who are just forming families? So many areas in the U.S. experiencing this same urban renaissance are characterized by significant social conflict due to rapid gentrification and displacement of long-term residents.
A final theme that emerges in the book is the role of an engaged citizenry in generating grassroots-level action to provide a strong political mandate for the municipality and the design community to work for things like mobility choice and affordable housing. For instance, part of the less well-known story of the city’s bicycle culture, which reemerged in the 1970’s after going into decline in the age of the automobile, are the massive protests and collective action in response to the 1970’s oil crisis that inspired city leaders to take seriously the role of the bicycle in urban mobility.
And this level of community engagement has also shaped the city’s approach to housing. Since the late 1960’s, the city’s different forms of communal living have drawn international attention. The final chapter of the book focused on housing describes several of the innovative and beautifully well-designed housing complexes on the re-energized harborfront as well as some excellent examples of co-housing, a trend which is growing in popularity globally and was featured prominently in this year’s Venice Biennale exhibition theme: “How will we live together?”
One of the defining characteristics of Copenhagen’s inner city housing stock is the traditional form of the perimeter block that surrounds a shared green space. These forms can accommodate a variety of functions — from a safe play area for children, food producing gardens, bicycle parking, and larger community gatherings. These collectively owned and managed semi-private green spaces are rare in the U.S., but they contribute significantly to the quality of life in Copenhagen and are a major factor in attracting and retaining young families within the urban core.
The Lange End Co-housing project by Dorte Mandrup is a wonderful, contemporary interpretation of this traditional perimeter block with a large, internal shared green space. Mandrup describes how this happened: “The central aim of the project was to establish a community accommodating a range of age and occupational groups, cultural backgrounds, and ways of living. To determine the different spatial requirements – common areas for meeting and communication, but also more private areas – an extensive participatory process was carried out, with various workshops held between the planners and future residents.”
Hofmeister’s interview with Mandrup reveals the deeper motivations behind the work. “We already have numerous co-housing situations for very specialized groups – elderly people, students, or young families. My dream is that we can mix the different groups much more and build co-housing spaces that reflect the whole society – singles and families, old and young people.” And in a commentary on the next challenges the city faces, Mandrup says: “I would also wish that the city of Copenhagen would move forward with densification without simply doing things on a larger scale. We have to find better solutions to densify our cities than simply higher buildings. Densification on a small [human?] scale – that’s a real challenge for the future!”
Landscape architects have a critical role to play in the design of new housing areas in our urban neighborhoods. We can ensure there is a clear hierarchy of spaces from public to semi-public to private open spaces. Establishing this hierarchy and definition of whom these spaces are designed to serve is often overlooked but is crucial for achieving quality and livability in dense urban environments.
A beacon of sustainable urbanism
The many innovative ideas and projects described in this book and the exploration of some of the values and motivations that drive the work are what make this book a valuable resource for landscape architects and planners in the U.S. or anywhere in the world.
We can now point to these works and say, look what is possible if we work together for the common good of our communities! The City of Copenhagen brings together innovations in public participation, long term planning, finance, and a socially engaged design community to create the sustainable city of the future for residents today. It’s no wonder city leaders and design professionals around the globe are taking notice!
John Bela, ASLA, is an urban strategist and designer based in San Francisco. Bela co-founded Rebar, the creators of Park(ing) Day. A founding partner and design director at Gehl San Francisco, he left Gehl in 2021 to form his own design advisory and consulting practice: Bela Urbanism + Design. He is a licensed landscape architect in California.
Meet Artist Kristi Lin: Bringing a Natural Balance — 11/29/21, The San Diego Union-Tribune
“Like many local artists, Lin grew up knowing she had artistic inclinations, but was worried about the financial impracticalities that come with being a working artist. In the field of landscape architecture, she says she found that balance; a profession that allows her to be creative and inspired while also paying the bills.”
How to Design a City for Sloths — 11/29/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“As pedestrians, sloths do not walk as much as ooze, inching forward commando-style with their bellies to the ground, as if trying to dodge a museum’s laser-security system. From a distance, the 10 long minutes it takes an average sloth to walk across the street might look more like the end of a yoga class.”
Africa’s Rising Cities— 11/19/21, The Washington Post
“Several recent studies project that by the end of this century, Africa will be the only continent experiencing population growth. Thirteen of the world’s 20 biggest urban areas will be in Africa — up from just two today — as will more than a third of the world’s population.”
Minneapolis’ Newest Park Is Like a Front Porch on the Mississippi River— 11/17/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Damon Farber Landscape Architects led the design team with HGA designing the pavilion, MacDonald and Mack as historic consultants, and the 106 Group as archaeologists. The Healing Place Collaborative brought in Dakota artists and language experts to design covers for the fire pits and interpret the rainwater collection and use of Native plants.”
This Stunning High-Rise Would Absorb More Carbon Dioxide Than It Produces
— 11/15/21, Fast Company Design
“Wrapping the buildings are algae-filled facades that produce biofuels that can power the building. Inside, structural components made of biological materials and insulation made from hemp sequester carbon throughout the building’s lifetime. Built-in direct air capture systems pull CO2 out of the air and either store it or make it available for industrial use.”