Why Smart Urban Design May Save Us from Natural Disasters and Address Social Justice


The stories of loss and destruction that have emerged from extreme weather events and natural disasters illustrate the catastrophic damage that American families are dealing with today.

The numbers are staggering. Last summer, Hurricane Harvey alone caused an estimated 32,000 to lose their homes in the metropolitan Houston area and as many as 82 deaths. Damages are expected to cost between $70 and $108 billion.

Yet not all families suffer equally from these calamities. In Louisiana, those seeking affordable living spaces find them in lower elevations. Low-lying areas are seen as less desirable and, therefore, less expensive. A prime example is New Orleans, which is almost entirely below sea level. When Hurricane Katrina pummeled the city in 2005, the lowest elevations received the most damage. And—no surprise—lower-income minorities lived there and saw the most damage.

Cities like Seattle and Atlanta are becoming more popular places to live, and the price of living there continues to increase. Poorer families, by necessity, get pushed to the outskirts of such cities — outskirts that happen to be located in vulnerable areas often close to industrial lands and cut off from the rest of the community. Physical barriers, which include highways and buildings, create a divide between the wealthier city areas and the poorer areas on the outskirts.

Smart urban design policies can help bring people together as one community—and protect their communities during times of calamity.

Relocating families to safer areas is one option. But it isn’t always the optimal choice. We must respect the deep and historic ties people have with their communities. Relocation would mean taking them away from their established homes.

One of the best solutions is rebuilding neighborhoods through sustainable design. We can use landscape architecture and creative urban design to adapt vulnerable areas to the natural habitat and changing climate conditions.

A great example are the 100 houses built in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. These homes were built by the nonprofit Make It Right in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was hit the worst by Katrina due to its geographic location. Through innovative, resilient design, families were able to return to live in safe housing in their already established communities.

Make It Right Foundation home / MusicforGood.tv

Areas not redeveloped for housing can be turned into parks or natural areas that also protect against natural disasters. To make either of these changes happen, communities need to call on their legislators and members of Congress. They can work with landscape architects to turn these locations into a bridge to bring together wealthy and low-income residents. This kind of unification will help us create a sustainable population.

Over the long term, something called “transactive design thinking” needs to take place—when citizen scientists, or community members who know the area the best, work with lawmakers to get an outcome that is appealing to everyone. Lawmakers must enact laws to create more sustainable areas. To come full circle, citizen scientists must be receptive to these changes and provide feedback to ensure their voice is being heard. They and their fellow community members must also agree with the reconstruction of their green spaces in order for it to be successful.

Recently, I had the pleasure of collaborating on a project to rebuild and transform land damaged during Hurricane Katrina and never restored. I worked with the Sankofa Community Development Corporation (SCDC), a local nonproject, to build the Sankofa Wetland Park.

Sankofa Wetland Trail and Nature Park / Sankofa CDC

SCDC founder Rashida Ferdinand, who is committed to creating an environmentally sustainable community, received a grant from New Orleans to transform two acres of a deteriorated natural area in the Lower Ninth Ward into an educational assimilated wetland park. This site provides the area with many environmental benefits, including restoring habitat for plants and animals as well as cleaning stormwater runoff. In time, we hope that the city sees the benefits of creating this wetland and will allow Ferdinand to expand her project into the intended full 40 acres of vacant land.

As the landscape architect, I visited the proposed site as the first step of our project. A citizen scientist from the neighborhood accompanied me–John Taylor, who has lived in the area his entire life. He not only helped me navigate through the land, but also showed me an underground water channel that I would have never known existed had he not been there.

This is a prime example of why landscape architects need to work with the local residents, who share their extensive knowledge of the area. Their voices ensure we build and rebuild in a way that’s not only right from an environmental and social equity perspective, but that’s also respectful of longstanding local communities.

Natural disasters may be increasing in frequency, but it’s not the number of disasters we should worry about. Instead we should focus on how each disaster continues to get more costly. Families are facing life-changing disasters and despite contrary belief, there are actions we can take to mitigate some of the damages that they face. We must call on policy makers, landscape architects, and communities that are affected the most to enact change.

To this end, the American Society of Landscape Architects has convened a Blue Ribbon Panel to get a jump start on making these changes a reality. In the first quarter of 2018, the panel will release comprehensive public policy recommendations for using resilient design to combat social injustices that occur when natural disasters hit. These recommendations are just the first step with many more to go. Learn more about how we’re developing policy recommendations to safeguard our cities and natural resources for the future.

This guest post is by Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, who has 30-plus years of experience in professional practice focusing on land planning and varied scales of open space and park design, including community development work. Jones Allen is currently the program director for landscape architecture at the college of architecture planning and public affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington. She participated in the American Society of Landscape Architects’ Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience held September 21-22, 2017.

Point Cloud Models Uncloak the Hidden

According to Christophe Girot, point clouds instill panic in politicians and architects. They reveal and expose a city from all vantages, enabling one to move behind, around, and through the whole spectrum of the built environment. The backsides of buildings, a filthy alleyway, a secret roof garden—all are equal opportunity to the virtual visitor. Though this technology has been available for ten years, the only city whose entirety exists as a point-cloud model is Zürich, Switzerland. And why is that? “It’s not the cost or the big data,” says Girot, “but the fear of being unveiled.”

