Landscape Architects May Be Liable for Climate Impacts

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Flooding in Houston after Hurricane Harvey / NOAA

When a neighborhood floods, who is at fault?

A class action lawsuit in Houston asks that question. The residents of a master-planned community that flooded during Hurricane Harvey are suing the engineering firm that designed the neighborhood’s stormwater management system.

While that suit targets engineers, it nonetheless represents the heightened risk landscape architects face from climate impacts on their projects.

In a panel discussion at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) director of environmental planning Deanna Moran and CLF attorney Elena Mihaly gave a crash course on the changing landscape of liability in the age of climate change.

“Climate impacts are becoming more and more evident,” said Moran. “What does that mean for us when we know these impacts exist? When there is more public recognition of them, but we aren’t addressing them or acknowledging them in a concrete way?”

“How might a design professional –– like a landscape architect –– expose themselves to legal liability for failing to account for and adapt to climate impacts?”

Moran and Mihaly have studied these and other questions, releasing their findings earlier this year in a report published by the CLF.

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Climate Adaptation and Liability Report / Conservation Law Foundation

Moran said there are three factors contributing to climate liability risk for design professionals:

First, increased media coverage and general awareness of climate change means landscape architects are increasingly obligated to understand the climate-related risks that might apply to any given project.

“The more we talk about risks publicly,” the greater “the foreseeability of climate impacts,” increasing potential exposure to liability, Moran said.

Second, government agencies are investing in increasingly-powerful modeling tools to conduct vulnerability assessments and climate adaptation planning. Often, agencies make this information public and open-source.

“These tools are more sophisticated and accurate than they’ve ever been,” giving landscape architects access to high-quality modeling of potential impacts from climate change at a local level. With that increased access comes an increased expectation that designers and engineers will factor in potential climate impacts.

Finally, Moran argued the failure of previous litigation against major greenhouse gas emitters could lead to “a shift in focus on the design community as defendants” in the realm of climate change litigation.

Mihaly said the first two factors –– public awareness and readily-available data –– contribute to what is known as a “standard of care,” a key concept in negligence litigation.

The standard of care owed by a design professional is determined by the courts on a case-by-case basis. Courts will look at a number of different factors to determine the standard of care owed by a landscape architect in any given case, including specific contract language, applicable codes and regulations, industry customs, and the foreseeability of harm.

When it comes to knowledge of future events or the foreseeability of harm, Mihaly said: “it’s not just a question of ‘did you know this could happen?,’ but ‘should you have known that this could happen?”

Because of the growing awareness of climate impacts and access to models and data, the answer to that question will increasingly be “yes.”

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2016 FEMA Flood Map, Boston / FEMA

Mihaly cautioned that the inherently uncertain nature of climate change is not a sufficient defense in a negligence lawsuit. “Even unprecedented events have been held, in courts of law, as being foreseeable due to modeling.”

She also warned that mere compliance with a jurisdiction’s building or zoning codes does not protect a designer from liability if the codes do not actually prevent the harm that the designer has a responsibility to avoid.

“Compliance alone isn’t necessarily a liability shield. The key question is: do those codes and standards actually contemplate the harm you are trying to prevent against?”

Industry standards and customs also offer scant protection. “A whole practice could be relying on an unreasonable behavior, and that doesn’t necessarily make it reasonable,” Mihaly said, referring to the 1932 case T.J. Hooper v. Northern Barge Corp.

In that case, a tugboat operator was found liable for cargo lost at sea because the operator did not use a radio system to receive advance warning of a dangerous weather system. At the time, it was not common industry practice for tugboat operators to use such systems, even though they were readily available.

Judge Learned Hand, writing for the court, held that while “a whole calling may have unduly lagged in the adoption of and available devices, there are precautions so imperative that even their universal disregard will not excuse their omission.”

It’s clear “the standard of care expected of a design professional is rising due to climate change and improvements in climate science. The threat of liability is real, and there is already litigation in this space,” Mihaly said, referring to the lawsuit in Houston.

“Design professionals are the target we’re seeing crop up more and more,” she added.

While this changing nature of liability in an age of climate change may appear threatening, Moran and Mihaly instead argued for a positive outlook. “Liability lawsuits are incredibly effective at shifting industry perceptions and behavior,” Moran noted.

“This could be an opportunity for the design community to really pioneer this space and use liability to proactive in the face of climate impacts,” added Mihaly. “The threat of liability can turn what is dreamed about into the standard.”

Landscape Architects: Now Is the Time for Climate Action

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Climate Positive Design / Pamela Conrad, ASLA, CMG Landscape Architecture

Earlier this month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a bombshell report concluding that the world has as little as twelve years to act to stave off the worst impacts from a warming climate.

Despite the weight of that assessment, a panel on climate action and landscape architecture at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia gave reasons to be hopeful and presented new tools that may help landscape architects reduce their climate impact.

“The next few years are probably the most important in our history,” said Pamela Conrad, ASLA, a senior associate at CMG Landscape Architecture. “We believe our profession can be part of the solution, and that it’s time to work together.”

ASLA past-president Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, enumerated the many climate-focused initiatives ASLA has undertaken in recent years, including the ASLA Center Green Roof, the Chinatown Green Street, advocacy efforts, online resource guides, collaboration with federal agencies to develop resources and toolkits, and the recently convened Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience and its report: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate. 

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ASLA Chinatown Green Street / ASLA, Design Workshop

Rinner stressed the need for landscape architects to become more involved with discussions around public policy. “We all have to advocate–that’s the first step,” she said. “If we can’t change policies, so many things will just continue as is.”

