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.”
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 Bridge – Milwaukee 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.”
Living with the Legacy of Capability Brown – The 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Heirloom apple trees line one edge of the garden. “They have ornamental, productive, and screening qualities.”
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.”
Sheds made of reclaimed wood house gardening tools and supplies.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
In the Penrose neighborhood of Detroit, two landscape architects, partners in business and life, are testing out a new for-profit model: the market garden. While Detroit has acres of non-profit-run farms growing fresh fruit and vegetables that are then donated to communities, Ken Weikal, ASLA, and Beth Hagenbuch, ASLA, who run GrowTown, want to show the residents of this poor community in Detroit and elsewhere that anyone can apply an intensive, efficient farming method to one-third of an acre, grow high-value produce in all four seasons, and make $50,000 – $70,000 a year.
But their market garden model is really just one component of a more ambitious plan they are leading in the community, with support from the Kresge Foundation, non-profits, affordable housing developers Sam Thomas and Cynthia and Joe Solaka, to create a “garden district.”
Penrose covers some 200 acres and about 335 homes, of which 10 percent are vacant. The area GrowTown and the developers are focused on, the Penrose Village housing community, comprises some 30 acres. The average income in the area is around $10,000 – $30,000 and some 26 – 37 percent live below the poverty line. Before GrowTown, a neighborhood design studio, got involved, there were few public spaces.
In 2013, GrowTown worked with school groups and architect Steve Flum to create a park, with neighborhood kids co-designing the layout and design of the space and the featured element: a serpent.
Across the street, the landscape architects worked with the kids to create a maze in the overgrown grasses of the empty lot, teaching them about history of these land puzzles in the process.
In both 2007 and 2013, sets of 30-plus affordable housing units were developed. Along with the later set of housing came a new farmhouse, a town meeting hall, which is right next to the demonstration market garden. There, Hagenbuch tends to her micro-greens every day, educating locals about how this intensive system works, and working alongside the Arab American and Caldean Council (AAC), which is also using the farm to educate the residents of Penrose about nutrition.
The farm will eventually be run independently by local farmers, but, in the meantime, Hagenbuch and Weikal are working hard to prove the four-season intensive growing model themselves, documenting all of their learning for a new toolkit funded by Kresge.
The tunnel house is open to the air in the spring and summer when it grows micro-greens, which sell great locally because they don’t travel well; tomatoes; and other high-value produce. In fall and winter, an extra layer of plastic is added to the top and the sides are closed up. Then, the mix changes to beets, kale, and swiss chard, which will grow in a Detroit winter, but at a slower rate.
Outside the tunnel house there are additional plots cultivated in warmer months. Future garden elements will include orchards, rows of berry bushes, and fruit-covered trellises.
For now, Hagenbuch sells her produce at local farmers’ markets, saying it’s too challenging to meet the stringent demands of restaurants’ timelines. While she earns hundreds per batch of micro-greens, she admitted that “it’s hard work to make money at this. You have to be very business-like about it.”
Weikal and Hagenbuch have a vision for these market farms taking root in a network in Penrose, creating a new kind of agricultural urban community. Weikal said: “If we had 10 of these market farms in Penrose, that’s a half million of year being generated in this community.”
They also think locals will buy the produce. “People want fresh food right in their neighborhood; they want to buy food from their neighbors,” said Weikal.
Still, they agree that there are some real obstacles, like a lack of understanding of their intensive SPIN farming method and a lack of commitment to these techniques. Furthermore, to really make this system work, farmers will need some fairly expensive equipment, like a walk-in cooler to store produce before market; a quick-green harvester, which enables growers to do 4 hours of micro-green harvesting in 5 minutes; and a flame weeder, which is needed to ensure weeds don’t sneak into empty plots. “There are some upfront costs associated with a tricked-out market garden,” Weikal explained. But all of this will be covered in the toolkit they are developing, and, hopefully, some loans or incentives can be offered to make these expenses less of a burden to new market farmers.
