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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The close friendships people make during the intensity of design school often last a lifetime. My studio bestie was a funny, talented guy named Merrick Zirtzman. We were like twins, except that he contracted AIDS and I didn’t. We ate garlic cloves together and tried to stay safe. But he died within two years of our graduation, along with about 700,000 other Americans who lost their lives to AIDS.
Subsequent research determined that HIV originated in chimpanzees in West Africa, showing that it became a human disease because humans ate chimpanzees. According to Michael Lai at the University of Southern California and his team of disease detectives, the chimps got it by eating monkeys that hosted a similar virus (red-capped mangabeys and greater spot-nosed monkeys, to be exact). This sounds like a version of saying you are what you eat: a food web in an ecosystem of viruses, hosts, predators, and habitat.
When I wrote and spoke about the research connecting biodiversity to infectious diseases in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was one of very few in our field who would broach the subject. At the time, if HIV/AIDS hadn’t roared through your friends, a pandemic seemed unlikely. Worrying about it seemed paranoid. After all, people said, contemporary medicine has made so many advances!
The last time I spoke about biodiversity and its role in suppressing pandemics was at the Large Parks conference at Harvard University in 2004. After that, my work centered on adapting to climate change, and there was so much other science to talk about. Eventually, pandemics dropped out of my slide set.
Every year, the World Economic Forum organizes a gathering of the global 1% in Davos, Switzerland, and produces a document to communicate the anxieties of money managers, called the Global Risk Report. In 2019, the Global Risk Report had a special section on health risks, titled “Going Viral.” It noted that there has been an increase in the frequency of new infectious disease outbreaks over the last few decades. There were more than 12,000 outbreaks between 1980 and 2013. But in June 2018, there were outbreaks in six of the eight categories of the especially dangerous priority diseases tracked by the World Health Organization (WHO).
For the first time, WHO included “Disease X” in its 2018 list of priority diseases to promote research on new zoonotic diseases that had not yet passed to humans. People who track diseases were expecting new ones, because the number of animal-to-human outbreaks has increased dramatically. The UN Environment Program also stated that a new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months now, and that 75 percent of those come from wild or domesticated animals.
The 2019 Davos Risk Report noted five main reasons for this alarming trend:
First, huge increases in the volume of inter-continental travel make it possible for a virus from an isolated village to infect major cities within days.
Second, an increasing percentage of the world’s growing population lives in dense urban districts.
Third, people are cutting the forests that provide habitat for animals like bats and primates that carry diseases, which humans can catch.
Fourth, climate change may accelerate disease transmission by extending the range of some key animal vectors, like mosquitos, but in other complex ways as well.
And fifth, poverty drives a lot of people to hunt bushmeat or to raise undernourished domestic animals.
Also, desperate refugees trying to escape wars or climate stressors often live in dense, unhygienic conditions created by societies who want to keep them out, producing hotspots of infectious diseases. The 2019 Risk Report concluded that “globalization has made the world more vulnerable to societal and economic impacts from infectious-disease outbreaks.”
Remember, this isn’t ecologists talking, this is the 1%, the people who spent the last 400 years profiting from the removal of “barriers” to global markets and building a world of white privilege through racism, armed colonization, and enslaved labor. Not to put too fine a point on it.
Ecologists who write about the links between biodiversity and disease typically emphasize the need to limit human impacts on animals that harbor the greatest number of viruses that can spillover to humans: waterfowl, primates, and bats.
Even sociologists who focus on poverty and development, like Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, slammed Wilson’s proposal. They saw it as a trade-off: protect biodiversity at the expense of the rural poor, who would then be arrested as poachers in their own traditional lands.
But social inequality will not be erased if biodiversity losses continue. Less biodiversity means more disease pandemics and more poverty. I think we can all see that now.
In the 21st century, globalized economic growth has reached the end of its rope. Economies can’t continue to expand without creating new pandemic risks, as more people press up against the habitat of more wildlife or raise domestic animals in unhealthy conditions. We’re now part of one big, highly connected planetary ecosystem that’s going to bite us back hard if we step on it the wrong way.
A lot of news stories are ascribing intention to viruses as if they make plans. While that creates a compelling bad guy, they’re not actually living things. We’re the sentient beings here.
New planetary health concepts advocated by many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provide the framework we need to see through metaphors about viruses invading our country with evil intentions, and the associated imagery of a refugee invasion from some place we imagine to be far away, disconnected from us. In fact, the U.S. is a global hotspot of emerging animal-to-human diseases.
What does this mean for landscape architecture, as a discipline that shapes urban and regional planning?
The challenge is to use our projects and our advocacy to fight for biodiversity (if only for our own survival), genuinely reduce economic inequality, and promote a culture that celebrates rather than denies the inherent limits to growth that come with sharing a single planet.
As Kate Jones, Chair of Ecology at University College London, has noted, pandemics are now “a hidden cost of human economic development…We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.”
