The C&O Canal National Historic Park is at a crossroads — it can either be subtly restored, enlivened by the local ecology, and made more accessible, or dramatically re-imagined and redesigned. Earlier this month, landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations presented preliminary conceptual designs to revitalize the canal — offering a spectrum of alternatives, ranging from the understated to the bold.
At the public review session in Georgetown, Alison Greenberg, head of the non-profit Georgetown Heritage, and a partner of the National Park Service in the revitalization efforts, said: “the goal is celebrate and respect the park’s historic character and sense of place” while also making the one-mile stretch of the 182-mile park that runs through Georgetown “sustainable, maintainable, ecologically-sensitive, safe, and accessible.”
Asking the community and visitors what they love about the place, James Corner, ASLA, discovered they most appreciate the “rocky aqueduct, the views of the river, the shade trees, the ability to stroll and have a quick escape to nature, the water, and the serenity.” He described the canal as a “corridor of melancholic charm where you can immerse yourself in pleasure.”
Still, he thinks the canal is also “sadly derelict, feels abandoned, and is unsafe” in places, which is debatable. “There’s no seating, lighting, and the narrow paths create safety issues.” Furthermore, there is a lack of access.
The dilemma for Corner is “how to maintain the heritage — the authenticity — while also promoting new social uses.”
There are concerns, though, that Corners’ proposals are perhaps over-designed for such a historic site. Darwina Neal, FASLA, former past president of ASLA, told us: “Rather than responding to the concern that ‘first and foremost, we have to respect the history that’s here’ — as stated by Kevin Brandt, the National Park Service’s superintendent of the C&O Canal — it seems like the designers are trying to turn this into an on-grade ‘High Line.’ As a landscape architect for the National Capital region of NPS, I worked on many projects along the canal from 1964 until I retired in 2009, and it is possible to improve the safety, accessibility, and functionality of this section of the canal without adversely impacting its historic integrity, as many of these proposals would, if implemented.”
Corner walked the 100-plus members of the community who attended the public review meeting through key aspects of his firm’s concepts.
He reiterated that his firm’s ideas are “not fixed or final; we want to use these to evaluate how people feel, and then shape the design.”
Towpath: Now a narrow gravel path with some opportunistic plants, the towpath could be kept the same width as it is now (7 feet) but paved over to improve safety; expanded to 11 feet, through the use of a cantilever, in order to provide space for seating; or widened out to 14 feet, which would also offer opportunities for more plants along the edge, but shrink the profile of the canal itself, also at great cost. A few members of the community noted that limiting the width of the towpath would help keep the space from becoming over-crowded — and help prevent the canal from turning into “Georgetown’s High Line.”
Mile Marker Zero: Many people who live in D.C. haven’t even been to this spot, the start of the 182-mile-long canal. Here, Field Operations offered options that will improve access for both pedestrians and bicyclists, with option B offering the easiest connections with existing networks.
Rock Creek Landscape: According to Field Operations, “This is the missing link between the C&O canal that we know in Georgetown and that area around Mile Marker 0. The challenge here is connecting the towpath with the plethora of bridges and overpasses created by the Whitehurst Freeway. We imagine a boardwalk under K street, and along a carefully-restored creek landscape; an immersive walk through nature and a critical connection for D.C.” The boardwalk path through the forest in Alternative B is far more intrusive into the Rock Creek landscape.
Rock Creek Confluence: Here, Corner presented some of the most transformational proposals. Where the canal turns the corner and heads west, Field Operations wants to introduce paths and bridges to improve connectivity and extend the canal’s towpath and also clean up what is an overgrown, neglected area and turn it into an picnic spot or amphitheater. “We can restore the visual corridor to all the locks.”
Locks: When one of the canal locks is finally restored later this year, at a cost of $6.5 million, there will be a canal boat pulled by mules. One of the main tourist draws for the canal, the mule yard, which is found between 29th and Thomas Jefferson Streets, is also the location of the current NPS office. Field Operations offered different options for the NPS office, boat ticket area and launch, and mule staging area.
The Walls: These proposals could really change the feel of the space and have major implications for preservation: Where the canal meets Wisconsin Avenue, Corner proposed cutting into the stone wall to create “more generous access” — a considerable length of stairs and terraces — while also offering wheelchair access with a new elevator. Along Potomac Street, he wants to unify the spaces on either side of the canal — Fish Market Square and Market House Plaza. One option brings in a High Line-like step seating. These options really open up the canal to downtown Georgetown; it will be the decision of the community, historic and design review boards, and NPS if that degree of access is what’s needed.
The Grove: The most straight-forward and constrained of Corner’s proposals. Field Operations simply proposes planting some more trees and stabilizing the path.
The Bend: A stretch between Potomac Street and 34th Street, could be a space for “verdant, garden-like setting with shade” and High Line-like chaise lounges. Field Operations also wants to redevelop the 34th street bridge to make it more accessible. This proposal would dramatically change the vibe of this now-rustic stretch.
The Aqueduct: Another set of bold proposals for a strange space now covered in graffiti, but with its own charm. Corner wants to rehabilitate the structure and create a series of “stepped terraces” to an overlook, potentially framing the views within a trestle. Also in this section of the landscape, Field Operations proposed creating better pedestrian and bicycle connections to the Capital Crescent trail and towpath.
A recent study found 85 percent of parents allow their children under the age of six to use technology at home, despite concerns that too much time with phones, tablets, and computers cuts into their time playing outside. Another study found one-third of all children worldwide spend less than 30 minutes a day outside and half spend less than an hour a day outside, which is lower than the average amount a prison inmate spends outdoors. Meanwhile, childhood obesity rates throughout the developed world have skyrocketed. Now one in five children in the U.S. are obese. What can landscape architects do to combat these trends?
We all spend too much time on our digital toys! When I see a group of teens walking down the street together and texting other friends, I have to admit I feel confused. But lately I’ve been trying to be more optimistic about the role of technology in our lives. I think it’s clear that technology has some benefits for kids—they have access to information quickly and they can connect easily to a wider group of friends. With my son, he’s able to find really obscure musical composition events for teens in Boston in a way he wouldn’t have been able to do before. So, there are real benefits with technology.
Do phones disconnect us from the natural world? Probably, I think. There are lots of studies that say, yes, it does. But I don’t want to be too nostalgic. I think we have to accept that the world has changed. We live a hybridized life.
Just recently, we went to see the redwoods in Northern California, Max had no desire to pull out his phone when we were hiking even though on the car ride there he was texting with friends. It’s really about how compelling a place is.
Young people these days are very nimble. They’re able to toggle between two worlds and use technology to help them better understand the world that they inhabit. As landscape architects, we must embrace the fact that people live in both digital and analog worlds.
But there’s clearly a connection between childhood obesity and technology. As landscape architects, we can help municipalities and cities plan their neighborhoods better because it’s the daily rituals that really matter.
