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.

New Mariposa Grove Protects Fragile Giant Sequoia Ecosystem

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Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias / Mithun

In the not too distant past, you could park a car in the midst of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) at California’s Yosemite National Park. That is no longer possible thanks to a recently-completed $40 million restoration by the National Park Service (NPS) in partnership with the Yosemite Conservancy and Seattle-based multidisciplinary design firm Mithun.

Now, visitors park at a newly constructed, 300-vehicle-capacity terminal two miles away and take a shuttle bus to a main entry plaza at the lower grove.

“Before, it used to be a pass-through area. People didn’t even really notice it,” says Mithun senior associate Christian Runge, ASLA, about the restored lower grove. “They saw a couple of big trees, but it wasn’t a place. Now, it’s the centerpiece of the whole project.”

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Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias / Susan Olmsted

This transformation didn’t happen for its own sake. Years of heavy visitor traffic and poor planning took their toll on the storied trees, raising alarm about their future health.

The giant sequoia, which grows to approximately 300-feet high and can live for thousands of years, is an endangered species. This tree occupies a narrow ecological niche only 260-miles-wide on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains and requires specific environmental conditions to thrive. The Mariposa Grove is one of the few places on earth where the sequoia is able to reseed on its own.

“The Sequoias exist on the western slopes of the Sierras at a certain elevation, which is essentially at the rain-snow transitional zone,” says Runge. “If you go much lower, it’s all rain; if you go much higher, it’s all snow. That feeds the hydrology of these mountain wetland stream systems, which the sequoias tend to cluster closely around.”

“So, restoring hydrology and improving the natural hydrologic flow in the grove was really an important piece of the restoration puzzle.”

To achieve this, the design team removed the existing network of asphalt roads and paths, which were interfering with the grove’s natural drainage patterns.

One road that connected the lower and upper groves crossed streams and wetlands approximately 30 times, says Runge. “Those culverts were anywhere between 50-60 years old, and a lot of them weren’t even functioning anymore.”

In the place of asphalt and culverts, Mithun designed a series of elevated boardwalks and trails that allow for a variety of visitor experiences and do not interfere with the delicate hydrology needed to sustain the sequoias.

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New paths and boardwalks have replaced asphalt roads in the lower grove / Susan Olmsted

“If we keep those streams running and hope for the best with snowmelt, then we can imagine those populations will continue to be stable and hopefully grow into mature trees,” Runge says.

However, that outcome is not guaranteed. Giant sequoias are threatened by the effects of climate change, which could reduce the amount of groundwater available to the trees and make it more difficult for seedlings to survive.

Runge acknowledges that in the face of such forces, there is only so much that the project can accomplish.

“The best thing we can really do is improve and maintain the processes that keep the sequoias as healthy as possible in order to provide as much resilience as possible,” says Runge. “Improving those processes was really the focus of the restoration.”

Ensuring the survival of the Mariposa grove also required changes to the visitor experience. In addition to restoring groundwater hydrology, the elevated boardwalks also keep visitors at a distance from the trees in the grove’s most heavily trafficked areas.

“People want to get up close to them. It’s just a human, intuitive thing that you want to be able to do,” Runge says. But, “if everyone did that, there would be too much damage to the tree.”

Instead, Mithun created a series of loops that become progressively less contained as they lead further from the main entry plaza. “Each loop takes you further out and is closer to a wilderness experience. If you want to go up into the upper grove, that’s something that can only really be hiked into.”

In addition to the new trails, enhancements to the visitor experience include a new visitor center and comfort stations designed by Mithun architects Brendan Connolly and Susan Olmsted, ASLA.

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Rendering of the new shuttle bus terminal / Mithun

While the design language and material choices were in some way constrained by the need to work within the rustic National Park aesthetic of stone and timber, Runge says the design team found room for creativity in the details.

“We didn’t argue about modern versus historic, but we did push for quality detailing and structural systems, thinking through stonework, and trying to understand what the Works Progress Administration (WPA)-era standards were in reality versus just giving the impression of something being historic. Making something that is durable, long-lasting, and in some sense beautiful was the key goal for us both in terms of the architectural elements and site elements, like the boardwalk.”

