Interview with Mitchell Silver on NYC’s Game Changing Park System

Mitchell Silver / NYC Parks and Recreation
Mitchell Silver / NYC Parks and Recreation

Mitchell Silver is commissioner of the New York City Departments of Parks and Recreation. Silver is past president of the American Planning Association (APA) and an award-winning planner with 30 years of experience.

In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the Community Parks Initiative, which aims to improve historically underfunded parks in densely populated and growing neighborhoods with higher than average concentrations of poverty. Some $285 million has been set aside for this effort, which will lead to the full re-imagining of 67 parks. Your department has broken ground in some 35 parks. What do communities want most for their new spaces after all those years of deferred maintenance? What are some common elements in these new places?

First, they want the asphalt gone. Most of these parks were just play spaces with asphalt. They want trees and green space. Even if it’s synthetic turf, they want a softer surface. Second, they want multi-generational spaces. We have an aging population and want make sure we have seating areas, gathering spaces, so it isn’t just a playground. And then, people want fitness equipment, or adult play equipment, which is a big trend right now. People want to come out and be healthy. And spray showers, because, if you have a pool, you can only use it a few months a year. With spray showers, you can still play on the same surface in the winter. In the summertime, they’re self activated, you can just cool off and enjoy without getting fully wet. Those were some of the primary ones, but number one is people want the asphalt gone. They want to go from gray to green.

Another exciting initiative you’re leading: Parks Without Borders. Some $50 million will be spent on improving park access through “opening sight lines, beautifying edges, adjusting furnishings.” Part of this will include lowering all those tall chain-link fences, unappealing gates, and fixing the sidewalks lining the parks. Can you talk about the connection between a park and it surrounding streets? Why focus on the borders? Why are they so important?

Frederick Law Olmsted once said the sidewalk adjacent to the park is the outer park. If you look at Prospect Park and Central Park, the sidewalk is part of the park. When I came on board, I recognized that in our city charter, the parks department not only oversees the parks, but the sidewalks adjoining the parks. The park doesn’t end at the fence line or the wall, it actually ends at the curb and beyond.

The second point is park land represents 14 percent of the city’s footprint. Streets and sidewalks represents another 26 percent. So in other words, 40 percent of New York City is within the public realm. We own it, yet the average citizen does not know where the parks department property ends and the department of transportation property begins. And guess what? They don’t care. They want a seamless public realm.

That gave birth to the Parks Without Borders. Parks aren’t just islands of green space; they’re connected to our entire public realm. Parks Without Borders help us create a more seamless experience at the edges, entrances, and adjacent park spaces. We don’t have to buy new land; we own it. We just have to program it differently, so we provide a better experience.

Parks without Borders / NYC Parks and Recreation
Parks without Borders / NYC Parks and Recreation

Are you concerned about security when you lower all those fences?

We’re always concerned about security. But here’s the good thing about Parks Without Borders: We met with our police department and they fully support the effort. Why? Because when you lower the fences, it increases natural surveillance. There are now more eyes on the park. We’re also removing landscaping and vegetation and other obstacles that block views. People who want to do bad things do not want to be seen. By removing the obstacles, improving the lighting, and increasing the sight lines into the park, we can actually make parks safer. Part of Parks Without Borders is also a public safety campaign.

We need fences for children to play and for certain recreation, but, for the most part, we don’t really need them. Without fences, we can create a more seamless experience.

Parks Without Borders is about making parks more welcoming, open, turning them into the living rooms of the city. It’s about removing all of these tall fences where young people feel, “Why are you imprisoning me in this public space?” We’re no longer in the ’80s and ’90s anymore. Parks are safe.

Another part of Parks Without Borders is bringing free Wi-Fi to city parks. New York City parks and recreation has partnered with AT&T. You’ve piloted benches that enable you to recharge your phone via solar panel while browsing on Wi-Fi. But aren’t parks meant to be an escape from technology in urban life? Doesn’t time spent downloading apps diminish time enjoying Central Park?

We carefully look at the demographics. From the Greatest generation, to the Boomer generation, and the X, Y, Z generations, people experience parks in different ways. Years ago in Bryant Park, there would be couples using the movable chairs, enjoying their public space. Today, people go by themselves with their smartphones. The smartphone is the most necessary device. It connects people to the world. I’m totally fine with that. Some people go to parks purposely to read a book, but they can also be alone with their smartphone.

People may want to look for something within the park, download a map to see where they’re going, meet up with a friend, or pull out their phone and take photographs and selfies and tweet them out. We want to encourage those activities.

Soofa Charging Bench / NYC Parks and Recreation
Soofa Charging Bench / NYC Parks and Recreation

For me, technology and parks go together. I love taking pictures of people taking pictures in parks. Very often, you know you have a popular park when someone pulls out their phone and they start taking selfies.

We’ve put in charging stations at beaches. Who knows? Maybe you may can meet your future husband or wife getting your phone charged on the beach. I don’t see any disconnect: Technology and parks definitely go together.

Beach Charging Station / NYC Parks and Recreation
Beach Charging Station / NYC Parks and Recreation

You said the newly-rebuilt 5.5 mile Rockaway Boardwalk is a part of New York City’s “first line of defense against climate change.” The boardwalk features “multiple layers of protection” with six miles of planted dunes backed by concrete retaining walls. When the next super storm hits, how is that reconstructed shoreline expected to perform? And how do you know?

Super Storm Sandy established a new reality for New York City. We never thought we were that vulnerable. In New York City, we have 520 miles of coastline and 155 miles are within parks. So in each neighborhood, we’re looking at a different approach of how to address risks, but there’s no question our parks are now the first line of defense.

In the Rockaway, we worked with our landscape architects and engineers. We did beach replenishment. We put in dunes. We use concrete as opposed to piles of wood. What we’ve built will do a much better job at saving life and property. What we’ve built is stronger and better.

Rockaway Beach Protective Dunes / NYC Parks and Recreation
Rockaway Beach Protective Dunes / NYC Parks and Recreation

And that’s our goal moving forward. Solutions will vary between different neighborhoods, but the Rockaway shows one example of a very vulnerable neighborhood that now has a concrete boardwalk that’s reinforced with dunes on both sides.

Clearly we’re going to be tested one day. We hope not soon.

Parks, plazas, even playgrounds, can be part of a city’s system for protecting itself against storms and floods. As the Big U, the set of parks that double as berms, take shape in Lower Manhattan, your city is showing the way forward on how to create protective infrastructure that doubles as public parks. How do roles and responsibilities change when you have a $350 million dollar piece of public multi-use infrastructure charged with protecting billions of dollars of real estate in Lower Manhattan? Are you creating a governance model for this system that other cities can use?

Under our previous mayor and current mayor, the Mayor’s Office for Resiliency, Recovery and Resiliency has been the overarching coordinating agency that works with all the relevant agencies, such as parks, environmental protection, and transportation. They take the lead role, even though all the resilient infrastructure is placed in the park. The Big U is not just about green infrastructure but also acts as a protective infrastructure to protect life and property.

ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Rebuild by Design, The Big U / BIG and Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners
ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Rebuild by Design, The Big U / BIG and Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners

We need to be a resilient city. Sea levels are increasing over time, and New York City is a coastal city. We recognize we have to plan for change now. All these projects are also taking into account sea level rise in a city that is basically an island, except the Bronx, which is part of the mainland.

The Office of Recovery and Resiliency is a model that other cities should emulate. They have designers, engineers, planning professionals, and policy makers that focus on resiliency efforts throughout the world.  They focus on this day in and day out. Parks will then bring in their experience because we know plant material, horticulture. We know how to plan for different type of environments in our city and how to protect the environment. But an overarching agency that spends all of their time focused on recovery and resiliency is a good coordinating mechanism.

