How Can Louisiana Build Back Smarter?

Louisiana flooding / Los Angeles Times
Louisiana flooding / Los Angeles Times

The flooding that hit Louisiana last week affected hundreds of thousands of people over 1,000 square miles. The intense storm claimed 13 lives, and some 30,000 needed to be rescued. Over 60,000 homes have been destroyed, and 100,000 have registered for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance so far. According to the agency, the Louisiana flooding was a 500-year flood event, meaning there was just a 0.2 percent chance of this happening this year. However, this is the 8th 500-year flood event since May, 2015, which beg the questions: With climate change, are flood risk estimates now completely unreliable? And if super-storms are the new normal, what can communities do to build back smarter and make themselves more resilient to the next unexpected, disruptive event?

Wes Michaels, ASLA, a partner with Spackman, Mossop and Michaels, a Louisiana-based landscape architecture firm, said: “More rain fell in 4 days in Louisiana than the last 4 years in Los Angeles. A lot of places considered low-risk areas for flooding got a substantial amount of water, so it’s not just about people living in low-lying, flood-prone areas. These super-floods are unpredictable; they flood areas many people consider high and dry.”

Flooded homes / Yahoo.com
Flooded homes / Yahoo.com

Super-storms, while unpredictable, are becoming more common with global warming. As David Titley, a meteorology professor and the director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University, told Fast Company: “Warm air holds more water vapor than cold air, and we’re warming up both the air temperature and we’re warming up the oceans. Welcome to the future.”

The Washington Post editorial board in part blames FEMA’s out-of-date flood maps, “which determine who needs to buy government-sponsored flood insurance,” for the extensive damage. These maps “did not assess large portions of the area hit last week to be at high risk.” In reality, this means many of those hit by the storm will “not be able to call on an insurance policy.” The government only “presses people who live in so-called 100-year flood zones, areas that annually face a 1 percent chance of being flooded, to purchase government-backed flood insurance.”

According to Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, only 12 percent of homes in Baton Rouge and only 14 percent in Lafayette had flood insurance. As Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, FASLA, President and CEO, Center for Planning Excellence in Baton Rouge, noted in an appeal posted to ASLA’s LAND, “though the floods affected people of all incomes, early indications show that a majority of victims are working-class or low-income individuals and families.” Many of those hit by the flooding couldn’t afford flood insurance, which is expensive, or didn’t expect they needed it. If a homeowner is insured, FEMA will pay out up to $250,000 in funds to rebuild. Thomas estimates the estimated value of the affected homes is around $5.7 billion.

Area hit by flooding / The New York Times
Area hit by flooding / The New York Times

FEMA only updates its maps each decade or so. But climate change and sprawl, which creates more impervious surfaces prone to flooding, are more rapidly changing the map of flood risk, particularly for coastal areas. Insurance premiums need to be tied to up-to-date flood risk, with higher premiums for higher risk zones.

According to Wired, communities now need “predictive flood maps: projections of flood risk based on modeling. Right now, pretty much all flood insurance comes from FEMA, which, again, updates its maps infrequently and also allows residents to comment and push back on the boundaries, effectively letting them determine their own flood risk. Insurance companies, which might have the capital to invest in models that incorporate climate change, have largely stayed out of the business since the 1920s—partly because it’s too risky, partly because government-subsidized rates are too low for private companies to compete with.”

But some firms, like Risk Management Solutions, are now developing their own flood risk modelling tools, because real-time modelling “could lead to better estimates of risk in certain places, which would allow companies to price policies accordingly and residents to really understand how risky their locations are. And as FEMA enacts some much-needed reforms (like phasing out government subsidies, for one), it may become easier for insurance companies to offer up flood policies, too.” Expanding the areas of people who are encouraged to buy into flood insurance could also help. Wired writes “if the insurance pool included people from 500-year floodplains, the risk would spread out more thinly,” reducing rates.

Beyond making the flood risk insurance system more responsive to a rapidly-changing climate, communities at higher risk of floods also need to rethink the status quo. Thomas believes that “smart, community-driven planning will play a lead role in rebuilding communities designed to thrive against a changing environmental context.”

And Michaels called for that planning effort to include a deeper analysis of the implications of car-based patterns of development. “As landscape architects, we need to be more involved in the design of infrastructure. Some of the unpredictability in flooding patterns comes from the storm itself, but some of it comes from how we design our interstates, roads, dams, bridges, canals and their related drainage systems. We need to think about how infrastructure fits into the larger landscape systems. Roads in particular, being long, linear systems, can drastically change how high intensity flood waters move across the landscape. There is an image in the news of a highway median wall backing up water on one side of the interstate near Walker, Louisiana. This wall may or may not have not caused flooding in other adjacent areas, but it certainly altered the flow of the water. These large infrastructural systems are pushing water around in ways that make the flooding less predictable, which makes planning for disasters more difficult. Our infrastructure needs to be designed to be porous to the flow of water (and species) across the landscape, and adaptable to the landscape at a much larger scale.”