Landscape architects and planners can take on this work in three important ways:
First, we caneducate clients about the role that native habitat plays in preventing disease outbreaks. Here in California, recent research has revealed that our low rate of Lyme disease can be attributed to our remaining biodiversity. Both mountain lions and western fence lizards play key roles in limiting Lyme disease. Lions keep the deer population low, especially near urban areas where they kill fifty percent more deer per year, perhaps because they are interrupted in the act of eating their kill more often by humans. Our native lizard has proteins in its blood that seem to “turn off” the infection in ticks that bite the lizards, creating a less dangerous tick population that doesn’t host the Lyme bacteria. None of this would work if there were no lion or lizard habitat, no lions, and no lizards.
We can work to genuinely promote social equality. Step one is to stop pretending that development investments, or even new parks, create benefits for everyone. In fact, investments in parks typically displace low-income residents (anyone been to the High Line?). Setha Low’s anthropological research in New York City showed that upscale materials or finishes, like brushed aluminum or polished rock, can make lower-income people of color feel unwelcome, setting them up to be followed and harassed because Caucasian park visitors think they don’t belong there. Creating new upscale mixed-use districts in historically African-American, Native American, and Hispanic spaces raises the likelihood that police will kill more people of color. Trickle-down public benefits from private real estate investments are a myth. We can stop repeating it and instead work to increase the health, wealth, and stability of low-income communities directly. In the San Francisco Bay Resilient by Design Challenge, our ABC Team re-thought our work in East Oakland to focus more on supporting local businesses and health, rather than trying to imagine the trickle-down benefits of big new real estate investments.
Third, we can promote a culture of restraint to protect local habitat areas. Persuading humans to back off and respect the territory of other cultures or other forms of life is the real “balance of nature,” created by our own sense of restraint. We can design windows in “walls” that surround key vegetated areas, instead of designing paths through them. Maybe these are literal walls, like the habitat island at Parc Henri Matisse in Lille, France by Gilles Clément. Or maybe they’re thorny hedge plants or wetland “moats” with an overlook platform. Physical trampling, noise, and pets exert real limits on biodiversity. And cultural self-restraint can be sexy—it can be theatrical and negotiated. Not going somewhere can make that special place valuable and mysterious. Bring back the sacred Greek temenos, and the hortus conclusus. Limits and social negotiation create deeper design opportunities and better designers.
There’s more: are you designing new urban districts in China, Africa, or the Middle East? It’s time to reconsider taking that work unless it’s an infill strategy.
And we should all stop flying so much, considering its impact on our climate and our health — and now that we’ve mastered Zoom.
Prevent urban and agricultural sprawl into native vegetation. Promote increased wealth and self-sufficiency for the global poor. Support animal welfare by becoming an activist against large-scale animal farming.
Landscape architects can lead a re-think of how to design for biodiversity, cities, and health on our one little planet.
Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, is associate professor of landscape architecture, environmental planning, and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley College of Environmental Design.
In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, do we wait for social distancing to end or start experimenting and adapting our community outreach models?
Public agencies, design teams, and communities face uncharted territories, not without risk. Our ability to advance projects relies on the insights and magic that emerge from interactive, person-to-person community gatherings.
Can we successfully forge camaraderie and casual interaction online? What are the real and perceived barriers to equitable access to online interaction and how can they be addressed?
Does the pandemic actually present an opportunity to widen audiences and level the playing field?
As we adjust our short- and long-term approaches, here are a few considerations:
Put equity front and center
Do we really know what we think we know? Assumptions about the digital divide – who has Internet access and who doesn’t – can be misunderstood, as reported by the Center for Internet Society. Remember this mantra about the importance of a community input: “nothing about us, without us, is for us.”
It is critical to hear directly from the community what the barriers are. This takes more time. Some of the barriers include English as a second language; childcare and eldercare at a time when health issues are even more pressing; and a lack of or limited Internet access and associated support.
There are many relatively inexpensive solutions such as free webcams, hot spots, or phone data top ups. Filling the gaps identified by community members can help support advisory councils and allow community informed work to continue.
The health crisis could push the landscape architecture profession to make initial outreach about barriers to access commonplace.
Build a welcoming atmosphere
Create personal connections, stimulate creativity, and support trust. In order to achieve these goals, consider the context of our revised daily lives: localized experiences; more free time for some, less for others; individualized experiences as well as more multi-generational interaction; interpersonal tensions and mental health challenges; more time outside for some and more time inside for others.
How can we adapt our familiar community engagement goals – diverse communication style choices, interaction between residents, reporting back to the group – to the new normal?
Some ideas include self-care and personal experience check-ins; self-guided walking tours; scavenger hunts; general gamification of activities; sharing on-site design team and community member smart phone videos; and prompting storytelling through video, written or illustrated media.
There are exciting possibilities for video analysis, which builds on the power of emotion in a way traditional analysis does not.
Remain flexible and appreciative
Plan the first meeting and adapt with the next. It’s hard to anticipate right now what will matter. Each community is having collective and unique experiences that will influence their priorities going forward. Keep the outlines broad and any necessary expectations clear. Reflect on those expectations to ensure they are truly the basic ones.
Share back what was heard and confirm the value of participation. Constantly tailor the process to the audience interests and needs to influence how the interaction occurs and how it is curated.
Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic can be the advent of a much more inclusive process.
Establish stipends for community ambassadors and residents who co-create with the design team and bring the expertise of their lived experience to the project. Ask what types of leadership and mentorship opportunities could be built into the process to provide career opportunities during uncertain times.
This is where diversity, equity, and inclusion considerations meets design – where designed process outcomes are much broader and long lasting than the physical design itself.
An intentional process in this pandemic-conscious world could also result in valuable policy input and revisions as agencies scramble to keep their work meaningful and valuable to constituents. Building in opportunities to inform policy helps people connect with the democratic process, which is increasingly critical when chaos is also an opening for autocracy.
There is opportunity for this health crisis to accelerate democratic, community-driven design.
Be alert. Create space for true narrative
A silver lining of disruption is that previously unheard narratives can emerge and provide a more holistic picture of our world. In public settings, social norms tamp down sharing of difficult stories. But difficult stories are the foundation of racial reconciliation and transparency. It leads us to acknowledge we operate in a gray world, not black and white.
Challenging stories are the foundation of building trust. As research demonstrates, compelling stories stick with people. We can create safe space by consistently providing a venue to share those stories, celebrating the sharing of stories and their impact, and curating them to create a constructive environment.
Repeating the invitation to share stories in multiple meetings communicates this is a deep desire, not a superficial request, and will prompt different results in different times and settings among people.
The pandemic could result in greater listening – the ability to hear another person’s story, one that may be in conflict with your own beliefs or assumptions.
With thoughtful outreach, but acknowledgement that we will make mistakes, we can bring our design creativity to a community-informed design process. Much can emerge from this crisis that will improve business as usual.
Let’s keep sharing the many ways to accelerate relationship building apart and together. We look forward to hearing the collective wisdom.
Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Deb Guenther, FASLA, is a design partner at Mithun, an interdisciplinary firm focused on design for positive change and located in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles. She is working with community members, utility districts, and transit agencies to shape city infrastructure together.
Last summer, masked anti-government protestors in Hong Kong began tearing down light poles and gutting them, looking for facial recognition technology embedded alongside the Smart City WiFi and 5G. For the protestors, “smart” light poles, like a Trojan horse, represent the vanguard of mainland China’s surveillance state. Trust in what had previously been ignored as a boring, albeit useful, public utility had broken down.
While highly politicized in Hong Kong, there is a worldwide trend to embed Smart City data collection devices and surveillance technologies into street furniture. Some of these technologies, such as city-wide wireless internet and 5G cellular service, have great appeal while facial recognition technology and sensors that record conversations, track foot traffic or purchasing transactions remain controversial. Light poles play a key role in Smart City planning because their “perfect elevation,” strategic positioning, and complex wiring capabilities make them the ideal host for the new technologies.
Many in the international and American lighting industry are on board with this trend. They see the Smart City movement as an opportunity for the lighting industry to enter the data collection and analytics business, providing the industry with “the Holy Grail of all companies, recurring revenue.” As an editorial in LD+A, the journal of the lighting engineering world, put it last June: “Lighting IS a platform to gather information and process and analyze it at the edge where it is collected ….or pass it on to another location where it can be analyzed.”
As lighting designers working in the public realm, we are very concerned. We have already witnessed the “frictionless” integration of data collection devices and surveillance technologies into new light pole designs at the private industry level in the U.S. This is proceeding rapidly without public knowledge, debate, or oversight. And in another worrisome new development, we have also seen tech giants offering these systems at little or no cost directly to municipalities, where fiscal deficits may make such offers irresistible. The priority accorded lighting in the design of nighttime public space may well be compromised by data collection and revenue generating.
As lighting designers, we believe the purpose and value of public lighting is its ability to create pleasing, social, intimate, safe nighttime experiences. We use our training and expertise to do that in cities across the country.
What — we ask ourselves — is a picnic at dusk or an evening turn at the dog run to feel like when the primary purpose of light poles is to house machine learning algorithms trained to recognize specific people, objects or behaviors? Will people still draw near the light they cast once they learn that their casual conversation is being captured day and night? And if the platform/data monopolies become the de facto suppliers of civic infrastructure, and lighting manufacturers morph into tech companies, what will become of the design of public lighting? Will it actually light our parks and plazas? Will the value of lighting design — its careful balance of function, aesthetics, ecological sensitivity, and the psychological and social needs of communities at night — become subservient to, or dismissed in favor of, the strategic needs of data collection?
As citizens, we support those institutions and individuals who are raising privacy concerns about the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement and public housing developers, among others. As professionals, we need to urgently and loudly argue that the value of lighting in public space is its ability to foster public life at night rather than stand by as light poles are converted into a Swiss Army knife of technologies controlled by corporations whose motives are not civic-minded but financial.
We must be committed to transparency and argue for meaningful oversight and accountability. Giant tech companies and lighting manufacturers that promote friendly-sounding Smart City services embedded in strategically-placed light poles, need to be clear with us, our clients and communities about the type of granular data collection involved and for whose benefit it is being collected. If tech companies (or their avatars) offer “free” equipment to our clients in return for ownership of the data that they collect, we need to help our clients navigate the implications of such contracts so that the present and future implications for the community are clear.
