Remnants of Oglethorpe’s Utopian Vision Survive in Savannah’s Squares

James Oglethorpe statue in Chippewa Square / Jared Green
James Oglethorpe statue in Chippewa Square / Jared Green

James Oglethorpe, founder and planner of Savannah, Georgia, was educated during the height of the Enlightenment. Influenced by John Locke and Isaac Newton, he was a visionary who sought to use “scientific laws to establish the ideal city,” explained Steve Smith, with the Massie Heritage Center, during a tour at the Congress for New Urbanism.

Upon the approval of his petition to create the colony of Georgia, named after King George II, Oglethorpe set sail for the American south with 100 settlers, with the goal of establishing an “anti-urban settlement, a low-density, agrarian community,” said David Gobel, an architectural history professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

Oglelthorpe thought cities were the root of all social ills. Removing people from a productive relationship with the land and a healthy connection with nature resulted in bad morals, crime, and debt. He sought to create a new colony for people who had suffered in urban debtors’ prisons, but ended up attracting many merchants, artisans, and others to his venture.

In his new colony of Savannah, established in 1733, Oglethorpe organized the community along an unusual layout — now known as the Oglethorpe Plan — characterized by wards made up of 40 60-feet-by-90-feet lots on either side of a central square, framed by “tithe lots” where churches and civic centers were found. At no time in history has there been an urban plan like this.

Original Oglethorpe plan / Connect Savannah

In this village format, each colonial family would get a lot, which included a garden and a 50-acre farm outside the town center. Ogelthorpe originally envisioned four wards, with a maximum of 240 families.

According to Gobel, the utopian plan of Ogelthorpe was a failure. “He took people from the urban core of London and told them they will become farmers — in clay soil in the southern heat.” Oglethorpe was also very restrictive — alcohol wasn’t permitted; families were restricted to the property they were allocated; lawyers and Catholics weren’t allowed; and due to his moral opposition to slavery, that evil practice was banned.

As we heard from Vaughnette Goode-Walker, a local historian who gave a tour of the African American history of Savannah, Oglethorpe eventually succumbed to the slave culture established in nearby South Carolina. “The first settlers were lazy, drinking, and didn’t do anything. Oglethorpe had to borrow slaves until 1741” to clear the land and construct the city. By the time Oglethorpe returned to Georgia in 1752, his utopian vision was in ruins; he had been “overwhelmed.” And the reality was that “slaves built the city.”

By 1750, “slavery arrived with a vengeance.” Between 1761 and 1771, some 10,000 slaves were sold in the markets near the wharfs, where boats loaded with suffering human cargo would arrive from the Caribbean and Africa. The first slaves worked rice plantations and then later cotton fields. By 1810, some 44 percent of the workforce was enslaved. In 1860, the population of the city was 22,000, with some 17,000 enslaved people and 700 free blacks, many of whom owned slaves themselves.

The anti-materialistic, equitable vision Oglethorpe had for the city wasn’t realized; and the physical form of his idealism was corrupted as well. Oglethorpe envisioned a maximum of four wards, but beginning in the 1790s, the ward system was replicated and eventually expanded to 24 wards (there are now just 22). “Savannah became a city filled with squares; it’s almost ridiculous,” Gobel said. But these squares are now what helps draw millions of tourists to Savannah every year.

Historians in Savannah have long wondered: why squares? The Massie Center is a believer in the “Turin theory,” posited by Cornell University professor John Reps, which contends that Oglethorpe modeled the squares after the Piazza Carlina in Turin, Italy. But Gobel believes Oglethorpe instead modeled them after squares created in London in the 17th century. “London was square-crazy then. There were more than 20 in the West End, where the trustees of the colony had homes.”

Piazza Carlina in Turin, Italy / @rtisan Traveler, Pinterest
St. James Square, London / Eric Parry Architects

Still, the Savannah squares aren’t like their possible Italian or English inspirations. “The Savannah square is nothing like an Italian piazza, because there are lots of openings. There is a porosity to the squares, with all the streets that come off them, which breaks down the sense of an enclosed space. And unlike the squares of London, the Savannah squares are open, with no fences.” (Gramercy Square in New York City is more like an old English square, with its private key for residents who live beside it).

Porosity of the squares of Savannah / Jared Green
Fountain in square / Jared Green

The squares were originally completely utilitarian. “They were used as pasture, marketplaces, for exercise or as military encampments. They started as left-over, residual spaces.” The primary feature of many was simply a well. According to Goode-Walker, African Americans certainly weren’t allowed in the squares — “slaves stayed in the lanes behind houses.” And back then, the lanes and streets were filled with mud and horse excrement, which is why most whites lived in the upper levels of the homes they built.

But slowly the squares evolved into important spaces of public beauty. By 1810, there were mentions of “how lovely the squares were,” said Gobel. Curbs separated them from the streets; trees were planted; and north-south and east-west pathways were established. In between this matrix of paths, the city erected giant monuments to heroes of the American Revolutionary War.

Sgt. William Jasper Monument in Madison Square / Jared Green
Sgt. William Jasper Monument in Madison Square / Jared Green

There have been “many changes to the squares over the years. They have been gussied up; today, they are more like garden parks.” Landscape architect Clermont Lee renovated and restored five squares from the 1950s to the 1970s. In 2010, EDAW (now AECOM) restored Ellis Square to the original plan, after the old City Market built over it was torn down. Today, a team of landscape architects — who work for the city government in a group distinct from the parks department — maintain the squares.

