The Great Lakes, the largest fresh bodies of water in the world, face dire environmental problems. Nitrogen and phosphorous run-off from farms has led to destructive algae blooms that kill off lake life. Stormwater runoff from nearby communities has polluted the lakes with the chemicals that slick streets. And invasive species, like the Asian carp and zebra mussels, have wrecked havoc on native Great Lakes ecosystems. The governors of the states that border the lakes called for greater federal action, particularly in highly-contaminated “areas of concern.” The result has been the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which brings together some 16 federal agencies and has spent $2.4 billion on 4,700 projects designed to restore the lakes to environmental health.
Some $12.5 million is available for projects in these categories:
• Riparian restoration to reduce runoff to the Maumee River
• Green infrastructure to reduce stormwater runoff
• Manure management to reduce nutrient runoff from farms
• Accelerating adoption of nutrient management through farmer-led outreach and education
EPA Region 5 Administrator/Great Lakes National Program Manager Cathy Stepp said: “Reducing stormwater and nutrient runoff is a critical part of restoring the Great Lakes.”
And the EPA has made some $1.5 million available for four innovative water quality trading projects that promote “cost-effective and market-based approaches” to reduce excess nutrients and stormwater runoff hitting the lakes.
According to the EPA, “non-federal governmental entities, including state agencies; interstate agencies; federally recognized Indian tribes and tribal organizations, local governments, institutions of higher learning (i.e., colleges and universities); and non-profit organizations” can apply. Learn more.
To protect against future super storms and long-term sea level rise, New York City proposed creating a set of landscaped berms around the southern tip of Manhattan, a plan deemed the “Big U.” The city secured some $330 million from the U.S. department of housing and urban development (HUD)’s Rebuild by Design competition in 2014 to kick start the project. After four years of intensive community engagement, the city suddenly switched gears last fall, throwing out those plans in favor of raising the first proposed segment of the Big U — the waterfront park between 25th street and Montgomery Street on the east side — by 10 feet. Instead of berms, the existing 60-acre East River Park will be buried under landfill and its new higher edge will become a wall holding back the East River, which is expected to rise with the Altantic Ocean by 2.5 feet by 2050.
In conjunction with retractable flood gates set within neighborhoods, the park will provide flood protections up to 16 feet above current sea level, protecting 100,000 residents along the east side and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Drive.
The area near this first segment has an interesting history. Famous (and infamous) city builder Robert Moses cleared the area of “slums” in order to create the FDR Drive (then the East River Drive) highway and to its west, affordable housing complexes. To the east of the drive, the shoreline was built up over landfill into the East River, creating new park space and sports fields for the complexes’ residents, who now cross a less-than-ideal caged bridge over FDR Drive to get there.
David called the park itself a “gallery of fences,” separating the various sports areas, with few pleasant green spaces. Salt water intrusion has killed off a number of the trees. And the ones that remain are “reaching the end of their lives.”
The new vision released by the city last fall has been controversial. According to The New York Times, elements of the community feel like they weren’t consulted on the new sea wall approach approved by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.
To raise the entire park up, what’s there now will be covered in landfill, which upsets some long time residents, particularly because the city just spent $3 million to renovate it. There are also concerns about the increased project costs. The original plan with the berms would have cost $765 million, while the new raised park will cost nearly $1.5 billion. Carlina Rivera, a councilwoman from the East Village, told The New York Times: “The new plan represents a fundamental departure from anything the City had discussed. The mayor’s office has failed to provide detailed analyses on why the cost increase is necessary.”
NYC parks and recreation commissioner Mitchell J. Silver told The Times that raising the park up is the only way to save it from sea level rise. City representatives have also said they are moving forward on an accelerated planning and design schedule in order to begin construction next year. They have to or will forfeit the $330 million from HUD.
Flood protections are expected to be in place by 2022. But in a compromise with the community, the city will stagger construction so as to reduce impact on the community that depends on the park and all the vehicle drivers who rely on FDR Drive.
The challenge for the design team has been to integrate the sea wall, retractable inland gates, pedestrian bridges, sports facilities, and social spaces bisected by a highway into one cohesive design.
In the latest and nearly final designs, the team widened the important Delancey Street Bridge and created a continuous, accessible pathway across FDR Drive to the park.
The city and design team kept soccer and football fields, basketball courts, tennis courts, but also added an amphitheater, open lawns, and a playground near the north end. “We created more green space in between the fields, creating parks for non-sports people,” said David. Those green spaces will include more than 50 species of trees, much more than the three species there now, including water-friendly black tupelos and cypresses.
Green infrastructure will be incorporated throughout to manage stormwater coming in from the city and FDR Drive. To accommodate major storm events, the park will also include a cistern with a 40-million gallon capacity. “This is for the super storm that happens once every 50 years.”
Caren Yglesias, Affil. ASLA, a landscape historian and author, now based at the University of Maryland, asked David: “what will happen when the sea levels rise and don’t come back down? What will happen after 2050?”