Collen Mercer Clarke, chair of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA) committee on climate adaptation, gave an overview of CSLA’s efforts, which include the creation of a series of primers on climate adaptation and the promulgation of design standards that were written taking climate change into account.

Clarke urged the audience to think globally. “The world is waiting. I haven’t seen another profession that can provide the kind of leadership we can on this issue.”

Martha Schwartz, FASLA, CEO of Martha Schwartz Partners, highlighted recent work by the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) in the spirit of the organization’s 1966 Declaration of Concern. In 2016, fifty years after that initial declaration, the LAF convened to draft the New Landscape Declaration, which places climate change at the center of the profession’s focus for the 21st century.

“After centuries of mistakenly believing we could exploit nature without consequence, we have now entered an age of extreme climate change marked by rising seas, resource depletion, desertification, and unprecedented rates of species extinction,” the statement reads.

“The urgent challenge before us is to redesign our communities in the context of their bio-regional landscapes enabling them to adapt to climate change and mitigate its root causes.”

Earlier this month, LAF released a ten-point plan for landscape architects to act on this declaration. Action items include: designing with nature, setting measurable goals for climate-performance metrics, leading by example, developing interdisciplinary partnerships, serving in community organizations, and voting.

“We’ve got to be tougher and better at doing this,” Schwartz said. “It’s not enough to be a good designer, but an active designer, to take leadership in the era of climate change and stay relevant in an ever changing world.”

LAF is also supporting leadership on climate change through its fellowship program, which began in 2017 and provides funding for active professionals to pursue innovative research ideas. As an LAF Fellow, Pamela Conrad has developed a calculator that predicts the emissions and carbon sequestration potential

“A few years back, I assumed I could go online and download a tool that would tell me exactly what I wanted to know. But frankly, those tools really only exist for architects right now. Because we have the ability to sequester carbon, perhaps we need our own tools to measure these impacts.”

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Landscape Carbon Calculator / Pamela Conrad, CMG Landscape Architecture

Conrad’s tool, which is still in beta testing and has not yet been publicly released, measures sources of embodied emissions in landscape materials against the sequestration potential of vegetation on a site to calculate both the carbon footprint of a project and the amount of time it will take for sequestration to completely offset emissions. Past that point, the project will  sequester additional atmospheric carbon dioxide, a condition Conrad calls being “climate positive.”

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Climate Positive Design / Pamela Conrad, CMG Landscape Architecture

Using the calculator, Conrad has been able to estimate the carbon footprints of her recently completed projects and, by tweaking the input parameters, model strategies that could have reduced their climate impacts.

“We can plant more trees and woody shrubs; we can minimize paving, especially concrete; we can minimize lawn areas; we can use local or natural recycled materials.” With these strategies, Conrad estimates that she could have cut the time it will take for her projects to become carbon neutral in half.

“The design of those projects didn’t change at all, or the quality for that matter. But what a difference it could have made if we just had the resources to inform our design decisions.”

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Carbon Positive Design / CMG Landscape Architecture

Conrad argued that, through climate sensitive design, landscape architects could be responsible for the sequestration of as much as 0.24 gigatons of carbon over the next thirty years, enough to place landscape architecture in the list of 80 solutions to climate change studied in Paul Hawken’s Drawdown project.

And “if we were to include other work we do, like incorporating green roofs into projects or making cities more walkable and bikeable, that would put landscape architecture within the top 40 solutions.”

Conrad plans to release the calculator to the public next year and hopes that it will be used to set measurable goals for designing climate-friendly projects and create opportunities for accountability.

“How are we going to keep tabs on ourselves to make sure that we’re actually doing these things?” she asked her fellow panelists. “What would it take for us to have a 2030 challenge specific to landscape architecture?”

“ASLA or the LAF should do that — there’s no reason why we can’t!” said Schwartz.

“We all have to stand up for what this profession is founded on,” Schwartz said. “This is the foundation of who we are. This century is the golden age of landscape architecture. The world really needs you. It needs what you know and what you believe in. Now is the time.”

Building Real-World Community with Minecraft

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A park designed using the popular video game Minecraft / UN Habitat

Can a video game help bring landscape architecture to the masses?

According to Deirdre Quarnstrom: absolutely.

Quarnstrom is the general manager for Microsoft’s Minecraft Education program, which promotes the popular video game’s use as an educational tool. She is also a director at Block by Block, a nonprofit partnership between Microsoft, Minecraft-creators Mojang Studios, and the United Nations that uses Minecraft to broaden community engagement around public spaces in the developing world.

At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Quarnstrom was joined by Lauren Schmitt, ASLA, and Anaheim parks manager Pamela Galera, ASLA, to discuss how landscape architects can use Minecraft to expand and deepen the community engagement process.

Minecraft was first released in 2009, and since then has sold 150 million copies worldwide. The game allows users to create, modify, and explore 3D landscapes constructed out of one meter blocks. According to a 2016 article in the New York Times, it is the third most-selling game in history, behind only Tetris and Nintendo’s Wii Sports.

“Minecraft is a game, but at its core, it’s also a really powerful building tool,” Quarnstrom said. “Because it is blocky and not precise, it becomes a very accessible way for people to start building.”

Quarnstrom pointed out that many non-professionals find it difficult to understand how two-dimensional drawings translate into three-dimensional space. Minecraft helps bridge that gap, and in doing so, allows more people to participate in the design process.

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Traditional 2D representational techniques may be difficult for non-practitioners to understand / UN Habitat

“In the developing world, we find that the planning processes are often dominated by men,” Quarnstrom explained. Block by Block facilitates community engagement sessions using Minecraft to reach those usually excluded from those conversations, especially children, women, and the elderly.