Girot, who is professor and chair of landscape architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), spoke at the college of environmental design at University of California at Berkeley on large-scale landscape design and modelling, investigating topological methods, and experimenting with new media.

The potential of his point-cloud modelling has been written about; this new vein of visualization is one which Girot is known for advancing. Though Girot did discuss the technology in his work, at this talk, he set point cloud models in the context of siting, clearing, and planting—components of the process inherent to landscape design, which centered his talk on the particularities of a site.

At the ETH, Girot and his team have garnered attention for point-cloud modelling of projects at the territorial scale. The technology is also relevant at the human scale, owing to the level of detail that it elucidates.

A precise engineering technology that is now used for modelling, the point-cloud model creates a depiction of the site by congregating billions of pixel points, all of which carry position information gleaned by drones, Lidar, and 3D-scanning.

As a viewer moves through the model, the minute points slowly push by you in a way that is less like you’re walking through the space than like you have become the camera floating through it, seemingly any detail available for close observation.

By sharing an abundance of information, the models evoke what it is like to be in a place. In spite of appearances, Girot asserts these models counter the “tech-y,” “plan-y,” and mapping-focused vein that dominates contemporary landscape architecture by bringing focus to the site.

For instance, Girot shared a series of garden models from Kyoto, which were created to illuminate the aural, visual, and textural qualities of each site (see video above and image below).

Sampling Kyoto Gardens / Christophe Girot

Interestingly, Girot calls the models “still-lifes.” This telling moniker illustrates what Girot wants the viewer to cull from the scene: the emphasis on detail, the attention to the haptic, and the ability to know the infinite variations of texture.

Beyond the capacities of the still-life—and equally important to Girot—is the model’s ability to disclose the place’s ambient sound. All of these details accumulate to a highly accurate version of the site’s sensory experience.

There are implications for the designer in point-cloud modelling: The information captured in a half-days’ worth of 3D-scanning can yield an infinite number of drawings and simulations that explain the site. “This is a mode of empowerment,” he said.

The exposure of so much detail can offer clarity, and can also uncloak the hidden—that which is concealed intentionally or not. And while he remarked that he did not want to mention politics, his insinuations about the power of this technology were made clear.

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.

Michael Sorkin: Eleven Theses on the Obama Presidential Center

Proposal for Barack Obama Community Library on 63rd and South Cottage Grove Avenue, a bird’s eye view from the South, with Jackson Park at the south edge of this rendering / Michael Sorkin Studio, 2013

1. Jackson Park wouldn’t have been my first choice as a location for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC). Better right on 63rd, half-way down to South Cottage Grove Avenue, where the public draw and ground floor commerce would have breathed life back into that dull, desiccated, yearning street. There might have been direct goals to shared vitality: the archive above, and clubs, cafés, and community facilities below to spark the lively commerce of strollers to and fro, equidistant from Metra and El.

2. But the Jackson Park site can still engender happy knock-on effects if the OPC meaningfully disaggregates by, for example, providing artifacts and art works to the Du Sable Museum of African American History, agriculture to vacant lots, a high school of governance and community affairs nearby, neighborhood nutrition centers, and a stimulating array of distributed community benefits, including many not yet imagined. 63rd Street should be the spine, and there’s plenty of vacant “adjacent land” in Woodlawn.

Woodlawn Botanic Garden & Village Farm Initiative. Commissioned for Blacks in Green (BIG), West / Terreform, 2017
Woodlawn Botanic Garden & Village Farm Initiative. Commissioned for Blacks in Green (BIG), West / Terreform, 2017

3. The OPC can enhance the park, activating the shabby streetscape of Stony Island, closing Cornell Drive to commuter traffic, converting acres of pavement to green space, improving accessibility for pedestrians. Even the reconstruction of Lake Shore Drive can be a wise piece of public work that would otherwise never happen. Getting rid of the proposed garage on the Midway is a real victory that offers hope for future influence and suggests that the OPC is open to serious negotiation about making itself better and more transparent.

Cornell Drive and proposed site of Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park / The Chicago Tribune

4. The argument from expense against these roadway improvements might have merit if the cash were truly fungible, assuredly going instead for rent-support or day-care. But does anyone actually believe in this zero sum? This is an opportunity to leverage major improvements in local infrastructure and it shouldn’t stop with roads. Restore the El anyone?

5. Of course, the subtraction of public park space reflexively affronts, but this isn’t exactly Columbia ’68, not an aggrandizing and oblivious act of racial imperialism. A more apposite comparison is the construction of the Metropolitan Museum in Central Park in 1876, built on donated public land with public funds and designed by Olmsted’s collaborator, Calvert Vaux. Would anyone now want it gone? Still, the OPC should acknowledge its effect on the ground and provide, in perpetuity, a two to one local replacement of any green space subtracted from the park.

Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould. Map of the Central Park 1871–72 (detail showing proposed Museum at 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue). From Second Annual Report of the Department of Public Parks (year ending May 1, 1872) / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

6. The preservationist claim from Olmsteds’ original intent conflates precedent and exception. The OPC is the project and commemoration of America’s first black president, itself an exception many of us never thought we would live to see. Obama was from here, an activist here, lived here, taught here, and chose a place for his library here. This seems an exception worth making, a celebration of rarity. Moreover, the precedent for the museum exception in parks – including Olmsted’s – is voluminous and includes the Art Institute, the Field, the Museum of Science and Industry, the St. Louis Museum, the De Young in San Francisco, not to mention the Brooklyn Museum in Prospect Park.