While public lighting has always played a role in policing and other government-sponsored public safety measures, it is worth remembering that lantern smashing has been around just as long. During the French Revolution and other rebellions of the 19th century, lantern smashing was a popular movement, not to plunge areas into darkness, but because street lanterns had become symbols of a hated authority.
As the protestors in Hong Kong showed, street lighting – far from promising gentle evening experiences — can again become a hated symbol of corporate and governmental control of our public life.
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is now accepting proposals for the 2020 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Miami, Florida, October 2 – 5, 2020.
The ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture is the largest gathering of landscape architects and allied professionals in the world—all coming together to learn, celebrate, build relationships, and strengthen the bonds of our incredibly varied professional community.
We seek education proposals that will help to drive change in the field of landscape architecture and solve everyday challenges informed by research and practice.
Help us shape the 2020 education program by submitting a proposal through our online system by Thursday, January 23, 2020at 11:59 p.m. PT.
More than 100 education sessions and field sessions will provide attendees with the opportunity to earn professional development hours under the Landscape Architecture Continuing Education System™ (LA CES™). Many of the sessions will also qualify for continuing education credit with the Green Building Certification Institute (toward SITES AP and LEED AP credential maintenance), the American Institute of Architects, the American Institute of Certified Planners, and other allied professional organizations and state registration boards.
Education session speakers selected from this process will receive a full complimentary registration to the 2020 Conference on Landscape Architecture.
Today in New York City, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres will convene the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit to, in his words, “hear about how we are going to stop the increase in emissions by 2020, and dramatically reduce emissions to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century.” This Summit comes on the heels of the Youth Climate Strike last week, and kicks off Climate Week in which people in New York and across the country will demand action to mitigate the ongoing climate crisis.
As the world’s leaders gather in New York this week, ASLA calls for all governments convened at the Climate Action Summit to adopt national policies that incentivize investment in nature-based solutions to help communities adapt to the impacts of the climate crisis, with a greater focus on the disproportionate impacts faced by vulnerable and underserved communities.
While it’s encouraging to see international leaders finally thinking seriously about resilience, sustainability and climate change mitigation, I’m extremely proud to say that I belong to an organization and a profession that has been protecting our planet since 1899.
Since our founding, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has advocated for nature-based solutions to reduce coastal, inland flooding and the urban heat island effect; improve air and water quality; protect and enhance biodiversity; and support human health and well-being through universal access to nature.
ASLA has always been a vehicle for landscape architects not only to protect and expand our livelihoods, but to advocate for those values we hold as a profession. The Kresge Foundation found ASLA to be one of just nine organizations that have “adopted a holistic approach” to educating their members and the public about climate change “that includes adaptation, mitigation, and the explicit consideration of social justice.”
ASLA is also a proud signatory of the We Are Still In Declaration. The declaration, signed by 63 cultural institutions and 3,800 leaders representing 15 million Americans and $9 trillion of the U.S. economy, relays our continuing commitment to the goals outlined in the international Paris Climate Agreement and America’s contribution to it.
World leaders are finally coming around to what we at ASLA have long known: nature-based solutions are advantageous to our communities, our environment, and the health of our world. They:
Are largely more cost-effective and resilient than engineered “grey” solutions for protecting communities against sea level rise, higher temperatures, and increased flooding.
Have many co-benefits like improved community health and well-being.
Reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the advantage of our environment.
Create well-paying, local green jobs.
When a member joins ASLA, they agree to a code of environmental ethics that states they will make “every effort within our sphere of influence to enhance, respect, and restore the life-sustaining integrity of the landscape for all living things.” This, to me, is the Hippocratic Oath of a landscape architect – one that we live every single day, in every project we take, in everything we do. It is my earnest hope, and the hope of ASLA as an organization, that the leaders gathering in New York today will heed the calls of climate strikers, scientists, and people around the globe to take bold action and protect our planet from the perils of the climate crisis.
Shawn T. Kelly, FASLA, President, American Society of Landscape Architects
This purpose of this article is to reflect on the Design with Nature Now exhibition that ran over this past summer at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. The exhibition marked the 50th anniversary of Ian McHarg’s 1969 tome Design with Natureand was curated by Fritz Steiner, FASLA, Karen M’Closkey, Billy Fleming, ASLA, Bill Whitaker, ASLA, and myself.
As curators we worked for well over a year to select the 25 works in the exhibition. We began by asking colleagues around the world for project recommendations. We stipulated in some detail that projects had to be “McHargian” in scale and scope. From well over a hundred nominations, we reached the short list of 25 and organized them into five categories: Big Wilds, Urban Futures, Toxic Lands, Fresh Waters and Rising Waters, which can be explored online.