These engagement sessions are not confined to a screen. Participants use site visits to contextualize the study area and then hold brainstorming sessions to discuss their ideas and address challenges. It’s only after those steps that the teams begin to develop their designs in Minecraft.

At the end of the workshop, the participants present their designs and rank ideas. Those blocky Minecraft designs are then handed off to professionals, who use them to develop buildable projects. Block by Block funds construction and works with local officials to ensure they are maintained after construction. According to Quarnstrom, Block by Block has successfully completed 75 projects in 30 countries.

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A Block by Block participant presents her design / UN Habitat

When Minecon, an annual Minecraft convention with 15,000 attendees, was slated to come to Anaheim, California, Quarnstrom was struck with an idea. Why not bring the same process for a project in the festival’s host city?

As it turns out, the timing was perfect. “When we were approached by Block by Block, we were in design on the upper half of the Anaheim River Walk, and there was an opportunity for a children’s playground,” said Galera, Anaheim parks manager and landscape architect.

“We wanted this playground to be cool; we wanted it to be something very special.”

Galera and her team have used other tools for community outreach in the past, including open houses, pop-up meetings, and craft sessions building model playgrounds with ordinary materials like cups, straws, and string.

Galera worked closely with Block by Block to bring neighborhood children into the design and planning process for the new playground. They first created a basemap of the project site in Minecraft, which was loaded onto laptops for the participants to work on.

They then gave the participating children a “crash course in urban design” so that they could understand the project’s constraints and limitations. Finally, the children worked in groups to develop their ideas and build their models in Minecraft.

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Participants work in teams to develop their designs / Pamela Galera

The playground they designed is now under construction.

“For opening day, when we have our dedication, we’ll have the children out there and celebrate their contributions,” Galera said. There will also be a mural painted on a wall at the back of the park that will permanently commemorate the children’s involvement in the process.

Galera sees Minecraft not just as a tool for community engagement, but also as a way for landscape architects to engage with children about the profession and expose them to landscape architecture as a potential career path. In the case of the Anaheim project, she said that many of the participants were children of migrant farmworkers for whom the experience may have been their first encounter with landscape architecture.

“This is our challenge as landscape architects: our profession is nature-based, but it’s also people-based. We have to evolve to make sure our profession continues. This is just another tool. We shouldn’t be afraid of it; we should embrace it.”

ASLA Annual Meeting Opens with Calls to Action

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ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting General Session, Saturday, October 20 / EPNAC

The ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting officially commenced Saturday morning in Philadelphia with outgoing ASLA president Greg Miller, FASLA, making the case for the importance of landscape architecture in a world facing many challenges.

While the problems of climate change, inequality, strained resources, and aging infrastructure are daunting, they also create opportunities for the field to expand its influence and scope of activity. “These are exciting times for landscape architects,” who are “solving complex issues with simple solutions that meaningfully impact peoples’ lives.”

“Seeing what is being accomplished across the spectrum of landscape architecture, I’ve realized that we’re defined by our wisdom, and that is what has put us in a position to take the profession to new heights.”

Miller said this wisdom is composed of “knowledge (the easy part), experience, perspective, foresight, and judgement. When these come together, the results of our wisdom are beautiful and special. Through our actions, we can make people’s lives better, protect our lands, and craft a better world.”

Laurie Olin, FASLA, and NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg then took the stage for a wide-ranging conversation on Olin’s influences and current work.

Laurie Olin, FASLA, and Susan Stamberg in conversation / EPNAC

Olin initially studied architecture but found himself shifting to landscape after traveling in Europe and being “absolutely blown away” by the landscapes.

At the same time, Olin was beginning to bristle at architecture’s limitations. “I realized architecture really didn’t satisfy some of my concerns. The 60’s were a turbulent time. Buildings were objects and didn’t seem to involve society, the public realm, and other factors I thought were really important.”

Olin said that his travel in Europe ignited his love for and interest in cities and urban design. “I had gone off to Europe to look at one thing, and then I discovered cities, and fell in love with them. I realized there was a structure to cities, and they could be organized around public spaces. I learned that people were actually designing the streets and linking public spaces before the buildings came. I thought that’s really important.”

Olin also observed these same influences were critical for Frederick Law Olmsted, who “channeled all this energy and these ideas about health and public spaces and fresh air and parks” into his work in the United States.

In Europe, Olin discovered “you had to go see it for yourself. Part of learning is being out there and actually seeing things. The books don’t do it; the slides don’t do it. The problem with landscape is it’s diverse, big, and in lots of places. You have to travel, and it takes a while to see it. Finding the good stuff is like raisins in the pudding – it’s not everywhere.”

His work as a designer has been shaped by these early insights and grew out of the same humane impulses that animated Olmsted’s work.

In his redesign of New York City’s Bryant Park, Olin sought to highlight the park’s characteristically-French elements but also make a space for people.

“I realized looking at it that it was a very French park,” he said. “It was basically a bunch of quotes from the Jardin du Luxembourg.” So, “if it’s going to be this French park, we should have movable furniture,” a simple move that “radically changed the place.”

ASLA 2010 Landmark Award. Bryant Park, New York City. OLIN / Peter Mauss, ESTO

At Battery Park City, also in New York City, Olin worked with Alex Cooper to create a master plan to draw people to the edge of the Hudson River. “It seemed so clear that what we had to do was get people out of the city onto the edge of the river and give the entire perimeter over to the public.”

In the wake of 9/11, Olin won a competition to redesign the base of the Washington Monument to deter a terrorist attack. However, the site needed much more than just security upgrades.

