Detroit Halts Its Decline

 

Detroit's Revival / The Bell Towers
Detroit’s Revival / The Bell Towers

In Detroit, Michigan, there has been 50 years of continuous population decline. But that decline finally stopped this year, said Detroit mayor Michael Duggan, to rousing applause, at the Congress for New Urbanism, which met this year in this resurgent rust-belt city. In the 1950s, the city topped 1.8 million people. Last year, it slid to a new low of 677,000 but is now holding steady. A model of the car-centric city, Detroit tops 142 square miles; it can fit San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan within its boundaries. Some 400,000 single family homes had been built within the city limits, because “every car factory worker could afford one.” Now thousands of vacant buildings and lots litter neighborhoods.

The decline of manufacturing coupled with “racist policies” eventually inflicted their toll. Banks red-lined whole swaths of the city, going as far as even building a four-foot wall in one community at 8 Mile and Wyoming to ensure “African Americans would not be allowed to buy homes past there.” After years of injustice, what followed were destructive riots that tore the city apart and further accelerated white flight to the suburbs. By the end of the 60s, “us versus them politics had taken over.”

Today, Mayor Duggan, the first white man elected mayor of the majority-African American city since the mid-70s, with 90 percent of the vote, said the city is “open to everyone, black or white, gay or straight.” The city is moving beyond the divisions of the past with a new agenda that focuses on improving services for everyone and concentrating development in order to create an “authentic Detroit” urban experience.

Duggan said one of the first things he fixed was all the streetlights. Instead of burnt out bulbs, all of Detroit’s streets are now lit at night. He also ensured that ambulances, which used to arrive up to an hour after a resident called 911, now make it in 8 minutes, which is less than the required average time.

Given the wealthy suburbs of Detroit still offer a great draw, “we can’t compete with them.”  Instead, Detroit must offer a new urban experience by leveraging “the tight urban grids” and building in more density. “We want to create more 20-minute neighborhoods” using light-rail, transit-oriented development, and the riverfront. Duggan recruited Maurice Cox, who was planning director for New Orleans and Alexandria, Virginia, to lead these efforts. With Cox, Duggan wants to create an “authentic Detroit experience” that can pull people in from the suburbs and elsewhere.

Duggan also wants to spread the benefits beyond downtown. “We have an enormous responsibility to make sure every neighborhood has a future.”

Carol Coletta, president of the Kresge Foundation, which has been committed to supporting the city’s resurgence for years, said that as Detroit rebounds, there are already concerns about gentrification. But she argued that “there are a lot of people in Detroit who wouldn’t mind a little gentrification if it results in new houses and shops.”

Coletta pointed to a number of studies, arguing that communities actually must gentrify, given the alternative is often a “slow, often-unnoticed deterioration.” Once that decline sets in, it’s nearly impossible for the community to rebound. “Only 105 communities out of the 1,100 deemed high poverty in 1970 have rebounded over the past 40 years.” And today, there are now 3,000 high-poverty communities, and the number of poor have grown from 2 million to 4 million. “Over the past 40 years, we’ve tripled the number of poor communities and doubled the number of poor, which is an abysmal record.”

To ensure “more poor communities don’t displace poor people with their lack of opportunities,” we need to use “government incentives, foundation funds, and market forces” to increase investment without displacement. “Mixed-income communities are the goal because they increase life outcomes.”

However, moving the poor to wealthier communities in order to create mixed-income places is “slow and expensive.” Instead, she called for a special effort to “ensure low-income neighborhoods benefit new people coming in and to create incentives to get the wealthy to move to poor areas.” With equitable gentrification, “we can accelerate the benefits and share them.” Coletta also called for dramatically increasing the supply of affordable housing in these gentrifying neighborhoods, beyond what Portland, Oregon, and New York City, have accomplished, and called an end to the “just green enough” movement, which calls for adding new parks and other amenities to poor areas, but not any that are so nice they will raise property values.

“The ‘just green enough’ idea is craziness born of real frustration. We need more quality neighborhoods, not less. We need new parks, libraries, trails, gardens, and re-imagined community infrastructure in places that offer good options at all price points. Equity is not about being opposed to thriving, appealing cities. That’s actually central to equity.”

Parks + Community = Innovation

parks2
Parks Without Borders – Before / NYC Parks and Recreation
Parks Without Borders / NYC Parks and Recreation
Parks Without Borders  – After / NYC Parks and Recreation

How can communities become more deeply involved in the process of creating parks? How can parks reflect communities’ best vision of themselves? Exciting projects that answer these questions were discussed at the Trust for Public Land’s recent conference on the “nature of communities.”

Communities’ desire for improved park access can result in simple yet effective innovations. Mitchell Silver, the new parks and recreation commissioner in New York City, is piloting a new approach — Parks Without Borders — that aims to remove physical barriers, like chain-link fences, from the city’s parks. The parks and recreation department asked residents which parks would benefit most from improved accessibility. Some 6,000 New Yorkers responded with 692 parks and then 8 parks in all boroughs were selected to test the concept. In these pilots, the parks department will soon test out more accessible entrances, signage, and edges, and better incorporate park-adjacent spaces into parks. As Silver explained, Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park, said that “the sidewalk next to the park is actually the outer edge of the park.” 150 years later the NYC parks department is taking these words to heart to remove barriers to parks in communities that want greater openness and equity.

