Most Popular DIRT Posts of 2017


As we look forward to covering new stories on the built and natural environments this year, here’s a look back at the 10 most popular DIRT posts of 2017. Coverage of conferences, including the American Planning Association (APA), Greenbuild, Earth Optimism Summit, and Biophilic Leadership Summit, attracted the greatest interest. And news on the health benefits of nature and the fate of Modernist landscapes were widely read.

Always worth mentioning: We are looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners, on topics that inspire you. If interested, please email us at

1) DesignIntelligence 2017 Landscape Architecture Program Rankings

DesignIntelligence recently announced its 2017 landscape architecture graduate and undergraduate program rankings. For the third year in a row, Louisiana State University (LSU) was deemed the best undergraduate landscape architecture program. And for the 13th consecutive year, Harvard University retained its dominance as the best graduate program, in the annual survey conducted by DesignIntelligence on behalf of the Design Futures Council.

2) Best Podcasts for Landscape Architects

Over the past decade, podcasts have emerged as a popular storytelling platform and captivating way to learn more about the world around us.
Podcasts offer a source of inspiration for designers exploring other disciplines and seeking fresh perspective within their own. For landscape architects, podcasts reveal new opportunities and ways of thinking about the way we design space.

3) New Ruralism: Solutions for Struggling Small Towns

New Urbanism is a well-known movement that aims to create more walkable communities. Less known is New Ruralism, which is focused on the preservation and enhancement of rural communities beyond the edge of metropolitan regions. Small towns now part of this nascent movement seek to define themselves on their own terms, not just in relation to nearby cities. These towns are more than “just food sheds for metro areas,” explained Peg Hough, Vermont, planner and environmental advocate with, at the American Planning Association (APA) annual conference in New York City. Representatives from three northeastern states — Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire — explained how the principles of New Ruralism can help suffering communities.

4) Harnessing the Power of Nature to Improve Our Cities

People feel happier, healthier, and more social when they engage with nature. Their cognitive abilities go up and stress levels go down. So why is nature so often thought to be found only “out there” in the wilderness, or perhaps suburbia? For Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia, nature should be found everywhere, but especially in cities. Cities must remain dense and walkable, but they can be unique, memorable places only when they merge with nature. If well planned and designed, a city’s forests, waterfronts, parks, gardens, and streets can make out-sized contributions to the health and well-being of everyone who lives there. In his latest excellent book, the Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, Beatley brings together all the established science, the important case studies, the innovative code and design practices from around the world in one place. Even if you think you already know a lot about how best to incorporate nature into cities, there will be some interesting new facets in this book for you to explore.

5) Serenbe’s New Wellness District Features a Food Forest

Deep in the woods southwest of Atlanta, Serenbe is a unique designed community — a mixed-use development, with clusters of villages comprised of townhouses and apartments fueled by solar panels and heated and cooled by geothermal systems, and vast open spaces with organic farms, natural waste water treatment systems, and preserved forests. A leader in the “agrihood” movement, which calls for agriculture-centric community development, Serenbe is now moving into wellness with its new development called Mado.

6) What We Still Don’t Know about the Health Benefits of Nature

We know that connecting with nature is good for us, but there are still many questions that need to be answered through more credible scientific research: What is the ideal “dose” of nature? What health conditions do these doses actually help with? Does duration and frequency of dose matter? How long do the benefits last? Does who you are and where you live impact how beneficial exposure to nature will be? And how does technology help or interfere with our connection to nature?

7) Are Modernist Landscapes Worth Saving?

As our cities evolve, and what people want from their public spaces changes, should Modernist parks, plazas, and streets be saved? For lovers of Modernism, the answer is always yes. But, in reality, if the public, and their representatives, choose to keep these spaces, many will need to better respond to contemporary expectations. The question then is how can they be “respectfully honored and adapted?,” asked Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, in an event at the National Building Museum at Washington, D.C.

