When Planning Conferences, Start with Diversity

By Daniel Rodriguez, Associate ASLA

Landscape architects, urban planners, and architects can build solidarity with the social and environmental justice movements by creating conferences that use diversity, equity, and inclusion as a guiding framework. This is what we did with the 2019 ASLA Florida Chapter Conference in Orlando, Florida, where I was given the privilege to lead a diverse team of ASLA Florida volunteers as the 2019 conference chair.

As a member of the Puerto Rican diaspora residing in Orlando, I focused the conference team on the role landscape architects can play in moving forward social and environmental justice. ASLA members and allied professionals were invited on Common Ground (the theme of the conference) to discuss these issues. With the support of the ASLA Florida Chapter executive committee, we partnered with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and women leaders in landscape architecture who could guide us through the hard conversations.

During his keynote speech at Common Ground, Walter Hood, ASLA, a landscape designer, artist, and founder of Hood Design Studio, said, “some words are hard to hear.” But it was the words of these diverse leaders that increased member attendance by 25 percent and vendor participation by 27 percent in comparison with previous state conferences. These gains in attendance and engagement are evidence that national planning and design organization need to commit to a diversity, equity, and inclusion framework.

I have highlighted three commitments that you can adopt in your conference planning process with diversity, equity, and inclusion as the guiding framework:

Commit to Creating a Platform for Diverse Voices

BIPOC designers are not a monolith. We cannot check a box for diversity and assume diversity, equity, and inclusion has been achieved. Including the voices of Latinx, women, and Black landscape architects and educators was a conscious choice that we understood would enrich the conversation.

However, the four days we had for the conference was not enough. When we talk about inclusion and diversity, we cannot add one or two people of color to a panel and think we have accomplished our goal. This is why the majority of our keynote speakers needed to be people of color and women.

Meghan Venable-Thomas, Gina Ford, FASLA, Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, Kofi Boone, FASLA, Walter Hood, FASLA, Christina Hite, ASLA, Kimberly Garza, ASLA, Kona Gray, FASLA, and Emily O’Mahoney, FASLA, represented different perspectives as keynote speakers. They nourished our hunger to learn about our roles in social and environmental justice, but their voices weren’t drowned out.

Commit to Making Our Leaders Accessible to BIPOC Students

Conferences often highlight gaps between us. But a conference planned around diversity, equity, and inclusion bridges those divisions, especially for BIPOC students. A big step is removing financial barriers for students by making conferences free for student members. We committed to making it free for all registered students to attend.

Just like the fight for curb cuts in 1972, which increased access to people with different abilities, we needed to fight for a conference culture that cuts through the invisible barriers that separate BIPOC students from accessing leadership.

To address those invisible barriers, we created a volunteer position within the conference committee for a mentor to train student volunteers ahead of the conference. Students were eager to volunteer even though the conference was free. With professional training and access to leadership within ASLA, the students saw the incentive to attend the conference and volunteer. The result was record student turnout.

Commit to Stewardship

When I was a student, perhaps the idea that most attracted me to ASLA was, by joining, I too could become a “steward of the land.” In my student chapter, we co-opted this title and called ourselves “stewards of the land in training” because we understood that as aspiring stewards, we had to facilitate the change we want to see.

Now, as an emerging professional, I believe conferences are an opportunity to practice stewardship in a contextual manner. The conference committee reached out to local Black artists — two painters and one poet. We hired them to interpret who we are through their art. Jamile B. Johnson and Genevieve DeMarco painted eight scenes depicting the Black experience in our parks and public spaces. Blu Bailey, the poet, gave the gift of words with a powerful recital for Walter Hood (see video above).

The threads that binds these commitments are leading by stepping aside, elevating marginalized voices, and empowering the future leaders of our profession. Planning conferences with diversity, equity, and inclusion will help us do just that.

Daniel Rodriguez, Associate ASLA, is a landscape designer with Destination by Design, a multi-disciplinary economic development firm based in Boone, North Carolina.

The ADA at 30: The Battle for an Accessible and Inclusive Future Continues

UC Berkeley protest in the 1970s / Photo by Raymond Lifchez. From his book “Design for Independent Living,” co-authored with Barbara Winslow.

By Alexa Vaughn-Brainard, Assoc. ASLA

July 26 marks the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA grew out of the collective activism of the widely diverse American disabled community, which fought a long and often exhausting battle for access to public space, education, accommodations, transportation, and more. Today, their battle is still ongoing.

As a Deaf woman and as a landscape designer, I have experienced public space in the post-ADA era both personally and professionally. I believe it’s time to examine whether, after three decades, both the ADA and the design professions have done enough to guarantee our right to fully access the public realm.

For architects and landscape architects, the main design guide for access is the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. The most recent version of the standards was released in 2010 and has not been updated since, and, significantly, was not created directly by disabled people. The most recent version of standards were created and are enforced by the Department of Justice under the advisory and maintenance of the U.S. Access Board, which does include disabled members.

A major deficiency of the ADA Standards is that it does not address the broad spectrum of disabilities. It focuses primarily upon physical disabilities (predominantly wheelchair users) and blindness. For example, the standards largely ignore Deaf and hard-of-hearing people or autistic and neuro-divergent people.

Additionally, the guide applies principally to architecture and interiors, rather than for the larger public landscape that disabled people must navigate every day. Today, landscape architects often refer to the Landscape Architectural Graphic Standards. Although these standards contains specific guidelines for outdoor facilities, it takes directly from the ADA Standards and remains a set of baseline minimum requirements lacking in diverse design opportunities.

Despite the legal obligations under the law and the application of ADA Standards, the design professions often operate within the dominant medical model worldview, which infers that disabled people are the problem and that they must “fix” themselves in order to fit seamlessly into our society. And far too often, designers and planners treat ADA standards as an afterthought, a hindrance to creativity, or a headache in construction.

Instead, designers need to switch to a social worldview and recognize that the built environment itself is the real problem, preventing disabled people from being able to fully access and enjoy public spaces. Designers and planners have been directly responsible for the creation of barriers that hinder the estimated one billion people globally who experience some form of disability from being able to comfortably use public space. We can no longer consciously (or sub-consciously) choose to exclude disabled people in our designs. We need to fix and cure the built environment itself, not the people who use it. Access to public space is meant to be a civil right, not a privilege.

Dilworth Plaza in Philadelphia, designed by OLIN / Sahar Coston-Hardy

Universal design is, by definition, flexible and has the capacity to help shape livable and usable cities for everyone, yet it is still not treated as common sense. This is likely due to a reluctance to think about accessibility requirements outside of the narrow legal obligations of the ADA. We need to recognize that although a primary goal of universal design is to provide access to the built environment for disabled people, its benefits go far beyond the disabled community and extend to the broader population. The key is its provision of flexibility and a plethora of options for each user.