David said the “park will be effective for a period of time, and many lives will be improved.” But the city and team have really only planned for 2050. “Things are changing rapidly. This buys us more time. There is no great solution.”
The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) is helping to grow the next generation of leaders in landscape architecture. At a symposium at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. seven of the 2018-2019 LAF fellows for innovation and leadership, who each received a $25,000 grant, presented the results of their year-long investigations into climate change and sustainable design, community development, visual representations of landscape, and other topics.
Sanjukta Sen: Landscape Resilience in New York City
Hurricane Sandy flooded 51 square miles of New York City, killing 43 people, damaging 12,000 homes, and causing $19 billion in property losses. But you wouldn’t think NYC’s policy makers or developers have learned from what can happen when you develop in areas that naturally flood. Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration further opened up the waterfront and floodplains to development, a process that continues unabated under Mayor Bill de Blasio. Just one example: 3,500 new apartments will be built in the floodplain in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. According to Sanjukta Sen, a senior associate at James Corner Field Operations, the “ludicrous” part is that the “net value of property in the floodplain has gone up.”
NYC’s expanded waterfront development fills Sen with both “pride and dread.” Pride because there are all these “amazing new places on the waterfront, which is now much more accessible.” Dread because she worries the city has not effectively and equitably created resilience to rising sea levels. “There are islands of protection that developers can afford but low-income communities don’t have the same protections.”
After Hurricane Sandy, the city quickly mandated that buildings build in protections, like elevating themselves or moving critical infrastructure out of ground or basement levels. But there is no cohesive landscape resilience strategy along public waterfront spaces. One solution is to take more waterfront land from developers for natural flood protection systems that can reduce the entire community’s risks. Sen proposed mandated setbacks and floodwater storage systems and incentives for developers. “Resilience is a social obligation and requires a long-term investment.”
Lauren Delbridge: Rethinking Wastescapes
In 2015, communities had to find a safe storage place for or re-use 117 million tons of coal ash, a by product of coal energy production that accounts for half of all municipal waste. According to Lauren Delbridge, Assoc. ASLA, a landscape designer with Land Design, coal ash is often pumped into poorly-designed ponds that can spill and seep. Coal ash sludge in these ponds, which can span 50 acres, is loaded with dangerous metals like arsenic, mercury, lead, and chromium that can poison groundwater supplies. Even more terrible, these ponds can break their banks, as in the case of the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, which released 1.1 billion of coal fly ash slurry into nearby communities and rivers. This kind of disaster could happen to any of the 735 active coal ash ponds in the U.S., many of which don’t meet safety requirements.
In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined coal ash to not be a hazardous waste product, putting the management of this toxic material into the hands of state governments. Some 60 percent of coal ash is recycled into concrete or grout or used to fill up old mines. Some ash fly is being “de-watered” and moved into sealed mounds that have a protective bottom layer and landscaped cap.
Delbridge called for more “imaginative solutions” for these unsightly ash fly-filled mounds, pointing to educational and artful places in Europe that have arisen out of industrial and waste landscapes in Germany, like Zollverein coal mine complex in Essen, which has been “left as is” and now functions as a park; the Tetraeder on Halde Beckstrasse in Bottrop, an inventive art piece on a slag heap mound; and the Metabolon in Lindlar, which includes fun trampolines at the top of the giant mountain of garbage.
Pamela Conrad: Climate Positive Design
Landscape architecture projects can be carbon-intensive but they don’t have to be. Specifying low-carbon materials and low-maintenance green spaces and planting more trees and shrubs helps to ensure projects sequester more carbon than they emit through their life spans. For Pamela Conrad, ASLA, a principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, it’s as simple as doing the math: sources (materials used in a landscape) subtracted from sinks (the carbon captured in a landscape) added to the costs (carbon embodied through long-term maintenance) equals a landscape’s carbon footprint. With this algorithm, landscape architects can achieve carbon positive landscapes in just 5 years for parks and 20 years for plazas.
To spread this approach in the marketplace, she has invented an easy-to-use website and app that will help landscape architects and designers find appealing ways to reduce their project’s carbon footprint.
Material amounts and site dimensions are inputted and then the app calculates the number of years it will take for the project to be carbon positive. The tool also offers recommendations, like cement substitutes, ways to reduce paved surfaces and lawn, add more trees and shrubs, and minimize soil disturbance — all to reduce the time needed to reach a state of carbon positivity.
Conrad believes that if all landscape architects around the world adopted a climate positive approach, the reduction in carbon emissions would equal a gigaton, putting landscape architecture among the top 80 solutions listed in Paul Hawken’s Drawdown book.
Greenwood Lake Commission Cancels Canada Geese Catch-and-kill, Adopts Alternate Plan Northjersey.com, 06/14/19
“The revised strategy introduced by local advocates involves a long-term plan to addle eggs and use dogs to deter Canada geese from making the state’s second-largest house-lined lake their home, commission records show. Other control methods now in limited use or under consideration include laser lights, organic sprays and landscape architecture, said Paul Zarrillo, the commission’s New Jersey chairman.”