7. A Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) is a formula to compel a subsidy for the distribution of public goods in compensation for both a taking and a predicted effect. CBA’s are conceptually fraught, forced to negotiate the contradictions of their dual pursuit of stimulation and prophylaxis, building and conserving. They don’t always work and Staples – the invariable Exhibit A – is the exception not the rule. Columbia University’s agreement with Harlem’s pols – a deal made behind closed doors — has not decelerated the terminal gentrification of upper Manhattan in the slightest and it was just reported that nine years after the treaty was inked, less than 1% of the promised investment in affordable housing has been made. The Atlantic Yards CBA was a total developer con, achieved by dividing the community and then negotiating with a small minority of local groups who signed on to a gag order to prevent any criticism of the miserable project for which they offered cover.

8. What’s clearly different here is that the CBA is community, not developer, driven. However, its crucial intention – building an equitable, sustainable, and beautiful neighborhood — not simply exceeds its own particular demands but is beyond Obama’s power — or obligation — to deliver alone. That doesn’t mean the OPC’s feet shouldn’t be held to the fire! But putting too many eggs in the CBA basket — and conscripting Obama as savior — downplays the equally decisive roles the city, the university, the propertied, community institutions, and the people must play and focusing investment on defensive redress isn’t nearly bold enough a strategy to truly rise to the opportunity of this massive infusion. Any development must take responsibility for its social and environmental impacts but the South Side needs more than mitigation! Communities must resist the reflexive conflation of any development with gentrification and take a longer, more nuanced view, working for something far more visionary and wonderful through coalition building and an ongoing fight for community ownership and the right to the city.

9. The hope and the promise for the OPC CBA lies is its origins in a broad community coalition, its articulate goals, and its track record, most notably its roots in the remarkable campaign that led to the university’s construction of its new Trauma Center, a win for everyone.

10. Pushback to the OPC is also a displaced expression of rage at the university’s historic role in the ethnic-cleansing and self-sterilization of Hyde Park via its massive urban renewal project and its decades of malign neglect of Woodlawn. But it’s clear that the university is seeking – as it loads its south campus with dorms, a hotel, a conference center – to efface the 61st Street DMZ and reform its relationship to Woodlawn in concert with the OPC and the municipality. How can this be made broadly beneficial? Surely, hands off isn’t the way. How about building the new University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration building on 63rd Street for the active benefit of the people it aspires to serve? How about lending some lawyers to the cause?

Other Plans: University of Chicago Studies, A Master Plan for the University of Chicago / Michael Sorkin Studio, 1998

11. The task at hand is to make sure communities are equal partners in fomenting a beneficial mix that will guarantee existing residents the right to remain and build a diverse and sharing community that especially embraces low income residents and people of color. There’s risk in an othering of Woodlawn by “protecting” it from a potentially magnificent opportunity to flourish but a greater one in giving up this amazing momentum for a just and wonderful transformation. This demands real cooperative planning.

Michael Sorkin is the Principal of the Michael Sorkin Studio, Distinguished Professor of Architecture and Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Design at The City College of New York, and president of Terreform, a non-profit urban research and advocacy center. Terreform is currently engaged in preparing a visionary urban design plan for Chicago’s South Side and welcomes collaboration.

ASLA 2018 Education Programs Internship

ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture / ASLA

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) seeks a full-time 10 week summer intern working in the Education Programs department. The intern will analyze and identify trends in accredited landscape architecture education, research current community college and unaccredited programs affiliated with landscape architecture, and participate in the Diversity Summit for the purposes of developing resources to support the Landscape Architecture Accreditation Board (LAAB) and ASLA’s career discovery and diversity program.

Responsibilities:

  • The intern will be expected to work 10 weeks full-time from June through August.
  • Analyze current community college programs affiliated with accredited landscape architecture programs and propose case study resources.
  • Research unaccredited landscape architecture programs to understand the potential for future growth and develop a report.
  • Attend ASLA’s annual Diversity Summit, write a report on the proceedings, and assist in creating Summit resources.
  • Evaluate the current Study Landscape Architecture webpage, research design revisions, and design a draft framework for revisions to the webpage.
  • Review and analyze LAAB accreditation actions (recommendations affecting accreditation) from the previous five years and develop a report.
  • Create an original written piece for publication in one of ASLA’s outlets showcasing resources and/or reports established during the internship.

Requirements:

  • Current enrollment entering final year of Bachelor’s program or in a Master’s program in landscape architecture.
  • Passion to grow the knowledge base for landscape architecture and support ASLA’s vision, mission, and commitment to diversity.
  • Excellent writing skills with the ability to write clearly for a general audience.
  • Great data analytic, research, and design skills and an interest to present results effectively through graphic communication.
  • Excellent organizational skills, good judgement, and attention to detail. The intern will set, track, and complete goals in a timely manner.
  • Be an effective collaborator with excellent professional interpersonal skills to successfully interact with busy staff members and outside experts.
  • Working knowledge of Adobe Creative suite and Microsoft Office suite. Knowledge of web-based design is a plus.

