President Trump Seeks to Pull U.S. out of Paris Climate Accord

“A tiny, tiny amount,” said President Trump, referring to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions he believes will be reduced by the Paris climate accord, during a speech at the White House / Mashable

Last week, President Trump initiated the process of taking the U.S. out of the United Nations’ 2015 Paris accord, in which 195 countries have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to stave off the dire effects of climate change. Under President Obama, the U.S. committed to reducing American emissions by 26-28 percent by 2030 through raising vehicle emissions standards and phasing out coal-powered electrical generation, and then further ratcheting up emissions reductions by 2050. President Trump believes Obama’s plans would have a negative impact on U.S. competitiveness and job creation and pledged to ignore his predecessor’s targets. Starting the process to take the U.S. out of the agreement, a lengthy undertaking that won’t conclude until November 2020, Trump argued the Paris accord is a bad deal for American workers.

In his speech in the Rose Garden, Trump stated: “The Paris climate accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries, leaving American workers — who I love — and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.”

Meanwhile, 70 percent of Americans support staying in the agreement, 45 percent now worry “a great deal” about climate change, and an impressive and growing coalition of states, cities, and major companies and organizations have committed to following the terms of Obama’s commitment, regardless of Trump’s stance.

Here are three key arguments in Trump’s speech, as well as counter-arguments.

First, his primary argument is the accord is bad for the U.S. economy. “Compliance with the terms of the Paris Accord and the onerous energy restrictions it has placed on the United States could cost America as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025, according to the National Economic Research Associates. This includes 440,000 fewer manufacturing jobs — not what we need — believe me, this is not what we need — including automobile jobs, and the further decimation of vital American industries on which countless communities rely. They rely for so much, and we would be giving them so little. According to this same study, by 2040, compliance with the commitments put into place by the previous administration would cut production for the following sectors: paper down 12 percent; cement down 23 percent; iron and steel down 38 percent; coal — and I happen to love the coal miners — down 86 percent; natural gas down 31 percent. The cost to the economy at this time would be close to $3 trillion in lost GDP and 6.5 million industrial jobs, while households would have $7,000 less income and, in many cases, much worse than that.”

Critics dispute the methodology used in March 2017 study by NERA, which was financed by the American Council for Capital Formation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, both vocal critics of U.S. involvement in the Paris accord. They argue that it doesn’t properly estimate the new jobs created by the shift to renewable energy.

The New York Times editorial board in turn took apart Trump’s economic case: “As alternative realities and fake facts go, that argument is something to behold. For one thing, it fails to account for the significant economic benefits of reducing greenhouse gases, avoiding damage to human health and the environment. And it ignores extensive research showing that reducing carbon emissions can in fact drive economic growth. Partly because of investments in cleaner fuels, partly because of revolutionary improvements in efficiency standards for appliances and buildings, carbon dioxide emissions in this country actually fell nearly 12 percent in the last decade, even as the overall economy kept growing. Under Mr. Obama’s supposedly job-killing regulations, more than 11.3 million jobs were created, compared with two million-plus under Mr. Bush’s anti-regulatory regime.”

Also, the coal industry is in decline, but not because of a regulatory onslaught. “It’s true that the coal industry is losing jobs, largely a result of competition from cheaper natural gas, but the renewable fuels industry is going gangbusters: Employment in the solar industry, for instance, is more than 10 times what it was a decade ago, 260,000 jobs as opposed to 24,000.”

Second, Trump states the agreement is unfair, as he believes it privileges developing countries: “For example, China will be able to increase these emissions by a staggering number of years — 13. They can do whatever they want for 13 years. Not us. India makes its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from developed countries. There are many other examples. But the bottom line is that the Paris Accord is very unfair, at the highest level, to the United States.”

China, which is the now the world’s biggest source of carbon pollution, has stated its emissions will climb until 2030, as it continues to modernize its economy, and then decline. But China has already begun to speed up its progress. For the fourth year in a row, Chinese emissions have been flat or fallen 1 percent. And China’s long-term emissions reduction targets are even more ambitious than those promised by President Obama. According to BBC News, “China aims to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65 percent by 2030, from 2005 levels. China also aims to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in its primary energy consumption to about 20 percent by 2030.”

President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leadership have stepped up, re-committed to their pledges, cancelled 100 new coal-powered energy plants, and reached out to European and Californian leaders to build on progress. And India, which does require support as it has hundreds of millions of poor people, is aggressively shifting to a clean-energy economy ahead of schedule. India also hit back against Trump’s claims that it was just looking for extra foreign aid.

Lastly, Trump argued the Paris agreement wouldn’t have made much of a difference on global emission reductions anyhow: “Even if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a two-tenths of one degree — think of that; this much — Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100. Tiny, tiny amount. In fact, 14 days of carbon emissions from China alone would wipe out the gains from America — and this is an incredible statistic — would totally wipe out the gains from America’s expected reductions in the year 2030, after we have had to spend billions and billions of dollars, lost jobs, closed factories, and suffered much higher energy costs for our businesses and for our homes.”

According to The New York Times, Trump misrepresented the MIT study he cited in his speech. Writing about the authors of the study, The Times reports: “In an updated 2016 analysis, they found that current climate pledges would result in global average temperatures rising between 2.7 and 3.6 degrees by the end of the century, compared with between 3.3 and 4.7 degrees if no action were taken, a difference of nearly a degree. And the aim of the Paris agreement is to improve those pledges over time.”