Weikal said that what they are trying to accomplish isn’t new. “In the 1880s, Paris had super-high density farms in the city. In the 20th century, during wars or disaster, many cities went to intensive farming. Today, in Cuba and Asia, a lot of food is grown in cities.” But he added that, “here in Detroit, where food is grown for social justice, the idea of farming for profit makes some people uncomfortable. ‘Is it inclusive?,’ they ask.”
But Hagenbuch and Weikal are thinking about long-term economic sustainability and a time when many of the foundations and non-profits have moved on to another city.
Designing agricultural landscapes that protect biodiversity has become a high priority for some landscape architects, scientists, and farmers. And designing the right collaborations can be just as important as designing for conservation itself. “There are some advances that can only occur through collaboration, which is why conservation requires design,” said Dr. James Gibbs, a conservation biologist and professor at SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting and Expo in Chicago. Gibbs shared his experience with master farmer Zachary Wolf and Thomas Woltz, FASLA, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, who worked together on Oakencroft Farm in Virginia and Overlook Farm in Pennsylvania.
Using “private land as their laboratory,” Gibbs, Wolf, and Woltz are collaborating to design a balance between agricultural production and ecological conservation on these farms. Each brings different expertise to the table, but their ultimate goal is to create landscapes that are not only productive and beautiful, but also biodiverse. The future of “biodiversity conservation lies in the intricacies of these working landscapes,” Gibbs said.
Achieving beauty is actually a central goal of the conservation projects. According to Gibbs, aesthetics is an essential ecosystem service. “We ask ourselves is this good for both biodiversity and aesthetics, or is there a trade-off? We think through the designs to answer this important question,” Gibbs said.
For landscape architect Woltz, combining forces to create landscapes that are both ecological and productive has shown him that “science and design belong together at every scale.” Before and after the ecological restoration projects on the farms, the team measures both ecological and agricultural production values. They then have a better understanding of the balance between the two goals. “We wanted to create a landscape that can be wild, productive, and expressive of this legacy of agricultural inheritance,” Wolf said.
The collaborators also treat these places with inherent respect and consider them cultural landscapes. These properties have cultural significance that requires re-interpretation “for the 20th century, but with a new set of values,” Woltz said.
Gibbs, Wolf, and Woltz credit the success of their efforts to their partnership. “Part of working together on these projects is admitting what you don’t know and building trust with different players,” Wolf said. “You can then step into the land with fresh eyes and assess the potential of these places.”
British writer and philosopher John Thackara, author of How to Thrive in the Next Economy, believes changes in the global society and economy now allow people to address environmental problems at a “bio-regional” scale. At the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago, he described the growth of bio-regional models that use social networks to create new forms of economic gain with significant environmental benefits. This transition to a bio-regional approach is already happening in a few sectors:
The local food movement is creating a shift of economic resources that has beneficial environmental impacts. To scale this local approach up the regional level, countries should take a “food commons approach.”
In a food commons, food distribution and retail are owned by a trust and governed by local stakeholders who manage the commons. This approach better connects local resources, so communities are able “to do things locally currently not done locally.”
Thackara looks to Denmark, where the Danish Food Cluster, founded in 2013, has facilitated regional collaboration between food companies in central Denmark. He argued that in this system, “improving the connections of an economic network is at the heart of its environmental impact.”
In order to better connect cities to their resource-rich countrysides, we need to reconsider how we get around, Thackara said. In Vienna, Austria, the idea of collaborative regional mobility has led to the Cargo Bike Collaborative, a donation-based bike sharing service that allows people to transport goods in a low-cost, sustainable way.
The idea of mobility as a fee-based service also has promise. While sharing mobility through services like Uber and Lyft is currently being “told in the language of hipsters in London, New York City, and Washington D.C. with not much attention to the environmental story,” Thackara said, the concept could be re-purposed at a regional scale in order to make transportation more sustainable. “Pay-per-use” frameworks could allow regions to save money on infrastructure in the long run. He said: “one calls upon all of these bits on infrastructure so you don’t necessarily need a car or as many roads at the bio-regional scale.”
