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.
Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Burle Marx, the largest botanical exhibition ever put on by the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), features the work of creative polymath Roberto Burle Marx, realized through extensive and lush gardens filled with Brazilian native plants and exhibitions of his paintings and drawings. The gardens were designed by Miami-based landscape architect Raymond Jungles, FASLA.
Burle Marx’s instantly recognizable landscapes, paintings, textiles, and jewelry have been the subject of two major museum retrospectives in New York in the past 30 years, but his environmentalism in his native Brazil has been largely overlooked.
In Brazil and the U.S., recently-elected populist presidents Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump have gutted decades of established environmental regulation. Their actions set the stage for the symposium Burle Marx: A Total Work of Art, which kicked off the NYBG exhibition by turning the focus to Burle Marx’s tenacious environmental advocacy.
Burle Marx promoted his environmentalism as cultural counselor to the Brazilian state, a position he held for seven years under a series of repressive military regimes. During this time he gave eighteen impassioned “depositions” in which he argued it was the duty of the state to protect the landscape not as a productive resource, but as a crucial aspect of Brazilian cultural heritage.
The symposium also featured two speakers who knew Burle Marx personally: Raymond Jungles, a self-described member of Burle Marx’s “entourage,” and Isabel Ono, executive director of the Burle Marx Institute and daughter of Burle Marx’s closet collaborator, Haruyoshi Ono. Both recalled touching personal details about their time spent with him, painting a picture of his boundless whimsy and curiosity.
Burle Marx, an avid horticulturist and plant conservationist, was known for his epic excursions into the Brazilian wilderness to search for rare plants to add to his gardens. Jungles recounted eagerly taking the front seat of the van while accompanying Burle Marx on these excursions so that he could listen to his stories as he drove.
When Jungles pulled out a book during some down time on one of these trips, Burle Marx gently chided him: “Raymond, put it away. Out here, we study nature.”
The Living Art of Burle Marx runs through September 29, 2019.
This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, a landscape designer with Ecopolitan.
Global warming may be near a tipping point; even the popular press says it is coming. Some experts warn it will be reached within a decade, others hold out for a twenty-year window — a generation at most. But it’s already in rapid motion scolds David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of The Future, beginning straight away in the first sentence of this riveting and deeply distressing overture to a tragic future: “It is worse, much worse than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all….”
Drawing from numerous credible scientific sources, some obscure and esoteric and others as widely circulated as recent U.N. sponsored or World Bank reports, Wallace-Wells hurls out a flurry of shock scenarios to delineate not just the more conservative probabilities, but also the higher and even scarier ranges of human-caused heat buildup. There is little doubt that devastation is occurring more frequently and it is getting more virulent. The book’s opening section, aptly titled “Cascades”, articulates a “new kind of ….violence….the planet plummeting again and again with increasing intensity, and in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond, uprooting much of the landscape we have taken for granted for centuries.”
Last year’s hellacious California wildfires and mudslides were not an isolated incident, but rather part of a massive threat to global plant life. Forest die back may amount to “….retreat[ing] of jungle basins as big as countries….which means a dramatic stripping back of the planet’s natural ability to absorb carbon, which means still higher temperatures, which means more dieback…”
The human costs, especially in politically vulnerable circumstances, are a consequence of similar accelerations. The one million Syrian refugees resulting from the 2011 civil war were also victims of drought. The World Bank estimates that by 2050 the number of climate change refugees from sub-Sahara Africa, Latin America and the rest of Asia could reach 150 million. The U.N. goes higher – ranging from 200 million to a billion.
Celsius degree increases are a suitable metric in comprehending different scenarios, and they are the author’s most relied-upon benchmark. There has been a 1.1 rise since the inception of the industrial revolution; the rise associated with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2016 Paris accords to year 2100 is 2 additional degrees by the end of this century. Wallace-Wells considers this the “best case scenario”, with ice sheets beginning their outright collapse, water scarcity for 400 million more people, unlivable cities along the equatorial band of the planet, and in northern latitudes, heat waves killing thousands each summer.
Last year’s heavily publicized Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has upped that to 3.2 degrees, even if immediate action were taken to implement the Paris accords. That could amount to major flooding in Miami, Dhaka, Shanghai and Hong Kong, along with a hundred other cities and multiple additional catastrophes. And the likelihood cannot been discounted that a rise of 4 degrees, or even much higher, might occur by the end of this century.
