The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Turns to Nature

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Engineering with Nature: An Atlas / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

“We rely on natural processes and landscapes to sustain human life and well-being. Our energy, water, infrastructure, and agricultural systems use these processes and landscapes to satisfy our most basic human needs. One motivation, therefore, for protecting the environment is to sustain the ecosystem goods and services upon which we depend. As we emerge from the sixth decade of modern environmentalism, there is a growing international awareness of opportunities to efficiently and effectively integrate natural and engineered systems to create even more value.”

One might understandably think this was written by a landscape architect, or excerpted from somewhere on the ASLA website. In fact, it comes from the forward of Engineering with Nature: An Atlas, a new book by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Engineering with Nature (EWN) team, led by environmental scientist Dr. Todd Bridges. 

Over the last eight years, Bridges has quietly built the EWN initiative out of the Army Corps’ Vicksburg, Mississippi headquarters, working with a team of engineers, environmental scientists, and ecologists to develop pilot projects that prove the viability of engineering large-scale infrastructure in partnership with natural systems. 

Now, after successfully completing dozens of projects across the U.S., Bridges is pushing to take EWN to new heights. The initiative’s 2018-2023 strategic plan envisions an expanded portfolio of engineering strategies and project types, deeper interdisciplinary and community engagement, and heightened public awareness of EWN goals, activities, and success stories.

To that end, Engineering With Nature: An Atlas documents more than 50 engineering projects completed in recent decades that exemplify the EWN approach. The projects are grouped according to typology, including chapters on beaches, wetlands, islands, reefs, and rivers. Reflecting the collaborative approach of the EWN initiative, only half of the case studies profiled were carried out by the Army Corps. The remainder were executed by partner NGOs in the US and government agencies in England, The Netherlands, and New Zealand, countries which have made substantial investments of their own in innovative coastal and water-based engineering.

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The Sand Motor, The Netherlands / Zandmotor Flickr

A key theme of the book is the beneficial re-use of dredged material. While conventionally viewed as a waste product, the EWN initiative seeks to find and develop beneficial uses for the material, such as in wetland restoration, habitat creation, and beach nourishment. And because the Corps is required to maintain the navigability of all federal waterways, the EWN team has a ready supply of dredged material to work with.

One example of this strategy can be seen in Texas’ Galveston Bay, where the Corps partnered with Houston Audubon to create the 6-acre Evia Island, which today is populated with herons, egrets, terns, and brown pelicans. 

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Evia Island / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Other projects take advantage of erosion and sediment flux to catalyze beneficial outcomes. In Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River, the Corps placed dredged material in strategic upriver locations to create a 35-hectare island that is “self-designed” by the river’s flow. And at Sears Point, in the northern San Francisco Bay, the Sonomoa Land Trust and Ducks Unlimited restored 1,000 acres of tidal marsh by puncturing a levee, allowing water from the Tolay Creek to flow into a field of constructed sediment mounds. The mounds slowed the water’s rate of flow, stimulating land growth within the project area.

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Dredging in the Atchafalaya River / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

These approaches have considerable overlap with recent research in the field of landscape architecture, particularly the work of the Dredge Research Collaborative, which advocates for ecological and watershed-scale approaches to the management of sediment and dredged material and has collaborated with the EWN initiative in recent years.

An Atlas also includes projects that retrofit conventional infrastructure to provide ecological benefits, such as creating nesting habitat for terns on top of breakwaters in Lake Erie, or efforts in the Netherlands to redesign coastal reinforcements to serve as habitat for marine plants and animals. Reminiscent of SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters project off the southern coast of Staten Island, these projects demonstrate an increasing interest in designing infrastructure that provides multiple benefits.

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Decoy terns at the Ashtabula Harbor Breakwater Tern Nesting Habitat / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Despite its title, At Atlas does not contain any maps or diagrams to orient the reader–an unfortunate omission that makes it difficult to grasp the scale of the presented projects. Instead, the projects are depicted using solely perspective and aerial photos.

While these photos are informative, the book would have greatly benefited from the development of a graphic language to more clearly and visually communicate the impacts of the presented projects and the issues they seek to address.

Despite these omissions, the breadth and scope of projects presented in Engineering with Nature: An Atlas makes a considerable impression, presenting a range of strategies for designing infrastructure with ecological, social, and cultural benefits at multiple scales.

Perhaps most significantly, An Atlas suggests there is great potential for meaningful interdisciplinary collaboration between the Corps and landscape architects. As landscape architects increasingly seek to broaden the field’s scope to include the planning and design of large-scale systems and ecologies, this collaboration may prove vital. Engineering with Nature: An Atlas begins to paint a picture of what such a collaborative practice may look like.

Learn more about the Engineering with Nature initiative and download Engineering With Nature: An Atlas.