A regional example: The Greenhorns, a non-profit organization run by young farmers, sailed a schooner filled with 11 tons of crops from Maine to Boston in August 2015.
Lastly, Thackara said we need to combine expanded regional networks with “an absolute militant search for answers.” This requires building a global knowledge network all people can access. Prototypes and maps mean nothing if people around the world cannot learn from them. “We need to build a story that gives meaning and purpose to young people. It must be more than a story that is just something we tell to each other around a campfire, but grounds for action.”
Greenwave, a non-profit organization transforming the fishing industry, was recently awarded the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI)’s 2015 challenge, which comes with a $100,000 prize. Greenwave’s winning project is the “world’s first multi-species 3-D ocean farm,” a vertical underwater garden that aims “to restore ocean ecosystems and create jobs in coastal communities by transforming fishers into restorative ocean farmers,” according to BFI. Using simple infrastructure — seaweed, scallops, and mussels growing on floating ropes stacked above clam cages below — Greenwave’s founder Bren Smith has created a low-cost, sustainable system that can be easily replicated by farmers and fishers everywhere.
Drawing comparisons to last years’s BFI challenge winner, Living Breakwaters, the first large-scale experiment with “oyster-tecture” by SCAPE / Landscape Architecture, Smith’s innovative ocean farm was inspired by his time farming oysters in the Long Island Sound. “Here I was a young fisherman, pillaging the oceans in one of the most unsustainable forms of food production on the planet. Aquaculture was supposed to be the great answer to over-fishing, but it turned out to be just as destructive using new technologies. So I became an Oysterman,” Smith said in a Tedx talk.
After Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene destroyed 80 percent of his oyster crop, Smith began to re-envision his farm in order to rebuild it.
Now, a single underwater acre of Greenwave’s flagship farm on the Thimble Islands in New York’s Long Island Sound filters millions of gallons of ocean water each day, creates homes for marine and bird life, and absorbs nitrogen and carbon (the kelp in the farms sequester five times more carbon than land-based agriculture). With zero added inputs, the farm has the capacity to grow 10 tons of sea vegetables and 250,000 shellfish annually on a single acre.
“I went from farming 100 acres down to 20 acres as I began using the full water column. And now I’ve been growing a lot more food on the 20 acres than I was on the 100. Whereas aquaculture is obsessed with growing one thing in one place, we’re growing four kinds of shellfish, two kinds of sea weed, and salt from the 20 acres,” Smith said.
Greenwave will use the $100,000 award to train 25 new farmers on both the East and West coasts of the U.S. with the skills to implement Smith’s ocean farming model. Each of the new farmers “will receive start up grants, free seed, and two years of training and support,” Smith said. “Greenwave will also buy 80 percent of their crop for 5 years at triple the market rate.” The rest of the money will go toward research and development on “kelp-raised beef, and specialty food products.”
Since 2007, BFI has used its annual international competition to highlight paradigm-shifting designs that, in the words of the late Buckminster Fuller, “make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”
This is the second year in a row that the first place winner has “directly addressed urgent and complex issues related to our oceans: the impending collapse of marine ecosystems, the long-term effects of climate change on our coastal communities, and the economic catastrophe these communities are experiencing right now as a result,” said Elizabeth Thompson, executive director of BFI.
This year’s other finalists include:
Algae Systems is a new technology that uses native algae species to capture and treat wastewater. Powered by photosynthesis, the system produces renewable fuels and fertilizers as byproducts, at a lower cost per gallon that alternative wastewater treatment technologies.
The Community Architects Network is a regional network of “community architects and planners, engineers, young professionals, lecturers and academic institutes in Asian countries” that supports participatory design for community projects in 17 Asian countries. Projects include new housing developments, citywide upgrading, and recovery from natural disasters.
Hazel is a digital modeling tool produced by the Drylands Resilience Initiative, which, when completed, will assist arid communities in designing effective stormwater infrastructure.
Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT) is an organization aimed at providing secure housing situations — including basic water and sanitation, as well as financial and legal advice — for poor women in four states of India.