You told The New York Times that part of your Sunday routine is to visit a park you’ve never been, a new one out of the whopping 1,700 parks in five boroughs you oversee. You see who is visiting, take photos, document issues. What have your Sunday adventures taught you about the park system that you couldn’t read in a briefing book?

Taking these surprise visits, I’ve learned that our parks are cleaner than I thought. I get a lot of reports about people complaining how filthy our parks are. That is not the case. There were a couple of instances, but our parks are a lot better maintained than I would believe just by doing these spontaneous visits.

Second, New Yorkers love parks. I spend a lot of time watching where people are sitting, what they’re doing. On a hot sunny day, a spot under a tree is a very popular spot.

People enjoying the shade under a tree at Sunset Park / Mitchell Silver
People enjoying the shade under a tree at Sunset Park / Mitchell Silver

I look at how different generations are using the spaces, what seniors and families are doing.

I knew we lacked capital investment and, so, going into certain parks, I knew we had to focus on finding a way for some of our lesser known parks to get an infusion of capital. That has became obvious to me.

There are certain parks that did have some maintenance issues, but I realized staff did not have the proper equipment. I didn’t go into these parks to whack staff. I want to find out what I need to give them to do their jobs better. Now we have a whole new approach to make sure the service for our equipment is better and staff have the tools they need to maintain this park.

I live in Brooklyn, I grew up in Brooklyn. I had no idea we had such an incredible park system. I was blown away by parks I’d never heard of. I just came from Bowne Park in Flushing, Queens, which is beautiful. I’m going to parks and saying, “I cannot believe I’m in New York City.” I had a chance to take a canoe down the Bronx River and I was transported to another place.

I want to go on my own, unannounced without staff, just to be free to explore and see how people are using spaces. I love photography, so enjoy taking pictures of some of my favorite moments in these parks.

Lastly, given Mayor de Blasio’s focus on creating One City in NYC, what role do you think public spaces like parks, greenways, playgrounds play in reducing inequality? Can they reduce poverty?

Parks are free. They’re democratic spaces. Regardless of your race, income, age, parks are accessible to everyone.

We do have our quality regional parks — Central Park, High Line, Prospect Park — open to everyone. But we want to take that a step further: Every neighborhood deserves to have a quality space. We want everyone to be within a ten minute walk to a park. But it’s not just the proximity, we want that park to be a quality park.

We launched the Community Parks Initiative because we believe parks are places where people connect, get healthy, and relax. Having that in every neighborhood addresses inequality. We want to make sure we’re fair about how we invest in our parks, and all young kids have a chance to enjoy green spaces and get healthy.

I can’t say parks address poverty per se, but they certainly address inequality. Everyone deserves a quality space in New York City, where density and open space go together. You cannot have one without the other. You don’t just want to have affordable housing. You want to have a quality neighborhood with adequate public space.

Best Books of 2016

Capability Brown: Designing the English Landscape / Rizzoli Press
Capability Brown: Designing the English Landscape / Rizzoli Press

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:

Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens (National Trust, 2016); Capability Brown: Designing the English Landscape (Rizzoli, 2016); and Moving Heaven and Earth: Capability Brown’s Gift of Landscape (Unicorn Press, 2016).
All three books were published this year to celebrate the 300th anniversary of English landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Together they paint a rich portrait of this master landscape designer and his most influential works.

Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change (Timber Press, 2016)
Larry Weaner, one of the world’s top meadow designers, and Thomas Christopher have created a reference book on ecological design for gardeners and landscape designers and architects. They write: “By following ecological principles, we can have landscapes that are alive with color, friendly to local wildlife, and evolve over time—with much less work and effort.”

Environmentalism of the Rich (MIT Press, 2016)
Peter Dauvergne, a professor at the University of British Columbia, asks the hard questions: is environmentalism, as it’s practiced in the developed word, failing? Is the mainstream environmental movement, with its focus on incremental gains, failing the planet? Erik Assadourian, Senior Fellow, Worldwatch Institute, writes that the book “is required reading for anyone wanting to help ram the movement off its current dead-end path and build a new deep green movement.”

Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (Liverlight, 2016)
In his latest book, renowned biologist and author E.O. Wilson makes the case for both preserving and restoring half of the Earth, which he believes is possible if we set aside some of the richest places of biodiversity on land and in the oceans. Read The Dirt review.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World (Greystone Books, 2016)
Peter Wohlleben, who spent twenty years with the German forestry commission, and Tim Flannery, a scientist and author, ask: “Are trees social beings?” They are convinced the forest is actually a social network.

The Long, Long Life of Trees (Yale University Press, 2016)
Fiona Stafford, a professor who focuses on romantic poetry at Oxford University, has published a lyrical volume on the history of seventeen common trees, including ash, apple, pine, oak, cypress, and willow. She delves into history, paying homage to important specimens from the past, and also explains trees’ critical role in the future fight against climate change.

Nature and Cities: The Ecological Imperative for Urban Planning and Design (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2016)
In their new book, editors Frederick Steiner, FASLA, George Thompson, and Armando Carbonell have made complex ideas about urban ecological design incredibly accessible. They make a convincing argument that “ecological literacy” is an “essential base” for anyone involved in urban planning and design today. There are 17 thought-provoking essays from leading landscape architects and planners from around the world.

Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist (Jewish Museum, 2016)
The Jewish Museum in New York City has put together the definitive book on the influential Brazilian landscape architect and artist. In addition to designing more than 2,000 gardens, Burle Marx created paintings, drawings, tile mosaics, sculpture, textile design, jewelry, theater costumes, and more.

Toward an Urban Ecology: SCAPE / Landscape Architecture (The Monacelli Press, 2016)
Kate Orff, ASLA, and her team at SCAPE have created a beautiful book with engaging full-page color photography that delves into Breakwaters, their Rebuild by Design project in Staten Island, and others. The goal of their projects is to “bring together social and ecological systems to sustainably remake our cities and landscapes.” They describe the book as “part monograph, part manual, part manife­sto.”

Site, Sight, Insight: Essays on Landscape Architecture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)
Landscape historian John Dixon Hunt, who has just retired from University of Pennsylvania, collects twelve of his recent essays in one book. He takes the reader on an intellectual ride, explaining the ways we perceive landscapes, and in turn asking us to examine our own baggage when viewing them, so that we may gain greater insights into landscapes’ true meaning and our own emotions.

Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs (Random House, 2016)
In this new collection of the short writings and speeches of Jane Jacobs, one of the most influential thinkers on the built environment, editors Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring have done readers a great service. They’ve brought together the best of this brilliant autodidact’s arguments for why planners and designers must never forget the importance of small-scale diversity given it results in interesting cities created, first and foremost, for people. Read The Dirt review.

Water Infrastructure: Equitable Deployment of Resilient Systems (Columbia University, 2016)
Developed for the UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda, S. Brye Sarte and Morana M. Stipisic, with the Sherwood Institute and Columbia University Urban Design Lab, have created a well-organized guide to resilient green infrastructure for developing-world cities. There are smart solutions for water pollution, climate change, and multiple types of flooding, with real-world examples.

Wild by Design (Island Press, 2016)
A leading advocate of the “wild” landscape movement, landscape architect Margie Ruddick, ASLA, explains how she carefully balances ecological conservation and restoration with a strong sense of design. Ruddick is the 2013 winner of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. Learn more about Ruddick and the book.

Also, worth knowing: buying these books through The Dirt or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs. And if you are based near Washington, D.C. we also recommend checking out the National Building Museum’s fantastic book store.

