Two years ago, the Harvard University Graduate School of Design African American Student Union (GSD AASU) organized the first Black in Design (BiD) conference. This October, they are following-up with a new conference. The organizers invite attendees across design disciplines — including landscape architecture practitioners, educators, and students, as they want to build “stronger coalitions among the design community.”
According to Dasjon Jordan, one of the organizers, “BiD recognizes the contributions of the African diaspora to the design fields and promotes discourse around the agency of design profession to address and dismantle the institutional barriers faced by our communities. We seek to explore our agency as designers to envision more radical and equitable futures.”
A keynote lecture will be given by DeRay Mckesson, a leading voice from the Black Lives Matter Movement and co-founder of Campaign Zero and Ourstates.org.
There will be two days of lectures organized into sections: “exploring and visualizing identities; communicating values; mobilizing and organizing; and design futuring,” along with time to learn about Harvard’s Just City Lab.
Landscape architects Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, who is also program director of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington, and Walter Hood, ASLA, who also teaches at University of California, Berkeley, will give talks.
Register for the conference, which runs October 6-8 at Harvard GSD in Cambridge — it’s $50 for general admittance and just $30 for students.
The Rockefeller Foundation together with other organizations have brought their Rebuild by Design design competition to the San Francisco Bay Area. Like the original competition set up in the tri-state area after Hurricane Sandy, the Bay Area Challenge identified a set of teams that will go out into communities and devise conceptual designs for reducing exposure to the harmful impacts of climate change. The goal is to “lay out a blueprint for resilience in our region and communities around the world.”
Out of 51 teams that submitted proposals, 10 multi-disciplinary teams of landscape architects, climate scientists, architects, engineers, and artists have been selected to engage communities over the next nine months. Half are led by a landscape architecture firm, and almost all include landscape architecture firms. Also, each team includes at least one firm from the Bay Area, while some teams are made up of all local firms and experts.
Team UPLIFT, led by Gensler and includes Arup and Margie Ruddick Landscape
Next, the teams will head out into the community for three months on collaborative research tours. Local experts and community groups will identify “locations vulnerable to sea level rise, severe storms, flooding, and earthquakes.” In November, each team will present 3-5 project design opportunities. And then in December, one project will be selected for each team.
The design work will then begin early next year. Teams will be expected to form close partnerships with state and local governments and community groups in order to achieve implementation.
Also, Resilient by Design is partnering with Y-PLAN, an educational platform developed by University of California, Berkeley that enables “young people to tackle real-world problems in their communities through project-based civic learning experiences.” Alongside the Bay Area Challenge, Y-PLAN will lead students through a similar planning and design effort, empowering them to “dream big and envision a more resilient Bay Area grounded in equity, and providing sources of inspiration for future college and career readiness for young aspiring resilience planners.”
Janet Echelman’s gigantic yet delicate woven art works are evolving. While her earlier work offered warm, enveloping concentric rings of colors enlivened by carefully-orchestrated folds, her newer works, which pair with contemporary works of landscape architecture, introduce bold molecular forms and evoke more complicated ideas and histories.
Over a central plaza designed by landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation campus in downtown Seattle, Echelman created Impatient Optimist, which is suspended between two buildings, for the ambitious do-gooders who work there. Sparer woven forms featuring cellular geometries focus attention on the piece’s circular middle.
A new work on the Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood is another departure from her norm. Connecting two buildings for Hotel 1, Dream Catcher is inspired by traditional Native American forms but updates them with data-based representations of brainwave activity, offering a portal into the depths of our dream worlds.
It’s otherworldly, even a bit spooky, with its neural-network organization, but no doubt mesmerizing in person.
The 10-story sculpture sits above a plaza designed by landscape architects with Mia Lehrer + Associates. Unfortunately, timing-wise, the design of the plaza and the sculpture didn’t synch up, so they exist independently of each other.
Echelman writes on her website: “The artwork’s inspiration stems from dreams and the idea of dreaming hotel guests asleep in the two buildings. Dreams are not only private experiences, they are also social and cultural ones. Dream Catcher is an apt title not only for how it speaks to the guests of the hotel, but to the larger region and its identity as a global epicenter for entertainment and media – the place where dreams are invented and pursued.”