Once communities empower themselves, they can also create parks that no designer could make. For Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA, former NYC parks and recreation commissioner and now a senior executive at the Trust for Public Land, “cooperative, community-based processes can lead to new and rejuvenated parks” that break down barriers and also reflect local arts and culture. As an example, he pointed the QueensWay in Queens, New York, “the people’s High Line,” which will eventually run through the most “diverse community on the planet,” where some 100 different ethnic groups will line the route. Trust for Public Land, DLANDstudio Architecture & Landscape Architecture, and others are working with the Friends of the QueensWay and the communities to turn 3.5 miles of abandoned railroad track into a “cultural greenway, in addition to a system of green infrastructure.

QueensWay plan / Friends of QueensWay
QueensWay plan / Friends of QueensWay

In Richmond, California, a poor community of about 15,000 just north of Oakland, there is a high level of gun violence; “in fact, it’s the 7th most dangerous community in the U.S,” said Toody Maher, the founder of Pogo Park. The city plopped down $300,000 worth of playground equipment in a local park, which locals then “tagged” with spray paint and tried to burn down. Where others would throw up their hands, Maher saw an opportunity to design a new park with the community. “We realized we needed to build the park from the inside out. Instead of just hiring a landscape architect, the community built a 3D model, actually measuring out in the space what they wanted. ” With a $2 million grant from the state parks department, Maher and the Pogo Park neighborhood steering committee hired neighbors of the park to build it, even hiring local graffiti artists to become park artists. “Pogo Park is community-designed, built, and installed. It’s now a green oasis that radiates change out. Everyone wants to live near the park.”

Pogo Park / Richie Unterberger
Pogo Park / Richie Unterberger

Jennifer Toy, ASLA, co-founder of Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), walked us through another bottom-up community park project in North Shore, California, farm country in the Coachella Valley. Toy spent about a year just listening in the community, a 3,400-person ghost town “on the periphery of the periphery,” a place at the edge of the shrinking Salton Sea, which reeks of decaying fish. While the town received some financing to create a small 1/8-acre park, Toy learned that park didn’t meet their needs, so the community and her team co-developed a plan for a 5-acre park over the course of some 150 open meetings over multiple years. The result of all this community building is a park design that features “a shaded pavilion, a restroom/bike shop building, soccer field, skate plaza, sport court, playground, walking paths, and native plantings.” The park is expected to open later this year.

North Shore design concept / KDI
North Shore design concept / KDI

Lastly, artists can also act as agents of innovation in communities and get people to see themselves in a new light. Streets, another form of public space, can become linear parks that connect people. Seitu Jones, an artist based in St. Paul, Minnesota, creates artistic interventions around the food system. He believes any artist working in a community “must leave it more beautiful than they found it.” With Create, which launched in 2015, Jones made St. Paul more beautiful by creating a temporary half-mile-long public space in the middle of a street, featuring a half-mile-long table with healthy foods. It took some two years for Jones to reach out to all the communities, bring them to the table, and get the approvals to shut down the street.

Create, St. Paul / Walker Art Center
Create, St. Paul / Walker Art Center

Jones brought diverse communities “who had forgotten how to cook” together to learn and share.

A Vision for Equitable Community Development

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Mural, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

In the 1960s, amid rampant gang violence, drug crime, and white flight, Arthur Hall, a dancer and choreographer, created the Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center in the poor and mostly African American community of Fairchild-Hartranft in north Philadelphia. The center successfully taught black culture, art, dance, and music in a safe space for decades. Then, in the 1980s, Lily Yeh, an art professor at the Philadelphia School of Fine Arts, got involved and grew the center into a neighborhood arts and cultural hub, the internationally-renowned Village of Arts & Humanities, which now teaches over 400 local students art, advocacy, and leadership after school every day.

Aviva Kapust, the current executive director of the Village, gave a tour of the project during the Trust for Public Land’s recent conference called the Nature of Communities. As we spent the morning walking through the network of 15 parks and plazas, which total some 15,000 square feet across multiple city blocks, Kapust explained that the Village’s public spaces have become “designated safe zones in the neighborhood.” While there is still high levels of crime in this part of Germantown, “it doesn’t happen here.” And while nearby painted houses are often “tagged” by local artists, who leave their unique signature, the murals that oversee the public spaces never are.

Yeh and the surrounding community slowly transformed vacant lots into public parks and plazas. Kapust said Yeh had no idea how to create a park, so she engaged the neighborhood kids, who then brought in their families. “Together, they undertook a process of co-creation,” learning as they went how to plant trees, mold cement benches, set sidewalks, create mosaics — building community all the while.

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village Heart, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Kapust believes the space works so well because it “imports symbols from other cultures and projects then back out again.”

But the imagery Yeh selected also purposefully “signals guardianship.” Angels oversee pathways; spirit animals watch over the public spaces. “There is an intentional mesh of spiritual messages into something universal.”

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Mural, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Yeh just started building these spaces without city government permission, but now they actually own the parks and plazas, which brings its own set of challenges, including financial liability. And simply maintaining the spaces — not developing them — costs some $70,000 per year.

Meditation Park, which was created in the early 90s, is something Gaudi would have loved. A river is formed through mosaic tiles. Colors reflect the Islamic and West African cultures found in the neighborhood. James “Big Man” Maxton, a former drug addict, became the village’s long-time operations director and mosaic artist. The result of his work and many other volunteers is a “beautiful plaza, like something you would happen upon in Barcelona.”