How to Apply:

Please send cover letter, resume, two writing samples (no more than two pages each), and names and contact information of two references to sbalon@asla.org by end of day, Monday, April 2. Up to three examples of graphic communications skills including an infographic is a desirable additional sample. Please submit all materials as one 8 ½ x 11 PDF file (8.0mb maximum).

Phone interviews will be conducted with finalists the week of April 9 and selection will be made the following week.

The 10-week internship offers a $4,000 stipend. ASLA can also work with the interns to attain academic credit for the internship.

Is There a Still a Place for Aesthetics in Landscape Design?

Approach to Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park, Australia / TCL

Kicking off a two-day planting symposium at the University of California at Berkeley, professor emeritus Marc Treib posed the question: Is there still a place for the “art of landscape design” in an age “dominated by the science of landscape ecology?” Planting design is often brushed aside as superfluous or unserious. British historian and critic Tim Richardson reminded the audience of the litany of unfavorable adjectives associated with artful planting: the bourgeois, the small-scale, the amateur, the hobbyist, the ephemeral, the female.

Nonetheless, Treib answered his own question with resounding affirmation. In organizing the symposium, Treib’s goal was to focus on planting and landscape design that surpasses function and landscape ecology alone and brings in beauty. Addressing the concerns of ecology in landscape architecture has become nearly (and arguably) required. Accordingly, all of the speakers’ designs, or the projects discussed, are sustainable “to a greater or lesser degree.”

But building from the constraints created by location and environmental conditions, how can aesthetics and art inform design? And what level of beauty can be attained? Given we are in an environmental crisis, Trieb audaciously questioned the “narrow ambition” of designs that solely address ecological function, and the idea “that good morals automatically yield good landscapes.”

Speakers from around the world also explained how planting aesthetics are tied to histories. For example, Laurie Olin, FASLA, professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania, remarked: “In design, one is never truly free of earlier sense of form, particularly those found in nature. Everything you do refers to everything else, whether you mean it to or not.”

Speakers employed the vocabulary of plant selection and form to connect to cultural, natural, and formal histories, deepening the discussion on aesthetics. Below are highlights from the weekend:

Planting to Illuminate Cultural and Natural Histories

Kate Cullity, a founding director of Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL) in Adelaide, Australia, seeks to respect and illuminate cultural histories through her designs. These histories are brought to light through the selection and placement of plants. At the Uluru Aboriginal Cultural Center at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the design encourages the visitor to respect the Uluru’s culture and their right to the land (see image above).

Before the start of the project, Cullity relocated to the desert for one month, slowing down to learn the landscape and recording stories from the Aborginal people. In a rare rain event, she learned “how water moves in a dendritic way over the desert.”

Her time at the site influenced the ultimate design of the project: the cultural center was sited to give guests a meditative walk through the landscape before arriving. No change in grade was made across the entire site, as doing so would have altered the way water flowed, and consequently the growth of the existing plants. “Sometimes,” Cullity noted, “designing is not the answer. This was the answer here.”

In similar theme, others also referred to the importance of water, and lack thereof, as defining their planting habits. Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, an architect and landscape architect in Mexico City, discussed botanical geography, and the variations determined by “latitude and altitude.” He discussed designing in a subtropical climate and the importance of retaining stormwater.

Working primarily in the deserts of Arizona and Texas, Christy Ten Eyck, FASLA, is guided by the aesthetics of “Plant what will survive!” and “Own your own geography.” These tenents translate into: use native and drought-tolerant plants; pay attention to runoff and permeability; evoke the natural landscape features, such as arroyos; and look to where native tribes have found meaning in the landscape.

Landscape architects Thorbjörn Andersson of Stockholm, Sweden; Cristina Castel-Branco of Lisbon, Portugal; and Erik Dhont of Brussels, Belgium expressed the influence of their respective cultural histories in their planting practices. Andersson noted the poverty of the Swedish landscape as influential in his own career. His design of the Hyllie Plaza in Malmö, Sweden used one single species, the beech tree (Fagus sylvatica) to create a stylized beech forest. The tree’s architectural form, smooth silk trunk, the near-sterile understory: “It already looks designed in nature,” Andersson noted, adding, “plants become part of what signifies our culture.”

Beech trees in Hyllie Plaza, Malmö , Sweden / Thorbjörn Andersson

Dhont credits Belgium’s strong cultural heritage with defining his own body of work. “When you know heritage, it’s impressive to go in the footsteps of history.” He re-employs that heritage in his own work to new ends, such as using the topiary to guide and provoke encounters in a garden.

Topiaries at a chateau in Geneva, Switzerland / Erik Dhont

Castel-Branco, too, has merged the historic and the new in her own work. In a historic garden of exotic plants, she provokingly planted more exotic Sequoias after witnessing their success. She reminded the audience that the garden is an “eternal laboratory of adaptation,” which will grow in importance as the climate changes.

Planting as the Arbiter of Form

Other speakers focused on the formal abilities plants can offer a place. For Peter Walker, FASLA, his approach to planting has been a fifty-year journey to achieve what he experienced at the Parc de Sceaux, outside of Paris, France: the power of a landscape to instill a Gothic-cathedral sense of awe in the visitor. Walker has attempted to make architecture from plants, concentrating on the instant trees meet the ground on a flat surface. “I will not talk about a region or ecology—we’ve had enough of that,” Walker said.