Also worth noting: a work that just celebrated its one-year anniversary is Where We Met, which forms the centerpiece of LeBauer City Park in Greensboro, North Carolina. Landscape architects with OJB Landscape Architecture purposefully left a space in the middle of the green park for a monumental art work. The piece weaves in the textile industry and transportation history of Greensboro through strikingly bold bands of color, also a bit of a departure from her past work.
On her website, Echelman writes: “I discovered that Greensboro was nicknamed the ‘Textile Capital of the World’ and ‘Gateway City’ because six railroad lines intersected there, so I started tracing the railway lines and marking the historic textile mills that dotted the routes. These routes brought together people from diverse cultures and races, so I wove together lines of brilliant color that meet at the center, and titled it ‘Where We Met’.”
We know that connecting with nature is good for us, but there are still many questions that need to be answered through more credible scientific research: What is the ideal “dose” of nature? What health conditions do these doses actually help with? Does duration and frequency of dose matter? How long do the benefits last? Does who you are and where you live impact how beneficial exposure to nature will be? And how does technology help or interfere with our connection to nature?
To get a better handle on the remaining unknowns, leading public health expert Dr. Howard Frumkin assembled a multi-disciplinary team at the University of Washington comprised of experts in epidemiology, environmental health, clinical medicine, psychology, ecology, landscape architecture, urban studies, and other disciplines, along with experts from the Nature Conservancy, Seattle Children’s Research Institute, U.S. Forest Service, Willamette Partnership, Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology, and the Natural Capital Project. Together, they crafted a creative, ambitious research agenda, which was just published in Environmental Health Perspectives.
According to Frumkin and the other co-authors, “nature contact offers considerable promise in addressing a range of health challenges, including many — such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, depression, and anxiety — that are public health priorities. Nature contact offers promise both as prevention and as treatment” at all stages of life.
Furthermore, exposure to nature is likely cheaper than “conventional medical interventions,” safe, practical, and doesn’t require a highly-trained professional to dispense treatments. Green spaces designed to provide health benefits of nature also offer many co-benefits: they provide wildlife habitat, store stormwater, or offer shade, for example.
While the benefits of nature are increasingly understood, the team found seven domains where further research is needed. Below are high-level summaries; for greater detail, read the research agenda.
Mechanistic Biomedical Studies: We need to better understand how nature exactly works its magic on us. While some scientists believe the mechanisms, or pathways of impact, on our minds and bodies have an evolutionary origin, meaning they are deep-rooted and associated with our innate biophilia, others posit there may be more precise pathways that are psychological, relate to our immune system, or are linked with increased social contact or improved air quality. We don’t know exactly the way nature exposure works its benefits on us.
Just in terms of psychological pathways, there are a diversity of theories: some argue that nature helps by relieving stress, while others focus on the way nature can relieve mental fatigue. Those are different things. And there could be multiple mechanisms happening at once, too. Frumkin and team argue that with more research “specific neural pathways” for these benefits will likely be discovered.
There is also some research suggesting exposure to nature boosts immune function; physical activity outdoors in a green space is better than in a gym; being in nature promotes the creation of social connections, which in turn provide health benefits; and trees and other green spaces, particularly in cities, reduce air pollution, creating health benefits.
But the research agenda notes that much more evidence-based research is needed to isolate the exact mechanisms through which nature exposure works its theorized benefits.
Exposure Science: Epidemiologists try to measure the “magnitude, frequency, and duration of exposure to an agent, along with the number and characteristics of the population exposed.” When “researching the environmental impacts on people,” research focuses on “pathogens, medications, toxic chemicals, and social circumstances, or salutary exposures such as nature.”
However, they argue that “standard approaches to exposure measurement” have limitations. “First they fail to capture variations in how people in how people experience nature, nuances that may be highly relevant. Suppose that one person sits in a car atop a seaside bluff and admires the view of the beach (while checking email on a smartphone), a second person walks barefoot along the shore, enjoying not only the view, but the feel of the sea breeze and the lapping waves, and a third person plunges in a for a swim. The designation ‘beach contact’ or a measure of ‘time on a beach’ would fall short of capturing the variation in their experience.”
As such, measuring the effects of various doses of nature becomes more complicated — someone paying close attention to all the details while on a forest path and really immersing themselves in the experience and another person simply walking through while looking at their smartphone will “likely ‘absorb’ differing levels of nature.”