• Great Green Wall, Africa
• Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, USA and Canada
• National Ecological Security Pattern Plan, China
• Malpai Borderlands, Arizona and New Mexico, USA
• Samboja Lestari, East Kalimantan, Indonesia
• Landscape Regeneration of Western Waiheke Island, New Zealand
• Willamette River Basin Oregon, USA
• Qianhai Water City Shenzhen, China
• Envision Utah Salt Lake City Region, USA
• Medellin, Colombia
• Barcelona Metropolitan Region Plan, Spain
• Emscher Landscape Park, Ruhr Valley, Germany
• Stapleton, Denver Colorado, USA
• Freshkills Park, New York, USA
• Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London, England
• The BIG U, New York, USA
• A New Urban Ground New York, New York, USA
• Fingers of High Ground Norfolk, Virginia, USA
• Zandmotor Ter Heijde, The Netherlands
• 2050—An Energetic Odyssey North Sea, The Netherlands
• Healthy Port Futures Great Lakes Region, USA
• Room for the River The Netherlands Rijkswaterstaat
• Los Angeles River Master Plan California, USA
• Weishan Wetland Park Jining, China
• GreenPlan Philadelphia Pennsylvania, USA
It’s important to note the final list of projects doesn’t mean we completely endorse the work, nor is the exhibition a collection of the “best of.” This is not an awards forum; it is a representative selection of work that we think does a pretty good job of scoping, extending, and in some cases questioning McHarg’s legacy into the 21st century.
Without being too coy about it, we generally think these projects indicate important directions for the future of the profession. A criticism we accept and have worried over is the collection is geographically and culturally quite limited, itself a reflection of landscape architecture’s current professional reach.
So what do we mean by extending McHarg’s legacy? Simply, the works we’ve chosen tend to be “plannerly,” that is, they are big in terms of site and timescale and tend to involve complex socio-political and ecological processes with multiple authors and agencies. In short, there are no gardens, plazas, or streetscapes (to name but a few types) in this collection. This is not to say these are unimportant, they just don’t fit the raison d’etre, or the occasion of this exhibition.
Turning to the question of designing a planet: the functionalist definition of design is to make a tool that will do something more effectively than prior to the tool’s existence. But what’s most important about this—at least what largely seems to distinguish us to some degree from many other species—is that the invention of the tool, or the desire for the invention of the tool, takes place in our minds before it takes place in the world.
Without wanting to at all elevate humans above other species, we do have an exceptional propensity for imagining causality. In a word, we have foresight.
In Greek mythology foresight was the special gift of Prometheus – the father of humanity. We, the “Anthropos” (meaning not only humans, but also “the lower ones”), received our ability for foresight from Prometheus. Under instruction from Zeus, who wanted some pets to alleviate his boredom, Prometheus made the Anthropos out of clay taken from somewhere between the Tigris and Euphrates, and with the admixture of Athena’s breath, here we are!
As the story goes, Zeus told Prometheus to give the Anthropos some degree of free will so as to make them more entertaining, but he stressed not to give them so much that they might then compete with the Gods themselves. Of course, by giving us not only a modicum of foresight, but also fire, Prometheus gave us everything we needed to do exactly what Zeus feared we would. And the rest, as they say, is history.
From the origin of the Anthropos we can trace an arc to the 1960s when, just before McHarg released his manifesto, Stewart Brand, the man responsible for persuading NASA to release the original earth image, pronounced: “We are now as Gods and should get good at it.” This is a hugely significant thing to say, but what’s more is that Brand recently updated his statement to “we are as Gods and MUST get good at it.”
In other words, not only have the Gods abandoned us, but we are now so deeply implicated in the workings of the Earth system that we really have no choice but to try and design it. In so far as we know, for the first time in evolutionary history, there is now a form of networked planetary intelligence registering its own environmental predicament. If so, then humanity is the first species in evolutionary history to attempt to design a planet, a fact as preposterous as it is, according to Brand, a necessity.
The poster child for the historical drama in which we now cast ourselves as both the villain and the hero is the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who popularized the term Anthropocene. As Crutzen explains, the Anthropocene is an act in three parts: first, the industrial revolution; second, the great acceleration (consumer-driven capitalism since 1950); and now he says we should move into a third phase in which we begin to, and I quote, “steward the earth.”
This of course is exactly what McHarg said 50 years ago. Now you might say that we have already designed the planet. Certainly, humanity has colonized and impacted every square inch of the earth’s surface, but we haven’t really done this with foresight. Until recently, we haven’t done it in a way that is self-conscious in regard to the problem of the tragedy of the commons. The question now is not whether we should design the planet, but how. Ironically then: If it’s true that species naturally over consume their environments to their own detriment, then since we have no major predator, we now need to learn to become unnatural. And in a further semantic twist, according to McHarg and his disciples, we can only do this by designing with nature.
However, the problem is this assumes we know what nature is. Truth be told, we do not. Accepting that fact is important because it protects us against anyone ever using nature as justification for authoritarian politics or any number of other oppressive ideas. Accepting then the partiality of knowledge, all we can do is develop approximations of how nature works and try different ways of productively coexisting with it as such.
We write in the introduction to the exhibition’s eponymous book that by asserting the sum-total of what we mean by design (human foresight) could be based on a singular—and in McHarg’s case, a scientific idea of nature—McHarg created a significant intellectual problem for himself and the profession. This problem is brought to light by Ursula Heise during a keynote at the Design with Nature Now conference, which was held at Penn alongside the exhibition in June, 2019.