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

A few doors down, Magical Garden is in the process of being revamped as a “natural habitat for urban wildlife.” Annuals are being replaced with perennials, and there will be natural stormwater management systems. Next door is a quarter-acre urban farm with permaculture plots, a solar-powered aquaponic system, and outdoor pizza oven, where culinary education and demonstrations are held.

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Magical Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Memorial Park, once a vacant lot, honors those who have died in the neighborhood to drug violence or addiction or lost their lives in the Vietnam War. The now-shuttered neighborhood high school had the highest number of alumni to die in Vietnam than any other school — some 64 students. Dream totems, made with a West African artist, invite visitors to remember.

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Memorial Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Interestingly, not all the parks have been successful. Some of the ones farthest away from the village center are underused. Lion’s Park, for example, may be divested as it has become an “overgrown hazard,” said Kapust.

Lion's Park, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Lion’s Park, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

As gentrification creeps north, can there be a positive future for this unique arts and cultural neighborhood? Kapust says the Village is looking 25-30 years ahead and trying to figure out whether they should use “arts and culture to generate community economic development, or aim for community economic development, using arts as a tool; they are two separate things.” She added that whatever plays out, “we want to keep the needs of the people in this neighborhood at the forefront.”

Kapust wants to reach out to equitable developers as well, taking them a vision and plan for maintaining the character of the community. “The theory is 100 families is a manageable group. We could support those 100 families with jobs and their own homes for 100 years.” Those 100 families, who would take up about 5 blocks, can then maintain the neighborhood culture, support local shops, and create leverage. “It’s basically socialism,” Kapust laughed, or at least an expanded neighborhood cooperative. To make this happen, a workable financing model needs to be connected to the right non-profit developer.

Biophilic Cities Lead the Way to Urban Sustainability

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

Beatley launched the network only a few years ago, but it already seems to have taken off. Building on the impact of his important books, Green Urbanism, Biophilic Cities, and Blue Urbanism, the network is designed to improve knowledge-sharing among cities who seek to merge the built and natural environments. Leading environmental cities — such as Singapore; Portland; San Francisco; Wellington, New Zealand; and now, Washington, D.C. — have joined, and another 20-30 cities are now exploring signing on.

Beatley explained how biophilic cities forge deeper, more meaningful connections to nature, which in turn increases social connections and community resilience. He then highlighted some biophilic urban innovations:

Singapore (see video at top) is now putting “nature at the heart of its planning and design process.” Singapore’s official tagline used to be “garden city,” but now it’s “the city in a garden.” The idea, Beatley explained, is “not to visit a garden but to live in it; not to visit a park, but to live in it.” To realize this concept, Singapore has issued a landscape replacement policy that ensures any greenery removed through the process of developing a lot be replaced on the building eventually found there. In reality, though, developers, architects, and landscape architects have doubled or tripled the amount of original green footprint in buildings’ structures through the use of sky gardens. “There is now a competition among developers to see who can add more green.” The city has also built nearly 300 kilometers of park connectors to create deeper connections between parks and neighborhoods.

Parkroyal on Pickering by WOHA and Tierra Design / Dezeen
Parkroyal on Pickering by WOHA / Dezeen

Melbourne, Australia, has pledged to double its tree canopy by 2040. “They are re-imagining the idea of the city in a forest. It’s a multi-scale investment in nature — from the rooftop to the bio-region and everywhere in between.” Individual trees are now being registered and made accessible via GIS maps. To further boost engagement, locals can also email love notes to a tree and the trees will write a note back.

The City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy. Image by Anton Malishev / ArchitectureAU
The City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy. Image by Anton Malishev / ArchitectureAU

A number of cities are forging deeper connections to urban wildlife, too. In Bangalore, there’s the Slender Loris project that engages citizen scientists in noctural journeys through the city to meet these shy creatures. Austin, Texas has gone completely batty, in a good way. Underneath Congress Bridge, millions of bat fly out at dusk during the warmer months to feed. Above and below the bridge, people gather to watch the amazing exoduses and sometime-murmurations. “There are now bat-watching dinner cruises.”

In St. Louis, there’s Milkweeds for Monarchs, which has resulted in 250 new butterfly gardens. San Francisco will soon mandate the use of bird-friendly building facades. And in Wellington, city officials are investing in predator-proof fencing in many areas with the goal of “bringing birdsong back.”

“Biophilic experiences are multi-sensory. Animal sounds can re-animate our cities. People want more nature; they want to hear birdsong in their neigborhoods,” said Beatley.

Stella Tarnay, co-founder of Biophilic DC, wants D.C. to become even more nature-filled. Her group will monitor new city projects to ensure they actually integrate greenery and boost biodiversity. For example, in Adams Morgan, plans are underway to remake the Marie Reed Learning Center with a set of green roofs and gardens, but it will be important to guarantee none of those great landscape plans get cut at the last minute for budgetary reasons.

Also in the works: building more support for the city’s wildlife action plan through expanded environmental education programs. As Maribeth DeLorenzo, deputy director of D.C.’s urban sustainability administration, explained, “there are now 270 species of birds in the district, 70 species of fish, 32 species of mammals, and hundreds of species of invertebrates.” But greater awareness is needed of these species — along with the biodiversity benefits of a clean and ecologically-healthy Anacostia River and the district goal of achieving a 40 percent tree canopy by 2032.

What Problem Would You Solve with $100 Million?

The MacArthur Foundation, creators of the “genius” grant, have just launched 100&Change, a competition for a single $100 million grant that can make “measurable progress towards solving a significant problem.” The MacArthur Foundation seeks a bold proposal with a charitable purpose focused on any critical issue facing people, places, or the environment. Proposals must be “meaningful, verifiable, durable, and feasible.” The goal is to identify issues that are solvable.