“People forget, it was a kind of nasty place in some ways. It was a complete ruin of the public realm in a place that was supposed to be the most generous and welcoming.”

Olin’s goal was “to make it as if it had always been a beautiful place,” he explained. “Why don’t we make it the way people think it always was?”

To achieve this effect, Olin’s design referred to the low retaining walls used on the opposite end of the mall by none other than Olmsted and Vaux. These walls encircle the monument, directing visitors and preventing a vehicle from getting too close. “The answer was right there, except at the other end of the mall!”

Washington Monument, Washington, D,C. OLIN / OLIN

Stamberg brought the conversation to a close by asking Olin to reflect on the future of the profession.

“The future is always going to be a distorted view of the present,” he said. “We don’t know how the pieces will play out.”

He identified climate change as a uniquely-pressing issue both for landscape architects and the world at large. Olin urged landscape architects to assert themselves in important conversations on the world’s most difficult challenges.

“As a profession, we can help society find out where it wants to go. We should not wait for the phone to ring. We should be leading.”

“We have to become political in a thoughtful, non-strident, but effective way.”

“How to make the world safe for children in the next generation is your job,” he said to the audience. “It’s our job.”

Design with Nurture: Women’s Leadership in Landscape Architecture

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Design with Nurture / ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting

The demographics of landscape architecture have changed dramatically in recent decades as more women have entered the field.

At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) president and PWP Landscape Architecture partner Adam Greenspan, ASLA, pointed out that the signatories to the 1966 LAF Declaration of Concern were all men. But in 2016, the LAF convened to draft the New Landscape Declaration. This time, 48 percent of its signatories were women.

“The composition of the field is changing, and the identities and voices coming up in the profession are more varied than they were 50 years ago,” Greenspan said. “We would like the discipline to continue to grow and change in order to shape the world in ever more meaningful ways.”

However, women landscape architects face a number of gender-related hurdles, which are compounded by the male-dominated culture of the larger construction industry.

“I never wanted to be a woman designer; I just wanted to be a designer,” said Michelle Arab, ASLA, director of landscape architecture at Olson Kundig. “But then I find myself in a situation where I’m the only woman in a room of sixteen people.”

“We’re missing women,” she said, pointing out that only 36 percent of ASLA members and just 20 percent of ASLA fellows are women.

Akiko Ono, ASLA, associate at Shades of Green Landscape Architecture, argued that certain subsets of the design professions carry gendered connotations, which can sideline both careers and entire areas of design practice.

For example, residential design is the single largest area of practice for landscape architecture, but large-scale planning and public projects often receive more attention and accolades. Ono suggested this may in part be because domestic landscapes and gardens are associated with femininity, while large-scale public projects are associated with the masculine ideal of the visionary, heroic architect or planner.

Ono also highlighted a New York Times article published after the death of starchitect Zaha Hadid in 2016 that highlighted the gender-laden assumptions faced by women in the design professions. “I Am Not the Decorator,” the article’s title declares.

For Michelle Crowley, ASLA, founding principal of Crowley Cottrell, values and culture were key factors that ultimately led her to start her own firm.

“As I gained more experience [as a landscape architect], I began showing a counter-culture approach to staff, clients, and contractors,” she said. “I showed a more vulnerable side, admitted mistakes, listened to contractors, and may have agreed to give up something in the design that was proving hard to build.”

“At one point I was told I was too maternal, which I took to mean I was too nurturing, protective, caring, kind, and comforting – all usually feminine qualities that I didn’t feel should be a negative.”

“Instead of changing my own behavior, I chose to start my own firm. I try to pride myself on being very transparent and honest. One the best parts of starting my own business is that I can be me.”

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Scott’s Grove, an affordable housing development on Martha’s Vineyard / Crowley Cottrell

Parenting remains one of the largest challenges faced by women in the workforce. Recent studies have identified motherhood as the source of the persistent pay gap between genders, even in countries with generous social safety nets.

And despite large cultural shifts over recent decades, women with children still spend more time on housework and childcare on average than men, making balancing work and personal schedules extremely difficult.

In the design professions, where many firm cultures celebrate working into nights and weekends, this can make for an unsustainable trajectory. Ono said that expectations about hours spent at the office ultimately forced her hand. “When I was told I couldn’t work part-time or have a flexible schedule, I knew it was time to move on.”

“You have to acknowledge that there is life outside of work, and that life enriches your work as well,” she said.

For Ono, motherhood is an example of a “personal, intimate, and compassionate relationship with nature,” which “can be turned into a quiet strength and understanding in designing the natural environment.”

Arab echoed that point, arguing that motherhood has only made her a better designer. “It was a defining moment when I had my son,” she said. “I had this stroller and I was defined by wheels – that’s an important perspective to have.”

Now that her son is older, Arab said her son helps her to “stop and, literally, smell the roses, look at the rocks, and explore things in a new way.”

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Image courtesy Michelle Arab

“As designers, the more perspectives we can bring to things, the stronger we are.”

Beyond Mow and Blow: New Approaches to Park Maintenance

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Prairie Burn in Manhattan, Kansas / USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

“How can we make maintenance sexier and more fun?”

This was the question moderator Joey Hays, ASLA, posed to the crowd at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, in a session entitled “the disturbing pleasures of maintenance: audacious strategies for public parks,” which sought to address the increasingly-fraught issue of public parks maintenance and inspire creative, aesthetic, and ecological approaches to what can often seem a decidedly-mundane topic.

Tim Marshall, FASLA, was quick to respond to Hayes’ question. “Sexy and fun–those are not two things I’ve ever heard in the same sentence regarding maintenance,” he said to knowing laughs.