A Progress Report from the Cutting Edge of Resilient Design

Resilient Bridgeport / Rebuild by Design
Resilient Bridgeport / Rebuild by Design

“We don’t know what resilience policy will look like in the new administration. There are lots of unknowns, but we can take solace in what we do know,” said Amy Chester, director of Rebuild by Design, at an event in Washington, D.C. that provided updates on how the six teams devising novel resilient designs in the tri-state area are doing two years into planning and design.

Rebuild by Design, a unique cross-sector initiative supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Initiative, and numerous non-profit organizations, was created by President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which hit the east coast in 2012 and damaged or destroyed 650,000 homes across 13 states. 148 teams submitted proposals to create new layers of defenses that could also be beautiful public amenities. 6 teams went onto receive nearly $1 billion in public financing.

Each team provided a brief update:

Bridgeport, Connecticut (see image above): David Kooris, with the Connecticut state government, explained how his team received $10 million from Rebuild by Design to create a comprehensive plan to make the low-lying, vulnerable South End more resilient to flooding. The funds, which are much less than what they’ve asked for, gave them extra capacity to plan. From that effort, they learned transit-oriented development, combined with surge protection, green infrastructure, and micro-grids should be core of their approach. They have since received another $54 million from HUD’s national resilience competition. Those funds will be split between implementing the project and developing a “state-wide policy” that can guide other coastal Connecticut resilient projects.

Alan Plattus at Yale University, who is involved in the research side of the project, explained how their plan will link two Olmsted-designed parks, Seaside Park, which is already tasked with surge protection duties, and Beardsley Park, at the mouth of the water system. Plattus thinks Olmsted’s original vision was to connect them. Bridgeport will begin implementation in 2019. Learn more.

Hudson River / NJ DEP
Hudson River resilience project / NJ DEP

Hudson River and Meadowlands, New Jersey: Hoboken, the 4th most dense city in America, received $230 million to control flooding. Alexis Taylor, New Jersey state bureau of flood resilience, explained how a network of berms and gates will be created to protect the vast majority of the city during storms. All the infrastructure will be created in public right-of-ways:  alleys, plazas, and parks. An undulating sea wall will be aligned towards the interior of the city, rather than the coast. Vital infrastructure is protected. A network of green infrastructure also helps reduce inland flooding.

Taylor said about “85 percent of the city will be on the dry side, but this benefits 100 percent of the population because Hoboken will no longer be an island cut-off when it floods. All evacuation routes will be dry. This plan strikes the right balance.” Learn more in this presentation. Alternative 3 was finally selected by New Jersey’s government after much community input. Balmori Associates are the landscape architects.

Separately, the Meadowlands project received $150 million, which is far less than the $850 million they requested for the 9 miles of flood protection measures needed. As a result, the team is created a set of modular flood protection systems on streets, a “kit of parts, pre-cast, that can be easily scaled or replicated, and enables prototyping.” Pretty smart. MIT CAU, ZUS, and URBANISTEN are the landscape architects and planners on the team. Learn more.

Meadowlands / MIT CAU, Zus, Urbanisten
Meadowlands / MIT CAU, Zus, Urbanisten
Living Breakwaters / SCAPE Landscape Architecture
Living Breakwaters / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Staten Island, New York City: Alex Zablocki, New York governor’s office of storm recovery introduced Pippa Brashear, ASLA, SCAPE Landscape Architecture, and their project, Living Breakwaters, which will result in a “necklace of breakwaters” off the Staten Island coast that will attenuate the impact of storm surges, build back beaches, create habitat for millions of oysters and fish, and “reconnect people with the shoreline.” SCAPE modeled the shoreline with their engineering team and tested specially-designed concrete that will enable biogenic build-up. Working with the One Billion Oyster Project, they are collecting literally tons of shells from restaurants to reuse in their breakwater reefs and educating the public about their mission. Brashear said the citizens advisory group was critical to the process, as was going out into neighboring communities to “show progress,” and make public events fun, through the use of virtual reality headsets and games.

Final designs will be ready in 2018. They are now working on schematic designs and environmental assessments before partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on implementation. Learn more.

Living with the Bay / Rebuild by Design
Living with the Bay / Rebuild by Design

Long Island, New York: Nassau County received some $125 million, less than the $1 billion they asked for, said Laura Manufo, New York governor’s office of storm recovery. A layered solution will focus on integrated stormwater management along a greenway corridor that follows the Mill River, and preventing flooding and storm surge impacts from the bay through “strategically deploying protective measures like constructed marshes and dikes, which in turn will improve water quality and the bay ecology.”

Given the team received far less funds than they hoped, they needed to re-scope, explained Michael Bomar with Tetra Tech. “We narrowed the focus to low and middle income neighborhoods. One thousand acres is more manageable.” But, still, the team is dealing with 45 separate municipal and other stakeholders. An extensive team includes landscape architects H+N+S. Learn more.

The Big U berms / BIG
The Big U berm in park / BIG

Manhattan, New York: The Big U, which received the lion’s share of the Rebuild by Design financing, with $355 million, is designed to numerous communities and billions of real estate along the tip of Manhattan. The Big U will create an integrated system of compartments that can be closed in storms. The first phase to be built will protect the Lower East side, ranging from Montgomery Street up to 23rd Street in Stuyvesant Town, explained Carrie Grassi, City of New York. Most of the infrastructure will overlay the 2.4-mile-long East River Park. New berms accessible via bridges and a series of gates will protect critical infrastructure and communities. Protective measures average 8-9-feet-tall but reach up to 16 feet in some places.

Travis Bunt with One Architecture, a member of the team led by BIG, which also includes Starr Whitehouse landscape architects, said the preliminary design work is done, but now details must be refined. Construction is expected to begin in early 2019.

Hunts Point Lifelines / Penn Design / OLIN, via Rebuild by Design
Hunts Point Lifelines / Penn Design / OLIN, via Rebuild by Design

Hunt’s Point, South Bronx: Jessica Colon, City of New York, said Hunt’s Point has suffered from years of disinvestment and bad planning decisions. It’s a mile from Manhattan, but feels like a world away. Hunt’s Point has a major market, which is one of the key food distribution hubs in the tri-state area, an industrial area, and a smaller residential area. The South Bronx team asked for $800 million but only received $20 million, so they decided to invest that in more planning. Through that process, the community decided to focus on coastal and energy resilience. They have received another $125 million to prototype projects. One realization that came out of their research: critical facilities are not the biggest worry; the “problems are more at the building level.”

Colon said the South Bronx is now at the “vanguard of adaptation. They’ve been ignored by the government for so long. They’ve been to hell and back. They can survive.” Design and construction on prototype projects begins in 2018. OLIN and PennDesign are the planners and landscape architects. After hearing from the teams, Jessica Grannis at the Georgetown Climate Center shared findings from her research into how “public officials overcame challenges to make these projects happen.” She offered a summary of key take-aways, which included:

  • Use citizens advisory groups. “If the budgets are constrained, have the community set the priorities.”
  • Create a long-term vision to drive policy and regulatory change. Create regional coordinators, as many issues cross jurisdictional boundaries.
  • Design berms with benefits. Coastal defenses can offer multiple social and environmental benefits.
  • Coordinate the layers of authority involved in nature-based coastal resilience projects. In inter-tidal areas, the federal government, state, and local governments will all have a say. Involve regulators early on in a coordinated way.
  • Leverage public right-of-ways to avoid permitting and ownership issues.

For Grannis, if Rebuild by Design is successful, the projects will not only influence state and federal policy-making for public projects but also for private development.

And she thinks all of this work should have bipartisan support: “Resilience is more important than ever. If you are a Democrat or Republican, you want safe and prosperous communities.”

