Most Popular Dirt Posts of 2016

India’s water crisis / National Geographic
India’s water crisis / National Geographic

As we look forward to covering new stories on the built and natural environments this year, here’s a look back at the 10 most popular Dirt posts of 2016. Extensive coverage of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s New Landscape Declaration attracted the greatest interest. Thought provoking op-eds on the summit from University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) landscape architecture department chair Richard Weller, ASLA, and UPenn graduate student Billy Fleming, Student ASLA, were also widely read. (Speaking of which, The Dirt is always looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners. If interested, please email us at info@asla.org).

Also worth noting: innovative examples of ecological and biophilic design, along with the latest research on the health benefits of nature, drew readers. 

1) The New Landscape Declaration: Visions for the Next 50 Years

Over the next 50 years, landscape architects must coordinate their actions globally to fight climate change, help communities adapt to a changing world, bring artful and sustainable parks and open spaces to every community rich or poor, preserve cultural landscape heritage, and sustain all forms of life on Earth. These were the central messages that came out the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s New Landscape Declaration: Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future in Philadelphia, which was attended by over 700 landscape architects.

2) Has Landscape Architecture Failed?

In 1966, Campbell Miller, Grady Clay, Ian McHarg, Charles Hammond, George Patton, and John Simonds marched to the steps of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and declared that an age of environmental crisis was upon us and that the profession of landscape architecture was key to solving it.

3) 10 Parks That Changed America

PBS will broadcast a new documentary, 10 Parks That Changed America, on April 12th. Produced by WTTW in Chicago and featuring Geoffrey Baer, the show identifies the 10 most influential urban parks in the country, from the era of America’s early settlers to the present day.

4) Biophilic Cities Lead the Way to Urban Sustainability

“We need density but we also need connections to nature,” said University of Virginia professor Timothy Beatley, at an event at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) to celebrate D.C.’s successful inclusion in the Biophilic Cities Network, a group of leading cities pushing for rich, nature-filled experiences in daily urban life.

5) 15 of the Best Instagram Accounts for Landscape Architects

Instagram is a great way to get inspired, but there are over 500 million active accounts, so who should you follow? For landscape architects, fresh ideas can be found from following other landscape architects, but also those outside the field: artists, technologists, illustrators, and designers.

6) It’s Time to Get Political

Social justice. Environmental stewardship. Enduring aesthetic beauty. An expanded role for landscape architects. These were the predominant themes in the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

7) Thomas Rainer: There Are No Mulch Circles in the Forest

Instead of laying down a layer of mulch to separate plants, let native plants grow into beautiful, layered masses, said Thomas Rainer, ASLA, co-author of Planting in a Post-Wild World, at the Potomac Chapter of ASLA Gala in Washington, D.C. Rainer believes it’s possible to both boost biodiversity and achieve beauty through the use of “designed plant communities.”

8) Best Books of 2016

There were so many great books this year that honing in on just ten favorites was too challenging. Whether you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or one for yourself to delve into, we have some options. Here’s The Dirt‘s top 15 books of 2016, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape.

9) We Must Better Communicate the Health Benefits of Nature

While landscape architects, arborists, and park advocates, and an increasing number of mayors, planners, and public health officials, understand the presence of nearby nature in cities to be central to human health and well-being, the public seems to think of tree-lined streets, trails, and parks as “nice, but not necessary, add-ons,” according to a new report commissioned by the TKF Foundation and conducted by the FrameWorks Institute, a non-partisan research organization.

10) New Research: Students Learn Better in Classrooms with Views of Trees
What if what is outside a school’s windows is as critical to learning as what’s inside the building? A fascinating new study of high school students in central Illinois found that students with a view of trees were able to recover their ability to pay attention and bounce back from stress more rapidly than those who looked out on a parking lot or had no windows.

What Can We Learn from Copenhagen?

Copenhagen bicyclists / Citi.io
Copenhagen bicyclists / Citi.io

In Copenhagen, Denmark, nearly 50 percent of people commute by bicycle. No matter if it’s a beautiful summer day or a blustery winter one, Danes use their beloved bicycle network, because it’s the fastest, most convenient, healthiest, and cheapest way to get from point A to B. In a discussion organized by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Embassy of Denmark at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., we learned how Denmark made bicycling the most popular form of transportation, and how other cities can create a culture of bicycling.