It takes little stretch of the imagination to conjure the connection between horrific disaster and the specter of mass extinction, and many other books have focused on this question exclusively. Of the five preceding extinctions, the first occurred an estimated 450 million years ago, when 85 percent of all species died, and the most recent occurring 80 million years ago when the tally amounted to 75 percent. What is likely to be happening now would constitute the first caused by homo sapiens.
Wallace-Wells concludes with wide-ranging speculations on what it means to be human, and thus self-aware, amidst a seemingly limitless universe where other such life forms may have both prevailed and expired countless times before ours. Here is where he searches for personal consolation in the Anthropic principle, which (depending on how it is interpreted) consigns to the very existence of earth-bound humanity, in the author’s words, a “sense of cosmic specialness.”
This sudden glint of optimism comes as a surprising and confounding about-face, given the preponderance of doom and gloom that precedes it, and yet for David Wallace-Wells, parent to a child born while this blunt screed was being written, the primal instinct to survive and the desire for meaning may be sufficient fuel for his rejection of despair, despite the preponderance of scientific arguments for a worst-case scenario.
This guest post is by Martin Zimmerman, who writes from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he is an urban planner, free-lance journalist, and sustainable city activist.
The district encompasses San Francisco City Hall, the Asian Art Museum, the San Francisco Public Library, and UN Plaza, among other civic spaces. It also touches S0Ma and the Tenderloin, two of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and most under-served in terms of public space.
CMG’s plan is the result of two years of community outreach, though it sits within a series of outreach efforts led by others that started in 2010. CMG arrived on the scene in 2017, conducting online and in-person surveys, installing mobile outreach stations, organizing focus groups, and reaching out to the diverse ethnic communities in the area. Vietnamese, Chinese, and Spanish-speaking communities, as well as youth, received particular attention as they are heavy and underserved users of the district. Because this area also includes the city’s highest concentration of single-room occupancy buildings in the city and their related services, CMG also reached out to organizers in those communities.
The plan pulls elements from three possible schemes that were unveiled in 2018. Lauren Hackney, ASLA, a landscape architect with CMG, explained the three plans were intended to “provoke conversation,” and allowed CMG to subsequently incorporate the most popular and consistently-desired aspects of the three proposals into the final plan.
The final design strives to simultaneously meet the needs of a civic space and those of surrounding residents, while also calibrating the space’s historic design with contemporary needs.
Noteworthy for its Beaux-Arts plan implemented at the turn of the 20th century, Civic Center comprises a National Historic District, and it was necessary to respect that history. But “the crazy thing is that Beaux-Arts planning doesn’t align with contemporary ambitions around how you use space,” said Willet Moss, ASLA, a partner at CMG. Thus, CMG stripped the Beaux-Arts plan to its foundational principles of cohesion, axes, integrity, and unity. Doing so allowed the Beaux-Arts ideas to serve as “a starting point” from which the designers could accommodate contemporary needs.
That balancing act is one of the project’s biggest challenges: designing a single framework for many desired needs and overlapping jurisdictions and for a client composed of eight city agencies. “One of the real sincere challenges is how you get such a diverse spectrum of stakeholders to talk about identity — and about this place that everybody in San Francisco has a relationship with,” Hackney said. From protests to City Hall marriages, from the library to the farmers’ market, the ways people experience the space are numerous and varied.
CMG addressed these disparate needs by emphasizing the central axis and enlivening the sides and edges of Civic Center. The space can function ceremonially while accommodating multiple uses around its fringe.
Planting, paving, and lighting organize the district’s civic “spine.” CMG has given the plaza facing City Hall a room-like feel—reinforcement of the Beaux-Arts plan—by framing the space with planting. The frame provides structure while leaving space for large gatherings (Gay Pride, for instance, can see hundreds of thousands of people pass through the space).
Identical paving throughout the district provides cohesion, and marks its transformation from car-centric to pedestrian-oriented. This is also the first effort to comprehensively light the entire district, making it safer to navigate from BART to public spaces at night. These qualities all contribute to accessibility. After all, Hackney said: “The linchpin of democratic public space is access to it.”
To meet the needs of surrounding communities, CMG proposes incorporating green and other spaces for recreation. A shallow mirror pond that turns on and off can be playful, while nodding to the ceremonial. Gardens that surround existing playgrounds, lawns that transform into soccer fields, and a sculpture garden with ample seating exemplify smaller scale spaces activating the plaza.
The outreach process also made clear that the new plan needed to address basic needs of its constituents. At present, there are no benches, and a single bathroom. The common reaction in San Francisco is to do without seating, lest it become crowded with homeless people.
