New Study: Technology Undermines the Restorative Benefits of Nature

Laptop user in a park / istockphoto

We experience “soft fascination” with nature when we sit on a park bench and let our mind wander, taking in the trees and flowers, noticing birds and squirrels, feeling the breeze. This gentle decompression in nature is actually critical to helping us restore our ability to pay attention. We need breaks where our minds can just go slack and subconsciously take in the complexity of the natural world. Researchers are still trying to figure out the ideal “dose” of this green medicine, but benefits have been seen with just 10 minutes.

New research argues those breaks in nature only help if we put down our laptops and other devices. A recent study published in Environment and Behavior contends that using laptops, smartphones, and other technologies while sitting on that park bench undoes all the good attention-boosting benefits of nature.

Attention is an important resource not to be wasted. We need the capacity to pay attention to make our way through our busy lives. According to the study’s authors — Bin Jiang, with the University of Hong Kong; Rose Schmillen, a landscape designer; and William C. Sullivan, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — “a person who cannot focus his or her attention is likely to miss important details and have trouble remembering details. Compared with someone who is not mentally fatigued, a person with low attention functioning is more likely to be irritable, have trouble with self-management, struggle to resist temptations, and miss subtle social cues. When a person is mentally fatigued, he or she is less effective in pursuing goals and interacting with others. A person with depleted attention is more likely to say or do things he/she might regret later, which can affect relationships, work performance, and even personal goals such as losing weight or saving money.”

In their experiment, Bin, Schmillen, and Sullivan set 81 participants (50 women and 31 men), aged 17 to 35, in a few environments to test their theory on how a laptop “substantially counteracts the attention enhancement effects of green spaces.”

After doing 10 minutes of taxing cognitive testing — 5 minutes of subtraction exercises and 5 minutes of memorization indoors — participants were asked to take a 15-minute break. But they were given four different types of breaks: participants either sat in a “barren” outdoor space or a green space filled with trees.

Examples of barren spaces where participants took a break / Environment and Behavior
Examples of green spaces where participants took a break / Environment and Behavior

Some were given a laptop and asked to use them for “non-work” related leisure activities, such as social media, news sites, YouTube, blogs, online games, or shopping. Those given a laptop were asked to “sit on a fixed chair or bench in the shade to maintain a comfortable temperature and to reduce screen glare.” Others didn’t get a laptop. After the break, their ability to pay attention was tested again.

The experiment found “the only condition that produced an increase of attentional functioning was a green setting in which the participants didn’t have a laptop.” The authors believe this confirms the attention-boosting benefits of nature are “undermined by the use of an electronic device.” In an email, Sullivan confirmed the effect of a smartphone or tablet would be “identical” to the laptop.

Top line indicates improvement in attention functioning after a break in a green space without a laptop / Environment and Behavior

For Sullivan and the other authors, this means policymakers, planners, landscape architects and designers need to ensure green spaces are close-by and easily accessible from dense environments, especially workplaces, educational institutions, and hospitals — places where people’s attention is constantly taxed and where nature’s restorative benefits are even more critical.

Landscape architects and designers also need to up their game and create green spaces that can divert our attention from our addictive devices.

Sullivan told me: “The findings here present a challenge for landscape architects. In the past, it was enough to design and build nature-rich cities — just by being in such places, people would get a range of health benefits. But with the ubiquitous use of mobile devices, one of the most important benefits of being in nature-rich urban space might be lost. The challenge is to create even more engaging landscapes — landscapes that encourage people to put their phones down and be in the moment.” Those attention-sustaining features could include “moving water, wildlife, fire, or other natural elements that move and change.”

To Survive Climate Change, Coastal Cities Need Strong Communities

Extreme Cities / Sierra Club

Ashley Dawson, author of Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change believes cities, which now hold 70 percent of the world’s population, are “ground zero” for climate change. This is because they contribute the largest amount of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and are also the most vulnerable to rising sea levels. Mega cities, which are mostly found in coastal areas, are not “adequately prepared for the floods that will increasingly menace their shores.” Instead, the pursuit of development-as-usual — with the seemingly-unending growth of luxury condos and insulated “live work play” communities — means many coastal cities have effectively stuck their heads in the sand. Efforts to bolster cities’ protections through resilient planning and design have largely been superficial and won’t protect the most vulnerable.

Despite the warning signs of impacts to come, like Hurricane Sandy in the Tri-state region, cities remain focused on growth, growth, growth. Dawson cites the economist David Harvey, who argues that a “‘healthy’ capitalist economy must expand at annual rate of 3 percent. If it ceases to do so, it goes into crisis, as it did in 2008.”

In our capitalist system, continuous growth has resulted in great gains, so the world is now “awash with ‘surplus liquity'” or excess capital. And all of that money needs a place to go: “Capital has turned to the city, where fixed plots of land promise to increase in value as more of the world’s population migrates to urban centers. Real-estate speculation provides a way for economies to grow as production declines. In other words, the city is a growth machine, and speculative real estate development functions as a sink for surplus capital. Sixty percent of global wealth today is invested in real estate.”

The resulting real estate boom, and rise in housing costs, can be seen everywhere from New York City to Rio de Janeiro, from Los Angeles to Shanghai. And for Dawson, it’s no accident that coastal cities are also the starting point for mass movements fighting inequality, like Occupy Wall Street, which began in NYC’s Zuccotti Park with its call to heed the “99 percent,” and the mass protests that began in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park.

