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.”

How to Save Water, the Californian Way (Part 2)

Vista Hermosa Park (met AB 1881 and LID requirements) / Mia Lehrer + Associates

For the past century, much of California has relied on an inherently fragile and unreliable imported water infrastructure. While the current crisis attracts the attention of the media and public, the environmental community and government have been actively pursuing solutions for decades. These efforts have resulted in long-term water conservation. For example, Los Angeles has seen a dramatic increase in population since the 1970’s, but water use has actually declined, with the largest drops in use during periods of drought and recession. Efforts are now focused on decreasing demand for imported water by increasing local supplies. A few weeks ago, we wrote about ways each of us as individuals can conserve water in our landscapes by copying nature and making choices appropriate to our local micro-climates and water availability. In addition to the smaller-scale decisions we make in our own landscapes, progressive state and local policies are helping California to better conserve its limited water resources.

Here are a few across the state:

Water Conservation in Landscaping Act of 2006 (AB 1881)
This Assembly Bill spurred the creation of the Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance, which established maximum allowed landscape water budgets and mandated low water-use plants and efficient irrigation strategies. AB 1881 encourages us to capture and retain on site stormwater and use recycled water. The ordinance also requires soil assessments, soil management plans, and landscape maintenance plans to accompany landscape plans submitted through municipal permit processes.

Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones (AB 551, in progress)
If passed, Assembly Bill 551 will incentivize the use of currently-vacant private land for urban agriculture. Private landowners could have their property assessed at a lower property tax rate — based on agricultural use rather than its market value — in exchange for ensuring its use for urban agriculture for 10 years. Increasing local agricultural production where recycled water is readily available can reduce water and energy use in food production and increase our cities’ self-sufficiency and resilience in the face of potential natural disasters.

In Southern California:

Recycled Water
The Los Angeles County Bureau of Sanitation and Orange County Water District (OCWD) began recycling water in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively, for groundwater recharge and non-potable uses — or uses other than for drinking, such as irrigation or industry. In 2008, the OCWD district began recharging its groundwater supplies with water treated to levels above drinking water standards for reuse as potable water. A big push to educate the public about the process and its benefits smoothed the transition. The district is now expanding production from 70 to 100 million gallons per day, or enough to supply nearly one-third of Orange County’s 3.1 million people. Los Angeles, which delayed their water recycling efforts for drinking water after negative PR alarmed the public, is now planning to expand their recycled water program, including groundwater recharge, by 2035.

In Los Angeles:

Proposition O (2004)
Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly passed Prop O to use $500 million to fund projects to:
•    Protect rivers, lakes, beaches, and the ocean;
•    Conserve and protect drinking water and other water sources;
•    Reduce flooding and use neighborhood parks to decrease polluted runoff;
•    Capture, clean up, and reuse stormwater.

Peck Canyon Park, San Pedro, funded with Prop 0 funds / Mia Lehrer + Associates
Los Angeles Zoo Parking Lot bio-infiltration, funded by Prop 0 / Mia Lehrer + Associates

Low Impact Development Ordinance (2012)
Los Angeles’ LID Ordinance ensures that new and redevelopment projects recharge groundwater aquifers to increase future water supply; protect water quality downstream; reduce flood risk by keeping rainwater on site; remove nutrients, bacteria, and metals from stormwater runoff; and reduce and slow water that runs off of properties during storms.

But there is still much more we can do. Caroline Mini, who wrote her PhD dissertation at the University of California last year, shows how urban residential water use in Los Angeles is largely determined by income. Wealthier neighborhoods on average use three times more water than poorer neighborhoods. This is despite the fact that most wealthier neighborhoods inhabit tree-covered hillsides with ample available soil moisture, while less fortunate residents occupy dryer, flatter, and less shaded areas. Better-off communities have the opportunity to use their wealth to establish well-designed, resource-efficient, and beautiful landscapes that will become models in water conservation. And cities and counties have the opportunity to create green infrastructure projects that add tree canopy and increase permeability to regain the sponge quality of soil in those low-land neighborhoods that will benefit most.