Flooding along highway in Louisiana / Atmosphere Aerial
Flooded highway in Louisiana / Atmosphere Aerial
Flood damage in Denham Springs / Patrick Dennis/The Advocate, via Associated Press
Flood damage in Denham Springs / Patrick Dennis/The Advocate, via Associated Press

He added that landscapes in high flood risk areas also need to be made more resilient: “Landscape architects should be leading the call to design our landscapes to be resilient to flood and disaster. The amount of energy, resources, and effort that will go into ‘re-landscaping’ Baton Rouge is staggering. Not to mention the carbon footprint of all the dying vegetation that must be cleaned up. We can no longer afford to see these disasters as outlying events, and go back to business as usual after the flood waters recede. We need to design landscapes that can be cleaned up with minimal effort after flooding and will adapt to changing soil and climactic conditions over the coming decades. We need to plant resilient perennials that can be chopped to the ground and come back to life. We need to plant trees that can resist flooding, and use soil technologies that allow trees to be healthy in the first place so they can survive stress.”

Michaels concluded: “I don’t think we can design systems that will prevent flooding in a 1,000 year storm. But we can think about the larger implications of our systems and how they will function in super storms at the landscape scale. And we can be smarter about how we design our landscapes and cities, so we can recover from these events more quickly and with less use of limited resources.”

To help with flood relief, donate to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

How the National Park Service Should Evolve

San Gabriel Mountains National Monument / Conservation Alliance
San Gabriel Mountains National Monument / Conservation Alliance

As the National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its centennial, it’s time to look ahead and think about how America’s national parks should evolve over the next 100 years. A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) argues that the NPS will need to become far more inclusive to meet the needs of the mostly urban, majority-minority country we’ll have by 2043. The NPS will also need to identify areas for conservation amid the rapidly-sprawling cities of Western states before it’s too late. Already many poorer Latino and African American communities out west have been under-represented among national parks and have none nearby to enjoy. The key message of the report: put national parks closer to diverse, urban populations, and then further remove barriers preventing these populations from enjoying these places.

A recent poll conducted for CAP found that “77 percent of Americans believe the United States benefits a great deal or a fair amount from national parks. Furthermore, 55 percent of voters believe they personally benefit a great deal or a fair amount from the country’s parks and public lands.” Research from Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, confirms the enormous value of the parks: they are estimated to be worth some $92 billion to the American people.

But the reality is national parks benefit some more than others. The National Park Service is still dealing with the legacy of Jim Crow-era laws that enforced segregation in many parks. “In some cases, these laws made parks entirely off limits to African Americans.” While everyone today, by law, has equal access to national parks, “the majority of visitors remain white, aging, and fairly affluent.” And, as has been noted, 80 percent of NPS employees are white.

CAP’s polling found that 55 percent of all respondents to their survey had visited a national park, monument, or other area in the past three years. But if results are broken out by race, it looks a bit different: 59 percent of whites have visited, while 47 percent of Hispanic respondents, and only 32 percent of African Americans said the same thing. And NPS’s own 2009 survey apparently showed similar disparities: 78 percent of park visitors were white, while only 9 percent were Hispanic, and 7 percent, African American.

The report also finds there are differences in visitation among different income groups. “Only 39 percent of Americans with incomes below $40,000 reported visiting the National Park system in the last three years.” In comparison: 59 percent of those who made between $40,000 and $75,000 visited, as well as 66 percent of those who made more than $75,000.

While the NPS is now designating more places diverse populations want to go to, there is still more to do. Only 112 of the 460 designated units of the NPS, or 24.3 percent, have a focus on diverse groups. This is not thinking ahead to meet the needs of a mostly-minority country.

Recent steps — like creating the Stonewall Inn National Monument in New York City, which preserves the site of the Stonewall riots that started the LGBT rights movement, and the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, which honors an important Latino civil rights activist — are steps in the right direction, but the report argues more of these protected places need to be created. This is because “parks aimed at preserving traditionally underrepresented histories and stories in fact attract higher visitation rates than the national average from groups that they aim to honor.” For example, some 37 percent of visitors to the Nicodemus National Historic Site, a park that preserves a western town established by African Americans, are themselves African American, in comparison with around 9 percent of visitors, on average, for other parks.

The report also makes the case for preserving natural area in the West, where development “disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income communities.” Poorer and minority-heavy communities are typically more developed than average, which means these groups grow up in areas with fewer natural resources — and national parks and monuments.

The report argues these communities need both more small neighborhood parks and more preserved large natural areas. “Congress, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the president should create and enhance public lands in accessible places — so-called frontcountry recreation areas. Frontcountry areas offer close-to-home natural settings and outdoor experiences, which allow people to experience nature without needing to travel to a far-off destination. Emphasis should be placed on accessible frontcountry parks near communities of color, low-income communities, and urban areas.”