In their beautification, the squares have transitioned from places of recreation, commerce, and civic action into places to relax and commune with nature and the community. “The goal today is to prevent any active use. Monkey grass was put in to keep out kids,” Gobel fretted.

Not play-friendly Savannah Square / Jared Green

The squares wouldn’t be the draw they are without the amazing Live Oaks that were planted more than 150 years ago. The original trees of the squares — the Pride of India or “China berry” tree, a relative of the Mahogany — were all killed off in a hurricane in the 1850s. A towering canopy of Live Oaks, Palmettos, Magnolias now oversee the squares, which feel heavy with history, but where, today, all ethnicities can be seen together.

Live Oak in a Savannah Square / Jared Green
Magnolias and Live Oaks in a Savannah Square / Jared Green

According to Gobel, there is a history that still needs to be more deeply explored: “a landscape history of the city has never been done.” A story needs to be told about the horror of the landscape of East Upper Factors Walk, which was created by Irish sailors with ballast from ships, where slaves who had just been purchased were kept, a haunted place Goode-Walker said she doesn’t bring tours.

East Upper Factors Walk / Jared Green
East Upper Factors Walk / Jared Green

And the story of the amazingly resilient natural and cultural communities that define the character of the city — the diverse trees that shade the city, and people who built Savannah and shaped its evolution.

To Create a Sense of Belonging, Embrace Cultural Diversity

Brazilian festival in Herter Park / Herter Park Facebook

While designers of the built environment only improve at creating sustainable, technologically-savvy, and beautiful places, they aren’t succeeding at “creating belonging,” a feeling of “respectful co-existence in shared space,” argued Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental planning at Tufts University. More “culturally-competent” planners, landscape architects, architects are needed to create more just places.

In a keynote speech at the Congress for New Urbanism in Savannah, Georgia, Agyeman said “there is an equity deficit in the sustainability movement. The green movement is socially unjust.” Agyeman believes that in many cities “the old red-lining of neighborhoods have been replaced by green exclusionary zones — just a new form of socio-economic segregation.” Instead, true sustainability “involves justice — and equity in recognition, process, procedure, and outcomes.”

With true sustainability, it isn’t possible to have “spatial injustice,” in which life chances are not distributed in a fair way geographically. (Sadly, in the vast majority of countries, your zip code determines everything from your income to your life expectancy).

With true sustainability, public spaces are for everyone. He held up Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia as an example of a “space of respect, engagement, and encounter.” Agyeman wondered whether we can design places like this anymore?

Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia / Pinterest

Too often public spaces labeled as sustainable aren’t just. While the contemporary Complete Street movement is lauded as a way to make transportation systems more equitable — by providing equal access for pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars — complete streets that remove street vendors and spruce up public spaces with new amenities can end up killing the cultural and social lives of streets.

“Places have no fixed meaning; they are social as much as physical entities. Complete streets can disconnect streets from the social, structural, symbolic, discursive, and historical realities of a place.” Agyeman asked: “Who gets to say what a complete street is anyhow? They can’t be complete if they fail to include the livelihoods and economic survival of vendors.”

Park planning and design needs to be re-thought in terms of boosting cultural diversity, instead of just ecological diversity.

As an example, he pointed to a local park in Bristol, Massachusetts. At great expense, the park managers created a wildflower meadow in order to increase biodiversity. But the new garden had the effect of driving away Caribbean immigrants who used to spend time in the park. “They have a residual fear of places that could harbor snakes.” Aygeman said “if someone in the parks department was Caribbean, they would have known.” The question in instances like this is: “do we drop the cultural or social diversity or respect the cultural side?”

Given urban communities are evolving, we must better engage new immigrant communities in the planning and preservation of park systems.

In Boston, many immigrants “aren’t connecting with the old parks created by Frederick Law Olmsted. They just don’t resonate with them — and these groups, which are growing, could be deciding the future of Boston’s parks.”

Immigrant groups instead yearn for landscapes that remind them of home. In Boston, Herter Park draws immigrants from Latin and South America, because it provides spaces for extended family gatherings by a river, which feels familiar to them (see image at top).

Aygeman thinks landscape architects must intentionally design for immigrants and encourage encounters between ethnicities.

In Supekilen Park in Copenhagen, Denmark, teams of designers with BIG, Topotek 1, and Superflux, created a “controversial park” in a highly-diverse immigrant neighborhood where ethnic groups “could see themselves in the space,” but also encounter other communities. Each ethnic group in the neighborhood around the park had a designated space meant to reflect some aspect of their cultural identity.

Superkilen Park, Copenhagen, Denmark / Jens Lindhe

Parks-for-all like Superkilen may just be the start. Aygeman foresees a future in which landscape architects first do “deep ethnographic research to really understand a community before they get started.” Landscape architects trained in “cultural competency” then eliminate disparities in access to public space, creating true urban commons. “More diverse professionals who know what these new societies think” will partner with diverse communities to “co-design and co-create more just places.”

The result could be something like Medellin, Colombia, where a participatory approach rooted in the philosophy of “social urbanism,” led to the “urban transformation of the century,” in which the poor were given equitable access to all the city has to offer — parks, libraries, museums, and transit.