Agriculture accounts for 80 percent water of the used by people in our state. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Pacific Institute published an issue brief last year illustrating the massive water conservation potential that could come from more efficient agricultural practices. Just using the most up-to-date irrigation technologies and applying only the amount of water crops need could reduce agricultural water use by 17-22 percent. In 1975, Masanobu Fukuoka wrote The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, describing dry rice farming techniques that matched or out-produced his most productive neighbors. This poetic story about working with nature instead of against it to grow successive crops with little effort is more relevant than ever today.

More thoughtful planning for both rural agricultural and urban water use is needed. We can determine which crops and farming methods best serve our regional and exported food needs while further conserving water. We can advance urban water efficiency plans, which could generate savings that can negate the current deficit, while creating greener, more resilient and self-reliant cities.

This guest post is by Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder of Mia Lehrer + Associates, and Claire Latané, ASLA, senior associate, Mia Lehrer + Associates.

A Vision for Public Food Production

Public Produce: Cultivating Our Parks, Plazas, and Streets for Healthier Cities / Island Press
Public Produce: Cultivating Our Parks, Plazas, and Streets for Healthier Cities / Island Press

We are increasingly concerned about the provenance of our food. Movements supporting local food production, urban agriculture, and more socially-equitable food systems have gained increasing traction over the last decade. Meanwhile, our industrial food systems are increasingly vulnerable due to over-centralized facilities and ownership, reliance on fossil fuels for production and transportation, and crop monocultures, which are made only more vulnerable by climate change.

Urban agriculture is frequently cited as a response to these challenges. Cities, though, still face question of where to grow food, how to maintain farms, create access, and educate citizens about agricultural production. In Public Produce: Cultivating Parks, Plazas, and Streets for Healthier Cities, urban designer and author Darrin Nordahl proposes local governments bolster local ecosystems of public food production.

Alice Waters praised the original 2009 edition as showing “how growing food on public land can transform our civic landscape.” Marion Nestle said the book gave “all the reasons why growing food in cities would be good for alleviating poverty, for building communities, and for public policy.”

A newly revised and expanded edition does these things and fills in key details by offering numerous examples of people, organizations, communities, and governments implementing all sorts of models of food production on public lands as well as partnerships between local governments and community organizations.

The first few chapters will be highly useful for those looking for a succinct and easily-readable introduction to the arguments behind local and urban food production: food (in)security, over-reliance on fossil fuels, social equity, and resilience to climate change, to name a few. But those already well versed in the works of Michael Pollan and other sustainable agriculture advocates can skim through.

Nordahl hits his stride in the third chapter as he goes beyond the general tenets of urban agriculture and makes his case for a triad between public space, public officials, and public policy. Growing vegetables in public spaces sends a powerful message. Nordahl defines public spaces as places freely accessible to the public, “whether they are truly public or merely perceived to be . . . In essence, any space where the public can enter throughout the day without being charged and admission fee . . . and is suitable for growing food, is worthy of inclusion in a network of public produce.”

Social justice advocates will appreciate the chapter on gleaning as a public produce model, and Nordahl gives many examples of places that have developed strong access networks. Fallen Fruit in Los Angeles, for example, develops freely accessible maps showing where fruit can be publicly gleaned. He also offers an interesting take on gleaning as economic opportunity – foraging for fruit rather than, say, recyclables, and trading in one’s daily harvest for money or other essentials.

Publically accessible fruit trees in Sherman Oaks neighborhood, Los Angeles / Fallen Fruit
Publically accessible fruit trees in Sherman Oaks neighborhood, Los Angeles / Fallen Fruit

Nordahl’s strongest arguments come in chapter five, in which he addresses the perennial maintenance question: “who is going to take care of it?” Indeed, this was one of my first questions – and many others may well wonder how well-received the idea will be of rotting fruit all over public spaces, which are expensive to clean up and unappealing to the aesthetic eye. But Nordahl reminds the reader that “the fantastic aesthetics of our most prized landscape plants makes it easy for us to forget that they produce an abundance of leaf litter, drip with sticky nectar, and drop unpalatable fruit by the bunches.” Planting edibles prioritizes the value of food production, while often offering an aesthetic value as well.