Amid the anger many feel with Trump’s action, state, city, and corporate leaders have pledged to move towards a clean economy and society, which, as many have noted, would also have major public health benefits. Within hours of Trump’s announcement, California, which alone is the world’s 6th largest economy; New York; and Washington state announced the launch of the bipartisan United States Climate Alliance, with the goal of achieving Obama’s climate pledge. Since the group’s formation, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Puerto Rico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia have joined, bringing the total to 12 states and one territory. Six other states, including Colorado, Maryland, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, as well as Washington, D.C. may join.

Leaders of 246 cities, who call themselves the “Climate Mayors” and represent 56 million Americans, have also pledged to uphold the U.S. commitment, as many set worthy targets — 50, 75, even 100 percent renewable power by 2030. 170 university and college presidents have signed on. Major corporations have taken leadership positions. Apple, Tesla, General Electric, Disney, and others have led the charge, but even major oil companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron have lent their support.

Some believe Trump pulling out the U.S. out of the accord will only accelerate the shift to renewable energy among the private sector, as even traditional firms like Walmart set goals that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. The market shift in the U.S. is already well underway. Still, Trump’s move is very dangerous, as it can undermine serious action in other countries where there are similar debates as to whether it’s worthwhile to put the laws and regulations in places to shift to a clean energy economy. It will be up to California, the European Union, and China to lead the way and apply pressure on other countries for at least the next four years.

South Brooklyn Waterfront: A Model for Urban Manufacturing

Brooklyn Army Terminal / Jared Green

The Wall Street Journal reports that 79,000 people work in manufacturing in the New York City metro area, down from 190,000 in 1990. However, the long downward trend may be ending: manufacturing employment increased by 1,300 over last year.

Perhaps some of that uptick is the result of the city government’s efforts. Mayor Bill de Blasio and other city and state leaders have focused on revitalizing the city’s manufacturing economy, preserving what’s left of it in places like the Garment District and building up existing clusters of industrial production. In a tour of the Sunset Park neighborhood in the South Brooklyn waterfront, as part of the American Planning Association’s annual conference, we learned about the efforts of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), which manages industrial properties owned by the city.

There couldn’t be a more appealing locale for the rebirth of American urban manufacturing than the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which was built before World War I to support the war effort. In some 4-million-square feet spread over two buildings — each the size of the Empire State building if it was laid flat on the ground — there are 110 businesses, employing 3,500 in manufacturing and distribution.

Brooklyn Army Terminal / Crain’s Business

As seen from the tour, contemporary manufacturing looks much different from the big factories of the past. Small urban manufacturers are making everything from salad dressings and luxury clothes to 3D printed objects and advanced technological parts.

Out of the 3.1 million square feet now online, there is a 90-plus percent occupancy rate, explained Will Stein, an official with NYCEDC. He said an additional 500,000 square feet will soon be operational. “Every New York City Mayor has a project at the Terminal. Mayo de Blasio’s project is this expansion.”

In addition to using the traditional metrics, NYCEDC evaluates possible tenants based on “how many manufacturing jobs they offer, the quality of the jobs, benefits, and opportunities for growth.”

Coming in September is the DIY TechShop, which will feature 3D printers and CNC machines. “It will be like a gym membership. Members can use the machines and other services.”

The Terminal is incredibly accessible. For workers, the subway express stop is a 5-10 minute walk, and there’s a nearby ferry terminal. There are many options for freight transit as well. “We are close to the Gowanus Expressway, and the rail line is connected to the yard.”

Work is underway to make the 100-year-old building designed by architect Cass Gilbert even more sustainable. “We put in energy-efficient windows and solar panels on the roof. We are adding LED lighting throughout the building and motion sensors inside to reduce energy waste,” explained the Terminal’s Dave Aniero.

The building itself has a fascinating history. At the height of World War II, there were some 30,000 workers moving ammunition, supplies, and soldiers out to war. Trains used to come right through the building. A crane that slides along the top of the Terminal would take material out of the trains, drop them in slots that cantilever out, so they could be easily taken into the building, sorted, and then moved via elevator or crane back to the trains. And, during the Korean War, “Elvis was shipped out of here.”

Brooklyn Army Terminal / Jared Green
Brooklyn Army Terminal / Jared Green
Brooklyn Army Terminal / Jared Green

Nearby, there are other manufacturing and distribution centers. The Bush Terminal, a campus of 11 buildings, has about 50 tenants. The 72-acre South Brooklyn Maritime Terminal, now in development, seeks to bring back marine industries. And there’s the 4-million-square-feet privately-owned Industry City, which will combine commercial office and industrial space.

Bush Terminal, which is also managed by NYCEDC, will soon undergo a $136 million upgrade. But already there are some nice amenities: bike lanes bring workers from the campus and residents of the Sunset Park neighborhood to the new Bush Terminal Piers Park, which was built by NYCEDC, designed by landscape architects at AECOM, and is now managed by the NYC parks department.

Bush Terminal / Jared Green
Bush Terminal / Jared Green
Bush Terminal / Jared Green

“It’s really a neighborhood park. We wanted to improve the public space and make it safer,” said Ryan White, also with NYCEDC.

Bush Terminal Piers Park / Jared Green

What do these projects have to teach other cities seeking to revitalize their urban manufacturing? A lot. Cluster industrial manufacturing and distribution facilities into districts near existing transportation infrastructure. Reuse warehouses and facilities. Make them attractive, sustainable, and accessible to the public. Spend the extra money on bike lanes, sidewalks, and amenities like public parks. They are worth it.

Now NYC just needs to create more affordable housing for the blue-color workers it hopes to lure back to the city. That’s the missing piece in the city’s strategy.