Cooper Hewitt Celebrates 20 years of National Design Awards with 2019 Winners The Architect’s Newspaper, 06/11/19
“SCAPE Landscape Architecture was recognized for its numerous projects (and master plans, and research) that combine landscape architecture with living ecology. SCAPE works across all scales but its use of regenerative landscapes and public outreach is deeply embedded in the firm’s process no matter the size of the project.”
Treasure and Yerba Buena islands are about a mile off the northeast coast of San Francisco. They have a strange history. They were originally part of the city of San Francisco before they were confiscated by the federal government as naval and coast guard bases during World War II. The federal government then sold the islands back to the city government, which in turn created the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) and sold much of the property to real estate developers Wilson Meany, Lennar Urban, and Kenwood Investments.
As San Francisco housing prices continue to skyrocket, the aim is to create 8,000 new housing units on the islands, nearly a third of which will be affordable, transforming these islands into the “next great neighborhood” just 12 minutes by ferry to downtown San Francisco. On the 425-acre Treasure Island, some 300 acres will be turned into public parkland, creating the largest new public green space in the city since Golden Gate Park. This is the kind of grand city-building rarely done in the U.S. anymore.
First, a brief history of the islands: In the 1930s, the San Francisco — Oakland Bay Bridge was constructed, linking downtown San Francisco to Yerba Buena and Treasure Island and then those islands to Oakland.
The very-flat Treasure Island was built up in 1936-37 through tons of imported rocks added over shallow shoals, all in time to become the site of the 1939 World’s Fair, which was officially named the Golden Gate International Exposition. The island later became a municipal airport, where the Pan Am clipper flew to Shanghai. Now, only those passenger terminals and hangars remain, and they are the only historic, protected buildings on the island.
At the onset of World War II, the U.S. government confiscated the island and transformed it into a naval station, an embarkation point for the Pacific theater of war. In the 1950s and 1960s, Treasure Island was the site of the U.S. Navy Naval Technical Training Center (NTTC). And according to the book Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay by Susan Styker, there was also a dark, cruel episode in the island’s history: a psychiatric ward on the base was used to study and experiment on naval sailors who were being discharged for being gay. The base facilities closed in 1997 through the base realignment and closure (BRAC) program. The federal government remediated brownfields that littered the landscape, opening up the island for residential and commercial development.
In contrast with the flat artificial nature of Treasure Island, the nearby Yerba Buena Island is nature made, very hilly, and rich in native plant and bird life. Once called Goat Island or Sea Bird island, this smaller 150-acre island has a similar history. The U.S. federal government confiscated it and managed as part of the Treasure Island naval base. The island was home to officer housing, including for residence for Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who was commander of the Pacific fleet in World War II. There is now a U.S. coast guard search and rescue base and clipper boat cove. Across both islands, there are now a few thousand people living full-time.
According to Chris Meany, a partner at Wilson Meany, the process of developing the island started in earnest in the 2000’s. After a decade-long “mind boggling” negotiation process, Mayor Gavin Newsome agreed in 2009 to pay the federal government $105 million for Treasure Island, while the federal government retains some 40 acres for U.S. Department of Labor Jobs Corps facilities and a section of Yerba Buena Island for the U.S. Coast Guard. In 2005, the first land plan was developed by the city and a team of developers at Wilson Meany, Lennar Urban, and Kenwood Investments. The plan included a development rights swap between Treasure and Yerba Buena islands in order to protect 75 percent of the richly bio-diverse Yerba Buena from development and concentrate denser housing on Treasure island.
For the new communities on the co-joined islands, the city and the developers aimed for sustainable and resilient design excellence. This involves creating public transit access; orienting communities to reduce wind; building sustainable and resilient housing, parks, and promenades; and creating a massive park that can adapt to rising sea levels.
Leo Chow, a partner with SOM, said Treasure Island is a beautiful place with access problems. Right now, visitors can either drive, bike, or take the bus over the Bay Bridge — just one route. A new ferry terminal in development on Treasure Island will add an important option and take people to and from downtown San Francisco in 12 minutes. At the new ferry landing, people can also hop on a bus or access bicycle lanes. “It will be possible to circumnavigate the island by bike.”
The new commercial and residential eco-districts are oriented on a “parallelogram grid” to maximize sun exposure but reduce the impact of high winds coming off the bay.
The commercial district will include a retail corridor in the historic airport terminals and hangars. Residential communities themselves will be compact developments, 90 percent of which will be a 10-15 walk from the primary ferry and bus terminal.
Amid the new housing, there will be smaller, shared streets that privilege pedestrians and bicyclist instead of cars, leading to pocket parks and coastal parks, promenades, and bicycle pathways.
Neighborhoods themselves will mimic San Francisco’s urban feel — the “white, gold city.” Architects will follow rigid design standards calling for white buildings. “It will be a light-colored city against rich nature.”
Kevin Conger, FASLA, a founding partner at CMG Landscape Architecture and an integral part of the design team for the islands, said the public spaces were designed with both the 15,000-20,000 full-time residents and the many thousands of expected visitors in mind.