Epidemiology of Health Benefits: Epidemiologists, who research the health and disease profiles of populations, conduct “true experiments, ‘natural experiments,’ and observational studies.” The bulk of research on nature contact and health have been observational studies, which Frumkin and his team argue are practical, can be conducted rapidly, and reduce costs of research, given they typically use data collected for other purposes. However, there are also built-in limits to the pre-existing data, and it’s hard to control bias in these studies.
The group also recommends nature and health researchers do a better job of tapping into existing large-scale research studies and data sets; finding new sources of big data, such as using Google Street View, webcams, and location-based data-collection apps like Mappiness; and investing in more advanced statistical analysis and advancing epidemiological research in general.
Diversity and Equity — The Role of Nature Contact: More research is needed to better understand “a) patterns of disproportionate exposure; b) cultural and contextual factors that affect nature preferences; c) differing patterns of benefit across different populations; and d) the possibility that improved access to nature may have unintended negative consequences on vulnerable populations.”
As has been explored by other researchers, low-income communities are more likely than not to also have limited access to nature and green space, which only exacerbates the negative health impacts of poverty, bad diets, lack of exercise, and crime.
African Americans, Frumkin and his team write, may also have different associations with trees, fields, and forests than other groups, due to the legacy of “forced labor, lynchings, and other violence.”
And livelihoods play a role in creating different understandings of what’s restorative: “a rural farmer has quite different preferences regarding nature from those of an urban computer programmer.”
On the positive side: there is some research that argues that access to nature and green space may disproportionately help those in low-income communities who suffer from unequal access to many services, but, again, more study is needed.
Technological Nature: Modern technologies — the Web, smartphones, games, virtual reality (VR), the list goes on — are altering our relationship with nature. Kids, who spend more and more time glued to their screens, are particularly impacted. But there are also other kinds of technologies — those that “mediate, simulate, promote, and/or augment the human experience of nature,” which must also be better understood. Computer desktop wallpaper of nature scenes, VR movies in which users go on safari in Africa, and location-based games like Pokemon Go may offer some of the benefits of nature exposure — and may be better than nothing — but more laboratory-based experiments are needed.
Economic and Policy Studies, including Co-benefits: The benefits of nature are increasingly being quantified. As such, policies are being promoted to increase the value of these benefits for communities and ecosystems. Frumkin and the co-authors propose looking to ecological and health economics for new models of evaluation and quantification of the benefits of nature as well as the avoided health care costs.
When the value of a new park is estimated, it’s important that policymakers don’t just look at improvements in real estate value or gains in stormwater credits, but also the real, quantifiable community health benefits. Furthermore, cost-benefit analyses rooted in benefits valuations can help guide limited public funds towards the most effective forms of green space investment.
We couldn’t agree more. It’s critical to answer: What policies and regulations can positively boost the health benefits of nature and which don’t do much at all? Many cities aim to provide a park within a five minute walking distance of every resident. Is this a worthy policy? Toronto just created a shade policy to help reduce the negative health impacts of heat in the summer. What metrics should be used to measure the success of such policies?
Implementation Science — Studies of What Works: “Research findings don’t necessarily translate into action.” This group wants to see more what “intervention studies are needed to determine what works in practice.”
As an example, they point to the U.S. Forest Service’s iTree software, which helps anyone with a computer understand the ecosystem service benefits of the trees they are planting. The researchers ask: “might further development of such tools incorporate additional mental and physical health benefits?”
While this research agenda is impressive and comprehensive, there are a few other unknowns important to include:
First, doctors are now prescribing time in the park. Do these treatments, which often combine increased activity, social interaction, and nature exposure work? Is the combination of exposure, social engagement, and exercise what is key?
Second, what is the impact of climate change on the nature and health connection? As nature becomes a more changeable, and often destructive force, in many places, do we need to differentiate between safe and unsafe nature spaces? Can an ocean that floods a community every year be considered restorative when it isn’t causing damage?
Lastly, there are landscape architecture educators and researchers, like William Sullivan, ASLA, and MaryCarol Hunter, ASLA, who seek to determine which forms and arrangements of landscape elements have the most benefits. Their forward-looking studies are critical: The next step is to translate proven health benefits from nature exposure into design principles planners, landscape architects and designers, and engineers can apply in their work. What designed landscape forms and elements act as pathways to the biggest benefits?