Legible Sydney, Sydney, Australia / City of Sydney

Despite the ADA Standards’ limitations, designers and planners have the chance to rethink access and what it means in the public realm. We must open our minds to understand the needs of a large diversity of people and tap into our creativity to think outside the box of the formal standards. ASLA has taken a step in the right direction through its guide to universal design, which sets out principles for the creation of an inclusive public realm that is accessible to as many people as possible.

Today, universal design applications require more thought, practice, and trial (and error), but they must be developed in direct partnership with disabled stakeholders and disabled design experts. We must learn to treat disabled people’s lived experiences as expertise and to trust their needs over our assumptions and intuition.

If we choose to open our minds to universal design’s potential, not only will we honor the ADA on its thirtieth anniversary, but we will take it a step further into a more accessible and inclusive future. We can then begin to dare to dream of a world where disabled people are honored, accepted, and embraced by designers, planners, and the cities they call home.

Alexa Vaughn-Brainard, Assoc. ASLA, is a landscape designer at OLIN in Los Angeles. As a Deaf woman, she has chosen to use identity-first language when talking and writing about disabled people. She feels that claiming a disabled identity is empowering and portrays the disabled community as a distinct and valuable community, worthy of recognition and pride.

CUT|FILL 2020: An Unconference on Landscape Architecture

Cut|Fill / The Urban Studio

By Andrew Sargeant, ASLA

Over the past few weeks, I asked myself hard questions to better understand my role and my profession’s role in tackling the compounding issues of the contemporary world:

Are we in a moment of extreme opportunity or inability?

In the wake of COVID-19, there was a rapid response by landscape architects through articles, webinars, and forums, imagining a future post-pandemic. In fact, those pieces keep coming every day.

However, the landscape architecture profession’s response to calls for social change and racial justice did not have the same sense of urgency. It seemed as though the previously zealous fighters for public safety and well-being couldn’t see the correlation between widespread civil unrest and their jobs. The combination of unfavorable responses to calls for change or just lack of responses was inexplicable to many.

This caused people to quickly voice opinions of dissatisfaction on social media aimed at specific organizations, firms, and even people within the profession. Some were based on personal experience and some just anonymous attacks, but all seemed to incite more of the latter.

Weeks later, I saw revised statements and commitments from firms and organizations seemingly bullied into action. Then came webinars, articles, and shared stories. The needle felt like it was moving, but it now feels like momentum has slowed.

I started to question if the complexities of racialized manifestations in the built environment are just too difficult for landscape architects to tackle and if we are equipped with the knowledge and tools to make a difference. I believe the future success of the profession depends on our ability to provide service to our colleagues and clients that address this new paradigm shift in social awareness.

How do we move forward with no master plan? Are there no experts in the room?

I think many of us want someone to have it figured out. The idea of best practices is ubiquitous in our profession. In The Dirt’s recent interview with Walter Hood, ASLA, he states:

“All I hear is, ‘Walter, help me. I’m working in a black community. I need you.’ No, you don’t need me. You need to do the work for yourself. You need to learn about us. You need to get in there and roll up the sleeves. This is not my (our) problem. Until it changes, we’ll be back in the same position 20 years from now, asking why we’re not a diverse profession.”

Unfortunately, while there is knowledge within the profession working with minority communities, it simply cannot be the only foundation for us moving forward. The intersectionality of the issues the landscape architecture profession is trying to combat cannot be tackled with a one size fits all approach. It’s clear there is no expertise within our field to tackle these interconnected issues (not to say there isn’t true expertise outside our discipline or at the margins that still remain unrecognized). The ramifications of COVID-19 only exacerbate the threats facing disenfranchised communities.

Can we afford to push any design agenda without thinking of these issues in their totality and their adjacencies? At the Urban Studio, we are asking new questions and hope that many of our colleagues in firms and other organizations are as well.

Can we create real change in our profession without diverse voices present?

We want to challenge who is seen as an expert in the room. Conferences on landscape architecture are where the typical rotation of “thought leaders” talk to people. We started to imagine a different type of conference — a conference not for one group to talk at another, but for everyone to talk and work with each other.

With most people quarantined to their homes, one might think this impossible. Fortunately, video has helped fill the void and enables us to converse and also see each other. The matrix style of communication has been used for quick conversations to full-length discussions.

As a proponent of the benefits of technology in our field, I see something unique here, a new medium for communication. I see a way to democratize discourse in a way that is unfamiliar to our profession. There is no posturing when you are a floating torso. It is harder to forcefully speak over someone and naturally feels wrong in that interface.

Over the last month or so, we at the Urban Studio along with Ink Landscape Architects have used this technology to create a platform, celebrate, and listen to the critical underrepresented voices in the design industry. We invite all voices to the first ever unconference in landscape architecture aptly named Cut|Fill, July 23-24.

This conference will be different from traditional professional conferences you have attended. Over the past few decades, the alternative conference format was made popular in the technology industry as a response to more rigid meeting formats that minimize interpersonal connection and communication necessary to generate bigger and better ideas. The unconference will open with brief panel discussions to set the stage for a participatory discussion. The remainder of the event will be guided by a professional Open Space facilitator who will encourage and guide participants to ensure safe and inclusive conversation.

Panelists at Unconference / The Urban Studio
Possible topics at Cut|Fill / The Urban Studio

In order to encourage that participants walk away with action-oriented next steps, we will provide tools within the event for collaborative documentation. Participants will be able to record their thoughts, strategies, and propositions in real-time through QiqoChat, a specialized interface for robust online conferencing. The platform provides autonomy for participants to not only propose and lead discussions but also move around freely between them. We imagine this will be a transformative experience for those who attend and the profession.

Qiqo platform / The Urban Studio

We would like to give a special thanks to Permaloc, Anova, and Landscape Forms for sponsoring this event. We would also like to recognize Sasaki, MNLA, GGN, Reed Hilderbrand, and Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects as well for not only sponsoring the event but also supporting and encouraging their staff to attend.

We have an opportunity to change. Let us be intentional about it. Let us make the most of this opportunity.

Andrew Sargeant, ASLA, is a landscape designer and pioneer of design technology in the field of landscape architecture. He is the vice president of The Urban Studio, a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Olmsted Scholar Fellow, and a part of the ASLA’s Digital Technology PPN Leadership.

The Urban Studio: Expanding how students of color are educated and engaged around design. Our mission is “to advance design thinking for equitable + sustainable urbanism.” Please visit theurbanstudio.org and donate.