Instead of focusing on large centralized parks, it’s important for us to also advocate for a more atomized green neighborhood plan where kids can walk through a pocket park, a neighborhood park, every day, or even twice a day.
For the Chicago Botanic Garden, you designed the five-acre Regenstein Learning Campus, which features grass-covered mounds, a waterway channel, willow tunnels, nature play, and discovery gardens. How do you define nature play? And how do you design a space that will really encourage it?
The Chicago Botanic Gardens is an amazing place for families and kids. When we first started working on the project, the Botanic Garden was interested in creating a place that went beyond just visual beauty and encouraged multi-sensory engagement. They wanted to create gardens that encourage kids to touch things; places where the leaves rustle in a way that really encourages listening. Through this process of engagement in a multi-sensory garden, children learn something about natural processes.
As I’ve said, I think “nature” is a pretty loaded word. I’m not sure that anything near Chicago is really “natural” anymore. Instead, what we did was to try to capture and abstract natural systems.
Programming was also very important to the Botanic Garden. We engaged the community to create complex and layered programming for visitors of all ages; from toddlers to seniors. We also worked closely with the design team to create an integrated inside/outside classroom experience.
You have said that your design for the campus also encouraged “inquiry-focused learning.” Can you explain what that is? And why it was important to encourage?
I’ve been interested in this since the beginning of my practice. How do we teach kids through hands-on learning?
We work with kids to understand how we can make playgrounds and landscapes that move away from the homogeneity of off-the-shelf playground equipment, and encourage hands-on learning- this encourages kids to ask questions.
We’re interested in etching deep memories. I’m very opportunistic about creating these places for children-especially in the city — you have to be. We work with families and try to find these moments — in pocket parks or pop up parks.
I am not necessarily concerned about kids and their interaction or lack of interaction with the natural world, but more with the kind of digital and analog worlds we’re making for them. For example, the homogeneity of playgrounds is a real issue. You can go to Omaha or Boston and see the same play equipment. The games they play have answers already defined by some adult somewhere. Even with Legos. When I was a kid, you would spill out like a whole bunch of Legos and then create your own world. Now you know you’re making a boat at the end. And kids love it. I know they do, but I really feel, as a landscape architect, that we need to create places that highlight open ended experiences, places that encourage children to be inquisitive and creative.
Having said that, all we can do as landscape architects is to strive to create environments that engender inquiry. “Imagination” should be a verb, right?
Maybe the answer is that we should try to create landscapes that are more open-ended, that allow for the imagination to thrive for children and adults. Adults need to play as well; they need to be able to find different interpretations in the landscapes we create.
You said the land forms you designed applied the “concept of the dignity of risk,” which is such an interesting phrase. Can you explain what you mean? And why is it important to incorporate that into designed nature play areas?
Too much of our built environment is designed from a place of fear. I understand there are concerns with litigation, but this is an idea that our client emphasized at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
We discussed different ways of bringing kids up to various elevations as a way of encouraging discovery play– we studied tree houses and land forms which would allow kids to move up and down and run around.
The only constraint the Botanic Garden had was that the landscape had to be accessible to all kids. In all of our work, we’re trying to create landscapes that allow for kids to understand the range of what their body can do but also challenge them to discover new things.
You brought nature play indoors, too, at the Crown Sky Garden at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago. You transformed 11,000 square feet space on their 11th floor into an interactive engaging healing garden for ailing and recovering children and their families. The space is designed to offer access to light and plants, reduce stress and boost physical activity, while offering a safe space for children with compromised immune systems. How did you design the space to protect patients’ immune systems?
We met with families, caregivers, and patients for days and just tried to understand what was important to them. The difference between this garden and some of the other healing gardens we’ve designed is that this was the only garden they had. Within this singular garden, we had to pack in a lot of aspiration and hope.
Working on these healthcare projects, I’ve learned to be a better listener. I remember that as we were working through this project, President Obama talked about the empathy deficit. I think as a landscape architect I always strive to be more empathetic and really hear people’s stories — and learn how that can help me better understand their aspirations and needs.
We had to make a decision while we were working on this project, as all these requirements emerged. Each time we said — “Well, we want water. We want to hear the sound of trickling water” — they would present evidence that if we did that, a certain population at the hospital could contract Legionnaires’ disease. We decided we wanted a garden that was accessible to everybody.
When I interview patients, I’ll go to their bedside and meet them. It’s the most fragile patients, especially in pediatric hospitals, who need these gardens the most. So, the last thing we wanted is a sign that said, “patients with these kinds of immune deficiencies are not allowed in the garden.”
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.
At the Crown Sky Garden, it was the client who actually saw in us the possibility of merging our arts background and our ability to creatively innovate with materials with our interest with kids. We learned we had a way of transforming the landscape that’s artistic, but also compassionate.
With ubiquitous technology increasingly winning the competition for attention, how does nature play need to evolve, or perhaps co-evolve with technology? Do landscapes need to be designed to be resilient to technological or cultural change?
Kids find their own hybrid definition of digital and analog play. They’re able to easily text friends in the car while playing some video game and then go into the park and put the phone in their pocket and run around and climb a tree. I don’t think one necessarily precludes the other.
We need green spaces that are more accessible, but what’s more important today than ever before is creating something compelling in a park that will draw kids there. I have yet to see technology in the landscape advanced enough to compete with technology a teen has in their phone.
However, merging technologies into the landscape itself so that our landscapes become a large video game is something I don’t buy. Our technology is just not advanced enough. Kids are incredibly smart. They’ll look at that and say, “Well, that’s lame,” you know?
Throughout our design process at the Crown Sky Garden, 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.”
Innovative materials draw kids. They ask a lot of questions: “What is this? How is it made?” They really wanted something that was more open-ended and unique — something that was beautiful, interesting, strange, and vibrant. Maybe there is something to this.
Lastly, you’re known for your truly-innovative explorations with materials. For example, you’ve created wave forms out of stone for the Alexander Art Plaza in West Palm Beach. And you have sculpted metal in many of your projects. You seem to enjoy transforming the properties of materials. Nothing appears static. What is your creative process for approaching materials?
Like kids these days, we approach the process in a hybrid fashion. We use both analog and digital tools. Personally, I love technology. It’s really transformed the kind of landscapes we can make. It’s allowed us to inhabit our landscapes in ways that I could never do when I started my practice. I love being able to walk through the landscapes we make in Rhino.
But then I’m also a little suspicious of those beautiful but singular perspectives that have emerged from these rendering technologies; that’s not how our perception works. In one minute, our eye can see 3,000 different perspectives. In singular perspectives, we tend to pick the hero shot and neglect the shots that don’t look at great. For us, we use walk-throughs to say, “well, this spot doesn’t look so great. Let’s try to work on it further.” The fluidity and kinetic qualities that you talked about in some of our work comes from this technology.
We’ve been talking about community engagement and being empathetic. For us an empathetic community allows for us to find new ways of designing. it just helps make our work richer.