The MacArthur Foundation expects to receive applications mostly focused on domestic American issues, but they welcome international proposals as well.

Cecilia Conrad, MacArthur’s managing director leading the competition, told The Washington Post that the grant competition is designed to inspire more creative problem solving. “We believe there are solutions to problems out there that $100 million might be able to make significant headway or unlock resources, and we want to hear what those are. By focusing on solutions, we can inspire people to focus on problems that can be solved, and we just have to roll up our sleeves and get to it.”

Register your proposal by September 2, 2016. According to the foundation, semi-finalists will be announced in December and finalists in the summer of 2017. The foundation’s board of directors will pick the winner.

In other competition news: AECOM, the Van Alen Institute, and 100 Resilient Cities have announced the latest Urban SOS, an annual student competition. Fair Share will explore the principles of the “sharing economy,” and how it can be applied to “support more equitable access to resources, improve the built environment, and enrich the quality of life of urban residents.” Fair Share is looking for multidisciplinary teams of students “to create a new generation of digital innovations combined with physical design strategies to improve how cities provide housing, open space, transportation, jobs, care, and many other services and resources.” Register by June 14 and submit proposals by September 12, 2016. Winners will receive $15,000 and up to $25,000 in services to support the implementation of the winning concept.

Preparing for a Changing Climate

Gold Coast, Australia, beach erosion / csiro.au
Gold Coast, Australia, beach erosion / csiro.au

As the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) formulates a new approach to our changing world, its Board of Trustees sought to learn what other major design associations are doing to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. At ASLA’s mid-year meeting, representatives from the Urban Land Institute (ULI), American Institute of Architects (AIA), American Planning Association (APA), and American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) explained how they are helping their collective membership, which totals hundreds of thousands, face the new challenges.

Serene Marshall, executive director of ULI’s center for sustainability, said their goal is to reduce carbon emissions from buildings — which consume about 40 percent of global energy and produce around the same amount of emissions — by 50 percent by 2030. Strategies that will help include: greater building energy efficiency, education for building tenants on energy consumption, distributed local energy systems, transit-oriented development, urban green areas that help increase the acceptance of density, and local sustainable food production. At the same time, ULI wants to increase the resilience of communities to “floods, fire, droughts, and increased heat.” Developers need to “avoid the unmanageable effects of climate change while managing the unavoidable.” A major part of this involves changing “where they build real estate.”

“Water will be for the 21st century what oil was for the 20th century,” said Jason Jordan, director of policy, APA. Up until now, “water has been too compartmentalized in the planning process.” But Jordan said some forward-thinking communities are already planning for the expected problems that will come with having “too much or too little or too polluted water.” APA has partnered with the Dutch government’s water experts, creating a working group that will lead to a new policy guide for “how to live with water.” APA’s second focus area is planning for hazard mitigation competence at the local level, and they are working with National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to create local standards. Lastly, APA is also focused on creating new models for public engagement and how to “better address social equity issues.”

“If we deal with climate change in isolation, we are not going get to where we need to,” said Joel Mills, director of AIA’s Center for Communities by Design. “1.4 million people are moving to cities around the world each week. Climate change is directly connected with urbanization.” But he also added that there is no one-size-fits-all urban climate solution. For example, “Austin has doubled in population while Detroit is fighting its way back.” To come up with solutions, communities must create their own dialogues based in collaborative approaches. In addition, AIA has signed on to the Architecture 2030 Challenge, which calls for all buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030. And the group has joined the national multi-sector partnership on resilience in the built environment.

“Today’s design criteria and codes are built on the weather of the past — this is the challenge,” said Dick Wright, with ASCE’s committee on the adaptation to a changing climate, which also recently released a comprehensive report on adapting infrastructure to the future. “The challenge is how to deal with uncertainties in the underlying climate data.” ASCE is promoting the use of the “observational method,” a “learn-as-you-go process for a life-cycle 50-100 years out.” Engineers now need to ask themselves “what is most probable scenario in 50 years and design for that, while also providing for the extremes.” As an example, the Lossan railroad, which runs along the coast from Los Angeles to San Diego, is set on pre-cast concrete piers that can be shifted 5-feet up as needed. The piers were constructed to be “deliberately durable to extreme exposures.” Wright concluded: “we’ve reached the end of handbook design — you can’t put in numbers and spit something out. Engineers must use ingenuity and imagination in dealing with uncertainty and adapting to future conditions.”

ASLA President Chad Danos, FASLA, asked how can planning and design organizations actually impact climate policy?

Mills said “every mayor is very interested in this issue,” and working bottom-up from the local level could result in a “grassroots movement.” For Marshall, it was those mayors who created the local actions and political room for the international climate change agreement reached in Paris last December. “The mayors made it easy for the national leaders.” Both Marshall and Jordan said avoiding the “ideology” of climate change was important. Marshall said, “it’s better to just go to communities and ask, ‘do you have flood, drought, or air pollution problems?'”

Jordan thinks a successful strategy for changing climate policy will need to “refocus the discussion and get away from the polarizing dynamics.” The business sector, particularly real estate developers and insurance companies, may help create a “bottom-line approach that will have impact. Capital markets will drive change due to the vulnerability of some assets.”

Most seemed to agree that “policy change will not happen on Capitol Hill,” but will be the result of many state and local efforts.