Diana Balmori, a Creative Force, Passes Away

Diana Balmori / Portrait of a Creative
Diana Balmori / Portrait of a Creative

In the summer of 2012, I arranged a time to meet Diana Balmori, FASLA, for an interview. Looking for her in the hotel lobby, I bumped into a figure wearing gigantic bright-red glasses, a tutu, and punk-rock sneakers. There she was smiling, equal parts incredibly inventive and generous.

Balmori, who passed away this week at age 84, was a passionate advocate for rethinking the status quo. Her 2011 book Groundwork with Joel Sanders, called on designers to “overcome the false dichotomy between architecture and landscape.” Rather than perceiving buildings as isolated objects floating in a natural landscape, designers can see buildings and landscapes as “linked interactive systems that heal the environment.”

In 1993, she published Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony, which Edward O. Wilson called a “manual for improving a large part of the American environment.” Since then, the calls for re-envisioning our residential mono-cultural landscapes have only grown louder and more widespread.

Years of thinking about landscape and teaching at Yale University School of Architecture and Forestry culminated in her 2010 book, A Landscape Manifesto, which outlines 25 ambitious ideas. She presented these ideas to a packed crowd at the National Building Museum a few years ago. My favorite of them: “we must create a new urban identity from the nature underlying cities.”

Beyond her writing, Balmori also saw many important projects built. Married to architect Cesar Pelli, she was partner in charge of landscape architecture at his firm. She then struck out to create her own firm, Balmori Associates.

Spanish-born Balmori was perhaps as central to the rebirth of riverfront Bilbao as Frank Gehry was with his Guggenheim Museum. Bilbao, which is the “Detroit of Spain,” took down its industrial waterfront, freeing up a valuable piece of land that would eventually be the site of the new museum. The city wanted all the transportation infrastructure – buses, trains, and a new subway – to meet in the central part of the city and connect more closely with the river.

Balmori won an international competition for the district, Abandoibarra, to create the master plan, particularly the open space component. Her team created a linear riverfront park, a green boulevard for the light rail line, a series of paths to bring residents down to the water, and a central park and pathway from the center of Bilbao to the waterfront. Over the past decade, she’s been designing and implementing multiple parks in the master plan.

Andoibarra Masterplan / Balmori Associates
Andoibarra Masterplan / Balmori Associates
Andoibarra Masterplan / Balmori Associates
Andoibarra Masterplan / Balmori Associates
Andoibarra Masterplan / Balmori Associates
Andoibarra Masterplan / Balmori Associates

Her other major projects included a master plan for Sejong, a new city for the national government of South Korea; the master plan for the 9-mile-long Farmington Canal linear park, which cuts through Yale University’s campus in Connecticut; the Rebuild by Design landscape plan and design for Hoboken, New Jersey; and the realization of deceased land artist Robert Smithson’s vision, Floating Island Traveling Around Manhattan.

Floating Island Traveling Around Manhattan / Balmori Associates
Floating Island Traveling Around Manhattan / Balmori Associates

Of her projects, she said: “I think this sense of invention, of not knowing how my landscapes are going to be used is exciting. People use spaces in ways I hadn’t imagined. I love that.”

In addition to teaching at Yale and running her own firm, she served on the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts and was a senior fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Learn more about Balmori in this interview.

A memorial for her will be held in New York City in January 2017. All are welcome to attend. To receive an invitation, please email memorial@balmori.com.

President-elect Trump Seeks to Rollback Progress on the Climate

Donald Trump / Wikipedia
Donald Trump / Wikipedia

After a vitriolic campaign that exacerbated racial and class divisions, President-elect Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president in January. Under his administration, the Republicans will be the only conservative party in the world that disputes human activity is warming the climate. He has called global warming “bullshit” and a “hoax” invented by the Chinese to make the U.S. non-competitive. Since beginning his transition, Trump has empowered a radical climate change denier and pursued his promises to roll back President Obama’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote clean energy, and protect the environment.

If Trump is committed to uniting the country, as he has stated, he will need to steer towards a more moderate course, given the vast majority of the country supports climate action, even 48 percent of Republicans. A poll last year found that “83 percent of Americans, including 61 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of independents, say that if nothing is done to reduce emissions, global warming will be a very or somewhat serious problem in the future.”

According to The New York Times, Myron Ebell, who runs environmental and climate policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and a noted climate change denier, has been tasked with leading Trump’s transition efforts for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Ebell described himself as a “contrarian by nature.” He has led the Cooler Heads Coalition, which “focused on dispelling the myths of global warming by exposing flawed economic, scientific, and risk analysis.” And he argues that “a lot of third-, fourth- and fifth-rate scientists have gotten a long ways” by embracing climate change.

In some of the most heated moments of the campaign, President-elect Trump threatened to abolish the EPA wholesale or shrink it down to a solely-advisory function. But, in September, he back-tracked on that statement, saying he supports clean air and “crystal clear, crystal clean” water. The Guardian quoted him: “I will refocus the EPA on its core mission of ensuring clean air and clean, safe drinking water for all Americans. I believe firmly in conserving our wonderful natural resources and beautiful natural habitats. My environmental agenda will be guided by true specialists in conservation, not those with radical political agendas.”

The Paris climate agreement is in Trump’s sights as well. After years of negotiation, the agreement was ratified by countries representing 56.87 of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions in late October, bringing it into legal force. Even if Trump’s administration pulls out of the agreement, other countries are likely to ratify, letting the agreement stand. World leaders have called it the last best chance to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). More than 360 American companies just issued a letter urging Trump to continue U.S. participation in the accord. “Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk,” the companies wrote.

Still, Trump is unlikely to provide the billions Obama committed to developing countries to help them mitigate and adapt to climate change. These funds were critical to winning the support of India and other developing countries.

Climate change is a global concern, and linked to many other areas of negotiation. Aggressive anti-climate actions by a Trump administration would severely damage relations with key European partners and even lead them to impose trade sanctions on American high-carbon products. Thankfully, China has said it will stay in the agreement, regardless of how the U.S. acts, but lack of action could also adversely impact the U.S.’s ability to reach agreement with the Chinese on a range of important economic, trade, and political issues.

Trump also promises to end support for clean energy, instead focusing on boosting gas, oil, and coal production. Trump’s website calls for the U.S. to become a major energy producer: “America will unleash an energy revolution that will transform us into a net energy exporter, leading to the creation of millions of new jobs, while protecting the country’s most valuable resources – our clean air, clean water, and natural habitats. America is sitting on a treasure trove of untapped energy. In fact, America possesses more combined coal, oil, and natural gas resources than any other nation on Earth. These resources represent trillions of dollars in economic output and countless American jobs, particularly for the poorest Americans.”

In his effort to open up fossil fuel energy production, Trump will attempt to gut Obama’s clean coal plan, roll-back important auto-emission standards, open up federal lands to oil and gas production, approve the Keystone XL and Dakota access pipelines, and end billions in federal support for clean power. Apparently, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is in the running to head the department of the Interior. She has expressed her enthusiasm for opening up public lands for rampant energy development.

Still, many states and cities are moving forward with ambitious renewable energy plans, which are unlikely to change, even with the loss of federal support. The Georgetown Climate Center found that in 19 states, both red and blue, a “dramatic shift” to clean energy is already underway. And the U.S. Energy Information Administration has said coal is simply not competitive, economically, and it’s not clear whether it can be once again, even with a sweep of deregulation.