8) The Biophilic Design Movement Takes Shape (Part 1)

While green infrastructure is needed to manage stormwater and cool the air in our cities, these systems, as currently designed, aren’t enough. In the future, they must also boost biodiversity and help forge richer connections between humans and nature, argued a set of policymakers, academics, planners, and landscape architects, who are part of the nascent biophilic design movement. At the Biophilic Leadership Summit, which was hosted at Serenbe, an agricultural community outside of Atlanta, and organized by the Biophilic Institute, the Biophilic Cities Project, and Serenbe founder Steven Nygren, the main themes of biophilic urban planning and design were explored in an effort to achieve greater definition. Much work, however, still needs to be done to codify, measure, and popularize the strategies discussed.

9) Lessons Learned from the First Generation of Net-zero Communities

The first generation of net-zero communities, which were designed to add no carbon to the atmosphere, are entering their second decade. Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) in London is about 15 years old now; and the first phase of Dockside Green in Victoria, Canada, is now 10 years old. In a session at the 2017 Greenbuild in Boston, Steven Dulmage with Urban Equation and Justin Downey at RNWL outlined lessons learned from these early sustainable communities and how they informed second-generation developments, such as Zibi in Ottawa, Canada, and Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

10) Reasons to Be Optimistic about the Future of the Environment (Part 1)

“It’s easy to be cynical or pessimistic” about the the state of the global environment, said David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian, at the opening of the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C. “We’re not blind to the realities, but if organizations and individuals work together, obstacles can be overcome.” Over three days, an audience of 1,400 heard one inspiring environmental success story after another. While no one forgot that climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem degradation have created a global environmental emergency, there was a concerted effort to change the narrative — from one of relentless anger and despair to one of progress and a cautious optimism about the future. The goal was to highlight was is working today and figure out the ways to replicate and scale up successes.

Book Review: Paradoxes of Green


Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State, a new book by Gareth Doherty, ASLA, director of the masters in landscape architecture program at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, is a successful hybrid of landscape writing and ethnography focused on the island nation of Bahrain. It presents a portrait of Bahrainis’ rich and evolving relationship with their landscape as well as a model for future studies.

“Landscape, when perceived through color, reveals aspects of relationships previously hidden,” Doherty writes in his book’s introduction. Paradoxes’ main inquiry is into Bahrain’s relationship with the color green. Why green? Because it’s associated with greenery, and greenery “is at the heart of the political struggles over the land,” Doherty tells us. Why Bahrain? “Bahrain is small.” Good enough.

While Doherty’s approach may seem like a gimmick, the results are truly novel. Situated in the milieu of ethnography, Doherty spends a year in Bahrain speaking with laborers, real estate developers, farmers, and government officials, constructing a forensic composite of green. The book satisfyingly explores green’s tendencies, as well as the social and built infrastructures that support it.

Green carpet of house in Gafool, Manama. Photo by Gareth Doherty / University of California Press

If green is the book’s central character, then the central conflict revolves around water and its accompanying politics. Bahrain is seeking to maximize its green space and improve its sustainability metrics — these are admirable but directly conflicting goals. As it is, almost half of Bahrain’s freshwater goes towards watering lawns and washing cars in the hot, dusty city-state. Doherty figures that parks and roadside planting strips need 18 liters of water per day per square meter. Would Bahrain’s leaders be open to using grey water or native desert vegetation to conserve precious freshwater? That’s a step too far, at least for now. But as water’s strategic relevance overtakes oil’s in the Gulf, attitudes will change.

Before oil and the unsustainable pursuit of beautification in the form of lawns and noodle-shaped beaches, Bahrain’s green was most prominent in the form of date palm groves. The groves have diminished over the last century, but Doherty finds them still incredibly impactful. Their grey-green fronds stand in stark contrast to the surrounding environment, and their presence creates a micro-climate in the desert. In the past, the groves supported a culture that saw farmers name their trees as they would children. Their decline has coincided with the rise of residential compounds, some with green-painted roofs. Needless to say, Doherty is skeptical if this paint represents fair compensation for what’s been lost.

Fig 57.Tif
Water channel, 1963, from Glob and the Garden of Eden. Torkil Funder, Moesgaard Museum / University of California Press

Doherty insists on walking to get where he’s going in Bahrain. He meticulously catalogs his encounters with green, and walking allows him to encounter very many. This penchant recalls similar tendencies in the writers Bruce Chatwin and Rory Stewart. Both are known for their travel writing (and, to greater and lesser extents, their interest in the Middle East).

