University of California San Diego Densifies to Protect Its Landscape

Pepper Canyon West at UC San Diego / Perkins & Will, courtesy UC San Diego

Like other state universities in California, the University of California at San Diego (UC San Diego) must develop to meet the needs of a rapidly increasing student body. The university currently educates 42,000 students but must accommodate 10,000 more within seven years. Approximately 30 percent of the 1,1150-acre campus is an open space preserve that includes a fragile coastal zone. To protect the campus’ critically important ecosystems and cultural character, campus planners and landscape architects are weaving in transit-oriented development and dramatically increasing density in key areas, with up to 23-story student residential towers.

During a tour of the campus as part of the American Planning Association‘s National Planning Conference, Robert Clossin, director of planning, and Todd Pitman, ASLA, campus landscape architect at UC San Diego, explained that dense new “living and learning neighborhoods” were central to the long-term strategy of balancing growth and nature preservation.

In a campus where parking spaces for cars were largely hidden from view, but hundreds of racks for bicycles were in plain sight, it’s clear the campus planners and landscape architects are trying to move past vehicle dependence and plan for a denser, light-rail-, bike- and scooter-centric future.

After five years of construction and decades of planning, the expansive campus is now connected to greater San Diego through two light rail stops. At the first stop on our tour, the Central Campus Trolley station, Clossin and Pitman, along with Raeanon Hartigan, principal planner for the campus, walked us through a vibrant new “front door” to the campus, which is now under construction.

A new “front door” to UC San Diego at a light rail station / Jared Green

There, landscape architects with the Office of James Burnett (OJB) designed an accessible urban landscape that weaves together an amphitheater that can hold 3,000, and a Design and Innovation Building, designed by architects with EHDD, which will serve as an entrepreneurial hub bringing together students and faculty with community inventors and firms.

A 750-foot-long pathway, a tactile artwork by artist Anne Hamilton, further stitches the new development together. “This is true transit-oriented development,” said Bryan Macias, with capital management projects on campus.

Concordance by Ann Hamilton at UC San Diego / Jared Green

Adjacent to the new trolley station is Pepper Canyon West, which includes two 23-story student housing towers designed by Perkins & Will that will soon house 1,300 students (see image at top). At the base of the towers, which will offer retail, there is a new stormwater management basin also designed by OJB. “The Office of James Burnett is really the glue between projects,” said Pitman.

As we walked further into the interior of the campus, Pitman said the university has increasingly recognized the value of landscape architecture over the past decades. Campus leaders realize that the walking and biking experience is central to a successful learning environment. “It’s about focusing on the user experience and connecting the public realm,” Pitman said.

UC San Diego bike racks / Jared Green

Partnering with the Stuart Collection Foundation, UC San Diego has also woven in public art throughout the campus. And this art isn’t just plopped down, but integrated into the landscape and architecture. Through the Stuart Collection program, artists take the lead on finding locations on campus where their art is best suited and then create site-specific works. A triangle park that was once a left-over space between buildings was transformed into a charming community space. Artist Tim Hawkinson partnered with Spurlock Landscape Architects to site his impressive 180-ton Bear sculpture and create a lush park to frame the work.

Bear sculpture and park at UC San Diego / Jared Green

Deeper into the campus, at the Franklin Antonio Hall, a collaborative research and engineering laboratory, the campus planning and design team highlighted their efforts to balance protection of coastal ecosystems with the need to densify. The building offers views of the enveloping 300-acre preserve.

Franklin Antonio Hall and Open Space Preserve, UC San Diego / Jared Green
Open Space Preserve, UC San Diego / Jared Green

Here, OJB built benches into low walls, but instead of facing the courtyard around the building, they are positioned to provide views over the rugged landscape. It’s one of those subtle, thoughtful touches that highlights the user experience Pitman mentioned.

The landscape immediately surrounding the laboratory, which includes wide fire truck lanes, is designed to be resilient to fire and support the adjacent preserve. In addition to managing all stormwater, the landscape includes 100 percent native plants, which is much higher than the 30-50 percent the campus usually aims for in their projects. “It was really hard to do,” Pitman said. “We pushed the boundaries much farther and made this as sustainable and resilient as possible,” Clossin added.

A winding path in the form of a snake by artist Alexis Smith brings us through coastal shrubs to the Geisel Library, the iconic Brutalist building designed by architect William Pereira in 1970.