Trump wants the U.S. to have developing country-levels of economic growth, which he seems to believe is only possible if important environmental safeguards are gutted. But Democrat-led states like California and New York are not likely to roll over if he pursues federal deregulation that impacts the health of their populations and quality of their environment. If he pursues these plans, we can expect many state-driven legal cases coming. Environmental organizations are also gearing up for a fight. “We intend to fight like mad, both in the courts and in the streets, to resist any rollbacks by the Trump administration,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, told AP.

Again, our hope is Trump will seek to unify the country. If that’s the case, President-elect Trump: the vast majority of Americans believe climate change is a cause of major concern, and their concerns should be heeded. The alternative will be lawsuits and protests, and an increasingly fraught approach to the climate, with responsible, globally-minded states, cities, communities, and companies leading the way forward.

Interview with Kona Gray on Greening Tourism

Kona Gray, ASLA / EDSA
Kona Gray, ASLA / EDSA

Kona Gray, PLA, ASLA, is principal at EDSA in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and immediate past-president of the board of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF).

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans.  

EDSA has designed many high-end hotels and resorts around the world. Many of these new hotels and resorts are found on beach fronts. For example, the Ritz Carlton Fort Lauderdale in Florida is located just a few hundred feet from the Atlantic Ocean. With recent estimates showing that climate change will cause sea levels to rise 6 to 15 feet by 2100, what do you see as the future for beach front amenities? How is EDSA helping these places adapt for a changing future?

For EDSA, it begins in the planning stages. A conscious assessment and understanding of the carrying capacity of a place is an essential precursor to the design of a parcel. In the case of coastal developments, like the Ritz Carlton Fort Lauderdale, this means respecting and protecting the site’s natural systems.

With innovative design and strategic solutions, we seek to continually improve the resilience of each development project we have been honored to steward. At the same time, we have a dialogue with developers and government entities to ensure protection of the existing shoreline, beach access, and related resort venues.

One great example of protective planning measures can be found through the enhancement and preservation of coastal dunes, whose natural placement protects coastal areas more effectively than any man-made measure. Similarly, ESDA supports the protection of coral reef, wetlands, and mangrove restoration, and establishing beach setbacks based on erosion trends and encouraging landward retreat of existing structures from dynamic shorelines. These measures assist developers to maximize their investment, while protecting the natural beauty with which visitors and residents interact.

If the industry disregards nature’s capacity, then we will certainly face many challenges in the years to come. However, it is our aim to ensure the vitality of beach front amenities.

EDSA has also designed a number of eco-resorts. What is the attraction?

Eco-resorts attract those who want to engage in an environment that is intricately tied to the culture, people, and region where it resides. Boutique eco-resorts are authentically contextual, sustainable, respectful, and celebratory of their natural surroundings. Meanwhile, larger hotel brands are now attempting to mimic this sustainable ideology. They’re catching up quickly.

They’re going to places where they haven’t gone before because they realize there’s now a market for eco-resorts and long-term benefits to the implementation of green development measures. From bigger initial site assessments to smaller scale responsibility measures like maintenance adjustments, recycling, and amenity re-positioning, the tourism industry is really flipping the old paradigm of “build first, measure impact later” on its head.

What we’ve learned from our experiences is that we need to advocate for nature’s preservation by introducing these eco-friendly principles to all projects in which we are involved.

Can you talk a bit more about those guidelines? Some have expressed concerns about whether an eco-resort can truly be environmental and minimize impacts on the natural environment. For example, some eco-resorts are challenging to get to, so there’s a lot of energy spent to travel to these places. How do you balance appreciation for nature, but also access to it?

It’s a challenge. I mean, essentially, many eco-resorts are remote by nature. We have been involved in some in the middle of deserts. There are others that are on secluded tropical islands, and it takes time and energy to get there.

What we have learned is it’s important to balance energy spent. When you arrive, you should not be using anything detrimental to the environment. Whether it’s through the use of bicycles, public shuttles, electric vehicles or ride sharing, and improving overall walkability as a part of an overall vacation package, it’s very important to leave as little impact on the environment as possible.

ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. Crosswater's Ecolodge, Nankun Mountain Reserve, Guandong, China / EDSA
ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. Crosswater’s Ecolodge, Nankun Mountain Reserve, Guandong, China / EDSA
ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. Crosswater's Ecolodge, Nankun Mountain Preserve Guandong, China / EDSA
ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. Crosswater’s Ecolodge, Nankun Mountain Preserve Guandong, China / EDSA

The most successful eco-resorts net out at zero. They give back to the grid. Many times they are fully self-sufficient, so, they’re not depleting any resources.

EDSA has also planned and designed many golf courses. How can you minimize the impact of them on the environment? In developing countries, more and more people want to play golf. In China, for example, golf is booming. How do you get a Chinese golf course developer to avoid some of the errors we’ve made?

Golf is global. The Masters Series and USGA are actively engaging the global market, as all major tournaments now seek international players to join their ranks. Golf is now part of the Olympics.

Ask anyone who is a golfer—and I am—and you will find that this sport is growing and evolving with the changing ideals of consumers. As demographics, eco-awareness, and financial value propositions change, adjustments to the traditional golf amenity are explored. This is a phenomenon that’s not going to go away.

Golf has always been an international sport. Scotland’s St. Andrews Golf Course is the prototype of the game, as we know it today. It has outstanding beauty and sensibility of the natural environment.

While golf is often considered an elite sport, I have been impressed by the First Tee program that welcomes inner-city children and others alike to get involved in the game at an early age.

From an environmental perspective, golf is challenging. Consumption of golf is dynamic. Golf takes up a lot of land, and there are a lot of things done to golf courses to keep them green, as we know. Some courses are not as environmental as they should be, but the golf course industry is already at the cutting-edge of sustainability efforts with innovations in resource management increasing at a rapid pace.

The Collier’s Reserve, outside of Naples, Florida, one of our early golf course communities, is an Audubon course, so they’re using all the proper techniques to make sure no pesticides that are detrimental to the environment. But the other thing we learned from that course is the open space created is so valuable. Not only is it used for golf, it’s also a wildlife corridor. When we began our master plan, we mapped the way the fauna and flora worked throughout the region and kept those corridors open and tied them together.

Collier's Reserve / EDSA
Collier’s Reserve / EDSA

From a real estate perspective, golf is important for maximizing residential properties, creating an identity of manicured beauty, a brand of exclusivity, and a fabric for social connectivity. However, much of the world has been over-golfed. There are many courses that are now being turned into parks. We’ve also seen a lot of golf courses reduced from eighteen holes to nine holes.

This is happening because golf doesn’t typically make money. It’s an extremely expensive venture. It’s difficult to pay for that with a club membership unless you have a very expensive club. In an effort to capitalize on these evolving inclinations and pull in a more diverse range of individuals, golf facilities are starting to make some much needed changes.

Some of these new trends in the evolution of golf include: shorter courses so people spend less time out on the green, advanced practice facilities, chipping greens, and putting ranges that are accessible to the entire family – in addition to new kinds of nature-based obstacles and driving ranges. You can enjoy the sport without taking the time or the land required for traditional courses.

EDSA and your studio there in particular have a global focus. How do you ensure your projects have maintained that local feel? How does your firm fully involve the local community in design and development?

EDSA is an international design firm. We’ve learned over the years that it’s so important to entrench yourself in the local context, so we make it a part of our culture to get fully educated about where we’re going. We’ll read travel magazines, Lonely Planet, international news, and review travel websites, so we understand the customs and cultures that relate to the places where we’re going to be. We are fortunate enough to have many people from around the world working at our firm, and so they bring with them that local connection that allows us to focus on what’s important on the ground.

