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.”

Lawrence Halprin’s Evocative Landscapes

Lawrence Halprin at his residence at The Sea Ranch / Charles A. Birnbaum, 2008
Lawrence Halprin at his residence at The Sea Ranch / Charles A. Birnbaum, 2008

“Lawrence Halprin didn’t imitate nature; he abstracted it,” argued Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), at the opening of a new exhibition of Halprin’s work at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. Martin Moeller, curator at NBM immediately agreed: Halprin often evoked a natural scene rather than copying it literally. “He let people think it through.”

This well-edited exhibition is perhaps the best of NBM’s recent triptych of landscape architecture exhibitions, which included a survey of the landscape photography of Alan Ward, FASLA, and a retrospective of Oehme van Sweden’s work. The curious flow of the exhibition enables discovery. Around each corner are Halprin’s surprising drawings and dioramas, and photographs graciously donated by some of the country’s leading architectural photographers.

The exhibition moves through 35 sites chronologically, from his early residential work through to his first forays into the public realm, from the hallmarks of his Modernist designs to his post-Modern work in the late 70s and early 80s, and, finally, his capstone projects before his death in 2009.

Some themes emerge. Throughout his career, Halprin enjoyed partnering with artists. He purposefully created room for art works, knowing they add rich, pleasing layers. Gould Garden in Berkeley, California, created from the late 50s to 1960, shows one of his early partnerships with artist Jacques Overhoff, who molded bas-relief panels in concrete around Halprin’s pool.

Pool at the Gould Garden / Ren Dodge, 2016
Pool at the Gould Garden / Ren Dodge, 2016

Halprin believed in cities. When many people abandoned the urban cores after the race riots, Halprin saw opportunities for regrowth. His Portland open space sequence, with its three-part necklace of Modernist parks, was created from 1965-70 and demonstrated his early commitment. Moeller argued “it changed perceptions of downtown Portland.” And New York Times architecture critic Ada Louis Huxtable, who was not generous with the compliments, called the sequence “one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance.” (The sequence is now on the National Register of Historic Places, but it is in need of major repair. A $4.5 million rehabilitation effort begins next year).

Ira Keller Fountain / Jeremy Bittermann, 2016
Ira Keller Fountain / Jeremy Bittermann, 2016

Halprin was all about “animating the landscape through choreography,” particularly the movement of water. The first thing you see when you enter the exhibition is a 10-foot-tall watercolor drawing of water moving around rocks. But if you look closely, you will see Halprin drew arrows to indicate the currents’ directions; he was mapping the choreography of a shore eddy.

Moeller thinks Halprin was deeply influenced by his wife Anna, who was a dancer. “He adapted her ideas by ‘scoring’ for human activity.” In his UN Plaza in San Francisco, he applied a design approach he called “motation,” which is described in the exhibition as “scoring how perception of the environment changes depending on the speed and motion of the observer.”

Fountain at United Nations Plaza / Charles A. Birnbaum, 2005
Fountain at United Nations Plaza / Charles A. Birnbaum, 2005

The exhibition, of course, includes beautiful photographs of his masterpieces: the Frankin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., which is a culmination of his life-long collaboration with artists; Freeway Park in Seattle, which creates a sense of movement through water and sculpted concrete and initiated a new landscape type — the park over a highway; and Sea Ranch in California, which showed how ecological community design should be done.

Sea Ranch in particular is made fresh by new photographs that show how Halprin ingeniously used berms reminiscent of military forts to both hide buildings and pools and create wind blocks. As Birnbaum explained, “Halprin was one of the first to think of landscape as infrastructure.”

Recreation Center at The Sea Ranch / Saxon Holt, 2016
Recreation Center at The Sea Ranch / Saxon Holt, 2016

Many of Halprin’s landscapes are under threat of demolition or a slow death from a lack of maintenance. Birnbaum hopes this exhibition will help “raise awareness of their value.” It’s a bit ironic given Halprin’s influence can be found in so many contemporary projects. Birnbaum even sees his impact on the High Line in New York City, where James Corner choreographed a continual dance between observer and observed.