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The Pandemic Offers an Opportunity to Re-Wild Our Communities

Re-wilded park / Illustration by Sarah Welch; courtesy SWA Group

By Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA

As the pandemic has worn on, the American public has adopted parks and neighborhood streets as safe spaces. This will not be a short-lived phenomenon – bikes have been repaired, running shoes purchased, and puppies adopted. People are growing accustomed to spending time in the outdoors to exercise, spend time with family, enjoy nature – and take that growing puppy for walks.

As landscape architects, we understand that engaging with nature and green space is an innate instinct for city dwellers during times of illness. While those using parks and streets today are not expecting a nature cure, they do experience a renewed comfort in these spaces.

At the same time, city and state budgets are being ravaged by COVID-19-imposed economic shutdowns. Hotel and restaurant taxes are not being collected. Sales taxes are miniscule. Property taxes will likely drop as high unemployment numbers linger. All of this is happening while governments are increasing spending on health-related costs and managing their response to the pandemic.

Parks and recreation are typically among the first government departments to have their funding cut when budgets get tight. At a time when the public will rightfully be demanding more open spaces, our parks departments will be unable to marshal the funds to maintain existing open spaces, much less deliver new parks.

I believe that this disconnect will be resolved through the rewilding of the American city. A lack of public dollars for parks will result in an unkempt, rambling, and wild style of park “design” created in an organic, vernacular character.

Like the home-made masks worn by Americans working to “flatten the curve,” our rewilded lands will create a new urban aesthetic born out of found land that is low-design and has a local do-it-yourself appeal. This new aesthetic will provide more comfort and delight than current design trends offer. The result: lively and wild.

Flirting in a re-wilded space / Illustration by Sarah Welch; courtesy SWA Group

In some ways, this transformation is already beginning with the conversion of public infrastructure to socially-distanced outdoor dining and socializing space. Cities across the country have closed streets and allowed merchants to colonize spaces once dedicated to cars. Makeshift dining terraces and outdoor bars – some stylish, others functional; all cheap, fast, and locally inspired — are transforming the streets. Parking lots have become everything from gyms to outdoor clothing boutiques. Is this the beginning of a tipping point where cities will invite communities to use the same “can-do” spirit within their parks and open spaces?

My view is that feral green agglomerations will pop up across cities and suburbs. Residents will benefit from their habitat patches, stormwater storage, carbon sequestration, and makeshift community gathering areas.

A re-wilded round-a-bout / Illustration by Sarah Welch; courtesy SWA Group

As viral hot spots continue to require work-from-home or reduced hours, workers with new found free time will spend it in the community gardens and on neighborhood exercise trails. Pandemic survivors will find solitary comfort in forest bathing rituals as they enter these spaces for a moment of stress relief and sanitary sanity. Native opossum and raccoons will colonize these spaces and thrive; children will build forts and clubhouses; and communities will co-opt them as gyms and meeting space.

Re-wilded parks will attract people and wildlife. / Illustration by Sarah Welch; courtesy SWA Group

The benefit of this new breed of make-shift open space starts with the sense of ownership that communities will feel for them and the functional programming and features they create. The benefit to cities expands exponentially by just getting out of nature’s way.

Lands that are released from traditional maintenance regimes will quickly begin to cleanse stormwater, sequester carbon, reduce the heat island effect, improve habitat, and become a low-tech but important part of a new infrastructure that is needed now more than ever.

Crumbling parking lots and parks released from maintenance will take time to rewild, but once that transformation occurs, cities will feel greener and like a true respite. Families will go outside to exercise and feel comforted by nature. Desk-bound office workers will take strolling meetings through visually inspiring landscapes. And our streets have taken on a new life.

The longing for wild places have been growing for some time now. Maybe the pandemic will be the catalyst for more therapeutic, nature-rich public spaces and lead to a new found interest in the healing and wellness that small natural spaces can bring.

Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, is managing principal of SWA Group’s Houston studio. He has traveled the globe over the past 30 years creating places that are culturally and ecologically resonant.

New Urban Solutions Needed for COVID-19 and Racial Injustice

Sign within CHOP, Seattle / UW College of Built Environment

By Kristi M. Park, ASLA

COVID-19 has brought significant complexities to cities. Protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd and countless Black lives have filled our streets and public open spaces. Community leaders and designers, who are already scrambling to solve immediate public pandemic-related health issues, must take a hard look in the mirror and finally address systemic racism.

As the design professions investigate the way forward, many cities and communities are heading towards an uncertain future without a roadmap for addressing the pandemic and urban inequality.

In Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, a new normal has emerged through a center of protest against racial injustice, known as the Capitol Hill Occupy Protest (CHOP). The site organically formed as a result of protester standoffs with Seattle police officers in the streets, even while the pandemic has closed most of the city.

In an unexpected twist, the City of Seattle closed the police station and essentially gave the streets to the protesters. Nearly six blocks of city streets and Cal Anderson Park, a large Olmsted-designed park, have been occupied by hundreds of people who are redesigning the community.

Cal Anderson Park now includes freshly dug communal gardens and campers. The nearby streets are hosting bands, documentarians, speakers, and a shared food coop, art, and volunteer aid stations.

The creation of CHOP did not involve typical community meetings, street use permits, planning, and design. But the space galvanized Seattle’s historic undercurrent of resistance to expose injustices in Seattle.

CHOP, Seattle / UW College of Built Environment
CHOP, Seattle / UW College of Built Environment

CHOP is unlikely to survive long term but still demonstrates how quickly communities are re-organizing.

In April — prior to Mr. Floyd’s murder and the spontaneous creation of places like CHOP — seven University of Washington (UW) College of Built Environments Ph.D. students engaged community leaders, educators, urban planners, and landscape architects in a discussion on their predictions for a post-pandemic urban future. This conversation resulted in the Pandemic Urbanism Symposium held in May.

One panel discussed the importance of public space in the context of the pandemic and within the framework of equity, justice, and resilience. The panel was opened by UW faculty members Jeff Hou, ASLA, moderated by Catherine De Almeida, and featured four panelists: Jesús Aguirre, superintendent of Seattle Parks and Recreation; Cary Moon, citizen activist; Brice Maryman, FASLA, a principal landscape architect with MIG; and Cary Simmons, program director at the Trust for Public Land.

Of primary concern to all panelists was equitable access to public spaces from a social, economic, racial, and ethnic perspective.

The pandemic will further exacerbate inequalities in cities like Seattle, with a particular impact on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. One question lingered: how will the design professions simultaneously cultivate pandemic-resilient cities and break down the barriers of systemic racism?

Panelists discussed both long- and short-term solutions.