And meeting with people also builds trust. It builds trust between us and our client groups. Our clients often have very high expectations — they are patients in a hospital, developers who are building very high-end developments, etc. Through our process, they enter a shared design space with us; one that is a collective experience that hopefully yields a unique landscape in the end.
After three years of flat carbon dioxide emissions, the burning of fossil fuels is expected to reach a record high in 2017, increasing global CO2 emissions by 2 percent to 41 billion tons. According to the Global Carbon Project, which published its findings in three scientific journals, the increase is driven in part by rising coal use in China. The report authors note, however, that there are uncertainties in the data, and actual growth figure could be anywhere from 0.8 to 3 percent.
To keep the global carbon dioxide ppm levels below 450, which corresponds to a 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature increase, countries party to the Paris climate accord agreed to reach peak emissions by 2020 — with China and India given another decade — and then decline to zero emissions by the end of the century.
The Guardian writes: “whether the anticipated increase in CO2 emissions in 2017 is just a blip that is followed by a falling trend, or is the start of a worrying upward trend, remains to be seen.”
China’s emissions, which account for nearly a third of the total, are estimated to rise this year by 3.5 percent, as local governments invested in construction and infrastructure projects to boost economic growth.
On Chinese emissions, Lauri Myllyvirta, Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner, told The Wire: “This year many local governments reverted to the old playbook of using infrastructure and construction projects to create demand and prop up local economies. In many regions that has meant rolling back on the restructuring of the economy and an uptick in smokestack industry output.”
U.S. emissions are down just 0.4 percent, a fall from an average reduction of 1.2 percent over the past decade. The New York Times writes: “Much of the fall in American emissions has come as increasing supplies of natural gas, wind and solar power have driven hundreds of coal plants into retirement. But emissions from sectors like transportation and buildings remain stubbornly high, and with the Trump administration dismantling domestic climate policies, it is unclear how far the country’s emissions will continue to fall in the coming years.”
And EU emissions reductions in 2017 — just 0.2 percent — are significantly lower than the 2.2 percent decline seen over the past decade. This is especially worrying as Europe bills itself as a climate leader.
There are some positive trends though: India’s emissions grew just 2 percent, down from the 6 percent average seen over the past decade. In total, The New York Times reports, “at least 21 countries have managed to cut their emissions significantly while growing their economies over the past decade, including the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Sweden. These countries have steadily transitioned away from energy-intensive industries — or have outsourced manufacturing to countries like China — while increasing investments in efficiency and cleaner energy.”
The signatories of the Paris climate accord are now meeting in Bonn, Germany, to review and hopefully ratchet up the voluntary commitments each country makes to reduce their carbon emissions. Causing protests, the Trump administration hosted a panel promoting coal and nuclear power, which included a delegation of fossil fuel executives. Former Vice President Al Gore and other Democratic senators and governors also staged an “anti-Trump revolt” at the conference, arguing the federal government doesn’t represent all of the U.S., and many cities and states are still aiming to achieve the U.S.’s prior commitments made under Obama.
Meanwhile, Global Carbon Project lead researcher Corinne Le Quéré, a professor at the University of East Anglia, told Wired more countries must follow Britain’s lead if the world is going to reach zero emissions between 2050 and 2100. To do so, they need to enact tough legislation that requires reductions: “The world needs to follow by the UK’s example. The Climate Change Act commits us to reducing our CO2 emissions by 80 per cent of what they were in 1990. If every nation had one of those, by 2050 we will be well on the way to a low carbon economy globally.”
In your book Therapeutic Landscapes: An Evidence-Based Approach to Design Healing Gardens and Restorative Outdoor Spaces, co-authored with Naomi Sachs, ASLA, you argue we’re returning to the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, who understood the healing power of nature and mind-body connection. Why has it taken so long to rediscover these essential understandings?
While the understanding was not entirely lost, the medical world needed proof. They were not interested in aesthetic arguments that gardens are “nice” and people appreciate “green views.” Those didn’t cut it.
The whole start of the healing gardens and therapeutic landscapes movements was Roger Ulrich’s famous study, The View from the Window, published in 1984 in the prestigious magazine Science. With access to medical records of people recovering from gall bladder surgery – some with a view to trees, some who could only see a brick wall – data showed that those with a view to trees called the nurse less often, asked for fewer high-dose pain killers, and went home a little sooner than those who viewed a wall. This study offered proof of the benefits of nature, using empirical data the medical world could understand and appreciate. Healthcare facilities took note and said, essentially: “Oh, I see. Trees outside windows and gardens around a hospital are not just cosmetic niceties, they can also affect the bottom line!”
There’s now an understanding that access to nature, sunlight, fresh air, and interactions with nature can reduce healthcare costs and patient recovery times. What has driven the explosive growth in therapeutic landscapes in hospitals and other care facilities? Has it been the financial benefits? Or are there other reasons?
There are certainly studies now that show if people have certain conditions and then have access to nature, they may call for fewer pain killers. That’s certainly significant. Studies of Alzheimer’s facilities where residents have access to a garden have shown that there is less need to prescribe drugs to reduce agitation or deal with insomnia.
Yes, the financial benefits have been important in encouraging the growth of therapeutic landscapes. But marketing is also important. It would be rare to find a senior retirement facility or hospice where a garden is not an attractive element, appealing to family members or to prospective staff.
Many hospitals are now providing gardens and that is good. However, in their marketing, some use the term “healing garden” as a buzz word. Sadly, in some cases I see in the trade magazines, there’s a photo of a chaise lounge on a roof with two potted plants, and it’s labeled a “ healing garden.” Some of us in the field are beginning to say perhaps there’s a need for a certification of healing gardens, although, just how that would work is very complicated.
There’s also been important recent research on the significance of access to outdoor space for the staff. Hospital staff work long shifts often under very stressful circumstances. Here’s a shocking number: more than a quarter of a million avoidable deaths occur in U.S. hospitals every year due to medical errors. This is just a speculative question, but could access to nature for hospital staff on their break times result in lowering stress and result in fewer medical errors? I doubt this could ever be proved as there are too many variables. But there is research where staff are saying, “Oh, yes, we want to have access to gardens.”
Hospital staff typically have window-less break rooms with no outdoor access. Also, did you know that the average lunch break for a nurse in an American hospital is just 38 minutes? So, even if there is a garden, and it’s at a distance, they’re not going to go there because they don’t have time. A trend now at hospitals who are aware of this is to put smaller gardens close to break rooms, so that staff can at least get outside for 10 or 15 minutes. That’s very important. Research has shown that is long enough for a significant reduction in levels of stress.
What are the key elements of a well-designed therapeutic landscape? What separates a great one from an OK one? Can you provide a few examples?
Oh – where to begin! It’s not rocket science, and some might argue its not vastly different from just a beautiful, well-designed garden. But there are many elements that are critical and are over-looked by even the most experienced landscape architects. First, it needs to be predominantly green; I would say about 70 percent green 30 percent hardscape. If it flips the other way, you’ve got a plaza; you don’t have a garden. The garden needs to be green, lush, and have all-season vegetation to the extent that it’s possible, depending on the location. It needs to be colorful and appeal to all the senses – smell, sound, touch, even taste – not just the visual.