Over-development in coastal cities has caused other problems beyond increasing social tensions and inequities. Market forces are driving development to “produce greater risk, vulnerability, and environmental disasters.” Cities are not only wrecking their immediate environments, but also causing deforestation, with their demand for commodities, and climate change, with their incredible heating and cooling needs, urban industries, and inefficient transportation systems. “As Mike Davis outs it, ‘city life is rapidly destroying the ecological niche — Holocene climate stability — which made its evolution into complexity possible.”

The “luxury city” — the most-elite slice of urban life — is even more destructive. In New York City, high-end condos are the most polluting. “In a report entitled Elite Emissions, the Climate Works for All coalition notes that ‘a mere two percent of the city’s one million buildings use 45 percent of all the city’s energy.”

While he sprinkles in cases from Jakarta, New Orleans, Rotterdam, and other cities, Dawson mostly focuses on New York City, where he examines how the city’s leadership and communities have responded to increased vulnerability to climate change. He is largely critical of governmental efforts, but sees hope in how local community groups have formed to devise solutions, like the Sandy Regional Assembly, an alliance of forty groups that came together in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to create a more equitable city-wide resilience strategy.

He is particularly critical of PlaNYC, a comprehensive planning effort by the administration of mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007 to address climate change. It’s described as “an effort to promote an urban sustainability fix, a solution to capitalism’s periodic crises of accumulation that combines rampant real estate speculation with a variety of enticing yet relatively superficial greening initiatives.”

While the Bloomberg administration pushed for emissions reductions through PlaNYC — largely through energy-efficient buildings and switching from coal to natural gas — it also promoted waterfront development at a massive scale in Lower Manhattan, far west side, and in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg, DUMBO, Red Hook, Gowanus, and Coney Island. All this waterfront development had the unfortunate side effect of making coastal communities even more vulnerable.

Dawson argues that in reality, a serious climate plan “would involve moving people and buildings out of flood zones,” an approach the Bloomberg administration opposed as it ran counter to their “ambitious — and lucrative — plans for developing the city’s nearly 600 miles of waterfront.” Others called for the city to buy up waterfront property in order to prevent development — reserving these spaces as green buffers, which also failed to occur.

In later chapters, Dawson describes how environmental “blowback” is already having a major impact on coastal cities. As the estuaries upon which coastal megacities are built are being destroyed, it’s becoming even clearer the vital ecological role those underlying systems play.

Natural systems that once served as critical buffers to storm surges — like Jamaica Bay in Queens, New York — are degrading. And he argues “the transformation of devalued landscapes like Jamaica Bay’s marshes has also exposed nearby residents to even greater risk.” While restoration efforts are underway, there is no guarantee of success given the conditions of the area are shifting so fast with climate change.

In a chapter entitled “the Jargon of Resilience,” Dawson warns against the “utopian hopes of modern architects and urban planners,” particularly those associated with the Rebuild by Design program initiated by the Rockefeller Foundation, because they create a “false sense of security, leading people to build up risk in fundamentally unsustainable sites.”

He argues projects that came out of Rebuild by Design effort, like the Big U in Lower Manhattan, which will use parks made of berms and flood gates to protect the financial district and other neighborhoods, “actually increase risk rather than diminishing it.” Furthermore, the BIG U will just displace water to other places: “Where will the water that the BIG U turns aside go? It is likely to end up in adjacent communities with large poor populations such as Red Hook, where Hurricane Sandy hit public housing particularly hard.”

Dawson appreciates the ecological logic of the much-celebrated Living Breakwaters project by SCAPE Landscape Architecture but argues that it “confronts a number of intractable environmental problems that are likely to make it unsustainable in the long term.”

Dawson’s essential critique is that too much of the climate adaptation and resilience efforts of city governments in New York City and elsewhere have been top-down, without much real community input. He believes truly equitable resilience planning can only come if strong local communities make their voices heard. Socially-resilient communities can demand “radical adaptation” — “new forms of collective, democratic planning.” Empowered, informed communities can figure out the resilient plans and designs they need to protect themselves. And only these communities can survive the next storm and rebuild.

Waking up to the new realities requires getting a clear view of the risks — and even increasing exposure to them. For Dawson, landscape architects like Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, and educators like University of Pennslvania landscape architecture professor Anuradha Matur, and Harvard University planner Dilip da Cunha potentially have the answers, with their call for “soft” defenses that would buffer communities from storms but also be visible and integrated into the ecosystems of the coastal city.

The mega-city of the near future can build “more permeable borders, allowing for natural flux and for the flourishing of inter-tidal habitats such as wetlands and marshes.” This vision will require a re-balancing between city and nature, a retreat from high-risk areas, along with an end to luxury development on waterfronts.

Ambitious Parks Aim to Transform Oklahoma’s Cities

Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City / Hargreaves Associates
The Gathering Place / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

In Oklahoma City and Tulsa, massive, city-changing riverfront parks will open over the coming year. In Oklahoma City, Hargreaves Associates is now building the 70-acre, $130-million Scissortail Park to revitalize its downtown. In Tulsa, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) is building the 100-acre, $485 million Gathering Place designed to bridge the racial divide and bring reconciliation. Oklahoma’s smart urban leadership — former OKC Mayor Mick Cornett and current Mayor of Tulsa GT Bynum — know big city parks can transform a city. At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA), the mayors outlined how these parks came about and what these spaces are expected to accomplish.

