How Can Cities Best Plan for Future Growth?

Model of Manhattan’s grid / Pinterest

The world’s cities are growing at a rapid pace. By 2030, nearly 70 percent of people will live in urban areas. Cities not only face immense challenges related to climate change, migration, mobility, infrastructure, equity, and security, but are also dealing with the problems associated with scaling up to meet rapid growth.

So how can cities better plan for future challenges and growth? Dr. Blair Ruble, distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, tried to answer that question by illustrating ways cities are grappling with the new reality, in a discussion at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco, which was moderated by Gordon Feller, founder of Meeting of the Minds, a non-profit network focused on cities.

First, Ruble said, growth must be accommodated through the right framework. “We have a very good example in our own country. In 1811, a bunch of commissioners sat down and planned a grid for an empty island of Manhattan. They created a framework, and that’s the mode we need to get into when we talk about the future of cities.”

But the amount of future planning needed is incredible. “When you think about a billion people and limited resources in the context of a planet struggling with climate change and migration, you realize this is an enormous challenge,” he said.

A silver lining might be where the growth is happening. In the U.S., where the population will be 400 million by 2050, most growth will occur in secondary cities. “Mega-cities have actually kind of plateaued,” Ruble said. “Most of the growth in cities right now is taking place in so-called medium cities of 5 to 10 million people.” Mid-sized cities’ manageable population size leaves an opportunity for more thoughtful development and policies that can enable sustainable urban growth.

As an example, Ruble pointed to future settlement planning in the Central Asian country of Kazakstan, as well as efforts to retrofit existing infrastructure in Africa and South America. Cities there have enabled government services to be available in self-built neighborhoods.

In addition to integrating a growing number of people, cities are grappling with a massive flow of data. Ruble said unless cities focus on the human component of data collection, they can be caught up in collecting data for data’s sake.

“The actual numbers are not the end themselves,” Ruble said. “Cities don’t just exist to generate data for analysts to play with. Connected to each information point is a human being.”

Issues of inequality should be front and center in any discussion of urban challenges. 

Take Toronto, and Canada more broadly. There is generally a more multicultural definition of citizenship than in the U.S. Still, racial inequality persists. Ruble pointed to a 2017 survey on the state of the Black population in Toronto showing 72 percent of respondents between ages 20 and 40 who identified as Black had been stopped by police; and data shows Blacks are “much more likely to be shot by police” than any other group.

“To address that problem, you can use all the technology you want, but if you don’t begin to get real about the limitations of your own vision of multiculturalism, the technology isn’t going to help.”

Flexible urban systems will be key to recognizing challenges and issues as they arise and adjusting course. “Urban success is not a noun, it’s a verb,” Ruble said.

It’s Time to Measure the Performance of Landscapes

Coast Guard headquarters, Washington, D.C. / GSA

How can landscape architects ensure the spaces they design perform they way they were intended? Landscape architects need site commissioning to accurately determine the performance and impact of their designs.

Site commissioning is the process by which performance standards are established, then measured and verified overtime. The topic has been gaining traction within the field and was the focus of a discussion at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles put together by Jose Alminana, FASLA, principal at Andropogon Associates; Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director of landscape architecture at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA); Lauren Mandel, ASLA, landscape architect and integrated researcher at Andropogon; and Maureen Alonso, regional horticulturalist with the U.S. GSA National Capital.

The discussion comes on the heels of a comprehensive new report released this summer by the GSA with Andropogon that makes the case for site commissioning. 

“This is something long overdue — it’s a logical follow up to the kinds of values and capacity we expect to obtain from the work that we do — the impact our profession can really have on the systems on which we all depend,” Alminana said.

Currently, buildings are analyzed and commissioned to ensure the quality and function of a project. “Landscapes, if they are going to play that kind of role, also need to be commissioned,” Alminana said. “But it gets complicated, because its not about moving parts and on and off switches. It’s about life, and life that is always evolving and changing.”

Site commissioning pushes the integration of building systems and site systems and establishes a role for the landscape architect early on in the project. Alminana said designers need to first define the goals and objectives of the project and the standards they are trying to meet. The expected environmental and economic benefits of a landscape project need to be clear, and there needs to be metrics to measure performance in achieving those benefits.