Maintenance may not be something that excites designers, clients, or the public, but its implementation–or lack thereof–can make all the difference in the success or failure of a project.

Marshall, who formerly served as deputy administrator and senior vice president of the Central Park Conservancy in New York City, said maintenance has become more problematic on a national level. Many parks and recreation departments have expanded their portfolios of amenities and facilities in recent decades, but operations funding has not kept up.

“We have more things to maintain, and at the same time, resources are going down.”

Recent trends in ecological design have not made things easier. Designs that rely heavily on meadows and other designed plant communities require specialized knowledge to maintain, knowledge often not held by maintenance crews accustomed to the “mow and blow” approach.

“Put in a lawn, you know exactly what to do right away,” he said. “A meadow changes year to year. It’s not a project, it’s a process.”

Sheep were at one time used to maintain the meadow in Central Park / Library of Congress

One of the biggest obstacles facing parks departments is what Marshall called the “silver tsunami,” the looming wave of retiring experienced staff who will take with them institutional knowledge, relationships, and experience.

Loss of funding and staff can lead to deferred maintenance, which inflates capital costs and depresses park use.

According to Marshall, public-private partnerships like the Central Park Conservancy have been key to filling the operational gaps left by budget cuts and staffing shortages. However, those partnerships come with their own challenges.

“There has to be an understanding that we’re in this together,” he said, adding “it probably took ten years before the Central Park Conservancy was firing on four of its six cylinders.”

Tim Netsch of the Metro Nashville Parks Planning Division has experienced these dynamics first hand. “There’s so much happening in Nashville that parallels some those national trends. There is something unsustainable about our current park system.”

Nashville has seen explosive growth in recent decades, which has extended the city’s park system. Since the adoption of the city’s first parks and greenways master plan in 2002, the park system has added approximately 6,500 acres.

“Our park system grew more in this 15 year period than it had in the previous 50 years,” Netsch said. “During that same period of capital budget abundance, our operating budget has stagnated,” leading to fewer maintenance employees per acre and reduced operating hours.

“Our park system has grown, but our organization has not.”

To break out of this cycle, Nashville asked Charlottesville-based Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBW) to incorporate maintenance needs into the design of two new large public parks currently being planned for East Nashville.

“We wanted to build these plans around maintenance,” Netsch said. “To make it unavoidable to reckon with maintenance.”

For Thomas Woltz, FASLA, that meant diving deep into the sites’ cultural and ecological histories. On the future site of Ravenwood Park, just east of downtown Nashville, Woltz said: “an extraordinary phenomenon here is you have 8,000 years of Native American settlement in a not terribly disturbed site.”

“What if, in the cultural landscape research, you hit upon a regime of maintenance? What if the maintenance design is right there, deep within the soil?”

In the case of Ravenwood Park, NBW has proposed a mixed regime of controlled burns and grazing by cows, maintenance practices that reflect the history of the site and provide valuable ecological disturbance that will maintain broad expanses of open grassland.

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Master Plan for Ravenwood Park, Nashville / Nelson Byrd Woltz

For Woltz, it is here that the “disturbing pleasures”–or pleasures that result from disturbance–reveal themselves. “Part of the disturbing pleasure is the exhilaration of witnessing a fire,” he said, “and the sublime landscape of these post-fire moments when the earth surges with this chartreuse explosion of grasses.”

This aesthetic of disturbance can reframe the conversation around maintenance and even create opportunities to design powerful spaces and experiences.

To illustrate this point, Woltz pivoted to another major public project that NBW has spent many years on: Houston’s Memorial Park.

In their research, NBW found that many Houstonians were unaware of the park’s history and did not know why it was called Memorial Park. The site was used as an army camp in World War I and was the last stop for many soldiers before being shipped to Europe.

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Aerial photo of Camp Logan, Houston / Nelson Byrd Woltz

NBW’s design calls for a 90 acre Memorial Grove of Loblolly Pines planted in a strict, regimented grid, referring to the character of the military exercises and rows of tents that once defined the site. The heart of NBW’s proposal, however, lies in the grove’s maintenance regime.

“Twenty-five years is the average age of the solider that died in World War I who trained at Camp Logan. Twenty-five years is the age of maturity for loblolly pines in the timber industry,” Woltz explained.

“So, twenty-five years from the planting of the Memorial Groves, imagine one of those regiments–a thousand trees–ceremonially chainsawed down on Memorial Day. The noise, the impact, the violence, the horror of seeing a thousand trees felled at once in a city’s park will be something you will never forget. And you just might feel, in your body, the sense and the power of sacrifice and of loss of life.”

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Rendering of the Memorial Grove at Memorial Park, Houston / Nelson Byrd Woltz

Woltz said that the timber from the felled trees would then be given to Habitat for Humanity to build affordable housing in the Houston area. He envisions Houstonians coming together on Armistice Day to replant the thousand felled trees for another twenty-five year cycle. Every five years, a new group of trees would be felled.

“This is a memorial, in perpetuity, connecting us to the cycles of life, connecting us to the power of life, the beauty of these trees representing these individuals who were felled far, far, too early.”

“As an extreme example, this is a maintenance regime. Maintenance has been used as the very crux of a memorial landscape.”

Hope and Doubt about the Future of Walkable Suburbia

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Suburban Remix: Creating the Next Generation of Urban Places / Island Press

Yesterday’s suburbs have the potential to become tomorrow’s downtowns, according to Suburban Remix: Creating the Next Generation of Urban Places, a collection of essays and case studies edited by Jason Beske and David Dixon and published earlier this year by Island Press. Suburban Remix makes a compelling case for transforming the country’s aging suburban population centers into dense, walkable communities, but ultimately fails to demonstrate how broadly applicable that model may be. 

