COVID-19: An Opportunity for More Equitable Public Transportation

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

By Diane Jones Allen, FASLA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biodiversity and Pandemic Diseases (or How We Came to Know Our World in 2020)

Infectious disease outbreaks in North America / Health Map

By Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA

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.

When E.O. Wilson published Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life in 2016 and established the Half Earth Project, it sounded crazy to economists and governments to say we should protect half the earth’s land and seas from development.

Half Earth Project

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 can educate 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.

Lyme disease in California / Kristina Hill

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.

Parc Henri Matisse in Lille, France / Gilles Clément

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.

How Can We Design with Communities While Apart?

Video can be a reciprocal tool for designers and community members to document observations and share posts for discussions. This media was explored by Nicky Bloom, a Mithun landscape designer, in her University of Washington College of the Built Environment thesis called “Tideflat Tales.” / Nicky Bloom

By Deb Guenther, FASLA

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.

An exploration of site analysis through accessible media of video and audio suggests these tools can create more emotive connections and understanding of sites. “Tideflat Tales” / Nicky Bloom
Temporary art by local students installed along shared public trails raise spirits and awareness and builds pride around community participation. / Mithun

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.

Design intentional, substantive participation experiences

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.

Smart Lighting? Not So Fast!

Demonstrators pull down a smart lamppost during a protest in Hong Kong. / AP Photo/Kin Cheung

By Linnaea Tillett

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.”

Example of a more traditional post top lantern lamppost model designed for data collection. / Jeanne Choi, Tillett Lighting Design Associates
Example of a contemporary light column lamppost model designed for data collection. / Jeanne Choi, Tillett Lighting Design Associates

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.

This guest post is by Linnaea Tillett, PhD, founder and principal of Linnaea Tillett Lighting Design Associates. Tillett is a lighting designer, environmental psychologist, and public artist. She was on the faculty at The New School: Parsons School of Design for 15 years.

ASLA 2020 Conference on Landscape Architecture Call for Presentations

Miami Beach soundscape by West 8 / copyright Robin Hill

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, 2020 at 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.

To coordinate proposals and network with potential speakers, we encourage you to use the Call for Presentations Google group.

Please visit the submission site to learn more about criteria, the review process, and key dates.

Submit your session proposal today.

This post is by Katie Riddle, ASLA, director of professional practice at ASLA.

Nature-based Solutions Are Our Best Defense Against Climate Impacts

Climate Ready East Boston / Stoss Landscape Urbanism,

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.”

In 2017, ASLA convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience that produced a report called Smart Policies for a Changing Climate. The report identifies the following core principles, key planning and design strategies, and public policies that will promote healthy, climate-smart, and resilient communities.

And we didn’t stop there. Just this year, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, ASLA opened our Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Exhibition and website – a demonstration of 20 case studies that show the report’s recommendations at work. From Boston’s multi-billion dollar investment to protect itself from sea level rise and severe storms, to Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Promenade, which is designed to contain greater floodwater, to New Orleans Redevelopment Authority’s community adaptation program, these cases are just a few across the country and around the world that showcase how landscape architects can us nature-based solutions to mitigate the effects of a changing climate.

ASLA 2009 Professional Award of Excellence in General Design, Buffalo Bayou Promenade, SWA Group/Bill Tatham.
Community Adaptation Program in Gentilly, New Orleans, Louisiana / Design Jones, LLC.

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

We Are Designing the Earth, Whether You Like It or Not

“The Monk by the Sea” by Caspar David Friedrich (1808) / Wikimedia

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 Nature and 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.

Big Wilds

• 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

Urban Futures

• Willamette River Basin Oregon, USA
• Qianhai Water City Shenzhen, China
• Envision Utah Salt Lake City Region, USA
• Medellin, Colombia
• Barcelona Metropolitan Region Plan, Spain

Toxic Lands

• Emscher Landscape Park, Ruhr Valley, Germany
• Stapleton, Denver Colorado, USA
• Freshkills Park, New York, USA
• Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London, England

Rising Waters

• 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

Fresh Waters

• 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.

Suomi NPP launch by NASA/Bill Ingalls, public domain via NASA.gov

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.”

Design with Nature Now / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2019

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 book Global Change and the Earth System, published in 2005. It is to the Anthropocene what the encyclopedia was to the Enlightenment.

Global Change and the Earth System / Springer

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.

Montage of book covers and keywords related to the Anthropocene / Richard Weller

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).

Global Landscape Connectivity Projects / Richard Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang

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.

Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative / Y2Y.net
Great Green Wall / United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

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.

Framework for national security ecological patterns / Turenscape
Ecological security pattern for biodiversity conservation / Turenscape

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.

Contextually calibrated alternatives for passive sediment management for Lorain, Ohio / Sean Burkholder and Brian Davis: Healthy Port Futures

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.

Zandmotor by Rijkswaterstaat

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.

The Case for Quality Public Spaces for All

Palaces for the People / Random house

“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.”

Over time, a mutual trust or friendship develops, and maybe even a life-saving connection. A public space like this playground, where interactions are sparked, differences are spanned, and, as a result, communities are strengthened is what sociologist Eric Klinenberg would call a piece of “social infrastructure.” In a recent Oculus book talk at the Center for Architecture in New York City, Klinenberg discussed his recent book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life.

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.

Highbridge Park Pool in Washington Heights / NYC Parks and Recreation
Washington Square Park, NYC / Wikipedia

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).

East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government

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.

Roberto Burle Marx Takes over the New York Botanical Garden

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.

New York Botanical Garden: The Living Art of Burle Marx / NYBG

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.

Sitio Roberto Burle Marx / Flickr
Google Earth view of Roberto Burle Marx’s Gardens of the Ministry of the Army in Brasilia / Adam Nathaniel Furman on Twitter

In describing what Burle Marx was up against, Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA, author of Depositions: Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes Under Dictatorship, traced the long history of incursions into the Brazilian hinterlands by cattle, rubber, and paper industries intent on exploiting resources and taming the wilderness.

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.

Roberto Burle Marx with his head between two elephant’s ears leaves / NYBG

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.

Book Review: The Uninhabitable Earth

The Uninhabitable Earth / Tim Duggan Books

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.