Women Design Leaders Offer Candid Advice

Women design leaders. From left to right: Carol Loewenson, Vaughn Rinner, and Wendy Moeller

“We’re still fighting for equal pay. And there are a million cracks in the glass ceiling, but we haven’t broken through yet,” argued American Planning Association (APA) President Cynthia Bowen, at a session at APA’s annual conference in New York City, which featured a group of women design leaders with a total of 100 years of experience between them.

Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, ASLA president; Carol Loewenson, partner at Mitchell | Guirgola Architects and former president of AIA NY; and Wendy Moeller, a planner who started her own consultancy and is a board member of APA, talked in very personal terms about their important early influences, their efforts to overcome obstacles and achieve a work/life balance, and how to find “meaningful” professional fulfillment.

Some highlights from their wide-ranging, one-hour conversation:

Loewenson: “After World War II, my grandmother Edith started her own construction business. She wasn’t out there asking for favors, just doing it. I learned from her how to get things built, and that hard work pays off.”

Rinner: Back when I started as a landscape architect (in the 1970s), “I was one of two women at an engineering firm of 1,000. They didn’t like having me there. They didn’t like how I dressed. I was not prepared to be a pioneer. I experienced extreme sexism.”

Loewenson: “It’s not my experience that the architecture world is chauvinistic or male-driven. You need to find a place where you are appreciated. If you find yourself in a male-dominated firm, you can either try to change it or decide that it’s not the right fit. If you have opportunities to prove yourself, then you can take off. But construction — that’s a tough industry.”

Rinner: “It’s very important that we be ourselves and break the stereotypes. We must challenge what is typically male or female behavior. I’ve heard from many people that the worst bosses they’ve ever had were women. This is because women in middle management are put in a position where they must compete with each other. They are set up by men. Collaboration is everything. If we can be ourselves, we can support, not compete with each other.”

Rinner: “In a large group of men and women, men tend to dominate. Women can help other women be heard. Women may raise a great point, but have it co-opted by a man, then people forget where that idea came from. Women don’t get credit and don’t get heard. Through sponsorship and support, women can get heard.”

Loewenson: “It’s important to educate elementary and high school girls to give them confidence. So many amazing women draw the line at public speaking — they can’t get over that fear.”

Moeller: “When speaking in front of crowds, you have to read your audience and adjust your approach. Sometimes I can be very forward and sometimes just be myself. Creating a comprehensive plan for an Amish community, where the audience was all male, took lots of effort. They were very skeptical. But we persuaded them we knew what we are doing.”

Moeller: “When I set out on my own and created my own consultancy, it was frightening. I had to have hard discussions with my husband, who had to learn some ‘women’ work at home. It’s important to be confident about what you want.”

Loewenson: “If you are angry or scared, figure out what you really want. If the clarity of what you want is there, you will be clear-headed.”

Moeller: “Professional mentors in offices and associates are great. We didn’t have those when I was growing up. I seek out women in mid and upper levels as resources. It’s very informal, but there is a support structure.”

Loewenson: “As for work/life balance, everyday is a challenge. Some businesses are high-pressure and you won’t change them. Find a pace you are comfortable with.”

Rinner: “If you are working at a place where you can’t be who you want to be and can’t have a flexible schedule, you don’t want to work there.”

Moeller: “I work for myself. It’s very flexible. My personal support is my family, who are always around. It’s not a good situation without that support structure though.”

Loewenson: “Overcome your fears. Don’t be held back by them. Do it anyway. There is not another option. There will always be more challenges to overcome. Challenges are motivators.”

The Birthplace of LGBTQ Rights Movement Now a National Monument

Stonewall Bar in July 1969 / Larry Morris, The New York Times.

In 1960s New York City, gay men and lesbians were routinely harassed by the police vice squad. The few bars in Greenwich Village that would serve them were frequently raided. Gay men would also be assaulted by the police walking down the street. An estimated 100 gay men were arrested each week for gross indecency or public lewdness. On June 28, 1969, a typical police raid at the Mafia-run Stonewall Inn ended up very differently though: it led to a rebellion that launched a global civil rights movement. Patrons refused to leave the bar, telling the police that they can either let them dance in the bar, or they will dance out in the streets, but the harassment must end, explained Richard Landman, a land use lawyer who was actually there. He led us on a walking tour of LGBTQ history in the West Village at the American Planning Association annual meeting in New York City.

Landman, who himself was brutally gay-bashed four times, explained that the Stonewall Inn doesn’t look like it once did. The bar was bare-bones, with little seating. It was one of the few places were gay men and lesbians could dance. It has gone through a number of lives over the decades. It was gutted and became Bagel Nosh for a while, then renovated to look like a collegiate bar, as it does today. Part of it has since become a nail salon. But, with its designation as a historic landmark in 2000 by New York City, the facade was protected. And when President Obama created the Stonewall National Monument in 2016, the bar facade, nearby Christopher Street Park, and the surrounding sidewalks became protected in perpetuity.

The park and surrounding streets were critical to the rebellion, explained Michael Levine, an urban planner who was also at Stonewall Inn the night the movement began. As “Puerto Rican drag queens faced off against Irish cops, shouting ‘we’re not leaving,'” the open space in the triangle just south of Christopher Street Park became important — it allowed the crowd to expand and the protest to grow in strength. “Open space in the public realm invites things to happen.” (That space was covered in trees and plants in 2001).

Levine said the rebellion was about making a statement. “If you don’t let us dance inside, then we’re going to dance outside in the streets. It wasn’t a riot; it was a rebellion.” Levine said it was a simple message, but so significant. “We wanted to stand up for our rights. We’re coming out and standing up.”