Scissortail Park in OKC

Scissortail Park is the city’s response to the removal of the Interstate highway that once cut through downtown. With its relocation five blocks south, a large space opened up. “We knew it was a one time and forever opportunity,” said Cornett, former Mayor of Oklahoma City and now Republican candidate for Governor of Oklahoma.

Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City / Hargreaves Associates

With funds from OKC’s innovative MAP3 program, which has brought in hundreds of millions for public space improvements through a penny sales tax, the leadership of the city, over multiple mayors, were able to implement a 20-year plan for transforming downtown, including new sidewalks and bicycle infrastructure, streetcars, a convention center, and grand central park. In this conservative state, the modest sales tax ensured no debt was generated by the public projects. “We built as we collected the money.”

Cornett said “25 years ago, downtown was terrible.” Today, the transformation is already apparent: the downtown is walkable and bikable, the streetcar and park are coming in, and designs for a new convention center were just approved.

Cornett sees Scissortail Park, which is expected to open next year, primarily as an economic development tool. New retail, commercial, and residential buildings will form a mixed-use neighborhood, with affordable housing, surrounding the park. The city aims to “re-populate the urban core” in order to fight sprawl and bring more people down to the Oklahoma River.

Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City / Hargreaves Associates

Models for Scissortail are Millennium Park in Chicago and Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. OKC’s leadership and a citizens’ advisory group went to visit these parks to see what they could learn. Then, they worked with Hargreaves Associates to customize the park. The citizens advisory group “came up with most aspects of the park.” Cornett believes this is how it should work: “the Mayor’s job is to create the framework and organize financing; the public does the details.”

Cornett emphasized that in today’s digital world, “you can’t have enough citizens’ involvement. We created the most inclusive process you can imagine.” But still there were complaints about a lack of transparency.

The land for the park is owned by the city, but Scissortail will be operated by a non-profit. The city will provide the non-profit a subsidy in its first few years, but the support will drop off as private sponsorships increase. “It’s the Central Park Conservancy model. We hope to quickly get to zero city financing.”

And he noted that Hargreaves Associates principal Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, promised him they wouldn’t build something OKC “couldn’t afford to operate.”

Sources of revenue are built into the park. Low-maintenance native plants are being incorporated. Dirt from a large lake carved into Scissortail was used to build a hill, saving money.

Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City / Hargreaves Associates

The Gathering Place in Tulsa

Tulsa, the second largest city in Oklahoma, has a “challenging history around race.” In 1921, the city experienced the “worst race riot in the country’s history” — some 300 African Americans were killed. Tulsa has been a segregated city ever since.

Mayor Bynum said years of “honest conversation helped change the dynamics about unofficial segregation and created greater understanding.” Latinos, who now make up 15 percent of the population, were also brought into the city-wide conversation about the future.

That dialogue led to new questions: “What draws people together? How can we pull people out of their bubbles?” The city’s leadership heard from the people: an ambitious park was the answer.

Space for a unity park appeared along the Arkansas River in one of Tulsa’s wealthiest neighborhoods. The large estates of private homes were purchased and merged to form the basis for a new landscape. Apartment complexes on the site were bought, then demolished. Dozens of donors and philanthropists came together to make it happen.

The resulting park — the Gathering Place — will be the “largest gift park in any city in US history,” said Mayor Bynum. By “gift park,” Bynum means it was entirely financed with private donations. Half of the $485 million goes to capital investment, while the other half is for an endowment for long-term operations and maintenance. The park will be free to all.

The Gathering Place / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

In contrast to Scissortail Park, the Gathering Place will be designed to “socialize people in Tulsa” — it primarily has a cultural and social mission. But Bynum admitted Tulsa already sees this as a major tourist draw, attracting some one million visitors annually, and he’s worried whether the transportation and hotel infrastructure can keep pace.

“Exhaustive public participation,” including input gathered from over 100 town hall meetings, fed the planning and design of the park. “Scale models, created at no lack of expense, were set up in various places around the city, and we asked for feedback.” Tulsans went into 3-D tents so they could experience the park.

The Gathering Place will offer some 60 miles of trails, connecting the park to the Arkansas River and the rest of the city. MVVA designed land bridges to cover Riverside Drive, a major commuter route, helping to instill the sense of “being in the outdoors.” The bridges will “muffle vehicle noise pollution.” The problem now, Mayor Bynum said, is “everyone in Tulsa wants a land bridge — and they cost about $30 million a pop.”

The Gathering Place / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
The Gathering Place / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

MVVA is also building a lake in the river corridor and a bridge that will connect the Gathering Place to the west bank of the river.

At the opening in early September, The Roots will play a free concert. “They appeal to all parts of the city, but particularly the younger crowd.” Mayor Bynum said achieving multi-racial buy-in is critical to the park’s success: “Will the park be fully embraced by everyone?” The city seeks to ensure that’s the case.

The city has been organizing tours of the park with school kids from every district. “The kids then go home and tell their parents about the park and how they met other kids there they’ve never interacted with before.” With the Gathering Place, the city seeks to change — to break down segregation and create a more diverse and resilient Tulsa.

Co-Designing with Kids

Blessed Sacrament playground tree planting / Craig Glover, London Free Press

Three case studies from an upcoming book on co-designing with children were presented at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) in Oklahoma City. An environmental designer, landscape architect, and landscape educator explained how kids — if properly motivated and trained — can lead planning and design processes. Working within a framework and with a motivated youth coordinator, kids of all ages can identify and solve design challenges.