A 2012 and 2014 finalist, the Nubian Vault Programme (AVN) trains people in five African countries in the Nubian Vault construction technique, a cheap and sustainable method for constructing homes from local materials.
Steven Nygren is the founder of Serenbe, which has won numerous awards, including the Urban Land Institute Inaugural Sustainability Award, the Atlanta Regional Commission Development of Excellence, and EarthCraft’s Development of the Year.
You founded Serenbe, a 1,000-acre community in the city of Chattahoochee Hills, which is 30 miles southwest of Atlanta, Georgia. In Serenbe, there are dense, walkable clusters of homes, shops, and businesses, even artists’ studios, modeled like English villages set within 40,000 acres of forest you helped protect. Can you briefly tell me the story of this community? What motivated you to create it?
It was a reaction. We purchased 60 acres in a historic farm in 1991 just on a weekend whim while on a drive to show our children farm animals. It seemed like a good investment. I wasn’t sure why we were doing it other than my wife and three daughters thought it was a great idea. To my amazement, every Friday when I got home, everyone was anxious to leave our big house with the pool, the media room, and all of the trappings, to go out to the country. Watching the difference in the children and our own family on those weekend times, I decided after three years to sell the company, sell the big house, and retreat to this rural area, right on the edge of Atlanta.
Seven years later, on a jog, a bulldozer was bulldozing the forest next to us. At that point, we owned 300 acres. We were fearful that the threat of development was coming. It turns out they were clearing it for a small runway for one of the neighbors. But that set me on the path of thinking what could happen.
At dinner one night when I shared my concerns with Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface Inc, who had been a good friend, he said, “Let’s bring the thought leaders in to talk about this.” So in September 2000, 24 people invited actually showed up — because of who Ray was — for a two-day conversation facilitated by the Rocky Mountain Institute, documented by Georgia Tech. At that point, I went into the session interested in how we could protect our own backyard, but I came out with an understanding of how serious the issues are. And you realize in September 2000, the first LEED building hadn’t been certified.
A lot of the things we take for granted today were way-over-the-edge thinking just a decade and-a-half ago. We began looking at what could be done. We decided that most models ended up being magnets for what they were trying to change. We set about to bring land owners together in a 40,000 acre area.
How did you and the other members of the Chattahoochee Hill Country Alliance achieve buy-in from local planners and policymakers to create Serenbe and the broader Chattahoochee Hill Country Community Plan, which protect 40,000 acres of nature from Atlanta’s ever-engulfing sprawl?
We realized we needed to create a larger vision than just buying land and trying to create a model. We brought everyone together over food. We invited the largest land owners to dinner, and after several cases of wine and several good dinners in our home, we thought we had buy-in. Next, we expanded the ring to get buy-in from owners representing 51 percent of the land.
That meeting would have reminded you of the worst zoning meeting you’ve ever sat through. Within an hour and-a-half, we had people calling each other names, even neighbors who had known each other through generations. So I realized that it was a much bigger issue. Half of the people who inherited land wanted the bulldozers to come because this meant payday, and the other half didn’t want the land touched. It was between the land speculators and us, who had found this paradise.
We put together some more research. I first reached out to a community leader who was also a property rights advocate to get agreement to come to another meeting. About ten minutes into the call, he said, “are we going to have that peach cobbler?” And so my wife kept baking and cooking and we kept calling meetings. Then, that proceeded into a public process with all the landowners, over 500. It was a two-year process. By late 2002, we passed the largest land use plan in recent history in metropolitan Atlanta, with 80 percent of the landowners paying dues into the organization we formed, with not one word of opposition. It was quite remarkable.
There has been a long history of utopian agricultural communities. Early communities in the U.S. and Europe came together for ideological reasons. They were anarchists seeking self-sufficiency, proto-communists or socialists seeking to bring social reform to serfs, and others farming to just improve human health and well-being. Some of the early communities in turn influenced Ebenezer Howard, who created his Garden City movement right before the turn of the 20th century. Where do you and Serenbe fit into this rich history?