Retrofitting with Green Infrastructure

California Avenue Rain Garden, University of Calinfornia, Davis / Kevin Robert Perry

Why retrofit cities and suburbs with green infrastructure? Re-inserting the landscape back into the built environment helps us strike a better balance with nature, boost neighborhood health, and solve stormwater management problems. In a session at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) in Savannah, Georgia, a landscape architect, an urban designer, and a civil engineer offered fresh takes on why green infrastructure is so valuable.

According to landscape architect Kevin Robert Perry, ASLA, founder of Urban Rain Design, the issue is the sheer amount of impervious surfaces, the oceans of asphalt in our cities and suburbs, which can account for half of the built environment. “We need to get more water into the ground.” He said communities should take a “decentralized, natural approach” to getting more stormwater off pavement and into the ground, where it can recharge underlying aquifers.

In increasing levels of optimization, communities can maximize landscape along streets; increase their tree canopies; create park-like streets, sidewalks, and driveways; scale up networks of green, complete, streets; or build an “entire green envelope, covering buildings and streets” across the entire city or suburb.

But Perry noted the need to keep actual green infrastructure solutions simple and low-cost. His well-known Siskiyou Green Street in Portland, Oregon, cost just $20,000.

ASLA 2007 Professional General Design Honor Award. Siskiyou Green Street, Portland, Oregon / Kevin Robert Perry

Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of urban design at Georgia Tech and author of Designing Suburban Futures, and her students collaborated with the Atlanta city government, as it begins to realize its vision of a new city design, which is rooted in Atlantans’ love of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr, who was born and raised there, and the city’s luxuriant tree canopy, which covers some 45 percent of the city. The design paints a picture of equitable growth in an urban forest.

Dunham-Jones and her students began to examine how a city expecting to triple in population could still maintain its tree canopy, with all its health and stormwater management benefits.

Beyond concentrating development in centers and corridors, so as to protect old growth trees, another way to do this is to retrofit trees into neighborhoods through novel regulations.

Using the Cascade Road neighborhood, a majority African American community in southwest Atlanta, as a study site, she sent out seven pairs of students to identify some options. Her team recommended re-planting or relocating trees off private property into nearby public conservation easements, and “fee-simple” donations of wetlands and flood zones that have mature trees to the city government.

“The idea is to move more trees into the public realm. We can protect them better if they are on public property; and we can also protect the rights of private property owners.”

She said Atlanta hopes to enshrine many of these ideas in a new, more stringent “nature ordinance,” designed to replace the current tree ordinance, which has relatively lax rules on tree removal.

And Paul Crabtree, a civil engineer who runs the Crabtree Group, concluded that those who are forging innovative green infrastructure solutions in communities should be considered “shock troops, highly-skilled soldiers on the front line, taking heavy casualties, even when successful.” After much persuasion and many grants, he managed to create an innovative “tree zipper” in the middle of a street in Ojai, California.

At Congress for New Urbanism, Debate Rages Over Autonomous Vehicles

Proposal for redesigning Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles / Perkins + Will, Nelson/Nygaard & Lyft

Over four days of the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) in Savannah, Georgia, autonomous vehicle (AV) optimists and pessimists presented their hopes and fears about the coming technology-driven transportation revolution. AVs can either increase speed and efficiency and reduce transportation costs, or create more congestion and sprawl, kill off public transit, and increase transportation inequities. AVs will be coming in the next few years, or won’t be seen in most places for a few decades. AV ride share companies like Uber, Waymo, and Lyft only have our best interests at heart, or they are self-serving and want to remake streets to optimize for AVs, to the detriment of other modes of transit. AV companies can be given a long leash and work with state or local governments in partnership, or these companies need to be closely regulated.

Amid the broad debate by planners, landscape architects, architects, and traffic engineers that happened across multiple sessions, possible benefits and dangers of AVs became clear, as did the shape of solutions to possible problems.

Possible Benefits

Gerry Tierney, director of Perkin + Will’s Smart Mobility Lab, thinks AVs will enable cities to create narrower car lane widths — just 8 feet instead of the usual 10 or 12. AVs are expected to communicate with each other to increase efficiency and speed, forming a platoon. With this scenario, “headway between vehicles will be shortened, increasing the capacity of streets by two or three times.”

How AVs could platoon / U.S. Department of Transportation

Tierney thinks we can give that extra road space created by AV platoons over to the public realm. “We can create new mixed-use lanes for bikes, e-bikes, scooters, and e-scooters, along with widened sidewalks, and green infrastructure.”

In an analysis of San Francisco’s streets, Tierney found that green space in transportation networks could be increased by 42 percent with the reduced lanes for AVs, spreading 1.3 Golden Gate Park’s amount of greenery throughout city streets.

Car companies will soon offer subscription services so that car ownership — and the number of cars on the road — will decrease. Today, the average car is only used 4-5 percent of the time. With subscription services for AVs, utilization rates will increase to 96 percent. “Fleet size can be reduced but carry the same number of people.”

AVs could be parked in towers, reducing the need for homeowners to purchase a parking lot, which can add 24 percent to the cost of a unit in a city like San Francisco. Parking will plummet, freeing up space for Amazon deliveries and reducing congestion.

According to transportation planner Patrick Seigman, some 80 percent of the cost of taxis are the driver. As such, AV rideshare “taxis” — like Uber or Lyft — will cause the “cost of taxis to plummet.” With buses and trains powered by autonomous technologies, the cost of transit could also further decrease.