The exhibition is open until April 17, 2017. As Birnbaum notes, it will travel to multiple cities, but many of the featured drawings and dioramas won’t; they can only be seen in D.C. Download the gallery guide for free; print copies are available for $12 at the museum and online. Also check out the companion exhibition website from TCLF.

Diverse Firms Will Have Competitive Advantage

ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting general session / ASLA
ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting general session / ASLA

“The United States will be a majority-minority country by 2043,” said Kona Gray, ASLA, a principal at EDSA, at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Unfortunately, landscape architects have been slow to adapt to this new reality, as the profession is still overwhelmingly white. Soon they must realize that “diverse firms will hold the competitive advantage.” This is because increasingly-diverse clients want to see someone who looks like themselves on the other side of the table.

ASLA’s plenary hosted a dynamic and diverse panel, with Gray, a firm principal and African American; Ron Sims, a former deputy secretary of the department of housing and urban development and African American; Mark Rios, FASLA, a founder of Rios Clementi Hale, and a “hybrid” gay man of European and Mexican heritage; Diana Fernandez, ASLA, a landscape architect with Sasaki Associates and a Dominican who emigrated to the U.S. at a young age; and Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, a principal at OLIN and Caucasian.

Each panelist brought a unique perspective on diversity:

“Diversity is what makes life interesting,” Rios argued. Much of his work is in Los Angeles, where 54 percent of the population doesn’t speak English at home; instead they speak one of 224 languages. He said diversity can be celebrated through “authentic, genuine, appropriate, complex, layered, rich stories.” These stories can be told through ecological and cultural diversity in landscapes.

Fernandez, who “grew up in the ghetto,” said “landscape architects haven’t caught up. A diversity of design means a diversity of creative experiences.” Diverse landscape architects can “better relate to the diverse people they serve.” She wants more diverse firms to step up their engagement in underserved multiracial communities.

Landscape architects “should embrace other cultures because other cultures have something to share,” said Gray, who grew up in Liberia, western Africa. His firm, EDSA, encourages diversity and finances a scholarship for minorities. This is all part of an effort to better “respect other cultures and mirror the people we serve.”

Diverse firms may do even more to help diverse communities. For Sims, it’s critical that landscape architects help those communities most in need, which are also those with the least amount of green space and trees. “Zip codes are a life determinant. We can map tree canopies, and the places with more trees have improved life outcomes.”

Sanders, who perhaps acted as a bridge to the largely-white audience, argued that “embracing change is hard. We retreat to habits of the mind. We are not separate from each other, but it takes work for most people to see others as the same. It’s vitally important that we connect with the common core of humanity. Every life matters and everyone deserves respect.”

Asked by Gray what firms can do to boost diversity right now, each responded:

Rios: “Diversity has to be a deliberate decision. Figure out what you can do to contribute. Write it down like a business plan. Set goals to make your practice more diverse and act on them.”

Sanders: “The opportunity to be on this panel has been transforming for me. I’ve signed up for a course at the university on hidden bias. Every firm needs to do something.”

Fernandez: “Sasaki conducted a survey on diversity and discovered it had a lot of work to do. Our profession realized it didn’t reflect the people it serves. There was a lot of candid conversations. There needs to be conversation around implicit bias.”

Experience Underpass Park in Virtual Reality

ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Underpass Park /
ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Underpass Park /

Experience Virtual Reality! Immerse yourself in Toronto’s Underpass Park, which won the ASLA 2016 Professional Award of Excellence. Take an exciting journey through this unique park found under a highway underpass, guided by landscape architect Greg Smallenberg, FASLA, principal at PFS Studio.

Viewing Options

Option 1: Watch a 360 Video on YouTube

If you are on your phone reading this page, simply click on this URL and watch it in your YouTube mobile or tablet app: https://youtu.be/IUr2g5rabaU

(Please note that this video will not work on your mobile browser.)