Klaus Bondam, a jolly artist and former politician, now runs the Danish Cyclists’ Federation. He explained that in Copenhagen 17 percent of all trips are made by bicycle and some 50 percent of destinations can be reached by bike.

Danes learn to love biking early on. Parents bring their kids out into traffic in bike carts when they are toddlers, and their kids begin navigating traffic on their own bikes starting around age 5 or 6. This is all possible because of the investments the Danes have made to make their bike infrastructure safe for everyone.

Mom and child bicycling / UCI
Mom and child bicycling / UCI

Their infrastructure is mostly comprised of protected, segregated bike lanes. “Building proper, curbed lanes” is crucial, according to Bondam, as that enables women and kids to feel comfortable.

Copenhagen bike lane / NPR
Copenhagen bike lane / NPR

The Danes built their lanes as part of a comprehensive network, which “connects the inner city to the suburbs, radiating out 25 kilometers.”

Bicycle superhighways / Metrhispanic
Bicycle superhighways / Metrhispanic

Within this network, there are “bicycle super highways” that include the fantastic bicycle bridge that take riders through the urban core.

Bicycle skyway / Dissing + Weitling, Photographer: Rasmus Hjortshøj - COAST Studio
Bicycle skyway / Dissing + Weitling, Photographer: Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST Studio

To accomplish all of this, the Danish government created a national bicycle strategy and bicycle fund. As Bondam noted, if you spend the money and build it they will come. “There are 24 percent more cyclists where there is new infrastructure.”

Copenhagen took several generations to get to where it is now. Investments in the bicycle network started around the turn of the 20th century. It took more than 75 years for Copenhagen to get to nearly 50 percent.

A panel discussed how American cities can learn from Denmark’s example. Washington, D.C. has gone from 1 percent of people commuting by bicycle to 4 percent in just a few years. Leif Dormsjo, the head of D.C.’s department of transportation, said the city has made major investments in bike lanes and connective trails, and sees building complete streets — which work equally as well for pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars — as a primary strategy moving forward. Also, the D.C. government is investing in educating riders early on. A new program teaches every second grader in the city how to ride a bike.

While Bondam and Dormsjo noted the great progress in D.C. since he was last year in 2002, Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicycle Association (WABA), wants to see more bike lanes transformed into protected, segregated cycle tracks. “On a sunny day, the 15th street cycle track gets 3,000 riders, which is about 30 percent of total traffic.” With more separate lanes, bike number could go up throughout the city.

15th street cycle track / Dull men's club
15th street cycle track / Dull men’s club

Sam Adams, former Mayor of Portland, Oregon, and now US director at WRI, said Portland was long stuck at a plateau of around 4 percent commuting by bike. Getting to 8 percent, where they are now, took hard work. The city had to convince women, aged 18-40, to believe biking is safe. They targeted the top 25 most dangerous intersections. Adams found these intersections were almost always dangerous for more than one mode of transit. “Redesigning these intersections created multiple benefits.” Another key element was boosting the budget for bicycle infrastructure from $1 million to $17 million.

Safe bike box, Portland, Oregon / WBUR.org
A redesigned street with safe bike box, Portland, Oregon / WBUR.org

But everyone on the panel admitted that in an era of very tight budgets, increasing investments in bicycle infrastructure isn’t easy. As lanes for cars shrink and parking is removed, “some car advocates will argue their freedom is being taken away,” said Bondam. “But I feel my freedom, as a bicyclist, is taken away if I’m stuck in a car.” Adams said Portland’s increased spending on bicycle lanes, especially on the basic safety of lanes in communities further out from the inner-core, was “highly controversial.”

Moving bicycle infrastructure forward takes leadership. Dormsjo said it was important U.S. department of transportation secretary Anthony Foxx sees bike lanes as a priority in terms of federal investment. In D.C., the “sophisticated” city council has many bike riders, and Mayor Muriel Bower understands the issues, so there has been headway.

For Billing, the next step is to implement Vision Zero, which calls for zero traffic fatalities in the district. “We need to change the transportation system to prevent fatalities. Nobody should die trying to get somewhere.” Regionally, D.C. has had 450 deaths by cars in the past year, with pedestrian and bicyclist deaths at higher proportions than their share of street use. A new report from Smart Growth America — Dangerous by Design — outlines the latest data and steps that can be taken.

And more need to benefit from bicycling. Hon. Craig Iscoe, with Cycling without Aging, promoted the use of bicycle rickshaws to take seniors stuck at home, or, worse, old-age homes out for a ride.