The public spaces had to be thought of as an “attractive destinations for the whole city — a city-wide waterfront park and a regional open space destination, with sports fields, a 20-acre urban farm for local food production, and natural areas, along with facilities for kayaking, sailing, and bicycling.”
CMG thoughtfully designed all the landscape infrastructural systems to be multi-purpose, too. The green spaces ensure that the island manages 100 percent of its stormwater run-off but also create habitat for wildlife. An island waste water treatment plant funnels reclaimed water to wetlands and is used for irrigation. “The goal was to close all these cycles in a self-contained eco-district.”
The large parkland was designed to accommodate future sea level rise as well. “We purposefully set-back developments 350-feet from the shoreline, so we may protect the community now and accommodate further future adaptation.” In the area called the wilds, which is filled with adaptable wetlands in an inter-tidal zone, the park will naturally recede or retreat as waters rise. The designers anticipated sea level rise out beyond 2070, and future adaptation needs are covered in the long-term budget.
Overlaying the ecological elements is a public art master plan, which puts 100 percent of art in the public realm, “increasing the cultural value of the parks.” Conger believes art is an important ingredient in a walkable public realm — “it’s so critical to reward pedestrians with a high-quality walking environment.”
Over on Yerba Buena Island, where CMG devised a comprehensive wildlife habitat management plan that creates “natural landscape patches,” connected habitat for birds and plants. Some 75 percent of the island will be reserved for parks, beaches, and 5 miles of walking and bicycling trails.
Working with the San Francisco department of the environment, the team has already removed invasive species and propagated many thousands of native plants from seeds and then planted them back into the island.
There are some 16,000 golf courses in the U.S. In the last decade, about 800 have closed. In 2009, about 30 million Americans played golf. In 2016, just 20 million did, a 30 percent decline in less than a decade. Americans are simply too busy to play 9 or 18 holes. And the demographics for golf and the culture surrounding the sport have fundamentally changed.
Since 2010, around 20 defunct golf courses have been transformed into public parks. According to Eric Bosman, an urban designer at Kimley-Horn and Associates, who organized a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, underused courses were once entirely converted into subdivisions. But now, more “communities want them to become nature parks or preserves.”
“In the 90s and 00s, there was the Tiger Woods effect. Golf became ‘every man’s sport.'” Despite Woods’ recent amazing win, that effect has dissipated. The average age of viewers of golf tournaments on TV is older than 55, and the audience is 87 percent white.
“The demographics for golf is fading away. Golf courses are no longer the place for business deals. This is because people have to practice or they will embarrass themselves” on the fairway — and not many people have time for that. For younger generations, “golf is now about social, interpersonal connections.” But they are less tied to the sport because “they didn’t grow up with it.”
So many communities suffer from a dearth of green space. The average golf course is 150 acres. Problem meets solution. And “where else are you going to find so much open space?,” Bosman rhetorically asked.
Recent projects have transformed links that either follow a traditional layout, which means they flow in a linear or L shape over 18 holes, or a modern layout, with “big rectangular blocks of land, where golfers play 9 holes up and then 9 holes back.” Whether traditional or modern, homes are often found on the edges or even middle of courses.
The 237-acre Orchard Hills Park in suburban Cleveland was transformed from a golf course into a park with a 3.6-mile walking trail and restored streams, meadows, and wetlands. “It’s picturesque and now a popular wedding destination” (see image at top).
In Belgium, Wisconsin, a 116-acre course was purchased by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust and transformed into the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve. Its club house became a community center. Trails through the habitat areas, which include five constructed wetland ponds, range from 0.25 miles to 1.5 miles.
The Highlands in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a 121-acre course co-managed by the Land Conservancy of Western Michigan and Blandford Nature Center, offers hiking and cross-country skiing along with looped trails ranging from a half mile to 10 miles.
The focus of the rest of the panel was on the Milton Country Club in Milton, Georgia, a wealthy suburb of about 40,000 people with a strong equestrian culture. In 2017, the city purchased the bankrupt 137-acre club for $5 million, a major piece of the $25 million green space bond the city issued, which is also financing an expansive 52-mile-long trail network to connect schools and parks. Remodeling the former golf course, which will include removing golf cart trails and adding new amenities, will likely cost $17 million and take up to a decade.
Bosman and landscape architect Mack Cain at Clark Patterson Lee approached the challenge of remodeling the course by first working with community leaders to establish guiding principles: “honor the rural character, build off existing plans and studies, design safe and attractive spaces, and value all voices.”
Before hosting any public meetings, they met with the homeowners around the former course, who will now have a public park in their front yards; the equestrian community; and the green space and trails committee of the city government in order to identify primary “divergent opinions.”
Through a series of open houses and public workshops, they found the community was most concerned about increased pedestrian and vehicular traffic to the new park. Most of the residents around the course purchased their lots for the view. “Only about 35 percent of golf club homeowners typically play golf,” Bosman explained. These residents are concerned about finding the public in their yards. A draft plan calls for spending $960,000 on fences and planting walls of trees in other areas to protect privacy (and property values).