A prime example of what NPS needs more of: the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, which President Obama designated in 2014 and is just a 90-minute drive for the 15 million-strong, diverse, urban population of Los Angeles.

The Mesmerizing “Liquid Shard” Brings Pershing Square Back to Life

The moribund Pershing Square Park in downtown Los Angeles briefly came back to life over the past few weeks, thanks to artist Patrick Hearn’s monumental and mesmerizing Liquid Shard, which is made of holographic mylar and monofilament and spans some 15,000 square feet. Riding invisible wind currents, the piece undulates along a span 15 feet high to the top of the park’s tower, at 150 feet high.

According to Hearn, “the inspiration comes from observing nature and the feeling that we are only aware on a very surface level of what is really going on around us. Unexpected things are revealed in time-lapse or hyper-spectrum photography that fascinate me. Like fractals recurring progressively, we feel the currents of air on our skin but do not see the larger movements.”

The video above also shows the incredible capabilities of video-enabled drones. A technology largely unavailable even a few years ago, video-enabled drones now allow artists and designers of all kinds to tell new stories about the places they have created. The value for landscape architects is clear.

As the temporary installation Liquid Shard comes down, Paris-based landscape architecture firm Agence Ter soon start their work redesigning the unloved park. According to The Architect’s Newspaper, “the French landscape firm’s approach is notable for the ‘town square’ approach taken to the site, where a large canopy located at the western edge of the park will house cafés and other amenities that open onto a grassy knoll at the center of the park.”

Los Angeles city council officials hope the new park will open by 2019.

Science Lab Protected by Ingenious Wave Landscape

MAX IV laboratory / Snohetta
MAX IV laboratory / Snohetta

In Lund, a city in southern Sweden, the MAX IV Laboratory houses a synchrotron, a giant particle accelerator. Unfortunately, scientists there found the facility was buffeted by ground vibrations from a nearby highway. They discovered even the smallest vibrations could throw off their precise studies. Instead of finding a new site, the lab decided to use smart landscape design to create a solution. Working with Fojab Architects, landscape architects with Danish multidisciplinary design firm Snohetta created a 19-hectare park that absorbs vibrations while creating public space, a constructed meadow land, that also captures stormwater.

On their web site, Snohetta writes that ground vibrations are “commonly created by wavelengths between 10 to 40 meters in height and follow the surface of the ground.” If a landscape is flat, their models showed, vibrations could reach the laboratory. But experiments with different types of wave topography found that certain forms could actually absorb the vibrations.

Snohetta used the software program Grasshopper to model the effects of vibrations, defined at 10 to 40 meters at an amplitude of 4.5 meters, on their site.  The primary lab building had to be a circle. But they decided to twist and raise it, creating a “dynamic shape based on the Möbius strip,” which is a surface with one side and one boundary. And then they went further, creating a sort of Möbius volume. Landscape wave forms radiate out in a pattern that breaks up incoming vibrations. According to Snohetta, “the more chaotic combinations of waves, the better.”

Model / Snohetta
Model / Snohetta

To build this intricate landscape, Snohetta uploaded the 3D model directly into to the GPS systems guiding the bulldozers who carved the shapes. For the firm, it was like “having a giant 3D printer producing the project on a 1:1 scale.”

MAX IV laboratory  / © Mikal Schlosser
MAX IV laboratory / © Mikal Schlosser

On top of blocking the vibrations, the designers also brought a sustainable design approach — soil was cut on site and then filled in elsewhere to create the waves. They argue this will help ensure the site can return to agricultural use if the synchrotron is no longer used.

The waves also help channel stormwater into ponds designed to accommodate both 1-year and 100-year rain events.

MAX IV laboratory / © Mikal Schlosser
MAX IV laboratory / © Mikal Schlosser

And throughout the park, there are native meadow grasses, planted from seeds gathered at a nearby nature reserve. The lab will bring in sheep to help manage the grasses.

MAX IV laboratory / © mikal schlosser
MAX IV laboratory / © mikal schlosser

Even though the location looks fairly suburban, there is also ample bike parking for lab employees and visitors.

MAX IV laboratory / Snohetta
MAX IV laboratory / Snohetta

See larger images at DesignBoom.

Brazilians Use Olympics to Deliver Climate Message

2016 Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony / NBC
2016 Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony / NBC

The estimated 3.3 billion people who watched the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, saw a beautiful and compelling case for fighting climate change. Brazil, which is to critical to global efforts, given its stewardship of the Amazon rainforest, decided to use its big moment on the stage to make the message clear: climate change will impact us all, and we must all do something, even if it’s simply planting a tree.