Intentionally or not, there’s an element of the travelogue in Paradoxes. It’s no Road to Oxiana, nor does it aspire to be. It’s undeniable the book has benefited from its glimpses into Bahraini culture and life. Future writings on landscape would benefit from an ethnographic, travelogue approach.

Landscape Architecture in the News (September 1 – 15)

At the home of Carole Olshan, trumpet vines form an arch over a bench in a kitchen garden / Daniel Gonzalez for The New York Times

How Does the Hamptons Garden Grow? With a Lot of Paid Help The New York Times, 9/5/17
“The rigors of vegetable gardening, for most people, are humble and gritty: planting, weeding, dirtying knees, working up a sweat and maybe straining a back muscle or two.”

Field Operations, OLIN, West 8 Among Finalists to Redesign Philly Airport Landscape Curbed Philadelphia, 9/6/17
“The Philadelphia International Airport and the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society (PHS) have announced the five finalists in their competition to redesign 130 acres of land around the airport—and it’s a doozy of a list that includes at least two Philly-based landscape architecture firms.”

How a South African Artist Blends Art and UrbanizationCityLab, 9/12/17
“In much of her work, Svea Josephy, an associate professor at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, examines how urbanization can be explored through art.”

The Suburb of the Future, Almost Here The New York Times, 9/15/17
“The suburbanization of America marches on. That movement includes millennials, who, as it turns out, are not a monolithic generation of suburb-hating city dwellers.”

Here Are Some of Our Favorite PARK(ing) Day Interventions The Architect’s Newspaper, 9/15/17
“This year, the American Society of Landscape Architects asked landscape architects all over the country to invest their quarters on temporary, miniature green spaces. Here are some of our favorites from the #ASLAPD17 hashtag on social media.”

Cities and Biodiversity Hotspots on Collision Course

The western hemisphere’s conflict zones / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World,

Nearly 400 cities around the world are currently on a crash course with irreplaceable ecosystems, according to new research from Richard Weller, ASLA, professor and chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, and researchers Claire Hoch and Chieh Huang. Weller shared his findings at the launch for the Atlas for the End of World, which maps these biologically-rich areas and the threats they face.

Agriculture and urbanization, fueled by population increase, pose the greatest threats to these ecosystems. Weller’s team discovered the coming conflict zones by overlaying cities’ 2030 growth projections with maps of threatened species’ habitats.

Some 142 nations preside over biological hotspots. Under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, a multilateral treaty that sets guidelines for protecting biological assets, each signatory nation must set forth a strategy for protecting its biologically-rich areas. Using the Atlas, a country’s officials can determine where they should focus their conservation efforts.

Global conservation efforts have been underway for some time. Policies have been enacted to protect certain species and rehabilitate or fence off biologically-rich habitat. One of the Atlas’ maps visualizes all large-scale restoration projects, both planned and underway, globally. These efforts are “historically unprecedented and mark an evolutionary paradigm shift,” Weller said.

But, unfortunately, these conservation efforts are also fragmented and diminished in impact, as most occur outside of the hotspots. Weller drove this point home with an image of what he termed a “global archipelago,” the Earth’s landmass minus its unprotected areas. The result of this subtraction is a system of small, isolated patches of conserved land.

What’s left of the world’s biodiversity in protected areas / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World,

For conservation to have a meaningful impact, it must protect biologically-rich areas, and these areas must connect with one another. A new era of large-scale landscape planning is needed.

Complicating the issue, Weller acknowledged, is the fact that many hotspots occur within countries struggling with poverty and corruption. The man who logs illegally for lack of other work won’t abide by policies that favor habitat over his family.

At the launch, Eugenie Birch, professor of urban research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, suggested the protection of hotspots was tied up not just with food production and development, but larger themes of inequality and conflict. Solving conflicts would help to solve the other issues.

Weller emphasized the Atlas’s goals are modest. To solve the complex issues facing these hotspots, planners and landscape architects must get on the ground and work with stakeholders to intelligently guide development. Now, at least, they have maps to point them in the right direction.