Cain said that beyond the increase in public and vehicular traffic, the community was focused on maintaining existing programs like the pool and tennis courts at the club house; celebrating and restoring nature; balancing trail, horse, and bicycle use in the new park through extra-wide paths; ensuring safety at the trail connections with roads; distributing access points and moving parking off-site; and building partnerships between the landowners and the city.
Trails will be designed for different purposes: a 2.2-mile-long trail made of porous granite will offer access for pedestrians, those in wheelchairs, and road bicyclists, while another trail for equestrians and mountain bicyclists will be made of soft, natural surfaces.
Wetlands and meadows will be restored. Cain said there will also be an environmental education component, using the landscape as a “lab for natural succession.” The tennis courts and pool are now open to all local residents, while the club house is being redeveloped as a community center and more sports amenities are added.
She said former golf courses are an “equestrian’s dream come true,” but much work was done to make these trails friendly to horses and reduce conflicts with neighbors. Riders on horseback can look over most fences, so trails will be moved away from homes to maintain privacy. “Horses can slip and fall on paved surfaces and curbs,” so they are creating natural surface trails for them. Steep inclines will be regraded to reduce accidents.
Trails will be 8-feet-wide because that is the minimum width for two horseback riders to pass each other. Paths will curve because that gives visual cues to users. “They can see if a bike is coming up.” Bridges will have at least a 54-inch rail and be able to support over 1,000 pounds of weight.
Lastly, Hancock designed “poop zones” at the beginning of trail. “Horses mark their territory and use smell to figure out if they have come back to a spot.” Knowing this, horse parking and staging areas will be separate from where pedestrian and bicyclists enter the park.
The Camp Fire that tore through the communities of Concow and Paradise in Northern California in 2018 was the deadliest and costliest in Californian history. Some 150,000 acres burned, causing 50,000 people to flee, 20,000 structures to be destroyed, and some $16.5 billion in damages. 85 people lost their lives.
Strangely, amid all this destruction, which was sparked by downed electrical lines owned by PG&E, the state’s power utility, some homes survived. Why?
At a session at the American Planning Association in San Francisco, wildfire experts explained how to use these approaches as well as the broader importance of land use, community planning, and landscape design in fire safety.
According to Edith Hannigan, with the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, Concow and Paradise and many other communities across the west are at high-risk because they formed in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), which the U.S. Forest Service describes as places where “humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel.” On top of the intrinsic risk of simply existing in the WUI, these communities must now contend with the effect of years of drought, bark beetles onslaughts on surrounding forests, and climate change, which create increasingly dangerous and untenable living conditions.
Living in the WUI raises risks for all property owners, but lot locations, sizes, layouts, and topography impact risk levels. To provide “meaningful reduction of risks for specific situations,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) created a land-use planning program, with two fire chiefs and ten local fire captains, that “reaches out to communities and provides technical assistance,” meeting the goals of the state’s recent strategic fire plan.
For retired Cal Fire captain David Shew, who oversaw the creation of the program and is now a consultant, wildfires “aren’t a fire department problem”; they are really a land use and community design problem. The solution is to respect natural systems and stop developing communities in the WUI. For those communities already there, it’s important to incorporate better planning and design approaches to reduce the danger.
California, like Greece, Australia, Sweden, and other parts of the world, has a “natural fire environment” in which wildfire has evolved an important role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem. Native Americans lived with the natural wildfire cycle for centuries, but the settlers moving across the West in the 1800s were unnerved by constant small wildfires. As settlers formed communities that in turn suppressed fired, the natural fire state ended. It turns out it was “the hubris of mankind to think we can control Mother Nature.” Over the decades, dead plant material that hasn’t been allowed to burn naturally has accumulated, so now when it does burn, the wildfires are larger and more destructive.
Mother Nature has recently made her voice louder. California sees more wildfires than ever before — and now they occur throughout the year. “There is no longer a fire season.” 9 out of 10 of the most destructive fires occurred since 2013. In 2018 alone, there were some 5,800 fires that consumed 1.3 million acres. And greater dangers loom: there are 100 million dead trees in the Sierra Nevada area that will fall over and create more fuel for fires. Shew said: “We have disrupted evolution and the result will be devastating wildfires.” (One solution to prevent this may be controlled or prescribed burns).
Wildfires themselves often don’t cause homes to go up in smoke; “it’s flying embers that cause most fires.” Wood fences and gutters often catch first, spreading to homes. Building and landscape “materials are really important, but where a structure sits on the landscape, and where and how homes cluster, also are.”
Michelle Steinberg, director of the wildfire division with the Natural Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) — creator of codes and standards state and local governments use to protect communities and the Firewise USA program, which includes some 1,500 sites — got into the details on how to use smart codes designed for different community types. The codes provide rules for crucial evacuation zones, the materials and layout of residential structures themselves, and the landscape around a home and community, including common spaces.