For Runge, striking this balance between ecology and the visitor experience defined Mithun’s approach to the project. “Ultimately, I feel like we got there,” he says. “It feels like a transformed place.”

Roberto Burle Marx, in His Own Words

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Roberto Burle Marx Lectures: Landscape As Art and Urbanism / Lars Müller Publishers

Roberto Burle Marx stands as one of the towering figures of 20th century landscape architecture, yet he left relatively little in the way of writing that describes, defends, or otherwise elucidates his work. A new collection of lectures, edited by Gareth Doherty, ASLA, helps fill that void.

Roberto Burle Marx Lectures: Landscape as Art and Urbanism consists of twelve lectures written and delivered by Burle Marx over the latter half of his career. In the preface, Doherty explains he first learned of these lectures as an intern at the Roberto Burle Marx Studio in the summer of 1996, two years after Burle Marx’s death.

“As a parting gift, Haruyoshi Ono, Burle Marx’s successor as director of the studio, presented me a photocopy of every lecture they then had that Burle Marx had delivered in English,” he writes. “I had little to no Portuguese, and they felt this was the one way I could carry something of Roberto with me and get to know him better.”

The lectures Doherty received in 1996 form the basis of this volume. Like Doherty, many of today’s practitioners never had the opportunity to hear Burle Marx present his work, let alone meet him. In this context, Lectures: Landscape As Art and Urbanism is a valuable resource that helps reinforce Burle Marx’s legacy.

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Copacobana Beachfront (Avenida Atlântica), Rio de Janeiro, 1970 / Leonardo Finotti, Lars Müller Publishers

As the book’s title suggests, the lectures shed light on Burle Marx the urbanist. He recognized the city was “the ‘habitat’ of modern man, offering him simultaneously a great variety of choice in his job and in his way of life.” The price for this variety, however, was “many difficulties which hamper his creative capacity due to deficient housing facilities, inadequate transportation, noise and sounds which tear him to pieces; not to mention other deeper difficulties in his work relationship, the opportunities of education, and in the enjoyment of the pleasures the city offers him.”

Burle Marx’s solution was to bring nature into the city. “The brutality of present urban conditions make the garden a compelling necessity,” he wrote. “One must bring nature into the reach of man and, above all, take man back to nature.” The garden was the tool for achieving this goal, a place where one could “find rest, relaxation, recreation, and above all the feeling that his is living in, and integrated into, this space.”

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Petrobas, Rio de Janeiro, 1969 / Leonardo Finotti, Lars Müller Publishers

He even saw gardens as having a didactic role: “The sight of that association of plants gives us the impression of a covenant for living together.” A garden was “a spatial condition of community life…a place which provides the desire any man has to communicate with his fellow men, and with nature as an aesthetic phenomenon and as a manifestation of life.”

Burle Marx also viewed landscape architecture as a tool for preservation. “It seems to be to be almost an obligation of the landscape architect to combat destruction and to preserve certain ill-fated species in danger of extinction, in order that they may survive for the education and enjoyment of future generations.”

Burle Marx was deeply concerned about the impact of development practices and their impact on the landscape, and saw landscape architects as defenders of the natural environment, prefiguring today’s focus on environmental issues within the profession.

What these lectures illustrate most clearly, however, is the depth of Burle Marx’s love of plants. “Plants have always been an integral part of my life,” he wrote in a lecture simply titled “The Plant.” And in “The Garden as a Way of Life,” he declared that the plant is the “the most basic element of composition.”

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Sítio Santo Antônio da Bica, Barra de Guaratiba, Rio de Janeiro, 1949-1994 / Leonardo Finotti, Lars Müller Publishers

Of course, this is not exactly a revelation for those familiar with Burle Marx’s life and career. He was obsessed with plants from an early age, an obsession that guided his career and manifested itself in both his designs and in his personal collection of thousands of plants culled from the Brazilian countryside.