One important long-term solution, which could be similar to the New Deal of the 1930s, is to make a significant and equitable investment in public infrastructure — parks, housing, healthy ecosystems, and sanitation access. Greater investment in public infrastructure can help ensure prosperity for all citizens.

Other solutions include the Seattle Street Sink, which was designed and installed by a team of local architects and landscape architects. The innovative system creates immediate and equitable public access to hygiene, which can help stop the spread of disease. The simple act of washing one’s hands should be available to everyone.

Seattle Street sink / UW College of Built Environment

Seattle has permanently closed 20 miles of streets to vehicular traffic. Street closures provide safe recreational opportunities and support community development.

Public park parking lots can be used as space for temporary housing, providing a place to live that has access to natural and recreational opportunities.

With the pandemic and protest movement, the door to address injustice, inequality, and the unhealthy nature of cities has been thrown wide open, creating opportunities for imaginative actions.

Kristi M. Park, ASLA, is a lecturer at University of Washington, an adjunct faculty member at Western Washington University, and principal of BioDesign Studio. Additional contributors include Jeff Hou, ASLA, and Erin Irby, Student ASLA.

My Brown Privilege

Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA

By Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA

As a first-generation Latina, I’m a person of color who believes in the significance of Black Lives Matter and expanding diversity in the field of landscape architecture.

An individual’s journey shapes their professional life. But having a profession is not always the case for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), who live daily with implicit bias resulting from systematic racism.

Instead of continuing to watch and navigate white privilege and fragility, it’s time for everyone to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable” and partner with the Black design movement.

The “there’s no one to hire” response doesn’t cut it anymore. The good news is you are already creative designers and planners who champion solutions every day. Now you can champion change within your workplace and industry.

Early education is the key to spreading awareness of landscape architecture. Commit to mentoring K-12 students. With the recent shift to virtual meetings, mentoring a student anywhere in the United States is possible. Collaborate with your local ASLA, AIA, and APA chapters that have established K-12 outreach programs. Ask your firm to attend high school career fairs. Volunteer for ASLA’s Virtual Career Day and openly express your support to welcome and embrace diverse voices and life experiences.

During my master of landscape architecture education at North Carolina State University, I was fortunate to have a Latino professor, Fernando Magallanes, ASLA, who I related to not only because we looked alike but also because we freely and openly expressed our Latin selves. Rodney Swink, FASLA, was also pivotal in my engagement with ASLA.

Both he and Fernando have introduced the landscape architecture profession at the Hispanic Educational Summit hosted by the North Carolina Society of Hispanic Professionals.

Kofi Boone, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at NC State, continues to inspire. Reading Kofi’s Black Landscapes Matter, I’ve learned about Black landscapes in North Carolina that I was not aware of — and I grew up in North Carolina.

I’m very fortunate and proud to work for a company that is committed to equity and embraces my boisterous cultural identity. For several years, they have demonstrated their ongoing support by sponsoring panel speakers, webinars, and workshops that elevate diversity in the landscape architecture community.

Firms can invest in a diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan and hire a facilitator to guide your company through the process. Read the ASLA Diversity Summit reports and elevate the voices of the LGBTQIA community. Are you familiar with LEED’s project team checklist for social impact?

Use your company’s voice and platform to share the work your colleagues are doing. This is a great way for BIPOC to get a glimpse into your company culture.

Do your project renderings and photo shoots include BIPOC, people of a variety of ages, and people with disabilities? Have you considered the inclusive or exclusive message these images portray?

Aprende Español! The ASLA Activity Book en Español is a great resource to learn the fundamental vocabulary of landscape architecture. Make the effort to communicate with your Latinx colleagues and employees en Español.

As we endure the COVID-19 pandemic that is literally wiping out BIPOC, the country has exploded with protests that call for safety and socio-economic equity.

I know what it means to feel afraid for the safety of my Black loved ones because they are identified by the color of their skin, not by their contribution to society, educational aspirations, smiles, love, and joy they bring to the world.

During a protest in Austin, Texas, I was in awe and bewilderment to discover protesters had shut down Interstate 35, the same interstate that divided Austin to create a “Negro District” via the 1928 master plan and subsequently was segregated by design to create a “ghetto for African Americas.”

Protest at Texas State Capitol, Austin, Texas / Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA
Protest at on I-35 in Austin, Texas / Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA

During the protests, as I stood there in my truth, in my brown privilege, I felt a tremendous sadness for the lack of diversity in the landscape architecture profession.

Have you ever had to consider the lack of diverse representation of your race in your office, company, or profession? And the pain and sense of injustice it causes?

By the year 2043, the U.S. Census Bureau projects the nation to become a majority-minority nation.

My hope is practitioners will seize the moment and cultivate the future voices of landscape architecture that reflect the communities we serve.

Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA, is the Landscape Forms Business Development Representative for Central and South Texas. She is the Texas ASLA Chair of the Committee on Student Organizations. She has participated in National ASLA Diversity Summits and has served as the Chair for the Central Texas ASLA and the AIA Austin Latinos in Architecture.

I Could Have Been Ahmaud Arbery

Andrew Sargeant presenting his VR research, “The Aesthetic of Proof,” at a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) symposium. / Andrew Sargeant

 

By Andrew Sargeant, ASLA

Two days before I saw the footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, I headed out for a quick walk to the local gas station mini-mart. I realized I forgot my mask and returned home to grab it. On my way home, I was greeted with yet another reminder that, as a black man, my movements are constantly policed by everyone.

I was approximately 100 feet from my front door when a pick-up truck with two Latino men approached me. The driver asked me if I was lost. I responded, “No, I’m not lost. Are you lost?” He said “No, I live in the neighborhood. Do you live around here?” At this point, telegraphing my annoyance, I replied “Yeah, man, I live right there,” pointing at my house. “I’m going home because I forgot my mask.” Having successfully checked in with total strangers, I continued home.

Later that day, I mentioned the encounter to my roommate, who is also a black man. Although my retelling was dispassionate, he responded with concern. My roommate wanted us to tell our neighbors because he feared for our safety. He wanted to leverage our social capital for community protection. He wanted what everyone wants — for us to feel safe in our own home. I shrugged off his concern. To my thinking, we lived in Latinx neighborhood and had a great relationship with our immediate neighbors. We were good.

Two days later, I saw the video of Ahmaud Arbery being murdered, chased down and shot by two armed white residents of his neighborhood while out for a jog. The video shook my soul. Arbery and I were about the same age, the same skin color, and enjoyed the same activity. Since the pandemic started, my roommate and I started jogging around our neighborhood at least 3 times a week, usually by ourselves. I just turned 27 years old. Arbery will never have that opportunity because his check in with total strangers didn’t go as well as mine did.