Janet Loebach, an environmental designer based in Toronto, partnered with a group of mostly-immigrant kids at Blessed Sacrament school in London, Ontario, to create a new combined playground and garden. The school grounds were redesigned not only as a space for students and teachers but also as a park for the neighborhood.

The space is alongside a busy four-lane road that averages 30,000 cars a day, and where more than one car has plowed through the fence. Being so close to a busy arterial road is not only dangerous but also unhealthy for the kids — as exhaust fumes fill play spaces. With a $25,000 grant from the London Community Foundation, Loebach organized a project with students to create a green buffer of large trees for the new community space.

Over three months, a group comprised of 24 grade-8 students, aged 12-13 — that named themselves Green Direction — met for two hours a week over three months to create a design. They decided on “who’s doing what — the goals and processes. They were the primary researchers and designers.” Six groups of four students created designs, based in site measurements, inventory, and analysis; interviews with students and teachers; and activity and behavior mapping based on the age ranges of users.

The students created concept and bubble diagrams, scale drawings, and models; gave presentations and collected feedback; and undertook costing exercises. At the end of the process, Loebach synthesized the priority elements and refined the merged design.

Loebach said the process showed “youth benefit from authentic engagement and involvement in decision making around place-making. Kids can articulate needs and designs when they are given the proper tools.”

The resulting landscape had large shade trees, meandering paths, a pergola, and a vegetable garden. While used by all students, it has become especially useful for kids who are struggling, who need a “green time-out.” They are sent to water the garden for 15 minutes and benefit from the time in nature.

Rebecca Colbert, a landscape architect with MIG’s Denver office, explained how lottery funds in Colorado have been set aside for Great Outdoors Colorado, a program to preserve and protect natural resources and also improve children’s connection with nature. A $14 million grant program required applying communities to form diverse coalitions and undertake a collaborative planning process that is “youth-led or driven.” Initial planning grants of $75,000-100,000 led to implementation grants for the winners.

In Garfield county, Colorado — a struggling area an hour west of Vail with a “boom bust extraction economy” that includes the towns of Silt, Rifle, and New Castle — Colbert served as a youth engagement consultant with a coalition putting together a grant application. The team’s members included representatives from non-profits and state education, health, parks, and wildlife departments. A youth advisory council was formed, in which each high school student was paid a stipend of $1,000 over 9 months, all coordinated by an adult liaison.

Garfield county flattops / Colorado State University

The youth council undertook a multi-stage process, starting with team building, tours of places where children could better connect with nature, and outreach to other students. At libraries, they created a visioning process and mapped the barriers to accessing nature. They were creative about bringing other kids into the process: smaller children were asked to draw their favorite things in nature, and gamers at home were reached via an online survey in English and Spanish.

The process identified key goals for activity in nature, which included: team sports, cycling, walking and biking, nature play, camping, rock climbing, stand-up paddle boarding, archery, and horse-back riding. The youth group also found the obstacles preventing deeper engagement with these activities: “not having the right gear or know-how, or lack of access or funds.”

The youth council presented their recommended projects and programs to decision makers. The team ended up winning a $1.5 million grant, which has gone to an outdoor classroom featuring nature play, wilderness skills training, expeditions for kids along the Colorado River, and mentorship programs for outdoor jobs. Colbert said the experience for the youth council members was a “good learning experience — their voices were heard and they made an impact as citizens.”

Lastly, Patsy Eubanks Owens, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at University of California at Davis, explained how the Reach Youth Coalition, a group of 12-16 year-olds in Vacaville, California, came together to turn an abandoned railroad, which they had been using as a shortcut to get to school, into a safe, paved pathway for the community.

With financing from the Sierra Health Foundation, the group, assisted by a youth coordinator, started a campaign to improve the 3/4-mile Rocky Hill trail. “They were concerned that it was hard to navigate — it was so muddy they had to wear grocery bags on their feet to go to school. And it was unsafe — there were gang fights, and drug needles could be found near the homeless encampment.” Students traveling along the trail at all hours knew to go with a friend.

The coalition surveyed some 1,700 middle school students who use the trail, yielding short-term and long-term goals. According to Owens, a video produced by the coalition was critical to gaining support. “The video was a turning point. Before, the mayor didn’t even know the trail existed.” After the city council watched the video, they voted to allocate $75,000 to build a new trail.

In 2016, eight years after the coalition was formed, a new trail was finally dedicated. Neighbors and a church along the trail organized a clean-up, and new community gardens were planted. To date, some $230,000 was raised by the team, with in-kind support from neighbors and residents. Currently, only some areas are lit, but the entire length will be soon.

“Youth leadership changed the opinions of leaders. There is now a real pride in participation and place,” Owens said.

Interview with Robert Gibbs: Trees Cause You to Spend More

Robert Gibbs, ASLA / Gibbs Planning Group

Robert Gibbs, ASLA, is president of the Gibbs Planning Group, which has advised and planned commercial areas in some 500 town centers and historic cities in the U.S. and abroad. Gibbs is a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, a lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, author of Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development, and co-author of eight books.