Cycling without aging / syklingutenalder.com
Cycling without aging / syklingutenalder.com

And Billing argued bike lanes need to be better spread throughout poorer parts of the city. As part of this, an education campaign is needed to change the perception of bike lanes and bike share as an “agent of gentrification,” said Tommy Wells, director of D.C. department of energy and environment.

Bondam quoted President John F. Kennedy, who said “nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.” Focusing on safety, communities can use a mix of investment and education to spread that joy to everyone.

A Smart Streetscape for a High-Tech Corridor

Kendall Square, before / Klopfer Martin Design Group
Kendall Square, before / Klopfer Martin Design Group
Kendall Square, after / Jared Steinmark
Kendall Square, after / Christian Phillips Photography

Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the center of technological innovation on the East Coast. But you would have never known it walking the broken-down, dated, 1980s-era brick streets. Home to MIT, Google, Microsoft, and many other start-ups, Kendall Square needed a new look that reflects the cutting-edge thinking happening in the buildings lining Main Street. But Cambridge, a historic district, also has a highly restrictive, limited palette of materials to chose from.

Working with real estate developers, the university, and other entities, a team led by local landscape architects with Klopfer Martin Design Group and engineers at HDR came up with an inventive solution, taking the standard Cambridge brick, concrete, lighting and building materials and coming up with something entirely new. The results are as innovative as anything created by the techies who work along the street.

As Kendall Square has experienced rapid growth over the past few decades, it also had to better “perform as an inter-modal transportation hub,” said Kaki Martin, ASLA, a principal with Klopfer Martin. The high-tech firms and university alike wanted easier inter-connections among the subway station and sidewalks, bike lanes and bikeshare system, and corporate shuttles and buses.

“Increased commercial development with lots of food establishments also meant that the streetscape had to not only reflected the character of the place, accommodate increased inter-modal transportation, but also become a place to not just move through, but also to linger and eat, meet up and gather.”

The design team removed the central median with “dated flag poles” to give more room for bike lanes.

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography

Along the streets, new spaces were created for “furnishings, bus shelters, farmer’s market tents.” Scattered around major entry points are more contemporary benches, pre-cast concrete star-shaped benches, and unique bike racks that came out of a competition organized by the city’s % for art program.

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark
Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark

A custom cover and bench was created for an “immovable vent pipe” the subway system needs.

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography

Klopfer Martin layered in double rows of trees in order to create “spatial structure.”

Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark
Kendall Square / Jared Steinmark

The most interesting part of the project is the new palette of bricks. Klopfer Martin worked with the city’s brick supplier to create “custom palettes of varying percentages of the darkest and lightest bricks in the city’s standard mix,” set within 10 feet-by-10-feet swatches.

As Martin explained, “we went with a pixelated pattern for its techy connotation, and because there was no preciousness to the pattern.”

Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography
Kendall Square / Christian Phillips Photography

Furthermore, the random pattern is very low maintenance. “When the head of the Department of Public Works asked me how I would feel when a gas line repair comes through the brick and messed it up, we said, ‘it didn’t matter.’  The brick could just be put down again without concern, because it’s about the percentages between darker and lighter bricks in a 10-foot-by-10-foot zone, not about a specific pattern.”

New Ideas Needed to Solve the “Crisis of Maintenance”

A maintenance worker in Riverside Park / The New York Times
A maintenance worker in Riverside Park / The New York Times

The Urban Design Forum sees a “crisis of maintenance” in New York City, which has an estimated backlog of $50 billion in unmet infrastructure repair needs. In an innovative new ideas competition, they invite landscape architects, urban planners, developers, and architects to respond to the question: “How can we use design thinking, creative financing, new technology, and community organizing to maintain our physical and social infrastructure?”

They are looking for novel ways of improving maintenance for streetscapes, parks and plazas, in addition to housing, transportation systems, and civic and social infrastructure.

“We are looking for bold ideas with real world applicability. We welcome napkin sketches, policy proposals, detailed designs, essays, videos, etc. Ideas may apply to sites in the City of New York or the greater New York area. Examples from other cities that can be applied to New York City are also acceptable.”

The Urban Design Forum asks those who submit to think through the hard issues involved in maintenance, to ask themselves questions like: “How can we design public assets that minimize maintenance costs and adapt for future uses? How can we more equitably maintain parks and public spaces beyond high-income neighborhoods? How could we engage new stakeholders in the stewardship of public assets and public space?”