Parc de Sceaux, France / Pinterest

Nonetheless, he admitted the relevance of place in his designs. In Japan, regarding subtle changes in the landscape is habitual, and his proposal to populate a landscape solely with a field of trees was easily accepted; in New York City, a similar design required thorough explanation to city stakeholders.

Echoing Walker, Andrea Cochran, FASLA, a landscape architect based in San Francisco, commented, “plants can shift how people think about environment. It’s about re-calibrating what is beauty.” Her landscapes, most notable for their edited, sculptural forms, nonetheless are determined by the California climate that lacks rain for six months of the year.

Richard Hindle, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, asked the audience to consider how plants and structures unite by examining vertical gardens, which bring together architectural and the garden-making approaches and allow for new paradigms, such as extending the anatomical and physiological possibilities of plants.

On a broader scale, Alexandre Chemetoff, a landscape architect and urbanist based in Gentilly, France, offered a similar point: “a tree is not an isolated subject,” and neither is landscape architecture. In his work that spans architecture, urban planning, and landscape architecture, he works with the three disciplines in tandem, the design of one informing the others. “This is quite different than the idea of having things separate, one from the other,” he explained, demonstrating the example of a thicket of trees that serve as a natural cooling system to a cocooned building.

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.

New Maps Show How Urban Sprawl Threatens the World’s Remaining Biodiversity

Hotspot map of Baku, Azerbaijan / The Atlas for the End of the World

At the United Nations World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, next month, the McHarg Center for Ecology and Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania will display an alarming set of new maps. They show, in bright red, that the growth of cities worldwide is on a direct collision course with the world’s remaining biodiversity.

The study, of which these maps are a part, is titled Hotspot Cities and focuses on urban growth in the world’s 36 so-called biodiversity hotspots – large regions where unique flora and fauna is threatened with extinction. By combining data sets of 2030 urban growth forecasts from the Seto Lab at Yale University with the habitats of endangered species from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, the study has mapped over 400 Hotspot Cities to reveal that over 90 percent of them appear likely to sprawl directly into remnant habitat harboring the world’s most endangered biodiversity.

Hotspot map of Tel Aviv, Israel / The Atlas for the End of the World

The study also zooms in on 33 of the biggest and fastest growing of these hotspot cities to assess the degree of imminent conflict between growth and biodiversity. The cities are Sao Paulo, Los Angeles, Houston, Cape Town, Port-au-Prince, Baku, Brasilia, Santiago, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Sydney, Lagos, Rawalpindi, Mecca, Guangzhou, Esfahan, Osaka, Antananarivo, Ciudad de México, Durban, Tel Aviv, Guadalajara, Tashkent, Chengdu, Auckland, Davao, Honolulu, Perth, Jakarta, Bogotá, Guayaquil, Makassar (Ujung Padang), Colombo.

The 2016 UN-Habitat World Cities Report states that “urban and environmental planning provides opportunities and formal legal mechanisms for biodiversity conservation through design guidelines, building codes, zoning schemes, spatial plans and strategic choices, all coupled with effective enforcement.” Through detailed analysis, the study gauges the degree to which these sorts of mechanisms are being leveraged in the sample set of the 33 hotspot cities.

The conclusion is the overwhelming majority of these cities have not adopted long-term planning visions or mechanisms that include biodiversity values or, if they do, then they do not make such planning documents available or refer to the existence of such documents online. A notable subset set of cities such as Sydney, Perth, Cape Town, Sao Paulo, and Los Angeles do, however, and have transparent, readily available, variously-integrated planning documents inclusive of biodiversity protection across levels of governance.

Hotspot map of Los Angeles, California / The Atlas for the End of the World

A survey of the cities’ promotional materials, popular press, and institutional publications also indicates a low degree of cultural association with being hotspot cities, let alone hotspot stewards. Typically, one finds a city’s projected identity pertains to the characteristics of its urban core rather than its peripheral landscapes. Yet, the peri-urban landscape and its regional connections beyond, can not only support biodiversity but also provide cities with the essential ecosystem services they require. As Harvard ecologist Richard T.T Forman writes “you can have a small impact in a city center, but if you want to have a big impact, go out to this dynamic urban edge where solutions really matter for both people and nature.”

A major obstacle to the development of spatial biodiversity planning is also the apparent lack of baseline biodiversity data for each city. Furthermore, this data, where it does exist, tends to focus on wildlife in the city rather than on ecosystem integrity at the periphery. If cities are to properly understand their relationships with biodiversity, there is a significant need to develop and share measurement and monitoring practices that relate to the peri-urban zone and how this zone functions as a filter and conduit for biodiversity.

It is also important to note here that attention to biodiversity is not just a matter of protecting certain charismatic species, rather, biodiversity is a proxy for a healthy ecosystem, without which there can be no healthy city.

The overarching question to ask then is whether the growth trajectories of these hotspot cities can be redirected to avoid the further destruction of biodiversity, and if so how? Having taken the first step of identifying likely conflict areas as this study does, it is important now to recognize and understand the true complexity of the problem. The conflict between sprawl and biodiversity cannot be approached reductively or simplistically, as if sprawl (formal and informal) is only an outcome of economic and demographic growth and conservation only a matter of fencing off areas in its path.