And, once we’re there, we make it a point to work with many local consultants. We don’t go anywhere unless there is a local consultant to assist us. That’s part of our process. Working with them, we learn a lot—about ourselves and the local culture. All the while, we’re working closely with constituents and stakeholders who are going to be involved in the process so we’re designing what they need.

And you also have a global perspective yourself, given you are from Liberia in Western Africa. What do you think American landscape architects can learn from West African landscape architects, and vice versa?

Being global means understanding the world. We are so fortunate to be able to work in all sorts of amazing places. What we know about landscape architecture in the West is important, but it’s not everything. It’s important to tap into local culture and expertise and learn from the people you’re working with.

Our good friend, Hitesh Mehta, FASLA, who is from Kenya, worked closely with us on developing guidelines for eco-resorts and sustainability while employed by EDSA. Many of the projects we worked on together were large-scale planning developments dealing with game reserves or eco-resorts; our teams were always fully integrated with local team members.

Working with local consultants / EDSA
Working with local consultants / EDSA

At the onset of each project, our design charrettes involve a “six senses” process in which we spend time on the ground understanding how things work. The only way to affect the environment in a positive way is to learn from the people there and collaborate with them. It’s very straightforward. It’s very important to not bring something foreign to an environment and try to make it work in the way it would work in the West.

At the ASLA annual meeting in New Orleans, you said, “Landscape architecture in the United States is currently facing a crisis of diversity. African Americans and Latinos together capture less than 10 percent of graduating landscape architects. These demographics fail to reflect that of the wider U.S. population. U.S. census data projects that minorities, now 37 percent of the U.S. population, will constitute 57 percent by 2060.” What is the single most important thing landscape architecture firms should do to increase diversity? What should educators do? And what should ASLA, LAF, TCLF, CELA, our primary organizations, do?

It is our duty to reflect the people we are serving. Firms in our country have a responsibility. They have a responsibility to reflect their clients, they have a responsibility to the environment, and they have a responsibility to humanity. We think it’s important for firms to lead the way and not only conduct outreach but to get heavily involved in all the things related to diversity.

Mark Rios, FASLA, a principal at Rios Clementi Hale Studios, was on our general session panel “Designing for Diversity/Diversity in Design.” His firm is a very good example of how this can be done. His staff is curated, as he said. There are people from all parts of the world, essentially reflecting his client base. That makes business sense.

For educators, this means seeking diverse recruitment. Things have changed, but the needle hasn’t moved that far. Educators need to go to the next level to recruit people from all minority groups.

We have a niche to fill. We have missed an audience that wants to be heard. We need to speak to elementary, middle, and high school students, and follow them all the way through their career path to get them into landscape architecture. If that works for minorities, it’s going to work for everyone.

ASLA, TCLF, the Landscape Architecture Foundation, and CELA also have a major responsibility here to influence and build a diverse community. ASLA has led the way in this by encouraging the President’s Council to sign a Memorandum focused on expanding diversity within its ranks. Recruitment for top talent is key. A major player is CLARB as they focus on licensure to increase representation from minorities.

It’s an exciting time for the robust field to spread its reach. We are confident that a diverse voice will bring about great ideas.
 
You said EDSA is one of the most diverse landscape architecture firms and provides a lot of opportunity for emerging professionals. What about your firm culture enables this? How much further does EDSA need to go?

At EDSA we have fostered an atmosphere that welcomes an ever-growing diversity within our teams. Because of continued outreach to raise awareness about the field of landscape architecture in schools, among young professional groups, and within the overarching development industry, we have been able to attract people from all over the world and increase our pool of diverse applicants. We’ve found that the effort needs to be intentional. We need to reach out and actually physically grab people and bring them into the fold. It’s our goal to steward this diverse talent pool and support its expansion.

Diversity at EDSA / EDSA
Diversity at EDSA / EDSA

It’s a great responsibility to cultivate a thriving field in landscape architecture where men and women forge the path together, where all groups, regardless of race, religion, or ethnic background are welcomed into the diverse tapestry of our company culture. This is what makes EDSA a unique, and important player in the global industry of landscape architecture.

The Hidden Currents of the Landscape

Malven Hills Ley Lines / Wikipedia
Malven Hills Ley Lines / Wikipedia

Chip Sullivan, FASLA, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, believes there are mysteries in our landscapes that defy explanation. In an otherworldly session at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, he bypassed the usual scientific explanations, delving into mythology, mysticism, conspiracies, and irrationality. “Have you been alone in the woods and felt some strange presence? What the hell is that?,” he asked.

Sullivan wants to find out where these ideas about the landscape come from. In the early 1920s in the United Kingdom, amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins came up with the theory of ley lines, which he believed were underlying alignments of landscape forms. And in 1969, author John Mitchell revived the idea in his New Age book The View Over Atlantis, which explored the “hidden currents of the landscape.”

These ideas aren’t new. Chinese Feng Shui practitioners in the East have long associated the landscape with unseen energy flows. In ancient Western mythology, nature’s power has a prominent role. “The woods were once the sacred domain of the gods and goddesses. Apollo had a sacred grove, and Zeus, a prophetic oak.” The Delphic Oracle of ancient Greece sat on a tripod stool over a crack in the earth, “breathing fumes from the earth’s core” when issuing her prophecies. In Ireland, there were sacred wells, which were portals to the underworld. “Today, we throw coins into wishing wells. Why is that?”

Priestess of Delphi (1891) by John Collier / Pinterest
Priestess of Delphi (1891) by John Collier / Pinterest

Like Australian aborigines — with their “dream time that enables them access to a parallel reality” — landscape architects can use dreams to tap into another world of design. For example, Michelangelo apparently came up with his unique steps in the Laurentian Library in Florence in a dream. And Sullivan pointed to surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, who would dream and then quickly paint his visions.

Laurentian steps / ArtTrav
Laurentian steps / ArtTrav

With Robert Hewitt, ASLA, associate professor at Clemson University, Sullivan put together a group design project that unearthed his students’ dreams. He thinks landscape architects can “integrate dreams into the design process.” As an experiment, he asks designers to “put a sketchbook next to your bed and before you go to sleep focus on a a design problem. Upon waking, replay your dream, record the sequence, catalogue ideas.”

The Landscape Imagineer in The Dream Layout / Chip Sullivan
The Landscape Imagineer in The Dream Layout / Chip Sullivan

Landscape architects need to once again connect with the spiritual side, the alchemy of landscape. “Landscape architecture doesn’t turn lead into gold, but it’s the ultimate transmutation of one element into another.” With nature as a guide, landscape architects can make their studios like an alchemist’s library, divining new ways to “sublimate, bio-remediate, and distill” natural elements into new forms and substances.

Like Voodoo priests in Haiti, landscape architects can “use the genius loci, the spirit of a place,” to maximum effect. For example, he believes the crescent shape of the Mississippi River in the New Orleans delta is a sort of amplifying device, like out of Ghostbusters. “There is a reason deltas are a symbol in alchemy. They are the birthplaces of civilization.”

And he then expanded his discussion to the powerful role mythological figures can play in landscapes, given they are an ever-present undercurrent. In the early renaissance-era Nymphaeum of Italy “woodland deities were brought out into the landscape.”

Nymphaeum at Villa Litta Lainate / Italy Creative
Nymphaeum at Villa Litta Lainate / Italy Creative

Muses can be brought back to play a modern role in linking the conscious and subconscious. Today, “we need to put gods and goddesses back into the landscape. Where is the spiritual aspect?”

Building Community Resilience from the Ground Up

Larimer plan / Larimer consenus
Larimer vision / Larimer Consenus

To boost resilience in vulnerable, under-served communities, we need to “build their adaptive capacity, their ability to work together. We need to focus on the ‘software’ of those communities,” argued architect Christine Mondor in a session at the 2016 GreenBuild in Los Angeles. Communities hard hit by population loss, declining incomes, environmental degradation, and widespread health problems in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were the focus of discussion.