Still, Lectures provides valuable insight into this obsession. Botanical names litter the pages. He writes lovingly of bromeliads, philodendrons, and heliconia. When describing his own designs, he devotes the most attention not to form or spatial qualities, but to plant selection and arrangement, underscoring their importance to his design process.

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Sítio Santo Antônio da Bica, Barra de Guaratiba, Rio de Janeiro, 1949-1994 / Leonardo Finotti, Lars Müller Publishers

Intriguingly, much of Burle Marx’s writing in this area prefigures the trends that have shaped planting design over the last 20 years. He proclaims the importance of native plants, saying that “ideally, we should only plant species native to the area.”  Elsewhere, he explains “the garden that has the best chances of survival and needs the minimum amount of care for such survival will be indigenous.”

Furthermore, he understood designed plant combinations as informed not only by aesthetic considerations, but by ecological ones as well. “Observing the demands of ecology and aesthetic compatibility, the landscape architect is able to create artificial associations of the greatest expressiveness,” he writes.

“To make artificial landscapes means neither to deny nor to imitate nature slavishly. It means, instead, to know how to transport and associate, with personal, selective judgement, the results of a long, loving, and intense observation.”

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Residência Edmundo Cavallenas, Petrópolis, RJ, 1954 / Leonardo, Finotti, Lars Müller Publishers

In the current context — in which many landscape architecture educational programs dedicate minimal time to plant material and planting design is sometimes seen as a specialized skill set — Burle Marx’s love of plants and the role that they played in his design process stands out.

While this is overall a handsomely presented collection, there are certain design choices that make reading it more difficult than necessary. The lectures are printed with narrow margins, which make Burle Marx’s words seem as though they are liable to scatter off the page. The effect is heightened by the book designers’ decision to present selected sentences in a larger type than others for emphasis. The result is not wholly satisfying.

The book also includes breathtaking photos of Burle Marx’s built works captured by Leonardo Finotti, but they are not keyed to references in the text itself, which can make for a frustrating experience. Those looking for clear, visual illustrations of Burle Marx’s comments may want to keep Google close at hand while reading.

In all, though, Roberto Burle Marx Lectures: Landscape as Art and Urbanism is an immensely valuable resource for those of us, like Doherty, with little to no Portuguese. It gives those of us in the English-speaking world an unmediated line to Roberto Burle Marx; that alone is worth the price of admission.

New Short Film: Pollinators Under Pressure

A new short film narrated by award-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio seeks to raise public awareness about pollinators, which includes bees, bats, butterflies, birds, and other mammals; the important ecological and economic roles they play; and the threats they face. The film was produced by Tree Media and directed by Matthew Schmid.

Pollinator health is the rare issue that spans the political spectrum. ASLA has worked with the non-profit Pollinator Partnership to turn this bipartisan goodwill into government policy.

In 2015, ASLA successfully lobbied for inclusion of pollinator-friendly management practices in the 2015 FAST Act. The law instructs the U.S. department of transportation to implement integrated vegetation management, reduced mowing schedules, and planting of native, pollinator-friendly species on highway roadsides. In 2016, the Federal Highway Administration issued guidance to state departments of transportation on how to implement pollinator-friendly habitats on the 17 million acres of roadsides across the country.

Despite the bipartisan consensus, the plight of pollinators remains a relatively obscure issue among the wider population. The producers of Pollinators Under Pressure hope to change that, and have made the film available for free online, making it a valuable tool for those seeking to educate others about the issue.

There are practices any home gardener can adopt: plant pollinator-friendly gardens, eliminate the use of pesticides, provide clean water, and leave dead tree trunks.

Learn more about Pollinators Under Pressure.

Human Activity Is Making Oceans Louder, Putting Wildlife at Risk

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Right whales breaching / NOAA

Jacques Costeau famously called the planet’s oceans “The Silent World.”

“Unfortunately, that was not really an accurate description,” says Dr. Jason Gedamke. “To the animals that live in the ocean, it is an incredibly noisy and loud place.”