Read Weller’s summary of the research.

Serenbe’s New Wellness District Features a Food Forest

Deep in the woods southwest of Atlanta, Serenbe is a unique designed community — a mixed-use development, with clusters of villages comprised of townhouses and apartments fueled by solar panels and heated and cooled by geothermal systems, and vast open spaces with organic farms, natural waste water treatment systems, and preserved forests. A leader in the “agrihood” movement, which calls for agriculture-centric community development, Serenbe is now moving into wellness with its new development called Mado.

On a tour of the new town, which will add 480 homes, including some assisted living cottages, to the 1,400 that already house some 3,500 people, Serenbe founder Steven Nygren explained how his vision of wellness was inspired by the sustainable Swedish city of Malmö. He and his wife Marie traveled there, and they brought back lots of photographs, which they then gave to their planners, architects, and landscape architects.

The community now under construction is organized around common spaces set in gardens. Nygren fears a scenario in which you have two older residents out on their porches, but both are waiting for the other to invite them over. In Mado, the ground-level shared patios may create more opportunities for interaction.

Also, Nygren reached an interesting conclusion from his trip to Malmö: “They always connect streets into nature.” He decided to recreate that relationship in Mado, organizing the housing and common spaces along a central axis with ends that extend into nature trails.

Mado development plan / Rhinehart Pulliam & Company, LLC

Once this central organizational structure was decided upon, they brought in landscape architect and University of Georgia professor Alfred Vick, ASLA, who then created an innovative “food forest” to realize the concept of wellness in landscape form (see the bottom portion of the image above). It will function as an accessible outdoor living room, given throughout the space the gradient is less than 5 percent. It’s also a place where people can gather and also learn how to forage in the wider Serenbe landscape (see a close-up of its design below).

Mado food forest / Solidago Design Solution, Inc.

Vick said his vision was of a “edible ecosystem, an intentional system for human food production.” Using the natural Piedmont ecosystem as the base, Vick is creating a designer ecosystem of edible or medicinal plants, with a ground layer, understory, and canopy that also incorporates plants with cultural meaning and a legacy of use by indigenous American Indian tribes.

He imagines visitors to the forest foraging for berries, fruits, and nuts, including serviceberries, blueberries, mulberries, and chickasaw plums, as well as acorn and hickory nuts, which can be processed and turned into foods. Mado residents and chefs can harvest the young, tender leaves of cutleaf coneflowers, which are related to black-eyed susans. Or reach up to an arbor, which will be covered in Muscadine grape vines and passion flowers. Or take some Jerusalem artichokes, which were used by Cherokee Indians and today cooked as a potato substitute. Or pluck rosemary or mint from an herb circle. Vick left out peach and apple trees because they require fungicides.

“The primary goal is to engage residents,” Vick explained. There will be interpretive guides to explain how plants can be consumed, which will also “help encourage wider foraging when they are out in the Serenbe landscape.” Nygren wants everyone in the community connected to the productive cycle of nature and to know when the serviceberries, blueberries, figs are ready to be picked.

And the landscape is also designed to both provide a safe boundary — so grandparents can let kids roam — but also provide a natural extension into the rest of the landscape. While the Mado designs are still being developed, we hope that universal design principles, which call for fully-accessible seating and nearby restrooms, will be incorporated to ensure an 80-year old as well as an 8-year old can comfortably access and enjoy the landscape.

Learn more about Serenbe in this interview conducted with Nygren in 2015.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (April 1 – 15)

The Chicago Riverwalk / Christian Phillips

Sasaki Unveils Design for Sunqiao, a 100-Hectare Urban Farming District in Shanghai Arch Daily, 4/2/2017
“With nearly 24 million inhabitants to feed and a decline in the availability and quality of agricultural land, the Chinese megacity of Shanghai is set to realize the Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District, a 100-hectare masterplan designed by US-based firm Sasaki Associates.”

New Urban Parks and Public Spaces to See in 2017 Curbed, 4/3/2017
“The urban park, from well-manicured, small lots in residential neighborhoods to massive, city-defining landmarks such as Central Park, have long been centerpieces of city life. But in an age of climate change and evolving urban-planning concepts, parks are being viewed through many different lenses.”