The garden should serve the most vulnerable users. So, if this is, say, an acute care hospital, the most vulnerable users might be someone pulling an I.V. pole or using crutches. Pathway surfaces, non-glare elements, universal design – all are critical. A user may be someone who’s so weak they can only walk from the entry to the first bench. A person who is frail needs upright seating with arms and a back to help them get up – no slumped seating in the ubiquitous Adirondack chair!
A successful garden needs to be easily accessible and visible from a well-used interior space – foyer or waiting area in a hospital, day room or dining area in a senior facility. There should be a hierarchy of pathways for people to exercise who have varying degrees of energy. There must be adequate shade in an entry patio or under trees or a shade structure — an obvious thing but often overlooked. A lot of people are on medications — chemo, HIV-AID medication, psychiatric drugs — where they have to stay out of the sun. If there’s no shade, people aren’t going to go out there. We are seeing more and more patient-specific gardens – for those with cancer, PTSD, dementia, mental health problems, children with disabilities. In those cases it is critical that the designer works with the clinical staff and the maintenance staff in a participatory process.
So what separates a great one from a merely decent one? If the garden just had some greenery, paths, and a few benches, it wouldn’t be really therapeutic. Here are a few very good examples, in no particular order:
The Olson Family Garden at St. Louis Children’s Hospital is an 8,000-square-foot roof garden on the eighth floor. It has lush plantings, fairly large trees, and winding paths where children love to run, disappear, and appear again. There are five different water features. It has elements that intrigue children without turning it into a playground: stepping stones across water, telescopes so you can look out over St. Louis, cubby windows, a kaleidoscope, a sundial. It also appeals to adults and care givers with many semi-private places and a variety of moveable seating. It’s used by everybody and is well publicized within the hospital. The garden was designed by Herb Schaal, FASLA, with AECOM. It cost $1.9 million and was paid for by a local philanthropic family, who also gave an endowment for maintenance, so it always looks beautiful.
Another great example is the garden of the Oregon Burn Unit in Portland, Oregon, designed by landscape architect Brian Bainnson, ASLA, Quatrefoil. The reason this one works so well is Bainnson worked closely with the clinical staff at the Burn Unit to find out what patients and staff would need outdoors. He incorporated lush, beautiful, all-season planting.
A third example is the Living Garden at The Family Life Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an Alzheimer’s care center designed by landscape architect Martha Tyson, ASLA, who understood the literature on Alzheimer’s and dementia. She worked with the staff. The garden completely recognizes the main issue of these patients, which is lack of spatial cognition. I has a simple figure-eight path with destination points, so patients can’t get lost. There’s one exit and entry to the garden. No plants are toxic.
In Japan and South Korea, there are efforts to expand the use of forest bathing to improve health and well-being and also to fight addiction to new technologies. South Korea is creating a network of national forest healing centers. What do you see as the value of forest bathing? What will it take for this practice to take off in the U.S.?
The evidence from research in Japan is that breathing the air in these forests, particularly those of Hinoki cypress, lowers stress levels, blood pressure, and pulse rates. I think it has definite value, but we also know that walking in any kind of forest or non-urban green area has positive effects on health.
We’re really at a stage of infancy in this work in the U.S., but I do see a lot of media attention.
It’s funny, but the U.S. is often at the forefront with technological innovations, but rarely with social innovations – at least involving nature and play environments. Forest kindergartens have been popular in Germany and Denmark for decades; they are just catching on here. Adventure playgrounds have been around in western Europe since the 1940s; there have never been more than two or three in the U.S. (one is in Berkeley!). The Netherlands spearheaded the notion of the woonerf , or a street shared equally by vehicles and pedestrians; the idea spread across the developed world. But hardly at all in this country, largely, I would guess, because of resistance from transportation engineers.
However, in the realm of healing gardens in healthcare, the U.S. is at the forefront. It’s sad to see that in my own country of origin – Britain – famous for its gardens, those within hospitals are often poor or non-existent.
In a recent study, the Nature Conservancy estimates that, despite all the high-profile tree-planting campaigns, Americans city currently lose around 4 million trees a year. But just planting more trees in cities could reduce healthcare costs by decreasing the impact of air pollution, namely ozone and particulate matter. Other studies have found correlations between lifespan, sense of well-being, and proximity to trees. Unfortunately, however, even most arborists aren’t familiar with many of the health benefits of trees. Why aren’t the health benefits more widely understood?
Yes – there is a lot of valid research linking trees and health. Like so much material in this field of health and design, the studies produced in academic or semi-academic journals don’t filter out to people in practice. This is why it isn’t well-understood by people out in the field running tree planting programs in cities. I would not expect the people pruning trees in the street to know this. But the people in charge of trees for the city should.
There just needs to be more coverage of this information transferred from academic writing into more popular writing and hence the need for journalists and new messengers rather than new messages.
Some innovative doctors are now prescribing time in the park for a variety of conditions, testing to see if exposure to nature or a particular exercise in nature helps. What will it take for the mainstream medical profession to buy into this approach? What will it take for parks to be considered an essential part of our healthcare system by healthcare providers and insurers?
I see more and more references to the idea of providing prescriptions for people to go to parks. I believe in Washington, D.C. doctors can be provided with a list of available parks, so they can give those to their patients. For it to catch on, it will take a while, as with forest bathing and these other innovative things. It’s going to be some time before there’s research to show to the medical profession — proof that prescribing time in the park for someone with condition X improves that condition. But parks and their links to health have long been part of the landscape architecture profession going back to Olmsted.
Some hospitals being built or rebuilt are not only putting therapeutic gardens within the hospital confines but also putting a park or garden at the entry that is open to the general public. They’re providing green space for the city as a whole within their site.
Some examples include University Hospitals’ Schneider Healing Garden, Cleveland, Ohio; and Good Samaritan Medical Center’s Stenzel Healing Garden in Portland, Oregon.
Some re-built hospitals are specifically orienting patient rooms towards an adjacent park. These include The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, and Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, England.
This will continue as more hospitals recognize how important access to greenery is. Providing green space within the hospital or adjacent is relatively inexpensive compared with the cost of a new MRI machine.
Lastly, to recover from your own serious illness, you immersed yourself in nature for six months in the remote Scottish island Iona and then you wrote a book about it. You said nature there mirrored your soul and had a profound healing effect. Can you talk about that experience? How can we find those magical places? And how do you know you’ve found yours?
I found mine by serendipity and intuition. I don’t think you can go out and search for such a place or know that it has certain characteristics. When you find this place, it’s probably not your home, probably somewhere you found by chance. It may be somewhere a little different, a little distant, maybe a place you go now on weekends or maybe once a year.