“There has been, over the past few decades, an interest in developing site-responsive projects, but there is less definitive knowledge as to what we are actually achieving, how we set our goals, and how we factor processes into broader project delivery methods in design and construction,” Gabriel said.

“The time has come to reinvest in our own processes,” he said, adding that site commissioning could result in a paradigm shift in the field, “and a return to landscape as prime method for conceptualizing new opportunities.”

Mandel explained the process of developing the report, which included learning from case studies of commissioned projects or those with robust site monitoring. One example is the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts by Reed Hilderbrand, which commissioned a complex hydrological system.

ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Clark Art Institute, Reed Hilderbrand / Tucker Bair

“Site commissioning offers strong triple bottom-line benefits,” she said, listing social benefits, like worker productivity; environmental benefits, like stormwater management; as well as financial benefits, like fewer construction errors.

“What we also learned in our research is these benefits are intertwined,” Mandel said. “So when you start to pull out these benefits, like efficient site management, what also gets pulled in is stormwater management and wildlife habitat.”

Alonso underscored a critical need for a continuous management within the site commissioning process to ensure performance and maintenance of the landscape. Project turnover is another instance where communication and management continuity are crucial.

Alonso said metrics the GSA gathers on projects “make the business case for landscapes we are building.”

How 3 Cities Are Addressing Homelessness

Homeless encampment in San Francisco / Broke Ass Stuart

Over a half of a million people in the United States are homeless. In major cities, homelessness is on the rise, due in part to increasing rent costs and a lack of affordable housing.

Officials and landscape architects addressing homelessness in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Denver shared insights and lessons learned from their cities in a discussion at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. Panelists included Scott Gilmore, deputy executive director of Denver parks and planning; Joe Salaices, city of Los Angeles department of recreation and parks; and Guneet Anand, ASLA, SITELAB urban studio. 

“You’re not going to end homeless,” Gilmore said. “There’s always been homelessness, and there will always be homelessness.”

“It can be a very daunting task,” he said about addressing the issue. “But I have hope. There are positive actions to be taken.”

Gilmore noted a series of initiatives in Denver, like the Denver Day Works program, which provides work experience in parks and public spaces for people experiencing homelessness. Gilmore says the program has been an effective recruitment tool for full-time employment with the city. The program also offers storage units for homeless individuals to keep their belongings while they access social or healthcare services.

Storage locker in Denver / Colorado Public Radio

“People think when you’re homeless you might be a drop out from high school or you don’t have everything together,” he said. “About 25 percent of these people are college educated. That gives you a sense that anybody in this room making the wrong step, or just having bad things happen, can be homeless at anytime.”

In Los Angeles County, homelessness jumped 23 percent last year. Salacies says that trend will likely continue, given the area’s expensive housing market. “We have situations where people become homeless because they miss a paycheck or two.”

Salaices said Los Angeles is working to collect data on the city’s homeless population.

“By collecting data we are able to go back and use it for budget services,” he said. “Without the numbers, the justification to share with elected officials, we’re never going to get the budget and money to improve our situation.”

In San Francisco, the leading cause of new homelessness is eviction. “Even though 44 percent of the homeless population does have a job they are not able to afford homes,” Guneet said.

She explained how SITELAB urban studio has been working with Lava Mae, which repurposes old buses into showers and toilets to serve homeless populations in San Francisco. Together, they developed the Lava Mae popup care village, which explores how the design of public space can better serve vulnerable populations.

SITELAB with Lava Mae Pop Up Care Village / Image courtesy SITELAB

“Care is the most important when you’re doing work that relates to the homeless, ” she said, adding that we are “sometimes desensitized because it is so present in our cities. We often walk past encampments and don’t think twice about what we can change or what we can do differently.”

Brie Hensold, ASLA, a principal at Sasaki and moderator of the session, noted a common thread between each of the cities is an effort to listen to the individuals and build relationship with the homeless communities, pointing to examples where “key individuals in the homeless population have become ambassadors and problem solvers.”

One such instance is found Gladys Park in Los Angeles, which has a large homeless population.

Gladys Park / City of Los Angeles

“A couple of the individuals started taking charge,” said Salaices. He added that the city has started hiring these people to help with maintaining spaces like the restrooms and grounds within the park.