Dallas Approves Construction of a New 3-acre Park in Former Downtown Parking Lot Arch Daily, 4/6/2017
“Joni Mitchell, Dallas has heard you. The City Council of Dallas has decided to un-pave a 3.2-acre parking lot—in place since 1921—and put up a paradise in the form of Pacific Plaza Park.”

Homeowners Want Their Landscapes to Stand Out on the Block Houston Chronicle, 4/7/17
“The backyard was once just about having trees, shrubs and annuals for pops of color. Today local landscape architects and designers say that stylish outdoor spaces are getting as much consideration as the homes they’re attached to.”

The 11th Street Bridge Park Isn’t Just a Vanity Project The Washingtonian, 4/12/17
“The 11th Street Bridge Park will physically connect both sides of the Anacostia River. It’s a 1,200-foot-long, pedestrian-only expanse that will let people stroll between Capitol Hill and Anacostia. The big question is whether it will socially connect them.”

You Should Care About Preserving This Lake Park BridgeMilwaukee Magazine, 4/12/17
“Do Milwaukeeans care about their Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parks and the current and potential value they offer? If the answer is yes, the debate about preserving the elegant Ravine Road Bridge in Lake Park deserves the attention of every concerned citizen.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 1 – 15)

The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative / Image: Michelle & Chris Gerard

America’s First Sustainable Urban Agrihood Is Growing in Detroit Curbed Detroit, 12/1/16
“This week, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) revealed its plans for the first Sustainable Urban Agrihood in the North End.”

Living with the Legacy of Capability BrownThe Telegraph, 12/5/16
“The rolling terrain of this part of flat-landed Lincolnshire is not of the Exeters’ making, but Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s, the world’s most famous landscape architect, who worked on the estate from 1754.”

Will the South Bronx Be Getting a Hudson Yards of its Own? The Architect’s Newspaper, 12/7/16
“New York State has announced it will cap a South Bronx railyard and build a large development on top to energize the borough’s economy.”

Celebrating a Rousing Year, From Public Spaces to Preservation The Chicago Tribune, 12/8/16
“Even without the global spotlight that accompanied last year’s first edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2016 was rousing year for the art of architecture in Chicago.”

Sexy Infrastructure and Other Notable Developments in 2016 The Huffington Post, 12/12/16
“Judging by the heaps of praise for projects, including Governors Island in New York City, Chicago’s Navy Pier, the Lower Rainier Vista at the University of Washington in Seattle, and plans for Dallas’ hugely ambitious 10,000-acre nature district, infrastructure is sexy.”

The Design Opportunities of Agriculture

Farmers at Grow Dat Farm Claire Bangser
Farmers at Grow Dat Farm / Claire Bangser

In New Orleans’ City Park, Grow Dat Youth Farm nurtures young leaders through the important and meaningful work of growing food. Started in 2011 on 4 acres, the program has grown to 7 acres and produces 20,000 pounds of produce a year. It is a successful operation, to be sure. Yet, as Johanna Gilligan, with Grow Dat, said at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, the farm struggles with systemic issues, something a thoughtful landscape architect could help them solve.

Garden Plots / Grow Dat Youth Farm
Agricultural Plots / Grow Dat Youth Farm

Landscape architects are “generalists and synthesizers who design in complexity,” said Connie Migliazza, ASLA, WRT San Francisco. The skill set of the landscape architect is perfectly suited to agriculture: they are trained to understand both the human and large scales, grading and drainage, and the importance of cultural interpretation of the land. They can manipulate the land for better use and provide “tactical interventions that can improve biodiversity and water usage.”

Unfortunately, said Migliazza, the profession sees agriculture in a dichotomy of scales – either the small scale of raised-bed urban agriculture, or large-scale industrial operations. Between the two scales, “there is an opportunity to intervene.”

Farmer and rancher Kelly Mulville at Paicines Ranch agreed, urging action to improve agricultural systems. “This country’s biggest export is top soil,” which is washed away from farms at an alarming rate each year. Unless something changes, said Mulville, “we probably only have 60 years of top soil left.” Plus, climate change is only worsening the overall situation.