CMG’s response? “Let’s have so much seating that there will never not be a seat for anyone,” Moss says. And the same principle applies to bathrooms across the site, too. “Homeless people are an important constituent of the public space,” Hackney says. “You need to meet the needs of the people who are in the space long term.”
Linked to similar concerns, Lawrence Halprin’s fountain within UN Plaza has stirred strong feelings from both its proponents and its detractors. Ultimately, CMG decided to retain the fountain, harnessing it as part of a gateway to the Tenderloin and UC Hastings College of Law.
Their plan attempts to restore people’s engagement with the fountain (right now it is fenced off), maintaining it in a way consistent with Halprin’s intention to “invite people to engage with their environment in a different way.” CMG has also leveraged it as a piece of their stormwater infrastructure so that it becomes a large detention basin when it rains. “I believe we could breathe new life into it,” Moss says.
Halprin’s fountain is only one component of the district’s complex green infrastructure strategy. At present, no stormwater treatment exists, and all the surrounding civic buildings pump out foundation water, which then flows into San Francisco’s combined sewer systems and causes downstream flooding. The new plan harvests that water; some is used for irrigation and toilet flushing, some is treated to become potable (72 hours of drinking water will be stored for use during emergencies). An underground infiltration “gallery” comprised of gravel media allows rainwater to infiltrate to the water table.
Beyond water concerns, CMG also incorporated tenants of San Francisco’s Green Connections and urban forest plans. In designing, attention was given to tree canopy and habitat, species diversity, optimal growing conditions, and understory planting.
The implementation timeline of the plan is unclear, and likely will be for some time. The plan will first undergo one to two years of environmental review, and its phasing and budget are still in development. A project of this scale necessitates many funding streams for different areas. Funding efforts are now directed towards an identified first phase, which aligns with the in-progress project Better Market Street and includes 6th to 8th Streets. As for an exact timeline, CMG is reluctant to say—it depends on decisions, reviews, and city processes.
This vagueness garners skepticism. After having crafted a design based in extensive outreach, the question is now how to realize it financially and politically. “It’s less about what people want than people’s confidence in the city’s culture; and the city bureaucracy making change and sustaining this place in the long term,” Moss said. But CMG is hopeful: the city understood the fundamental need for long-term management and operation, and included that in discussion from the start.
But even with the worthy intentions of the landscape architects and city players, the plan calls into question the ability of a public space to address mounting social ills in San Francisco. Even if the space is designed for everyone, will the community at large support this mission? Can accessibility to public space truly provoke change in a city rife with inequity? An important first step would be to meet the urgency of these problems with a similar haste to build the proposed plan.
This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.
AARP knows that working to create more livable communities is not an optional endeavor – rather, it is central to our mission of supporting people to live their best lives at every age. Increasingly, communities are realizing that the flipside is true, too –ensuring that communities work for people of all ages is essential to their own community’s ability to thrive economically, socially, and culturally. And that realization is coming not a moment too soon: currently one in three people is over the age of 50, and by 2035, there will be more people over the age of 65 in the United States than under the age of 18. Any community that isn’t already asking, “Are we ready?” is going to be in for a surprise.
So, what does “ready” look like? Ultimately, it looks a place that offers diverse choices in housing, a range of viable transportation options, and well-designed parks and public spaces that invite interaction and activity. “Ready” means that communities are crafted to engage older adults in the community – as volunteers, as entrepreneurs, and as local leaders – and to harness their insights to drive better public investments and policy. The good news is these attributes don’t just deliver benefits to a single age group – they meet the needs of all.
AARP works closely with communities through our Livable Communities initiative to help examine their needs from an “age-friendly” lens in ways that can create a fruitful context for change. To date, more than 330 communities – and three states – have joined AARP’s Network of Age Friendly States and Communities. As a result of AARP’s efforts, more than 25 states reported local and/or state policy wins in 2018 that deliver better housing and transportation choices for older adults, and by extension, for all.
Inherent to our Livable Communities approach is the ability to help communities demonstrate the “proof of concept” for change – whether that change means a temporary roundabout, or a short-lived demonstration bike lane, or a model approach to adapting tiny homes to increase their accessibility. Since 2017, we have funded nearly 220 such models through our Community Challenge Grant program – which this year will give awards to communities for small-scale, quick-action demonstration projects.
If past grantees are any indicator, our 2019 awardees will help advance real impact in communities across the US – in cities, towns, and on tribal lands — through small, tactical investments in placemaking, housing, and transportation that spark broader conversation and community change.