The winning ideas will become part of the forum’s “Maintaining” program, which will feature presentations and roundtable debates from March through September 2017. Winning ideas will also be included in a publication to be released in December 2017. The Forum expects the winning ideas to spread beyond New York.

Register by January 30 and submit by March 1.

Also, in Bandirma, a city of 143,000 on the Sea of Marmara in northwest Turkey, officials have announced an international design competition for a new park that can serve as a gateway to this port city. The first-place winner will receive 100,000 Euros. Register by February 3 and submit by February 24.

The Michelangelo of Snow

Cataloochee, North Carolina / James Niehues
Cataloochee, North Carolina / James Niehues

If you’ve herring-boned over to a trail map, or swished to a stop to take out your handy pocket map at a ski resort, you’ve probably seen the work of James Niehues, “the Michelangelo of snow,” but not even known it. For the past three decades, Niehues has painted the topographical trail maps that grace many of the major ski slopes in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He has created over 160, writes The Washington Post. Interestingly, Niehues only considers himself an intermediate skier.

His process for mapping a slope is intensive. He will fly in a Cesna plane to take aerial photographs. He told Cabinet magazine about his in-depth approach: “I’ll try and shoot the mountain from every angle possible, starting at about 4,000 feet over the summit of the mountain to get some very high altitude stuff, and then I’ll drop down and get more of the detail around the lower part of the mountain.”

He sometimes skis the mountain to get a “better feel for its features,” but admits he “has tried only about 5 percent of the resorts he has painted.”

He then paints each ski resort by hand in water color, painstakingly documenting every contour, trail, ski lift route, and, yes, every single tree.

Butternut, Massachusetts / James Niehues
Butternut, Massachusetts / James Niehues
Telluride, Colorado / James Niehues
Telluride, Colorado / James Niehues

He told Scout: “Hand painting offers more variety of expression in that each brush stroke is different, making each tree (which usually has the base shape, a shadow and a highlight) individual and natural. A ski resort trail map represents the great outdoors and the better this presentation portrays the natural vast scenery of the slopes the more inviting it is to the viewer.  I used to have a slogan that I used in my mailing to potential clients: ‘A quality trail map reflects a quality ski experience.’ A trail map must first be accurate, but a very large part of the equation is for it to be as beautiful as possible to entice the viewer.  I just haven’t seen any computer-generated images that do that better than a hand-painted image.”

For Niehues, the hardest slopes to depict are those that criss-cross multiple mountain faces, instead of just one. “The most challenging part of any multiple-faceted resort is moving all the elements so the entire system of runs can be shown in one view, without the viewer seeing any reason why it not just as it is portrayed!”

Killington, Vermont / James Niehues
Killington, Vermont / James Niehues

Niehues explained to The Washington Post that he “likes knowing that skiers take a piece of him in their pockets whenever they ski the mountains he has painted.” He said: “One of the more special things is that they come down the mountain and have a beer and open up the map and talk about their experiences and they’re reviewing my art.”

Smuggler's Notch, Vermont / James Niehues
Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont / James Niehues

See all of Niehues’ gorgeous maps at his website and purchase prints.

An Opportunity to Reinvent Infrastructure

Self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh / The Washington Post
Self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh / The Washington Post

With President-elect Trump coming into office vowing to raise $1 trillion for infrastructure, many cities and states see a potential bonanza for high-speed rail development, bridge and highway repair, and, hopefully, urban transportation networks. As former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell noted at The Atlantic‘s summit on infrastructure, the Republican agenda is to let localities decide — and that should hold true for their infrastructure priorities as well, even if it means bike lanes, which a number of Republican Congressional lawmakers have come out against. At the summit, experts called for using this investment opportunity to create smarter, more resilient infrastructure, unleash new technologies, and move to more equitable approaches for long-term financing.

Brendan Shane, regional director at C40 Cities, argues that with any new federal infrastructure investment, there is an opportunity to make infrastructure low-carbon and resilient. Complete green streets enable all forms of travel, but especially climate-friendly ones like walking and biking. The national energy grid is woefully outdated and could be updated to be more energy-efficient. Water systems could be made more cost-effective and resilient through the use of green infrastructure. However, he cautioned that “$1 trillion won’t go very far. Los Angeles just approved $120 billion in projects, and that was just one city.”