The residential landscape is re-imagined by NFPA as the “home ignition zone (HIZ),” a concept developed by retired U.S. Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen in the late 1990s, following “some breakthrough experimental research into how homes ignite due to the effects of radiant heat.” The HIZ has three zones: 0-5 feet from the house, which is the immediate zone; 5-30 feet away, the intermediate zone; and 30-100 feet, and out to 200 feet, the extended zone.
In the immediate zone, there can be no trees and vegetation and all materials need to be fire-proof. In the intermediate zone, lawns need to be trimmed, debris cleared, and trees need to be well-spaced and set within small clusters. In the extended zone, all dead trees and plants need to be removed.
Wildfires are a major problem elsewhere in the U.S. Molly Mowery, with Community Planning for Wildlife (CPAW) in Colorado, a joint partnership between Headwaters Economics and Wildfire Planning International, explained how she is helping communities across the country assess risks and apply planning and design solutions to reduce their exposure to wildfire.
For example, working with Summit, Colorado, CPAW helped spur the development of new regulations and zoning that require defensible space zones in subdivisions, prohibit the planting of flammable juniper trees within 30 feet of homes, and require non-combustible fencing and safer firewood storage within 5 feet of homes. Mowery said many communities struggle with seemingly-insignificant things like fences, but they are often the cause of property-destroying conflagarations.
San Francisco is part of the California Floristic Province, which stretches from Baja into Oregon and is one of just 36 global hot spots for biodiversity. A hot spot is an area of extraordinarily rich flora and fauna, where there are high numbers of endemic species, which means they are found nowhere else on Earth. In this coastal region, there are some 7,000-8,000 native plants and more than 2,000 endemic ones.
According to the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, the California Floristic Province also has an amazing diversity of ecosystems, including: the sagebrush steppe; prickly pear shrubland; coastal sage scrub; chaparral; juniper-pine woodland; upper montane-subalpine, alpine, riparian, cypress, mixed evergreen, Douglas fir, sequoia, and redwood forests; coastal dunes and salt marshes.
In addition to the temperate climate, it’s this wondrous abundance of biodiversity that perhaps lures so many people to California. But over-development has put remaining wild places at risk — just a quarter of original ecosystems are in pristine condition.
Peter Brastow is the city’s biodiversity czar. As our tour bus wheezed its way up precipitous hills, he explained how the city recently formulated a biodiversity policy, formalized through a Board of Supervisors’ resolution, which gives extra support to his department’s efforts to coordinate biodiversity programs across the government and non-profits in the city.
The resolution bolstered the new urban forest plan, approved by city voters in 2016, which transferred ownership of the city’s 124,000 street trees from private property owners to the city’s public works department. San Franciscans saw this as important because the city falls way behind others in its total tree coverage at just 13.7 percent, far less than the nearly 30 percent found in Washington, D.C. The goal is to add another 50,000 trees by 2035, many of which will be native and support native insect and bird species.
The resolution also supports the city’s green connections program, which aims to get more San Franciscans into parks and educated about local biodiversity though a set of ecological guides, explained Scott Edmonston, San Francisco’s strategic sustainability planner, who co-organized the tour.
At our first stop, powerful blasts of cold wind greet us. This means it’s early summer at the Twin Peaks Natural Area, some 900 feet above sea level and near the center of the peninsula. The photogenic pair of hills are a remnant of the coastal shrubland ecosystem and home to the endangered Mission Blue butterfly, which relies solely on lupine plants. Brastow explained that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service re-introduced the butterfly on the peak with specimens from the San Bruno Mountain. The San Francisco parks and recreation department has been restoring the native shrubland and removing invasive plants.
Twin Peaks shows why the city has so much biodiversity, even in tiny pockets. Because of the city’s unique topography, the fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean covers some areas in moisture more than others. This results in micro-climates that in turn lead to unique micro-assemblages of plants. Hill tops, ridges, river bed landscapes introduce more complexity.
Edmonston said the problem for those restoring assemblages is that climate change may cause fog patterns to change. So the city and its partners can’t just restore ecosystems to what they were previously; they must instead plant what can survive a changing climate. “There is a lot of uncertainty now. The plant palletes we use now are much drier-loving. We really just need to restore more of nature, so she can be more resilient.”
For Brastow, the city needs to better identify the value of ecosystem services provided by remaining habitats and use those to push for reincorporating nature into more of the city. “That’s the frontier that can guide restoration ecology, landscape architecture, and urban design.”
The bus struggled mightily trying to reach the Sutro native plant nursery found at the top of a sheer slope at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center. There, volunteers have grown more than 6,000 plants from 150 native species, which are being planted in 30 restoration sites in the 61-acre Mount Sutro area that includes UCSF’s campus. “The goal is to improve native plant diversity,” Brastow said.
For many in San Francisco, truly restoring native plant diversity on a broader scale means removing the groves of towering non-native Eucalyptus trees. But others are very protective of the Tasmanian trees and efforts to remove them have led to major protests. “For generations, Californians grew up smelling the trees — and they love it.” (A recent article in The Atlantic provides more context: “The Bay Area’s Great Eucalyptus Debate.”) There is one important reason to support their removal: “they are highly flammable.” And as the city gets drier with climate change, “some day we will have a big fire here.”
