Garden Park Community Farm

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Garden Park Community Farm
is a new coffee table book by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBW). The book highlights some of their recent and best designs, but also showcases their philosophy as landscape architects, one that “encourages a responsiveness to the environment through artful design and ecological narratives that connect people to place.”

The book begins with introductions by Warren Byrd, FASLA, and Thomas Woltz, FASLA, and with essays by University of Virginia landscape architecture professor Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA. Writing in their introductions, NBW’s design philosophy is clear: beautiful, site-specific, sustainable design accomplished through close dialogue and communication with architects, artists, engineers, scientists and residents, which adds “depth to the design process.” Of this site-specific approach, Woltz writes they “map the tangible qualities and inherent energies,” even beyond the confines of the site to create a “dynamic framework that often informs the design gesture.”

Indeed, this in-depth and thoughtful reading of sites, combined with a clear passion to create ecologically sustainable and healthy landscapes, results in some of the firm’s most successful projects, twelve of which are highlighted in the book.

Divided into four parts, with three case studies per section, Meyer’s essays set the scene for the lush images that follow, explaining design decisions and choices of plant material. But make no mistake, this book isn’t just about the creation of beautiful places. Woltz is clear when he states the aim of the book: They “hope to increase public understanding that the designed landscape is a powerful tool for implementing ecology and for telling stories of the land that promote stewardship.”

As one might guess from the title, the works in this book range in scope and scale from an intimate roof top garden in New York City to a massive restoration project in New Zealand, all the while skillfully defining these landscapes with a language of “abstraction, place-making, and memory that was inclusive of horticulture, but not limited to it.”

NBW’’s gardens play with their borders, simultaneously remaining distinct while artfully blending the edges, as seen in the garden at Iron Mountain House. As Meyer says, they exemplify the paradox of “all great gardens – that they exist as other spaces, separate from the world, while simultaneously referring to their sites and milieus.”

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Frequently employing “narrative in their projects as a tool for imbuing meaning,” NBW seeks to connect many elements into a thriving whole. Citygarden in St. Louis, Missouri, is hugely successful at this, with its “abundant references to geology, hydrology and local botany,” all while creating an experiential place where residents and visitors both gather and create community.

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The creation of community is important to the firm, who recognize that all “the landscapes between buildings –- whether streets, alleys, parks, plazas, quadrangles, or courtyards -– are social spaces,” and that the quality of the built environment will affect the “range and quantity of interactions” between residents. WaterColor, which won an ASLA general design award in 2003, focuses on these spaces between, creating shared communal areas, while paying careful attention to the restoration and protection the surrounding ecology.

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Both Woltz and Byrd cite the natural world and rural landscapes as major influences on their path to studying and practicing landscape architecture, so it’s no surprise that their firm creates and preserves rural landscapes and farmlands. Landscape architects have historically looked to agricultural landscapes for design inspiration, but as Meyer writes, “few landscape architects have consciously taken on the shaping, transformation, and reformation of actual rural agricultural landscapes in the manner currently practiced by NBW.”

Their work in this realm integrates issues of “plant and animal biodiversity and watershed quality” to create landscapes that “express a community’s health and function, as well as its productivity.” For example, Medlock Ames, a winery project, makes a strong case for the “aesthetic possibilities of sustainable practices on a domestic scale.”

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Byrd writes that the projects highlighted in Garden Park Community Farm were “borne of a desire to affirm life and to assure healthy, vital environments.” This book showcases the aesthetic and sustainable possibilities when landscape architects practice with a focus on not only making beautiful things, but ecologically-sound places.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and ASLA 2013 summer intern.

Read the book.

Image credits: Princeton Architectural Press

The Incredible Value of Honey Bees in Your Neighborhood

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In the Chicago area alone, there are over 300 types of native bees. In addition to this bounty of diversity, there’s also the European honey bee, Apis mellifera, which was introduced by European settlers to the eastern part of North America in the early-1600s. Honey bee colonies eventually went feral and spread throughout the eastern colonies. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the honey bee finally made it to western North America.