Also, all agreed that cities and smaller communities only continue to build in vulnerable areas along coasts. As sea levels rise, this is increasingly untenable. Jordan said: “We need to take a hard look at where we are subsidizing risky developments. An honest conversation is needed. That’s in the public interest.”

University Landscapes Teach, Too

University of Virginia campus / Perfect Soccer Recruit
University of Virginia campus / Perfect Soccer Recruit

“Landscapes have long been essential to the transfer of knowledge,” said Daniel Bluestone, a professor of history, art, and architecture at Boston University at Dumbarton Oaks’ symposium on landscape and the academy. In ancient Greece, “Hippocrates taught the art of medicine under a tree. And in China, there has been a tradition of educational landscapes, including the book garden.” Fast forward to the founding of some early colleges and universities in the United States, and we see the beginning of a “distinctly American type of educational landscape,” with gardens, arboreta, and designed views. Early American university campuses were designed to “train the eye to outside beauty,” create a long-lasting appreciation for nature, and build important values like self-reliance. Today, some of those American universities are now at the forefront of education about sustainability and resilience. “University landscapes can create a profound connection with the ecology of our world. We need students who understand climate change. A university can make these issues manifest in the landscape.”

The symposium covered vast ground; here are highlights from some of the campus landscapes discussed:

The University of Virginia: This model American campus was laid out by president Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800s. He envisioned a central mall surrounded by buildings, with “spaces for learning intended to promote the stewardship of knowledge, an academical village,” explained Bluestone. The idea was to give people “space to develop a sense of where they were” — in this case, the Virginia landscape, which was central to the original campus and became a sort of living learning lab, in today’s lingo, “where students could reflect on their place in the greater ecological scheme of things.” It was also a productive landscape: students would pass by kitchen gardens and know where their food came from. (The image below is of Jefferson’s kitchen garden at Monticello, but it perhaps gives an idea of what those would have looked like).

Vegetable garden at Monticello / UVA Green Dining
Vegetable garden at Monticello / UVA Green Dining

Harvard University: Joseph Claghorn, a fellow at Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany, gave a sweeping tour of Harvard Yard through the ages, arguing that the shift away from the grand Elm tree monoculture of Harvard Yard to a more diverse, resilient tree canopy, under the guidance of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, is mirrored in shift away from being a white, elitist college to a more diverse one. (However, one could also argue that only elite institutions like Harvard can afford to be so resilient). Claghorn traces the evolution of Harvard Yard over the years, explaining that there had been three waves of Elm deaths before the move diverse planting scheme was created, which still features the stunning Elm roof but also includes blooming yellow woods and many other species.

Harvard Yard / Harvard Magazine
Harvard Yard / Harvard Magazine

Harvard, the oldest institution of higher learning in the U.S., has largely had an organic evolution over the past 375 years. In the beginning, there was no masterplan for the campus. By the 1720s, the college had settled on an “open quadrangle, not cloistered like Oxford.” Claghorn says this distinction is important: In the United Kingdom, the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge had roots in monasteries — they were isolated, exclusive places for learning — but Harvard, in its early years at least, was open and directly linked with the Cambridge Commons, which “reflected the mutual dependence between college and town.” By the early 1800s, however, the college had become a university, with multiple schools, and become “largely segregated from the neighboring working-class community.”

Original Harvard Yard / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Original Harvard Yard / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

The epitome of this segregation was the addition of a church on Harvard’s campus, which meant students no longer ventured into Cambridge to worship with their neighbors. Gates were added to further separate the campus. Those gates were later used to the defensive advantage of student protestors in the 1960s and 70s. In the past few decades, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates began to diversify the campus landscape, as the Elms were infected by Dutch Elm disease. Today, some subsidiary spaces even have apple trees — a far cry from the totality of the Elms. Diversity and resilience is now increasingly depicted through the campus landscape.

U.S. Military Academy at West Point: John Dean Davis, who is studying for his Ph.D at Harvard, delved into the landscape of the oldest continual military installation in the country. The early campus experience for the male cadets was “drudgery punctuated by moments enjoying nature.” The sprawling campus in upstate New York allowed for “roaming in the Hudson River valley.” In the early 1900s, the Olmsted brothers created a masterplan that featured an “active plane,” a vast central lawn, and the preservation of forested watersheds. Today, the active plane where marching drills were once held now contains sports field and a helipad. And instead of free immersions in the wilderness of the military reservation, cadets are bound in mediated REI-like experiences in controlled natural settings. Enjoyment of wild nature has been tamed in favor of safety and discipline.

West point campus / West Point.org
West point campus / West Point.org

Vassar College: In contrast with West Point, Vassar, the first endowed women’s college in the U.S., incorporated landscape exploration into the actual curriculum, said Karen Van Lengen, professor of architecture, University of Virginia. The campus in Poughkeepsie, New York, was separated from the town. Its ambitious landscape plan evolved incrementally over time, but was crafted to have “an effect on the students.” Some of the first women ecologists in the country led classes featuring the campus landscape. Each class at Vassar also contributed to the development of the landscape by planting trees. “Tree day was an important ceremony.” It grew to become a “nocturnal, cult-like event, with dances and poetry.” Commencements even involve constructed, ceremonial views of trees. Today, Vassar remains a “leading institution for environmental studies and uses its campus to teach about ecology and conservation.”

Vassar College Commencement / Webner House blog
Vassar College Commencement / Webner House blog

John Beardsley, director of the landscape program at Dumbarton Oaks, remarked how the landscape of Vassar was designed to encourage independent thinking, while West Point’s emphasized the collective, despite moments of freedom in nature.