Be sure to turn around while watching so you can see all angles of the park!

YouTube 360 on mobile / YouTube
YouTube 360 on mobile / YouTube

Or if you are on a desktop computer, go to https://youtu.be/IUr2g5rabaU using your Chrome browser. Use the sphere icon to navigate through the park!

Option 2: Watch a 3D 360 Video on Samsung Gear VR

If you own a Samsung Gear VR headset and compatible Samsung phone, go to Samsung Gear via the Oculus App and search for “Underpass Park” or “ASLA” to find our video.

Samsung Gear VR / Samsung
Samsung Gear VR / Samsung

Why Underpass Park?

ASLA selected Underpass Park because it won the ASLA 2016 Professional Award of Excellence. Less than 1 percent of all award submissions receive this honor.

Our esteemed jury, made up of leaders in the field, described Underpass Park this way: “A terrific project. It’s wonderful to see a solution where you embrace the marginalized groups and design a space that doesn’t displace them, but creates an environment for them. All the right tools were used in a creative and dynamic way to create an energetic space that kids love.”

The award also highlights Underpass Park because it’s a prominent example of reusing abandoned, derelict space. These spaces litter cities and represent so much untapped potential. Toronto shows the way forward for the rest of the world’s cities. This award says that even underpasses can become great parks. It’s my hope that other cities will follow suit. New York City, Miami, and other cities are now looking at their underpasses now, too.

Why Virtual Reality?

We are increasingly in an image and video-driven world. With video, you can pack in even more information about a work of landscape architecture, much more than you can in simply a photo or text. With video, you can get a sense of the sight, sound, and “feel” of a place. You can see people interacting with the design, bringing it to life. Virtual reality takes video to the next level: as you move your phone or VR headset, you control your experience in the landscape. It more closely mimics the experience of exploring a place in person. In part, it recreates that sense of discovery one gets in real life.

Why did ASLA make this VR film?

We are always looking for more effective ways to promote the value of landscape architecture to society. Virtual reality has proven to be a powerful tool for explaining how the places people love – like Underpass Park – are designed experiences. Virtual reality allows us to educate the public about landscape design in a more compelling way.

We have multiple goals with the video: We hope to use the video to promote the potential of virtual reality among the landscape architecture community, which totals approximately 25,000 design professionals in the U.S. and Canada. We also hope to use the video to explain the incredible value of landscape architecture to the public, and the ability of landscape architects to turn an unloved place like an underpass into a beloved community park.

We also hope community groups or local advocates can make use of it for their own goals. For example, when we were filming the video, we met a family visiting from Buffalo, New York. The mother of the child who was skateboarding there said it was a “no brainer to put a skatepark under an underpass.” She immediately got that the space was accessible when it’s raining or snowing because it’s covered. Ideally, this video will become a tool for her to promote the idea of an Underpass Park in Buffalo. We hope it can become an advocacy tool.

Why should landscape architects use VR?

Virtual Reality is a powerful tool for landscape architects, architects, planners, and developers – really anyone involved in designing our built and natural environments. In the example of Underpass Park: many will never have the opportunity to visit the park in person, but with our video, they can get a good sense of what’s it like to be there.

For landscape architecture firms, this is an excellent way to really show clients that a place they’ve designed works – that people enjoy hanging out there, that kids love playing there, that people are drawn to events there.

Underpass Park in Virtual Reality / ASLA
Underpass Park in Virtual Reality / ASLA

ASLA VR Film Credits

Producer: American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)
Production Company: DimensionGate, Toronto
Director: Ian Tuason
Director of Photography: Jon Riera
Narrator: Greg Smallenberg, FASLA, principal, PFS Studio
Camera Assistant: Mark Valino
Post Production: Connor Illsley
Skateboarders: Cris Fonseca and Dan Everson

An Ambitious Vision for the Next 50 Years: The New Landscape Declaration

LandscapeDeclarationLogo

After three months of intense deliberation, the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) has released their New Landscape Declaration, a poetic, powerful statement that many will feel captures the aspirations of landscape architects to steer the world onto a more sustainable course. At the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, president of the LAF, said the declaration will help landscape architects have a “multiplying effect” beyond their numbers. The declaration, which is written for a global audience, will soon be translated into 30 languages.