Gedamke should know – he is the director of the Ocean Acoustics Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

What’s more, Gedamke says that the world’s oceans are getting noisier still thanks to human activity. At a recent round-table discussion hosted by the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation, Gedamke discussed his team’s research on this significant but overlooked impact of human activity on the not-so-silent world.

Water, it turns out, is an excellent conductor of acoustic energy.  “Sound travels incredibly efficiently underwater,” said Gedamke. He pointed to the 1991 Heard Island Feasibility Test, in which sounds emitted from underwater speakers off the coast of Australia were heard by researchers on the other side of the planet.

Whales and dolphins have adapted to exploit this property of water to communicate over large distances, but these adaptations also make them vulnerable to adverse effects from human sounds.

For example, there is evidence to suggest that beaching behavior – when a whale or dolphin becomes stranded on the ocean shore – may be related to acute ocean noise events such as loud pings from underwater sonar equipment.

Gedamke’s team, however, is most interested in the chronic effects of years’ worth of sound pollution on marine mammal life. “We’re trying to shift our focus from the acute – the immediate, loud sound that causes an animal to change its behavior – to the broader effects of all this introduced sound changing their habitat.”

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A young monk seal / NOAA

Part of the challenge Gedamke and his team face in their research is a lack of consistent data. The historic record of ocean noise levels is piecemeal, meaning it is difficult to make direct comparisons over time. The researchers are trying to address this with a new system of recorders that were deployed in 2014. These will allow for more accurate assessments of how the ocean’s sonic landscape is changing over time.

Gedamke’s team is also using GIS to map areas of high-noise intensity. When those are overlaid with maps showing areas of wildlife population, they could help identify areas and populations most at risk from harmful noise pollution.

There are many risks of a noisier habitat for marine life. Ambient noise could mask sounds that allow certain species to detect their predators, or vice versa, which could lead to food chain disruptions and ecological imbalance. It could also make it more difficult for individual animals to communicate with members of their own species, interfering with behaviors like hunting and mating. Proximity to loud sources of sound could lead to injury or hearing loss.

Oil and gas exploration and maritime shipping are primary contributors to our increasingly noisy oceans. Gedamke said that the Gulf of Mexico, the source of 17 percent of total U.S. crude oil production, is “an incredibly loud environment, one of the most heavily impacted on Earth.”

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An oil rig at the mouth of the Mobile Bay / Andrew Wright

In January of this year, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed opening all US coastal areas to offshore oil exploration, sparking widespread pushback from many coastal states and environmental groups. Recent reports suggest that industry demand for such a move is tepid, however.

Conventional industrial activity is not the only contributor, however. The installation of offshore wind turbines also contributes to ocean noise.

According to Project Drawdown, offshore wind turbines are an important tool for reversing global warming, with the potential to reduce atmospheric CO2 by 14.1 gigatons by 2050.

Wind turbines, both on and offshore, have also drawn criticism from environmental groups in the past for their potential impacts on wildlife, especially birds.

The risk of rising ocean noise fits into a larger pattern of disregard for the impact of human activity on marine habitat. From warming water temperatures to toxic chemical spills to swirling islands of plastic garbage, the world’s oceans are bearing the brunt of some of the most harmful industrial practices of the 20th and early 21st century.

The recent BBC nature documentary series Blue Planet II illustrated the scope of these impacts in its final episode, “Our Blue Planet.” In the episode, narrator David Attenborough warns that “the health of our oceans is under threat now as never before in human history.”

Among the harmful impacts of human behavior are overfishing, plastic entering the food chain, and yes, noise. “Man-made noise is now everywhere in the ocean, and it has an effect on marine creatures of all kinds,” says Attenborough.

The Blue Planet team follows marine biologist Steve Simpson, who researches how fish use sound to communicate, as well as how man-made sound interferes with that ability.

While it seems to be a complicated issue, for Simpson, the way forward is clear: “We can choose where we make the noise, we can choose when we make the noise. We can directly control the amount of noise that we make, and we can start doing that today.”

Learn more about NOAA’s research on ocean noise: Cetacean & Sound Mapping.

Can the 11th Street Bridge Park Slow Gentrification in DC?