Stonewall Inn rebellion / NY Daily News

After the first night of rebellion on a Friday, protestors came back five or six consecutive nights. “On Saturday night, we danced again in the streets. That really embarrassed City Hall, so they sent reinforcements, and there was a nasty confrontation. Sunday night was really frightening, because the Mayor had had enough. Tactical police arrived and blocked 6th and 7th avenues. By Monday, the national press had broken the story.” Levine emphasized that drag queens, who started the rebellion against the police, “gave us gay liberation. We can never forget that.”

The vice squad police who raided the bar weren’t from the local precinct, so they didn’t know the tangle of streets down in the Village well. “Protestors would run down side streets and circle back, eluding the police. The lack of the grid then also enabled the rebellion,” Levine explained.

Streets around Stonewall Inn / Google Maps

“It couldn’t have happened without the irregular streets and open space.” He added, laughing: “the police were really embarrassed — gay bar patrons had them running in circles.”

Policemen near the Stonewall Inn, 1969 / Lens Blog, The New York Times

Continuing the tour over drinks at the Stonewall Inn, where they are crafting a new cocktail called “The Park Ranger,” Joshua Laird, commissioner of the National Parks of New York Harbor, which is responsible for the national parks that surround New York City, said the National Park Service (NPS) realized it wasn’t telling the story of civil rights well. “Our new focus is to cover the stories of Latino immigration, LGBTQ civil rights, and Japanese internment.” LGBTQ heritage in the U.S. has become one of the park service’s thematic areas, but it took a number of years to finally happen.

The NPS carefully examined Stonewall before proposing its designation as a National Monument. “We looked at a number of other sites, but Stonewall was really the turning point. Organizations around the world put Stonewall in their names.”

Christopher Street Park is the “legal heart” of the monument, but it extends to the surrounding sidewalks and the Stonewall Inn building facade, all spaces important to the rebellion, as Levine explained.

Christopher Street Park / Christopher Street Park Alliance

Next, the NPS will undertake a planning process in which they will reach out to scholars, the LGBTQ community, and general public to figure out how we can “best tell the story.” The NPS hopes to go beyond Stonewall. “This is the beginning, not the end of the story,” Laird explained.

Indeed, Stonewall, which is still a functioning gay bar, and Christopher Street Park, an active neighborhood park, are “living history,” so the NPS needs to create a new model. “We can’t just plant a park ranger there with some brochures,” Levine said. “But we also don’t want it to turn into a circus.”

Planning for Better Health at the Regional Scale

CAMPO 2045 regional active transportation plan / Community Impact Newsletter

“Zip codes can determine your health,” said Kelly Porter, regional planning manager for the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), at the American Planning Association (APA) annual meeting in New York City. Given communities right next to other can have significant differences in overall health and even lifespans, it’s important to take a regional approach in order to reduce inequities. Representatives from three regional planning organizations — in Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; and San Diego, California — explained what they are doing to improve the health of their regions.

In the Austin metropolitan region, which totals more than 2 million, CAMPO has created the 2045 regional active transportation plan, the first-ever for the region, which is expected to be finalized this summer (see image from the draft plan above). With a federal grant, Porter said CAMPO was able to “double the average number of planning and design charrettes,” so they could “build the regional plan from the small community up.”

Setting up a WikiMap, they identified where the physical barriers were to more walking and biking, and went out in the communities with iPads loaded with surveys to find out where people actually wanted to walk and bike.

Layering over data about average trips, the number of households with children, and the underserved areas that “could really benefit from these projects,” CAMPO planners identified the hot spots to target first. “Our goal is to demonstrate the health benefits of these projects.”

They are now working on incorporating performance measures for even better outcomes. Porter admitted they are just in the early stages of looking at regional transportation through a health lens.

In the Nashville metropolitan region, which totals 1.8 million, the 2040 regional plan has identified 400 projects that will require some $8.5 billion to implement. Some 200 have been funded, explained Rochelle Carpenter, who leads the Nashville metropolitan area planning organization’s transportation and health program.

In this plan, some 77 percent either include sidewalks or bicycle infrastructure, up from just 5 percent in 2005. “Health became a new way to prioritize projects.”

Nashville area MPO Regional transportation plan / Nashville area MPO

Using both qualitative and quantitative analyses, they discovered the communities with the poorest health levels, and found those communities also had the high numbers of poor, unemployed, seniors, and people without cars. They expect their plan will reduce diabetes and cardio diseases by 3 percent and depression by 1 percent. From that statement, it sounds as if they will be measuring progress after projects to see if health outcomes do indeed improve.

Learn more about the elements of the plan, which includes $ 6 billion in new transit capital investments along with freeway bus rapid transit (BRT). Furthermore, the Southern Environmental Law Center has endorsed the plan.

Lastly, perhaps the most controversial planning process is in the San Diego metropolitan area, which has 3 million people. Carolina Ilic, senior regional planner with San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), said three behaviors — smoking, poor diet, and no exercise — contribute to four diseases — heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and lung disease — that account for more than “50 percent of deaths.” Live Well San Diego, a stakeholders group that includes planners and medical practitioners, and San Diego Forward: Regional Plan are efforts to reduce those behaviors, Ilic argued.

Under the plan, local governments in the region will roll out 275 miles of bicycle lanes, undertake hundreds of projects to improve access to transit and regional bike routes, and spend hundreds of millions on Safe Routes to Schools and new sidewalks and crosswalks. Some $200 million will be spent on a “regional bike early action program.” SANDAG gives local communities in its region grants, so they “take on a lot of the work.” Ilic said federal support was “instrumental;” the country received $16 million in grants and SANDAG $3 million, which they then mostly passed on to communities.