Autonomous rapid transit (ART) could further increase road capacity. Tierney imagines 20-seat shuttles on dedicated lanes. Siegman pointed to self-driving shuttles now in use in Switzerland and Las Vegas, which have a top speed of 25 miles per hour. Instead of a driver, they have a conductor who can only push a stop button.

NAVYA’s self-driving shuttle in Las Vegas / NAVYA

Possible Dangers

Peter Calthorpe, a leading planner, said that “autonomous vehicles will mean death for cities.” He said single-passenger ride share travel 35 percent more miles than regular vehicles, and AV shared taxis can be expected to travel 30-60 percent more miles, and AV single taxis, 50-90 percent more miles. “Dedicated lanes for AVs will only increase sprawl as private vehicles travel farther.” Furthermore, given speed is of the essence, “people won’t share — there’s no time advantage to sharing.” With AVs, “vehicle miles traveled will double and roads will become impassable.”

Tierney worried that AVs could create a “two class system” — those with access to AVs and those without. “We could imagine people playing video games in a Mercedes Benz subscription AV while those who can’t afford are then starved of transit options.”

Architect and urban design Kevin Klinkenberg, said in Savannah, Georgia, Uber and Lyfts can be expensive if you aren’t just taking a short trip downtown. “Even if AVs cut the cost by half, there is still a large section of the population who won’t be able to afford them.”

Transit rides are already subsidized and are losing money in many places; AVs can therefore put further pressure on strapped transit systems, speeding up the killing of routes.

He also wondered who will pay for all the beautiful, green, multi-modal, AV-optimized streets, so often seen in renderings? “With AVs, where will the money come from?” Most cities are already completely strapped and can’t fix potholes on time.

Christopher Fornash, a transportation engineer with Nelson/Nygaard, thinks it will be 20-30 years before we see “pervasive autonomy.” He imagines autonomous cars, buses, and trains, with inter-connections. But Tierney wonders where pedestrians will go in this system? “If you have AV through-ports for efficiency, how does a pedestrian cross the street? I hope not bridges.”

Fornash worries that AV companies have already pre-empted city regulation of AVs, because in 10 states, “it’s too late, city right of ways are now in state control. AV companies now have the ability to use streets on their own terms.”

According to Klinkenberg, the transportation system is controlled by a small number of engineers, policymakers, and companies. “It’s not open to political or economic feedback. There will be the same result if you add AV to the mix. We’re just swapping new technology into the same system.”

Possible Solutions

Tierney said it’s important for planners and policymakers to “design around community values and prioritize road access. We need to reverse engineer these systems and design for what we want. There is an opportunity to reclaim cities from the car.”

Alex Engel, program manager with National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), which just released the smart Blueprint for Autonomous Vehicles, said “we can’t let the private sector dominate the conversation about AVs. We need to produce public policies that shape outcomes. We need to use good data and code the curb.”

Calthorpe called for instead investing in autonomous rapid transit (ART), like bus rapid transit (BRT) but with more nimble vehicles, which is already up and running in Zhuzhou, China. “If ART have dedicated lanes, autonomous vans or buses could be 30 percent faster than BRT and cost 80 percent less because there would be no drivers.”

Autonomous rapid transit (ART) in China / VOC.com.cn

Siegman calls for restoring control of streets back to local areas, giving cities and communities the right to “charge right prices for curb access and parking, and driving on streets.”

As an example, he pointed to San Francisco airport, which now charges taxis and ride share a $7.60 fee for accessing the curb for drop-offs and pick-ups in the most convenient zone, but half the price for access to a less convenient spot at the top of a garage.

Cities could charge riders of AVs for pick-ups and drop-offs in order to finance equitable access to public transit, including low-cost ART, and green street improvements.

Growing Movement: Age-Friendly Communities

Where we live / AARP

“By 2030, there will be more than 75 million older Americans aged 65 and up,” said Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities at AARP, in a session at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) in Savannah, Georgia. This older population will need more livable, age-friendly communities that can meet their needs by offering affordable housing where they can age in place, accessible mass transit and walkable neighborhoods, and daily sources of civic and social engagement and meaning.

AARP recently released comprehensive new survey data, the first major data set in four years. They found that 8 out of 10 older adults want to stay in their home as they age. However, only 46 percent believe they can actually age in place because of accessibility, affordability, and lifestyle issues.

Arigoni thinks communities need to work much harder to keep older residents in their communities. “Older adults are an asset — they are the ‘experienced class’ who add value with their purchasing and voting power. They volunteer their expertise and are entrepreneurial.”

So what can communities do to better keep older adults? Arigoni said diversifying the housing stock is important.

In too many places, when an older person can no longer drive, it’s like a “receiving a serious medical sentence.” Being stuck at home means isolation, which has the health impact of “smoking about 15 cigarettes a day.” The health impacts are particularly acute for older adults.

Home sharing is a way to solve this problem. Some 15 percent of older adults already do this in order to get help with transportation, but also for companionship or economic reasons.

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs), sometimes described as “granny flats or mother-in-law suites,” which are independent units on the lot of a single family detached home, are another way to provide nearby support. Some one-third of older adults would consider building an ADU or living in one, but only 7 percent do, in part because “lots of regulations prevent them.”

8 out of 10 older adults want safe streets, which is why AARP has been supporting walkability audits and pursuing complete street policies at the state and local levels.