Suburban Remix’s central argument is the era of low-density suburban planning is over. In the book’s introduction, Dixon writes “the traditional suburban dream that built this world–promulgated widely in the decades following WWII–was about homogeneity represented by a growing middle class and symbolized by a single-family house with a white picket fence and car in the driveway.”

“That dream is dead. It simply no longer describes the places in which most North Americans aspire to live or for which they are willing to pay.”

The book’s contributors point to a number of different factors contributing to this dynamic, but none more compelling than the demographic forces that are reshaping the nation, ushering in changes that have big implications for housing, development, and land use.

“There is a new norm for the general US population,” Dixon writes. “Society is growing younger and older–and raising fewer children.” 

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The US population is predicted to grow both younger and older, with fewer school age children / Stantec graphic, courtesy Island Press

This new norm is reflected in some eye-catching numbers: “Between 2010 and 2030, people younger than 35 and older than 65 will account for more than three-quarters of US population growth,” Dixon says. People over 70 will be the fastest-growing demographic in the suburbs. Perhaps most startling, “two-parent households with children will represent only about 10% of all US households” by 2025.

As the single-family homes of formerly child-rearing baby boomers flood the market, they will find a paucity of young families lining up to buy. According to one estimate, “the United States already had more single-family suburban housing in 2010 than it would need to meet projected demand in 2030,” Dixon says. 

Compounding the issue, tastes are shifting away from automobile-dependent sprawl and toward denser, walkable communities, particularly among retiring baby boomers and the educated millennials who are taking their place in the workforce.

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Aerial view of Reston, Virginia, an example of incorporating density into a conventional suburban plan / La Citta Vita under CC BY-SA 2.0, courtesy Island Press

As proof of this shift, Dixon points to an analysis carried out by Richard Florida, who found that urban housing prices rose 60 percent faster than those of suburban housing from 2000 to 2015. “Urban places are now viewed as healthier and more environmentally responsible places to live and work,” he explains.

The implications of these changes are clear: the market for suburban single-family housing is on shaky ground. The end of the suburbs could be a result of economic forces as much as cultural ones.

Despite these challenges, the authors of Suburban Remix are optimistic about suburbia’s future.

“Without damaging a single blade of grass on a single lawn, suburbs across North America can seize opportunities to transform tens of millions of ‘grayfields’–outmoded predominantly single-use shopping centers and office parks–into a new generation of compact, dense, walkable, mixed-use–urban–places that accommodate multiple dreams,” argues Dixon.

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Before and after images of a proposal to create a walkable mixed-use development to replace a shopping mall parking lot in Roanoke, VA / Stantec, courtesy Island Press

In fact, it is the abundance of these large grayfield sites in suburban areas that the authors see as one of suburbia’s greatest strengths. Thanks to grayfields, “developers in suburbs will be in a far better position to assemble large, contiguous sites with a single or a few owners to create vibrant new districts.”

Suburban Remix is at its strongest when it is framing this broad argument about the demographic, economic, and social trends driving the future of the suburbs. The bulk of the book, however, consists of case studies of communities at various stages of this transformation, including the Washington D.C. region; Dublin, Ohio; and Bellevue, Washington.

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Lane markings in Tysons, Virginia, one the areas included in Suburan Remix‘s case studies / Andrew Wright

These studies undoubtedly represent valuable research, but suffer from a lack of geographic diversity. Three of the eight chapters are dedicated to Washington D.C. or Northern Virginia; two are in Ohio. The American southeast and southwest–regions where the lessons from this book are arguably most urgently needed–are notably absent.

Another glaring omission is the lack any meaningful discussion of the social implications of the suburban densification that the book’s authors extoll. Affordable housing, for example, is scarcely mentioned. Moderate- to low-income suburbs that fail to densify are at one point described as “probable slums,” a disturbing prediction that deserves far more attention than the three paragraphs it receives.

Finally, the authors fail to acknowledge the deep-seated cultural foundations of the suburbs, an urban form that is – for better or worse – deeply embedded in the American psyche and whose roots extend much further back than the housing boom of the post-war era.

The authors present strong evidence that this may be changing, but this argument rests, to a certain extent, on the assumption that recent trends are a reliable predictor of future outcomes.

In depicting the death of the suburban dream as a fait accompli, Suburban Remix fails to reckon with the stubbornness of the cultural attitudes that have historically driven demand for suburban development.

In fact, none other than Richard Florida has sounded the alarm about what appears to be, at the very least, a pause in America’s love affair with dense, urban places. “In the last two years the suburbs outgrew cities in two-thirds of America’s large metropolitan areas,” he wrote late last year in an op-ed for the New York Timesattributing the trend to rising crime, impossibly expensive real estate, shifting political winds, and the fact that “many Americans still want space.”

Despite these shortcomings, Suburban Remix represents a valuable resource for policymakers, planners, and designers engaged in large-scale re-imagining of what a suburb can be.

The case studies are models for how to create dense, walkable communities in a present-day context, and the authors’ overarching argument for doing so is a strong one. In giving reasons to be hopeful about the future of the suburbs, however, they also reveal reasons to doubt.

ASLA Launches Guide to Climate Change Mitigation

ASLA 2017 Professional General Design Honor Award. SteelStacks Arts + Cultural Campus, Bethelhem, Pennsylvania / Christenson Photography

Global climate change is the defining environmental issue of our time. From devastating wildfires to historic storms and rising seas, the effects are already being felt and will continue to get worse. According to NASA, sea levels could rise anywhere from 8 inches to 6.5 feet by 2100. Additional impacts include increased spread of diseases; extensive species extinction; mass human, animal, and plant migrations; and resource wars over dwindling food and water supplies. Furthermore, these impacts will disproportionately affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities.