The peri-urban territory of cities is a complex mosaic of different and often contradictory land uses in high states of flux. Indeed, the alteration of peri-urban land is not caused solely by urbanization but is also a consequence of extracting many of the resources required to support cities and their residents. The often invisible and myriad forces shaping these landscapes are not yet well understood by the urban design and planning professions, just as the novel ecology of these lands is not yet well understood by the scientific community.

Hotspot map of Antananarivo, Madagascar / The Atlas for the End of the World

The profession best able to negotiate complex landscapes such as the peri-urban is landscape architecture. Landscape architects work in equal measure with ecological and cultural data to build up holistic understanding of cities in their regional contexts. From that basis, with teams of ecologists and planners, scenarios for alternative forms of urban growth can be visualized and their costs and benefits weighed.

As both the custodians and immediate beneficiaries of the unique biodiversity at their doorsteps, the hotspot cities have a global responsibility and leading role to play in integrating biodiversity with development. It is our belief a better understanding of peri-urban territory, and the forces shaping it, is a prerequisite to the mitigation of further loss of biodiversity. This is not only relevant to cities in the world’s biodiversity hotspots, but cities everywhere.

To that end, we propose hotspot cities come together to form a global knowledge-creation and knowledge-sharing alliance to develop demonstration projects that show how urban growth and biodiversity can co-exist. The hotspot cities should lead the way in making the intent of the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, which will be discussed in Kuala Lumpur next month, a reality.

This guest post is by Richard Weller, ASLA, the Martin and Margy Meyerson chair of urbanism, professor and chair of landscape architecture, and co-director of the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Atlas for the End of the World-Atlas for the Beginning of the Anthropocene, a comprehensive audit of protected areas in the world’s biological hotspots. Research team includes: Chieh Huang, Sara Padgett Kjaersgaard, Zuzanna Drozdz, Nanxi Dong, Rong Cong, and Josh Ketchum.

Do Views of Indoor Plants Improve Health and Well-Being?

Perkins + Will office, with plants installed for this research project / Micah Lipscomb

Do views of indoor plants have similar health benefits as views of nature or direct experience in natural environments? The benefits of nature exposure to human health are well documented.  However, little is known about the psychological benefits of exposure to nature indoors. We studied this topic in a research project at Perkins + Will’s Atlanta office.

The office’s nearly identical floor plans set the stage for a controlled experiment where a floor was filled with 129 plants for two weeks and then participants were tested for psychological well-being and objective memory task performance.

Office floor plan with plant layout / Micah Lipscomb and Kimberly Rollings

A crossover study was conducted where participants on another floor were also given the same tests without plants. The plants were then moved to the other floor, so that each participant was surveyed with and without the plants.

Data on perceived psychological distress (PERI) and memory task performance (digit span backwards) were collected during each study period from 63 employees. Light levels, cloudy days, self-reported physical and psychological health, and participant demographics were also documented.

Statistical analyses indicated that the plants only marginally improved the psychological health of participants. For the memory task performance, the participants actually performed better without the presence of plants than with the plants.

Survey results for psychological well being (PERI) of participants / Micah Lipscomb and Kimberly Rollings
Survey results for memory task performance (Digit Span Backwards) of participants / Micah Lipscomb and Kimberly Rollings

There are several possible reasons the plants did not have a substantial influence on the psychological health or short term memory of the participants. In an office, there are many factors that effect worker’s psychological well-being and task performance, and plants may go unnoticed in this setting.

One study participant observed that there was initial excitement about the plants among participants, but after a few days, the plants seemed to fade into the background, somewhat like furniture. This comment is consistent with previous studies that find participants may habituate to the presence of the plants; their beneficial effects may be relatively strong in only an initial period after their introduction into the setting.

The abundant natural light and views of nature in the office may have distracted from the influence of the indoor plants. Indoor plants would likely have a greater impact in a windowless basement without views of nature and daylight, like Milton’s desk in Office Space.

Milton from Office Space / YouTube

Previous studies have shown the greatest impact from plants in settings with less visual stimuli. The participants in our study had higher levels of reported psychological health than typical, so the influence of plants might be lower with these settings.

In other words, the presence of plants might benefit those who work in poorer quality environments and/or those with poorer quality psychological or physical health than participants in this study. A much larger sample size is likely needed to detect smaller anticipated beneficial effects of indoor plants when compared to effects of direct exposure to nature.

The experience of engaging with nature (in the form of an indoor plant) may be different when the participant is working on an activity at a desk as opposed to being engaged with the experience with movement. A potted plant on a desk does not compare to the rich sensory experience of being in nature. It is not surprising the health benefits documented in outdoor environments may not translate to an indoor setting.

While the results did not align with our hypothesis, further study is needed on the influence of plants in an indoor setting.

This guest post is by Micah Lipscomb, ASLA, senior landscape architect at Perkins + Will and Kimberly Rollings, assistant professor, School of Architecture, University of Notre Dame.

Buckminster Fuller’s Influence Continues to Grow

“To make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.” This is the ethos that drove the work of Buckminster Fuller, an influential 20th century designer, engineer, and inventor. Every year since 2008, the Buckminster Fuller Insititute has awarded a $100,000 prize to an especially-promising organization or individual embodying Fuller’s systems thinking and “comprehensive, anticipatory design science.” So far, the award has provided ten projects — including landscape architect Kate Orff’s Living Breakwaters — with the extra push in both publicity and funds to advance in scale, complexity, and ambition.