Snake Path by Alexis Smith / Jared Green
Geisel Library at UC San Diego / Jared Green

Underground levels added in the 90s increase density. Deep caverns and surface skylights, designed to stream daylight to the subterranean stacks, add depth to the library plaza.

Library plaza surrounding Geisel Library at UC San Diego / Jared Green

And landscape architect Peter Walker’s Library Walk, also designed in the early 90s, terminates in the lower level of the library.

Library walk at UC San Diego / Jared Green

Continuing down Ridge Walk North, a central spine on the campus that offers views of the Sun God sculpture by artist Niki de Saint Phalle, the bike infrastructure of the campus becomes more apparent. Designed with Spurlock Landscape Architects, Ridge Walk North is actually a collection of landscape projects including parks, plazas, paths, irrigation and lighting systems, and bike lanes that cost $19 million, Pitman said. “It has been the university’s single largest single investment in landscape architecture.” To fix previously unsafe conditions, the project separated bike and scooter traffic from pedestrians.

Ridge Walk North at UC San Diego / Jared Green
Ridge Walk North adjacent bike lane UC San Diego / Jared Green
Ridge Walk North adjacent bike lane at UC San Diego / Jared Green

The walkable, bikeable DNA of the campus enabled planners and landscape architects to densify through additional mixed-use living and learning neighborhoods. That future is being realized in the North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood. Designed by HKS, Safdie Rabines Architects, and OJB, the project came out of a tough three-month design-build competition.

North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood at UC San Diego / Copyright ©️ the Board of Regents of the University of California

Tiered student residential, educational, and retail spaces frame a central plaza and views of the Pacific Ocean, providing that indoor-outdoor experience so characteristic of Southern California.

North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood at UC San Diego / Copyright ©️ the Board of Regents of the University of California

The orientation of the buildings and the open spaces, including layered-in terraces, were purposefully designed to democratize views of the ocean.

North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood at UC San Diego / Copyright ©️ the Board of Regents of the University of California

“The sunset is a must-see celebration from these buildings,” said architect Ricardo Rabines. “And students only pay $14,000 in annual tuition and $1,300 a month for rent,” Clossin said. A pretty good deal for La Jolla.

A 10-acre Ridge Walk North Living and Learning Neighborhood is now in development, with beds for 2,000 students, along with a Theater District Living and Learning Neighborhood, also with 2,000 beds for a planned eight college. These neighborhoods are part of the university’s long-range plan to house 65 percent of its students on campus, making it the country’s largest residential campus.

Planners Must Now “Anticipate the Unanticipated”

Imagine Austin Growth Concept Map / City of Austin

“The planning practices of the past are inadequate for today’s challenges,” said David Rouse, ASLA, a landscape architect and planner, at the American Planning Association‘s National Planning Conference in San Diego. Rapid technological change, socio-economic inequities, natural resource depletion, and climate change are forcing planning and design professionals to adapt. “How can the practice of planning evolve to be more sustainable and equitable?”

In the 1920s, the Standard Zoning Enabling Act and the Standard City Enabling Act were passed. In the 1960s, the conventional 20th century planning model, which focused on land use policy and planning, came into being. In the 1980s, there was a shift to smart growth and “visionary, values-based planning.” In 2010, the American Planning Association began a process of rethinking past planning approaches through its Sustaining Places Initiative, which provided models and standards for how to prioritize sustainability through local planning.

According to Rouse, today’s comprehensive plans require a new 21st century model rooted in four key aspects. First, sustainability, resilience, and equity need to be at the center of all planning decisions. Second, a systems-thinking approach is needed. “A community is a system made up of sub-systems.” Third, any planning effort requires “authentic participation” and true community engagement that can answer the questions: “Where are we headed? Where do we want to go? How do we get there?” And lastly, there must be “accountable implementation,” including priorities for action, funding streams, policies that can guide decision-making, and specified responsibilities.

Rocky Piro, executive director of the Colorado Center for Sustainable Urbanism and former planning director of Denver, said Rouse and himself reviewed hundreds of plans for their new book — The Comprehensive Plan: Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Communities for the 21st Century. They found that “authentic engagement is foundational” to any new planning effort.

Planning processes must now include an engagement and communications strategy rooted in the issues and values of a community and be designed to reach all segments of a population. Any planning effort in 2022 also needs to be based in an understanding of the “impact of the past on the present.”

A vision statement is needed to kick-start these comprehensive planning efforts — “one with brevity, clarity, and the ability to inspire,” Piro said.