Heise explains “the basic goal of cultural studies for the last twenty years has been to analyze and in most cases, to dismantle appeals to ‘the natural’ or ‘biological’ by showing their groundedness in cultural practices rather than facts of nature. The thrust of this work, therefore, invariably leads to skepticism about the possibility of returning to nature as such or of the possibility of places defined in terms of their natural characteristics that humans should relate to.”
Correct though she may well be, the problem with this postmodern skepticism is that if nature is not one thing, it’s everything. And if its everything, its nothing, and if it’s nothing, it can’t very well guide our designs, let alone an entire civilization as McHarg intended.
How then are we to respond to the conditions of ecological crisis? Well, you don’t have to agree with McHarg’s teleology of humanity fitting into a certain idea of nature to accept and use the sheer practicality of his method. Inversely, you also don’t need to be debilitated by the recognition that post-modern nature is a cultural construct. On the contrary, recognizing the design of nature as a cultural construct can be completely consistent with an ecological world view, just not a tyrannical one.
The ecological crisis and the misuse of land that McHarg directly confronted is not just a postmodern cultural construct – it is an appalling reality and McHarg’s importance is that he proposed a simple, replicable, and practical method for addressing it.
McHarg represents then the beginning of modern culture taking responsibility for the land with modern technology. Other societies throughout history have done this in different ways, but a modern method suited to the abstraction of modern development processes had to be created. People like Geddes, Mumford, Leopold, Carson and others provided the narrative and McHarg the method. And that he did this is enough. We don’t need to make him into anything more or less than that.
Designing with Nature Now means designing with the new nature of the Anthropocene. And to understand the Anthropocene we need to turn to both the sciences and the arts. The scientific bible for the landscape of the Anthropocene is, I think, the bookGlobal Change and the Earth System, published in 2005. It is to the Anthropocene what the encyclopedia was to the Enlightenment.
To quote directly from its introduction, the book’s purpose is “to describe and understand the interactive physical, chemical, and biological processes that regulate the total earth system, the unique environment it provides for life, the changes that are occurring in that system and the manner in which these changes are influenced by human actions.” This last expression “…the manner in which these changes are influenced by human actions” is critical because this is not the study of nature as something separate to culture; this is now the study of nature as culture.
Global Change and the Earth System is the work of literally thousands of scientists, all bringing their various models of different phenomena together in an attempt to form a complete, holistic model of the Earth System. The idea being that if we can at least better understand how the Earth system functions then we can make more informed decisions about our actions within that system.
One can imagine the ecological revolution in design, which McHarg catalyzed in regard to settlement patterns and which we are still in the early historical phases of, now means that everything we design will increasingly be conceived, tested, and valued as to how it performs within the larger material flows of the Earth system as a whole. Hyper-McHarg, if you will.
Now, while the scientists are working on their empirical models, the question in the arts is not so much how the Anthropogenic Earth works but what the Anthropogenic Earth means. To wit, just look at the plethora of recent books that use the word Anthropocene in their titles. Notably, almost all are dramatic and apocalyptic. Indeed, thoughout the humanities, there is evidently outright panic about the advent of the Anthropocene. And rightly so, because the old idea of nature as something stable and inviolable, history’s backdrop, has literally just evaporated into the carbon-saturated atmosphere of our own making.
To help make some sense of this panic, I’ve added some keywords to a sample of books on the topic of the Anthropocene (see larger version of the image below). These keywords establish polarizations that demarcate spectrums of current thought, at least as I read it. The first polarization concerns the question of whether or not we should even be calling this the Anthropocene. For its critics, the term naturalizes climate change and casts a new colonizing term over the entirety of the human race, many of whom have had very little to do with the industrial modernity that created the problem in the first place. Instead, they argue this should be called the Capitolocene, which is to say climate change must be apprehended as a cultural matter, and the blame for its advent placed squarely at the feet of first-world capitalism, and presumably communism, since it too has had an appalling environmental record.
First, with regard to the politics of the environmental movement I would place Eco-socialists at one end of the spectrum and Eco-modernists at the other. For the Eco-socialists, technology (unless its green) is a problem before it is a solution, and it is only through a return to communitarian, small scale, low-population, stable-state economies that true sustainability can be achieved. For the Eco-socialists, only the worst of climate change can now be avoided, whereas for the Eco-modernists, modernity is an incomplete project, and through technological rationality the best is yet to come, or at least, the worst can be avoided.
For Eco-socialists climate change warrants socio-political and theological revolution, something Clive Hamilton, the author of Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, for example, calls a “rupture” with history. On the other hand, for the Eco-modernists, history since the agricultural revolution is a continuing saga of environmental modification at the hands of technology. In this sense, even though there is now more at stake, for the Eco-modernists we are just doing now what we’ve always done. This latter position is effectively that taken by the other keynote speaker at the Design with Nature Now conference, the geographer Erle Ellis.