Duke University: Mark Hough, FASLA, university landscape architect at Duke, and Linda Jewell, FASLA, a just-retired professor from the University of California Berkeley, explained the history of this picturesque campus in Durham, North Carolina, and the unique role it plays as both public garden and educational institution. From the beginning, Duke had “Ivy envy,” explained Hough. That resulted in massive investments by the Duke family, one of the wealthiest in the south, in creating a campus that “looked like it was carved out of pristine nature.” Today, the campus is wrestling with how to integrate more contemporary landscape architecture into the historic campus, and manage a $1 billion building campaign that will result in new projects by West 8, Reed Hilderbrand, and Stephen Stimson Associates.

Last year, the university’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens received over 300,000 visitors, explained Jewell. Considered the highlight of the campus, the gardens feature a designed pond — that is beautiful but also manages stormwater — and “exuberant flora.” In 2007, the gardens got the first full time director, who was put in “take it to the next level.” While the gardens clearly attract lots of visitors, they are also designed for the students. WiFi is now accessible to enable “passive study.” And then there’s the trickier student interactions to manage. Hough explained that “it has become a social ritual to have sex in the gardens before you graduate.” He laughed, “you can’t take the students out of the campus.”

Sarah P. Duke Gardens / Panorama Point
Sarah P. Duke Gardens / Panorama Point

Hough explained how students’ deep concern about sustainability led Duke to LEED-certify all their buildings in the early 00s and resulted in a shift away from manicured gardens to more ecological ones. A severe drought in 2007 also led Duke to reduce its dependence on the municipal water system, with a 12-acre pond that Warren Byrd, FASLA, Nelson Byrd Woltz, unearthed and turned into a campus nature park, adding some 40,000 native plants. The new ecological landscape, which just opened last year, saves the university 100 million gallons in water use a year. Hough said this new landscape is an example of how Duke is “blurring the lines between infrastructure, student life, ecology, and engineering” while still making places that are “as beautiful as possible.”

Duke Pond / Mark Hough
Duke Pond / Mark Hough

Jewell said in the past five years, she has witnessed a huge increase in awareness about the role campus landscapes can play in sustainability. A simple question like, “do we have too much grass?” has “opened the door” to much broader conversations.

How to Teach Landscape Architecture to High School Students

Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green

“I wish I had this opportunity when I was your age to meet all these amazing designers,” said Caroline Baumann, director of the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, at the start of the High School Design Summit in Washington, D.C., where 200 D.C. public high school students got to learn from national design award winners from all disciplines. Out of the whole group, about 25 students were put into small groups of four and asked to try out landscape architecture, practicing both design thinking and collaboration. Students were given a variety of prototyping materials, including straws, paper, and wire, to create models based on challenges. Students were asked to either create a healthy outdoor park or a space that would benefit their neighborhood in just 45 minutes. As they raced to create their prototypes, national design award winning-landscape architects hovered, critiqued, and offered guidance.

As the landscape architects interacted with the students, I asked them what they thought about the state of high school design education. Margie Ruddick, ASLA, author of Wild by Design, who won the national design award in 2013, said “landscape architecture, and design in general, needs to be better integrated into the curricula. Design is a part of life and it needs to be better included in our educational system.” She said with the lack of opportunities to explore the world of design, “too many kids don’t even know they are designers.” She was one of those kids: as a high school student she was “completely bored working in 2D; I wanted to be in 3D!” But there were few opportunities for her to express herself using models.

Shane Coen, FASLA, Coen + Partners, who won the design award in 2015, said U.S. undergraduate enrollment in landscape architecture is falling, in large part because there is so little awareness of the profession in high schools. He believes the mission of every landscape architect should be go to a high school and show students what it’s about. Coen said “when I go to talk to high school students, they don’t even know what landscape architecture is and what a powerful, broad field it is. That’s a serious issue.”

And Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, senior principal at Hargreaves Associates, which just won this year’s award, said “high school education for landscape architecture is non-existent. The biggest concern is these students never make it to a university program. We just aren’t getting the numbers we need. I’ve spoken to people at the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA), and they see a crisis coming. Employers are also having a hard time hiring and they are searching all the time.” Jones also said landscape architecture must become more diverse. She added it was actually First Lady Michelle Obama’s idea to bring together the D.C. public school students and the design winners — “I couldn’t agree more with this approach.”

For some additional perspective, Halima Johnson, who runs teen programs at the Cooper Hewitt, said: “high school students in general don’t know landscape architecture is a thing. But landscape architecture isn’t the only design field with this problem. They also don’t understand interaction design or product design.” She said it’s important to keep it simple and “lead them to it.” For example, a good design challenge is asking them to design a park or outdoor space “before actually explaining to them this is a discipline.”

Many of the students got into it. Watching the student groups busy constructing their models, Ruddick commented that “some groups are on fire and some are stuck.” With some groups, “there is a clear leader who catalyzes the design process, and then the others who are deferential.” She said in the real world, it’s not much different: “there always has to be one design lead, even in a collaborative process. Otherwise, you can get lost and get design by committee.” The design leader “has to have the ability to let the process play out and not get freaked out but channel things without steamrolling.” Jones, also helping the teams, largely concurred: “there were some students who just dove in. They were natural design leaders.” But she said “someone started and then that gave others the ability to start, too.”

And both smiled when they saw some teams were struggling with competing design visions. Jones joked: “wow, that never happens in the real world.”