In the mid-80s, I went to live with my children at Findhorn, an innovative, intentional community in Scotland from the 60s that still exists and flourishes today. They own a retreat house on the island of Iona on the other side of Scotland, and, once I had been there, I knew that the island was my healing place.
After two diagnoses of cancer shortly after retirement from academia, I went on retreat and lived alone there for six months and began to write. I now go back every year and have done so for 18 consecutive years.
All I can say is, when you find such a place, it feels as though you have come home. Not home as in a house. Home as something much deeper on a spiritual, psychological level, a place that resonates with something deep inside you.
I’ve met people who’ve come to Iona for the first time and stepping ashore they find themselves in tears. For other people, it feels like they have at last come home, yet they have absolutely no familial roots with Scotland or Britain. There is no logical reason; its not an issue of logic or reason. It occurs to numbers of visitors to this island, but that doesn’t mean to say you have to go to this particular place. You might find your place through a dream, or coming by chance across a mention in a book, or some other unexpected event.
Follow your heart; it knows. No one can give you a formula.
New parks can become agents of gentrification if they are not planned with all of the community. Often, the unintended consequence of a bright, shiny new park planned with only part of the community can be a change in community identity, so parts of the existing community no longer recognize their own neighborhood. Improved park amenities can also also spur new development, higher rents, and, eventually, displacement. But “there are also projects that can break the sequence of negative outcomes,” explained Janelle Johnson, ASLA, a landscape architect with Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, at the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. “Whose change and what change — these are questions that landscape architects can help communities answer.” If done well, new parks can instead act as agents of community building, forging new connections that help break down racial and class barriers.
Bridging Communities Through a New Park in New Orleans
Landscape architect Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, explained how she helped bring together multiple communities in central city New Orleans to re-imagine Hayden Plaza, a linear park found at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.
The neighborhood has evolved over the years. First settled by Jewish, Italian, and German immigrants, it became an African American community, and one of the few places African Americans could shop during the segregated 1930s, 40s, and 50s. As the immigrant shop owners who served African American patrons moved elsewhere, the stores were taken over by African Americans, who “didn’t get enough business,” and commercial activity declined.
In the 1960s civil rights movement, the neighborhood was a hub for protests. Artist Frank Hayden created an abstract sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the era when there “wasn’t community engagement.” The community had wanted a figurative sculpture, but Hayden delivered an abstract one instead. “The community wasn’t happy.” (Another figurative sculpture was later added).
Post-Hurricane Katrina, “new development came in, as black merchants lost property. A new merchant’s association made capital improvements,” such as a new jazz market, with a bar and theater, and an old school was revamped as a stall market. “They were bringing money in, but pushing the community out.” New development became a “sign of gentrification;” there was even a “Jane Jacobs walk.”
But every March, the Recreating the Emotional Ability to Live (REAL) protest march, led by a black empowerment group, works its way down through the neighborhood to the plaza, which demonstrates how this “space is still contested.” Working with the client — the merchant’s association — there was a “chance to educate and design for both those who go on the Jane Jacobs walk and those pushing for empowerment. A symbolic design would be inclusive and not take space away for the empowerment group.” The new landscape design “acknowledges the future, while honoring the past” (see image above).
Both communities — the African Americans and the new-comers — are now part of the future of the neighborhood, Jones Allen said. They came together in community planning and design charrettes held in the jazz market.
Revitalizing a Symbol of Integration in Birmingham, Alabama
Eric Tamulonis, ASLA, a partner with OLIN, explained how Birmingham, was long known as the “Pittsburgh of the south,” because of its iron ore mines in the Red Mountains, which were part of the US Steel empire. Down in the mines, African American and white miners toiled together since the late 1800s. “The mines were a magnet for African Americans given the great demand for workers.”
But back on the surface, there was “deep segregation.” A racist zoning map created red zones — or “danger zones” — the only places African Americans could live. Many of these places were actually dangerous — one was called “Dynamite Hill.” Jim Crow laws and regulations codified segregation. “There was a municipal law that African American and white children couldn’t play together.”
As de-segregation of all public schools, facilities, and transportation systems slowly became national policy in the 1950s and 60s, Birmingham’s city government fought it as much as they could. “They closed parks instead of integrating them.” While African Americans made up 40 percent of the city, they had only been given a few small parks. When those were shut down, “kids played in the streets.”
Now with a new 4.5-mile-long Red Mountain Park on land US Steel donated to the community, we are “building community in the park. It’s a bridge across the divide.” A new walking bridge called the “walk of unity” will end in a mine, where visitors can learn about the cultural history of the industry. “Noble mining structures are being restored, and there are reforestation efforts.” Throughout, there will be educational moments, including recordings of oral histories conducted with miners. Tamulonis worked on the community planning effort while at WRT, and said the Red Mountain Park Commission is “committed to equitable development.”
Birmingham is also trying to move beyond its racist park history through the creation of other inclusive public spaces. Tom Leader Studio’s Railroad Park is a “symbol of re-unity.” And a city task force has been laying the ground work for using Olmsted brothers’ 1925 equitable greenways plan, which was never implemented, as the basis for “future land use.”
Scaling up Inclusive and Equitable Park Development
Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA, former NYC parks department head and now senior vice president at the Trust for Public Land (TPL), explained how urban parks can lead to greater equity.
While the “federal government won’t do anything for urban parks” in the foreseeable future, cities are using tax increment financing, property tax increases, and business improvement districts to improve the quality of parks across all communities. In Minneapolis, which already tops the nation in TPL’s Park Score rating system, some $250 million will be invested in parks, particularly in underserved communities. “They asked themselves hard questions and are focused on areas of poverty.”
More cities also better understanding the consequences of new park development without an equitable development plan — what has been called the “High Line effect.” For example, Bozeman, Montana, a small city of 30,000 people, is now creating their first large central park on a 60-acre site. Some 8 acres around the park will be set aside for a community center and affordable housing. “This project shows we can’t just focus on parks. It’s our problem to fix equity, too.”
And the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C. — which seeks to bring together the majority-white Capitol Hill neighborhood, and racially-mixed, gentrifying Lincoln Park and Hill East on the west side of the Anacostia River and majority African American Anacostia, Barry Farm, Fairlawn, and Woodland, and Fort Stanton neighborhoods on the east side of the river through one park — represents the “future of equitable park development.”
The leaders of the park and landscape architects at OLIN forged an equitable development plan with the communities along the Anacostia River, which includes a small business and workforce plan that will boost local employment in the park, and a new land trust, which is designed to insulate neighborhoods around the park from speculative real estate development.
In 2015, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti launched the city’s ambitious 20-year sustainability plan, which calls for increasing water conservation, generating renewable energy, achieving zero waste, investing in mass transit, and revitalizing the Los Angeles River watershed. Two years later, the city has already made great progress, but some of the big goals seem perhaps out of reach. For example, one is to reduce the urban heat island effect more than any other city in the U.S. — three degrees just within two decades. Currently, Los Angeles is about 40 percent rooftops and 20 percent roads. A new cool roof ordinance requires reflective roofs on new development and there are also tests underway to create cool pavement. The city also has goals to increase the tree canopy, and 18,000 trees were planted in 2016. Do you think these strategies are enough?