Using Film to Tell the Story of a Sustainable Future

Solar landscape / Huffington Post

“Principles of sustainability have to be at the center, not at the margins of design,” according filmmaker and eco-activist Shalini Kantayya, particularly in our era of dramatic population growth and resource scarcity. “Sustainability can no longer be a thing of the privilege, but something that is accessible to all sectors of society and the masses.”

She spoke at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles about her films, which explore efforts to bring clean water to all and the global transition to clean energy. 

Her films demonstrate the power of storytelling in inciting positive change. “The stories we tell as a culture have the power to shape the future,” Kantayya said.

She began with a clip from, A Drop of Life, her film about two women, on opposite sides of the world, and their access to water.

Kantayya used the film to underscore the fact that global potable water scarcity is an increasingly dire situation. Today, more than 2 billion people lack access to clean and safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization.

“80 percent of illnesses in the developing world are due to water-related illnesses,” she said. “There are just no borders on this crisis.”

Kantayya pointed to the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico where millions of American citizens are still without electricity, healthcare, and clean water a month after Hurricane Maria hit the island.

“This is a failure of a story. That somehow we have failed to frame this story as an American crisis, that this is happening to our fellow citizens,” she said.

In light of the lack of environmental leadership at the federal level, states, cities and communities can act to advance a more sustainable future. 

Her film Catching the Sun is about the global transition to a clean energy economy. She tells stories of people working in the solar industry to illustrate the economic, social, and environmental impact of the movement.

Globally, the transition is moving rapidly ahead. China is the leader in solar with over 43 gigawatts of solar capacity, compared to the United States capacity of just over 27 gigawatts. 

“You have seen China, in the last ten years, move from the factory of the world to the clean tech laboratory of the world,” she said, adding that the United States needs to better capitalize on this movement.

“What we need is smart policy, decisive leadership, and visionary landscape architecture that bring sustainable solutions into public spaces and to scale,” Kantayya said.

Visions of a Renewed Los Angeles River (Part 1)

Los Angeles River / City of Los Angeles

Over the past decade, the Los Angeles River has become a source of excitement, inspiration, and concern for residents, city officials, and planners and landscape architects as renewed attention is being paid to its revitalization.

At the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, Barbara Romero, deputy mayor of city services for Los Angeles; Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder and president of Studio-MLA; and Teresa Villegas, office of Los Angeles County supervisor Hilda L. Solis offered background on the river and planning and design efforts already underway.

Historically, the Los Angeles River, a 51-mile stretch of waterway, served as a vital water source for agriculture, but its constantly-changing course led to massive flooding that killed 115 people in 1938; and its unpredictability hindered development. By the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers began channelizing the river, encasing it in concrete.

As a result, today, “the river resembles a freeway more than a waterway,” said Frances Anderton, host of DnA and moderator of the panel. 

The river is at the center of complex jurisdictional overlays, with a number of organizations and agencies, like the city of Los Angeles, the county department of public works, and the Army Corps of Engineers, to name a few, sharing responsibility over its maintenance and future plans.

Thirty-two miles of the river falls within the boundaries of the city of Los Angeles. Romero explained how the city is working to implement their 2007 master plan, focusing on reconnecting people, particularly in adjacent neighborhoods, to the river.

“The scale of this is enormous,” Romero said, underscoring the jurisdictional complexity of the revitalization efforts. Within the existing master plan there are 240 projects that incorporated community engagement, representing some $500 million in investment.

Romero pointed to the city’s collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers to restore ecological function and public access to an 11-mile portion of the river. Within this segment is Taylor Yard, a 42-acre parcel, purchased in March from Union Pacific Railroad Company for $60 million. Work is underway with Studio-MLA and WSP to make it a public park, after cleaning up the contaminated brownfield site.

Taylor Yard G2 project / City of Los Angeles

“If we’re really going to revitalize the river; if we’re really going to change the course of the river; if we’re really going to look at this ambitious plan, we needed to get this parcel into public ownership,” Romero said, referring to how acquiring Taylor Yard fit into the city’s revitalization plans.

Lehrer and her studio is designing public spaces in Taylor Yard, which is at mile 25, almost half way down the river. Her design studio is also situated on the river, and its revitalization has been a “passion project” of hers for three decades.