Improving resilience is the primary focus of Norfolk, Virginia, said Christine Morris, the chief resilience officer of this coastal city. Norfolk, which hosts the largest naval base in the U.S., just finalized its Vision 2100, which creates a road map for resilience and adaptation to both land subsidence and flooding from sea level rise. She said “resilient cities don’t wait for someone to save them, they move forward and find partners.”

Morris was optimistic the department of defense and federal government will continue to invest in making the base and the city that houses it more resilient. Norfolk plans on creating a layered system of defenses with wetlands, green infrastructure, berms, and gates. “The federal government wants to keep and protect national assets.”

Gabe Klein, co-author of Start-up City: Inspiring Public and Private Entrepreneuriship, Getting Projects Done, and Having Fun, and Niki Christoff, head of government affairs for Uber, called for using new technologies to improve urban transportation infrastructure. Klein said the department of transportation’s smart cities challenge was brilliant at leveraging $40 million in prize money to create “$500 million in strategic planning” on how to use technology to reduce congestion and pollution and improve safety and efficiency. 

He said second-tier cities like Pittsburgh — the site of Uber’s self-driving ride-share experiments — are great places to test new transportation technologies, “as they can get things done faster.” 

Klein sees a mix of driven and autonomous vehicles for “a long time,” with a painful transition period over the next 20 years. Eventually, with the explosion of automated ride-share vehicles, 90 percent of cars in dense urban cores will go away, freeing up space for housing and parks.

Christoff noted that one of the biggest obstacles for automated vehicles are potholes, which cause confusion for the computers. She said Uber may eventually share the data automated vehicles collect on potholes with local transportation departments. If they are fixed, it would be a win-win for the private and public sectors. 

Klein said cities can also turn to the public for help in fixing potholes, asking them to identify and submit information. In D.C., when he was transportation commissioner, he created Pot-hole-palooza, a crowd-sourcing effort, and then sent out an “auto pothole killer.”

While Trump aims to use some mix of private and public funds for infrastructure, there was discussion on what happens long-term after the money has been spent. The federal gas tax hasn’t been increased since the 1972. One innovative model piloted by Oregon last year finances road and highway investment through a usage fee, a tax for miles traveled, instead of the usual federal gas tax. Some 5,000 cars participated in the pilot.

Instead of privileging the low-gas use of hybrid vehicles, the system, which involves adding a small USB-like device into cars’ speedometers, treats all miles traveled the same. “It’s more equitable, and the payment system is transparent. At the end of the month, you receive a bill like you do for water or cell phone service,” explained Richard Geddes, with the American Enterprise Institute. As part of the scheme, there are rebates for any gas taxes. 

In a poll from last year, Oregonians were split on the idea of replacing the federal gas tax with a mileage based approach. Still, the idea of charging vehicle owners based on how much they actually use and wear down roads seems more direct, understandable, and fair. 

On Climate Change, Trump Moves from Denial to Being “Open-Minded”

President-elect Trump has moved away from outright denial that climate change is happening. In an interview with Fox News, Trump said he is “open-minded” on the environment, but also believes “nobody knows if climate change is real.” He said he is “studying” whether the U.S. should pull out of the UN Paris climate accord, which has been ratified by 117 countries as of December 12. Trump’s default stance is any regulatory effort to reduce carbon emissions will in turn reduce the economic competitiveness of U.S. industries. His stated goal is to cut federal regulations in all forms in order to grow jobs and the economy.

Over the past few weeks, Trump has sent confusing signals on the climate. One one hand, he has made some gestures that have raised hopes. In a meeting with the editors of The New York Times, he admitted there may be “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change. He met with former vice president Al Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his climate advocacy, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who produced a documentary on the flooding induced by climate change. Gore described the one-hour meeting with Trump as “lengthy and very productive” and the beginning of an ongoing dialogue. Gore said Trump’s daughter Ivanka, likely a key advisor, is “very concerned” about climate change. Given how positive Gore was about the meeting, there was some hope that Trump’s private views may be evolving and that he may end up changing his public positions.

On the other hand, however, in public, he has moved forward with nominating two climate doubters for key positions that impact our environment, health, and well-being. Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruit, who led Oklahoma’s lawsuit against President Obama’s clean power plan, has been tapped for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He is seen as a close ally of the oil and gas industry and has said “more debate is needed” around the already-settled global consensus on climate change.