During this time, honey bees became an important part of the U.S. agricultural system. While many native bees and butterflies are important pollinators, they are no match for the honey bee and the sheer volume of pollination that creature can accomplish. At the height of summer a single hive may contain as many as 50,000 individuals. In contrast, many native bees are solitary creatures. Through sheer number, honey bees are then more productive at pollinating our crops. Today, pollinators like the honey bee are responsible for every third bite of food we eat. For example, we couldn’t grow almonds in California without beekeepers trucking in colonies of bees.

If you’ve read about honey bees recently, it’s probably news reports about the rapid decline in their populations and the mystery surrounding the exact cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD). You may have heard about how honey bees are hard hit by pesticides, especially neonictinoids, which have been banned by the European Union for the next two years over worries about the adverse effects to all bee species. Similarly, in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is under more intense pressure to regulate these pesticides, as they have recently been sued by commercial beekeepers and environmental groups, which claim that the insecticides clothianidin and thiamethoxam – both neonictinoids – have negative effects on the central nervous systems of honey bees, not to mention other beneficial pollinators.

After CCD came to light in 2006, beekeepers across the board noted winter losses that ranged from 30 to 90 percent. While losses fell to 21.9 percent for the winter of 2011/2012 — as bees possibly benefited from what was the fourth warmest winter on record — it still remains true that keeping honey bees alive and healthy is becoming more of a challenge.

According to bee experts, most of those winter die-offs aren’t related to CCD, that mysterious ailment in which all the bees weirdly disappear from one’s hive. The vast majority of die-offs have to do with mites, diseases, decreased foraging opportunities from habitat loss, weakened immunity due to generations being exposed to pesticides and poor nutrition, and unfortunately, sometimes, neglectful beekeeping.

The United States Department of Agriculture estimates there are between 139,000 and 212,000 beekeepers in the U.S., most of which are hobbyists with 25 hives or fewer. I have a hive in a back yard in Chicago, though not this summer. I went to Washington, D.C. for an internship instead. Most of the beekeepers I know don’t have more than a few hives here and there. But the fact is there are a lot of hobbyist beekeepers, more and more all the time. Chances are, even if you’ve never met me, you’ve seen my honey bees or the honey bees that belong to my fellow beekeepers. Our honey bees have a range of three to five miles from their hive. Our hives are all over the country, on city rooftops, and in suburban backyards.

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This growing number of beekeepers contributes to the general population of honey bees, which helps fight a general decline in colony numbers. The number of honey bee colonies in the U.S. has decreased from 5 million hives in 1940 to 2.5 million today, even while the demands on our agricultural system increase. That demand is also local now. With the push for a return to local food systems and community gardens, honey bees are being introduced into neighborhoods. This only helps increase the yield of neighborhood gardens. Bees can help produce more and bigger fruits and vegetables. Honey bees are so worth keeping: honey fresh from a hive is a wonderful thing. Eating locally-produced honey will also go a long way to help seasonal allergies.

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It isn’t hard to be a beekeeper, but it does require a lot of time and attention. There’s a lot to know about honey bees, but they are worth the time as they are endlessly fascinating creatures.

Unlike the yellow jacket wasp, the creature honey bees are constantly being mistaken for, honey bees are merely defensive, not aggressive. This is not to say that bee stings don’t hurt — they do — but honey bees would rather collect pollen. They will not bother you if you don’t bother them, they only want to defend their hive and protect their queen.

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Getting started with backyard beekeeping can be as simple as ordering all the equipment, a package of bees, and just going for it. But finding a beekeeper to learn from, in addition to reading every book you can before you start, is a better option. Find your local beekeeping club and introduce yourself. Beekeepers love talking bees and share stories of tips, triumphs, and tragedies.