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The proposed 11th Street Bridge Park will span the Anacostia River in southeast Washington, D.C. / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

Scott Kratz is attempting something very difficult.

He’s walking backwards on a busy Capitol Hill sidewalk, straining to be heard over traffic as he leads a group of eager residents on a walking tour to the future site of the 11th Street Bridge Park in southeast Washington, D.C.

The park, which has been in development since 2011, will one day span the Anacostia River, connecting the well-to-do neighborhoods west of the river and the historically African American neighborhoods to the east.

More difficult than walking backwards, however, is Kratz’s larger goal of ensuring that the creation of this new landmark public space, designed by Philadelphia-based landscape firm OLIN and Dutch architecture firm OMA, does not unleash the waves of gentrification that are already lapping at the Anacostia’s western shore.

“We’re three or four years away from opening, but we’ve already had the park appear in real estate ads without permission,” he told me as we walked back towards Capitol Hill after the tour. “We had to send some gentle cease-and-desists.”

This illustrates both the reality of the gentrification threat posed by the park’s construction and the measures that Kratz, who is director of the project, and his team at the Congress Heights-based non-profit Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR) are taking to mitigate it.

“First and foremost, this is a park for the local residents,” Kratz said, explaining how that basic principle has caused BBAR to take a much more expansive view of their role in the park’s development. “There’s the site of the park, but we have to be thinking about the larger systems we’re engaging with. What are the policies that can ensure local residents thrive in place?”

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OMA and OLIN’s design features a unique “X” shaped structure of interlocking trusses / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

This broad approach has led to what he called a “deep and sustained” relationship with the surrounding community.

“Before we engaged a single architect, landscape architect, or engineer, we had over two-hundred meetings with faith leaders, business owners, ANC commissioners, civic associations — with anybody who would have us.”

“And we didn’t just go out and say ‘what color should the chairs be,’” but instead asked more fundamental questions: “Should we do this? Does the community want this?”

This initial round of dialogue helped to bridge what Kratz called a “deep, real, and justified” trust-deficit in nearby communities, especially those east of the river.

That same level of community involvement carried through to the design competition process. Program requirements for the park were decided through a series of charrettes with community members. BBAR then created a community-led design oversight committee that reviewed the final design brief and met with the competing design teams multiple times during the design process to provide feedback and input.

“We didn’t know if it would work,” Kratz told me, “but at the end, each one of the design teams said it was the most valuable part of the process.”

“It was incredibly helpful,” said Hallie Boyce, ASLA, who led the design team for OLIN. “What it allowed us to do was to quickly develop a deeper knowledge of the place, both from a natural systems standpoint but also a cultural-systems standpoint.”

Boyce pointed out some members of the committee have lived in the area for twenty-five or thirty years. “You just can’t beat that kind of knowledge of a place.”

At the end of the competition, the design oversight committee ranked the submissions and made a recommendation to the competition jury. “The jury ultimately could have overruled the community recommendation,” Kratz said, “but as it turned out, both the jury and the design oversight committee were unanimous” in their decision.

“If we’re really about community engagement, then we need to let the community have the decision-making authority,” Kratz said, adding that members of the design oversight committee are now working with OLIN and OMA as they refine their winning concept, providing a real time, community-driven feedback loop. “That level of agency is critical.”

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The park will include an amphitheater for performances, community events, or for watching the regattas that are frequently held on the Anacostia river / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

With the design selected and pre-construction underway, the team is now working to ensure the park doesn’t end up displacing the very community that has brought the project this far.

In 2015, BBAR released an Equitable Development Plan which outlined how it would achieve this goal. The plan makes recommendations for addressing workforce development, small businesses, and housing. BBAR will soon be releasing an updated version of the plan that adds strategies for cultural and political equity.

Remarkably, BBAR has so far been able to muster more in financial support for the Equitable Development Plan than it has for the park itself. The park will cost $50-60 million to construct, of which roughly half has been committed to by the city, private donors, and other sources. Meanwhile, philanthropic contributions to the equitable development arm of the project already exceed $50 million.