Inefficient home energy use is not only costly, but also contributes to the growth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the primary cause of climate change. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the residential sector accounted for 21 percent of total primary energy consumption and about 20 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S. in 2013. And according to Architecture 2030, building construction and operations-related energy use accounts for almost 50 percent of total GHG emissions.
Through integrated site design, a comprehensive approach to sustainable building and site design, sustainable residential landscape architecture practices can not only improve the environment, but also result in net-zero or even climate positive homes. If part of a broader integrated site design, sustainable residential landscape architecture can help eliminate the need for fossil fuel-based energy, while creating a healthy residential environment.
Homeowners can go net-zero or climate positive by tapping the potential of landscapes. As an example, residential green roof and wall systems, which are often key features of integrated site design projects, can reduce energy use and home heating and cooling costs.
Homeowners can further leverage clean energy technologies, like solar-powered LED outdoor lighting.
The environmental and economic benefits of energy efficient technologies increase as homes are tied together into multi-family housing complexes with shared infrastructure. Research shows dense development lowers water and energy use, conserves natural habitats, and reduces transportation-related GHG emissions by encouraging walking, cycling, and taking public transportation. Communities like Freiburg, Germany and Malmo, Sweden are examples of residential communities that have taken innovative approaches to design and planning by implementing sustainable energy, water, and waste management systems.
Landscape architects can help homeowners by undertaking a comprehensive energy audit and then identify landscape-based solutions for generating renewable power or reducing energy waste.
State and local governments also work with design professionals to incorporate sustainable residential landscape architecture codes throughout urban, suburban, and rural areas. For example, South Miami just recently mandated that new buildings, and some renovations, must include solar panels.
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has announced the 28 winners of the 2017 Student Awards. Selected from 295 entries representing 52 schools, the awards honor the top work of landscape architecture students in the U.S. and around the world.
The winners will receive their awards at the ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in Los Angeles on Monday, October 23, at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
The following is a complete list of 2017 student award winners:
General Design Category
Award of Excellence
Invisible Works: A Public Introduction to the Dynamic Life of Wastewater Treatment (see image above)
by Bridget Ayers Looby, Associate ASLA, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota
Weaving the Waterfront
by a graduate team at Cornell University
by Zhiqiang Zeng, Student ASLA, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania
Concrete Nurse Logs: Spawning Biodiversity from Ballard’s Century-Old Locks
by Hillary Pritchett, Associate ASLA, a graduate student at the University of Washington
Creating Dynamic Hybrid: Towards Landscape Innovation in a Smart City
by Fang Wei, Student Affiliate ASLA, a graduate student at Tsinghua University
Create a Walkable History: Editing the Historical Percorsi of Pienza
by Zhengneng Chen, Student ASLA, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania
The Turning Point: A Focused Design Study for the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York
by Christopher O. Anderson, Student ASLA, a graduate student at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF)
Residential Design Category
Micro-infrastructure as Community Preservation: Kampung Baru
by a team of graduate students at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design
Analysis and Planning Category
Award of Excellence
Water and the Agricultural Landscape of Illinois
by an undergraduate student team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Desert River Water Conservation
by Zhuofan Wan, Student Affiliate ASLA, a graduate student at the University of Toronto
Disaster Autopsy Model
by an undergraduate student team at the Louisiana State University
Climate Change Armor
by Zixu Qiao, Student ASLA, a graduate student at Texas A&M University
Reviving the 30 Meters
by Tianjiao Yan, Student ASLA, a graduate student at the University of Toronto
Landscape in Evolution: Creating a Resilient Nomadic Landscape from Bottom Up in Hulunbuir
by a team of graduate students from Beijing Forestry University
Forests on the Edge: Plant-Based Economies Driving Ecological Renewal in Haiti
by Christine Facella, Student ASLA, a graduate student at City College
Award of Excellence
HydroLIT: Southeast Tennessee Water Quality Playbook
by a team of graduate students from the University of Tennessee
Agro-pelago (Foodscapes for the Future)
by Jaclyn Kaloczi, Student ASLA, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia
Urban Landscape Metrics: Re-imagining the Class Field Trip in New York City’s Great Parks
by Quinn Pullen, Associate ASLA, a graduate student at the Pennsylvania State University
Tactile MapTile: Working Towards Inclusive Cartography
by Jessica Hamilton, Student ASLA, a graduate student at the University of Washington
Fairy Tales to Forest
by Amy Taylor, Student ASLA, a graduate student at Ohio State University
Student Collaboration Category
Award of Excellence
RISE, a Coastal Observation Platform
by a team of graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin
The White House Kitchen Garden
by a team of graduate students at the University of Virginia
Follow the Water: Rain Garden as Diagram
by a team of graduate students at Mississippi State University
Community Service Category
Award of Excellence
by Nahal Sohbati, Student Affiliate ASLA, a graduate student at the Academy of Art University
Earth and Sky Garden: A Therapeutic Garden for the Puget Sound Veteran’s Affairs Hospital
by a team of graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Washington
An Outdoor Learning Environment for and with a Primary School Community in Bangladesh
by Matluba Khan, Student Affiliate ASLA, a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh
The student awards jury included:
Barbara Swift, FASLA, Chair, Swift Company llc, Seattle
Michael Albert, ASLA, Design Workshop, Aspen, Colorado
Meg Calkins, FASLA, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana
Mark Focht, FASLA, New York City Parks & Recreation, New York
Robert Page, FASLA, Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, Boston
James Richards, FASLA, Townscape Inc., Fort Worth, Texas
Roberto Rovira, ASLA, Florida International University, Studio Roberto Rovira, Miami
Meghan Stromberg, American Planning Association, Chicago
Mercedes Ward, ASLA, New York City Parks, Flushing, New York
New and non-recyclable materials used in homes and landscapes are often not designed to be recycled. These materials can consume enormous amounts of resources to produce and distribute and create additional waste when they are demolished. Waste materials create waste landscapes: landfills, massive incinerator systems, and multi-square-mile floating plastic garbage islands in the world’s oceans.
ASLA has created a new guide to using low-impact materials at home, which contains research, projects, and resources on how to better source materials for residential landscapes. Developed for homeowners and landscape architects and designers alike, the guide is designed to help spread more sustainable and resilient practices.
Homeowners can also specify local materials to support local economies and cut down on the energy use from the transportation of materials.
But beyond reused, recycled, or local materials, there are other important ways to reduce the impact of materials on our health and environments.
Sustainable residential landscape design can increase the health of environment through the use of innovative low-impact materials that are permeable and reflective (high albedo).
Permeable materials allow water to infiltrate and recharge aquifers, instead of being sent to combined stormwater and sewer systems.
Reflective, “cool,” or white materials help reduce air temperatures, particularly in cities dealing with the challenges of the urban heat island effect, and energy costs by minimizing the use of air conditioning to cool buildings.
There are also more sustainable wood and concrete options out there that minimize consumption of newer materials or extend the life of existing materials.
SITES recommends building with certified, sustainably-harvested woods; recycled woods; and recycled plastic or composite lumber to preserve forests, which are critical to sequestering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
To avoid sending useful materials to the landfill, conserve natural resources, and reduce a project’s carbon footprint, SITES also recommends landscape architects source sustainable concrete from manufacturers using supplementary cementing materials, like fly ash – a byproduct of coal-fired power plants. Landscape architects should reuse concrete from structures on the existing site, like crushed concrete as an aggregate base. Concrete that incorporates recycled materials, like crushed glass or wood chips, are a more sustainable and use less cement than traditional pavers.
Used in both landscapes and buildings, low-impact materials can reduce GHG emissions and create a healthier environment.
Local governments can partner with non-profit organizations and landscape architects and designers to increase public awareness about why it’s important to use low-impact materials.
Burial mounds from 1,500 years ago seem like an unlikely inspiration for CoFuFun, a contemporary plaza and playground, but Japanese designers with Nendo found a way to translate the spiral forms of an ancient Kofun into a place that encourages joyful exploration in Tenri, a small city in Nara prefecture.
The 6,000-square-meter (64,000-square-feet) plaza next to a train station includes a meeting space, events stage, playground, information kiosk, and cafe and shops. According to Nendo, which outlined their project in ArchDaily, the goal is to “encourage community revitalization” by creating a hub for both tourists visiting and locals commuting.