Past winners were prompted by moderators such as Andrew Revkin, senior reporter at ProPublica, and Susan Szenazy, publisher and editor-in-chief of Metropolis magazine, to reflect on the evolution of their winning projects and discussed systemic approaches to the challenges of our time.

The 2107 winner is Bhungroo, from the Gujarat state of India (see video above). Bhungroo, which means “straw” or “hollow pipe” in Gujarati, is a simple, inexpensive system that enables farmers to capture and store water during peak monsoon season and then retrieve the water during the dry season. The invention allows female farmers below the poverty line to be self-sufficient year round, breaking free from cycles of debt and repression.

The organization also fosters a model of collective ownership over the stored water among the farmers. The co-founder Biplab Ketan Paul described the selflessness and “golden hearts” of the women farmers he works with as what inspires and sustains the project. When asked about the experience of winning the prize, he beamed and said, “We’re still in a dream.”

The idea for ecological design pioneer John Todd’s project, which won in 2008, came from close contact with ecological and economic crisis. He had been hired by a foundation to study ecological impacts of mountaintop removal and valley-fill mining in Appalachia, but, he said, “my colleagues and I became so horribly depressed at the scale of the devastation that we actually couldn’t function.” He changed course to find a regenerative, solutions-oriented approach, and his winning project — The Challenge of Appalachia — was born.

Todd’s solution — which aims to help Appalachian communities, boost the economy, and support the ecosystem — is a model for long-range biodiversity and socio-economic stability tailored to the region. When asked what an urban application of the same principles might look like, Todd said the surfaces of buildings have enormous potential as substrate for “all kinds of living systems that purify air, treat sewage, and generate foods.”

The Challenge of Appalachia / Buckminster Fuller Institute

The 2013 winner, Ecovative, a bio-materials company, manifests the Fuller maxim, “to change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Ecovative’s goal is to end the use of plastic and styrofoam packaging materials made from fossil fuels, replacing them with materials made from fungus that are fire retardant, self-healing, and decompose after use. Ecovative grows these materials in their facilities in New York state. The mycelia lifecycle depends on a local supply chain — the materials are derived from metabolizing agricultural waste such as cornstalks or straw, which would have otherwise been discarded.

With the funds from the prize, the company focused on democratizing the technology with grow-it-yourself kits. Gavin McIntyre, co-founder and chief scientist, quickly learned the company must appeal to more than just a customer’s ethical impulses. “I really wish people would buy things just because they are green and good for the planet, but, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. We must be able to provide additional cost savings and value.” Their pursuit seems to be going well, as, in just one year, the company was able to displace 1.6 million pounds of plastic from the supply chain.

Ecovative packaging materials / Greener Package

Paying homage to Fuller’s emphasis on holistic approaches, the final panel of the day looked at the social implications of the work the winners do.

“Global inequality was not an accident, it was created by design.” said Greg Watson, director of policy and systems design at the Schumacher Center for New Economics. “We have been trained to think this is the real world. But the real world is what we create.”

The winners are a “beacon of hope and powerful counterpoint to the intellectual bankruptcy that threatens humanity’s continuous voyage aboard spaceship Earth. Gaia will survive our insults, and it’s really up to us to ensure that we continue to ride.”

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, landscape designer at SWA/Balsley in New York City.

Urgent Biophilia: Connecting with Nature After a Disaster

Rarely have I worked on a project that I feel is quite as timely and potentially impactful as the Beach 41st Street Garden. With images of Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean fresh in our minds, this story of how nature has helped one Queens, New York, community heal following Hurricane Sandy is incredibly relevant.

When we finished shooting this past spring, it was months before the name Harvey had been uttered on a weather forecast. But by the time September had arrived, and with it a new wave of destructive storms, we at TKF felt a renewed sense of urgency to shine a light on what we had learned through our work in Queens post-Sandy.

When Sandy’s storm surge engulfed the Rockaways, the devastation was intense. You get a visceral sense of what the residents of Beach 41st Street, a New York City housing residence, lived through in the voice of Celeste Grimes, one of the resident gardeners we interviewed for the film. She described it in apocalyptic terms.

In 2014, TKF chose the Beach 41 Street garden as a site to receive one of only six grants awarded to clusters of cross-disciplinary research teams to study how healing green spaces help individuals and communities recover following various kinds of trauma.

The team that applied for funding on behalf of the Beach 41 Street project included social scientists Lindsay Campbell and Erika Svendsen of the US Forest Service; Keith Tidball, Director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Disaster Education Network at Cornell University, Craig Desmond of Ecotone Building, and landscape architect Victoria Marshall, ASLA.

The team collaborated on a plan that would enable residents to revive the gardens and space; a healing exercise intended to meet what researchers understand is a desire innate in people to connect with nature, particularly in times of deep distress and trauma caused by nature.

For years now, social scientists, civic ecologists, horticultural therapists — among others — have been gathering evidence of the innate connection between people and nature, terming it biophilia. Expanding on that concept, Keith Tidball originated the term “urgent biophilia” to describe the intense need that arises post-disaster to connect with nature.

What the research team saw happening at the Beach 41st Street garden — between the gardeners and community and green space — was a living enactment of urgent biophilia. As they worked to restore the gardens, they were at the same time restoring themselves.