If you can find a place to volunteer and participate in an inspection before you get your own hive, that’s even better. I had the pleasure of volunteering with Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory, where I apprenticed under a number of experienced beekeepers before I finally got my own hive. I also took a class with the Chicago Honey Co-op, a fantastic urban apiary that offers beekeeping classes. When you’re ready to become a beekeeper in your own right, check to make sure beekeeping is actually legal in your community.

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Want to help bees, but don’t really want to own a hive? There are number of things you can do. Fill your garden, patio, window boxes, and balcony with plants that honey bees and other pollinators love. If you have a garden, refrain from using pesticides. Urban and suburban bees may actually be healthier than rural bees because they aren’t subjected to an onslaught of pesticides. If you see a swarm, don’t panic. A swarm is a good thing, the natural reproduction of a colony. Call a beekeeper who will be more than happy to take the swarm out of your tree and off your hands. Please note, a swarm, despite the scary connotations of the name, is actually quite docile.

In fact, one of the main challenges for a neighborhood beekeeper is the uninformed community member, whose unfortunate first reaction to seeing a hive is to be afraid. Neighborhood beekeepers generally act as ambassadors for their bees, teaching people and reassuring community members that the honey bee is beneficial and safe. When I inspect my hive, it isn’t uncommon for neighbors to watch and ask questions.

The beekeeping resources I’ve included are those known to me in my hometown of Chicago. If you’re a beekeeper elsewhere and know of great resources in your community, please share them in the comments.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and ASLA 2013 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) Honey bee in Lurie Garden / Heidi Petersen, (2) Back yard hives / Heidi Petersen, (3) Frame of honey bees and queen / Donna Oppolo, (4) Friendly honey bee / Heidi Petersen, (5) Image 5: Learning to inspect at Garfield Park Conservatory / Donna Oppolo, (6) Capped honey frame / Heidi Petersen

The Case for Place-Making, Without the Sprawl

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What does it take to not only slow the spread of sprawl but also fundamentally change how we design and build communities? And how do we “unsprawl” communities that have already been built? A new book from our friends at Planetizen, Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces and Places, by Simmons Buntin, editor of Terrain.org and Ken Pirie, who works for Walker Macy Landscape Architects, proves that there are better ways to build communities. But this isn’t a book about sprawl: It’s a book about built places, “real, human scale communities by people and for people, not cars.”

In the introduction, Galina Tachieva states, “sprawl as a built habitat has been failing for decades.” With the recent economic downturn, the fundamental inadequacies of sprawl have become apparent. The new push to “unsprawl” is a movement towards an urbanism we can all afford — one in which amenities are located centrally and walkable, where the built is balanced with the natural.

While there are clear reasons why we need to unsprawl, this is a focused how-to book. Exploring all aspects of a project from concept to design and through to its execution, there are lots of details about how projects were financed and built. We also learn about the successes and failures along the path to that “particular moment when a project becomes a true place.”

Each case study covered in the book has an accompanying question and answer section with someone who is intimately involved in the design and development of the community. Case studies of various scales are organized into four sections: new communities; in-fill and grayfield development; the redevelopment of downtowns; and examples of “green” development.

The new communities section shows that good urban design is doable in both rural and suburban communities, places that have been historically car-focused. The authors believe we can build “new and distinct places that respect the economy and heritage” of that place. One new community, Prospect New Town, located south of Longmont, Colorado, was built with a mixed-use, eclectic design aesthetic and was voted “America’s Coolest Neighborhood” by Dwell magazine.

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In the in-fill and greyfield section, the authors ask: what we do when the existing form and function of our communities cease to serve us? Do we rebuild from scratch or find “innovative ways to adapt to changing social, environmental and economic circumstances?” Built on the site of Rockville, Maryland’s vacant mall, a new town square “created a daytime, evening, and weekend activity center that is easily identifiable, pedestrian-oriented and incorporates a mix of uses and activities.”

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Buntin and Pirie acknowledge that wonderful things have been torn down in and around American cities, ranging from “native ecosystems to historic neighborhoods” but believe that replacing what doesn’t work with “dedicated planning, good urban design, and hard work” can turn redeveloped areas into “intentional and integral parts of their respective downtowns.”