Tenri has a number of ancient Kofun, which are “beautiful and unmistakable, but blend into the spaces of everyday life in the city.”
Nendo placed Kofun-inspired forms throughout the plaza landscape, which is itself modeled after the Nara basin in which Tenri sits, a space surrounded by mountains. Here, the Kofun are bright-white, a color that symbolizes purity and truth, but is also associated with mourning.
Kofun are key-shaped mounds with levels, like the ancient zigurrats of Mesopotamia or the step pyramids of the Maya. Using the terraced Kofun as a model, Nendo used the forms to create stairs, benches, fences, roofs, and shelves.
The designers ingeniously incorporate activities into the Kofun forms: one convex center enables kids to run around in circles until they are dizzy while protected by a fence; one provides the foundation for a giant trampoline; and the interior of another hosts the cafe and shop.
The plaza creates a sense of flow for visitors who can move seamlessly from one use to another. This is because it’s “an ‘ambiguous’ space that’s a cafe, playground, and massive piece of furniture all at once.”
The plaza name — CoFuFun — incorporates “fufun,” which in Japanese means “happy, unconscious humming.” Co-” refers to cooperation and community. The name works in both Japanese and English. Hopefully, they can find a way to keep the white forms bright.
Plants are central to a functioning global ecosystem. Plants oxygenate the atmosphere and reduce atmospheric pollutants. Ecological restoration in both developed and developing countries is a primary strategy for mitigating the impacts of climate change. Native plant communities are not only key to the global ecosystem, but also crucial to environmental and human health at the residential and neighborhood scales.
Urbanization has fragmented what were ecologically-productive landscapes. According to the Audubon Society, the continental U.S. has lost 150 million acres of wildlife habitat and farmland to urban sprawl over the last century. Sustainable residential landscape architecture practices can help build a network of productive landscapes. Native plants can be used to regenerate sustainable plant communities and reconnect fragmented ecosystems in residential areas. Creating a network of productive ecosystems expands wildlife habitat areas and boosts human health and well-being by bringing nature’s benefits right to residential yards and outdoor spaces.
ASLA has created a new guide to applying ecological design at home, which contains research, projects, and resources on residential landscapes. Developed for homeowners and landscape architects and designers alike, the guide is designed to help spread more sustainable and resilient practices.
Homeowners can use native plants to reduce the use of excess water, energy, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides that damage natural ecosystems, as well as support pollinators.
Residential landscapes can also be used to grow food at home and in communities. When growing food, gardeners should apply principles of ecological design and permacultural practices to ensure food production and garden systems are integrated with the natural environment and avoid contaminating local watersheds with runoff. Homeowners and communities can create composting systems for efficient waste removal and to increase organic matter in the soil.
And plants can also be used inside the home to improve air quality and human productivity.
Homeowners should be mindful of the quality of the soil on their property. Healthy soils are essential to plant and tree health and enable the infiltration of stormwater into the ground. Years of development and construction can lead to layers of compacted soil that restrict movement of water and air, and limit root growth. Homeowners can achieve credit from The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) by using techniques like subsoiling and adding soil amendments to help rebuild ecological function in soils.
Landscape architects partner with communities, non-profit organizations, and local governments to increase public awareness about using sustainable residential design practices that yield productive plant systems and reduce the negative ecological impacts of typical residential development.
Amid the global outcry over President Trump’s remarks that sought to legitimize white supremacists at a press conference earlier this week, we almost missed the fact that Trump rolled-back Obama administration rules to improve the resilience of federally-financed buildings and infrastructure in flood-prone areas and to update important flood risk management standards. In 2015, President Obama required new infrastructure to be built two feet above the 100 year flood plain and three feet for critical infrastructure like hospitals and evacuation centers, and also updated standards that guide flood insurance rates. Beyond undoing these regulatory actions, President Trump announced a new effort to streamline environmental review processes for new infrastructure projects.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates flooding has caused some $260 billion in damages from 1980 to 2013. And in the past decade, flood insurance claims now total $1.6 billion annually, putting further pressure on the already deeply-indebted flood insurance system. As climate change increases both inland flooding and coastal sea level rise, scientists expect flooding to only worsen.