Land-use maps are still an important component of any comprehensive plan but they need to be smarter. In its plan adopted in 2012, Austin, Texas, created a “growth concept map” that includes places and their aspects (see image at top). Aurora, Colorado, included a “place typology” that includes a “sophisticated matrix” and a “place-based approach” in its plan.

Placetype plan / City of Aurora, Colorado

All communities are systems that include natural, built environment, social, economic, health, and regional connection sub-systems.

“Planning for natural systems has come out of the landscape architecture field,” Rouse argued. “Ecosystem planning should now happen in communities and in context with other planning elements instead of piecemeal.”

ASLA 2021 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Parsons Island Conservation and Regeneration Plan. Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, United States. Mahan Rykiel Associates

Planners and landscape architects need to increasingly plan for land, water, atmospheric, and biodiversity change within communities. And instead of planning for water use and quality alone, an entire watershed approach should also be integrated into comprehensive planning efforts.

The ecosystem component that landscape architects focus on can be integrated with the built environment components that planners focus on. Through the involvement of multiple disciplines, plans can address “land use, character, ecology, mobility, community design, and civic spaces, and public art.”

Other important systems that need to be included in any new comprehensive plan are social systems that improve equity — “the social infrastructure” of communities, including housing and education.

Economic systems also need to be re-thought for the 21st century. “Economic resilience is about creating opportunities for all in a fair and sustainable way. We can move to a circular economy and rely on local assets and regional resources. We need to move away from a linear, throw-away society.”

Health systems need to be factored into any planning effort, and this is not just “about disease prevention, but about healthy transportation and food systems. How we move and interface with the built environment impacts our health.”

There are now many lens — a “climate lens, equity lens, health lens. Can we bring the lenses together?”

Both Rouse and Piro returned to the idea that any planning effort can only happen with real community engagement.

Once the voice of the community in its totality has been considered, then a plan can be developed that results in the revision of regulations, codes, and ordinances to help achieve that plan. The next steps are to shift public and private investments to meet goals, align interests and decision-making processes within communities, and form public, private, and non-profit sector partnerships that can lead implementation.

In the 21st century, planners need to be “prepare communities for change, be proactive, and take an integrated approach instead of just reacting,” Rouse said.

The challenge is that planners are also operating within a “cone of uncertainty.” In the short term, there are tactics that can be used to manage community change, which may be foreseen or unforeseen and therefore disruptive. In the medium term, planners can set strategies and plans. But over the long-term, they will need durable visions. “All of this planning must happen sequentially and simultaneously.”

In their book, Rouse and Piro outline five core themes, including equity and engagement, climate change mitigation and adaptation, systems thinking, people-centered technology, and effective implementation.

“Equity must be interwoven, and an equity lens must be brought to all goals. Climate resilience must be a guiding principle of all planning work. Technology must be harnessed to serve communities. Planning participation is about co-creation with the community,” Rouse said.

“Planning is an art and a science. Our jobs are to anticipate the unanticipated. How can we do it better?” Out of the hundreds of plans that Rouse and Piro reviewed, “we couldn’t find one that did this well. It’s a journey society — and planners — must take. It’s the future of comprehensive planning.”

During the Q&A, one audience member asked whether “top-down, paternalistic comprehensive plans” are a thing of the past. A city comprehensive plan assumes there is one community in agreement, whereas there are many communities with different interests. The antithesis of a comprehensive plan is a neighborhood plan.

Community engagement is critical to forging consensus as is transparency about budgets and timelines, Piro argued. Ensuring grassroots buy-in is the “path to success.” But neighborhood plans need to be integrated with comprehensive plans and implemented in tandem. “You need consistency and coordination.” Ecological, social, and other systems “can’t be addressed in isolation.”

Another audience member wondered how comprehensive plans can address the communities who have been displaced due to gentrification. “How do we plan for who is not there?”

Rouse argued that it’s critical to retain populations by helping them create their own visions. “We can account for the past and systemic racism,” and planners and other design professions’ roles in creating those inequities.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 1-15, 2022)

Lane Closures / Chris Yarzab, CC BY-ND 2.0.

MUSK SEE: Three Reasons Why Congestion Decreases When Cities ‘Delete’ Road Lanes — 05/13/2022, Streetsblog USA
“A wildly inaccurate comment from Elon Musk about the traffic impacts of deleting lanes for drivers is prompting a conversation about the little-known phenomenon of ‘reduced demand’ — and how advocates can better debunk common congestion myths that powerful, but often ill-informed, people continue to promulgate.”