Our mayor is pretty incredible with his ability to articulate a road map towards being more sustainable. For a long time, landscape architects have been the voice for being thoughtful about water, drainage, and stormwater runoff. We’re happy to hear our political system is now actually enforcing, documenting, and requiring measures to manage water and fight the urban heat island effect. We can be strong advocates, but it’s sometimes hard to convince our clients of something that is more expensive. Now developers are being asked to step up to the table through enforceable obligations. As a community, landscape architects are happy about these efforts and really support the Mayor’s road map.
Los Angeles has already reduced per capita water use by 20 percent, meeting the 2017 goals. Eventual goal is 25 percent by 2035. In the city’s green building code, there are now water budgets for landscape irrigation, new incentives to remove turf in favor of residential gardens, and free recycled water deliveries for landscape use, along with millions for green street projects. Do these water goals go far enough? What else could be done?
This is a tough question for Los Angeles, because we always talk about the physical landscape, but the cultural landscape is also important. The whole dream of the backyard and the lawn is part of our culture. It’s really a culture that was described in the ‘50s and ‘60s through movies. In Hollywood, everybody had a front yard and backyard. The lawn was the default landscape.
We’ve made great progress to collectively redefine what the aspirational landscape is — it may no longer be a lawn and palm tree. It may be the beauty of the Santa Monica Mountains. Our native landscape has this inherent appropriateness and generates an emotional connection. We have been working really hard to replace the lawn. And if we can achieve that, it will be a huge step towards achieving these ambitious water goals. We’ve been irrigating grass for the last 50 years. We really need to change cultural expectations.
By 2035, L.A. seeks to add more transit infrastructure than any other city. The city seeks to pair this infrastructure with transit-oriented development. The plan calls for expanding zoning capacity and key transit nodes. How do you see progress going on that front?
Everybody in L.A. is really excited about this plan. We just moved our office to the Expo line. We’re right at the Crenshaw Station stop, and the Crenshaw Station is going to be the line that links LAX, our airport, with LACMA and Hollywood.
L.A. has been really behind in public transportation. Everyone is excited about the multiple new lines being built. We don’t have enough mass transit. Transit oriented developments are certainly going to change the face of the city, because they include higher-density floor area ratios (FARs), which help support new village neighborhoods. These developments will make the city more walkable and livable, because people will have these mini-centers around each station.
Looking ahead to 2035, the potential change created by autonomous or driverless vehicles is just wild. I went to a event sponsored by the Mayor’s office, where I was so proud to hear them conducting research on how our city form could change if we maximize transportation systems with driverless cars. Some of the predictions and studies on how L.A. could change are really astounding. We’re talking about maybe taking one freeway lane offline or creating green spaces by potentially eliminating a road lane. Can we transform them into greenways? Can we decommission parking lots because we don’t have much need for cars to be parked for eight hours while somebody is at work? Autonomous vehicles will change the character of Los Angeles.
By 2035, Los Angeles also wants all trips made by walking, biking, or transit to be 50 percent, up from 26 percent today. Measure M, a ballot measure that passed with 70 percent of the vote, will use a half-penny tax to raise $120 billion over the next 40 years for mass transit and bikeway projects. Los Angeles also launched a regional integrated bike share system plan and has set up more than 65 stations and a thousand bikes. Do you think this vision will come together? Will Angelenos bike share to the subway? Will the complete street infrastructure be there? I’ve heard there are neighborhoods that still don’t have sidewalks, let alone bike lanes.
There is great potential to achieve these goals. The basic urban form of Los Angeles are these village centers. We have a very disperse urban pattern. If you look at Boston and other cities, there’s a symmetrical layout, a center city with suburbs. We have a dozen or two dozen village communities between downtown and the West Side. As people are encouraged to use bikes and walk more, the village form of land use will help realize that.
The city also wants to ensure that 75 percent of Angelenos live within half a mile of a park by 2035. The past seven years the city has added more than 35 parks covering 16,000 acres, including your firm’s Grand Park downtown, which brought much-needed green space. Is the city on track for this ambitious goal? Does the 50 Parks L.A. Initiative, which assists underserved communities, have enough funds? How can the city ensure everyone benefits equally?
Los Angeles has a disparity in terms of where parks are located. There are some well-served communities and some underserved ones.
East L.A. and South Central do not have the kind of park density that they do in the Valley or other locations. It’s really hard for the city to acquire new land and buy space for parks. The problem is if you have a park desert, how do you find space there?
There have been examples of decommissioning public space and having communities take over ownership, at least as far as park development. For example, weird pieces of land next to freeways and other kinds of public spaces can be decommissioned and given to community groups. It’s a way of creating parks in neighborhoods without empty spaces.
There are also ambitious efforts underway with the L.A. River, and the plan Mayor Garcetti calls restoring 11 miles of the river, making accessible all 32 miles in the city by 2035. What do you want to see happen? How can the city ensure the revitalization doesn’t create a new High Line and become an agent of gentrification?
The L.A. River is on everybody’s mind. People have been working passionately on it for a long time. The first goal is to make it a great circulation system for biking and moving through these different regions. Any new projects along the river have to build in bike lanes and pedestrian walkways along the river. What’s important right now is zoning that allows for greater density along the river. If we can create more dense villages along the L.A. River, then we’ll see a built-in park system for these villages and good connective tissue besides the roadway network.
There’s a whole contigency who wants to return the L.A. River to a natural form, a landscaped waterway. In some places, it may be possible and still maintain the flood capacity, but I don’t think it needs to be done everywhere. I look at the land art movement. They had very architectural spaces that were really beautiful to experience. We need a whole series of solutions over the course of the river that also address the hydrological issue of maintaining the flood protection system. It doesn’t need to be all the same.
Gentrification is a big problem. Think of all the residential communities around the L.A. River that are going to suffer, because it has historically been viewed as an industrial landscape. Now, it’s going to transform into this positive, landscape-driven set of places. All the communities currently around it may be pushed out, so how we mandate keeping existing people in place through affordable options is going to be essential.
With your firm’s work at the Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse in Albuquerque, New Mexico, your firm has demonstrated its commitment to sustainable design. The project was an early Sustainable SITES™ Initiative (SITES®) pilot project. So looking big picture, how can a sustainable, ecological landscape approach like you demonstrated in that project be applied to Los Angeles? What would an ecological Los Angeles in 2035 look like?
The most important thing that we learned with the Domenici project and the SITES® program is the critical need for documentation and ongoing monitoring, so you can really understand how a landscape is performing seasonally and over time. If we remove lawns and instead use native plants across the city, it’s going to cut down on irrigation.