In the beginning of the ceremony, the Amazon was depicted as the great web of life, a multi-layered network, which is really how a forest functions, according to biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus (see image at top). We then see dancers from the indigenous tribes of Brazil symbolically managing the forest resources in sustainable ways.

olympics2

But later, we see the forest come apart, as its colonized by the Portuguese, as their ships slice through the sea of greenery. In the ceremony, dancers dramatized the conflict between the native forest dwellers and the Portuguese, between the stewards of ecology and the forces of extraction and trade.

Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony / Olympics
Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony / Olympics

We then see dancers representing the millions of slaves brought over from Africa. Then we see how the forest was further broken down, turned into farms, and, finally, urbanized.

As the ceremony progressed, dancers moved off stage and the Brazilian Olympics organizers shifted the focus to educating the world about what the climate models predict, displaying this data showing global temperature increase.

As the narrator states — “the heat is melting the ice cap; it’s disappearing very quickly — an animation displays, showing what a melting North Pole will mean for the world’s waterfront cities, including Amsterdam, Dubai, Lagos, Shanghai, Miami, and, finally, the home of the 2016 Olympics.

After the doom and gloom, a child then walks through to the middle of the stage and sits down next to a sapling, which itself glows, spreading the web of life once again. The answer to climate change, according to the Brazilians, is to protect and renew our forests. 

Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony / Olympics.org
Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony / Olympics.org

The ceremony is a reminder that much of the world is very worried about climate change and has moved way beyond any controversies around the science. According to the Pew Research Center, majorities in 40 leading countries say climate change is a “serious concern,” and 54 percent say it’s a “very serious concern.”

While the ceremony may help educate the world, its message may also be directed at some key local audiences. Environmental officials in Brazil have been fighting a tough battle against cattle ranchers, loggers, and farmers who continue to engage in illegal burning and clearing of the rainforest and must have powerful political backers who protect and enable this. And the message may also be aimed at international donors who can bolster Brazil’s fight to save the forest; it’s a plea to ask them to do more to help this developing country.

Deforestation in the Amazon just hit the highest levels in 8 years, with 240,000 acres destroyed in June 2016 alone. About 19 percent of the total Amazon rainforest is gone. It’s clearly time to geo-engineer the planet in a sustainable way: let’s regrow the lost forest and then plant billions more trees. 

A New Look at the Trail Blazing David Williston

David A. Williston / TCLF
David A. Williston / TCLF


David August Williston
is a name little known today, even in the world of landscape architecture. But according to Dr. Douglas Williams, Student ASLA, Ph.D graduate from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he is one of the trail blazers of the field. One of the first African American landscape architects, Williston designed some of the major campuses of historically African American colleges like Booker T. Washington’s Tuskeegee Institute and Howard University in Washington, D.C. In his lifetime, he never experienced full integration, having passed away in 1962 at the age of 94, but managed to accomplish a lasting legacy of built work.

In a talk at Howard University’s School of Architecture, Williams wondered why Williston is so little celebrated. In part, he blames the lack of diversity in core landscape architecture texts, like the Landscape of Man, published in 1970, and Landscape Design, in 2001. “Where are the black people in these texts?”

He also pointed to the paucity of published books on African American cultural landscapes. Celebrated African American landscape architect Walter Hood, ASLA, published a book of his own work, but that was back in 1997. (Apparently, he is at work on a second book on his “hybrid landscapes”). The 2004 book African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945, an overview of some 100 designers, includes only 5-6 landscape architects. Williams bemoaned that mainstream attention to these designers only gets paid in a cursory fashion during Black History Month.

Williams highlighted a few examples of what he considers to be excellent African American scholarship on landscape: from J.B. Jackson’s The Necessity of Ruins and Other Topics, which states that “the garden landscapes of blacks are some of the least known and richest,” to We Shall Independent Be: African American Place-Making and the Struggle to Claim Space in the United States, a compendium edited by Angel David Nieves and Leslie M. Alexander, which explores the stories of African American communities displaced by Frederick Law Olmsted in the creation of Central Park.

Referring to Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, which argues that geniuses are less isolated phenomena than important nodes in deep and rich social networks, Williams argued that Williston also collaborated widely. He tried to imagine Williston’s African American contemporaries, many of whom remain unknown. He tried to imagine how Williston was able to create an entirely African American system to achieve his landscape designs in the segregated deep South. And he tried to imagine how Williston, without access to white-owned nurseries, could have sought out native plants in the woods and cultivated them on his own. (Williston was one of the first African Americans to earn a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Cornell University; there, his love of plants grew into a considerable expertise on plant propagation and cultivation.)

Williston taught horticulture to African American college students while also serving as a campus landscape architect for numerous historically black colleges. He spent 20 years at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, where he also worked with African American architect Robert R. Taylor to lay out the physical campus. According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, he then settled in Washington, D.C. at the onset of the Great Depression, where he started his own firm. He designed the expansion of Howard University, and numerous other colleges, working well into his early 90s.