“On June 10-11, 2016, over 700 landscape architects with a shared concern for the future were assembled by the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Inspired by LAF’s 1966 Declaration of Concern, we crafted a new vision for landscape architecture for the 21st century.

This is our call to action.

Across borders and beyond walls, from city centers to the last wilderness, humanity’s common ground is the landscape itself. Food, water, oxygen – everything that sustains us comes from and returns to the landscape. What we do to our landscapes we ultimately do to ourselves. The profession charged with designing this common ground is landscape architecture.

After centuries of mistakenly believing we could exploit nature without consequence, we have now entered an age of extreme climate change marked by rising seas, resource depletion, desertification and unprecedented rates of species extinction. Set against the global phenomenon of accelerating consumption, urbanization and inequity, these influences disproportionately affect the poor and will impact everyone, everywhere.

Simultaneously, there is profound hope for the future. As we begin to understand the true complexity and holistic nature of the earth system and as we begin to appreciate humanity’s role as integral to its stability and productivity, we can build a new identity for society as a constructive part of nature.

The urgent challenge before us is to redesign our communities in the context of their bioregional landscapes enabling them to adapt to climate change and mitigate its root causes. As designers versed in both environmental and cultural systems, landscape architects are uniquely positioned to bring related professions together into new alliances to address complex social and ecological problems. Landscape architects bring different and often competing interests together so as to give artistic physical form and integrated function to the ideals of equity, sustainability, resiliency and democracy.

As landscape architects we vow to create places that serve the higher purpose of social and ecological justice for all peoples and all species. We vow to create places that nourish our deepest needs for communion with the natural world and with one another. We vow to serve the health and well-being of all communities.

To fulfill these promises, we will work to strengthen and diversify our global capacity as a profession. We will work to cultivate a bold culture of inclusive leadership, advocacy and activism in our ranks. We will work to raise awareness of landscape architecture’s vital contribution. We will work to support research and champion new practices that result in design innovation and policy transformation.

We pledge our services. We seek commitment and action from those who share our concern.”

In the session, Deutsch; Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, University of California at Berkeley; Fritz Steiner, FASLA, dean of the school of design at the University of Pennsylvania; and Laura Solano, FASLA, principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, all members of the taskforce who contribute to the declaration, offered insights into the process, content, and calls to action. They also noted that the final declaration was written by University of Pennsylvania landscape architecture department chair Richard Weller, ASLA.

“Every word was scrutinized and debated in a very respectful but frustrating process,” said Hill, who was particularly proud the final text came out so strongly on the role of climate change. “Climate change is the driver of so many issues. We needed to be honest about that to address our problems.”

She thinks the document is far less U.S.-centric than the original 1966 declaration. This is because the U.S. is no longer “the most advanced part of the world — that’s Europe. We are now somewhere in the middle.” Furthermore, Japan and China have made huge leaps in infrastructure, while the U.S. is trying to figure out how to move forward with “low-cost, low-maintenance solutions.” 

The declaration calls for shifting focus to the most vulnerable. While the U.S. is in no position to “save” developing countries, “we can partner with them,” and share knowledge.

Steiner focused on the declaration’s call to action to “strengthen and diversify our global capacity.” He said there are now about 70 landscape architecture programs in the U.S. and about 300 in China (up from just 1 program in 2000). To further scale up demand for landscape architecture undergraduate and graduate education, “we need to focus on K-12, particularly 1-8.” And to diversify, landscape architects need to target and reach minority students at a younger age. In this effort, “architects and urban planners are natural allies.”

Solano called for landscape architects to do their own part to raise awareness, “educating clients about how green their projects can be” and encouraging them to make more environmentally and socially responsible decisions. “We can lead by raising up what some clients are doing.”