While the park itself is still a few years off, the impact from the Equitable Development Plan is already being felt. A newly-created Ward 8 Homebuyers Club has so far helped sixty-one Ward 8 residents purchase their own home. For renters, “we have started monthly tenant rights workshops, working in collaboration with Housing Counseling Services.” And the newly-created 11th Street Park Community Land Trust is close to acquiring its first property, a 65-unit apartment complex in Ward 8 that would be managed as affordable housing in perpetuity.

The park is also making its presence felt in other ways. Since 2014, BBAR has organized the annual Anacostia River Festival, which last year brought more than 9,000 residents to the site of the future park.

Then there is the park’s burgeoning urban agriculture program, which boasts seven urban farms providing fresh produce to a variety of businesses, residents, and non-profits in the area. Nearby residents can even sign up for a CSA.

“We’re not waiting until we open. We want to make sure that we’re testing and piloting these programming ideas before we launch.”

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The intersecting trusses create sheltered space for amenities such as food kiosks and a café, which will feature businesses from the surrounding area / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

The cumulative effect of these efforts is a strong sense of community ownership. He told me a story to illustrate this point.

“We were having a public meeting a year ago, and I was talking about the equitable development plan. Someone raised their hand and said, ‘So, with all the money that’s coming in, you’re starting a community land trust, you’re doing tenants’ rights workshops, you’re doing workforce development training. Do you need to build the bridge?'”

“And it totally floored me! I was a little speechless. Then someone from the community stood up and said: ‘He better build that bridge! We designed that bridge – this is our bridge!'”

According to Kratz, that level of ownership comes from sustained relationships, shared experiences, and leadership of the decision making process.

Boyce echoed that sentiment, saying the community-led design process and the scope of the Equitable Development Plan have built trust in the community, allowing residents to become invested in the long-term success of the project.

“We have multiple champions now. That’s what it’s going to take.”

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The park will also feature a new playground on southeastern end of the bridge. / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

Construction on the park should begin in 2020, with an opening date in 2022 or 2023. BBAR is already looking ahead to understand how its role will change at that juncture.

BBAR is exploring ways to help demystify the planning process for local residents, so they are empowered to shape those decisions that will in turn shape their neighborhoods.

“Sometimes when we have these larger conversations about displacement and gentrification, there’s a feeling of inevitability. We reject that. The reason we’ve been living in segregated cities is because of a series of intentional decisions. We now need to make a series of intentional decisions to undo that disinvestment.”

“We’re increasingly looking at what is our role to help move the needle on some of those larger policy questions,” he added.

As an example of that expanding scope, BBAR has now begun advising other Washington, D.C. neighborhoods as they create their own equitable development plans. They’ve even met with officials from Los Angeles, Dallas, and St. Louis to discuss how the 11th Street Bridge model can be applied in those cities.

“We had no idea that this could have such an influence across the United States. But we’re the nation’s capital. We often talk about being the template for how we should do things. Sometimes we’re successful, sometimes not so much. This is a chance to actually get it right.”

11th Street Bridge Park walking tours continue throughout the summer.

In an Era of Roll-Back and Repeal, the Case for Environmental Regulation

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) / New America

“Let’s talk about toasters!” Thus began Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) keynote remarks at last week’s symposium, The War on Regulation, organized by the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards and hosted by Georgetown Law School. Sen. Warren went on to share a personal anecdote about flame-engulfed bread to explain how the lowly toaster has become a safer consumer product, which was in large part thanks to good federal regulations.

“Back in the 1970s, our toaster oven had an on-off switch and that was it,” said Warren. “And on meant on, which meant it was possible to leave toast under that little broiler all day and all night until the food burned, the wiring melted, and the whole thing burst into flames.”

Around the same time, Ohio’s heavily polluted Cuyahoga River was also famously prone to ignite. When it did so in 1969, it captured the nation’s attention. Dramatic photos published in TIME helped galvanize the environmental movement, leading to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, landmark laws that established the environmental regulatory framework under which the country operates today.