Landscape architects need to become more proficient at quantifying every drop of water and being able to predict how new landscapes will perform. It’s our responsibility to go back and monitor landscapes, so that we have a database and can understand how water is being used.
Film makers and landscape architects may ask themselves the same question: “How can we make a landscape iconic?” Movies can make places magical, imbuing them with deeper meaning. Landscape architects can shape the contours of a place, heightening the impact. In a session at the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting, Chip Sullivan, FASLA, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, explored the dynamics of iconic Hollywood landscapes and what designers can learn from them.
Like landscape architects, film makers “start with the program first — in this case, the script.” As location scouts hunt for the perfect places to tell their story, they “measure everything on site, and note where the sun and moon are, where north is; what the noise levels are; they observe everything.”
In crafting a place, film makers may also take away elements of a landscape to achieve a facsimile of the era of the film. “They engage in urban removal, painting over street striping, putting up a barrier to hide glass towers, fixing things up.”
Some landscapes in Los Angeles are iconic because they are so flexible and open to interpretation. For example, Griffith Park, the largest urban park in the country, is “filmed every day.” The park, home to the famous observatory filmed in Rebel Without a Cause, has been featured in a diverse shows and movies, such as the original Batman TV series, StarTrek, Star Wars, The Searchers, and dozens of other classic films.
LA LA Land, which almost won an Oscar for best picture, itself plays tribute to Griffith park and its observatory.
But Sullivan wondered what exactly makes an iconic landscape, and how can they be designed. “Why are some so important that film lovers will make a pilgrimage to the site? How can we make a timeless landscape?”
Sullivan described how parts of Scotland are now overrun with Outlander fans, and New Zealand capitalized on Lord of the Rings mania by creating a real Hobbiton that draws tourists from around the globe. “There’s now a hobbit hotel you can stay in, so you can live like how they live in the film.”
At King’s Cross train station in London, Harry Potter super-fans now wait in line for hours to have their photograph taken on the fake platform 9 3/4. “They are there all day and night. What does that mean???”
Sullivan joked that these destination landscapes for movie pilgrims may offer the foundation of a contemporary religion. And if so, “how do we get people to go to our landscapes and chant?”
In iconic film landscapes, Sullivan sees some common design elements, which can be translated into real-world landscape architecture:
“Contrast is a powerful design tool — moving from big to little, macro to micro.”
“Make focal points distinctive and fantastic.”
“Manipulate perspective, use radical curves.”
“Organic forms are ideal.”
“Everyone is into dreamscapes. There should be strangeness and fear and then compression and release.”
And clearly inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Paterson, which is about a poet who is bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, Sullivan said: “It’s about place — the genus loci. Find the poetry around us every day.”
Augmented reality (AR) comprises technologies that layer location-based data on existing reality. Pokemon Go, the popular game that had thousands out searching their neighborhood for pikachus, is a prime example. Virtual reality (VR) is an “immersive interaction” using 360 video, explained Leonard. 360 videos can take the form of games, animations, or videos of the real world.
In contrast, mixed reality, or hybrid reality, is about “merging virtual and real worlds so you can interact with the world in real-time.” This technology enables a landscape architect to don glasses and create a SketchUp model overlaid on the scene they are looking at in real time, all with the swipe of their hands or pinch of their fingers. Other designers nearby or on the other side of the globe can join in and collaborate as well.
According to Leonard, “creating a hologram of a design on-site is where things are going. The technology won’t stop until that happens.” He also warned that “other professions will dominate this technology fast if landscape architects don’t get on board.”
Within these virtual worlds, landscape architects can appear as avatars, working together or with engineers or construction managers to “create SketchUp models, make changes to design parameters, or solve issues.” Working together in a virtual model, “they can get a sense of the size and scale of objects.”
Leonard noted that the HoloLens is still “first generation, with a limited field of view. It’s like looking at a little pane, so it’s not fully immersive at this point.” Magic Leap, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s new media company, is expected to take mixed-reality up a notch, given they’ve already raised $1.9 billion in funding.
Leonard went through many of the leading hardware and software options for AR, VR, and mixed reality, but noted “these technologies are just now coming out of their infancy.”
On the software front, Leonard discussed the benefits and drawbacks of AR Media for augmented reality, which costs $300 and uses geo-reference tracking technology so you can mark designs and data in real-world locations.
For virtual reality, he then discussed Lumen RT, which is “integrated into a lot of software and offers moderately-high-end quality, with a plant factory that enables you to make your own plants;” Fuzor 2018, which is “widely used in the construction and design industry, very powerful, and allows you to do ‘drag and drop rendering'”; Revit Live, which is “easy to navigate but doesn’t offer animations of designs”; and Autodesk 3DS Max, which offers “superior rendering, but is challenging to work with.”
For mixed-reality, Leonard mentioned SketchUp for HoloLens.
On the hardware front, for virtual reality, there’s Google cardboard glasses, which are cheap but have major latency issues that can cause fatigue; Samsung Gear VR, which cost around $100 and offers much better quality than the cardboard lens; Oculus Rift, which goes for $399 and is “very high quality;” HTC Vive, which is similar to Oculus Rift; and the just-announced Oculus Go, which will have a “high-resolution LCD screen and no cables or phones — the video will be accessed via WiFi.”
As for bringing these technologies into a design studio, Deane called for “assuming the start-up costs internally — don’t charge clients for this.” But then, moving forward, these technologies can be used to “reassure clients.” And, of course, firm CFOs will say “don’t do it for free.”
Wilkins demonstrated how KTU+A is already using these technologies, creating models, which are then rendered in virtual reality. As part of engagement, community groups are now reviewing proposals using headsets before they are designed and built.
As revitalization efforts reach a new stage on major sections of the Los Angeles River, including the creation of a new park at Taylor Yard, an old railroad station, a team of architects, landscape architects, and civil engineers are building off of the approved 2007 Los Angeles River revitalization master plan and 1996 county master plan guiding city, county, and Army Corps of Engineers work. The team comprised of Gehry Partners, OLIN, and Geosyntec — who are now working “pro-bono” and claim to have volunteered $3 million in time — is undertaking a multi-year, “data-driven” research effort to better understand the trade-offs involved in greening the concrete culverts that now define the Los Angeles River in much of its 51-mile span. Mayor Eric Garcetti and the non-profit River LA, formerly known as the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, have lent support to Gehry’s new planning effort.
At a session at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, civil engineer Mark Hanna, Geosyntec, explained that the Los Angeles River is highly variable in its outflow, which makes it dangerous. In 2007, some 48,000 acre feet of water flowed out of the mouth of the river, while just two earlier, there had been 950,000 acre feet. “The variation is extreme.”
Along the course of the channelized river, there are different zones designed by the Army Corps of Engineers to move water rapidly through or hold it. “The channel morphs — there are culverts and also reservoirs. There are narrow box culverts and wider trapezoidal ones. There is a ‘soft bottom reach.’ And then the river widens out as it reaches the estuary by the sea.”