“There is no doubt that food-producing plants can be messy and need some upkeep,” Nordahl admits. “But the pervasive assumption that edibles require considerably more management than ornamental plants, or are not as pretty, is bogus. . . [that said], sound design principles are not thrown out the window simply because the plant palette uses fruit-bearing trees instead of sterile cultivars. As in any landscape design, the architect needs to take into account how many people will use or pass by the space; what types of activities will take place in the space; the microclimate, solar access, and water availability of the space; and a host of other variables.”

Again, Nordahl gives several examples where communities developed multi-beneficial models for maintenance, harvesting, and clean-up of edible plants. Communities who balance an appropriate “carrying capacity,” where the availability of edibles does not exceed the demand for them, help ensure that fruit is harvested and eaten, rather than left to drop and rot on the ground.

Landscape architects and designers will appreciate the examples where aesthetic and place-making qualities were woven into designs for food production. The Curtis “50-Cent” Jackson Community Garden in Queens, NY, designed by Walter Hood, ASLA, for example, integrates huge, eye-catching rainwater-collection sculptures amid the edibles planted in French-style parterres. And designers for Disneyland’s “Tomorrowland” area planted edible fruit trees, herbs, and leafy greens in lieu of solely ornamental plantings, perhaps to suggest what urban design of the future will look like.

Sculptural rainwater collection towers amidst planting beds at the Curtis "50-Cent" Jackson Community Gardens in Queens, NY / New York Restoration Project
Sculptural rainwater collection towers amidst planting beds at the Curtis “50-Cent” Jackson Community Gardens in Queens, NY / New York Restoration Project
Citrus trees in "Tomorrowland," Disneyland / FlashBulb
Citrus trees in “Tomorrowland,” Disneyland / FlashBulb

But this book is not a design manual or a how-to guide for would-be urban farmers. A good number of photos intersperse with the text, but readers will not find design schematics, planting calendars, or detailed plant lists for every climate. Examples are woven into the narrative, not broken out as researched case studies. Nordahl lays out an alluring vision, however, and his arguments are persuasive. Peas at City Hall, persimmons along public avenues, and pawpaws in city parks? Maybe not such a crazy idea after all.

Read the book.

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is founder and lead designer-educator at Mitsui Design, focusing on landscape experience and connection to place. He was the ASLA summer 2014 communications intern.

Urban Agriculture Isn’t New

In fact, it’s been around since 3,500 BC when Mesopotamian farmers began setting aside plots in their growing cities. In a review of urban agriculture throughout modern history at a symposium at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., a diverse set of academics and designers ranging from historians to landscape architects discussed how the practice has evolved over the ages, often been highly ideological, and continues to be loaded with meaning. Organized by professor Dorothee Imbert, ASLA, chair of the master’s of landscape architecture program at Washington University in St. Louis, the conference looked at why urban agriculture is such a hot topic among the public and designers now but also hoped to put the current interest in a broader context. As Imbert said, “the inter-relationship between food and the city has a long history.”

Here are snippets of presentations that covered aspects of urban agricultural history in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the U.S.:

David Haney, Kent University School of Architecture, said London in the 1880s was the first “global, industrial city,” in part defined by its massive slums. Public parks were an early “instrument of social reform,” an effort to bring green space to the poor masses but urban agriculture soon became another tool for improving the conditions of the urban masses. As the Salvation Army got its start, one of its first programs were “farm colonies” designed to help urbanites “take care of themselves.” In fact, urban agriculture was viewed as a way for “everyone to become self-sufficient.” Haney explained the early role of anarchist thinkers like Russian Prince Peter Kropotkin, who had been imprisoned for pushing for social reforms in Tsarist Russia and eventually became an influential social reformer in the UK, informing the ideas of Ebenezer Howard, who created the “Garden City” concept. Haney explained how early London urban agriculture communities rooted in anarchist beliefs went on to influence the growth of utopian urban farming communities in Germany. One called Eden, an early vegetarian community, is actually still a “well-known brand” in Germany.