In a press release, Trump’s transition office wrote: “For too long, the Environmental Protection Agency has spent taxpayer dollars on an out-of-control anti-energy agenda that has destroyed millions of jobs, while also undermining our incredible farmers and many other businesses and industries at every turn.” Pruitt “will reverse this trend and restore the EPA’s essential mission of keeping our air and our water clean and safe.”

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, told The Washington Post: “Pruitt has a record of attacking the environmental protections that EPA is charged with enforcing. He has built his political career by trying to undermine EPA’s mission of environmental protection. Our country needs — and deserves — an EPA administrator who is guided by science, who respects America’s environmental laws, and who values protecting the health and safety of all Americans ahead of the lobbying agenda of special interests.”

Senate Democrats have vowed to fight tooth and nail against Pruitt’s nomination and make the vote on his confirmation a litmus test for supporting the environment and science. However, given Democrats changed rules on filibusters, Pruitt only needs 51 senators to end debate and move forward with a vote.

Trump has also announced Montana state Representative Ryan Zinke, a conservative and climate doubter, as his pick for the department of the interior, which oversees the National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — all 400 national parks and 500 million acres of public lands. According to Scientific American, the secretary of the interior is in charge of “development of many of America’s fossil fuels and renewable resources, including all of its offshore oil, gas, and wind development.” Federal lands are now the source of “more than 20 percent of all the oil and gas and 40 percent of the coal produced in the U.S.”

Zinke wants to further boost energy production and mining on federal lands, but maintain federal control of those lands, reports The New York Times. One semi-positive note: “He has consistently voted in favor of maintaining the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is funded by royalties from oil and gas exploration on public lands but intended to preserve other natural habitats.” He is also a supporter of renewable and alternative energy.

Theresa Pierno, president and chief executive of National Parks Conservation Association told The New York Times: “Though Mr. Zinke has expressed support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and opposes the sale of public lands, he has prioritized the development of oil, gas and other resources over the protection of clean water and air and wildlife.”

Meanwhile, Trump still seems to believe environmental regulations are behind slower growth. He told Fox News: “You look at what’s happening in Mexico, where plants are being built, and they don’t wait 10 years to get an approval to build a plant, okay?” he said. “They build it like the following day or the following week. We can’t let all of these permits that take forever stop our jobs.”

And at a conference hosted by The Atlantic, Democratic officials like former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell aped these views, arguing that environmental assessments can take too long and hold up infrastructure projects. With Trump proposing $1 trillion in infrastructure investment, state governments have already begun jockeying for a slice. Virginia Democratic governor Terry McAullife, a major Clinton ally, also didn’t focus on the climate or environment in his remarks, instead promoting Virginia’s ability to leverage private-public partnerships to build highways, declaring the state open for business. Sadly, there was no mention of how climate, economic growth, and infrastructure are intrinsically linked.

A Dashboard for the Earth

Deep learning neural net technologies / ExtremeTech
Deep learning neural net technologies / ExtremeTech

If we want our planet to be able to house 10 billion people and also want to preserve biodiversity in the future, then we need to leverage the new technologies associated with “big data” and artificial intelligence. Using these sets of new technologies, we can create a dashboard for the planet, with up-to-the minute data on ecosystem functions continuously feeding in. We can create a unified system that “interrogates the environmental condition of the Earth,” said Microsoft scientist Lucas Joppa at a conference organized by the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation (RNRF) in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, today we are nowhere near this “Bloomberg terminal” for the planet.

Discussions throughout the conference were a strange mix of extreme optimism about the capacity of technology to solve our problems and deep concern for the state of the global environment.

While Joppa seemed pessimistic about the climate and health of our ecosystems, he lauded the potential of new technologies to be applied to ecological conservation and restoration.

Apps leveraging “deep learning neural net” technologies can enable people to quickly identify and classify plants. A site called Wild.me borrows the face recognition technology of Facebook to identify individual animal species. Through this technology, a whale shark specimen could be identified by its particular markings and characteristics. Caption bots, which are used to auto-generate captions for images, can also be tapped to label plant and animal species.

Citizen science efforts, which involve the public in conservation efforts, can scale up with the Web and big data. With Zooniverse, people participate in assessing all this biodiversity data, explained Ruth Duerr, with the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship.

And at the planetary scale, new satellite technologies, like the small, distributed network of satellites offered by Planet Labs, promise to make it easier to get a clearer understanding of the state of the environmental in real-time, said Duerr, creating even greater sets of more precise data.