Fred Brown, with the Kingsley Association, described how Larimer and Homewood, two predominately African American and poor communities in Pittsburgh, have seen a nearly 80 percent population decline over the past few decades. There, the poverty rate has hit nearly 40 percent. Asthma rates are twice the national average. And 20 percent of the school population is homeless.

Using the 2Gen model created at Harvard University, Brown’s group and others are trying to re-weave a support network for vulnerable youth. “We invest in parents to invest in kids.” See a brief video that explains the theory:

He helps under-performing schools become hubs for these efforts, and catalysts for community renewal, providing life-long learning opportunities for parents and help in meeting “basic needs.”

His broader goal is to release the “collective genius” of these communities, empowering them to forge their own path to resilience and sustainability. Larimer recently won a $30 million Choice Neighborhood grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to create a comprehensive sustainability plan, install bioswales for stormwater management, distribute cisterns for grey water reuse, and tap renewable energy. Brown is helping these communities build their “Green IQ,” so they can better take advantage of government assistance.

Brian Wolovich, a middle school teacher and city council member in Millvale — another poor community in Pittsburgh with lung cancer rates double the national average — described how he led a bottom-up community effort, with multiple stakeholder groups, to boost community sustainability and resilience.

Working with Mondor’s firm Evolve, the community forged an ecodistrict plan that resulted in residences replacing inefficient light bulbs with LEDs and adding solar panels to save on energy use, and installing rain barrels and gardens to reduce flooding. The community raised funds to build a new library, which is covered in solar panels, and came together to create a bioswale along the Allegheny River, eliminating flooding for multiple families. (Imagine Millvale documents many of these plans and projects, and Launch Millvale focuses on their local food production).

Millvale Library / Hive Pittsburgh
Millvale Library / Hive Pittsburgh

Mondor explained how she helps communities like Millvale “think like a district.” She argued that “projects alone don’t make change; you need governance.” Governance can be more effective if existing “tribes” are tapped and “leveraged to reach scale.” Communities will succeed if they can make decisions well together, cultivate “authentic” leadership, share knowledge, and create a legal governance structure.

Another way to scale up these valuable community-led projects is to bring in external investment in a responsible way. Eve Picker, who has launched Small Change, one of the first crowd-funding websites for real estate development projects, is looking to help under-served communities like Larimer and Millvale. She thinks these places are “ripe for development because banks don’t want to be in under-served communities; they want to be in booming ones.” Picker finances unique restoration projects others developers have missed along with “tiny houses,” which have proven popular with everyone except banks. She said some $3.5 billion has been raised from crowd-funding sites to date, but there is a $480 billion opportunity.

Interview with Diane Jones Allen on How to Partner with Diverse Communities

Diane Jones Allen, ASLA / Landscape Architecture Magazine
Diane Jones Allen, ASLA / Landscape Architecture Magazine

Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, is principal of DesignJones LLC based in New Orleans, Louisiana. DesignJones won the ASLA 2016 Community Service Award. Jones Allen was associate professor of landscape architecture at Morgan State University. Her book Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access, and Suburban Form will be published by Routledge in April, 2017.

This interview was conducted at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

Here in New Orleans, you have been involved in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. Ten years after the storm, what has changed? Has anything improved?

Ten years after the storm, the community has totally changed. The Lower Ninth Ward had about 18,000 residents before Katrina. Today, it has roughly 6,000, so two-thirds of the population is gone. There were over 1,000 vacant lots before the storm; now, there’s about 7,000.

There are little pockets of improvement where houses have been built, but a lot of housing still needs to be built. Improvement means there was a plan that things were going to get better.

In New Orleans, 100,000 African Americans have not returned. They’re in Houston, Atlanta, Baltimore or Los Angeles. When you lose that amount of a population, it affects the overall culture, economy — everything.

So the Lower Nine is a different Lower Nine. 6,000 remain. Some were here pre-Katrina, but there’s an influx of new people. There is a lot of vacant land that needs to become housing.

Over the past decade, has planning and design improved the lives of low-income communities in New Orleans? If so, how?

When Katrina happened, one of the responses afterwards was to shut down or restructure public housing. It’s never good to be poor or live in subsidized housing, but it was a lot easier before, because the public housing was located adjacent to Canal Street, so people were close to where they worked and other families. Someone said the underground drug culture even changed, because the city spread these people all around, whereas before they were in one place.

When you close down that much public housing, there’s a lot of people who don’t have housing. Some of the housing, like Lafitte and Magnolia Housing, still have low-income residents, but there were a lot of restrictions in terms of felony records that kept people from coming back. Public housing in the most desirable neighborhoods became market rate and mixed income.

So a large portion of the people in public housing — poor people — were shifted to New Orleans East, which is across the Industrial Canal and has little public transit infrastructure. New Orleans East is a transit desert. (This is discussed in my forthcoming book, Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access, and Urban Form). New Orleans East is not currently a job center. They just rebuilt the hospital there 11 years later. And a lot of the affluent African American community that was in New Orleans East left. So now you have a population that’s under-served and underprivileged or shifted away from resources.

For some people, New Orleans is much better. If you live in one of the nicer neighborhoods or are a young person that came from afar, there are all these tech and movie jobs. There are many new stores and restaurants.

In my opinion, Katrina was a boom for some people and a bust for many others.

FEMA’s new flood map for New Orleans marks 50 percent of the city as “safe,” meaning homeowners and commercial property owners in these zones don’t need to buy flood insurance. According to NPR, “Intermap analyzed thousands of coastal properties and found virtually no difference between FEMA’s high and low risk zones, two neighborhoods might have different insurance rates but essentially the same risk of actual physical flooding.” What does this say to you about the flood insurance system in New Orleans?

Damage from flooding in New Orleans is not all based on geography like in other places. It’s not all based on whether you’re in the flood zone. For instance, the Lower Ninth Ward is not the lowest area in the city, but the flood walls were not structurally sound. We also have to look at dredging. They dredged the Mississippi Gulf Outlet, which allowed salt water intrusion, so there was no protection from the storm surge. So there are a lot of man-made factors that influence what happened.

Flood insurance isn’t affordable. Post-Katrina a lot of people who can’t afford it have been shifted to places that are low and at risk. They’ve been shifted to New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parish. They’re living in lower areas and have to pay a higher flood rate.

It’s really complicated because much of the situation is man-made.

Last year, the city released its first ever comprehensive resilience strategy, in part financed by the Rockefeller Foundation, which emphasized environmental adaptation, equity and governance. In your experience, what differentiates a resilient community from one that is not?

Many times when these plans are done, the most affected don’t participate.

The French Quarter and Garden District, which actually happen to be on the higher land, are economically valuable. People come to the city to be there. But New Orleans East is valuable, because the people who actually shape much of the culture, and make the art and music, serve the drinks, and shuck the oysters, live there.

Resiliency plans only work to me if they’re going to be resilient and sustained, if they’re going to create community stewards and stakeholders. I’m using all that design outreach language, but, you know. The most effective plans are co-generated with the community, because they are the ones who are going to be impacted by what happens.

People realize we’re living with water. But the question is: how do we protect the landscape, but also protect the rights of everyone?

Community event in Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans / Diane Jones Allen
Community event in Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans / Diane Jones Allen

Earlier this year, Louisiana received $95 million from the Rebuild by Design competition to adapt to climate change. Some of those funds will also help the tribal Houma community on Isle de Jean Charles, whose land has submerged by an amazing 98 percent since 1955, move to a new location. Given New Orleans is experiencing both sea level rise and sinking land, can you imagine this city conducting a strategic retreat in places, or have to move communities wholesale to new locations?