Agricultural Fields at Paicines Rangh / The Sustainable Sweet and Savory Gourmet
Agricultural Fields at Paicines Ranch / The Sustainable Sweet and Savory Gourmet

Mulville has put landscape architects’ tool box to use in his work at vineyards and ranches —  bio-dynamic thinking, plants for pollinators, systems to improve water penetration in soils – but he’s doing so without design.

On Paicinces Ranch, Mulville adopted an approach of “ecosystem mimicry,” which involves diversifying crops, adding cattle for grazing, and using sheep to handle the suckers on the vines and weeding between the rows. The system is deceptively easy: “sheep plus sun,” he joked.

Sheep at the Vineyard / Paicines Ranch
Sheep at the Vineyard / Paicines Ranch

However, the results are nothing to laugh at: there has been a 90 percent reduction in irrigation, a 1,260 pound per year increase in yields, and a $450 per year savings per acre.

Mulville challenged landscape architects to engage in agricultural projects with “principle-based holistic design.” Landscape architects and designers can “design for management, ecosystem mimicry, beauty, economic and social factors, and quality of life.” The designed beauty of our agricultural lands — as well as the joy that comes from growing and producing food in such a setting — can help prevent agricultural lands from being industrialized.

Just as design can stabilize agriculture, agriculture can be used to stabilize the edge of our urban areas. Sibella Kraus, with SAGE: Sustainable Agriculture Education, invited landscape architects and designers to promote the idea of “new ruralism.” Rather than letting the edges of our cities sprawl out into suburbia, gobbling agricultural lands through development, new ruralism is intentional, multi-value agriculture at the urban edge.

Kraus used Coyote Valley outside of San Jose, California, as a case study. Located in the Santa Clara Valley, and originally one of California’s best producers of fruit, Coyote Valley had been “declared dead,” and was slated for a new housing development as the city spread outwards.

Coyote Valley's St Joseph Meadow / Sun Valley Trekking
Coyote Valley’s St Joseph Meadow / Sun Valley Trekking

Not wanting to lose the Valley to development and believing in the stabilizing good of agriculture, SAGE researched the area and discovered where the land could be farmed and the appropriate size and scale of croplands that could be added. The study called for the “revitalization of specialty crop agriculture” and found the region would gain $1.6 – $3.9 billion per year in tourism, a sustainable and permanent local agriculture, and the conservation of land.

Discover Coyote Valley / SAGE
Discover Coyote Valley / SAGE

The question is: how do you monetize these plans? Here, again, a call for the landscape architect. Kraus echoed Mulville in the need for beauty and design to save our agricultural lands. “What we need is a designed plan for the Valley.” Landscape architects could present an “in-depth assessment.”

As Mulville said, farmers have on-the-ground knowledge, but “what they are missing is design.” Farming done well, much like landscape architecture, is a genius melding of art, science, and place. The opportunities for designers are abundant.

Highways Can Help Pollinators Return to Health

Compost-spreading tactics to encourage native plants that both control erosion and attract pollinators / Caltrans

In the face of rapidly-declining honeybee populations, farms across the country are under threat. In California, officials are now pioneering new methods to boost the health of the honeybees and butterflies, according to a recent Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. To reiterate the importance of these efforts, Congressman Jeff Denham, who is also an almond farmer, said at the briefing: “making sure we have healthy pollinators is critical to a state like California.”

There to discuss these pioneering methods was Keith Robinson, ASLA, principal of the landscape architecture program at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). The purview of Robinson and the 240 landscape architects he leads is roadsides. Their primary job is to control erosion. But Robinson and his team have seized on that mandate to boost the health of pollinators along California’s 250,000 acres of highway roadside.

Robinson said it all starts with the soil. “We are prioritizing the improvement of soil quality on every single project. We want to make sure that soil sustains native plants and creates favorable conditions that encourage pollinator plants to not only to grow but thrive.”

Robinson’s team began this effort by performing studies on the optimal amount of compost that can be included in the soil. Compost “gets things moving along, and then the natural process takes over.” The right amount of compost allows native species to out-compete non-natives, foregoing the need for many herbicides that might negatively impact pollinators. Robinson’s team realized they could use Caltrans’ often-idle snow blowers to spread compost.