However, Hanna cautioned, even with all the engineering, there are still flood risks. The Los Angeles River was originally channeled because it used to meander and spread wide across the flat flood plain, damaging properties and even claiming more than a hundred lives. The current system has been designed to handle the 100-year storm in most parts, but there are still around 3,300 homes at risk if that level of storm hits the city.
While there are plans underway to return more ecological function to the river zone, there are more calls to make the actual concrete culverts green. “There’s 2,000 acres of open space that is now hot and unwelcoming.”
The problem is any greenery added to the culverts “create friction and therefore slows water down.” Hanna said replacing all the culverts with natural systems would in turn require widening the river by five times, an impossibility given communities now line the concrete channel. Greening the culverts without widening could then in effect create a major flood risk.
“Just adding trees to the banks would reduce flood capacity by 60 percent; turf, grasses and shrubs along the bottom of the culvert would reduce by 45 percent; just grasses, 25 percent; trees in the middle band alone, 20 percent; and grass along the middle stretch, 5 percent,” explained Hanna.
For Richard Jackson, former head of environmental health for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and professor at University of California at Los Angeles, adding more green is the goal, but not at the cost of future flood deaths. Still, he wants to see a revitalized river become a positive change agent, instead of a contributor to health problems, as it is now.
Using California’s EnviroScreen, a tool he helped develop, he found those communities “most at risk of severe health problems are near the river.” High levels of asthma and obesity are co-located along the river because many of the communities near the river lack parks, access to healthy foods, and are also near pollutant-spewing highways and freeways.
Richard Roark, ASLA, a partner at landscape architecture firm OLIN, also wants to see a new Los Angeles River creating a healthy environment for both people and wildlife. “If restoring the ecological function of the Los Angeles River costs $100 million a mile, at a total cost of $5 billion, think about what it could be preventing in terms of healthcare costs.” Indeed, Jackson estimated the total public health costs of a poor environment in Los Angeles to be around $25 billion.
Roark called for using “designed ecologies” to improve the quality of life for the communities near the river, by creating fresh air and cleaner water and wildlife habitat. But he cautioned that “we can’t think about restoring the river to its original form; we can’t free it. Within the urban matrix, we have to control it.” Roark also called for a green infrastructure network in the neighborhoods surrounding the river and its primary tributaries.
When landscape architects in the audience questioned why the team didn’t look more closely at distributed options that could make greening the entire river a viable option — including more upland green infrastructure, including reforestation; using structural soils to slow down and store water; or building underground channels to convey water — Hanna cautioned that the models show these systems would help with regular storm events, but not the 100 year storm the culverts are designed to handle.
Still, many of the landscape architects called for much bolder thinking and a renewed effort, given the LA River now functions as “a giant urinal.”
“Housing is where jobs go to sleep at night. Affordable housing is where essential jobs go to sleep at night,” explained David Smith, CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute at the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. The farther apart a home is from a workplace, “the more stress” is placed on the transportation system. As essential workers are forced to look farther and farther from the urban core for affordable housing, they reinforce patterns of sprawl, increase traffic, and reduce economic efficiency, not through any fault of their own. A few solutions, according to the panel, are building new affordable housing in smaller lots and through more “moderately-dense” infill development.
As the world urbanizes, particularly the developing world, meeting the housing needs of rapidly-growing urban populations has become increasingly difficult. According to Smith, almost every city in the world is now experiencing an affordable housing crisis. This is reflected in the fact that “every fast-growing city has a slum.” Those slums tend to formalize over time, but their appearance reflects a housing marketplace out of synch — they reflect a community that can’t give essential workers jobs near their employer.
Smith defined affordable housing as “quality accommodations affordable to a target population, secure in tenure, affordable over a duration that operate independently as a business.”
Interestingly, the challenges facing seemingly vastly-different regions are similar. In the case of southern California and Saudi Arabia, for example, both “fetishize horizontal growth; are infatuated with car-based transportation; depend on immigrant or expatriate workers, but don’t acknowledge them; underuse verticality; and demonstrate a massive cultural resistance to affordable housing.”
Looking at Saudi Arabia, landscape architect Charles Ware, ASLA, explained how “development patterns are sprawling, wasteful, and alienating.” Beyond the 9 million temporary workers brought in from South Asia, who must live in basic dormitory conditions, some 85 percent of Saudis “can’t afford basic housing.” But amid great social change, a growing youth population is “demanding a better quality of life.”
According to Ware, estimates run from half a million to two million fewer homes than what is needed. Land development costs are high, so there are low financial returns for developers. And it’s difficult for them to access finance. “Saudi Arabia is in trouble.”
To address these problems, King Abdullah, who passed away two years ago, created a national strategy of economic diversification, with affordable housing as a central component of a sustainable future path. For Ware, this means smaller lots than what Saudis are currently accustomed to, which would use less water, energy, and land.
Working on a Parsons-led project with the Saudi Ministry of Housing, David Keenan, City Lights Design Alliance, explained how the kingdom is undertaking the development of 500,000 new housing units, set in brand-new sustainable, compact, walkable mixed-use communities. These communities feature “smaller lot sizes, reduced street sizes, and smaller public spaces.”
Delving into the details of Parson’s project in Dammam, found in eastern Saudi Arabia, landscape architect David Carlson, ASLA, detailed walkable 300-meter-radius clusters centered around a mosque, kindergarten, park, and retail zone. From the onset, the community was designed to reuse grey water from homes to irrigate the landscapes of public spaces, and light-colored building materials were used to reduce the urban heat island effect.
University of Southern California professor and architect John Mutlow then discussed affordable housing challenges in the Golden State. Beginning in the 80s, the focus was on creating family housing, but that shifted to create homes for those with special needs, and then HIV, veterans, and, now the homeless. Homelessness has exploded in the past few years, with nearly 60,000 homeless on the streets and in shelters in Los Angeles county today. The situation has gotten so dire that “homeless are now creating shelters for themselves in residential neighborhoods.”
To address the lack of affordable housing for homeless, California government put Measure H on the ballot, which was approved by voters and provides some $355 million, but mostly for “social services instead of financing for actual new housing.” Another 15 more housing bills designed to speed up the housing review and approval process and increase density have made their way through the legislature and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, but these actions just “nip at the edges of the problem.” Mutlow said another $4 billion affordable housing proposal coming up next year.
More than 60 non-profit community-based housing corporations have sprung up in southern California alone to make up for the lack of government action and bring together state and federal funds to make projects happen. However, for Mutlow, the main problem remains the high cost of building affordable housing in California. With not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) concerns, high labor and material costs, affordable housing is “$200 per square foot in California, at a minimum; it’s about $100 per square foot in the Deep South.” Still, he saw “moderately-dense” infill development as the solution, at least in his case studies.
Smith had the last word: “Every government wants more and more affordable housing. And they have the means to create more. They have money, own land, can upzone, use taxes and incentives — they have the means. Unfortunately, governments seldom have the will.”