Lehrer said there is an opportunity to connect neighborhoods to the river while addressing environmental concerns like soil contamination and incorporating green infrastructure and creating new wildlife habitat. Lehrer also said there is an opportunity to use the river to create green infrastructure projects that recharge groundwater and get more water down into underlying aquifers.

“We think it’s good these 51-miles of infrastructure were kept away from any other kind of development. It has become an opportunity to bring the communities together to address environmental ills.” She added that “we want it to be resilient, inclusive, and an inspiration for Los Angeles.”

Villegas is coordinating revitalization efforts at the county scale. “We will be dusting off the old plan, opening it up, and adding to it,” she said, referring to the county’s master plan, which was last updated in 1996. They have created a stakeholder group of about 40 people.

The group is focused on the southern portion of the Los Angeles river. A park needs assessment completed last year showed a critical lack of access to green space. “We know we need additional park space in the lower Los Angeles River because it is densely populated.”

Revitalization efforts will coincide with the city’s preparation to host the 2028 summer Olympics. Romero said the major event can serve as a framework to invest resources. “This is not about bringing the world here for two weeks — it’s about reframing the discussion we want to have in our city,” she said.

Movement and Meaning: The Landscapes of Hoerr Schaudt

Movement and Meaning / The Monacelli Press

Movement and Meaning: The Landscapes of Hoerr Schaudt highlights the depth of work created by landscape architects Doug Hoerr, FASLA, and the late Peter Schaudt, FASLA. From private gardens to lush civic spaces, this coffee table book chronicles major works by the Chicago-based studio, from inception to final installation.

The book, written with Douglas Brenner, begins with Hoerr’s first residential project, a garden in Lake Forest, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago.

Garden in the Round, Lake Forest, Illinois / Scott Shigley

And then moves to bustling plazas and civic spaces, like the Michigan Avenue streetscape in Chicago, recipient of the 2016 ASLA Landmark Award, which is given to projects of longevity that have maintained their design integrity and contributed to the public realm.

Michigan Avenue, Chicago / Charlie Simokaitis, Steven Gierke, HSLA staff

In 1991, then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley tapped Hoerr and Gordon Segal, founder of Crate & Barrel, to redesign the landscape of Michigan Avenue, a hotspot for tourism amid Chicago’s towering skyline. Hoerr’s goal was to “make the horticulture so bold that it looked ready to jump out of the planters and compete with any skyscraper.”

Michigan Avenue, Chicago / Charlie Simokaitis, Steven Gierke, HSLA staff

Schaudt also renovated Daley Plaza, a much-loved iconic square in Chicago. Designed by Jacques Brownson in 1965, Schaudt called the Modernist space “‘the Italian piazza of Chicago.'”

Schaudt sought to “replace the thin stone pavers with more durable lookalikes, double the tree court without changing the number or location of planters, and leave the plaza’s landmark character intact.”

A charming moment is documented in the book: “After Daley Plaza reopened, a Chicago architect confided, ‘This looks great, Peter, but I can’t figure out what you did.’ Schaudt took the comment as the highest compliment to his craft.”

Daley Plaza, Richard J. Daley Center, Chicago / Martin Konopacki

It’s these bits of personal context that make Movement and Meaning compelling.

The book offers insight into design challenges and decisions, explaining the unique circumstances under which each project came to be.

Take the Greater Des Monies Botanical Garden. Brenner explains that since its heyday in 1979, the site around the garden fell into disrepair. Visitors struggled to find comfort in the landscape surrounded by an interstate and a double-lane parkway. After joining a design committee in 2004, Hoerr concluded the design should be based on water and sought to bring the river to the botanical dome.

Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, Des Moines, Iowa / Scott Shigley
Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, Des Moines, Iowa / Scott Shigley

In the Dwarf Conifer Garden, another Midwest plant-focused space, the studio increased accessibility and conducted a “plant-by-plant assessment of the two-decade-old garden.”

Dwarf Conifer Garden / Plan courtesy Hoerr Schaudt
Dwarf Conifer Garden, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, Illinois / Robin Carlson, Linda Oyama Bryan

The sheer variety of images, drawings, and photography make this book an absorbing overview of Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects’ work.

Best Podcasts for Landscape Architects

And the best way to listen


Over the past decade, podcasts have emerged as a popular storytelling platform and captivating way to learn more about the world around us.