But all that environmental data needs to be more closely connected with social and economic data if we want to get closer to that whole Earth dashboard, argued Robert Chen, a scientist with the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He pointed to his team’s efforts to map settlement patterns, including urban growth. And another project maps the connections between cycles of investment in real estate and vulnerability in flood-prone areas.

Integrating multiple layers of data is the next step, as is using the data to create predictions about possible outcomes. “Big data can help jumpstart the use of well-integrated, usable data and information for managing people and natural resources. We can use data to show how real-world issues interact.”

What’s holding this dream back for now is the variable quality of map-related data and the lack of legal and system interoperability between data sets. To push that forward, he called for more work on creating international open data standards, and more lawyers to get involved to ensure “everyone who needs to has the right to use data — that’s critical.”

Brad Garner with the U.S. Geological Survey pointed to the major gaps in water data in the U.S. Surface water is somewhat well-sampled, but each state uses a different measurement system, so integrating the data into a national view is basically impossible. For groundwater, there is a lack of even basic data. “We have no national sense of water use. How can we not know how much water we are using?” He was not optimistic in the near term, but said the open water data initiative held promise.

And Mathew Hansen, professor of geological sciences at the University of Maryland, and a member of the NASA Modis team, explained how crucial Landsat data is to understanding climate and ecological change, and land use, urbanization, and deforestation trends around the world. NASA has purposefully made all its land map data freely accessible, so anyone can download and analyze. Many countries facing deforestation crises use the data to track illegal deforestation, and map analyses have even been used to pursue court cases against loggers.

Bringing together disparate sets of data into a unified whole planet view is a noble goal and can lead to more responsible human management of our fragile ecosystems in our era of the Anthropocene. The “bad news, however, is we’re not focused enough to integrate these systems,” said Joppa.

He thinks the U.S. national ecosystem assessment, which was promoted by President Obama’s administration, could perhaps help kickstart the effort, at least in the U.S. He’s hoping a huge data collection and analytical effort for our nation’s ecosystems will continue into the next administration, given time is short to stop the worst environmental damage.

In coming years, advanced artificial intelligence can then be used to find trends and predict scenarios through big data. “We need artificial intelligence to save us from ourselves. My worry is A.I. won’t come soon enough.”

Environmentalism of the Rich

Environmentalism of the Rich / MIT Press
Environmentalism of the Rich / MIT Press

Peter Dauvergne, a professor at the University of British Columbia, has coined an interesting phrase for the incremental approach taken by environmental regulators, self-professed sustainable multi-national companies, and many mainstream environmental non-profits in the West: the environmentalism of the rich. His issue with this now-widespread shade of green: it may not be working.

In his new book Environmentalism of the Rich, Dauvergne paints a portrait of consumers in wealthy Western countries complacently purchasing their way to sustainability by swapping out old, inefficient products for new, smarter “eco” ones, or taking small steps to reduce energy and water consumption and carbon pollution. The idea promoted by many companies and non-profits is that consumers can continue to buy away if the products are “green.” They can feel as if they are making a difference by making small, not-too-painful adjustments, which will together create larger global impacts one day. 

These approaches are rooted in the perhaps-erroneous belief that “innovative policies, scientific ingenuity, and technology will allow for continuous economic growth.” Furthermore, “trust is put in soft regulation, soft regulation, eco-certification, fair trade, and corporate self-regulation, while great promise is seen in corporate responsibility and individual goodwill.”

The problem is these collective approaches are “not adding up to anything approaching global sustainability.” Throughout the book, Dauvergne peppers depressing environmental indicators showing how trends worldwide are going in the wrong direction. Ecosystems are collapsing, biodiversity loss is increasing, carbon dioxide emissions keep going up, water is becoming more scarce. 

These negative trends are only getting worse because the underlying issue is the rampant growth of all forms consumption worldwide, as Americans, Canadians, and Europeans continue to shop till they drop, and growing middle classes in developing countries aspire to reach the materialism of these countries. In coming decades, Dauvergne argues, if there are 10 billion American-style consumers on the planet, it won’t matter if consumption is eco or not. Humans will have over-tapped the carrying capacity of the Earth; in fact, they may have already.

Dauvergne’s critique is a harsh one but one worth considering. He states: “sustainability policies of governments and corporations may pay lip service to principles of ecology, but the underlying reason is almost always ahistorical, fragmentary, and linear, rarely integrating holistic or dynamic understandings of resilience, feedback loops, tipping points, and complex systems.”