One team, seen in the image up top, ended up creating a set of cascading pools. As Big Daddy Sal, one student, explained, “there’s a kiddie pool, an intermediate pool, with a slide, and then an advanced pool that can only be reached by a 100-foot ladder. You can just chill up there. There’s also a hot tub for older people.”

Deshala, a local high school student, said her team created “a cool-kids spot, with a pool and an area where they can just sit on the grass.” Her team purposefully designed a space that would provide shade.

Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green

One team created a giant hammock, covered in solar panels that power a spinning umbrella upon which multimedia is projected. They were also focused on providing shade. “There’s a special area just for pets, too.”

Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green

Marcus, another student, explained that their team created an outdoor coffee shop, with palm trees.

Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green

And, lastly, one team created a “Bad Girls Club playhouse, a sanctuary for anyone who is a girl to express themselves emotionally and physically.” The team went outside the toolkit provided the Cooper Hewitt, using the light from a cell phone to illuminate the model.

Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green
Cooper Hewitt Teen Design Summit / Jared Green

As David Skorton, president of the Smithsonian, said later in the day, “design is an optimistic endeavor.” And perhaps for some of these students, the day made them more optimistic that they too can use design to solve our problems. Perhaps some will even consider a new path.

Thomas Rainer: There Are No Mulch Circles in the Forest

Planting in a Post-Wild World / Timber Press
Planting in a Post-Wild World / Timber Press

Instead of laying down a layer of mulch to separate plants, let native plants grow into beautiful, layered masses, said Thomas Rainer, ASLA, co-author of Planting in a Post-Wild World, at the Potomac Chapter of ASLA Gala in Washington, D.C. Rainer believes it’s possible to both boost biodiversity and achieve beauty through the use of “designed plant communities.” It’s possible to avoid creating a “weedy-looking mess,” but still harness the “adaptive ability of plants.” In fact, only by taking this approach can landscape architects and designers “reconstruct natural habitats in our cities,” which Rainer thinks should be their goal for the 21st century.

In the near future, Rainer sees a largely urban world dealing with the challenges of a changing climate. In the era of Anthropocene, there may be less pristine nature, which leaves cities and suburbs as a primary place to restore and reclaim ecosystems. “The loss of nature may represent a new beginning: an opportunity to re-wild our cities.” Rainer sees a future where skyscrapers have meadows, water treatment plants have wetlands, and highways are ecological.

So what’s holding all of this back? Rainer in part blames landscape architects and designers who are still pushing “formalistic arrangement of plants,” increasingly an anachronism in our world of biodiversity loss.

In a brief tour of landscape architecture history, Rainer explained that plants have long been used to “express order,” starting with the classical and French traditions. There was a pause in this approach with the English, pictureseque, naturalistic landscape style, which allowed for greater diversity of plant species. But that style lost favor amid the renewed formalism of Modernist landscape design, which “still dominates — with its mono-cultures of walls, carpets, stripes, and grids.” Modern formalism hasn’t been good for ecology. And while Rainer thinks that formalism may still have a place, more biodiversity must be introduced within this style.

All of those striking Modernist landscapes, and their contemporary variations, have had a “high impact on critters.” Birds rely on insects that rely on specific native plants. If you remove the plants from the equation, the whole ecosystem collapses. Today, “the lack of plant diversity is a real problem.” A way to introduce more diversity is through designed plant communities, which are “complex, adaptive systems” that require little maintenance. This new planting paradigm represents a shift from the Modernist approach of “plant as object” to a focus on “the power of systems.”

Designed plant communities / Thomas Rainer and Claudia West
Designed plant communities / Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

If landscape architects and designers are worried how all this will look, Rainer points out that the High Line, with its wild yet artfully-curated sets of plants, is one of the biggest draws in New York City. Rainer thinks this is because “there is nostalgia for the lost wild spaces,” and people want to see them in cities. But beyond the beauty of Piet Oudolf’s planting schemes on the High Line, those plant communities are also more resilient because they are more diverse. Oudolf let the plants “naturally interact.”

ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. High Line, Part 2 / Iwan Baan
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. High Line, Part 2 / Iwan Baan
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. High Line, Part 2 / Mercer Country Master Gardeners
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. High Line, Part 2 / Mercer Country Master Gardeners

Sadly, too many landscape architects and designers still want to “mass, group, and separate” plants, instead of allowing the plants to interact. One recent LEED Platinum building achieved all its site-related credits by planting the plaza out front with just one native plant, which seems to completely miss the point. There, “plants were treated like a piece of furniture.” But in the wild, “plants are social and react to changes in their network. If you take them out of their network, they lose functionality and resilience.”

As an example of the resilience of nature, Rainer pointed to a strip outside his house in Arlington, Virginia, which gets inundated with salt in the winter and dog pee year round, but has a diverse, inter-mingled mass of 26 different “weed” species.

Hell strip in Arlington, VA / A Way to Garden.com
Plant strip in Arlington, VA / A Way to Garden.com

Too many landscape architects and designers also bring in generic soils and mulch, to ensure that “anything will grow there,” as opposed to using available local resources to plant layered native communities, which really act as “green mulch.” As Rainer notes, “you won’t find mulch circles in the forest.”

Rainer said bringing in too much soil and mulch runs counter to increasing biodiversity. “It’s actually the lack of abundance of resources that leads to increased diversity. If you look at landscapes with a great deal of infertility like desert landscapes, that’s where you’ll see diversity, and a harmony of plants adapted to place.”