Sustained, meaningful commitments and actions to substantially reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from all sectors of our economy can help avoid the worst of these negative impacts. The benefits of these actions will be measured in lives saved and communities spared.

In 2015, the international community gathered in Paris, France, and agreed to a landmark cooperative framework for limiting global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In order to meet this goal, GHG emissions will need to peak by 2020 and fall to zero by 2050. This is an immense goal, but also achievable.

Landscape architects are helping to shift us to a carbon neutral future. Landscape architects plan and design dense, walkable communities that reduce emissions from transportation and sprawl. They make the built environment more energy and carbon efficient with strategies like green roofs, water-efficient design, and use of sustainable materials and construction practices. They defend and expand carbon-sequestering landscapes such as forests, wetlands, and grasslands, helping to drawdown atmospheric carbon dioxide. All of these efforts also enable communities to better adapt to climate change and improve their resilience.

The threats posed by climate change are immense, and there is no single strategy that will solve the climate crisis on its own. Instead, mitigation requires an “all hands on deck” approach as we seek to reduce GHG emissions wherever possible. Achieving a carbon neutral future will only come about through the cumulative effect of countless individual actions. Every one of those individual actions counts.

Explore the new ASLA guide to climate change mitigation, which complements Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, the report and recommendations of the ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience.

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate / ASLA

Sections of the mitigation guide include: regions, cities, materials and construction, green infrastructure, and natural systems.

The Big Impact of Small Cell Infrastructure

Small cell photo simulation / City of Gaithersburg, Crown Castle

Autonomous vehicles, augmented reality, smart cities, the internet of things – these and other emerging technologies will require wireless connectivity, and lots of it. In response, wireless service providers are working to bolster their wireless networks by deploying low-power miniature antennas called small cells, which supplement larger cell towers and can deliver lightning-fast 5G service.

Small cells might seem innocuous enough. They are, after all, much smaller than a standard cell tower. However, because their range is limited, small cells must be deployed in dense networks to provide continuous service. By some estimates, providers will need to install small cells every 250 to 300 feet to provide adequate coverage. And since each provider has their own network, full scale deployment of small cell infrastructure could result in the installation on thousands of new antennas on city streets and rights-of-way.

The challenge posed by small cell infrastructure was laid bare at a recent U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) meeting, where National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) staff planner Michael Bello gave a talk on small cell deployment in Washington, D.C.

Bello indicated that small cell infrastructure could, in many cases, be mounted on existing infrastructure such as telephone poles, street lights, or bus stops. Still, the sheer number of antennas required all but guarantees the deployment of small cells will have a visual impact on the public realm.

“I want to underscore that the implementation of this technology could result in thousands of small cell antennas and related equipment across the city, and it may result in several per block,” said Bello.

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A small cell installation in Austin, Texas / Crown Castle

Small cells could result in “impacts to our viewsheds, historic character, access and circulation, and potential for more streetscape clutter.”

The Washington, D.C. department of transportation (DDOT) – the agency with permitting jurisdiction for right-of-way infrastructure – has already entered into master license agreements with multiple cell service providers for small cell deployment on DC streets.

Bello said that the NCPC is working with DDOT, along with a number of other agencies, to develop design guidelines for this new infrastructure.

“The guidelines will address various aspects of placement and design, including general design specification, spacing between small cell poles, distance from tree boxes and root systems, accessibility, the number of poles per block, and the poles design and finish.”

Public comments indicated that, for some residents, these guidelines may not be enough. Georgetown ANC Commissioner Joe Gibbons and Citizens Association of Georgetown board member Elsa Santoyo both voiced concern about the impact of small cells could have on the historic character of Georgetown and urged that small cell installations be subjected to a formal design review process, something not required by DDOT’s existing agreement with service providers.

DDOT manager Kathryn Roos said her agency’s agreement with service providers did not preclude such oversight. “The master license agreement is explicit in saying that the small cell companies must get whatever approval that is needed.”

“DDOT’s role in this is really as a facilitator. We saw that this was a particularly sensitive program, and so we reached out to our partners at NCPC, CFA, and SHPO (State Historic Preservation Office) to help facilitate a conversation.”

CFA Commissioner Toni Griffin pushed back against that characterization of DDOT’s role: “To the extent this can be viewed as privately-operated public infrastructure, I think we’re going to need a public owner and advocate — and not just a facilitator.”

In other jurisdictions, legal battles have broken out between state and local governments over who has the right to decide how cell service providers can deploy small cell technology – and how much they have to pay for the right to do so on publicly controlled rights-of-way.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, twenty states have passed laws intended to facilitate small cell deployment. Many of these laws achieve this goal by limiting local regulation of the deployment process. These efforts are often backed by the CTIA, a trade organization that represents the wireless communications industry.

The federal government has also begun to take note of the issue. Earlier this summer, Senator John Thune (R-SD) introduced the STREAMLINE Small Cell Deployment Act (S. 3157), which would require local agencies to process small cell applications within 60 to 90 days and limit the amount that municipalities can charge service providers for the use of the public right of way. And in March, the the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to adopted rules intended to reduce regulatory hurdle to small cell deployment.