Williams’ hope is to completely digitize Williston’s archives and make them accessible online for future researchers, using them as a basis to create 3-D models of now-lost planting schemes, so more people can experience a Williston landscape.

A Universe of Interactive Art in Tokyo

In a leap for interactive art environments, Team Lab, a collaborative of Japanese artists, has put together a fascinating and bizarre collection of works in a 3,000-square-meter space in Tokyo. The pieces are truly responsive: visitors impact and shape the ever-changing works in real-time.

In the Dance of Koi and People – Infinity, visitors wade up to their calves through a shallow pool surrounded by mirrors, which creates the effect of being in an infinite space. As visitors walk through the water, underwater lights that mimic koi fish dart by.

The Dance of Koi - Infinity / Team Lab
The Dance of Koi and People- Infinity / Team Lab
The Dance of Koi and People- Infinity / Team Lab
The Dance of Koi and People- Infinity / Team Lab

According to the artists, the “trajectory of the koi is determined by the presence of people, and these trajectories trace lines on the surface of the water.” The even-more amazing part: “When the koi collide with people, they turn into flowers and scatter.”

The Dance of Koi and People- Infinity / Team Lab
The Dance of Koi and People- Infinity / Team Lab

This art work is derived by an algorithm in real time; it’s not a “pre-recorded animation nor on a loop.” It’s a work of continuous interaction and constant change.

In Wander Through the Crystal Universe, visitors interact with a giant pointillist sculpture in which “the particles of light are digitally controlled, and change based on the viewer’s interactivity with the work.” As visitors move, light shifts; as more visitors enter, light accumulates. Visitors can also use their smart phones to chose colors and shapes that will be included in the evolving piece.

In Floating in the Falling Universe of Flowers, visitors enable seasonal change. As visitors walk through, “flowers are born, they grow, bud, bloom, and, in time, the petals fall, and the flowers wither and die. The cycle of birth and death continues for perpetuity.” The piece also enables visitors to select butterflies with their smart phones and send them off into the surrounding “flower universe.”

And, lastly, Soft Black Hole, creates a dark space that plays with “the borders of floors, walls, and ceilings,” creating perhaps a startling version of a space you may find in a contemporary Korean spa. As visitors get into the space, their body weight shifts the environment, and so visitors impact the space of other visitors. “Your body changes the space, and the space changes the bodies of others.”

Soft Black Hole / Team Lab
Soft Black Hole / Team Lab

If in Tokyo, visit DMM.Planets before August 31.

Through Many Lenses: The Works of Capability Brown

Chatsworth / Gary Rogers, cropped.
Chatsworth (Cropped) / copyright Gary Rogers

This year is the 300th anniversary of famed English landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown’s birth. To celebrate, the Landscape Foundation and Building Center in London have put together Lens on a Landscape Genius, an exhibition of 100 photographs, depicting some of the 150 landscapes of Brown’s that still exist, out of the 250 he planned or designed in the 18th century.

Compton Verney (cropped) / copyright James Kerr
Compton Verney (cropped) / copyright James Kerr

Brown is viewed as the quintessential English landscape architect, “as deeply embedded in the English character as the paintings of Turner and the poetry of Wordsworth.” He is known for projects of an immense scale: vast estates, including the Hampton Court Palace Gardens, Blenheim Palace, and the landscape of Highclere Castle, known today on television as Downtown Abbey. At many of these grand estates, he removed formal gardens and replaced them with undulating grasslands and constructed hills and serpentine rivers.

Highclere (cropped) / Allan Pollok-Morris
Highclere (cropped) / Allan Pollok-Morris

Brown created elegant, seemingly-simple landscapes that hid deeper complexity. On the website of the foundation that promotes the preservation of his work, they write: “His designs appear seamless owing to his use of the sunk fence or ‘ha-ha’ to confuse the eye into believing that different pieces of parkland, though managed and stocked quite differently, were one. His expansive lakes, at different levels and apparently unconnected, formed a single body of water as if a river through the landscape, that like the parkland itself, ran on indefinitely. This effortless coherence is taken for granted today.”

Dawn at Gatton Park (cropped) / copyright James Bruce
Dawn at Gatton Park (cropped) / copyright Matthew Bruce

While he was highly sought after in his life time, becoming the master gardener for Hampton Court, his reputation declined immediately after his death. His Picturesque style, which would influence Frederick Law Olmsted and others, fell out of favor in the face of Romanticism and later Modernism. His work was viewed as the anti-thesis of the geometric, formal works of French landscape architect André Le Nôtre, but both were long seen as out of style. His style, now known as the English Picturesque, has seen a resurgence though. This year, The Telegraph calls him “the world’s most famous landscape gardener.”