Amid the hills of the Sunset neighborhood that rest on ancient sand dunes, we come across a derelict hilltop right-of-way alongside staircases that was transformed into a native plant park and habitat for the Green Hairstreak Butterfly. In neighborhood rights-of-way, parks, and other green spaces, the city finds local site stewards, small non-profits, to manage upkeep.
Last stop was the Presidio, the only U.S. national park that gets 30 percent of its budget from renting out its restored U.S. Army military housing. There, we saw the results of the U.S. department of defense’s base realignment and closure (BRAC) environmental restoration program. A deep ravine that was once a garbage dump was transformed back into a native shrub habitat, thanks to a multi-million-dollar restoration effort and countless National Park Service volunteer hours.
As we drove back to the Moscone Convention Center, Brastow pointed out the ubiquitous London Planetrees that line Market Street. While not native to San Francisco, they are a cultivar related to the Sycamore tree.
Canyons are the natural home of the Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly. Market Street appears to them like a canyon formed by tall buildings on either side. London planetrees are close to their host Sycamores, and there is water in fountains along the street, so these insects have made a home there. “This is an example of how nature is also adapting to the city.”
Surrounded by water along 144 miles of shoreline, Norfolk is highly vulnerable to sea level rise. The city is the second largest in Virginia, with a population of 250,000. It’s home to the world’s largest naval base, which hosts 100,000 federal workers and function as a city within the city. Its port is the third busiest in the country. The core of the city is the employment center for a region of 1.5 million people. All of this is under significant threat.
At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, we heard about Norfolk’s recent efforts to live with with water while protecting vulnerable low-income areas, revitalizing and creating new urban centers, and ceding some parts of the city back to the ocean.
According to Martin Thomas, vice mayor of Norfolk, the question is: “how do we create a high quality of live given we are facing rising waters?” The answer involves creative economic, social, and environmental solutions that will lead to a transformed city.
Thomas said 30-40 percent of the regional economy is dependent on federal funding, “so we are diversifying the local economy.” There are disconnected communities with concentrated levels of poverty, so the city is investing in mixed-income redevelopment projects. There is recurrent flooding that can result in 2-3 feet of water rise, so the city is creating the “designed coastal systems of the future.”
An example of what Norfolk is dealing with is the highly vulnerable area of Willoughby Spit, which is 3 miles long and 3 blocks wide and where thousands of residents live. This area is a chunk of the local tax base, but “it won’t exist in a few decades.”
Through its Vision 2100 process, Norfolk mapped its most valuable assets, which included the Naval base, airport, botanical gardens, and the historic downtown core. Through comprehensive public meetings, city policymakers, planners, and residents created a map of where flooding is expected to worsen, where investments in hard protections and green infrastructure will be focused, and where the “future urban growth of the city will be built.”
The vision organizes the city into four zones: red, yellow, green, and purple.
Red areas on the map are vital areas that will see “expanded flood protection zones; a comprehensive 24-hour transportation network; denser mixed-use developments; diversified housing options; and strengthened economic options.” These include the naval base, universities, ports, shipyards, and medical facilities that can’t be moved. Future housing and economic growth will be steered into these areas, which will be made denser. The red zone will receive priority levels of investment in both hard and green resilient infrastructure while maintaining access to the water.
The yellow zone will be where the city helps Norfolk residents adapt to rising waters and where it also cedes land back to the water. Programs there will aim to “exploit new and innovative technologies to reduce flood risk to the built environment; focus infrastructure investments on improvements that extend resilience; educate current residents about the risks of recurrent flooding; develop mechanisms to enable property owners to recoup the economic value lost to sea level rise; and develop a solution for sea level rise adaptation in historic neighborhoods.” Here, the focus is on more resilient housing, raised 3-feet above flood levels, and the widespread incorporation of green infrastructure.
The green zone features communities already on higher ground, safe from flooding, where Norfolk will create new transit-oriented development and resilient urban centers that can accommodate future growth.
The purple zone is where Norfolk will create the “neighborhoods of the future,” improving connections to key assets, creating affordable housing, and redeveloping under-performing residential and commercial areas. According to Vision 2100, the city found that 40 out of 125 neighborhoods were deemed assets and therefore not subject to major “transformation” — a euphemism for redevelopment or letting them be subsumed by rising waters. In many of these historic neighborhoods, which are found in the purple zones, small-scale improvements will be made to improve the quality of life — more parks, sidewalks, libraries, and community centers.
Norfolk’s 2030 comprehensive plan, green infrastructure plan, and resilience zoning code are the primary ways in which the city is moving towards this vision.
George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director, said that zoning requirements are a “blunt instrument” that they tried to make more flexible through a “resilient zoning quotient,” a system that developers and property owners can use to accumulate points to meet requirements. The zoning system itemizes “must do’s, should do’s, and nice to do’s (bonuses) for developers.”
Requirements differ depending on the expected level of risk to water rise, but must-do’s include green infrastructure for stormwater management, risk reduction through raising homes by 3-feet above flood levels, and energy self-sufficiency. The zoning ordinance seems critical to achieving the city’s ambitious green infrastructure plan, which also fits together with the vision and 2030 plan.