Second, to translate this spectrum of environmental thought into design discourse, I use the terms mitigation and adaptation respectively. Taken seriously, mitigation means taking on the causes of climate change, not only the fossil fuel industry, but also the economics of capitalism and the the philosophy of liberal humanism. Adaptation, on the other hand, means adjusting to the conditions of a changed climate but not necessarily changing its causation and certainly not changing the fundamentally-modern belief in techno scientific rationality to solve our environmental and socio-economic problems.
Per McHarg, adaptation means fitting ourselves benignly into the landscape. But this now seems way too pastoral for a planet of 8 billion people in the throes of rapid climate change. More likely and more frightening is that adaptation will become the rationale for climate engineering: regulating the albedo of the atmosphere and the chemistry of the oceans, and planning vast landscapes so they not only feed us, but also help stabilize the carbon and nitrogen cycles.
Both adaptation and mitigation point towards what is now routinely referred to as resilience. Even though in the illustrative diagram I am situating resilience equidistant between adaptation and mitigation, I think resilience theory and practice tends more towards adaptation than it does mitigation.
The reason for this is that the utopia of sustainability, which is what mitigation implies, has by now proven itself to be something of an impossibility. Accordingly, resilience has been criticized as sustainability without hope. In other words, for its critics, resilience is seen as abandoning any possibility of mitigating the environmental and social crises of modernity. Instead, we, and in particular the poor, must now learn to live with the symptoms. In this sense resilience is palliative, conservative, and at worst complicit in preserving the very systems that created the risk in the first place.
Maybe so, but this is all a little too black and white. I would also add that resilience is realistic, whereas mitigation is hopelessly idealistic. Resilience brings sustainability closer to the indeterminate way that both the natural and cultural worlds actually work. Whereas sustainability was based on an idealized ecology of equilibrium, resilience is based on an interpretation of nature as a state of disequilibrium. I think McHarg hoped ultimately for a world of equilibrium between the natural and the cultural but seems now that this is just not the way the world works.
Turning briefly now to the projects in the Design with Nature Now exhibition, there are two particular aspects of McHarg’s legacy that I want to channel. The first is his aspiration for large-scale impact and the second is his anticipation and use of digital technology. The first is what I call Big Plans and the second is Digital Natures.
Let’s start with Big Plans. On the map below, Global Landscape Connectivity Projects, you see most of the major conservation projects planned or under construction in the world today. This is an extraordinary image because it shows humans now, for the first time in (modern) history, actively and intentionally reconstructing ecosystems at a planetary scale – so yes, effectively designing a planet, or at least treating it as a garden instead of a mine. (See larger map).
McHarg would love this map and it should give us all hope. And yet from a professional perspective much of this restorative activity doesn’t currently involve landscape architects. That we think it should is why we’ve included projects such as the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative in the United States and the Great Green Wall across sub-Saharan Africa in the exhibition.
For example, the Y2Y is a remarkable ongoing story of collaboration (and tension) between land owners over some 2,000 miles of territory in order to create landscape connectivity for species migration. The Great Green Wall is also a remarkable story of what began as a top-down initiative to resist the southward encroachment of the Saharan desert but has since evolved in to a mosaic of bottom-up initiatives to boost local agrarian economies across the 14 impoverished nations it comprises. When completed, if ever that day comes, the Great Green Wall will be the largest living thing ever created by humanity.
A third Big Plan, I’d like to single out that is versed in McHargian methods is the 2008 National Ecological Security Patterns for the whole of China by landscape architecture firm Turenscape, which was founded by Kongjian Yu, FASLA, and the Peking University Graduate School of Landscape Architecture. The plan shows where the ecological security of land in China should be prioritized.
This research coincides with President Xi Jinping’s 2013 declaration that China should transition from a Gross Domestic Product (GDP)-focused civilization to an ecological civilization. And in this regard, while the study represents a powerful breakthrough for landscape architects, it is also something of a Faustian bargain. It raises the question of whether plans done in the name of national ecological health for totalitarian governments could come to overrule local culture in the same way development projects previously did in the name of the national interest. Imagine mass evictions not for hydroelectric dams, but now for biodiversity corridors.
Regarding the second aspect of McHarg’s legacy, the theme of Digital Natures relates to how landscape architects today are increasingly able to simulate environmental conditions in order to guide design decisions. There are two aspects to this. The first is the ability to create one’s own data instead of just passively receiving it from an authority, and the second is the increasing capacity to model complex, chaotic systems such as hydrology, and perhaps eventually entire ecosystems, cities, and ultimately the Earth system itself, as we see in the case of the book Global Change and the Earth System.
The key here is being able to model systems in the fourth, not just the third, dimension. That is, we are moving into an era where the old problem of a map being redundant the moment it is drawn can finally be overcome. It is early days in the emergence of the genre of Digital Natures, but the work of academic practitioners such as Keith Van Der Sys, Karen M’Closkey, Bradley Cantrell, ASLA, Justine Holzman, Sean Burkholder and Brian Davis — all of whom are variously modelling fluvial landscapes — is promising.