Deer on Rutting Stand (cropped) / copyright Derek Saint Romaine
Deer on Rutting Stand (cropped) / copyright Derek St. Romaine

The exhibition includes noteworthy UK-based landscape photographers such as: Andrew Lawson, Joe Cornish, Andrea Jones, Allan Pollok-Morris, Gary Rogers, Derek St. Romaine, Matthew Bruce,  Gareth Davies, James Kerr, Archie Miles, Gavin Kingcome, Simon Warner, Jacqui Hurst, Stephen Studd, James Smith, and, lastly, Steffie Shields, who has also just published a book of her photographs of his landscapes: Moving Heaven and Earth: Capability Brown’s Gift of Landscape.

If in London, go see the exhibition before it closes on October 27.

Design Competition: A More Resilient West Palm Beach

Shore to Core / Van Alen Institute and West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Authority
Shore to Core / Van Alen Institute and West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency

West Palm Beach, a city of nearly 100,000 some 70 miles north of Miami, is grappling with how to protect itself from sea level rise. Much of this long, thin 50-square-mile city fronts the Atlantic Ocean. While in the past this form of development maximized its appeal as a waterfront city, now that exposure elevates their risk.

To create a sustainable and resilient future, the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency has partnered with the Van Alen Institute to create Shore to Core: Vision for a Waterfront City, an  urban design competition, to rethink its future trajectory. The design competition though calls for interdisciplinary teams of designers (landscape architects, urban designers, architects) along with experts in resilience, economic development, place-making, psychology, and other fields.

The competition brief asks: “How can we recreate an urban core so its design is intelligent, flexible, and responsive to the needs of residents and visitors?” A new urban core is needed to better address the future needs of the community, strengthen the city’s ability to handle storms and flooding, improve the economy, and improve “individuals’ well-being through the city’s design.”

West Palm Beach / Van Alen Institute
West Palm Beach / Van Alen Institute

This last point is essential to this competition: there will also be a separate research competition that aims to bring a team of environmental psychologists, neuroscientists, and other social scientists to “look at the relationship between the relationship between the built environment and the well-being of individuals and communities.” Results from this study will likely inform future plans and designs for a resilient urban core that can also boost public health.

Two multidisciplinary teams selected as finalists will be given $45,000 stipends while a research team will be given $40,000.

According to the competition organizers, West Palm Beach has become a magnet for young people, and some 50 percent of the population is African American or Latino. To continue to draw a young, diverse community and grow far into the future, the city must continue to adapt to its increasingly precarious environment.

West Palm Beach / copyright Christopher Faycom via Van Alen Institute
West Palm Beach / copyright Christopher Faycom via Van Alen Institute

Teams are encouraged to pre-register by July 27 (but are not required to), and submissions are due August 21.

Interview with Toody Maher on Co-Designing Parks with the Community

Toody Maher / SF Gate
Toody Maher / SF Gate


Toody Maher is the founder and executive director of Pogo Park. She is an artist, inventor, and entrepreneur and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, California.

In the Iron Triangle in Richmond, California, which is one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the country, you’ve created an exciting model, which combines community development, child development, play, and parks. What are the essential elements of a Pogo Park?

Any public space can be transformed into a Pogo Park. In essence, a Pogo Park is an amazing place, a magical place for children to play. There are five key elements. First of all, a Pogo Park must be staffed. You need someone there who clean the park, welcome folks as they come in, and make it a safe and welcoming gathering place for the community. Second, there needs to be an office there. The third is a rich play environment. We have to get away from plastic, static play equipment. Experts on play talk about how kids need loose parts and environments they can manipulate, so they can build their own things and explore. The key feature of a Pogo Park is a super-rich play environment. The fourth element is just basic amenities — a place to sit in the shade, a bathroom, and running water. And the last is to make it a hub of the community. We have the book mobile, farmer’s market, and visits from the National Park Service who want to show the kids a ranger tour. We’re just the place. We are the community hub.

If you’re knowledgeable about Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language, that’s the Bible for us. There’s certain things that you can do that are essential, but you can do it 500 or 5,000 ways.

The community were co-designers of Elm Playlot and Harbor-8 Park. How did this work?

To give you some background: Elm Playlot was an existing park for 70 years, but it failed. The city has renovated it three times, and the latest in 2009 cost $300,000. We begged the city not to do it, but they went ahead because they had a grant. Within a week, somebody tried to burn it down.

Pogo Park started with a core team of eight: the Elm Playlot Action Committee (EPAC). The first person I met was Carmen Lee, who lives right next door to the park. I just went around knocking on doors and meeting folks. There were people who wouldn’t open the door. I would show up each day and they wouldn’t even say hello. From 2009 to 2016 the composition of EPAC has changed. It went from eight to six to ten to twelve to fourteen to seven. All of the members have deep ties to the Iron Triangle: they were born there, they live there. But the members of the same core team who started at the beginning have been through all seven years of the project.