For example, some sustainability-minded multi-national companies, which he names, fund the efforts of big environmental non-profits to undo ecological damage in developing countries — and they always do so in a way that maximizes public perception of their brand — but, at the same time, ramp up their efforts to expand markets, reach more consumers, and increase consumption and growth overall, all of which exacerbate underlying ecological issues somewhere else. Consumption and growth, in their abstracted models, are most often divorced from any real-world ecological impacts. 

This disconnect between growth and ecology continues because many developing-world companies and multi-nationals don’t have to reconcile these competing demands. They can follow the same pattern established by colonial powers in the past: look for the cheapest and easiest-to-extract resources in developing countries where there is little accountability and maximize their extraction. If a regulatory hurdle appears, move to the next country. 

Dauvergne uses a few chapters to go deep into these examples: the terrible legacy of phosphate mining in Nauru, the ongoing destruction of the rainforest due to palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia, along with a brief discussion of ranchers and soy farmers clearing the Amazon rainforest. He also explains how being an “environmentalist of the poor” — an advocate in a developing country fighting environmental degradation — is one of the most dangerous jobs one can have. Thousands of environmental activists have been murdered or disappeared over the past few decades.

Recent corporate and non-profit efforts to self-regulate natural resource extraction, like the Forest Stewardship Council, which covers around 10 percent of traded timber, and the Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies around 10 percent of seafood consumed, are having some positive impact. But he questions whether these efforts can scale up to cover the global marketplace, and whether these voluntary regimes can actually limit resource plunder when the rubber hits the road in coming decades amid exploding population growth. 

He admits the environmentalism of the rich, which originated out of an American movement to conserve wild nature, has led to some gains: its “improving the administration of nature parks and the management of cities, as well as averting some known and immediate harms.” He cites clean air and water in the developed world and many developing world cities, the spread of energy efficient green buildings, and the growth of recycling and power from waste as major wins. Corporations are now setting ambitious goals like “water neutrality, zero waste, zero deforestation, carbon neutrality, 100 percent sustainable sourcing, and 100 percent renewable energy, among others.”

The problem for Dauvergne is that these well-meaning but perhaps superficial efforts don’t get at the underlying issue: “much of today’s wealth is a product of the globalization of the unsustainable world economy of ever-higher extraction, growth, and consumption, where violence, extreme inequality, and ecological risk-taking are the norms.”

He wants a new deep green global movement that limits consumption and aims to change the fundamental human preference for growth. He calls for transforming the anti-establishment, anti-consumption movement — which seeks to replace the annual shopping bonanza Black Friday with the protest gesture Buy Nothing Day — into a more mainstream platform everyone can get behind. He’s hoping some clever messaging and advertising will make reduced consumption more palatable.

Perhaps not buying things in the first place can become a moral good, just as throwing away unloved things has become one in Marie Kondo’s best-selling ode to minimalism, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. One reporter in London actually didn’t buy anything she didn’t absolutely need for a year and survived. Dauvergne wants everyone to take responsibility for their own consumption and reduce their ecological footprints to a “fair Earth share.” For those in rich Western countries, it means setting a new example before it’s too late.

Landscape Architects Announce Call for Presentations for 2017 Annual Meeting

ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting / ASLA
ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting / ASLA

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has released its call for presentations for the 2017 Annual Meeting and EXPO, which will take place October 20-23, 2017 in Los Angeles. More than 6,000 landscape architects and allied professionals are expected to attend.

The meeting will feature a diverse spectrum of industry experts speaking on a wide range of subjects, from sustainable design and best practices to new materials and technologies.

More than 130 education sessions and field sessions will be presented during the meeting, providing attendees with the opportunity to earn up to 21 professional development hours under the Landscape Architecture Continuing Education System™ (LA CES™).

Many of the sessions will also qualify for continuing education credit with the Green Building Certification Institute (toward LEED AP credential maintenance), the American Institute of Architects, the American Institute of Certified Planners, and other allied professional organizations and state registration boards.

Education session speakers selected from this process will receive a full complimentary registration to the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting and may also be eligible for reimbursement for one night’s hotel stay at an official ASLA hotel (an estimated $750 value). Landscape architecture professionals wishing to present at the New Orleans meeting need to be active members of ASLA. Allied professionals are encouraged to both submit presentations and speak but are not required to be members of the Society.

The deadline for education session proposals is February 1, 2017. Submit your session proposal today.