For example, RiverPlace in Portland, Oregon, the initial development of which was possible through the city council’s 1976 decision to remove the six-lane freeway that separated the city from the Wilmette River, showcases an “early and ongoing example” of these principles in action.

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In the green development section, the authors feature a few projects with especially strong sustainable credentials. The authors state: “successful, sustainable communities are not a goal to be achieved, but a process to be followed and revised: an essential pursuit if we hope to build places that will last on landscapes that will last even longer.” One such example of a green development is Prairie Crossing, in Grayslake, Illinois, north of Chicago. Prairie Crossing is transit-based, energy efficient, and community focused. The project “began as a commitment from conservation-minded investors who sought to preserve and restore native prairie and farmland being lost to suburbanization.”

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The case studies provide us with an “optimistic, diverse, and common-sense direction for the future,” one in which people, and their walkable communities, live in harmony with the natural world.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and ASLA 2013 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) Unsprawl / Planetizen, (2) Live/work streetscape, Prospect, Colorado / Simmons Buntin, (3) Rockville Town Square / Simmons Buntin, (4) RiverPlace’s South Water Front Park / Walker Macy, (5) Prairie Crossing / Prairie Holdings Corporation

Is Your Waterfront a Back Door or Front Door?

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America’s riverfronts have long been landscapes of industry and technology. They have also been historically misused and mistreated. Speaking at the National Building Museum’s lecture, D.C. Builds: Along the Waterfonts, panel member Harriet Tregoning, Director, Washington, D.C. Office of Planning said, “we are at a unique moment in time, we are turning to our rivers now and embracing them.” Along with Tregoning, members of the panel included Alex Nyhan, VP of Development, Forest City; Howard Ways, AICP, Executive Director, Prince Georges County Redevelopment Authority; Joe Sternlieb, CEO, Georgetown Business Improvement District; Nathan M. Macek, Member of City of Alexandria Planning; and Uwe Brandes, Senior VP, Urban Land Institute (ULI), who acted as moderator. While the forum focused on D.C.’s rivers, the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, the ideas discussed have broader application for any city that has a river running through it. An important point was raised by Macek, who asked the question, “is the waterfront a back door or a front door?”

Municipalities have traditionally lined their waterfronts with factories, industry, and in the case of a portion of D.C.’s Potomac river, a lot for garbage trucks and towed vehicles — clearly all back doors. Sternlieb asked the audience how many people remember having their cars towed to the Georgetown Port City waterfront lot? Quite a number of people, it turns out, as people raised their hands, laughing. But this isn’t what the majority of people want on their water fronts, as the desire for direct and walkable access to the waterfront grows. In fact, as Brandes mentioned, just 10 years ago, there wasn’t any rowing along the Anacostia, where as now “there’s a vibrant community.” So what does it take to make these changes?

A challenge with D.C.’s waterfronts is dealing with different governmental agencies who are hesitant to make changes without first having a study. For instance, Sternlieb told the story of how the National Park Service was initially lobbied for recreational non-motorized boating activities along the river in 1984. Overwhelmingly, people supported the initiative. In 1989, they conducted another study, the result of which was that even more people support the idea. And on this cycle went, every few years, until their most recent non-motorized boating study in 2013 that found there is “enormous demand” for recreation of this type, yet they still haven’t “built a single structure to do it.” In fact, said Sternlieb, the demand is so high there’s not enough land to accommodate it all.

Nyhan, who worked with 34 different public and private sectors to bring D.C.’s popular park, The Yards, designed by M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, to life, stressed the need to see the planning vision through on projects of this nature, saying, “you have to keep on persevering through thick and thin,” while keeping an eye on social equity and the importance that art and culture can have on a redevelopment. The Yards Park is a great example of a front door.

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But dealing with a city’s waterways isn’t all recreational fun. As Ways said, while Prince Georges County has a “strong and rich history of connecting” to the riverfront, it has also had to deal with the “dual-edged sword” of the river, and that means flooding.