In 2017, retail e-commerce grew 16 percent to $453 billion, and it now accounts for 9 percent of all sales. Furthermore, 2/3 of millennials prefer online shopping to brick and mortar stores. What does this mean for the future of America’s retail streets, districts, and malls – for all those physical stores?

There’s going to be hundreds of stores closing. In 2018 already more stores have closed than in 2017. What this means for the industry: a lot of retailers are moving stores into downtowns.

Research shows millennials and other shoppers want the experience of being in an urban environment rather than just buying a pair of pants online. So mall closures are good for cities. You’re going to see retailers moving back into cities, and many Internet-based companies opening brick and mortar stores.

Warby Parker, an online eyeglass company, is opening physical stores, and Amazon’s opening two hundred bookstores in cities. Internet-based companies have found when they open a brick-and-mortar store, their online sales go up 10-15 percent.

One prediction is a quarter of existing malls will close in the next 5 years (some 300 out of the 1,100). Anchor stores – the big department stores – are closing hundreds of branches, while some 35 major retailers filed for bankruptcy in 2017 alone. As many malls die off, what characteristics do the malls that are surviving, and even thriving, share?

About a fourth-to-a-half of malls will close in the next five to ten years.

The malls that are going to be sustainable — after what I call post-mall period — will be ones well-positioned, with really strong demographics — either high-end demographics or strong middle-class demographics. They’ll have good locations with access to regional transportation.

Only malls that keep their department stores will survive. A mall cannot function without department stores. So when they lose all but one or all of their department stores, they have to close.

The other factor for successful malls is to be mixed use and incorporating residential, office, and civic space into their properties. Just being a retail destination alone is not sustainable right now.

Transitioning to mixed use is not that hard to do because malls were built with more than twice the parking that is necessary by today’s standards. So, about half of the parking lots can be converted into other land uses.

The Grove in Los Angeles and 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica offer highly-stylized versions of urban forms – in the case of the Grove, an old European urban downtown, and 3rd Street Promenade, the American main street. Are successful contemporary shopping districts about re-using familiar urban forms in new ways?

Oh, very much so. The traditional grid or traditional straight main street is the best format for the new town centers being developed. There has been a lot of experimentation with curvilinear forms with parallel streets, and those haven’t worked too well. It has to be a simple main street.

We find the best shopping districts are only about a quarter of a mile long, about 1,200 feet. If you have a longer corridor, then we break it into sections. Where they come together, we anchor it with some form of civic or retail space. So, just the old fashioned street works the best, or with the very-slight deflection.

Some background on promenades like the one on 3rd Street in Santa Monica: In the 1960s and 70s, many downtowns declined and lost significant market share to large suburban shopping malls. In a well-intended response, over 250 downtowns imitated shopping centers and closed their main streets to vehicles in order to create outdoor pedestrian malls. Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Fresno, California, were pioneers in this experiment.

Unfortunately, all but ten of the pedestrian malls were a failure (the ones that survived are mostly in college towns). Most of the downtowns declined even further and remained almost entirely-vacant for decades. Even Santa Monica’s Third Street promenade and Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road were initially overwhelming failures. Without department stores, the pedestrian malls lacked the necessary critical mass of shopping to justify the inconvenience of parking in remote decks. Small retailers cannot afford much advertising and rely on drive-by impulse traffic for sales.

Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica / Wikipedia

We have been advising several downtowns, including Fresno, to re-open their streets to cars with generous parallel parking. The key is to implement modern traffic-calming measures, an attractive public realm, and realistic codes to enable walkability and cross-shopping.

What are the core components of a successful retail district layout? How do you get density, inter-connectivity, and scale right? On the one hand, there is the model of Soho in NYC, with its grid layout, but you also have the standard outlet mall, defined by an arterial form.

A fairly straight or simple, deflected street works the best. It’s essential a retail district have multiple uses. All four land uses are best: commercial, office, civic, and residential. It’s also essential to have a good public realms in these centers and appropriate sidewalks for the type of transect that it is, whether it be a town or a city or hamlet. There has to be a good public space, such as a square or a plaza.

Old Town Alexandria, King Street / Robert Gibbs

Retailers have higher sales and are willing to pay higher rents when they’re located on a square. We have found retailers who will give up exposure on the end caps of a street in exchange for being on the square, because that is where more people are and where they will achieve higher sales.

Troy, Michigan town center / Gibbs Planning Group

It’s really important for landscape architects to embrace the public realm, to be strong advocates for parks and plazas, a nice streetscape.

Retail has been described as a tool for revitalizing small town main streets and the downtowns of major cities. What else needs to come with retail to make the revitalization effort work?

Retail alone can’t revitalize a downtown. One of the most important elements is transportation. Streets have to be calmed from highways into real, walkable streets. Many downtowns are suffering just for lack of on-street parking or because the streets are too wide and traffic is too fast.

In addition, it is important to have a strong civic component: the library, city hall, courthouses should be in the downtown, not in the suburbs. For example, we find a good library can bring an average of 1,200 people per day — that’s as many as a good department store.

High density residential and office space are important as well. The Urban Land Institute (ULI) recently did a study that found every office worker directly supports twenty-five square feet of retail and restaurant space. If we can get office workers downtown, you can share parking with the office, because of off-peak times with retail.

So downtowns have to return to being real mixed-use, urban, walkable centers.

What is the role of landscape architecture in successful retail environments?

The leaders of many shopping center developers we work with are landscape architects. Many of our clients are former landscape architects or practicing landscape architects.