Sonoran desert plant communities / Gateway to Sedona
Sonoran desert plant communities / Gateway to Sedona

Biodiversity can look designed and be beautiful. “We can reach a new intersection between ecology and horticulture. We can combine the best of the ecological plant traditions with the pleasing dynamics of aesthetic formalism. We can avoid weedy messes, but also let plant communities self-seed and move around.”

From Landscape to Ecological Urbanism

Landscape as Urbanism / Princeton University Press
Landscape as Urbanism / Princeton University Press

Charles Waldheim, Affiliate ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at Harvard Graduate School of Design, is moving away from the “original assertions and ideological charge of landscape urbanism,” a controversial theory he has shaped and promoted. Instead, in his new book, Landscape as Urbanism: A General Theory, Waldheim takes a broader view, arguing that landscape architecture is the design discipline best positioned to create more sustainable cities through “ecological urbanism.” Our cities are increasingly complex, and a systems-based approach is needed to sort through all the inter-relationships. In our multi-layered urban world, what better organizing tool can there be than the underlying ecology of a city?

Much of the design press seems to agree with Waldheim. The Architect’s Newspaper, CityLab, and other planning and design publications have expanded their coverage of landscape architecture, with the latest urban ecological plans, parks, and plazas now getting as much attention as major new buildings. And we are starting to see these ideas percolate into mainstream media as well. In a new profile of West 8 founder and landscape architect Adriaan Geuze, ASLA, and his work at Governor’s Island in New York City, The New Yorker wrote: “parks have become the new architecture stars, perfectly suited for our green and community-seeking age.” There is a growing awareness of the value of ecological landscapes, in all forms, in our cities.

Waldheim’s book is not written for the general public. The writing can be tricky, but the book is rich in bold ideas. He has a thought-provoking take on the twinned history of planning and landscape architecture, and how these disciplines have shifted roles in a few major cities over the past few decades. He increasingly sees contemporary urban planners as “rushing into document design,” and focused on “managing public relations, legislative processes, and community interests,” while landscape architects bring the sweeping, layered ecological visions and make them happen. “In many instances, landscape design strategies precede planning. In many of these projects, ecological understandings inform urban order, and design agency propels a process through a complex hybridization of land use, environmental stewardship, public participation, and design culture. Often in these projects, a previously extant planning regime is rendered redundant through a design competition, donor bequest, or community consensus.”

In ArchDaily, Waldheim lists 12 projects he thinks are examples of this trend, and in his book, he holds up New York City, with its High Line, Chicago, with its Millennium Park, and, finally, Toronto, with its ambitious set of Waterfront Toronto parks, as prime examples of a landscape and ecology-first approach to city-making. Waldheim argues that these big, landscape architect-led projects are a sign that “landscape architects are the urbanists of our age.” However, Waldheim doesn’t go into any detail about the leadership, planning and regulatory frameworks, or local cultures that enabled these projects to happen in the first place. For Waldheim, the role of the landscape architect is increasingly paramount.

One of the most interesting chapters looks at the history of the term “landscape architect.” Waldheim argues that with landscape architect’s increasingly ambitious urban and ecological scope, the term doesn’t do justice. He reveals, though, that this debate has been ongoing since the late-1800s, at least among the leaders of the field. Frederick Law Olmsted particularly disliked the term landscape architect and “longed for a new term to stand for the ‘sylvan art.'” Olmsted was quoted: “landscape is not a good word, Architecture is not; the combination is not. Gardening is worse.” Waldheim writes that Olmsted wanted a better English translation of the French terms that “more adequately captured the subtleties of the new art of urban order.” And, interestingly, many of the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), which was formed in 1899, also “chafed” at the title landscape architect, including ASLA’s only woman founder, Beatrix Farrand. Waldheim floats the possible translation of the French and Spanish conception of architecte-paysagiste as “landscapist” and presents it as a more relevant title for an evolving profession.

Towards the end of Landscape as Urbanism, Waldheim moves away from the West and sees the future of landscape architecture in Asia, personified in the unique role Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder of Turenscape, plays in China. “Yu represents a historical singularity and is arguably the most important landscape architect practicing in China today.” Yu plays the role in China that Olmsted once played here in the U.S. but perhaps on an even broader scale. (And through omission, Waldheim seems to say there is basically no one of his stature in our country practicing today). “Yu has leveraged this unique historical position to lobby Chinese political elites, most notably national leadership and mayors, for the adoption of Western-style ecological planning practices at the metropolitan, provincial, and even national scales.” Through this effort, his lectures to China’s Conference of Mayors, and his influential publications, Yu has “effectively articulated a scientifically-informed ecological planning agenda at the national scale.” Yu’s advocacy culminated in a recent project: a Chinese National Ecological Security Plan. Waldheim sees this as the epitome of the positive role landscape architects can play in shaping a more sustainable, ecological urban future. And Yu and others’ “ecological urbanism” may surpass the more limited landscape urbanism approach in earning followers.

Waldheim concludes that an “ecological approach to urbanism promises to render a more precise and delimited focus on ecology as a model and medium for design. This has the dual benefit of avoiding some of landscape’s luggage, whole rebooting the now two-decades-old intellectual agenda of landscape urbanism.” Ecological urbanism opens up a whole new set of opportunities. “Increased calls for environmental remediation, ecological health, and biodiversity suggest the potential for re-imagining urban futures.” What an exciting idea: marrying ecological health with good design for both humanity and other species in our cities.