Rising sea levels and the effects of climate change were addressed by the panel. Tregoning stressed the importance of making sure there is enough height to accommodate sea level rise, but said that the city needs to be prepared for things to be “episodically wetter” and in some places, “permanently wetter.” After all, D.C. was historically a swamp and “in many ways it ways it wants to be a swamp again,” joking that she “personally thinks that the monuments would be beautiful by gondola.”

But the issue of flooding and sea levels rising is a real and serious one. To deal with this, the level of The Yards was raised to get it out of the flood plain, as well as integrating rain gardens to mitigate excessive storm water. Prince Georges County has been raising their levees since 2007 and has instituted the “Rain Tax,” as constituents are calling it, something Ways says forces people to think about the impact that acres of impervious surfaces on their property have on storm water.

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The overall consensus of the panel: rivers are not only important arteries for commerce, they are places for recreation and are an indicator of a community’s health.  It’s important that cities and communities that border rivers “redefine their edges,” as Brandes said, and seize the opportunity to make these changes. They should be front doors, not just back doors.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, ASLA 2013 summer intern and Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT)

Image credits: (1) Washington, D.C. Google Maps, (2) The Yards Park / Doing the District, (3) The Yard Park Boardwalk / JD Land, (4) The Yards Park / Carol Joynt

For the Love of Gardens

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A good place to start is the beginning, which in this case is to define a garden. This is what Chantel Colleu-Dumond does in her book, Talk About Contemporary Gardens, when she recalls the words of philosopher Michel Foucault who said, “The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world.” Colleu-Dumond brings us into this totality as she explores contemporary garden design. Her deep love of gardens is apparent here. Her writing feels warm and her passion for the subject is clear. She says “this is an acceptable addiction and I am gently hooked.”

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There is a “pluri-disciplinality” in contemporary garden design that allows landscape architects and designers, along with artists, architects, and designers, to become involved in the creation of the gardens the author highlights. This pluri-disciplinality adds to the diversity of ideas, innovative practices, and mash-up of seemingly-dissimilar styles that characterize contemporary gardens. Colleu-Dumond knows that trying to make sense of all of it may be hard to handle when she says, “You just need to let yourself be astonished, charmed, and carried along by the magic of these new spaces to live and dream in, these spots for traveling without going anywhere that gardens have become. The aim of this book is to accompany you on that journey.”

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Indeed, this book could be used as a travel guide. Colleu-Dumond has gathered a list of 24 contemporary gardens that she considers “must-sees.” These gardens range from the Majorelle Garden in Marrakech, Morrocco, which was designed by Jacques Majorelle, a French painter, to the Jardins de l’Imaginaire (Gardens of the Imagination) in Terrasson, France, designed by American landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson, ASLA, and the Red Sand Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne in Cranbourne, Australia, which was designed by Taylor Cullity Lethlean and Paul Thompson, two landscape artists. These must-see gardens all over the world offer something for everyone.

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Talk About Contemporary Gardens can also be used as primer for design students. There’s a chapter dedicated to the 30 influential landscape architects, artists, and designers whose work Colleu-Dumond thinks best epitomize the range and depth of contemporary gardens. She gives a brief biography, a summary of the designer’s body of work, and, perhaps, most interestingly, their philosophy and design approach. Dutch garden designer, Piet Oudolf, who did the planting design for the popular High Line in New York and Chicago’s Lurie Garden, is well known for his “in-depth knowledge of plants,” and plays “like a painter with plant structures and textures just as well as with their colors.”

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This is contrasted with the philosophy of a designer like American landscape architect, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, who is known for her plantless gardens. Schwartz is “critical of the artificial nature of urban gardens” and makes us reconsider our standard idea of a garden. The only greenery in her Splice Garden is artificial topiary. Her garden is a combination of a traditional Italian Renaissance garden and a Japanese Zen garden.