Past Community Challenge projects include:
City Heights, San Diego, California – The eastern San Diego neighborhood of City Heights is an enclave for refugees from Somalia and other East African countries. The Challenge grant supported the construction of permanent seating and landscaping along University Avenue – home to shops, markets and mosques and a popular area for local residents (especially ones 50 or older) to gather (see image above).
Kenaitze Indian Tribe, Alaska – The Old Town Kenai campus is home to the Dena’ina Wellness Center as well as the Tyotkas Elders Center. Medicinal plants are an important tradition for the Dean’ina people, who have inhabited this region for more than 1000 years. The AARP Challenge grant funded the construction of six raised-bed garden boxes containing 12 native Alaskan medicinal plants which enabled tribal elders to grow the plants without stooping over. Walking tour maps and informational signs describe the medicinal properties of each plant and how they address specific ailments.
Chicago, Illinois – “People Spots” are temporary platforms that turn an existing parking spot into an outdoor space for public enjoyment. AARP grant funding enabled the City of Chicago to offer a People Spot prototype for installation on a rotating basis in areas of high economic hardship, or those designated “retail thrive zones” on Chicago’s south, southwest, and west sides.
Jackson, Mississippi – Jackson’s first pedestrian-aimed project is a pilot for its Open Streets program to transform its auto-centric downtown streets into vibrant social spaces. The AARP grant funded the transformation of a block of Congress Street to including outdoor furniture, a parklet, bike infrastructure and programmed events such as PARK(ing) Day Friday on September 21, 2018.
Manning, Iowa – Manning’s brick-paved Main Street is a popular gathering spot for neighbors of all ages, including residents of the nearby Plaza Nursing Home. AARP funding helped add ambience and new design elements to the area with the purchase and installation of 12 lighting fixtures created by students from the Iowa State University College of Design.
Gardner, Kansas – The citizens of Gardner want to maintain the traditions of their small but fast-growing community while creating new public spaces to meet the changing needs of residents and visitors. AARP funding helped create a portable parklet in the heart of the community, offering a place to rest in the shade near many facilities. Guided by more than 500 responses to a public input survey, the accessible parklet was equipped with shade canopies, comfortable seating, plants, lighting and is helping build awareness about larger green spaces planned for the area.
Woodbridge, Virginia – In this two-part project at the Woodbridge Senior Center, AARP funding was used to develop a vegetable garden that supplements the meals provided to residents and creates an opportunity for physical activity. The second part of the project involved improvements in an outdoor area that lacked sufficient seating and landscaping, encouraging more social activity.
The task of preparing communities for a future in which older adults are able to live their best lives calls for broad engagement about how to improve housing, transportation and public spaces. Efforts like AARP’s Community Challenge Grant program provide a clear opportunity for landscape architects, planners, community members, and local leaders to come together to craft and deliver real solutions in communities. Little by little, working hand in hand, together we’ll prepare our communities – and our country – for the age-friendly future that awaits us.
A wide-ranging proposal for a Green New Deal (GND) was introduced on February 7 in the House of Representatives in the form of a resolution sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), with a companion resolution introduced in the Senate by Sen. Edward Markey (Mass.).
Although the current GND resolution is largely aspirational and includes few specific policies, it contains a commitment to core principles of urgent transformational change that are fully compatible with ASLA’s positions, and mirror the recommendations the Society already put forward in our Blue Ribbon Panel report, Smart Policies for a Changing Climate.
Like our report, the GND resolution calls for widespread, immediate action that will ensure clean air and water; climate and community resiliency; access to nature; and a sustainable environment. We also strongly back calls for a national commitment to environmental justice for all Americans, especially for those from underserved, vulnerable, and neglected groups that have historically borne the brunt of the ill-effects of environmental calamities. ASLA supports the underlying principles of the GND resolution that relate specifically to climate change and resilience, and we are pleased that it has served to stimulate public debate about the accelerating climate crisis.
We note that in addition to climate-related policies, the resolution also contains several recommendations about social and economic issues that are beyond the scope of the Society’s mandate and existing policies, matters about which we can take no formal position.
ASLA members can be assured that when the GND is translated into formal legislative proposals to reduce carbon emissions, make transformational changes to infrastructure, and create a robust 21st-century clean-energy economy, ASLA will be at the forefront of the fight to enact them into law. We firmly believe that landscape architects must take a leadership role in planning and designing sustainable, resilient communities and ASLA, without question, will do its part to bring the climate principles of the Green New Deal to fruition.
ASLA is pleased that the Green New Deal resolution has significantly expanded the scope and intensity of the dialogue about climate change and we are extremely gratified that the Society’s report mirrors its major climate and infrastructure goals and we look forward to the legislative proposals that will stem from it.