Fire on the Cuyahoga River, 1956 / Pinterest

According to Sen. Warren, this regulatory framework is under attack by corporate interests, a Republican-controlled congress, and the Trump administration. “In agency after agency in the federal government, powerful corporations and their Republican allies are working overtime to roll back basic rules that protect the rest of us,” aiming “to insulate big corporations from accountability and responsibility.”

Sen. Warren reserved her heaviest criticism for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, saying “corruption oozes out of his office,” and the costs of his proposed regulatory repeals will be “measured in hospital admissions and funeral bills.”

In a later panel, 30-year EPA veteran Betsy Southerland provided context for Sen. Warren’s comments. “Right now, Scott Pruitt has in place sixty-six public health and safety repeals,” which were made “without any input from the EPA scientists, engineers, or economists who in most cases worked eight to ten years” to create them and “without any evidence that those rules have any technical or procedural flaws.”

Southerland said that these repeals will have three major impacts. First, they “abandon the polluter-pays principle which underlies every environmental statute, transferring the costs of dealing with pollutants to the downwind, downstream public.”

“This makes absolutely no economic sense,” because “the costs of treating pollution at the source are always orders of magnitude less than treating those pollutants once they’ve been dispersed into the environment.”

Second, Southerland said that environmental repeals will “ensure our communities are going to be exposed to ongoing pollution that would have been prevented back in 2015 or 2016,” warning that “there’s a much higher chance today of an environmental crisis with serious public health implications because so many of these rules are under repeal.”

And third, Southerland said the repeals have eliminated regulatory certainty. “It actually penalizes the environmentally responsible companies that moved out quickly to come into compliance with these rules. And it rewards the recalcitrant companies who used their resources to either argue for exemptions or to litigate those promulgated rules.”

Ironically, it is this last point – regulatory certainty – that Pruitt has repeatedly used to justify his agenda at the EPA.

“The purpose of the regulatory reform effort is to provide certainty to those that we regulate,” Pruitt said in a recent interview with Fox News’ Ed Henry. “What we’ve seen in the last several years among several sectors of our economy is tremendous uncertainty,” he claimed, “and almost a weaponization of the agency against certain sectors of our economy, which has caused low growth.”

This oft-repeated talking point – that regulation stifles growth – was repeatedly and emphatically rejected at the symposium. Sen. Warren argued instead that regulations “provide the framework for commerce to flourish” and create a level playing field for economic competition.

Southerland pointed out that a recent report published by the Office of Management and Budget found for regulations promulgated from 2006 to 2016, “the benefits far exceed the costs.”

“Furthermore,” she said, “there was no discernable effect on jobs or economic growth.”

Heidi Shierholz, policy director of the Economic Policy Institute and former chief economist at the Department of Labor, quantified the argument, saying federal regulations promulgated under the Obama administration contributed a net benefit of $100 billion per year to the economy. Other studies have come to similar conclusions, she added.

“The backdrop of this conversation is heated rhetoric saying that regulations are incredibly costly, they’re destroying the economy, they’re destroying jobs – and it is such a surreal backdrop, because it is so at odds with the evidence.”

Georgetown Law professor Lisa Heinzerling said focusing on costs alone ignores legislative intent. After all, “if Congress cared solely about regulatory costs, it wouldn’t pass regulatory statutes.”

Heinzerling’s point raises questions about the legal standing of the Trump administration’s actions in pursuit of deregulation thus far. Heinzerling claimed the administration, in its rush to deregulate, is now brazenly violating the Administrative Procedure Act, the law that governs the regulatory rule-making process. Such violations could expose the administration to legal challenge.

The event concluded with a panel of citizens whose lives had been directly affected by weak regulations and now advocate for regulatory reform. Penny Dryden of Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice said her neighborhood was less than a mile from forty-eight brownfield sites and four Superfund sites, plus ongoing pollution from the nearby Delaware Memorial Bridge, Port of Wilmington, and other nearby industrial facilities.

“Deregulation makes it even harder for our communities to get the protection we need from polluters and industry bad actors,” she said. “The events that are taking place here in Washington, D.C. in the Environmental Protection Agency are outright unjust.”