I share this story in hopes that this will be the last time I have to recall these events. I share this story knowing it won’t be.

As landscape architects, we understand that our imagination gives shape to the future. Our creative power manifests in the world and creates change. This same imagination is necessary for the liberation of people, and our role in that liberation.

With the increased global awareness of violent over-policing of black people by officers of the law and citizens governed by unwritten social laws, we are all being pulled into an essential and complicated discourse around race. The people demonstrating in cities across the world are taking us to task. Now is the opportunity to create a new and more just world that has never existed outside our imagination.

We know creating this new world will be hard work. I believe that most of us want to do this work. Yet I recognize there is and always has been opposition from people who benefit from the systemic discrimination against black people or from those who have the privilege to believe that the status quo is not deeply unjust. Even amid the din of protesters taking to the streets demanding justice, I hear the hushed complaints of people wanting to return to the world as it was or at least how we pretended it was. For me, the stakes are high. I have no recourse but to act because my survival depends on it.

In recent years, ASLA and the Landscape Architecture Foundation made a concerted effort to transform our discipline by making diversity a priority. However, firms have made little progress in diversifying their staff or creating cultures where diversity hiring isn’t seen as a forced obligation.

Black, Latinx, and Asian people working in majority white firms still must subscribe to and endure the predilections of white culture even when designing for diverse users. The compulsory need to change our speech, dress, hair and appearance in order to not disrupt the status quo, amounts to a suppression of our being for 40+ hours a week.

If we are to design a new, more just world, we need to start by designing a new, more just workplace. We need to do the hard work of examining our own bias and recognizing that our colleagues are not truly comfortable, yet are expected to endure the trauma of racism outside of the workplace and racial bias while at work. The first step is to have landscape architecture firms write an informed public statement against racism for the world to see.

Furthermore, I implore you to help create lasting change. No matter what your race, if you are unhappy with your firm’s response to current events or their hiring practice, let them know. Or quit. Choose to work elsewhere and share your perspective with other colleagues and perhaps the world. We must no longer be complicit in helping to advance institutional bias or apathy.

If you are a student and you want a more diverse faculty and student body, petition your school to make lasting change. Consider transferring to a university that has a more diverse curriculum, more diverse perspectives, and more diverse faculty. Surrender your education to professors and institutions who share your values.

We must change the narrative about investing in black landscape architects and other minority designers as “helping them.” Investment in diverse people and communities is investing in the future of the profession. I don’t want “help.”

I want you to recognize that our ideas have the potential to be as influential as our contributions to other aspects of culture. I want you to understand that the culture of our firms, the culture of our educational systems, and the culture of our profession is missing critical perspectives that are essential in building a better future.

Students interview each other about experiences in their community during a Studio Los Angeles workshop. / The Urban Studio
Students working collaboratively on site plan sketches as part of a Studio D.C. workshop. / The Urban Studio
Students examine foliage and learn about horticulture during a field trip as part of Studio Los Angeles. / The Urban Studio

White culture has become normative in our work and education. Without a deep and open-minded discussion of that problem, our work will grow stagnant, our imagination will be ill-suited to shape a better future, our creative power will die. We have no recourse but to act. Our survival depends on it.

Andrew Sargeant, ASLA, is a landscape designer and pioneer of design technology in the field of landscape architecture. He is the vice president of The Urban Studio, a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Olmsted Scholar Fellow, and a part of the ASLA’s Digital Technology PPN Leadership.

The Urban Studio: Expanding how students of color are educated and engaged around design. Our mission is “to advance design thinking for equitable + sustainable urbanism.” Please visit theurbanstudio.org and donate.

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Suburban Sprawl Increases the Risk of Future Pandemics

Suburban expansion into remnant habitat / La Citta Vita, Flickr

By Michael Grove, ASLA

The export of American culture is one of the most influential forces in our interconnected world. From Dakar to Delhi, American pop music, movies, and artery-clogging cuisine is ubiquitous. However, one of the most damaging exports is the American suburb. When the 20th century model for housing the swelling populations of Long Island and Los Angeles translates to 21st century Kinshasa and Kuala Lumpur, the American way of life may very well be our downfall.

In our pre-pandemic ignorance, most urbanists pointed to climate change as the most dangerous impact of our cherished suburban lifestyle. To be sure, the higher greenhouse gas emissions and rise in chronic health problems associated with living in subdivisions aren’t going away, but COVID-19 has exposed another threat we’ve chosen to ignore. The next pandemic may very well result from our addiction to—and exportation of—sprawl.

Vilifying Density and Disregarding Equity

The increasing traction of the anti-density movement in the wake of the current outbreak is alarming. Headlines proclaiming how sprawl may save us and that living in cities puts citizens at higher risk for contracting the novel coronavirus are deceptive.

Recent studies have debunked these myths, finding little correlation between population density in cities and rates of COVID-19, instead attributing the spread of the virus to overcrowding due to inequity and delays in governmental responsiveness.

Mounting evidence suggests that COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through close contact in enclosed spaces. Internal population density within buildings and, more specifically, within shared rooms inside buildings is what drives this, not the compact urban form of the city. In New York, for example, COVID-19 cases are concentrated in the outer boroughs, and suburban Westchester and Rockland counties have reported nearly triple the rate per capita than those of Manhattan.

The real issue is the systemic economic inequity that forces lower income people to live in overcrowded conditions, regardless of location. Innovative approaches to urban planning, equitable housing policies, and a reversal of over a century of environmental discrimination in our cities are absolutely necessary. Vilifying the city is counterproductive.

Moving out of dense cities into the open space and social distancing afforded by the suburbs is exactly the type of knee-jerk reaction that we must avoid. Cities are not at fault.

Habitat Fragmentation and Biodiversity Loss

In fact, cities are the answer if we plan them carefully. Among the many human activities that cause habitat loss, urban development produces some of the greatest local extinction rates and has a more permanent impact. For example, habitat lost due to farming and logging can be restored, whereas urbanized areas not only persist but continue to expand.

The Atlas for the End of the World, conceived by Richard Weller, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the best sources for documenting our collective risk. Mapping 391 of the planet’s terrestrial eco-regions, this research identified 423 cities with a population of over 300,000 inhabitants situated within 36 biodiversity hotspots. Using data modelling from the Seto Lab at Yale University, the Atlas predicts that 383 of these cities—about 90 percent —will likely continue to expand into previously undisturbed habitats.

Biodiversity hotspot map of the Indo-Burma ecoregion / Atlas for the End of the World

When we assault the wild places that harbor so much biodiversity in the pursuit of development, we disregard a significant aspect of this biodiversity—the unseen domain of undocumented viruses and pathogens.