Haney thought that the idea of self-sufficiency and urban agriculture has come full-circle again, gaining traction through today’s “eco-villages.” These “intentional, small” communities may have a lineage based in “anarchist” beliefs, but are now more widespread. However, Haney doubted whether these are actually “models for urban growth,” given they aren’t planned to be part of broader urban developments.

In Israel, the early Zionist settlers in the 1920s saw small urban farms as critical to the development of a new Israeli society. By 1942, there were more than 4,600 urban farms, most of which were between 1,000 and 1,999 square meters, said professor Tal Alon-Mozes, a professor at Technion, the Israeli Institute of Technology. She described how many of these communities were comprised of women’s settlers associations that were key to “women’s empowerment.” Out farming in virgin territory, the women experienced “a sense of self-fulfillment, personal regeneration, and new hope.”

Early on, then, urban farms were ideological and connected with the goals of the Zionist movement. In the first master plan of Israel in 1951, urban farms had a “protected” place. However, Alon-Mozes said, eventually the Kibbutzim, rural farms separate from urban areas, dominated, becoming more prosperous and closely associated with Zionism. “They overshadowed small urban farms.” Kibuttzim were essentially the winners, and “history is written by the winners.”

Jumping time and space, professor David Rifkind, a professor at Florida International University, zoomed in on Italy’s fascist government in the 1930’s and the role of reclamation and urban agriculture projects in their African colonies, particularly Ethiopia. The government of Mussolini was interested in the “neat organization of landscape, its segregation into districts,” which also mirrored its efforts to create a system of “hierarchy and control” between Italians and the native Ethiopians and other nationalities. Urban plans in Italy’s colonies included “symbolically-rich spatial organizations” that reinforced the idea that Italians were at the top of the heap. Ordered landscapes moved parade routes from ancient Ethiopian sites to modern Italian ones. There were separate markets for Italians and Ethiopians, with linear parks serving as barriers. The Italians saw reclaiming Ethiopian swamps — unusable yet fertile soils — as central to their effort of taming and controlling alien lands. “Tilling soils” was also viewed as an activity of the empire.

Back in Italy, consuming a range of agriculture products from the colonies was viewed as a patriotic act. Rifkind showed funny images of children eating bananas from Ethiopia, being told that they were supporting the homeland through their daily breakfast. “By eating grains, fruits, oils, salts from the colonies, Italians were participating in the empire.” The Italians pushed food production in the colonies to boost self-sufficiency among the colonies as well though. With the onset of world war, Ethiopia needed to be able to stand on its own and not drain Italy of resources. Overall, urban agriculture was seen as a way to “cultivate the territories, control the local population, earn foreign capital through exports, and resettle and reform unemployed Italians sent over from the home country.” Still, Ethiopia never ended up serving the role Egypt did for ancient Rome, becoming the breadbasket for the empire. It just wasn’t a great place to grow many types of grains.

Back to Europe: In France, in a little known episode, great Modern architect Le Corbusier attempted to bring rational, scientific approaches to the typical French farm. Professor Mary Mcleod, Columbia University, said in contrast to the common understanding of Le Corbusier, he was for “increased density.” Upon visiting New York City, he was quoted as saying the “skyscrapers are much too small.” In the 1930s and 1940s, agricultural reform also became an interest of his. Some of his early urban concepts offered individual garden plots, with a professional gardener responsible for plowing and fertilizing 100 plots each. In contrast to the romantic visions of farming in Israel and the totalitarian ones among the fascists in Ethiopia, Le Corbusier wasn’t deluded, calling “the whole thing ridiculous and too much work.” He thought the last thing an urban worker would want to do coming home from work would be to engage in back-breaking gardening work to yield a few tomatoes. “Growing food is a job, not pleasure.”