Back-up power generation is not only required for the usual places like hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities, but also important community utilities like pharmacies, grocery stores, banks, and gas stations.
Vlad Gavrilovic with EPK, planning consultants to Norfolk, further explained that the new zoning code built off of existing neighborhood, landscape, and building design standards, the “pattern language” so critical to informing neighborhood character.
Homewood believes “climate change and sea level rise are very real to the folks who suffer from recurrent flooding.” But rolling-out the new, more complex zoning ordinance hasn’t been without its challenges, and the city planning department is on their fourth round of tweaks to address “unintended consequences.” Perhaps that is to be expected given it’s the “first, most-resilience focused zoning ordinance in the country.”
In a later conversation, Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA president and long-time resident of Norfolk, who was deeply involved in these planning efforts for decades, said that Old Dominion University in downtown Norfolk was key to kick-starting the multi-decade-long effort to make Norfolk more resilient. “Back in 2010, the university started an initiative to prepare Norfolk for sea level rise, asking Larry Atkinson in the oceanography department to lead a cross-disciplinary effort and create a coalition with the community that exists to this day. That was many years ago, but it was then that the seeds were planted for the approach we see today.” That approach, Rinner said, uses public-private partnerships and creates bottom-up, community-driven solutions that transcend politics. “Environmental issues are so close to people in Norfolk and Hampton Roads; it doesn’t matter if you are Democrat or Republican.”
For her, Norfolk’s resilience plans and codes are a true model for other communities because they show what can happen after years of effort — “major change seems to coalesce all of the sudden.”
In 2016, Lila Higgins at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and Alison Young at the California Academy of Sciences started a friendly competition to see which of their cities — Los Angeles or San Francisco — could identify the most species of plants and animals over a week. Harnessing the enthusiasm of citizen scientists, they launched the City Nature Challenge. Three years later, 159 cities around the world participated in this year’s competition, making some 960,000 wildlife observations, identifying tens of thousands of species, and discovering new ones in the process.
According to this year’s “leadership board” at the City Nature Challenge, Cape Town, South Africa took the top prize with 53,000 observations and 4,500 identified species, contributed by 1,100 citizen scientists. La Paz, Bolivia, made 46,000 observations and identified 3,000 species, with the help of 1,500. In third place is San Diego county, California, which made 38,000 observations and identified 3,000 species through the work of 1,100 locals.
Stella Tarnay, co-founder of Capital Nature (formerly Biophilic DC), said that Washington, D.C. placed in the top 20 in terms of the number of participating citizen scientists, observations, and species identifications. Some 1,200 people got involved through 120 events to collect nearly 30,000 observations and identify 2,250 species. While D.C. did well on observations, the city fell short on species identification.
Around the world, City Nature Challenge citizen scientists used the free iNaturalist app, which was created by the National Geographic Society and the California Academy of Sciences a decade ago, to crowdsource the identification of biodiversity. More than a million citizen and real scientists are now active on the app and have helped each other identify 180,000 species observed 16 million times in cities and the wild. The app is now also assisted by artificial intelligence.
Data was aggregated into local city challenge groups within iNaturalist. Once set up on the app, citizen scientists take photos of native or cultivated trees and plants, as well as fungi, insects, reptiles, and mammals. According to Tarnay, the scientists who run iNaturalist prefer “volunteer” plants, meaning they grew wild in a particular spot and weren’t planted there.
iNaturalist encourages users to take multiple photos of a species, add in notes, and mark the location of the species. Once uploaded, the app then considers that an observation and then offers up possible identifications. Once someone has confirmed the identity of a species, it becomes a “casual grade” identification. Once two users on the app have verified the species, the identification is determined to be “research grade.”
For one observational adventure on the National Mall — organized by the Potomac Chapter of ASLA and AIA DC’s committees on well-being and urban design and supported by Capital Nature — urban designer Michiel de Houwer created a handy map, identifying where different types of animals may be found via 5-minute walk zones. Smartphones in hand, we trekked to the National Museum of the American Indian to find native plants.
At the end of the week-long bioblitz in D.C., Tarnay said the most identified species were:
In addition to helping map the extent of biodiversity and getting more young people outdoors to connect with nature, City Nature Challenge has led to the discovery of new species. One estimate find there are 8-9 million species on the planet, but only around 1.75 million have been discovered, identified, and catalogued, leaving 80 percent unknown. More recently, a group of scientists estimated that there could be up 1 trillion species on the globe if we include bacteria, archaea, and microscopic fungi, which could mean some 99.99 percent remain undiscovered.
As this year’s challenge shows, cities like Cape Town are actually biodiversity “hot spots.” Documenting and then protecting pockets of biodiversity in cities may seem small in the grand scheme of things, but urban wildlife refuges are critical for the plants and animals that rely on them. More cities are becoming destinations for animals turned out of their natural habitats, spurring on further adaptation and evolution in ways we don’t yet understand.