And Deutsch wants all landscape architects to get out there and advocate, going beyond the “sexy” trips to Capitol Hill and engaging in “grit advocacy” by giving public lectures, visiting school groups, and getting involved in their own communities. “Get inside the machine and find out how the system works and then bring your voice to the table.”

Safe Passages for Wildlife (and People)

Fairhill bridge / Paul Drummond
Fairhill bridge / Paul Drummond

The 5,500-acre Fairhill Natural Resource Management Area in Maryland, part of the old Foxcatcher Farm and the original estate of the Dupont family, is a source of fascination for landscape architect Paul Drummond, ASLA, Design Collective, in part because of its network of pathways that enable wildlife to travel. In a session at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, he, along with Thomas Woltz, FASLA, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, and Robert Rock, ASLA, Living Habitats, explored ways to improve connectivity for wildlife (and humans).

At Fairhill, wildlife and humans alike have been funneled into only a few pathways that cut through 16 miles of fence, which neighbors have called “La Fence,” given the French heritage of the Dupont family. Bridges that cross rural roads and culverts that run underneath them are now the only way through the resource area. On either side of these passages, Drummond set up cameras to record the movement of wildlife and humans. His in-depth research found that “these crossing are vital” for wildlife connectivity, with deer and foxes using them regularly.

Fairhill culvert / Paul Drummond
Fairhill culvert / Paul Drummond
Fox crossing / Paul Drummond
Fox crossing / Paul Drummond

He is concerned about the future of the crossings, too, given some are up to 60 years old. A bridge hit by one too many trucks was removed. “We need to quantify the benefits so the state preserves these.”

Woltz argued that a good crossing is “multi-user.” He relayed his work at the 3,000-acre Orongo farm on the east coast of New Zealand. Over the past 13 years, his firm has created a protected wildlife corridor along the coastline. The original temperate rainforest found there was restored, with 600,000 trees planted. “Thousands of birds migrating now stop there.” And the forest now provides habitat for the ancient Tuatara reptile, which has been re-introduced. The landscape is now “a wildlife bridge of a damaged ecology; it enables animals to safely move over something dangerous,” which for them is the remaining sheep farm landscape.

ASLA 2010 Professional Analyis and Planning Honor Award. Orongo Station Conservation Master Plan / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects
ASLA 2010 Professional Analyis and Planning Honor Award. Orongo Station Conservation Master Plan / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

Memorial Park in Houston is another of his firm’s projects that will increase connectivity for both wildlife and humans. A vast land bridge, a “diverse ecological corridor,” will provide a bridge over a “lethal highway” that bisects the massive park, and is “like the game Frogger to cross.” For Woltz, the new image of the earth coming up over the highway is an important one: “it’s the park triumphant.”

Memorial Park / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects
Memorial Park / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

And, lastly, Robert Rock, ASLA — who won ARC’s design competition for wildlife crossings with Hypar-Nature, a design he created when we worked for Michael Van Valkenburg Associates (MMVA)– explained how animal and vehicle collisions are a $8 billion-a-year problem.

Hypar-Nature / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Hypar-Nature / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

“We need to change the paradigm, and policy and advocacy are a big part of making the shift.” Explore ARC’s excellent set of resources to find out how to do more.

Ending “Code Talk” about Gentrification

Brooklyn anti-gentrification activists / Kirra magazine
Brooklyn anti-gentrification network activists / Kirra magazine

“When we talk about gentrification, there is a lot of ‘code talk’ that is often very subtle,” said Timothy Cassidy, ASLA, a landscape architect with Bernardon, at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. That code talk is a way to hide the racial nature of a process in which a group of mostly-white newcomers move into a neighborhood predominantly made up of people of color, renovate buildings, increase property values, change the character of the place, and then, eventually, displace the existing community.