Podcasts offer a source of inspiration for designers exploring other disciplines and seeking fresh perspective within their own. For landscape architects, podcasts reveal new opportunities and ways of thinking about the way we design space.

The podcasts on this list seeks to capture the range of topics that influence the field — from interviews with leading landscape architects, to stories on cities, urban planning, communities, and sustainability, as well as insight from creative people in other professions.

All of these podcasts are available on iTunes and Stitcher

99% Invisible: Roman Mars and his team at 99% Invisible pull together seemingly disparate pieces of information to weave compelling stories of why things are the way they are. While not landscape-specific, this podcast is a must-listen for anyone interested in places, people, and design.

Recommended episodes: “Making Up Ground” is all about cities built on constructed land and the modern day implications of reclamation. 22 minutes

American Planning Association: The APA produces a series of podcasts that focus on everything from the people behind plans, to disruptive transportation technologies, to planning for public health and for public space. Together, the podcasts offer a good way to keep up with all things planning.

Recommended episode: In “Planning for Parks in Washington D.C.’s NoMa,” APA’s Mike Johnson interviews Robin-Eve Jasper and Stacie West, who are shaping the future of a D.C. neighborhood where, in an era of rapid development, almost no land was set aside for public parks. 23 minutes

Design Matters: If you’re in the design world and don’t know who Debbie Millman is, this podcast is a great introduction. Her podcast, Design Matters, has been around since podcasts about design have been a thing. She has interviewed influential people from a multitude of creative industries. Their stories are inspiring for designers in any field.

Recommended episode: Interview with architect Pierluigi Serraino about what creative people have in common. 28 minutes

Infinite Earth Radio: This weekly podcast explores solutions for a more sustainable world. Hosts Mike Hancox and Vernice Miller-Travis interview people — from government officials to local entrepreneurs — who are working to advance more equitable, resilient communities.

Recommended episode: “Bottom Up Water Solutions” talks about freshwater, keeping our streams clean, and smart growth in the face of climate change. 28 minutes

The Landscape Architect Podcast: This podcast, which is focused on landscape architecture, broadens the discourse within the profession by talking to leaders from all areas of the field. Host Michael Todoran with co-host Margaret Gerhart hold candid discussions with professionals in landscape architecture, as well as writers, researchers, and innovative thinkers influencing the future of the profession.

Recommended episode: “Feng Shui & Landscape Architecture” discusses movement and the environment with landscape architect Shelley Sparks as she analyzes Feng Shui for homes, business, and gardens. 53 minutes

Placemakers: Slate is a major hub for podcasts, and their Placemakers is a story-driven show about urban design and planning. Host Rebecca Sheir and the producers at Slate explore how innovative communities are tackling environmental and social issues.

Recommended episode: “The Greatest Misallocation of Resources in the History of the World” is an episode about an agricultural approach to tackling suburban sprawl. 29 minutes

Roots of Design: This podcast is by landscape architects for landscape architects. Produced by the New York Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), hosts Frank Varro and a variety of co-hosts discuss the breadth of opportunity in the profession through interviews with leaders in the field. It fills a crucial need for a landscape architecture-exclusive podcast and raises awareness of an often misunderstood field.

Recommended episode: Their first, “The Birth of Central Park and Landscape Architecture,” is a great place to start — and really any number of their interviews thereafter. 13 minutes

The Urbanist: For a global perspective, listen to Monocle’s The Urbanist. Host Andrew Tuck covers everything from urban policy to environmentalism to art. This podcast packs a variety of topics in each 30-minute episode, providing a well-rounded but thorough update on urban developments each week.

Recommended episode: “River crossing” on how rivers and bridges can both connect and divide urban areas. 26 minutes

What did I miss? Comment below and share your favorite podcasts.

Soon We’ll Be Able to Swim in the Chicago River

Chicago River / Pinterest

Take a dip in the Chicago River? Those familiar with its history might think twice.

The Chicago River has a notoriously waste-filled past. Originally, the 150-mile-long waterway was used to fuel booming industry in the Midwest city. Little attention was paid to its environmental and civic value. By the turn of the century, it was contaminated with sewage and factory waste. When a storm cause the Chicago River to overflow, it would spill into Lake Michigan, the source of the city’s drinking water, posing such an acute risk to residents’ health that in 1900 the city turned it around, reverse-engineering its flow and diverting wastewater away from Lake Michigan and out of the region to the Mississippi. The reversal was crucial to protecting thousands of Chicagoans a year from waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera.