What we often miss in the media is the full scope of the damage that remains in the aftermath of the immediate aftermath of a storm. We know that recovery extends far beyond reconstruction and restoration.

But if our communities are to heal fully following natural disasters like Sandy, Harvey, Irma, Maria — and the countless future storms that are sure to arise in the coming weeks, months and years, we can’t ignore our green infrastructures. They are, without a doubt, essential to our well-being.

This guest post is by film maker Alden E. Stoner, who is also a board member of the nonprofit TKF Foundation.

Five Years After Superstorm Sandy, Is New York City Better Prepared for the Next Mega Storm?

Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella

Five years ago, New York City began the long task of recovering and rebuilding in the wake of Sandy, one of the worst storms in the U.S. history in terms of physical devastation and loss of life. According to the National Weather Service, the cyclone generated a “worst case scenario for storm surge for coastal regions” in New York and its neighboring states. Today, as severe storms correlated with climate change escalate nationwide, is the city better prepared for the next mega storm? The answer is yes and no.

More nimble than the federal government, New York has taken a tactical, diversified approach to solutions that has some advantages. The NYC Panel on Climate Change 2015 triggered new thinking about human health risks and vulnerable populations and also built awareness that flood risk reduction must account for stormwater in the future.

OneNYC, an on-going mayoral initiative, seeks to strengthen community-based organizations to prepare and respond to disasters.

NYC’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency’s (ORR) climate change resilience guidelines introduced extreme heat and extreme precipitation to the area’s list of natural disasters and moves the discussion away from “protection” to “resilience” of the useful life of a critical infrastructure investment.

And the Department of City Planning (DCP) has recognized that the city’s zoning codes are ossified, opening significant opportunities for designers to produce a more resilient urban realm.

However, with the exception of Build It Back projects, no federally-funded resilience program has been implemented, leaving New York area residents virtually as vulnerable as, and certainly more frustrated than they were immediately after the storm.

More local agencies need to move the needle towards better waterfront planning and design by addressing ecological system benefits and increasing awareness of neighborhood needs. And the city needs to take steps to curb the root causes of climate change in the absence of federal leadership. If nothing else, the many resilient design lessons learned from Sandy have revealed the need for widespread change at the federal, local, and community levels.

At the federal level, most resilience implementation funding is based on stringent Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) requirements, including the reconstruction of a damaged or destroyed property in the same location and elevation and using the same materials. The National Flood Insurance Program requires that you rebuild on affected land even if it is repeatedly flooded. Low-lying areas demonstrate that these approaches are no longer fiscally responsible. Relocation must be considered.

A post-Sandy design team, including Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA), McLaren Engineering Group, Garrison Architects, LTL Architects, Sage & Coombe Architects, and several city agencies, worked to address beachfront restoration location concerns in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens by providing modular, elevated lifeguard stations and comfort stations on their own “islands” to recoup area beaches. The team employed integrated wave attenuation and topographic change along with shoreline plantings to mitigate future storms.

Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella
Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella
Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella

Locally, slow decision-making on FEMA-certified projects by operationally-strapped city agencies is being exacerbated by federal and local flood protection data variances. Additionally, FEMA’s maps do not adequately account for sea level rise and rapid rain accumulation, and it is politically challenging to change National Flood Insurance Program maps. Federal agencies should consider local conditions and seek to provide broader solutions on a local basis.

New York realizes that resilience requires a regional response, but action often succumbs to inertia in the face of budget shortfalls and cost uncertainty due to natural and physical conditions related to soils; contamination; utilities relocations; and stormwater collection, storage tanks, and pumps; and other considerations.

Many touched by Rebuild by Design planning and design efforts now feel they are not getting promised ecosystem services and broader community benefits and remain concerned about aging infrastructure, basement and street flooding, contamination, water quality, zoning, and related issues.

Communities are often confused by projects that purport to offer “protection” versus “flood risk reduction.” The elevation of these measures seems guided more by available construction dollars than by intelligent, regional strategies.

In partnership with Civitas, MNLA developed a visionary plan to support growing sentiment that the East River waterfront can serve as a major recreational and environmental resource for East Harlem, the Upper East Side, and all of New York City. We researched and analyzed conditions from 60th Street to 125th streets and conducted in-depth community and stakeholder outreach.

The result is a plan that identifies short, medium, and long-term opportunities that combine strategies to protect neighborhoods from storm surge, improve water quality, create littoral habitat, and expand waterfront recreation. This multi-faceted design approach is an example of feasible design solutions that can restore resilience to a critical link along Manhattan’s waterfront.

East River Esplanade / MNLA
East River Esplanade / MNLA

The key post-Sandy takeaway is that federally-promulgated resilience measures can have negative impacts on communities.

Instead, every dollar must be directed towards projects that provide multiple benefits that fuel future storm resilience.

As designers, we can enhance results through inclusive and comprehensive communications with all of our constituencies during the design process, engaging a spectrum of urban challenges, and proposing multi-faceted solutions for our clients.

This guest post is by Signe Nielsen, FASLA, a founding principal of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA) and practicing landscape architect and urban designer in New York since 1978. Nielsen is also a professor of urban design and landscape architecture at Pratt Institute in both the graduate and undergraduate schools of architecture and serves as president of the Public Design Commission of the City of New York.