Local leaders, for their part, have argued that local regulations are not a major obstacle to deployment. In a letter to the FCC ahead of the commission’s March meeting, three dozen mayors and local leaders insisted that “our communities strongly desire more options for high quality internet access, and we are happy to work collaboratively with any Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are willing to provide such opportunities. However, our residents and businesses appropriately balk at the placement of a 100-foot monopole on their lawn with no recourse, or to having their local government’s hands tied when it comes to the public recovering just compensation for the use of the public’s right of way.”

Small cell photo simulation / Montgomery County, Crown Castle

At the CFA meeting, Commissioner Griffin envisioned a more creative approach to the issue. “Maybe we should ask the service providers to sponsor a design competition to help us bring more voices to the table and solve the problem. Design guidelines will get us some of the way, but not all the way.”

Controversial WWI Memorial Charts Narrow Path Forward

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Aerial view of the approved conceptual design for the National WWI Memorial at Pershing Park / World War I Centennial Commission

In a circumscribed win for backers of a new national World War I memorial at the site of Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) unanimously granted their support to the latest conceptual design for the memorial at their July 19 meeting.

The revised proposal was presented by David Rubin, ASLA, principal of Land Collective, who joined the World War I Centennial Commission (WWICC) design team in 2017. Other members of the team include architect Joe Weishaar, GWWO, and sculptor Sabin Howard.

The project has generated controversy due to its location at Pershing Park, which was designed by ASLA medal recipient M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA. The park, which opened in 1981, has fallen into disrepair in recent years as maintenance funds have been cut.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) and others have argued the park has historic value and should be rehabilitated as part of any memorial construction, arguing that the park can accommodate new memorial elements without fundamentally altering Friedberg’s original design. The National Park Service (NPS), which operates the park, determined in 2016 the park was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, calling it “an exceptional example of a landscape design of the modern period.”

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Pershing Park (looking south) / Image courtesy of M. Paul Friedberg & Partners, via The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Backers of the new memorial have pointed to their Congressional mandate, which specifically designates Pershing Park as the site for a national WWI memorial, and have argued that preservation concerns should not take priority over an act of Congress. They have also emphasized that WWI is the only major conflict whose veterans are not memorialized in the nation’s capital.

The approved design concept retains a previously-proposed sculptural wall on the western edge of the park as the memorial’s signature element. The wall would be freestanding and placed in the western end of the park’s original pool, which is currently inoperable. The wall would incorporate cascading water features, referring to the original design’s waterfall at the western edge of the pool.

The proposal also calls for a paved viewing platform to be constructed in the center of the existing pool area, which Rubin said could also be used for events and commemorations. In the concept presented to CFA, the platform would substantially reduce the size and alter the shape of the original pool.

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Perspective view of the proposed viewing platform / World War I Centennial Commission

In granting their support, CFA asked the design team to continue to refine elements of design, including the sculptural wall, the function of the site of an existing unused kiosk on the northeast corner of the site, and the layout of the proposed viewing platform.

Overall, however, CFA was persuaded by the WWICC proposal. “For the first time, the client and designers have talked about the memorial and the park as a whole and understand that the impact of the sculptural wall will be enriched by the spatial sequence through the park,” said CFA vice chairman Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA.

The initial design for the memorial was selected in 2015 by competition. The winning proposal, “The Weight of Sacrifice,” was submitted by architect Joe Weishaar and sculptor Sabin Howard. It called for replacing Pershing Park’s sunken pool with a flat lawn enclosed on three sides by bronze walls engraved with memorial text and figurative sculptures in bas relief.

In selecting the winning proposal, the jury described it as “elegant and absolute,” praising its simplicity.

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The original proposal by Joe Weishaar would have replaced the central pool with a turf panel, enclosed on three sides by bronze walls / World War I Centennial Commission

The competition jury originally included Laurie Olin, FASLA. However, Olin resigned from the jury before the competition began after learning that Pershing Park could be threatened. Olin told Politico earlier this year that he does not support the project.

The WWICC had hoped the new park would be completed in time for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice this coming November. However, approvals for the design have proven difficult to secure because of concerns over the impact on Pershing Park.

In his remarks at the July meeting, TCLF president Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, opposed the option presented by the WWICC design team and instead urged CFA to support an alternative that would place sculptural elements “in-the-round” at the current site of the unused kiosk. That proposal was also supported by Oehme van Sweden, who revised the planting plan for the site with Freidberg in the 1980s, and former ASLA president Darwina Neal, FASLA.

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Perspective view of the “in-the-round” alternative favored by The Cultural Landscape Foundation / World War I Centennial Commission

Neal argued in a written statement that “such a ‘sculpture in the round’ in the kiosk location could seamlessly be added to the existing park.”

However, CFA rejected this alternative in favor of the memorial design team’s preferred configuration, which they felt struck an appropriate balance between Friedberg’s original design and the new memorial elements. “I’m convinced that the wall will not destroy the integrity of this landscape, but in fact will reinterpret it,” said Meyer.

CFA commissioner Edward Dunson agreed: “This is still Friedberg’s space as far as I’m concerned; it just has a different interpretation, and I feel comfort in that.”

“I don’t believe that strict—emphasis on strict—preservation of the original design is more important than the congressional decision to designate the entirety of Pershing Park as a memorial,” said Alex Krieger, a CFA commissioner. “I’m not persuaded that everything about the original design has to be preserved, and therefore the memorial needs to take second standing. I think they must take equivalent standing.”

In an email, Rubin said that “with the approval of a preferred option by the CFA, we have met a significant milestone in the realization of a comprehensive design for the memorial,” but “there are still many design exercises moving forward.”

The WWICC design team will need to resolve the outstanding issues identified by CFA and present a more detailed proposal as well as clear a revised design with other regulatory agencies, including the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) al, before they can begin construction.