When you look over time, you’ll see there has been a constant tension between rural and urban. But also each of these movements have responded to the issues of their time.
Serenbe certainly represents a turning point to counter Atlanta’s sprawl, which is terrible. Marie and I were urban people who believed we should develop where infrastructure exists. But at the point we got involved a decade and-a-half ago, over 70 percent of the development continued to be in greenfields. There were no good models.
Serenbe deals with the issues of our time: how do we create communities that connect urban and rural, the city and agriculture? I would like to think that history will look at Serenbe as part of a movement that returns development to responsible uses of resources in a balanced way.
The Serenbe community has a unique layout, with “serpentine omega forms.” What ideas guided the plan?
Phil Tabb worked with us as a consultant. He did his doctorate on the English village system and was also trained as a sacred geometrist through Keith Critchlow. We wanted to achieve a complete balance, very much what biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus talks about. In nature, everything is balanced. But as developers, we don’t always respond to nature in a real way.
When Phil and I first started walking the land to understand the assets and restraints, we talked about the ridges for house clusters. We were thinking about the hill towns of Italy, where we both visited. Then when we came together for our first two-day design charrette. It became obvious that we wanted to save those ridges for public natural access. We could locate the density and the housing in the valleys, which brings you down. If you come into the valleys, you come by the streams. To really work with the streams, it became an omega — you had one crossing with the housing on each side of the stream. The omegas really emerged through our understanding of the land. The land spoke to us and and we saw where we could locate buildings with the least disturbance, and yet, really bring the land to life. At Serenbe, houses are nestled around the water, with this wonderful little stream down through the center. All the ridges have community paths.
Various movements claim Serenbe. We relate to each of these movements, such as the New Urbanists, the farm-to-table movement, the environmental movement. We are all of these things but we’re much more than any one of them. One of the areas where we differ with the New Urbanists is the grid. Our grid is pedestrian, not vehicular. There is a complete grid for pedestrians going across the streams and omegas, but our streets wander. We were really in the forefront of the movement to get people out walking, because at Serenbe you can usually walk to places in half the time that the road will take you around here.
In an interview with the journal Terrain, Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, said “agriculture is the new golf.” The new desirable amenity is a well-maintained farm. The benefits of a community farm are food production, new revenue, and even tax breaks for preserving farmland. How do the residents of Serenbe pay for its 25-acre farm? How is the farm maintained?
When we started Serenbe, you really didn’t see farms integrated into a community. Ed was one of the early people that I turned to. The Urban Land Institute (ULI) had just released a study that said 92 percent of the people who bought golf course lots — at that premium bankers adore — played golf less than twice a year. They were buying the green space, the open space.
When I was trying to fund Serenbe, I would talk to the bankers, and say, “OK, if that’s true, wouldn’t people pay the same premium if not more to back up to a farm or a pasture?” There were no statistics to show that, so the financial community wouldn’t fund the development. The real estate community was dubious. So was Andres Duany, who didn’t think people would live that close to smelly farms. We are delighted that he is now a big supporter of this movement.
We were really pushing this idea of agricultural integration. We realized a lot of the negatives that “big ag” farms have. But a small organic farm is charming. We really pushed forward with these ideas, even though our land had been stripped of nutrients through the cotton monoculture, so it didn’t look like it could produce. Everyone said, “You’re nuts. You’re crazy.” But it seemed like such a core thing: if we were going to create a balanced, sustainable community, food was one of the critical things, along with energy and water.
Now, we operate Serenbe Farms as a teaching farm. I had initially decided we would be self-sustainable in five years. It was self-sustainable in three years. We 25 acres set aside and about half of that is under active cultivation, with cover crops on the other half. The farm supplies our three restaurants. We have a great CSA program for people outside Serenbe. There’s a farmer’s market on Saturdays.
We have a farmer hired on a base salary, and then they get a profit based on what they make. We have an intern house with four interns. The farmer makes a very nice salary and it’s profitable, and educational. So we’re growing farmers as well as crops.