San Diego region bikeway / Keep San Diego moving

What Ilic didn’t mention at APA was that environmental and civic organizations and the state government sued to stop SANDAG’s regional transportation plan, because its emphasis on expanding freeways was deemed to run counter to state mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve transit, and improve air quality. To address criticism, SANDAG later announced $200 million for its early action bicycle plan and then more for bike-ways over the next few decades.

Now, there’s a referendum to reform SANDAG. Read about support for the current structure for the group of 19 cities as well as the arguments for reform.

Cai Guo-Qiang’s Fireflies Will Light up Philadelphia

“A thousand years ago, China was very corrupt and chaotic. During the New Year celebrations, it was especially chaotic. This upset the gods. They didn’t like people to indulge too much,” explained artist Cai Guo-Qiang, in his New York City studio. “On the 15th of January, they decided to punish people by putting fire to the city. The god’s daughter was worried and came down to notify the people about the plan. The people lit thousands of lanterns. The god, looking down from the sky, saw the city was already on fire. He was pleased; the job had been done.” While there are many versions of the folk tale that inspired the Chinese Lantern Festival, Cai Guo Qiang connects with this one.

Now, Cai is bringing his story of Chinese lanterns to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Frankin Parkway this September. Fireflies, his first public work since 2009, will bring 27 custom-built, lantern-laden pedicabs up and down the parkway in a choreographed pattern. Seen from above, they will dazzle like a summer evening alive with fireflies.

People will be able to jump on and off for rides. But amid all the fun, Cai seeks to “warn society against the indulgence we are now enjoying.” If we look at the lanterns, “we can guard against that.”

Fireflies digital rendering / Cai Guo-Qiang, 2016, courtesy of Cai Studio

Fireflies is organized by Philadelphia’s excellent Association for Public Art, headed by Penny Balkin Bach, and guest public art curator Lance Fung, founder of Fung Collaborative. Cai was receptive because he knew Philadelphia from his 2009 art work there: Fallen Blossoms, a giant firecracker flower that exploded in the front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

At the preview of Fireflies in Cai’s studio in New York City, Balkin Bach said the illuminated art work will bring “new life to the parkway at night, making it a destination.” She said in contrast to Cai’s famous exploding art works, this piece has a lightheartedness.

Cai Guo-Qiang at work / Joanna Austin

Fung said, in the past, “Chinesey-ness was a derogatory term.” But Fireflies makes the stories from Cai’s upbringing, the stories from this gifted Chinese American immigrant, accessible to a wider audience. “Fireflies is social advocacy, with a deep empathy and understanding.”

Cai himself said he was inspired by Benjamin Frankin Parkway, with its rows of flags of countries around the world. “The parkway commemorates the diversity of immigrants.” The light from hundreds of lanterns will “illuminate” the uniquely American melting pot.

Fireflies opens September 14 and runs 6-10 pm, Thursday through Sunday, until October 8. Rides will be free and open to everyone.

See a brief video of this exciting artist’s work:

First video credit: Cai Guo-Qiang Fireflies, video by Studio 33. 

Are Modernist Landscapes Worth Saving?

Freeway Park, Seattle by Lawrence Halprin / The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Charles Birnbaum

As our cities evolve, and what people want from their public spaces changes, should Modernist parks, plazas, and streets be saved? For lovers of Modernism, the answer is always yes. But, in reality, if the public, and their representatives, choose to keep these spaces, many will need to better respond to contemporary expectations. The question then is how can they be “respectfully honored and adapted?,” asked Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, in an event at the National Building Museum at Washington, D.C.

First, we better answer: what are Modernist landscapes? For Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, they are characterized by their use of “spatial free plans, which have intentionally volumetric spaces that are not bound.” These landscapes came out of the functionalism movement, other Modernist arts and design fields, and asymmetrical aesthetics. These parks, plazas, and streets were designed and constructed after World War II and into the 80s. They often feature a juxtaposition of forms, textures, and colors, creating duality between “soft and hard, permanent and ephemeral.”

Modernist landscapes can’t be separated from the economic, political, and social environment that generated them. Many Modernist urban parks and plazas are deeply political, loaded sites. Many are intrinsically linked with the mistakes of urban renewal, in which communities were uprooted, due to racism, and replaced with new “monumental” buildings, infrastructure, and public spaces.

But they also came out stated good intentions, or at least some would argue. The goal behind those moves was to “improve the quality of life for everyone,” Meyer said. President Lyndon Johnson and his 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty, which was greatly influenced by his wife Lady Bird Johnson, argued that “everyone had the right to live in decent surroundings.” The American inner city, with its blight and poverty, then became a target for revitalization. The idea was to replace the dysfunction of the old with a modern urban world.

And these landscapes were the result of innovation. Modernist landscape architecture created new forms of public spaces, “hybrid spaces” that mixed plazas, parks, and playgrounds in new combinations, and built public spaces where none existed before. For example, in Seattle, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin turned an industrial site into a park and capped a freeway with another park (see image at top).

Beyond the racist history associated with some of these places, Meyer seemed to argue that Modernism doesn’t really work well at the grand scale of the most ambitious renewal-era projects. “The qualities of these spaces don’t operate when construed just as openness.” Despite the intentions of the designers, the reality is many of these places make visitors feel small and isolated. For example, the expansive plaza around Boston City Hall creates a “sense of exposure and unease, not sensuousness. It’s a difficult place to love.”