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, meaning that they are transmitted to us through contact with animals. The initial emergence of many of these zoonotic diseases have been tracked to the parts of the world with the greatest biodiversity, both in the traditional and man-made sense. Traditional locations include tropical rainforests where biodiversity naturally occurs. Human-influenced conditions include places like bushmeat markets in Africa or the wet markets of Asia, where we are mixing trapped exotic animals with humans, often in astonishingly unsanitary conditions.

However, degraded habitats of any kind can create conditions for viruses to cross over, whether in Accra or Austin. The disruption of habitat to support our suburban lifestyle is bringing us closer to species with which we have rarely had contact. By infringing on these ecosystems, we reduce the natural barriers between humans and host species, creating ideal conditions for diseases to spread. These microbes are not naturally human pathogens. They become human pathogens because we offer them that opportunity.

This is already evident in the fragmented forests of many American suburbs where development patterns have altered the natural cycle of the pathogen that causes Lyme disease. When humans live in close proximity to these disrupted ecosystems, they are more likely to get bitten by a tick carrying the Lyme bacteria. When biodiversity is reduced, these diluted systems allow for species like rodents and bats—some of the most likely to promote the transmission of pathogens—to thrive.

This essentially means that the more habitats we disturb, the more danger we are in by tapping into various virus reservoirs. COVID-19 is not the first disease to cross over from animal to human populations, but it is likely a harbinger of more mass pandemics and further disruptions to the global economy. The more densely we build, the more land we can conserve for nature to thrive, potentially reducing our risk of another pandemic from a novel virus.

Increase of infected tick populations in fragmented forests / National Science Foundation, Nicolle Rager Fuller

Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary

In the United States, over 50 percent of the population lives in suburbs, covering more land than the combined total of national and state parks. Our urbanization is ubiquitous and endangers more species than any other human activity.

In 1979, Portland, Oregon offered a pioneering solution with the creation of an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). Devised by a 3-county, 24-city regional planning authority, the intent was to protect agricultural lands, encourage urban density, and limit unchecked sprawl.

Forty years into this experiment, Portland’s experience is a mixed bag of successes and missed opportunities. Investment in public transit and urban parks has certainly bolstered the city’s reputation as a leader in urban innovation, sustainability, and livability, with statistics to support its efforts.

On the other hand, two of Oregon’s fastest growing cities are situated just beyond the boundary’s jurisdiction, underscoring the limitations of the strategy. Again, inequity rears its ugly head, with higher prices within the UGB caused, in part, by an inability to deregulate Portland’s low density neighborhoods. This has driven much of the regional population further afield to find affordable housing in the form of suburban sprawl beyond the UGB’s dominion and into even more remote areas.

Another consideration that was overlooked when the original plan was established was the adequate protection of remnant habitat within the UGB. This lack of a regional plan for biodiversity protection has underscored the need for a more ecologically-focused, science-based approach to inform planning decisions.

Suburban development approaching agricultural land and remnant forest in Portland, Oregon / Google Earth

Brisbane’s Bird Population

Unfortunately, anticipating outcomes of urbanization on species diversity is not as pervasive in urban planning agencies around the world as it should be. A lack of detailed modeling specific to individual regions and cities with clear recommendations for how to minimize ecological devastation is absent from planning policy around the world.

However, researchers in Brisbane, Australia have attempted to quantify which development style—concentrated urban intensity or suburban sprawl—has a greater ecological consequences. By measuring species distribution, the study predicted the effect on bird populations when adding nearly 85,000 new dwelling units in the city. Their results demonstrated that urban growth of any type reduces bird distributions overall, but compact development substantially slows these reductions.

Sensitive species particularly benefited from compact development because remnant habitats remained intact, with predominantly non-native species thriving in sprawling development conditions. These results suggest that cities with denser footprints—even if their suburbs offer abundant open space—would experience a steep decline in biodiversity.

This is a common outcome found in similar studies around the world that exhibit a comparable decline in the species richness of multiple taxa along the rural-urban gradient. Although biodiversity is lowest within the urban core, the trade-off of preserving as much remnant natural habitat as possible almost always results in greater regional biodiversity.

Common bird species in urban and suburban Brisbane, Australia / Paula Peeters

Helsinki’s Biodiversity Database

One of Europe’s fasted growing cities, Helsinki faces similar pressures for new housing and traffic connections as many other major metropolises. However, in Helsinki, geotechnical and topographic constraints, coupled with its 20th century expansion along two railway lines rather than a web of highways, created the base for its finger-like urban and landscape structure. Today, one-third of Helsinki’s land area is open space, 63 percent of which is contiguous urban forest.

In 2001, Finland established an open source National Biodiversity Database that compiles multiple data sets ranging from detailed environmental studies to observations of citizen scientists. This extraordinary access to information has allowed the city to measure numerous data points within various conservation area boundaries, including statistics related to the protection of individual sites and species.

Measured by several taxonomies, including vascular plants, birds, fungi, and pollinators, Helsinki has an unusually high biodiversity when compared to neighboring municipalities or to other temperate European cities and towns. Vascular plant species, for example, average over 350 species per square kilometer, as compared to Berlin and Vienna’s average of about 200 species. By embracing biodiversity within the structure of the city, not only is the importance of regional biodiversity codified into the general master plan, it is also embedded into the civic discourse of its citizens.

Figure-ground diagram of Helsinki’s green fingers / Schwarz Plan

When it comes to where the next virus might emerge, Wuhan isn’t really that different from Washington, D.C. If the American model of over-indulgent suburban sprawl is the benchmark for individual success, we all lose.

Now is the moment to put the health of the planet before American values of heaven on a half-acre. Land use policies in the United States have just as profound an impact on the rest of the world as any movie out of Hollywood.

If we shift American values toward embracing denser, cleaner, and more efficient cities that drive ecological conservation—instead of promoting sprawl as a panacea for our current predicament—that may very well be our greatest export to humanity.

Michael Grove, ASLA, is the chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki, a global design firm with offices in Boston and Shanghai.

After Lockdown, New Opportunities for Downtown Shopping Districts

Petoskey, Michigan / Robert Gibbs

By Robert Gibbs, FASLA

Since the earliest human settlements, the retail experience has evolved to meet the needs of the public. This evolution has taken us from rural markets to towns, cities, suburban shopping malls, big box mega stores, and, more recently, the Internet. But what will retail shopping look like once COVID-19 lockdowns are over and people return to the wild for their shopping experiences?