More than the engineers, architects or the MBA types, we find landscape architects have a holistic approach, and we enjoy working with them. They understand the physical realm and design, but also politics, the environment, and a little bit of engineering and economics.

More broadly, the landscape architect working on a retail environment has to advocate for good place-making: a nice public realm — public squares of plazas; traffic calming; and the right height-to-width ratios on the streets so streets aren’t too wide.

Do trees and other green features increase sales?

Trees are really essential for a competitive shopping district. There was a study by Kathleen Wolfe that indicated trees increase price elasticity by 9-12 percent. In other words, people feel comfortable paying up to twelve percent more for the same product if they purchase in a well-landscaped place with nice streets. Also, when properly located, street trees keep people in the downtown district longer. They feel more relaxed and are more likely to spend more money.

Shoppers in Naples, Florida / Robert Gibbs
Shoppers in Naples, Florida / Robert Gibbs

We’re working in Palm Desert, California, and found the shady side of the street has significantly higher sales and rents than the sunny side of the street. We’re redesigning the street to be asymmetrical, so that the sunny side will have a wider sidewalk so that we can put in a triple bosque of trees for shade. In this case, the shade is directly responsible for higher sales in retail. Research indicates that, too.

The one pet peeve I have is that many landscape architects — including myself (as I’ve done this) — tend to put street trees on an arbitrary grid, 22 feet or 28 feet on center, whatever. Very often the trees end up blocking a merchant’s storefront, sign, or window display.

We believe developers and communities should put in a lot of street trees but use common sense when locating them. Street trees should be on the property lines of commercial buildings rather than in middle and in front of buildings.

Street trees are very important for retail sales, and that’s been proven. Also, for residential values, there are studies that indicate home values are much higher on shady streets than streets without trees.

Urban stores of retailers like Bonobo, Apple, and others are essentially show-rooms, where you try out goods and then purchase online and receive products by mail. What other technology-enabled retail innovations do you see coming to the built environment?

Technology has been good and bad. One negative is many online manufacturers are selling directly to the customers, and they are not sending merchandise to small retailers. They’re cutting the retailer out of the better merchandise, which is hurting their sales.

A positive is many stores are getting rid of cash registers so you can walk in and out.

Another positive: Store are becoming warehouse and distribution centers. Department stores are now places where you can do a same-day pick-up of an order you made online. Physical stores are becoming return centers for Amazon and other online sites. For example, Kohl’s is partnering with Amazon to be a return center. This helps bring people to that shopping district who ordinarily wouldn’t go there. They’re going to make a return and then while they are making their return, they will go to restaurants or other shops.

Intriguing Findings from the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA)

The Solar Settlement in Schlierberg, Freiburg, Germany / Wikipedia

In Oklahoma City, a unique mix of landscape architects and designers, educators, and technologists revealed the results of their explorations into the world of environmental design. Drawing attendees from around the globe, the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) offered thought-provoking, sometimes challenging takes on the human and environmental forces shaping our communities.

A brief recap of short lectures, highlighting interesting research:

“What makes homeowners adopt sustainable practices? How do we reach the mainstream homeowner?,” asked Marina Murarolli, a professor of languages at the University of Missouri. Studying the psychological traits of 209 homeowners across the U.S., which she said constitutes a national sample, she found early adopters of green residential practices — like adding solar panels and buying energy-efficient appliances — were largely driven by “altruistic and biospheric motivations.” An altruistic mindset will cause someone to take action for “the sake of doing good.” Someone motivated by biospheric concerns is guided by a sense of interconnection of living things, the ecology of the planet. “It’s a hippie, granola way of thinking.”

Despite the reputation of Americans as being highly egocentric, that motivation didn’t register in her findings. Green homeowners aren’t buying Energy Star dish washers and hybrid cars to save money or show off to their neighbors.

And this conclusion may be frustrating to marketers everywhere: “We can’t profile green homeowner early adopters, other to say they are wealthier than the general population. There are inconsistent demographic results.”

Still, Murarolli thinks “any American could become an adopter.” And the research tells her potential adopters are more motivated by altruism and the planet’s health than looking cool.

Science museums with LEED-accredited facilities get millions of visitors each year, but not all teach the public about sustainability. The culture and political ecosystem of the museum influences how much or how little they address the topic, said Georgia Lindsay, a senior instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Laura Cole, assistant professor at the University of Missouri.

Lindsey said science institutions in the Midwest must be finely attuned to the politics of climate change and sustainability. “Science museums are publicly funded so they can’t grand stand.” Instead, they use less inflammatory language to tell their story or avoid that aspect all together.

At the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, Kansas, which focuses on educating the public about the prairie ecosystem, there was a concerted effort to teach Kansans about sustainability — but in terms they can relate to. Roof gardens, a native plant walk, and biomimetic design, and natural features help integrate the building with its landscape. But the museum uses the language of “cowboy sustainability — the words ‘natural resources’ and ‘conservation’ instead of sustainability.” Conservatives respond better to neutral terms like conservation and stewardship.

Flint Hills Discovery Center / VernonJohnson

The St. Louis Science Center offers “no bad news, nothing on climate change. They have to tread carefully as they have a mixed audience.” They don’t use their green building in their pedagogy. The sentiment is: “that is not our mission.”