Another innovative step taken by Robinson’s team was the development of native grass sod, or pre-packaged grass carpet. “With native grass, the thinking was you can’t cut the roots and expect the plant to grow. But we’ve proved that it works.” Native grasses not only help erosion control, they encourage pollinators. “If you compare this solution to what we used to do, which was put straw down on top of compacted soil and hope for the best, you can see we’re moving down a path towards natural solutions,” Robinson said.

In addition to these steps, Caltrans ramped up planting pollinator-friendly plant species along highways. TransPLANT, an online tool, helps landscape architects choose sustainable, pollinator-friendly plants for their own projects.

Whether these effort can benefit pollinators fast enough is unknown. Robinson noted no studies have been performed on pollinator habitat health in state highway rights-of-way. And a recent study done by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation found that monarch butterfly populations in California have declined 74 percent in the past two decades.

Monarch butterfly /
Monarch butterfly / Public Domain

Another speaker, Eric Silva, American Honey Producers Association, expressed resignation that reversing the trend on bee populations was a losing battle. “We’re losing half the bees over the course of the year.” The environmental culprits are relatively well-known: pesticides and chemicals, habitat loss, and pests.

Robinson offered hope for the future. His team has developed an online roadside management toolbox that helps other transportation departments learn from Caltrans’ methods. The site has tens of thousands of visitors in the U.S., but has also gotten healthy traffic from countries such as India and Canada.

And regarding the future of roadside planting, Robinson envisions hyper-local roadside ecosystems that include native as well as non-native, well-adapted species. “The pollinator and native plant advocates have voiced their appreciation for our efforts,” Robinson added. “I don’t think the public is as aware of what we are doing yet.”

Detroit Aims for Food Sovereignty

Plum street market garden / Jared Green
Plum street market garden / Jared Green

There are 165 acres of urban gardens and farms under cultivation in Detroit, Michigan. In a tour, Ken Weikal, ASLA, co-founder of the non-profit GrowTown and the firm Hagenbuch Weikal Landscape Architecture, explained that everyone from Capuchin Monks to non-profit cooperatives, university labs to self-sufficient farmers, corporations to small businesses are involved in using Detroit’s vacant lands to produce food. The goals of these efforts are to increase food production “for Detroiters and by Detroiters,” generate new sources of income, and build community. The grand, long-term vision: “food sovereignty” for this resurgent rust-belt city.

A few farms we toured downtown were examples of corporate social responsibility efforts — spaces for company employees to volunteer. For example, an empty lot next to the MGM Grand casino and hotel in downtown Detroit was transformed into Plum Street Market Garden, where everyone volunteering the day we went was wearing an MGM employee t-shirt (see image above). The 2-acre garden produces 20 types of fruits and vegetables. MGM has invested some $600,000 in the project so far, and partnered with Keep Growing Detroit, a local non-profit, to hold some 60 community classes there a year.

Another example is Lafayette Greens, a nearly half-acre garden set in the empty lot where once stood the historic Lafayette building. The garden was financed and administered by Compuware Corporation, which has its headquarters a block away, but is now run by the Greening of Detroit, a non-profit. Designed by Beth Hagenbuch, ASLA, a partner at Hagenbuch Weikal Landscape Architecture, the market garden won an ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award. Weikal said the garden helped start the conversation downtown among everyone from policy-makers to school kids and tourists about the opportunities with urban gardening.

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Heirloom apple trees line one edge of the garden. “They have ornamental, productive, and screening qualities.”

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Within the garden, raised beds, with smart benches at the end, grow a range of herbs and vegetables. “The beds are programmed like a museum exhibition but for flavor and color. They are vegetal exhibitions.”

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Sheds made of reclaimed wood house gardening tools and supplies.

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Detroit’s bottom-up food movement was the focus of a session at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). Ashley Atkinson, who runs Keep Growing Detroit, explained that urban farming and gardening is not a new thing in Detroit. In the 1890s, Republican Mayor Pinzen Stuart Pingree, who was elected to four terms, encouraged the poor and hungry to grow food. “He was the laughing stock of the country, but hunger was reduced dramatically.” Urban farming was seen as “low value, low education work,” but decades later, during World War I and World War II, nearly “every major city practiced urban farming.”