Boston City Hall and plaza / The Boston Globe

As noted urban designer Jan Gehl, author of Cities for People, remarked on Brasilia, the Modernist capital of Brazil, which was created by architect Oscar Niemeyer and planner Lucio Costa: “From the air it’s very interesting. It’s interesting for a bird or eagle. From the helicopter view, it has got wonderful districts with sharp and precise government buildings and residential buildings. However, nobody spent three minutes to think about what Brasilia would look like at the eye level.” These Modernist places are designed as forms first, he argues, then as spaces for humans to occupy second. As such, they aren’t really designed with the needs of people in mind.

Brasilia from the air / Image © Joana França, via ArchDaily

So why preserve these places, some of which don’t work well for people who don’t have helicopters? Meyer seemed to argue that it’s important to keep some Modernist landscapes, because they are a record of an “era of modernization and urbanization.” Neighborhoods where poor African Americans and immigrants lived were bulldozed to make way “large new landscapes.” But also equally as important were the “small spaces” that were inserted into the existing urban fabric and meant to improve quality of life. “They were part of urban renewal efforts, too.”

Paley Park / Pinterest

Modernist landscapes were also the result of design and material innovations, as the field of landscape architecture grew dramatically in the post-war era. Given these spaces can be defined by experimentation, “it’s not surprising that some have failed. Some can’t survive.” But some can and should. As an example, Meyer pointed to the landscape created by I.M. Pei and Dan Kiley between the east and west wings of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. as a masterpiece.

National Gallery of Art East Wing Plaza by I.M. Pei and Dan Kiley / Pinterest

And she argued that instead of letting these places decline due to lack of maintenance, they should be adapted, especially for climate change. Many of these “experiments for living” can benefit from strategic interventions to make them acceptable and relevant again while preserving their unique spatial designs.

Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, a co-founder of Reed Hilderbrand, showed his firm’s efforts at respectfully update Modernist landscapes in Boston — the Boston City Hall Plaza, a “whopper,” and the Christian Science Plaza. For Hilderbrand, it’s important to “understand the original design intention and then how to interpret it” for our current era.

For the Boston City Hall, the intention was to create a “sense of monumentality.” Furthermore, the entire government center master plan by I.M. Pei aimed to create a sense of openness and connection between the city and state government offices. “Boston had been a corrupt place for 50 years. They were pitching a new Boston and using the landscape as a recuperative device.”

Boston City Hall by Steve Rosenthal / Friends of Boston City Hall

Clearing city block after block, which had been red-lined for disinvestment, the city government built a new center in the late 1960s.

Hilderbrand said the “problem was the new buildings were too large and the spaces too vast.” While the plaza was envisioned as a civic event space, and has been used as such in the past, it’s now wind swept and barren.

After Mayor Marty Walsh launched an ideas competition that Reed Hilderbrand won, design work has begun to move public functions in City Hall down to the ground level; punch holes for more windows in the looming Brutalist building, which was designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles and Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty; create ramps up to the building; and add 100 trees to the courtyard. “We will increase shade cover from 3 percent to 9-10 percent, treat stormwater, and get people to the door accessibly. This is actually a return to some of the original intentions.”

Proposal for Boston City Hall Plaza by Reed Hilderbrand / The Architect’s Newspaper

And Reed Hilderbrand helped persuade the Christian Science Church not to cut a pathway through the 700-foot-long reflecting pool in their 14-acre Christian Science Plaza, designed by Araldo Cossutta of I. M. Pei & Associates and landscape architects at Sasaski Associates. Hilderbrand’s firm created a healthier environment for the 200 original Linden trees arranged in allees and created new sustainable gardens amid the seating along the pool. He said there’s a “compulsion to move around the pool.” It’s another vast space without much shade.

Christian Science Plaza / Boston Planning and Development Agency

The debate over whether Modernism is good for cities will no likely continue, but some argue that remnants of this singular era in American urban planning and design shouldn’t be destroyed but renewed. Organizations like The Cultural Landscape Foundation advocate for the preservation and adaptation of Modernist landscapes. As McKee noted, “just ‘pickling’ a project,” meaning preserving a project exactly like it was when it was created, “doesn’t work anymore.” Meanwhile, residents of cities decide with their feet where they want to be, and, at public meetings, use their voice to make clear what they want in public spaces.

Will Autonomous Vehicles Be Good for Cities?

Google self-driving Lexus cars / AP Photo/Eric Risberg, via Curbed

A New Yorker can put their arm up in the street in Manhattan and flag down a taxi in a few minutes. Taxis are readily available because it’s a dense urban environment. But with a smart phone and an app like Uber or Lyft, anyone can find a ride fast and experience the benefits of density without needing to live in it. Furthermore, autonomous vehicles (AVs) — which will likely travel in highly-efficient packs via routes optimized for demand — could bring even more of the advantages of dense places to those that aren’t. Rohit Aggarwala, former director of NYC’s office of long-term planning and sustainability and now co-head of Sidewalk Labs, wonders whether autonomous vehicles will then be good for cities. Will they further reduce the relative benefits of city life? Will they even encourage sprawl?

According to Aggarwala, who spoke at the American Planning Association (APA) annual meeting in New York City, there are six primary attributes of density — three positive efficiencies and three causes of “friction,” or disadvantages. On the positive side, high levels of density mean lower consumption of energy, water, and carbon on a per capita basis. “If you have less space, you consume less.” There is also higher asset utilization — less space and resources are wasted. There are easier physical interactions. With density, the number of unplanned interactions — so critical to everything from market and community development to finding friends and a life partner — increase.

Frictions include a greater reliance on central systems, which can cause problems if those systems are over-capacity or break down. There’s also a greater need for courtesy. In dense places where people are nearly on top of each other all the time, people must expend more energy to avoid annoying each other. And there’s also the need for more coordination. “There are more hassles in dense urban life, hence the need for more coordination to resolve them.”