By 1930, after legal complaints from cities downstream, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Chicago to address the pollution problem. Since then, efforts have been ongoing to clean up the waterway. Recently, the city has stepped up those efforts again with hopes of increase activity along and in the river, including swimming.

In 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Metropolitan Planning Council announced the Great Rivers Chicago effort, a city-wide “visioning process” to develop a long-term plan to clean up and reintegrate into city life the three rivers of the Chicago system – the Chicago, Calumet, and Des Plaines Rivers.

The vision, released last year, lays out a series of goals that aim to make the river “inviting, productive and living” with benchmarks at 2020, 2030, and 2040. Ultimately, the city wants to draw more people to a river front that’s safer and more engaging with improve water quality.

And by 2030, they hope to make the river swimmable.

But despite reversing the Chicago River, the city’s combined sewage and stormwater system is still inundated during large storm events and can overflow into the rivers, canals, and Lake Michigan. According to The Chicago Tribune, 18.2 billion gallons of pollution entered the river last year. Chicago plans to eliminate the system’s overflows through green infrastructure and  completing the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, known as the Deep Tunnel project, which started in 1975 and the city hopes to complete by 2029.

For recreation purposes, the rivers need to achieve the “primary contact” water quality standards set for them by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, which would allow for safe swimming, paddling, and fishing.

Each year, 1.5 million Chicagoans and tourists flock to the popular Riverwalk, a 1.25 mile pedestrian walkway that runs from Lake Shore Drive to Lake Street on the south bank of the Chicago River in the city’s downtown. A new $108-million segment designed by the landscape architecture firm Sasaki, Ross Barney Architects, and Collins Engineers that just saw its official opening has generated even more interest in the river.

Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki
Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki
Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki

Paddling is already happening on the river. And a floating museum, or barge-turned moveable entertainment center, which launched this week, will travel along the Chicago River through August, eventually landing at Navy Pier.

New cleanup efforts are happening right alongside all the activity. Last month, the city tested a trash skimmer to collect garbage pooling along the Riverwalk. According to The Chicago Tribune, the floating dumpster is an $11,000 pilot program running through the fall that “sucks in the bacteria-laden water and uses a mesh screen to catch oil pollutants and floating garbage.”

Some residents are ready to take the plunge now, but getting much of the public past the initial “ew factor” of swimming in infamously-polluted waters may take time. Regardless, beyond swimmable urban waterways, this aspiring scheme could offer a unique way of looking at a role of a river can play in connecting a city.

New Campaign Needed to Bring Urban Nature into the Healthcare System

ASLA 2012 Landmark Award. Village of Yorkville Park by Schwartz Smith Meyer Landscape Architects, Inc. and PWP Landscape Architecture / © Peter Mauss / Esto

The health benefits of nature have been well-established. From improved well-being to a reduction in respiratory illnesses, access to green space is crucial to improving public health in urban areas. The problem, according to Dr. Cecil Konijnendijk van den Bosch, is that “nature is still not an integral part of our healthcare system.”

Konijnendijk van den Bosch, along with his wife, Matilda van den Bosch, are professors at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Their research focuses on trees, green spaces, and public health in urban environments. 

“The impact of trees and green spaces on our public health will be the number-one selling point for our profession in the next years,” Konijnendijk van den Bosch told arborists at the International Society of Arboriculture’s (ISA) annual meeting in Washington, D.C. 

Studies published in prestigious journals like the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), BMC Public Health, and Nature affirm the health benefits of nature. Summarizing the research, Konijnendijk van den Bosch said tree canopies and green space can reduce the health gap caused by socioeconomic inequality; and lower rates of ADHD, cardiovascular and respiratory illness, depression, and overall mortality while boosting cognition and happiness. 

“There’s so much potential in these benefits,” but they are not being widely translated into our healthcare systems, despite all of the credible research. 

Konijnendijk van den Bosch noted the World Health Organization’s new guidelines for access to green spaces, and pointed to cities like Toronto, which implemented a shade policy, as examples of progress. Still, there is a gap between ambitions and action.