What’s great is the power of incremental change. We avoided the usual process: the park fails, then you helicopter in, and, in one week’s time, there’s a new park, and then the mayor comes, and you cut the ribbon, and the moment that everyone leaves — the moment the 76-piece marching back leaves — the whole thing goes back to what it was, so nothing is really transformed. As some residents say, you can’t put a mink coat on a skunk. By coming in and putting this thing down, it doesn’t mean lives are going to change. Transformation needs to be deeper.

EPAC started working with the residents to reclaim the park. Before we got our $2 million state park grant to redo the park, I told the team about Burning Man in the Nevada desert, how folks build this mini city in a week. I said: “let’s do Burning Man in the Iron Triangle!” We went to Home Depot and bought a $2,000 3-foot fence and built a fence around Elm Playlot to claim the boundary. We came in each day and cleaned the park, so it was super clean. We brought in a shipping container we got from the Port of Richmond and built a little office inside the shipping container we could open each day. We put out our play materials and made our enriched play space. We rented a porta potty, which we covered in beautiful plants and artwork. And if somebody needed to go to the bathroom, they’d come up to somebody on our staff and we would let them in. Folks would come just to go to the bathroom, because the porta potty was tricked out. We bought the house next to the park for $50,000. And got a $300 fridge off Craigslist and became an official distribution point for the school free summer lunches. We served 9,000 meals one summer. We got into the space and claimed it.

Going back to how to involve the community: Elm Playlot came alive because people from the neighborhood went and worked there each day. They cleaned it, built things, or served as staff. As folks drive by, they could see something was changing. Everybody started to come by because they were like, “What you all doing next? Oh, this so great.” One thing I learned: If the community makes the changes themselves, then the change is deeper and felt more widely.

Elm Playlot / KQED, Nancy DeVille
Elm Playlot / KQED, Nancy DeVille

It wasn’t just like there was a one-week charrette. We did a five year one! As the great park designer, Susan Goltsman, FASLA, with MIG in Berkeley, said: “Great playgrounds are in a constant state of change.” They can’t just be static. To be alive, parks need to evolve. Pogo Park has been a living charrette.

Elm Playlot / Pogo Park
Elm Playlot / Pogo Park

How did the process of 3-D prototyping the park design work? And why do you think it was better than the typical approach with charrettes, maps, renderings?

The real language needed to communicate design is the opposite of what you need to understand a landscape architecture plan on paper. With a 3-D model, you get to see what’s coming in life size. You’re actually experiencing it. If we want to put a tree somewhere, we’ll just go out and buy a tree in a five gallon bucket and put it there, so people can actually say, “Oh, a tree’s there.” They can walk around and see spaces.

I’ve noticed that when I’m dealing with some landscape architects and designers, they come out with the dimensions of what something should be right away. They’ll say, “Oh, well, why don’t we put the door at three feet and this at two feet.” And they work all by numbers. But our approach is: “Do not impose a number.” First of all, mark it, and when it feels right, measure. That is the measurement that goes on the paper. So many times when design is done on paper, it looks good on paper, because it’s all math. But when you build it, there’s so many little things that were off. The spacing is usually off. The only way you can really get spacing is to do it.

Pogo Park involved the community in the actual construction of the park, paying neighbors of the park to build it. How did the process of co-developing the park with the community work?

We have put over $1 million in wages and contracts into the Iron Triangle. Everyone expects people who are poor and have no job to come in and volunteer. Everywhere I went, people said: “Oh, Toody, you and your volunteers.” No. Everyone was paid for their contribution.

We were also blessed to partner with Scientific Art Studio, which happens to have a 2-acre fabrication studio six blocks from our park in the Iron Triangle, to build the park. The guy who runs it — Ron Holthuysen — is a world famous designer of children’s play spaces. He’s the bomb. He just did a $3.5 million new playground for the San Francisco Zoo. His belief is that children must be free to run wild and to explore.

Ron helped us figure out how to work with a playground safety inspector. We were building custom-made, artisanal play elements. Every step of the way we made sure we conformed with the safety regulations. He set up a studio for us in his studio where he acted as our training wheels, empowering local people to do it for themselves.

It was this holy trinity. First, we had community residents. Second, we had the city of Richmond, which is very entrepreneurial and forward thinking. They gave us the green light to do this radical thing: to try and build a park with the community by hand. And, third, we had Ron from Scientific Arts. However, the residents were the most powerful force. All we did was create a system where someone could think up an idea and then just do it. Residents started getting into it, saying things like: “Well, we should put a bench there.” So then we would just go to Ron’s shop and build a bench and bring it back. Residents started gaining a lot of confidence by thinking, doing.

Play element construction / Pogo Park
Play element construction / Pogo Park

The numbers who have been employed with Pogo Park over the past decade is around 110-120 community residents. We’ve had probably another 250 who come and work for two weeks. But we primarily pour our money into our core staff. We have 10 people on the community resident team now that work between 15 hours a week and full-time. And they’re paid between $16 and $22 an hour. Those working full-time have full health, dental, and vision benefits. All of these people have never had insurance before. Pogo Park has definitely helped transform the lives of the key folks on our team. And we now have $1.5 million in contracts to design and build more parks in Richmond, too.