For example, the Healthy Port Futures project in the Design with Nature Now exhibition by Burkholder and Davis foregrounds digital modelling to predict sediment flows in the world’s largest inland water body, the Great Lakes of the USA and Canada. The project centers on creating simulations to show how instead of being treated as a useless waste product, sediment can be redirected so as to create new landscapes of ecological and social value. Stemming out of the academic Dredgefest initiative, Burkholder and Davis’ work is significant for its methods and also because with it they are muscling their way into territory otherwise dominated by engineers.
Which leads to what is for me the most extraordinary and perhaps the most compelling work in the exhibition: the so called Sand Motor (Zandmotor) constructed in 2011 off the coast of the Netherlands. The Sand Motor is a novel approach to coastline protection in which sand is mined offshore and added to the beach at a strategic location so that the littoral drift steadily redistributes the material further along the coast, thus reinforcing Holland’s coast against the sea. This could only be done through predictive modelling of the coastal system. Absent recent advancements in computing power, such analysis would have been previously prohibitive. Now, not only could the Sand Motor’s behavior be accurately predicted before it was built, it is also continually monitored, establishing a feedback loop between the digital and the real.
The Sand Motor marks a new technological and predictive level of human engagement with the environment, one that will expand at both macro and micro scales this century. In addition to designing gardens, parks, and plazas as we always will, the kind of systems design the Sand Motor suggests it is as foreboding as it is promising.
Even if unintentionally, the sand motor is also, I think, a highly aesthetic work. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is one of the great artworks of the early Anthropocene, something land artist Robert Smithson pointed to 50 years ago. I imagine a scene where Professor Marcel Stive, the lead engineer of the Sand Motor, now replaces Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea, not to contemplate God’s awesome creation, but rather ours.
And that brings me full circle to where I began with origin of the Anthropos. For if we have now become Gods then, for all their complexity and contradiction, I do think the projects in the exhibition show that we can be good at it.
This 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.
“Try to imagine how many relationships have developed because two sets of parents or caretakers pushed their kids on the same swing set on the same afternoon. They might try and stay immersed in their phone, but inevitably they’ll end up acknowledging the humanity of the other person and at some point one will spark a conversation.”
Good social infrastructure does not spring up by chance — it exists because of decades of hard work by activists who believed in the public good and have fought to make spaces like libraries, parks, plazas, playgrounds and childcare centers accessible and democratically available.
Unfortunately, Klinenberg said, “we’ve neglected our social infrastructure just when we need it most. We are living in it the way a prodigal child lives on their inheritance.” Investment in our social infrastructure means designing, building, programming and maintaining it well. Without committing to these four important steps, we will feel the personal and societal effects of its absence, which could actually have life-threatening effects.
Klinenberg’s doctoral research studied the Chicago heat wave of 1995, in which survival rate in two demographically identical, impoverished neighborhoods was determined by proximity to social infrastructure. The one that fared worse was blighted, with residents living isolated lives, while the one that fared better even than wealthier Chicago neighborhoods had spaces for informal community interaction, making it easier for neighbors to check in on the community’s most vulnerable residents during the heat wave.
Klinenberg’s research on the life-saving benefits of public space lead to a role as research director for Rebuild by Design, the design competition initiated by HUD after Hurricane Sandy. His role was to advise the winning design teams on how to address environmental inequality and incorporate social infrastructure into their designs.
In the wake of the storm, Klinenberg was troubled by the many voices publicly calling for a massive seawall to be built around Manhattan. “364 days a year you don’t need a storm barrier. If you just design for the storm you’re probably going to make the city uglier, less efficient and less pleasant,” he said.
Thanks to Klinenberg’s input and influence, winning projects such as the Big U demonstrated that climate infrastructure can double as social infrastructure. The original design included what was called “a bridging berm,” which featured protective walls that serve as a public park with amenities like athletic fields, space for open air markets, bike and walking paths. “If you completely blow up the concept of climate resilience infrastructure by adding social infrastructure, something really special happens,” said Klinenberg. (Plans for those berms were recently replaced with one that will lift waterfront parks up by 10 feet and create a sea wall).
Making and maintaining a well-designed space is not a silver bullet when it comes to successful social infrastructure. True democratic accessibility is a critical component.
Klinenberg worries about the implications of the increase in philanthropist-funded public parks, many of which are well designed, built, programmed and maintained, but remain less accessible to those who would benefit from them the most. “If you are lucky enough to live in a place that gets that philanthropic support your public space gets supercharged,” says Klinenberg, while other spaces must rely on tax dollars, creating a profound difference in the quality of these public spaces.
To ensure all public spaces in a city receives the same investment, Klinenberg argues that we would get a better outcome from taxing billionaires rather than depending on their benevolent whims to create and maintain our social infrastructure.
Speaking to an audience of mostly planners and designers, Klinenberg inevitably got asked a question about the mechanics of social infrastructure — how can we make this happen in our own designs?
Klinenberg urged designers to carefully consider access, what it means to make a space welcoming to all, and to de-prioritize efficiency. If mingling and chance encounters between people of all different backgrounds are the substance of social infrastructure, then landscape architects and designers should focus on creating the spatial conditions for these to occur.
This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, a landscape designer with Ecopolitan.