Cassidy said gentrification is often described as an incremental process, with code words like “renovation, renewal, and revival.” The problem with these seemingly-positive words is they convey the “idea of improvement,” but it’s not clear who these improvements benefit. In many cases, developers, which are “external forces,” jump in and reap the benefits with new high-rise luxury developments, particularly with adaptive reuse projects. Existing communities that may have made incremental improvements over the decades and inadvertently laid the foundation for gentrification lose out and then eventually lose their neighborhood, too.

The problem is most pronounced in the communities nearest the central business districts. This is because of some larger shifts. “The suburbs are now dead. Nobody wants to move into a single family home anymore.” Instead, companies have moved back into downtown cores. And their surrounding neighborhoods, with a range of entertainment options, are now the place to “live, work, and play.” With inner-city neighborhoods now in higher demand, increased competition means neighborhoods once cheap and undesirable are now more valuable. For Cassidy, the ultimate question is: “Can you tell people where to live?”

Unfortunately, existing studies of gentrification may not tell the full extent of the story. James Brasuell, managing editor at Planetizen, went through study after study, pointing out their limitations. For example, an often-cited 2015 report on the state of the housing marked in New York City from the Furman Center at New York University said gentrification was occurring in 15 out of NYC’s 55 neighborhoods. But the researchers made these conclusions looking at only one measure: rents. Furthermore, the report was largely financed by banks who may have an interest in downplaying any of the negative effects of gentrification.

Another study by Governing magazine, also widely cited, showed that gentrification is up 20 percent in 50 cities since 2000, in comparison to only 9 percent over the 1990s. However, he said the study only relied on “inflation adjusted home values and the percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees.” And a footnote in the study showed that for a city to be eligible for gentrification it had to be in the bottom 40 percent of household income numbers. “Right off the bat, the study tilts the table.”

Brasuell researched and found all the possible measures used to studies to analyze gentrification. These include average rent, median home values, median incomes, percentage who are renters, population density, housing types, proximity of transit, parks, and schools — which he thought all failed to measure the complex experience of being gentrified. One scholarly study even used fried chicken restaurants and coffee shops as indicators, which he found absurd.

He identified some of the policies that are pro-development, that spur on gentrification. These include: upzoning, which is about expanding the envelope of development options in a neighborhood; regulations that reduce parking; increased redevelopment powers; loan policy reforms; and bonuses developers receive for increasing density.

There are also a set of policies cities can use to mitigate the worst impacts of gentrification, that are anti-development. These include: downzoning, which involves reducing the types of development that can occur; building moratoriums; improved tenants rights; rent control programs; inclusionary zoning that promotes an intermix of affordable housing in development projects; condo conversion protections; tax abatements; community land trusts; limited equity coop housing; and others.

He cautioned that given the complexity of these topics, planning and design media should not simply use terms like investment, revitalization, and redevelopment in their stories. “These empty euphemisms really create more of a problem.”

And that flowed into Cassidy’s broader critique of the prevailing analyses on gentrification. “We need to look at the impact on neighborhood composition and character rooted in community identity. When change occurs, it triggers an emotional response that’s beyond empirical measure. It’s an existential change in which neighborhood familiarity is gone. Your community literally disappears before your eyes, which is emotionally draining.”

Kelly Majewski, Affiliate ASLA, an urban designer at Superjacent in Los Angeles, delved into the ethical responsibility of landscape architects and designers in gentrifying cities. She wondered if the “spirit of a place can guide ethical building.” She said community “authenticity, distinctiveness, and narrative” are worth preserving, even if “change has become a constant.”

If a landscape architect sees gentrification happening in a community, then “it’s too late; policy and planning have already made an impact.” But she also argued that efforts to slow gentrification with projects that try to undertake the “just green enough” approach won’t work. These kinds of park and other public space projects call for making improvements that may please locals, but are not so grand as to attract outsiders. Majewski said “these projects don’t make a ton of sense; they are both inclusionary and exclusionary at the same time.” And, furthermore, how does a landscape architect decide where to stop: will that one extra tree make it too nice?