Lawns Are Terrible for the Environment. California’s Water Restrictions May Finally Kill Them — 05/12/2022, Fast Company
“Landscape designers weigh in on how drought conditions could change the look of Southern California — and eventually the rest of the West.”

Ukraine’s ‘Hero River’ Helped Save Kyiv. But What Now for Its Newly Restored Wetlands? — 05/11/2022, The Guardian
“Kyiv repelled Russian forces by opening a Soviet-era dam on the Irpin River. Now, ecologists hope Ukraine’s newest wetlands can survive, or even thrive, after the war.”

Security Features For Outdoor Living Trend In Latest Houzz Survey — 05/10/22, Forbes
“It’s no secret that outdoor living has become a huge trend. ‘It has exploded over the past five years with homeowners desiring to have resort-like backyards,’ declares Reno-based landscape architect and franchisor Ron DuHamel, president of FireSky.

How a Los Angeles Landscape Architecture Firm Is Reclaiming a Hillside for Native Plants — 05/10/2022, Dwell
“Terremoto is spearheading an experimental grassroots project to transform a neglected patch of public land with native species.”

Justice Department Unveils New Environmental Justice Moves (2) — 05/05/2022, Bloomberg Law
“The Department of Justice announced a trio of major environmental justice actions on Thursday, including the launch of a new office and the resurrection of a popular enforcement tool scrapped during the Trump administration.”

A Smarter Urban Design Concept for a Town Decimated by Wildfires — 05/03/2022, Fast Company
“SWA Group—a winner of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards—is helping Paradise, California, imagine a safer and more sustainable future with a design that buffers the town with parks, athletic fields, and orchards—areas less likely to burn than forests.”

Removing Benches, Blocking Cycle Paths: Why Are Police Interfering in the UK’s Public Spaces? — 05/02/2022, The Guardian
“The Secured by Design initiative is damaging British cities, robbing them of greenery and public amenities while promoting fear.”

New Park Brings Residents of Los Angeles’ Chinatown Together — 05/01/2022, Parks and Recreation Business
“Designed by the landscape architecture and planning firm, AHBE/MIG, Ord and Yale Street Park represents the transformation of a once-vacant, one-acre hillside into a new pocket neighborhood park for the community.”

How to Navigate Politics While Planning Climate Resilience

Resilient Houston plan / City of Houston

Across red, blue, and purple states, the impacts of climate change are increasingly real. The number of natural disasters that have caused a billion or more in damages has only increased. Since 2015, there have been 100 of them, said Marissa Aho, Chief Resilience Officer for Washington State Department of Natural Resources, during a session at the American Planning Association (APA)‘s National Planning Conference in San Diego. “Last year, weather-related disasters caused $145 billion in damages.”

While more Americans are aware of the increasingly expensive impacts of climate change and believe they are being impacted, planners, landscape architects, and other designers continue to face a host of challenges planning climate solutions with communities. In some places, the words “climate change” can’t even be said for fear of turning off the communities meant to be helped. Aho said many planners and designers need “resilience therapy on how to navigate political issues.” But beyond red, blue, or purple distinctions, the key is to avoid politics all together and focus on how to build local resilience.

Prior to joining the Washington state government, Aho was Chief Resilience Officer of Houston. She said while being a red state, Texas has a considerable amount of climate resilience planning. El Paso, Dallas, Houston, and Austin all have Chief Resilience Officers.

In 2019, the Texas state legislature created the Texas Infrastructure Resilience Fund, which directed billions to flood management. And in 2020, Houston created its Resilient Houston plan, controversially, with a $1.8 million grant from oil giant Shell. The plan was created out of a “community-driven process and includes 62 actions,” Aho said. The goal of the plan is to ensure “resilience at all scales — because if one scale isn’t resilient, than none of them are.”

In Washington State, Aho has been working on a watershed resilience adaptation plan, a “tree to sea plan for landscape scale restoration and salmon recovery,” which also has an interactive dashboard. Washington has been in the news for its increasingly severe climate impacts, including wildfires, drought, and heatwaves. The state is now trying to “tie climate change planning into everything.”

Wildfire in Yakima County, Washington / istockphoto.com, lightasafeather

Anna Friedman, with the Resilient Cities Catalyst, said red state Florida is increasing its focus on climate resilience, with a state-wide $400 million resilience grant program. There’s a state-level Chief Resilience Officer, and “every country and city has one, too.” Her organization partnered with Tampa to create a resilience plan with 58 initiatives, and a significant equity focus.