Park construction / Pogo Park
Park construction / Pogo Park

About 25 percent of our team does cleaning and maintenance. It’s a lot of work, because you’re cleaning not only the park, but also the streets around the park. When people come into our block, they can just feel it, because the streets are all clean, and there’s all these trees planted. I mean we clean up. Last year, we had 15,000 kids sign in at our sites. And these kids play hard, so things get broken. You have to replace the wooden planks and other things. When things break things, we take them to a work shop where we have a team. Our maintenance team can also build things.

About 50 percent are employed in running the park. We have a park host who comes in somebody who comes into the office every day. They put out all the play stuff and open up the bathrooms. They’re the ones scheduling all the programs Monday through Saturday. The other 25 percent does outreach and design for The Yellow Brick Road, plants trees, plant trees, and individual and group skills training. They train community members on how to use email, resolve conflicts, speak in public, etc.

How do you generate deep community buy in and involvement where others have failed?

We just show up every day and keep showing up. Most folks come into a community for a year or two and then leave. And then things go back to what they were. So the community doesn’t trust new initiatives, because they too will leave. It’s taken us nine years of work in this neighborhood, showing up Monday through Friday and not leaving, to gain that trust.

Some 7,500 neighborhood kids use Elm Playlot and Harbor-8 Parks annually. What do these places try to do about works and what doesn’t in terms of play? And, specifically, what’s needed to create a safe, welcoming playground in a neighborhood that has a lot of crime?

If you go into any of these neighborhoods, the first thing is you have got to staff the park. What makes it safe is there’s someone who’s there watching out to make sure the park is clean, safe, and welcoming. Second, parks must be “bespoke,” custom made for the particular neighborhood, so they can then be woven into the fabric of the neighborhood. The park has got to have soul. Most of these new plastic playgrounds that are plopped in from a catalogue just don’t have soul.

Harbor 8 Park playground / Pogo Park
Harbor 8 Park playground / Pogo Park

The design of the playground has to be generated from the inside out. The community has to be involved and figure out how it’s going to weave into the neighborhood. Children’s play is very complicated. It’s the mother’s breast milk of healthy development. Parks departments typically put in static play equipment that’s only good for physical play. You go up a ladder and slide down the slide and then go on the swing. But there’s all kinds of play: cognitive play, linguistic play, and imaginative, creative play. We have to create playgrounds that meet all the play needs of kids, not just physical needs. That’s why we say Pogo Park is an enriched play environment.

How have the new parks helped resolve community conflict and build inter-community trust? And what do you think still needs to happen?

Parks provide a community space for every human being on the planet. We’re social beings and gravitate toward public spaces where we can be with other people. Just claiming and holding this space, it becomes a sacred watering hole for the community. That has helped build the trust of the community, because it’s a place where people can actually connect in a real way with other residents and families.

You can’t just put the bones of the park down. You can’t just come into a neighborhood like the Iron Triangle and just plop something down and leave. You have bones but you also have to spirit. The spirit is programming, which makes the park come to life.

Now you’re rethinking another form of community space, streets. A project now in the works is the Yellow Brick Road, a “safe, green and clean” route for walking and biking that connects neighborhood schools, parks, transportation, shopping. Pogo Park organized another preview of a full scale 3-D prototype for the community to try out. What is your approach for designing, building, and maintaining this Yellow Brick Road?

Yellow Brick Road rendering / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road rendering / Pogo Park

We used the same 3-D modeling language we used for the parks, but translated it into the streets. We had to slow down traffic on the corners of the park, as we had some 15,000 people sign into the park last year, including thousands of kids. We worked with some of the top transportation engineers to design a new roundabout. We figured out what the dimensions needed to be and then mocked up a 3-D roundabout model. In the middle of the roundabout there is a hand-carved, eight-foot-tall totem pole the Pogo Park community team carved. Over two days, we let the neighborhood, police, and fire fighters actually drive through it.

We’ve spoken to others who have done 3-D models out of the street, but they never opened theirs to actual traffic. Neighbors could see what is going to be built rather than see it on a piece of paper. They could then add their thoughts right away. The community team, who are people the neighborhood knows, facilitated. Many neighbors, police, and fire fighters came up and thanked us so much for this. The 3-D models really got the community and city involved in a new way. We received a grant from the California department of transportation, and the Yellow Brick Road opened in January.

Yellow Brick Road demonstration / Richmond Confidential
Yellow Brick Road demonstration / Richmond Confidential
Yellow Brick Road / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road totem pole and roundabout / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road opening, January 2016 / Kaboom.org
Yellow Brick Road opening, January 2016 / Kaboom.org