The mission of Keep Growing Detroit is food sovereignty in Detroit. “We want the majority of food vegetables in Detroit to be grown by Detroiters.” Her goal is to transform some 40 square miles of vacant land in the city into productive assets. Keep Growing doesn’t differentiate between “family gardens, school or market gardens.”

In 2003, Keep Growing Detroit started a garden resource program to grow seeds and transplants. They had to build this whole system from the ground-up, because “no one knew where to get these.” They now grow 250,000 organic transplants a year that are given away to the community. “We distribute them equitably” through local educational workshops and training sessions. In every district of the city, local farmers lead these training sessions. There are also tool sheds where hand tools and shovels can be borrowed for free, and compost centers where some 200 tons of compost worth $1.5 million is also distributed at no charge. And “we use shared work days and community events to build community infrastructure. Plus, we eat a lot together.”

Keep Growing Detroit education and transplant distribution / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit education and transplant distribution / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit family demonstration garden / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit family demonstration garden / Keep Growing Detroit

Her group then formed Grown in Detroit, a collaborative network of some 80 gardeners and farmers who sell their produce at farmers markets and to local restaurants. According to Atkinson, “some $100,000 is made and 100 percent of that money goes to the growers.” There is also a network of 1,400 community gardeners who help bring healthy food to the neighborhoods. They are part of an effort to establish healthy eating behavior among very young children. “If we can introduce healthy food recipes and cooking at a young age, we can impact them their whole lives.”

Grown in Detroit produce at Eastern Market, Detroit / Seed sow grow
Grown in Detroit produce at Eastern Market, Detroit / Seed sow grow

In 2013, the Detroit city government finally changed regulations so urban farming is now legal. While Atkinson considers that a win, she has a much broader vision: 25 percent of the 40 square miles of vacant land, which is some 5,000 acres, under cultivation. With that much farming, “we can produce 70 percent of the vegetables and 40 percent of the fruit consumed in Detroit and raise incomes.”

Urban farm, Detroit / Jared Green
Urban farm, Detroit / Jared Green

Devita Davidson, who heads communications for FoodLab Detroit, made the moral argument for local food production. “If you look closely at the supermarket, it’s a facade. The industrial food system is the site of injustice; the food system is failing so many people.” While she sees Detroit as the “comeback city,” she still sees major issues: 70 percent of adults are obese as are 40 percent of kids. “Detroit is dying from diet-related diseases.” She wants some of those locally-grown fruits and vegetables to be transformed into value-added products like ketchups, salsas, jams, and sauces. Her group’s innovative effort — Detroit Kitchen Connect, which was been lauded by Oprah Winfrey — enables local entrepreneurs to use restaurant, church, and other facility kitchens during off-hours to develop their products. Such a smart variation on the sharing economy, with food justice and social equity at its heart.

Devita Davidson, Detroit Kitchen Connect / Be a
Devita Davidson, Detroit Kitchen Connect / Be a

And Pashon Murray, a co-founder of Detroit Dirt, sees access to good-quality compost as central to the entire food sovereignty effort. She said Americans are incredibly wasteful, disposing of $218 billion in uneaten food, which is then dumped into landfills. “Some 52 million tons of food waste is sent to landfills each year, while 10 million tons is just left in the fields.” Much of that food waste can instead be collected and turned into compost, revitalizing soils in the process. Plus, “waste recovery equals revenue and jobs.”

Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / Twenty Ten Club
Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / Twenty Ten Club

She has partnered with GM and Chrysler, collecting their food waste from factory cafeterias weekly and turning it into compost that is then distributed to local gardeners and farmers. To do this work, she hires ex-cons, “people we associate with dirt, the forgotten and left-behind.”

Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / The Detroit Hub
Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / The Detroit Hub

Her dream is to raise enough funds for an “in-vessel composter digester” that will help her scale up compost production. She hopes to realize this in 2017. “Compost is the root of the soil, and soil is the foundation.”