To get around the politics of climate action, Friedman advised focusing on issues at the neighborhood level, conducting workshops, and using a community-driven process. “Climate change is triggering in some communities. It’s important to find out what people need in their neighborhood and meet people where they are.”

But she added that there are new opportunities to advance climate planning beyond what was possible a few years ago. COVID-19 has helped more communities realize that “equity and climate are connected.” More communities now know “what cascading impacts of vulnerability and resilience feel like.” Friedman thinks anyone planning climate solutions “needs to leverage this key moment.”

Jacksonville, Florida, on the Atlantic Ocean, is embedded in a “web of water,” said Anne Coglianese, Chief Resilience Officer for the city. The largest city governed by a Republican Mayor, Jacksonville faces extreme flood risks. In addition the ocean, “there are 54 tributaries of the St. John’s River” that flow through the city. Extreme heat is also a danger, and the city is undertaking an urban heat study as part of a resilience strategy that is now in development. “Any politician in Florida is aware of the financial risks of climate change.”

Map of Jacksonville, Florida / GISGeography.com

Coglianese noted that Louisiana, another red state, developed the Louisiana Coastal Masterplan in 2017, which includes 124 projects to be completed over a 50-year period. The state plans to spend $50 billion on resilience and build 800 square miles of land in order to combat accelerated coastal erosion and save an estimated $150 billion in climate change-related damages. “There was universal bipartisan legislative support for the plan,” she said.

Land loss in coastal Louisiana, 1932-2013, NOAA / Public domain

And just a few months ago, the state government announced it was developing the first climate action plan in the Gulf South. The goal is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 through deep cuts in oil and gas infrastructure emissions. A 23 member task force, which includes oil and gas and environmental justice representatives, unanimously approved the plan.

Throughout the session, the speakers used Mentimeter to poll the hundreds of session attendees in real time about how they are approaching climate action in their communities.

Asked about the relationship between equity and climate change, 52 percent of the audience stated that “equity is at the core of climate change planning,” while 24 percent stated that “climate change is at the core of equity planning,” and another 24 percent argued that equity and climate are separate issues. For Friedman, this means that “76 percent find that climate and equity are interconnected; we can’t disentangle the two.”

Aho argued that given underserved communities have “underlying vulnerabilities,” they are impacted by “climate change in the most severe way.” The question is: “Who can rebound faster?” Coglianese added that “everyone may face the same storm, but not everyone is in the same boat; some are in a yacht, and some are in a row boat.”

Another poll to the audience asked: how often planners are encountering politics when planning for climate change? 55 percent of the audience said “more frequently,” 36 percent said “about the same,” while 9 percent said “less frequently.”

This is a sign that the “country is polarized around national issues” like climate change, Aho said. The solution is to “keep it local, which is less polarizing. Keep politics out of the conversation.”

World Landscape Architecture Month 2022 Instagram Contest Winners

Image: Meadow landscape. Marcus Barnett Studio / Mimi Connolly

Throughout April, landscape architects around the globe celebrated World Landscape Architecture (WLAM) by exploring: What is landscape architecture? What does landscape architecture mean to you?

Thousands of #WLAM2022 posts across all social platforms reflected on the theme.

During the week of Frederick Law Olmsted’s 200th birthday, National ASLA shared the top five most popular #WLAM2022 Instagram posts, with Marcus Barnett Studio taking the number one spot (see above).

The other top four posts included Ten Eyck Landscape Architects highlighting a fundamental of their practice: understanding native plant communities.

TBG Partners offered a behind-the-scenes look at a landscape architect’s design process.

hochC Landschaftsarchitekten showed how landscape architects turn ideas into reality.

Hoerr Schaudt reflected on what landscape architecture means to them.

Some other #WLAM2022 highlights: At Ball State University, landscape architecture students explored the topic through a classroom assignment. Kansas State University highlighted how attending LABash 2022 at Louisiana State University allowed their team to connect with landscape architecture professionals and students from across the country.

Like Jennifer Nitzky, ASLA, some practitioners advocated for landscape architecture with presentations and hands-on demonstrations at local schools.

Several ASLA Chapters hosted Instagram takeovers. Posts featuring awards and achievements showcased diverse talents and contributions from the profession.

Many celebrated Frederick Law Olmsted’s 200th birthday, like the University of California at Davis Sheepmowers, joined by Olmsted’s great-granddaughter to honor the occasion.