If there is a positive balance between the efficiencies and frictions, people move into cities. If the costs get too high, they move out, Aggarwala contends. Technology plays a critical role in maintaining this balance. Technology can either make urban living easier or, if these systems are poorly applied, add to the costs. And if they make the many benefits of density, such as physical interaction, less important, that also serves to undermine the value of places like Manhattan.

Aggarwala argued that the telephone, one of the most important technologies of the last century, “undermined physical interaction. The telephone became the agent of sprawl.” In the same way, Uber and Lyft also make hailing a taxi, which used to require physical interaction, something digital that “works in sprawl.” Over time, the “urban convenience of hailing a taxi has become universal.”

Now imagine a highly-efficient, high-speed, coordinated system of AVs, which could make access to centralized transportation systems even less of a necessity. There will no longer be a need to live near a subway, bus, or rail station, or even own a car, with a community sharing rides in AVs. Furthermore, “if everyone is their own transit stop, will we even need transit-oriented development?”

With delivery of products via drones or autonomous delivery services, there is also less of a need to live near a shopping district. “Shopping could just become a destination luxury experience.” With the rise of ubiquitous, high-speed broadband, working from home will be even easier, as employees can create tele-presences for themselves in virtual work environments. And with distributed renewable energy facilities, suburbs could become as energy-efficient as dense cities, removing the appeal of living an environmental lifestyle in the city.

With these expected changes coming, will the value of density continue to outweigh the disadvantages in the future?

For Aggarwala, it will be critical for cities to get technology right in order to further reduce the frictions of density and make future urban life as pleasing as possible. “We need to use big data to make centralized systems higher performing.” For example, that will mean using data to make New York City’s urban transportation system much smarter and more responsive.

Today, the city’s subway seems to be a near-universal source of frustration, as outdated systems mean a power outage shuts down whole lines for hours and rush hour congestion makes the daily commute nearly unbearable. The answer, for Aggarwala, is to “layer digital and physical infrastructure” to make these systems work better.

Furthermore, “we need apps that enable people to share things more easily. We need ubiquitous monitoring systems, so police will treat people better. We need to reduce the coordination problems.” We need subways and bike share systems to connect seamlessly with AV stations.

“Technology can make density more attractive or not, urban life better or not. And reduce demand for cities and increase sprawl, or not.” It will really depend on urban communities and their political leaders to drive improvements that will maintain the appeal of city life and save the environment from sprawl.

For another perspective on what AVs mean for cities, read about SWA President Kinder Baumgardner’s vision.

Change Is Scary, But We Will Get Through the Current Transition

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California’s Mojave Desert / Utility Dive

“In a fractured, perplexing world, it’s easy to be pessimistic. But if we pull back, we can see there are deeper, more coherent forces at work. If we looked at today from 500 years in the future, we would see we are at an extraordinary moment in history. What’s really happening is the reinvention of America,” argued Peter Leyden, author of The Long Boom, and What’s Next?, at the opening plenary of the American Planning Association (APA) annual meeting in New York City. He added that: “no country can go through this kind of transition without experiencing major political change. There is intense polarization and paralysis at the beginning of every transition. President Trump is a classic reaction to change. Change is hard and scary; it’s very appealing to go back. But what happens next is we will get through the transition.”

The United States has experienced four eras of deep structural change, each taking a number of years to take root. “We are in the fifth transition now.” From 1800-1850, the country saw a transformation to mechanized agriculture; from 1850-1900, we shifted to the early industrial era; from 1900-1950, America moved to the urban industrial era; and from 1950-2000, we saw the rise of the post-war suburban era. At the beginning of each of these major transitions, there was political paralysis and efforts to stop change, but deeper forces pushed us towards a new economy and society.

Beginning in 2000, Leyden argued, the U.S. began the latest massive transformation, characterized by “the digitization of everything.” Connecting all computers in the world was a “world historical event.” With technology organized on a global scale, “we also started the globalization of everything.”

The “unprecedented challenges” facing the world today — climate change, mass migration, rising inequality, education system failures, and pandemics — are “the classic symptoms of systemic change.”

Leyden is optimistic we can make our way through these challenges, just as we have in the past. “I believe this story has a happy ending.”

Leyden outlined some of the deeper forces at work today:

Digitalization: Today, computers are 25 times more powerful than they were 40 years ago. In 1975, 200 mega flops cost $31 million; today, 300 giga flops costs $649, the price of a new iphone. In 1981, one gigabyte of storage cost $700,000; today, the same amount costs 4 cents. From before the birth of Christ to 2003, humans created around 5 exabytes of data; today, we create the same amount of data every two days. Before 1990, 6 percent of data was digitized; now, “data is all digital.”

In 2000, just 5 percent of the world was online; today, 40 percent are, and soon everyone will be. Already, 75 percent of the planet has a cell phone. “Soon everyone will have 4G and the entire world will be able to send videos.” And there are “more technological wonders to come, with artificial intelligence and robotics.”

But the downside is an estimated 47 percent of all jobs in the U.S. will be “vulnerable to automation in the next 20 years. Routine, non-creative jobs will go away.” Still, Leyden believes new types of jobs will take the place of old ones, just as has occurred in past transitions. The total number of jobs has always increased.

Globalization: The world economy and financial markets are increasingly inter-connected. People are more connected than ever, too. Some $7.4 trillion, or 10 percent of global GDP, is associated with travel and tourism, more than the share of the global economy associated with oil, which is around $5 trillion. In addition, the world’s most valuable companies today, including Apple and Facebook, are all about facilitating global communications. Amid worries the U.S. is falling behind on the innovation front, Leyden reminded us U.S. firms dominate the list of most valuable companies.