84 percent of older adults drive themselves, while 38 percent walk and 10 percent use ride share. Some 43 percent have used Uber, Zipcar, Lyft, and the like; some 55 percent are not likely to use. “What’s preventing them? 50 percent cited safety and privacy issues. Another cohort lacked the technology or knowledge. And 17 percent had disability concerns.”

Arigoni thinks the vast majority of accessibility issue with ride sharing can be resolved. “We have to solve the disability component — the last few feet of ride sharing.”

To promote livable communities, particularly for older adults, AARP has put its considerable advocacy muscle behind Measure M in California, a $120 billion bond for public transit, which subsequently passed.

And they partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) to create the AARP Network of Age-friendly States and Communities, which 246 communities and two states have joined. In 2017, AARP gave 90 communities grants to undertake a 5-year age-friendly community planning process designed to result in a concrete action plan.

In Macon-Bibb, Georgia, which was the first city to sign onto the network, the age-friendly planning process was a “catalyst for things we wanted to accomplish,” said Myrtle Habersham, a consultant and AARP executive committee member.

Macon-Bibb assembled a 28-person age-friendly council, went out into the community, and identified priorities, like redesigning the city’s 2nd street corridor, creating new bus routes and mixed-income housing. The team also invested in revitalizing decrepit parks. “At the beginning of the process, we started with 30 volunteers and now there are 200,” said David Pilgrem, with AARP who was involved in the effort.

Could Climate Migrants Be Relocated to Rust Belt Cities?

Man kayaks in South Beach, Miami after a flood / Wikipedia

In the absence of any national plan for helping the communities most at risk from climate change, a group of members of the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) are exploring ways to relocate the populations of cities with precarious futures — Miami, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Phoenix — to under-populated rust belt cities like Buffalo, Rochester, and Detroit. These cooler, northern-situated cities will be better insulated from the effects of climate change and have “underused infrastructure,” with lots of vacant homes, said Paddy Steinschneider, founder of Gotham Design & Community Development, at CNU’s conference in Savannah, Georgia.

While the idea of moving the population of South Beach, Miami to Detroit is shocking, Steinschneider thinks we have lost “awareness that humans are a migratory species. We’ve survived so long because we have moved.”

And while many national and state level leaders are in denial about climate change, insurance and financial companies certainly aren’t. Local leaders may face political pressure to not give into climate change and tell their population to retreat and relocate, but it soon may not be up to them.

“If insurance companies won’t insure homes in at-risk places, financial companies won’t offer loans.” That means no more new development or re-development. At the same time, the value of existing property will decline. “What happens in communities when real estate assets no longer have any value?” This may happen sooner than we think in communities dealing with forest fires, flooding, drought, and water shortages brought on by climate change.

For architect and urban planner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the question is “what do we do when we have to leave?” Instead of fleeing catastrophe, like the Americans who escaped hurricanes in New Orleans and Houston in recent years, “what if we came up with a plan so we can evolve less catastrophically?”

Plater-Zyberk thinks communities threatened by climate risks have to take their heads out of the sand and think through options now. Communities can either defend and fortify, while securing new water supplies; accommodate climate change — by living with flooding or other extreme weather events; or retreat.

If they elect to defend and fortify, they must prioritize. In Miami, where Plater-Zyberk teaches, “South Beach is a financial hub we depend on, so it will be defended first.”

Retreat and relocation has mind-boggling regulatory and financial implications. In the example of a coastal area permanently flooded due to sea-level rise, policymakers would have to decide to buy out property and transform it into “surface water storage,” giving owners the funds to move elsewhere. Plater-Zyberk said there must be a process for cleaning and recycling coastal land that no longer has any value so it doesn’t further pollute.

As part of a colloquium on relocation she taught at the University of Miami, Plater-Zyberk’s students created “adaptation maps,” based on the geography of Florida, tracking how the “flora and fauna of the Everglades will change, how the crops grown on agricultural lands will alter, how coastal and inland communities will be impacted.” Overlaid on environmental change are possible economic and political changes. As ecosystems and farmlands shift, the economy of Florida will be deeply impacted. As a result, “politics will become more unpredictable.”

Plater-Zyberk bemoaned the fact there are no solid adaptation plans in place anywhere in the states. “There is a lot of preparing to get ready to get started.”

A MIT study on relocation possibilities in Boston identified relocation scenarios: relocate in town, to an adjacent town, a new town, or cross country. Matthew Hauer, a professor at University of Georgia, is calculating how many people in at-risk communities on the East Coast will relocate and where. But these are just models and projections.

There are likely no solid plans because there are still so many unknowns: “Should communities be required to go or should it all be voluntary? If a property is underwater, who does it belong to? If it’s underwater and filled with toxic building materials that are polluting, who pays for this?” She wondered whether short-term home mortgages will appear in at-risk communities, like a car loan, with a limited length of value.

Laura Clemmons, CEO of Collaborative Communities, who works with communities in the South hard hit by hurricanes, said “most people driven out of their homes usually end up about a 3-hour drive from where they were.” They seek affordable rentals. “In their minds, they will go back and rebuild. They believe they are coming back.” But as they wait for up to a year for insurance money, temporary places become permanent. For receiver cities, the influx can create pressure on infrastructure, home prices, and school systems.

Prisca Weems, a founding partner at Future Proof, explained how poor residents of New Orleans were forcibly evicted and displaced after Hurricane Katrina. “They were distributed throughout the country without being told where they were going. They didn’t have the resources to return. It’s almost impossible to think. It seems un-American.” Weems thinks receiver cities should come up with plans to “attract residents peaceably and appropriately, and get ahead of the curve and absorb people.”