Health impact assessments (HIAs) have been conducted in Europe and New Zealand for more than 30 years. Relatively recently, they have taken off in the U.S., explained Debarati “Mimi” Majumdar Narayan, with the Health Impact Project, a partnership of the Pew Charitable Trust and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. To date, there have been some 400 HIAs conducted; 100 by the Health Impact Project alone.

An HIA is a tool, a research method for examining whether a plan or project will adversely impact the health of a community. In contemporary America, where communities once red-lined now suffer from extreme health disparities, and zip codes can determine life spans, HIAs can help reduce further inequalities by exposing potential health impacts before they have a chance to do damage.

For example, an HIA conducted on a proposed Baltimore-Washington Rail Intermodal facility in the low-income communities of Morrell Park and Violettville in Baltimore found already “high rates of morbidity and disease” would be exacerbated by the “increased light exposure, high particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, traffic congestion, noise, and reduced property values” that would result from the facility. The project would have “created an inequity” for the people who had to live near it. “That facility didn’t move forward; the community used the HIA to advocate and organize themselves.”

HIAs can be used to explore a range of social and mental health issues, too. Planners of the Englewood Line Trail in Chicago used an HIA to discover the proposed route, which could bring much-needed green space and access to food gardens to an underserved African American community, could also “create a lack of social cohesion.” And they discovered the city had not investigated potential mental health outcomes — positive or negative — of the trail.

Englewood Line Trail / Streetsblog

Lastly, Sahera Bleibleh, a professor at United Arab Emirates University, said Palestinians strive to preserve memories associated with home in the Jenin refugee camp in West Bank, Palestine Authority. In Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, the Israeli army invaded the camp to fight terrorists, killing more than 50 Palestinians, and occupying it for 10 days, leaving 2,500 families homeless. Entire neighborhoods of the 70-year-old, UN-designed camp, which housed 13,000 Palestinians, were destroyed. In the aftermath, a $27 million donation to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) financed a camp improvement program that created new neighborhoods but didn’t restore the structure and feel of the original, dense, intimate neighborhoods, which the Palestinians had built over the years. Israelis said those old neighborhoods, with their network of alleys, more-easily allowed terrorist to find safe shelter.

UNRWA worked with a committee organized by the camp leadership to create an urban design that resulted in “totally new single-family households,” much different from the multi-family households of the old camp. “The widths of roads were increased so it would be easier for Israelis to re-invade. And the camp was re-invaded multiple times during reconstruction.” But Bleibleh said streets were also widened to make the camp more accessible to residents with cars. “Before, you walked in the camp; now everyone has a car.” Bleibleh admitted “some like the new plan — that you can drive in.”

Jenin refugee camp / © 2015 UNRWA Photo by Dominiek Benoot

Given the more sprawling, car-friendly urban design, not all of the 2,500 displaced families could return to their original camp neighborhood. They were displaced once again. “In the new camp, there are no memories. Displacement is a struggle of feelings. The goal is to make people feel weaker — kill them, kill their houses.” While the intention of the design was to create “no social spaces,” the community fashioned a memorial and built a monument — a horse made of pieces of metal from destroyed cars.

In the Batture, Living with Constant Risk Increases Safety

Home in the Batture, New Orleans / Curbed NOLA

The Batture, a historic squatter community nestled between the levee and the Mississippi River in New Orleans is an unconventional model of a resilient community. But as climate change forces more coastal communities to deal with greater risks, their approach offers some important lessons.

This tiny community of now only 12 homes, which has fought eviction by the city government for generations, is constantly exposed to flood risk. But living right on the banks of the Mississippi has given the community a deeper understanding of the river’s ebbs and flows. The residents of the Batture are always watching the weather, know when flooding will occur, and are therefore better prepared for disaster. By constantly living with risk, the community has in turn become more adaptable and safer.

In a talk at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) in Oklahoma City, Carey Clouse, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the Batture is an important contrast to other communities in New Orleans that were separated from the river by the levee — communities that literally couldn’t see the river, canals, or other water bodies. With the great risk posed by the Mississippi and other water bodies out of view, these communities became “overconfident” about the safety of the levee system.

In reality, many communities were made even more vulnerable because they didn’t know what was coming. As the levees failed, the result of Hurricane Katrina was some 400,000 were displaced and 100,000 homes were destroyed. “Sadly, vulnerable people had no awareness of where they were in regards to sea level. The Army Corps of Engineers and insurance companies obscured the risks. 400,000 people were blind to topography.”

But the Batture, a “self-sufficient, resilient, and adaptive community, suffered almost no damage in the Katrina flooding.”

In the liminal space between the river and the embankment, the Batture was created through “Do-It-Yourself (DIY) urbanism, a homesteader’s approach.” Clouse spent time researching the community and found it was a “hidden landscape, filled with self-built structures” on pylons. The river is ever present. “It’s 50 feet away from houses but can pass right below their feet during storms.” Each resident has created homemade protections against floating debris.

Clouse believes residents of the Batture are “more secure having taken risk into their own hands, rather than relying on the city government.” In this “quirky, escapist, anti-urbanist community,” there is “great toughness and resilience,” rooted in a deep connection to place and the river.

The Batture began in the early 1900s as a squatter community for people who worked in fishing and other marine trades. In the Great Depression, the Batture swelled to hundreds of homes, becoming a Hooverville on the river. Settlers built homes out of driftwood, creating a “ramshackle shanty town.” There was a tiny school and church, but no roads, water, or electricity. In the 1990s, the New Orleans government came in removed many of the homes.