When all the dust settles, the post-lockdown era should provide a boost to downtown areas, in part due to newly unemployed but highly skilled restaurant and retail workers opening new businesses in downtowns where rent prices will trend downward.

The pandemic has left millions of highly skilled workers from the retail and food and beverage industries unemployed and eager to work. Many of these people are highly motivated to start their own businesses, creating an unparalleled pool of talent and potential entrepreneurial interest.

In a recent Forbes article, Bernhard Schroeder wrote: “27 million working-age Americans, nearly 14 percent, are starting or running new businesses. And Millennials and Gen-Z are driving higher interest in entrepreneurship as 51 percent of the working population now believes that there are actually good opportunities to start companies.”

Traditionally, fear of failure has held people back from starting a business, but with so many having their jobs swept away due to the pandemic, that fear is gone for many people, who realize they no longer want to rely on an employer for the rest of their careers, and instead want to take on the challenge of leading their own companies.

Downtown shopping districts will capture traffic from fading malls

Malls will struggle in the era of COVID-19. Being inside an enclosed bubble will not be the ideal situation for most shoppers for the foreseeable future. Morning Consult reports that 24 percent of U.S. consumers fear shopping in malls for at least the next six months due to the COVID-19 threat.

As an article about a newly reopened mall in Atlanta explains, the experience won’t be very welcoming in the near term. Play areas are roped off, water fountains covered, and stores are limiting the number of shoppers due to social distancing. Add in the inconvenience factor, and it’s clear why so many malls are facing a reckoning in the coming years.

As regional malls continue losing consumers due to changing shopping habits and fears of COVID-19, an excellent opportunity presents itself for villages, towns, and cities to regain their dominance as thriving centers for retail and entertainment.

Some factors to consider:

  • As Millennials and Empty Nesters seek to live, work, and shop in urban centers, medium-sized cities (100,000 to 200,000 population) are especially likely to benefit from this trend.
  • Small towns (10,000 to 20,000 people) located near large urban centers are also appealing to start-up retailers and restaurants that want to take advantage of their proximity to large, well-heeled populations and small towns’ affordable commercial storefronts.
  • New walkable town centers — planned with authentic urbanism and a variety of hospitality, employment and residential land use — can also ride the wave of Millennials, young families, and Empty Nesters who seek an exciting place to hang out.

Main Streets are already innovating

Main Streets have been reinventing themselves in a positive way during the past few decades, making them a more attractive alternative for retail shopping in the era of COVID-19.

These innovations include:

  • Updated master plans that undo blight caused by 1970s urban renewal plans.
  • Implementation of Downtown Development Districts, which offer marketing, promotions, special events, street cleaning, landscaping, flowers and private-sector levels of management.
  • Effective parking management, and construction of new parking lots and garages.
  • Investment in beautiful new streetscapes, public art, and street furnishings.
  • Reduction of crime, increased safety.
  • U.S. Main Street programs, which offers guidance to revitalize downtowns, and returns $36 for each $1 invested.

For Millennials, who seek more social experiences as opposed to the enclosed mall experience of their youth, Main Street experiences in their towns and cities are the perfect fit for their lifestyle.

While the larger portion of their income will go to experiences such as European travel or outdoor adventures, closer-to-home visits to a local brewpub or coffee shop in their town center make perfect sense.

Main Streets will provide new homes for mall stores

As malls close and online shopping grows, existing mall retailers will seek new locations near their former mall stores. In many instances, these venues include smaller downtown cores, which traditionally offer lower rents and, now, the safety of an open-air shopping experience.

The writing is on the wall for mall store operators, all of which leads to an economically-friendly, Main Street setting:

  • Malls depend on department stores to attract almost 50 percent of their shoppers and cannot operate without them, which is problematic for many reasons.
  • Many mall retailers have lease options allowing them to break their leases and leave the mall should key department stores close.
  • Department stores are losing market share, from a peak of 50 percent of all retail sales in the 1950s to 5 percent today.
  • Since the heyday of malls in 1992, department store sales have dropped from $230 billion to $140 billion and many department stores are close to bankruptcy.
  • Over 50 percent of regional malls are forecast to close by 2025 (Credit Suisse).

Retail and Office Space Will Move to Town Centers

The online shopping boom has made nearly obsolete many of the conventional large power center retailers offering products such as books, electronics, office supplies, sporting goods, and toys. The end result is the expected closing of millions of square feet of retail space.

Often, these centers cover typically 20-50 acres of prime real estate, which presents an opportunity. They can be converted into mixed-use town centers with medium density residential and commercial occupants.

The same can be said of suburban office parks, as even centers in blue-chip locations are facing high vacancies and declining rents as many major corporations are moving into city centers to attract top talent. Millennials find the suburban office parks boring, preferring to live and work in downtowns. These large office parks have an abundance of land and parking that can be retrofitted into walkable mixed-use town centers.

Challenges and opportunities for downtown shopping districts

When a national brand relocates from a mall environment to a town or city, they may initially receive a cold shoulder from city leaders and the community, who fear popular brands will end up killing their beloved Main Street’s unique charm.

Looking back at history, though, this thinking is inaccurate, as downtown shopping districts were filled with leading retailers and large department stores during their 1950s heyday. For long-term sustainability, a downtown should always offer the goods and services desired by its residents and workers, which may include popular brand names.

Zoning is another key battle. Cities must offer flexible form-based zoning to allow for medium-to-high densities of residential and commercial to be developed as walkable neighborhoods and business districts. Development standards should focus on requiring quality design and materials, rather than arbitrary minimal units per acre densities, minimal parking ratios, or suburban building setbacks.

Parking needs to be reconfigured to allow shoppers to pickup goods curbside.

Downtowns and open-air town centers are seen as safer from the pandemic than enclosed malls, because they offer:

  • Wider spaces.
  • Less-enclosed spaces, with more fresh air and direct sunlight.
  • The ability to walk on other side of street or block.
  • No elevators or escalators.
  • Fewer doors to enter.
  • Curbside pick-up of goods.

People enjoy visiting towns and cities to socialize and experience parks, urban life, including storefronts.

They visit to have an experience they cannot get through online shopping. And while visiting downtowns for entertainment and fun, many will walk by store fronts and be tempted to make impulse purchases from Main Street retailers.

Inviting storefront that provides a unique shopping experience in Nantucket, MA / Robert Gibbs
Ralph Lauren shop in Southhampton, NY / Robert Gibbs
Shoppers in Naples, Florida / Robert Gibbs

Towns and small city landlords typically offer much cheaper rents than suburban malls, often more than 50 percent less, and also offer flexible lease terms: no minimum hours and less rigorous storefront and merchandising standards than mall leases. This type of accommodation will be more attractive to new entrepreneurs created from this pandemic.