“Integrated markets and new technologies are driving global economic growth.” However, while productivity rates have increased, family incomes in the U.S. have stagnated. This is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Demographic shifts: In the U.S., 10,000 baby boomers retire every day. At the same time, millennials have now surpassed the boomers as the largest generation, and they make up the majority of the workforce today.

Like all up-and-coming generations, “millennials will reinvent the world. They are tech-savvy, civic-minded, collaborative, diverse, global, and green.” They are also moving into cities in great number and driving less. Today, 63 percent of the American population lives in cities; that number will go even higher. Millennials are also more diverse, and their children will be, too. “By 2050, whites will be a minority, just like they are in California today.”

Environmental change: There are now 399 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Sixteen of the hottest days on record happened since 2001. But there are glimpses of a positive, sustainable future.

“Solar and wind will soon be cheaper than oil, coal, and gas.” And while we are well into the information technology revolution, the energy technology revolution is just in its early stages. Once inter-state energy grids are rebuilt to more-easily enable the flow of solar and wind power across state lines, we’ll see renewables take over.

Leyden likened the national political dysfunction happening today to what happened in California in the 90s and 00s. As whites became a minority and the economy shifted, there was extended deadlock in Sacramento. But eventually a new consensus was reached, and California is once again leading the way forward, with the fastest and most sustainable economy in the country.

The last time the U.S. went through a major national transition right after World War II, just 5 percent of the population had a college degree. Today, more than 30 percent do. With all those extra skills, Leyden is confident our current transition will be smoother and faster. It’s the next one in 2050 or sooner that he’s now focused on — will it be nano-technology-driven?

Visions for the Next Generation of American Infrastructure

Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, 2007 / AP Photo, Morry Gash via Wired

In March, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its infrastructure report card, the first in four years. After crunching the data, they gave the U.S. a D+, explained Tom Smith, executive director, ASCE, at the American Society of Landscape Architect (ASLA)’s mid-year board meeting. “We have a lot of infrastructure at the end of its useful life. And we have a $2 trillion infrastructure investment gap over the next decade.”

Given America’s infrastructure is nearly failing, how should we rebuild? And where do we find the money?

In a panel moderated by ASLA CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, Smith argued “we can’t just rebuild our grandparent’s infrastructure. We can’t just add more lanes to the highways. We need to focus on land-use planning, sustainability, and resilience. Autonomous vehicles will also be huge.”

Patrick Phillips, Global CEO, Urban Land Institute (ULI), said compact transit-oriented development could “reduce the need for infrastructure.” He believes infrastructure in the future needs to be more smartly targeted to achieve economic development goals but also improve equity. A focus on inclusiveness can lead to new possibilities and a fairer future.

Rachel Minnery, senior director of sustainability policy at American Institute of Architects (AIA) wants to see new infrastructure investments help deal with climate challenges by improving our resilience. “We have a vast stock of existing buildings” that must be made more resilient. “We need a new era of visionary planning.”

“Parks and green infrastructure should be an investment priority,” said David Rouse, ASLA, research director at American Planning Association (APA), echoing APA’s official position on infrastructure. “Green infrastructure creates jobs. We can’t just recreate grey infrastructure.”

And Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, director of federal government affairs, ASLA, agreed, arguing that more investment is needed in “parks and national lands, which are also infrastructure.” National parks in particular are “overburdened,” said Smith, who noted that parks went down in the latest ASCE infrastructure report card. He added: “treating parks as infrastructure is an idea that resonates with people.”

Blackwell also made the case for increasing investments in “active transportation,” a term for infrastructure such as sidewalks and bike lanes, arguing that any major infrastructure investment must be comprehensive, and not just be about repairing highways and bridges.

So how to pay for the many trillions required for new infrastructure?

While states — even red ones — have raised gas taxes, the federal government hasn’t in decades and isn’t likely to in the future. President Trump has called for an increase in private investment in infrastructure through public-private partnerships (PPPs), but Somerville noted that PPPs usually privilege communities that can easily attract private investment. A private-sector led approach can then be expected to be leave poorer communities farther behind.

Phillips said there is “no silver bullet. We need a mix of private and public funds. Other countries are more effective at PPPs than us. Infrastructure can unlock opportunities in poorer neighborhoods. But, if poorly structured, a PPP doesn’t help.”

Minnery thinks the market will shift development and infrastructure investment patterns. Already the credit ratings of cities on coasts, which are most vulnerable to rising seas and storms, are taking a hit. As climate refugees increase in number and head inland, those cities will face pressure to increase development. “We have to think holistically as a nation about what this means.”

And, lastly, President Trump wants to speed up the process of building infrastructure. He is considering a new rule to requires states to start projects within 90 days of receiving federal funding. Is this possible?, Somerville asked.

Minnery said there’s often a delay at the state level, because of a lack of resources in planning departments. These departments have huge stacks of projects awaiting review. “Planning departments never recovered from cuts after the 2008 recession.” Rouse also noted that if the planned EPA cuts go through, “that stack of project reviews will get even higher.”

He said “successful infrastructure projects are rooted in local visions and strong regional planning.” To move projects forward quickly, communities must have planning infrastructure in place.

Blackwell wondered if more infrastructure project review responsibilities could be devolved to states. Through the FAST Act, federal lawmakers enabled California, Florida, Ohio, Texas and Utah to conduct their own National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews on behalf of the federal government. The Hill reports that Ohio saved $4.6 million in the first three months of doing the reviews itself.