Right after Katrina, there was the “green dot plan,” which basically asked, “Why should people be allowed to come back, for instance, to the Lower Nine? Why should people be able to come back into a place that would flood?”

We are experiencing sea level rise and coastal erosion. A lot of that erosion is man-made because of dredging and shipping channels.

For me, the solution is rethinking density and diversity and helping people realize they’re going to have to live closer together with different people. We also have to densify so you can move people together safely, but keep them in the same region.

When Katrina occurred, a lot of people moved to Baton Rouge, because they thought that was safe. Now we just had flooding in Baton Rouge. We want to stay in our state and region. We should — it’s rich in heritage and culture and unique.

But we’re going to have to rethink how we live on the land. We’re going to have to be more sustainable in terms of how we use our resources and infrastructure. Right now, we all want to spread out and live in our own space. Sea level rise, flooding, coastal erosion are fighting against that way of living.

On a panel at the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) summit on the new landscape declaration, you discussed the concerns you have with landscape architecture students and professors helicoptering into low-income communities to help with a project for a semester, often not to be seen again. What can landscape architecture programs do to more deeply engage and connect in these places where they want to help?

Professors need to do a lot of preparation before the semester starts. They need to take time to bring the community into the preparation, understand the situation, create a partnership with the community, and then come up with an action plan of what you’re leaving. A design studio is really about the students learning. They only have a semester, so what value are these 20 or so students really going offer for these communities?

Yesterday at the ASLA Annual Meeting, we hosted a field session called Beyond the Edge. We visited three communities dealing with critical life and death situations. One is living on a landfill, the other one’s living next to the port, and the other one is dealing with a prison population. My trepidation was whether it was even a good thing to bring the field trip there.

My trepidation was: will I be bringing these people in to gawk? After a lot of discussion with members of the community, they wanted people to come. So we were able to meet with them, and they actually invited us into their homes. We went to a community college and talked with community members. We came up with a follow-through so we could reach out to them after this session.

 ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting Tour "Beyond the Edge" at Gordon Plaza / Diane Jones Allen

ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting Tour “Beyond the Edge” at Gordon Plaza / Diane Jones Allen

In a nutshell, that’s what should happen if you’re going to do engagement. You have to really work with the community beforehand. The field session generated so many ideas, a lot of positive energy, and was good experience for the attendees and community. People who went on the session came up to me saying, “Thank you.”

It’s good for students to understand first hand and learn how to relate to other people. Our profession can solve problems. But you can’t helicopter in and out. You have to think about what you are leaving them, what’s going to happen after your semester’s over, because some pretty plans are not going to help them. You have to help the community translate them into some sort of reality.

At the LAF, you also said, “If we,” meaning landscape architects, “as a whole, truly want diversity, we need to focus less on statistics and instead recognize and praise diversity and lift it up.” What are some specific ways landscape architects can better lift up diversity?

It’s important to look to the future and reach out to young people and increase the number and the diversity within the profession. But in order to do that, young people need to see people who look like themselves. That was my point about recognizing and using the diversity we have in the profession to further increase diversity.

Firms can use their diversity. If you have women, or people from diverse cultures in your firms, put them in the forefront sometimes, so that clients and communities can see and say, “Oh, there’s somebody like me,” or, “This profession is diverse.”

And try to increase the diversity in your firm and also work in diverse communities. Your firm might not be diverse, but if your projects are in communities with people different from yourself, you’re actually letting the community know this profession is out there. You can get people to start thinking, “landscape architecture can help solve my problems, and the problems in my community. Maybe this is something that I want to do.”

Use the diversity you have, increase your diversity, and work in diverse communities.

New Tech Campuses Blur Line Between Work and Home

The Domain / Lauren Cecchi New York
The Domain / Lauren Cecchi New York

“Top tech companies now expect their campuses to do the heavy lifting in retaining talent,” argued Aaron Ross with BNIM in a session at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Along with Ross, Stephen Spears, FASLA, Design Workshop, and Rene Bihan, FASLA, SWA Group, showed how leading tech companies are trying to hold on to their top talent by creating exciting little bits of urban life in suburban environments. These firms are attempting to further merge work and home and create spaces for fun as well. And they may be creating new models for working that may filter out to other suburban corporate campuses in coming decades.

In northwest Austin, Texas, one of the booming tech hubs of the south, Design Workshop transformed an out-dated 1980s IBM campus into a new headquarters for Charles Schwab, which features a sustainable landscape design with more natural stormwater management, and a neighboring community called The Domain for those employees to work, live, and hang out (see image above). There, an old IBM chip manufacturing plant became 1.5 million square feet in office space, 1.9 million square feet of retail, and 2.5 million square feet of multi-family housing. “Schwab benefits from having these amenities so close by.”

The Domain plan / Gensler
The Domain plan / Gensler

Design Workshop focused on connectivity. Workers at Schwab can now easily take a quick walk via nature trails to the office or to a bar after work for happy hour. Inside the new community, particularly the night-life corridor, there are “purposefully-narrow” streets set in grids that create a sense of intimacy and community. “The injection of social life into a corporate environment is a paradigm shift.”

The Domains streets / Design Workshop
The Domain streets / Design Workshop

For the Pacific Center campus in San Jose, BNIM created a new campus master plan and added two new buildings in a space next to Louis Kahn’s famed Salk Institute. Pulling in the existing nature trails that wind through the valley into the new campus, BNIM wove elements of the surrounding landscape into the new development, which features 250,000 square feet of new office and lab space. The landscape is the inspiration for the ecological design found in small outdoor “chill spaces.” The landscape became a “virus” that infected other places on campus, said Ross.

Pacific / BNIM
Pacific Center campus / BNIM

Employees, who are mostly scientists, wanted more intimate spaces rather than larger gathering spots. “They want to get out of the building and immerse themselves in nature.” Still, a new central lawn provides a “flex space,” and a new soccer field is “utterly packed.”

Pacific Center campus / BNIM
Pacific Center campus / BNIM

Beyond integrating architectural bioswales and native plants, they also created a small garden tended by a local non-profit, which harvests the produce and then sells it to the campus’ cafeteria.

Bihan quoted one CEO who said: “no one ever had a good idea while sitting at their computer.” Famed Apple CEO Steve Jobs “loved walking meetings.” The new understanding among big tech firms out West is “landscape is the great enabler.”

In SWA Group’s newest corporate campus projects, “urban planning and campus landscape design merge. Campuses are infilling to boost walkability.” They are also going beyond offering goodies like on-site food and sports fields; they are becoming “informal, contained, and urban.”

For the San Antonio Station project in California, SWA Group developed a campus “on spec” for a developer who then leased it to the top-secret lab of one of the leading Silicon Valley company (Bihan asked that the firm remain unnamed). They transformed the mid-century Mayfield Mall by architect Victor Gruen, which later became a training center for Hewlett-Packard, into 500,000 square feet of office space by using tactical urbanist strategies, strategically cutting into the building and turning a parking garage into spaces for enjoyment.

San Antonio Station / David Lloyd, SWA Group
San Antonio Station / David Lloyd, SWA Group

SWA Group “designed places for people to play, just like how they engage in a city.” And they were more “focused on context — the specificity of the corporate culture — not how the design looks.”

San Antonio Station / David Lloyd, SWA Group
San Antonio Station / David Lloyd, SWA Group
San Antonio Station / David Lloyd, SWA Group
San Antonio Station / David Lloyd, SWA Group

It’s a bit of “urban place making” in a “suburban context.”