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Colleu-Dumond recognizes that the key to understanding contemporary gardens is knowledge of garden design history, so she has a chapter on classic styles and their present incarnations. For example, the contemporary gardens of Japanese landscape architect and Zen Buddhist monk Shunmyo Masuno are “linked in tradition and yet perfectly grounded in today’s world.”

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There are a number of ways to take advantage of this book, not least of which is to flip through and enjoy the pictures. Talk About Contemporary Gardens is a gorgeous book, jam packed with beautiful photographs of the gardens that Chantal Colleu-Dumond clearly loves.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, ASLA 2013 summer intern and Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT)

Image credits: (1) Book cover / Flammarion, (2) Mas de Les Voltes / pinterest, (3) Cheveux d’Ange (Angel Hair) Garden / jardipedia.com, (4) Marjorelle Garden / allindesign.com, (5) Jardins de l’Imaginaire / flickr, (6) Red Sand Garden / flickr, (7) Lurie Garden / cityinagarden.com, (8) Splice Garden / flickr, (9) Kojimachi Kaikan Zen garden / Michael Freeman Photography

A Road Can Be More than a Road

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People rarely dispute that Americans love their cars or that our infrastructure is built around them. However, what to do about these problems is a source of debate. In their book, Creating Green Roadways: Integrating Cultural, Natural, and Visual Resources into Transportation, James L. Sipes, ASLA, and Matthew L. Sipes offer up practical design and construction advice on how we can move beyond basic transportation. Sipes and Sipes, a landscape architect and engineer respectively, haven’t just written a book about roads. As they say in their introduction, they’ve written a book about “pedestrians and bicycle facilities, streetscapes, community character; protecting cultural and natural resources and ensuring creatures large and small can cross the road safely. It is about multimodality, natural processes, and energy efficiency.”

With common language, thorough research and numerous case studies, the Sipes provide the reader with sound arguments for making our roadways green. They define green roadways as highways and roads that are site specific, that respect both the visual character of the place as well as plant and animal life. Green roadways work with a site’s watershed, maintain green corridors, and protect open spaces. It is possible, the authors maintain, to create roads that both meet traditional engineering standards and minimize their impact on the environment. More than that, though, green roadways are about getting people out of their cars – walking, biking and using public transportation.

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They contend that the time is ripe for this green conversion, citing quite a few scary statistics: 33 percent of our nation’s roadways are in “poor or mediocre” condition; 36 percent of our major urban highways are congested; and 26 percent of bridges are “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.” They point to the collapse of the I-35 W bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis as an example of what might happen if we don’t make these changes. And not to put too fine a point on it, since the book has gone to press, yet another bridge has collapsed, this time on I-5 over the Skagit River in Washington State.

The number of cars on our roads has quadrupled from 65 million cars and trucks in 1955 to 246 million today, and where in 1970 vehicles in the US traveled 1 trillion miles per year, in 2010 that number had increased to 3 trillion miles per year while the amount of paved roads increased only 1.97 percent. These numbers are staggering, and the basic argument that the Sipes make is that building more roads won’t solve these problems. After all, how will laying down more roadways provide a solution when we can’t maintain what we have? Instead, their book makes a strong case for integrating roads, bridges, trails, walkways and other elements so they become assets, not liabilities. As they say, “roads and highways have such an impact on our communities that we need to start thinking about them in terms of quality of life.”

In urban and suburban areas, especially on local and neighborhood roads, the move should be on “de-emphasizing roads.” They should be narrowed and their visual impact lessened, sidewalks widened, and opportunities for sociability increased. The use of rain gardens and bioswales rather than a reliance on drains also lessens the environmental impact of roads.

Image 3 Atlantas 15th Street EDAW
Image 4 Portland Green Street Rain Garden  Kevin Robert Perry City of Portland
Greener roundabouts can be used to slow traffic, and in the case of the roundabout in Normal, Illinois, it was designed as a community gathering places as well as a system for underground storm water collection.