Is a model like Serenbe only for the relatively well-off? Can you conceive of this model working for middle or working class communities?
Our model is essential for lower income groups. One of the critical problems in our educational system is that we’re not teaching people how to grow and prepare their own foods. It should be one of the basics of the education system and it’s just not. It takes very little land to grow all the foods you need for a family.
We’ve been able to demonstrate at Serenbe that with five acres, one member of a couple both working and paying for daycare can leave the workforce as we know it and actually tend the farm. That couple can have a higher quality of life. It’s essential thing that we have farmers in smaller lots growing local food.
Now, let’s talk about the labels organic and local. We’ve had to label these things because we’ve gotten so far away from the basics of 50 to 60 years ago. Then, we didn’t have organics, we had good nutrients. That’s what we have to get back to.
With our CSA program, a family of four can have all the vegetables they need for a week in the key growing seasons. How much does that cost a day? $4.80. That’s affordable. So this idea that fresh fruits and vegetables are not affordable is crazy.
Wholesome Wave is a fabulous program. Michel Nischan started five or six years ago. It’s one of the few programs that received increased funding in the recent Farm Bill by both Republicans and Democrats. For every dollar raised, the Farm Bill matches it by a dollar fifty. It’s for anyone on SNAP programs. If lower income folks are getting food assistance, they can turn $20 of credit into $50 dollars of fresh fruits and vegetables from a local farmer. This is stimulating the local agrarian economy, and getting fresh food into homes.
In Serenbe, sustainable homes are set close together in New Urbanist arrangements. The organic farm stores carbon. Water conservation is enabled through water-efficient appliances and green infrastructure. Waste water is treated through a natural system designed by landscape architects with Reed Hilderbrand. Yet, most of the 400 residents of your community drive to work in Atlanta, and the thousands of visitors you get each year also drive there. How does this balance out in terms of overall sustainability?
The perceptions that everyone is driving out to work is mistaken. A recent survey we did showed that 70 percent of the people living at Serenbe worked all or part-time at home. We have moved away from the time when everyone arrives at a desk at 9 and leaves at 5. For some of our residents, the airport is their key means of transportation; they’re consultants or what have you.
We did also a survey asking if people drove more or less since moving to Serenbe. We found we’re just right on the edge of the same trends. When they lived in the city, everything seemed convenient, and so they were constantly going out for trips. In Serenbe, they’re more organized and they really don’t leave as much. With Amazon and so much e-commerce, we can live in a different way.
We are also creating jobs in our shops, restaurants, and other service sectors. People who already lived in the area around Serenbe were traveling great distances for jobs. We have created this entire local job force for people who are already living nearby. If you look at the net, we’re probably cutting down on trips.
The New York Times recently wrote about the country-wide growth of communities like Serenbe, which they call “agrihoods.” How can you explain their growth? But, also, given these communities are still far from mainstream, how do you explain their still limited appeal?
I believe that all trends begin and then grow. There is no way to walk through a threshold from no appeal to total appeal. When we put our first development in just 11 years ago, the idea of farming in a new community just didn’t exist. The fact that it’s even in the conversation a decade later means there’s a lot happening. But this is not a model in which the majority of Americans can live. That just isn’t feasible.
The broader movement that needs to happen is finding an authentic way to bring more food sources into our mainstream developments. At Serenbe, the crosswalks all have blueberry bushes.
Why shouldn’t that be happening in any urban area? Where we’re sitting here in Austin, why are these pots filled with ornamental plants that have no meaning? Why aren’t they full of herbs or something the kitchen can use? Our movement can help edibles integrate into our typical landscapes.
Finally, there’s an understanding that we need to daylight more of our stormwater. Wouldn’t it be incredible if all of our urban areas had these veins of bio-retention to capture our stormwater and beside those systems were edible landscapes? This is where I want to see us moving to.
The agrihood idea is the beginning of waking people up to the benefits of having food near where you live, but let’s integrate those ideas into mainstream communities.