To address increased risks, the Obama administration required federally-financed projects to factor in climate change projections. Now, with a stroke of a pen, the Trump administration has not only put communities at greater risk, but likely reduced the lifespan of infrastructure in flood-prone areas, and their financial efficiency and effectiveness as well.
Former FEMA official Rafael Lemaitre, told Reuters the Obama-era rules were “‘the most significant action taken in a generation’ to safeguard U.S. infrastructure. ‘Eliminating this requirement is self-defeating; we can either build smarter now, or put taxpayers on the hook to pay exponentially more when it floods. And it will.'”
And in New Jersey, which was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy, there was disbelief. John Miller, New Jersey Association of Flood Plain Management, told NJ Spotlight the Obama-era rule was a “solid idea.” He added: “We are going to have worsening conditions. We have to build to future conditions.’’
According to Reuters, both the American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Home Builders praised the move to roll-back the flood risk management standards to the earlier version established by President Carter in 1977, arguing that the Obama-era rules on managing flood risk increased housing costs.
The Obama administration stated that the new standards would only raise housing costs by 0.25 to 1.25 percent, but Republican Congressman Ralph Abraham, from Louisiana, who sponsored legislation that would have blocked Obama’s flood standard, told The New York Timesthe new rules “would have increased the cost of a new home in Louisiana by 25 percent to 30 percent, because most of the state would be put in a federal flood plain.” The overall effect, however, may be to increase risk, as communities continue to live and build in flood plains not be characterized as risky, and then fail to qualify for federal assistance when disaster invariably strikes.
In a new fact sheet on infrastructure that lays of the Trump administration’s vision for investing $200 billion in the 2018 budget, Trump administration officials took aim at what they describe as onerous environmental review processes for infrastructure projects. “The environmental review and permitting process in the United States is fragmented, inefficient, and unpredictable. Existing statutes have important and laudable objectives, but the lack of cohesiveness in their execution make the delivery of infrastructure projects more costly, unpredictable, and time-consuming, all while adding little environmental protection.”
At his shocking press conference, Trump said a complex highway project can take up to 17 years (but didn’t cite an actual example of this). He called the current approach a “disgrace.” His goal is to reduce environmental reviews for a project to two years and centralize management through a “one Federal review” in which one government agency takes the lead on a project.
Trump said: “It’s going to be quick. It’s going to be a very streamlined process. And by the way, if [a project] doesn’t meet environmental safeguards, we’re not going to approve it — very simple.”
According to BloombergPolitics, the new order “allows the Office of Management and Budget to establish goals for environmental reviews and permitting of infrastructure projects and then track their progress — with automatic elevation to senior agency officials when deadlines are missed or extended. The order calls for tracking the time and costs of conducting environmental reviews and making permitting decisions, and it allows the budget office to consider penalties for agencies that fail to meet established milestones.”
Environmental groups were uniformly opposed to the effort to streamline federal environmental reviews, arguing that a two-year time frame may result in more wasteful and risky projects with damaging environmental impacts.
Republicans argue that excessive regulations are holding up infrastructure projects, while Democrats may agree that some regulations could be streamlined, but, really, the primary issue is there isn’t enough public investment. ABC News reports that a Treasury Department report released earlier this year found “a lack of public funding is by far the most common factor hindering completion” of infrastructure projects.
In other federal environmental and climate news: Scientists from 13 federal agencies released a draft of the National Climate Assessment, which Congress mandates be updated every four years. The New York Times writes: “The study examines every corner of the United States and finds that all of it was touched by climate change. The average annual temperature in the United States will continue to rise, the authors write, making recent record-setting years ‘relatively common’ in the near future.” Perhaps the best that can be hoped for with this administration is the draft review process will be allowed to continue on auto-pilot without political interference.
At the department of interior, The Nation writes, a purge of climate experts is underway, while the word “climate” is being scrubbed from program titles.
And at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): the agency is now implementing national ambient air quality standards, rules created by the Obama administration in 2015, after 15 states and a number of leading organizations sued. Still, there are other worrying developments: Administrator Scott Pruitt’s agenda to reduce regulations and cut staff is largely happening in secret. But that may change: the California attorney general just sued the EPA in attempt to force them to explain how Pruitt will handle conflicts of interest with the fossil fuel industry.