In an effort to bring his rational, scientific approach to the countryside, he started corresponding with a local French farmer who also wanted to make farming Modern. Translating his Radiant City concept to the countryside, Corbu came up with the little-known and ultimately untested Radiant Farm model, which offered distinct zones with small pastures, woodlands, fields, and detailed community plans. No one would finance the project. McLeod seemed to say Le Corbusier’s “futile utopianism” was just another variant of ideological forms of agriculture that never really took off.  

In the Netherlands, the rational, scientific approach actually worked though. Zef Hemel, University of Amsterdam, described how the 20th century “polders,” low-lying, man-made tracts of land formed with protective barriers or dykes, were created to create urban agriculture opportunities in expanded cities. Polders can be land reclaimed from water, land purposely-flooded and then reclaimed, or drained marshes.  Hemel said the Dutch “love planning and don’t need to have any ideology to do it. We are just very practical.” In the Netherlands, the demand for polders came from an expanding Amsterdam, seeking out more agricultural lands around the city. Then, before World War I, the country started a campaign of “food self-sufficiency,” which led to the development a 30-km long dyke that yielded a 180,000 hectare plot for agriculture. A second polder created just before World War II was almost stymied by the Nazis but the Dutch managed to complete their work, creating a “livable, beautiful place with 40,000 acres of new nature.”

Today, Holland’s polders, which are productive farm landscapes, communities, and woods, are threatened by climate change given they are about 10 feet below sea level. Some Dutch policymakers are already worried about increased salinization as rising seal levels pour saltwater into protected freshwater bodies. Others are thinking about whether floating barge farms will be feasible. The Dutch are worried.

For professor Laura Lawson, ASLA, Rutgers University, people garden for “food and a whole lot of other reasons” in the U.S. Community is an important element, or as Lawson laughed, “drinking goes hand and hand with community gardening.” In the early 20th century, there were “vacant lot cultivation associations” designed to put unemployed workers to work. Hundreds of families were given plots as a loan, with the goal of making them self-supporting. By 1934, some 36 percent of relief food was grown in these gardens. With World War I and II, the U.S. saw the rise of war or victory gardens. In 1918, there were more than 5 million war gardens and by 1943, there were 20 million victory gardens. As an example, in Chicago, there were 2,200 acres of land donated to cultivate produce. For WW II, there were 33,000 gardens covering nearly 1,800 acres.

Today, Lawson said many cities are now revising local codes to allow for urban agriculture. Land trusts sometimes purchase land, enabling communities to commit to growing things. However, even in food deserts, not everyone wants to become an urban farmer: One Detroit focus group said “not everyone has the intent or capacity to participate.” At the local level, community organizations often take the lead, given most urban farms are non-profit. Lawson argued that in these local instances, there is often a divide between the landscape architects (experts) and community organizations (grassroots). Landscape architects have been ambivalent about urban farms in the past. During WW II, many were concerned about these pop-up gardens ruining their landscape designs.

In a later conversation, questions were raised about the role landscape architects should actually play in urban agriculture. One attendee implied that a systems-scale approach may be the most appropriate perspective for landscape architects. Lawson said that may end up being the right role, but “many landscape architects don’t teach gardening and perhaps need to or they will become unrealistic about what it entails.” Still, urban agriculture is expected to present “aesthetic” challenges for landscape architects. Can these designers make the spaces for the messy growing process and the equipment of a working farm seem more functional, beautiful, and integrated into communities? Lawson thinks that more landscape architects need to go to community groups to “learn their issues.”

This is the first in a series of posts about Food & The City, a symposium at Dumbarton Oaks. Read the second post, How Tokyo Invented Sushi.

Image credit: WWII Victory Garden, San Francisco / San Francisco Chronicle