The savings also are appealing to national retailers facing declining sales and mall leases that are too expensive.

How downtown Main Streets can ensure success

As we look to the future, and the economic recovery that will come once a vaccine is created and herd immunity is established, all signs point to the re-emergence of Main Street as the place people will want to do their retail shopping.

A new generation of entrepreneurs will be eager to start a new chapter in their life, and the suburban shopping centers are not going to attract them.

Well-designed town centers, with the type of social interaction sought by Millennials, young families, and Empty Nesters will be the new home for the boom in the years to come.

King Street in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia / Robert Gibbs

A few best practices for downtowns to apply:

  • Create a marketing strategy for a post-pandemic campaign.
  • Beautify the public realm through landscape, lighting, parking lots-garages, signage, streetscape, and storefront improvements.
  • Explore temporary commercial street closures to allow for open air dining and shopping spaces.
  • Modify zoning to allow first floor office and service business.
  • Require store fronts to maintain large clear glazing, sign bands, operating doors, and ceiling heights to allow for future retail or restaurant use.
  • Remove or reduce minimum retail and restaurant parking requirements in downtowns and new mixed-use developments.
  • Include generous 10-minute parking spaces to accommodate curbside pickups for restaurants and retailers.
  • Devise market-based business recruitment plans and resources to identify and attract new retailers and restaurants into the downtown.
  • Seek a balance of local, regional, and national retailers.
  • Apply flexible zoning to promote medium-density and high-density multi-family residential.
  • Implement market based master plans, form-based codes, and zoning flexibility to allow for retrofitting of underutilized shopping centers and office parks.

Robert Gibbs, FASLA, is president of the Gibbs Planning Group, which has advised and planned commercial areas in some 500 town centers and historic cities in the U.S. and abroad. Gibbs is a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, a lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, author of Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development, and co-author of eight books.

COVID-19: An Opportunity for More Equitable Public Transportation

Photo by taken by bus driver Valerie Jefferson / Valerie Jefferson for WWNO article by Tegan Wendland, April 22, 2020

By Diane Jones Allen, FASLA

These tweets appeared on the Regional Transit Authority (RTA), New Orleans, and NOLA Ready Twitter feeds:

“The following routes will suspend service beginning March 29th: 2- Riverfront Streetcar, 5-Marigny-Bywater, 11-Magazine, 15-Freret, 45-Lakeview, 48-Canal-City Park Streetcar, 51-St. Bernard/St. Anthony, 60-Hayne, 65-Read-Crowder Express, 90-Carrollton, 101-Algiers Point, 106-Auror. Starting tomorrow, April 19, the 39-Tulane will suspend overnight service between 12:00 am to 4:00 am. There is a delay on 62 – Morrison Express. Apr 21 #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 114 – General DeGaulle-Sullen. Apr 20 #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 28 – M.L.King. #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 65 – Read-Crowder Express. Apr 19 #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 57 – Franklin.”

These messages bring to light the nightmare of those who depend on transit in order to maintain a steady job. They are facing a double crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are some of us who have easy access to work, because we do it from home at our laptops, but most aren’t so lucky. Many citizens must ride the bus or take other mass transit to earn a basic living. These are often the essential and frontline workers, those working in grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals, supplying important city services such as trash collection and utility maintenance, and even bus drivers.

Many of these people are already located in Transit Deserts — areas with high transit demand and limited or no access. With bus services cut, people are crowded on to fewer buses. The current situation — which is not only limiting but also eliminating transit service — is exaggerating the existing transportation inequities in already underserved areas. The COVID-19 crisis is exposing how particular segments of our society are more at risk due to historical and structural inequality in many areas, including housing and employment but certainly transportation access.

The current responses to the pandemic also reveal ways to address transit access and some of the inequities this crisis has exposed. I have noticed more people walking and biking in parks and along streets. With the reduction of travel by automobile, this means fewer cars on the road and reduced carbon emissions, creating several health benefits, including cleaner air.

Importantly, the current situation also strengthens the argument that given certain conditions, increased numbers of people will readily give up car travel if they had alternatives or had to, or at least use them less, even in a place as automobile dependent as Texas, where I am making these observations.

It is most likely that once more people are again traveling to work, there still will be a need for social distancing, presenting a major concern for traveling on buses and other forms of mass transit.

Walking on the sidewalk in Arlington, Texas, April 24, 2020 / Diane Jones Allen

Social distancing, brought on by the pandemic crisis, may be key to a solution for increasing transit in a catalytic fashion. If fewer people can be on a bus, then there must be more buses on each route just to maintain the base level of public financed mobility. More buses on a line means greater frequency and less wait time. Less wait time is proven to be a factor in increasing ridership.

While doing research for my book Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access, and Suburban Form, I interviewed several people in a Baltimore neighborhood that lived in walking distance to a bus line that would have taken them directly downtown to their place of work.

When asked why they didn’t take the bus, given it took them straight to work, the majority responded that they didn’t want to wait at the bus stop. I then asked: if the bus came frequently would they take it? The reply was overwhelmingly yes, even if it meant transferring to another frequent line. This is true in most dense urban areas.

Most people are even willing to endure a longer ride time, if the wait time at the point of access is reduced. It can be reduced with frequently arriving buses that also prevent the overcrowding that usually happens, thus allowing people to maintain a safe distance apart. In my view, it is a win win, particularly if the medical cost of maintaining social distances is added on to the funding source for more public transit.

The severity of the Coronavirus pandemic means that things won’t ever get back to “normal.” For those who care about the environment and those in it, it is a time to rethink how we live and move about the urban landscape.

We can create mobility solutions that are equitable, environmentally sound, and protect our health. Of course, it only starts with putting more buses on the line. There is now an opportunity for creative thinking.

Maybe we can invest in on-demand vans, or “VIA” type services, which is a pay-on-demand van service that runs on a fixed route; and other smaller multi-passenger vehicles that are publicly subsidized and capture residents in neighborhoods and connect to frequent larger vehicles on major routes.

There is now an opportunity when people are appreciating the opportunity to take a walk and ride a bike and be healthy, adjusting to not being in cars so much of the time, appreciating clean air and the ability to just breath, and willing to make sacrifices for their neighbors, community, and country.

During times like these, those of us who are moved by problem solving must think outside of the limits of traditional transportation and step up to the challenges of creating an equitable society where there is mobility choice — and everyone has equal access to work, play, and the pursuit of life.

Dr. Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, is professor of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is co-founder and principal at DesignJones, LLC, author of Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access, and Suburban Form (Routledge, 2019), and co-editor of Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity (Island Press, 2017).