“Things are happening here and there. Step by step,” he said. “It’s not a major campaign. It’s not a movement of integrating green space and trees into our healthcare systems.”

So far, urban foresters have failed to promote the public health benefits of their work. Konijnendijk van den Bosch gives a number of reasons for this: cognitive bias; barriers between research and practice; unbalanced messaging on issues like outdoor safety for children and the risks posed by nature; and competing interests for already cash-strapped city budgets.

So what can urban foresters, landscape architects and designers, and advocates do to inject nature into the discourse on healthcare?

“We have to change people’s mindset,” he said.

First, Konijnendijk van den Bosch argued, medical professionals and urban foresters need to build alliances. “If you want to get this message across, if you really want to be successful, you need to the doctors. You need them to tell the story,” he said, citing the credibility that comes with having a medical degree. While a number of pioneering doctors are already prescribing time in a park, the medical education system does not yet teach the preventative healthcare benefits of green spaces.

Second, urban foresters need to build strategic partnerships with organizations like the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), American Planning Association (APA), American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and American Institute of Architects (AIA) to create a cross-disciplinary approach.

Lastly, more public outreach can raise awareness of nature’s health benefits. But we need to be creative about fostering deeper emotional connections with nature. Take Amsterdam, for example. The city lost many of its Elm trees to Dutch Elm disease. Now there’s a perfume that bottles that now-nostalgic scent. It’s a marketing tactic that’s “tapping into something. It’s tapping into people’s emotions,” he said.

A Powerful New Therapy: Climbing Trees

Dr. John Gathright climbs a tree with students, as part of the TreeHab program / John Gathright, Tree Climbing Japan


Climbing trees isn’t just for able-bodied children and adults. Dr. John Gathright believes it can be an inclusive form of therapy with the power to foster positive emotions in people of all physical and mental abilities. 

Gathright is the founder of Tree Climbing Japan, an organization that uses tree climbing as rehabilitation for physically-challenged people to overcome pain while improving well-being, mobility, and strength.

“I believe that trees are our friends, teachers, and doctors,” Gathright said at annual conference of the International Society of Arboriculture in Washington, D.C.

The inspiration for his new therapeutic approach for people with disabilities came from a 57-year-old woman named Hikosaka Toshiko. Gathright met her before he was involved in field of tree climbing at a signing event for a book he wrote about achieving your dreams. She is physically challenged and uses a wheelchair. She told him her dream was to climb the world’s tallest tree and asked for his help. Gathright agreed and, in 2000, after three years of preparation, Toshiko was ready to take on a 250-foot tall giant sequoia. It took her over an hour to get a quarter of the way up.

“She had the goal of reaching the top of the tree, and it took her three and a half hours to get half way,” he said, recalling her reaction when, after over five hours, she made it to the top. “She said, ‘I’m here. I’m not a cripple. I’m a challenger. Thank you, tree. Thank you, everybody.’”

Gathright wanted to then empower others with physical and mental disabilities. Through his work with Toshiko, Gathright developed TreeHab, a set of adaptive, therapeutic tree-climbing techniques.

“People said climbing had physiological and social benefits, that when they climbed trees they didn’t feel pain. The people who were depressed and had anxiety changed in our programs,” Gathright said, relaying testimonials from people who climbed.

But there was a lack of research on the subject, so Gathright went back to school to get his PhD at Nagoya University to prove the science behind the program. He conducted a study monitoring subjects’ brain waves and stress hormones as they climbed a live tree compared to when they climbed a concrete tower in the same forest.

“We wanted to know how people’s bodies changed with the trees,” he said. “We discovered climbing a tree and a concrete tower in the same forest produced very different and measurable physical and physiological results.”

He found that tree climbing had a masking effect on internal pain, and that positive emotions were enhanced while negative emotions were decreased in subjects climbing live trees, but not when climbing the concrete tower.

His program has helped children to cope with mental and physical trauma by creating a connection to nature and allowing trees to tell their story when they cannot. Gathright also uses the program to educate climbers about tree health and forests and turn them into advocates for forests.

Beyond Japan, Gathright believes there’s great opportunity for this form of therapy worldwide.

“I think it will be huge,” he said. “Look at the demographics: in America alone, 57 million people have a disability. Anxiety disorders — another forty million adults.”