Early Batture settlement / New Orleans Public Library, from Oliver Houck’s book Down on the Batture, via NPR

Today, there are just 12 homes left, from “the humble to the post-modern.” Batture residents can’t legally buy or sell their own properties, have no access to insurance or protection by the city or state, but they do have now access to “city fire, water, electricity, and P.O. boxes.” A local lawyer has sued the residents, claiming to own the entire Batture and is trying to remove the last remaining residents, but judges have recognized the rights of the existing tenants. “Many believe they deserve to stay.”

For Clouse, the lesson of the Batture is that “with incremental exposure to risk, communities can alter their landscapes and lifestyles to manage that risk.” Levees, with their air of safety and permanence, may actually “invoke crises.” But in communities like the Batture, where people live in close contact with nature and risk, “they can cope, thrive; they can take matters into their own hands.”

Designing Cities for Healthier Microbiomes

Artistic rendering of the human microbiome / The Why Files

Humans are essentially super-organisms or holobionts made up of both human cells and those of micro-organisms, such as viruses, bacteria, archea, protists, and fungi. Researchers now know the human body hosts a comprehensive ecosystem, largely established by age three, in which non-human cells vastly outnumber human cells. The latest study from the American Academy of Microbiology estimates each human ecosystem contains around 100 trillion cells of micro-organisms and just 37 trillion human cells.

But while rainforest or prairie ecosystems are now well-understood, the human ecosystem is less so. As researchers make new discoveries, there is a growing group of scientists who argue our microbiomes are deeply connected with our physical and mental health. The increased number of prebiotics and probiotics supplements on the shelf in drug stores and supermarkets, and availability of fresh pickles and kimchi in local farmers markets, are perhaps testaments to this increasingly-widespread belief.

The question at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Oklahoma City was: Can we design cities to better support our microbiomes and in turn our overall health?

Richard Wener, an environmental psychologist at NYU, explained how our built environment is filled with micro-organisms. “The walls of our kitchen and bathrooms are covered in bacteria; most of them aren’t pathogenic.” The micro-organisms found in our environments are constantly interacting with our microbiomes, so we are “perpetually assembling and re-assembling different species.”

For Wener, this begs the question: “What is an individual?” If we are constantly evolving with the micro-organisms in our environment and therefore changing our composition, “what individual are we talking about?”

While our microbiomes may evolve, they still have a distinct signature. Researchers can now identify people by their unique microbiotic markers — crime-scene microbes are now analyzed in forensic studies to identify who was at a location.

Places have unique microbiotic signatures as well. Through their PathoMap project, Weil Cornell Medical College organized citizen scientists to examine the bacteria in subway stations and found stations had “consistent signatures.” The microbes in stations near hospitals were different from neighborhood signatures. “The microbes really depend on who lives there.” (See data visualizations of the findings).

So can we design the city in terms of microbial species? Can we design buildings and parks to create “selective pressure that supports biotic life that is good for humans?”

Turns out good microbes can be put to better use while bad ones can be suppressed.

In Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, a highly-polluted Super Fund site, researchers took samples of sludge at the bottom of the canal and found bacteria had been digesting some of the worst industrial waste for decades. “They co-evolved to eat solvents and toxins.” At a slow pace, Wener thinks these bacteria could actually clean-up the entire canal. Through interventions, “we could encourage the growth of this bacteria.”

Buildings could be designed to kill off pathogenic bacteria and support the healthy microbes in our biomes. Wener said a recent Brazilian study found pathogenic bacteria, which comes from people, thrive in closed spaces. In open air environments in the Brazilian rainforest, where domesticated and wild animals roamed through indigenous villages, there were no pathogenic bacteria, but in closed building interiors found in Brazilian cities, researchers found many. The conclusion: If you increase exposure to light and air flow in buildings, you will reduce dangerous bacteria.

Through urban farming and gardening — or just plain playing in the dirt — humans can also increase their exposure to healthy microbes found in soils. A group of scientists and advocates argue that greater exposure could help fight depression and anxiety and reduce rates of asthma and allergies in both kids and adults.

The incredible increase of allergies among Western populations may be caused by our “sterile, germ-free environments” that cause our immune systems to over-react to everything from nuts to mold and pollen. Dr. Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Arrieta even wrote a book exploring this: Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Over-sanitized World.

Wener said we have created cities that reflect our fear of bacteria; instead we must create microbial-inclusive cities that improve our health. “Most microbes in our bodies have co-evolved with us. They are important to our vital functions. The future of urban planning and design should support healthy microbes.”

As part of this vision, landscape architects could design parks and plazas to be filled with accessible garden plots and healthy soil-based play areas that let both adults and kids get dirty. We could design for holobionts instead of just people, boosting the health of the collective urban microbiome in the process.

Wener’s colleage at NYU — Elizabeth Henaff — is leading much of this research. Learn about her artful experiments. Read this article from Michael Pollan in The New York Times outlining the connections between our microbiome and health, and this Q&A from The Guardian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original Oglethorpe plan / Connect Savannah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not play-friendly Savannah Square / Jared Green

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

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

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

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

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

To Create a Sense of Belonging, Embrace Cultural Diversity

Brazilian festival in Herter Park / Herter Park Facebook

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

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

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

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

Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia / Pinterest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superkilen Park, Copenhagen, Denmark / Jens Lindhe

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

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