A Model Plan for Protecting Vital Coastal Habitats

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Conserving California’s Coastal Habitats / The Nature Conservancy

Sea level rise is coming, and its impacts will be far reaching. For the state of California, the threat of sea level rise may prove existential. More than two-thirds of its population lives in the states’ 21 coastal counties, which are responsible for 85 percent of the state’s GDP.

However, sea level rise will not just impact human activity. Rising tides will also drastically alter, and in some cases destroy, important coastal habitats. Conserving California’s Coastal Habitats, a new report from The Nature Conservancy, provides a startling analysis of the future of California’s coast and charts a path forward for coastal conservation efforts.

The California coast represents the most biodiverse region in the country’s most biodiverse state, lending nationwide significance to coastal conservation efforts there. “The state of California has been a leader in environmental policy for over a century,” say the report’s authors, praising the state’s “legacy of coastal conservation.”

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California’s coastline / Sue Pollock, The Nature Conservancy

However, current policy and decision-making frameworks have been “developed to reflect static existing conditions and are not well suited for the dynamic needs of adapting to sea level rise,” the authors warn.

At risk are “nesting areas along global migrations for diversity of species, as well as nesting and pupping habitat, nursery habitat, and important feeding grounds critical to populations of many species, some which are found nowhere else in the world.”

Sea level rise threatens areas of human settlement and activity, too. The conversion of land to tidal and subtidal coastline will reduce the size of natural buffers, providing less protection to human settlements in coastal flooding events. Saltwater intrusion will impact agriculture. According to the Conservancy, sea level rise and the flooding this will cause could damage or destroy nearly $100 billion worth of property along the California coast by 2100.

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Coastal infrastructure is at risk from sea level rise / Thomas Dunklin

The report’s authors used GIS to identify and map the coastal habitats, ecosystems, and infrastructure most at risk from sea level rise. They based their projections on two and five feet of sea level rise, which they say are in keeping with projections issued by the California Coastal Commission. The authors then developed metrics to measure the potential impact of sea level rise on a given area and the area’s vulnerability and ability to adapt.

Their findings are worrying. “As much as 25 percent of the existing public conservation lands within the analytic zone will be lost to subtidal waters,” they warn. Habitats for eight imperiled species will be completely inundated. Large portions of other significant coastal habitats are “highly vulnerable,” including 58 percent of rocky intertidal habitats, 60 percent of upper beaches, and 58 percent of regularly-flooded estuarine marshes. “At least half of the documented haul-outs for Pacific harbor seals and Northern elephant seals, and nesting habitats for focal shorebirds like black oystercatchers, are also highly vulnerable.”

Maps show that habitats in the San Francisco Bay Area are particularly at risk. There, vulnerable landscapes and habitats–such as 87 percent of the state’s regularly-flooded estuarine marsh–will be trapped between rising seas on one side and human development on the other. “The built environment–including roads and other infrastructure–creates barriers that prevent coastal habitats from moving inland,” while “dikes, levees, and other water control features negatively impact the health and function” of these threatened landscapes.

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California Coastal Conservation Assessment / The Nature Conservancy

The Conservancy finds that sea level rise could adversely affect public access to California’s coast. “Sea level rise will diminish coastal access opportunities throughout the state by reducing beach widths, submerging rocky intertidal areas, and flooding coastal beach infrastructure.”

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Sea level rise threatens access to California’s beaches and coastal public lands / Sylvia Busby

In the face of these potentially-devastating impacts, the report presents a suite of strategies for conservation in the era of climate change. Habitat managers need to “conserve and manage for resilience.” This includes maintaining the conservation status of existing conserved lands and identifying and protecting resilient coastal landscapes that are not vulnerable to sea level rise.

The Nature Conservancy recommends managing for resilience through the use of sediment augmentation and sand placement. “The majority of highly vulnerable conservation lands in need of managing in place for resilience are found in the San Francisco Bay Delta,” an observation that speaks to the importance of landscape-led initiatives such as the recent Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge.

The Conservancy also calls for conserving nearly 200 square kilometers of potential future habitat areas and adapting the built environment “with more natural coastal processes in mind” – in effect, giving the coastline room to change.

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California’s coastline / Taylor Samuelson, California State Coastal Conservancy

“As sea levels rise, California’s coast will erode and evolve, and habitats will need to shift. Our current conservation efforts and land use management decisions must focus on further supporting these natural processes and enabling the transition and movement of coastal habitats as sea levels rise. Conservation in the face of sea level rise requires an adaptive process that embraces the reality of a dynamic coastline.”

The reports’ recommendations and strategies are “spatially explicit,” with specific proposals for areas, depending on their vulnerability and adaptive capacity. There are detailed high-resolution maps that illustrate the location, distribution, and severity of risks as well as opportunities.

“The results of this spatially explicit assessment provide a foundation of information to support immediate action to conserve habitats and biodiversity in the face of sea level rise,” the Conservancy argues. “With so much of California’s coastal habitats, imperiled species, and managed lands at risk from sea level rise, immediate collective action is necessary to conserve these natural resources into the future.”

Download the full report and maps.

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.