At that point, we heard from Alissa Shelton, with Bank Suey from Detroit, who provided the sole receiver city perspective. She said in Detroit, “there is already tension with new people trickling in.” Hundreds of thousands of people coming into Detroit? “Oh really?”

Videos: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience last fall to offer communities strategies for adapting to global climate change and its impacts on human health and the environment. The panel, composed of leaders from landscape architecture, planning, engineering, architecture, public policy, and community engagement, met September 21-22, 2017, at the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C.

Watch and share the videos below that introduce our panelists and their smart strategies to strengthen community resilience.

The panel’s recommendations will be forthcoming on June 19, 2018.

How War Has Shaped the Landscape

Border wall prototypes, along the southern border with Mexico / Archinect

“The wall is a military structure that has gained new resonance today,” said Anatole Tckikine, the organizer of a two-day symposium on military landscapes at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. But walls aren’t the only military structures that have shaped our landscapes. From the U.S. Interstate system, which was designed to facilitate evacuations from cities in the event of atomic strike; to the utopian, star-shaped forts of old Europe; demilitarized zones that separate warring lines; and commemorative memorials that demand our awe, like the imposing Motherland Calls in Stalingrad, Russia, military landscapes are not just empty spaces but “landscapes of people.”

Motherland Calls / i09

And as war has evolved over the ages, these landscapes of people have evolved, too, said Antoine Picon, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Up until relatively recently, military landscapes were about creating fortifications or gaining control over the conflict by achieving some physical advantage. Generals sought higher ground for their artillery. Rivers, hills, and other natural features would be used to hem in armies. The landscape of a battle ground was critical to reducing the number of variables and achieving military success.

But today, the ground for action has greatly expanded, Picon explained. “With our sprawling military geographies, the rise of boundless violence, and the infinite energy of atomic weapons, there has been a globalization of the landscapes of conflict.” One result is “that the landscape can no longer regulate military action. Fortifications no longer work.”

War now creates expansive environments, not just landscapes or territories. Imagine the drone flying overhead; war is like a video game. “Before the landscape contained the military event; now, the event generates the landscape.”

Predator drone / Intercepts Defense News

During the symposium, lectures zig-zagged through historical eras and regions, each making points about how the military has shaped our landscapes over time.

John Dixon Hunt, professor emeritus of landscape history at the University of Pennsylvania, delved into how military fortifications inspired peace-time landscapes in the 17th and 18th centuries in the United Kingdom. He explains that the “earliest use of ha-has in landscape dates from 1695, and then at Castle Howard and at Stowe in the 1710s: the ha-ha sought to distinguish the garden from the non-garden, but gradually worked to confuse the status and significance of each.” Beyond the ha-has, peace-time castles put in elaborate walls and other military-inspired fortifications. Dixon Hunt asked: “Why fortify a garden?” Protections could “keep out thieves and cold drafts,” creating micro-climates beneficial to growing food.

Grimsthorpe Castle’s walled gardens / Pinterest

Fortified landscapes ended up falling out of favor with the rise of picturesque view espoused by landscape architect Capability Brown and his contemporaries. Everything was opened up for the eye to enjoy.

For Finola O’Kane Crimmins, a professor at University College Dublin, the Battle of the Boyne, the only time that “Ireland was an arena of European War,” is a source of great interest. In 1690, protestant successor King William III vanquished the Catholic deposed King of England James II. Later, the battle ground became a designed focal point among the families who built great manors there in the battle’s aftermath, with the Boyne Obelisk serving as the dominant reminder of victory. “The obelisk is the most concentrated architectural form for power.”

Boyne Obelisk / Imleach Iseal

Topographical features of the landscape were highlighted in paintings as well, always from the point of view of the victor.

Moving forward centuries and to Southeast Asia, Pamela McElwee, an anthropologist and ecologist at Rutgers University, gave a fascinating tour of a military land use — the Ho Chi Minh trail, which was used to convey soldiers and supplies from the Communist North Vietnam to Viet Cong insurgents in the US-backed South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The trail wasn’t a singular pathway or even a set of trails, but a “plate of spaghetti or a spider web within a spider web.” Known as the Truong San supply route to the Vietnamese, the “porous, creative, and innovative” trails were “the lifeblood of the insurgency,” which some 33,000 North Vietnamese soldiers died to defend.

Ho Chi Minh trail map, 1967 / Wikipedia

Armed with new Vietnamese scholarship on the trail, McElwee was the first American scholar to gain access to the region of some of the most important trail heads. She discovered the trail was formed out of a balance “working with and against nature.” Soldiers created tree bridges to hide the trail and protect it from aerial bombardment, and they purposefully kept a light footprint, cooking and eating in constantly-changing locations, so that American soldiers wouldn’t be able to discover their whereabouts. But they also had to hack their way through jungles with machetes, fight off deadly snakes, build bamboo ladders to climb ravines, and carry their own pontoons to forge rivers. Some 80 percent of the soldiers and workers traveling the trail, and passing through places like the Gorge of Lost Souls, got malaria.