Designers can ensure they don’t inadvertently contribute to gentrification by working with communities in developing their own visions. “If communities can plan out their vision before a rezoning process, they can get ahead.” She pointed to a planning initiative started by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as a model: the Planning for Livability, Affordability, Community, Economic Opportunity and Sustainability (PLACES) program, which creates a larger role for communities in planning processes. For example, the Bridging Gowanus process and the East Harlem neighborhood plan were empowering and helped ensure that “growth advances community goals.”

In the Q&A, Charles Cross, ASLA, an African American landscape architect with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, stood up and said the “landscape architecture profession must diversify” if it wants to play a greater role in fighting gentrification. In a recent survey of graduating landscape architecture students, African Americans are still at only 3 percent of the student body. Much more work needs to be done to ensure landscape architects look like the communities they are helping.

The Factory as Forest

Georgia forest / Wikipedia
Georgia forest / Wikipedia

“Our goal is to achieve zero negative environmental impacts by 2020,” said Erin Meezan, vice president at Interface, an innovative producer of carpets and textiles, at Greenbuild in Los Angeles. But as the firm nears its goal, it’s now pursuing an even more ambitious vision — the “factory as forest,” in which their manufacturing facilities become positive contributors to the environment, providing as much ecosystem service benefits as their surrounding landscape.

This astonishing vision comes from Interface’s deceased founder Ray Anderson and Janine Benyus, whose firm, Biomimicry 3.8, is advising them. Benyus’ guiding idea: “When the forest and the city are functionally indistinguishable, then we know we’ve embedded sustainability.” To achieve this, she calls for using biomimetic design strategies that “consciously emulate nature’s designs.” This is because nature, with 3.8 billion years of evolution, has “already solved most challenges.”

Interface plans to move past their current model, which includes “reducing negative impacts to zero; using recycled, closed-loop materials; producing low-carbon products; and creating a sustainable supply chain” — goals akmost any firm would view as almost unreachable accomplishments.

Under their new model post-2020, they intend to go beyond simply doing no-harm and become a positive contributor to the environment and society through their manufacturing.

For example, they have reached out to fishing communities in Philippines to set up centers were used, torn nylon fishing nets can be collected. Interface will then recycle and incorporate these into their products. “Communities negatively impacted by ghost nets will be paid to collect nets for us,” creating rippling benefits beyond the product.

Nicole Miller, managing director at Biomimicry 3.8, further explained how her firm will help Interface redesign their facilities to be restorative entities that mimic nearby ecosystems. She said there are three primary ways to integrate this novel approach: first, by “changing the company’s mindset and setting an ambitious north star”; second, using the surrounding ecosystems as a reference to set performance goals; and, third, by developing design concepts rooted in specific site details. “The ecological habitats next door become the guidance benchmarks.”

To redesign Interface’s factory in LaGrange, Georgia, they must understand the surrounding reference ecosystem they will measure performance against — the Southern Outer Piedmont ecosystem. Miller said Biomimicry 3.8 will carefully examine all aspects of how this ecosystem functions in order to set measurable goals. They will look at the amounts of carbon sequestered, water stored and purified, sediment retained, pollination supported, pollution detoxified, biodiversity supported, and soil fertility enhanced by the system.

“Ecological services are the entry point.” But Miller’s team will then further dig into the metrics to inform the design. For example, should a manufacturing facility really mimic the carbon functions of a forest, which releases carbon in some months and sequesters more in other months?

In the future, Interface want to bring this ecosystem-driven approach to design into the product themselves too: they seek to create products that sequester carbon, that require them to pull carbon out of the atmosphere to produce the material.

Also in this session: James Connelly, director of the living product challenge at the International Living Future Institute announced some of the first few products that have been certified as having restorative social and environmental effects, such as office furniture by HumanScale, which has no toxic chemicals and was created through 100 percent renewable energy, as well as new skateboards and sunglasses by Bureo, which are made of plastics harvested from the ocean. His group is now working with Patagonia to create a “restorative supply chain.”