Image 5 Normal Illinois Roundabout City of Normal Illinois
Our interstates can be retrofitted to allow for wildlife crossings, either as land bridges or underpasses, which protect habitat and wildlife populations that live around highways. The authors note that the average cost of repair to a vehicle after a crash involving an animal is $2,900, a figure that certainly makes these changes worthwhile.

Image 6 Proposed Wildlife Crossing Washington Department of Transportation
Both Sipes, who do believe there is still a place for pleasure driving, especially along the nation’s scenic and historic roads, provide the reader with examples of roads that are done well. They also offer recommendations for protecting the environmental, cultural and historical resources along these roadways.

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Image 8 Blue Ridge Parkway Linn Cove Viaduct Wikipedia Commons
The authors are dedicated to turning our transportation systems to assets, not liabilities, and have written a book to help guide this transformation.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, ASLA 2013 summer intern and Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT)

Image credits: (1) Island Press, (2) Portland Library Streetcar Stop / J. Sipes, (3) Atlanta’s 15th Street / EDAW, (4) Portland Green Street Rain Garden / Kevin Robert Perry, City of Portland, (5) Normal, Illinois Roundabout / City of Normal, Illinois, (6) Proposed Wildlife Crossing / Washington Department of Transportation, (7) Stone Retaining Wall / depositphotos.com, (8) Blue Ridge Parkway Linn Cove Viaduct / Wikipedia Commons

What Benefits Older People Benefits Everyone

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By 2050, one in five Americans will be 65 years of age or older, but, unfortunately, less than half of our country’s jurisdictions are prepared for this massive demographic shift. At The Atlantic’s “Conversation on Generations” forum at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Steven Clemens, Washington editor-at-large of The Atlantic and Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class and other bestsellers, discussed how communities can better prepare for their aging populations. The big point they made: what makes these communities healthier for older people will really benefit Americans of all ages.

Florida defined aging baby-boomer populations as Empty-Nesters, those 45-64, and retirees, those 65 and older. These groups are now replicating the trends of the Millennials: they are moving to urban centers. Boomers are moving to cities to be closer to their children and grandchildren. In part, they may be moving there to build a sense of community that may be missing in the suburbs.

But at least with the aging, the differences between the suburbs and urban areas may not be so stark. Florida said the traditional “categories of city and suburb don’t cut it anymore.” The distinction is now between whether a community is livable or not. A livable community is safe, secure, and offers access to transit, health care. These places are walkable and enable a high level of sociability. All of these things combine to help people age in place. According to the AARP, this is something the vast majority of older Americans want to do.

Clemens added that “cities have become better at being cities,” but there is still work to be done to make the majority of our communities truly livable. Transit systems need to be expanded or built in the majority America’s communities. Improving the connectivity of neighborhoods via networks of sidewalks and bike lanes is important. And the things that used to draw people downtown, “the SOBs – symphony, opera and ballet,” as Florida jokingly called them, aren’t enough of a draw anymore. Boomers and Millennials alike both call for more street-level vibrancy.

Florida admits this move by the boomers to urban centers, rather than retirement communities set in warmer climates, may lay the “seeds of generational conflict,” simply because boomers have more money and freedom of movement and can therefore potentially squeeze out younger people in their 20s and 30s.

That said, it isn’t just older people who will benefit from what Clemens called the “density and connectivity” of these livable communities. Florida noted that 33 million Americans across all age groups live in solo households. The more social ties a person has between friends and family, the longer and richer their life will be. Older Americans are more and more looking to live among a diversity of ages and experiences, which living in urban centers can give them.

While livable communities allow older people to age in place, the assets that allow them to do it with dignity – sociability, walkability, access to affordable and quality healthcare, proximity to community parks and greens spaces – are also the things that make cities healthy and livable places for people of all ages.  “Cities are not just places and built environments, they are collections of people,” said Florida, also noting that, “the places that really do well, do well across the board.”

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, ASLA 2013 summer intern and Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT)

Image credit: ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award. Lafayette Greens: Urban Agriculture, Urban Fabric, Urban Sustainability. Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture / Image credit: Beth Hagenbuch