In the early 60s, routes through Laos multiplied with the help of indigenous ethnic minorities who had the most-intimate knowledge of the landscape, and by the early 70s, many trails had widened, so that more than 10,000 people were using it each day. Later, President Nixon ordered the widespread spraying of Agent Orange, a herbicide, in order to reveal the trail to bombers. The end result was to kill the tall trees, giving light to rapacious bamboo, which would form large masses that further hid the network of paths. For McElwee, the endless labyrinthine quality and “impossibility” of the trail, and the deep inhospitality of the jungle had an impact on Americans, perhaps weakening their resolve and contributing to their defeat.

And, finally, Astrid Eckert, a historian at Emory University, took us to the Iron Curtain, which began as a figure of speech Winston Churchill used to describe what he saw as the dark influence of the Soviet Union falling across eastern Europe at the start of the Cold War, but soon became a real presence once the borders between east and west became a walled and fenced-in no mans lands fatal to cross. While the Communists were known for degrading the environment — for example, the Aral Sea was desiccated to grow cotton — the borderlands became de facto protected landscapes teaming with biodiversity. When the walls came down and the borders opened in Germany and other eastern European in the late 80s and early 90s, conservationist rushed in to save these landscapes. Some 85 percent of these former borderlands are now preserved as the 7,700-mile-long European Green Belt.

The “ridiculously photogenic” green belt, where nature was granted a “40-year vacation,” serves as a “happy end to partition” and is a new ecological symbol of unification — the belt grew together and so former foes can come together again. Well, at least that is the prevailing narrative, Eckert said.

European Green Belt / Wikipedia

The reality is that constructing the border over the 1950s and 60s was an act of environmental destruction: marshes and wetlands were drained, hydrological systems were destroyed, and canals and trenches created gaping scars. Minefields killed so many deer that eastern Germans determined deer to be a nuisance — because they exploded so many mines. Except for bird populations, which benefited from the protections, especially Winchats, which enjoyed nesting on fence posts, “the borders meant the end of biological exchange.” Due to the work of conservationists, Eckert said, ironically, the borderlands are once again inaccessible, at least to development. But the green belt is now seen as the “flagship of German conservation.”

Anne Whiston Spirn, Mikyoung Kim Design Win National Design Awards

Anne Whiston Spirn / Arkitekten.se
Mikyoung Kim Design / Mikyoung Kim Design

The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian National Design Museum has announced its 2018 award winners. Among the 10 winners for a variety of design disciplines, MIT planning and landscape architecture professor Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, took home the award for “design mind” and Mikyoung Kim Design won for landscape design.

Spirn, who is the Cecil and Ida Green distinguished professor of landscape architecture and planning at MIT, is author of the seminal book The Granite Garden, which is now seen as the foundation of the ecological urbanism and landscape urbanism planning and design movements.

The Cooper Hewitt writes that Spirn’s “writings and action research have brought forth a new state of mind among designers and the general public—provoking the integration of city and nature, advancing design theory and practice, and transforming how people see and act.”

In an 2015 interview to mark the 30th anniversary of The Granite Garden, Spirn discussed progress since the book’s release and where we still come up short:

“We’ve made enormous progress, particularly with water. Ironically, we’ve done less well on climate and air quality. I say ironically, because there’s so much awareness of climate change these days. There’s been a lot of attention paid to design proposals aimed at adapting to rising sea levels, but less to the enormous potential that the design of cities holds for reducing the factors that contribute to climate change in the first place. We need to truly re-imagine the way we design cities.”

Spirn is also the author of The Eye is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery (2014), Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field (2011), and The Language of Landscape (1988).

And for 30 years, Spirn led the West Philadelphia Landscape Project, an “investigation into how to improve environmental equality and social equity at the same time.” On this work, Spirn said:

“The West Philadelphia Landscape Project was a laboratory for working out ideas about the language of landscape and landscape literacy. It was extraordinary working with 12- and 13-year-olds in Mill Creek, a low-income African-American neighborhood in West Philly, as they learned how to read that landscape.” Learn more about Spirn.

Mikyoung Kim, FASLA, founding principal of Mikyoung Kim Design, was recognized for an “exceptional body of award-winning work that redefines the discipline of landscape architecture and inhabits the intersection of art and science.” Kim leads the firm along with Bryan Chou, ASLA, design leader, and Ian Downing, ASLA, technical leader.

Mikyoung Kim Design works at all scales — from big-picture master plans and large urban parks to bespoke residential spaces and art installations. The firm designs unique places that are not only sustainable and resilient but also magnets for people, especially kids. The firm makes memorable use of materials, transforming them through an intensive, creative process.

Mikyoung Kim Design is perhaps most well-known for its ChonGae Canal Source Point Park in Seoul, South Korea, along the banks of the restored Cheonggyecheon stream. The park became a model for stream and river restoration in a number of other cities. An environmental and cultural asset once buried in the name of progress was unearthed and saved.

ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Honor Award. ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden, Seoul, Korea. Mikyoung Kim Design / Taeoh Kim

The firm has also won acclaim for its inventive Crown Sky Garden at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.

ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Mikyoung Kim Design / George Heinrich Photography

In a recent interview, Kim explained how they needed to design a healing space without exposing the patients, who had compromised immune systems, to water or soil:

“We had to put aside our preconceived notions of what healing gardens are and really start to abstract nature in order to create this indoor experience for these families and patients.”

She also explained how innovative materials helped forge the connections to nature everyone wanted:

“Throughout our design process, we worked closely with different constituents. We worked with families and patients and brought two options. We brought an option that used more natural materials, and then we brought in a design that had more innovative materials — materials people hadn’t seen before — more contemporary materials built in innovative ways. I’d say 99-percent of kids were drawn to those. They said, ‘Cool, that’s amazing. I’ve never seen that before.'” Learn more about Mikyoung Kim Design.

ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Mikyoung Kim Design / George Heinrich Photography

Also worth noting: WEISS/MANFREDI, an architecture firm known for its multi-disciplinary approach, won for architecture design. WEISS/MANFREDI collaborated with Thomas Balsley Associates to create the award-winning Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park, a model for resilient landscape design, in Queens, New York City, and also designed the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, Washington.

Amid Divisive Politics, Keeping a Laser Focus on Climate Change

From top: ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. The Big U, New York, NY. BIG and Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners. ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. Perez Art Museum Miami: Resiliency by Design, Miami, Florida. ArquitectonicaGEO / copyright Robin Hill. Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NY. SCAPE Landscape Architecture. ASLA 2016 Professional Communications Honor Award. Sea Change: Boston, Boston, MA. Sasaki Associates.

Later this spring, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) will release a set of policy recommendations on climate change and resilience designed to better arm advocates pursuing changes in laws, regulations, and codes at the federal, state, and local levels. Introducing a panel at the group’s spring meeting in Washington, D.C., ASLA CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, explained that the recommendations will cover both natural systems and the built environment, and their goal will be to spur the use of financial incentives to encourage positive change.

Natural system recommendations will include measures designed to expand the use of green infrastructure; protect tree canopies, green bio-corridors, and open spaces; support biodiversity, especially among pollinators; and assist diverse plants and animal species migrate and adapt. Example recommendations include: create dedicated funding streams for green infrastructure; incentivize the planting of native and regionally-appropriate plants, protection of habitats, and the increase of biodiversity; and encourage the inclusion of climate change assessments in green space planning, including at the regional level.

Built environment recommendations focus on how to further encourage more resilient and sustainable growth patterns through the use of compact development, sustainable land development and zoning, and transit. Example recommendations include: restructure insurance to encourage resilient re-building; set up community investment trusts for green infrastructure and resilient design projects; and evaluate new transit projects through an equity lens.

A panel discussion then covered how allied organizations are maintaining a focus on climate change in today’s divisive political climate. ASLA President Greg Miller, FASLA, led Jeff Soule, director of outreach at the American Planning Association (APA); Mark Golden, CEO of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE); Tom Smith, CEO of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE); and Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, immediate past-president of ASLA, through a discussion.

To varying degrees, all organizations actively call for sustainable and resilient planning, design, and engineering that will help communities better protect themselves and adapt.

A key message, which was relevant for all organizations, came from Golden: “health, safety, and welfare (HSW) comes above all other considerations.” Following where the climate science leads, these organizations promote sustainable and resilient practices because they will help ensure health, safety, and welfare in an era of temperature and weather extremes.

According to Golden, more resilient buildings and landscapes are less costly to build if they are created in advance of a destructive natural event. A recent National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) report found that for every $1 spent on hazard mitigation saves $6 after a disaster. Sadly, though, most communities “continue to be reactive instead of pro-active” in preparing for climate change-driven natural disasters.

Rinner explained ASLA is now purposefully talking more directly about climate change. “The words we use matter. We take a strong position on climate change, sustainability, resilience, and adaptation.” She added that nearly a third of sessions at last year’s Annual Meeting & EXPO in Los Angeles were focused on climate change and resilience.

In the next year or two, Congress will be taking up a new transportation bill. The sentiment seemed to be advocating for a more sustainable transportation system at the federal level will be an uphill battle. According to APA director Soule, “we are actually regressing at the federal level and just trying to keep what we’ve accomplished.” Leadership on green and complete streets and other forward-thinking transportation systems now comes from states and cities. Most of the funds for transportation will be spent at those levels, too, so it makes sense to focus advocacy there.

ASCE CEO Smith said it’s increasingly important to leverage skills and resources from the local level. He sees the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which is training chief resilience officers around the world, as a success story.

Rinner agreed, explaining that the bottom-up We’re Still In coalition — a group of American communities adhering to the U.S. commitments to the Paris climate accord — has signed up 2,700 cities and towns, and the numbers keep growing. “Local action can have a cumulative impact.”

States and cities can also experiment and create new models where the federal government cannot. For example, California has taken the lead in developing a new carbon trading system. “The rest of the world is watching to see if it works — and if it does, California’s model will become something more can follow.”

Smith brought up how the dearth of maintenance budgets hurts efforts to achieve greater sustainability and resilience. According to a report card ASCE releases every four years, the U.S.’s infrastructure now has a sad D+ rating. “Maintenance is the number-one issue.” To deal with this problem, ASCE is developing new guidelines to reduce infrastructure life cycle costs by 50 percent. “We’ve got to think differently in the future.” Smith sees some public-private partnerships as leading the way on the leaner, smarter infrastructure of the future.

In a reality check, APA director Soule cautioned there is still a major gap between high-level policy discussions on sustainability and resilience and the situation on the ground. For example: As New Orleans rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, local officials and planners tried to stave off rebuilding in areas that had been deemed especially at risk of flooding, with the goal of saving those areas for permanent stormwater management. But the “political reality” demanded homeowners be allowed to build back where they had lived before.

The truth is no one wants to be told they can’t go back home and rebuild. As a changing climate impacts more communities, reconciling health, safety, and welfare considerations with people’s emotional attachment to a place will become an even greater challenge.