New Study Shows That for Pedestrians America’s Streets Are “Deadly by Design”

Dangerous by Design 2019 / Smart Growth America and Complete Streets Coalition

An astonishing 6,000 pedestrians were struck and killed by vehicles in 2017, adding to a deadly decade in which 49,340 people were killed on the nation’s streets between 2008 and 2017. Compounding this national tragedy, victims are disproportionately from vulnerable groups, including people of color, those living in low-income communities, Native peoples, and the elderly.

Those are the findings of a new national study entitled Dangerous by Design 2019, issued by Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is a founding member of the coalition and a long-time advocate for complete streets policies and practices that elevate pedestrian safety as a top priority.

Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, the executive vice president and CEO of ASLA, welcomed the study, saying, “Too often, danger is built right into our nation’s streets, especially in communities with large elderly populations and people of color. Strong policies are needed that will allow landscape architects to continue to put good street design to work to reduce unnecessary risks and make sure our transportation systems equitably serve all Americans. As cities begin the process of rebuilding and reimagining our decaying urban infrastructure, pedestrian safety must be among our highest priorities.”

Dangerous by Design 2019 / Smart Growth America and Complete Streets Coalition

Somerville added that “The landscape architecture profession plans and designs streetscapes across the country and welcomes this opportunity to direct the attention of the public and policymakers to this deadly daily crisis. Landscape architects are devoted to improving the health, safety, and welfare of every community, and urge the creation of federal, state, and local policies that will correct the tragic inequities that are built into our nation’s aging road systems.”

Dangerous by Design 2019 / Smart Growth America and Complete Streets Coalition

Using the most recent federal data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, the study generates a Pedestrian Danger Index that ranks each state and the 100 most populous metropolitan areas on how deadly they are for people on foot. It also reveals the degree to which vulnerable groups face disproportionate danger and higher risk of death and injury.

Smart Growth America is hosting a public briefing online about the report findings on Thursday, January 24, at 2:30 p.m. EST.

How Can Cities Get a Handle on Electric Scooters?

Bird electric scooters in Santa Monica, California / Madeline Eskind Twitter

Electric scooters have become a familiar sight throughout the country. Dotting street corners in tidy rows in the mornings, placed haphazardly outside office buildings after the lunch hour, and zipping down streets and sidewalks at all hours of the day, electric scooters are fast becoming a ubiquitous feature of the urban landscape. The rapid expansion of electric scooters has drawn both support and criticism. By understanding the pros and cons of electric scooters and various regulatory considerations, landscape architects and urban planners can help cities make the most of this significant private investment in the public realm.

The potential benefits of incorporating electric scooters into a city’s transit infrastructure are substantial. Leading electric scooter companies, such as Bird and Lime, tout their products as an alternative non-vehicular means of transportation, a zero-emission people-moving mechanism that can reduce short distance single-occupant car trips. Commuters who use public transportation for the bulk of their commute and who cannot or do not wish to use a bike for the final distance to the office can avoid a taxi or ride share trip by hopping on a nearby electric scooter. As many scooter riders will tell you, electric scooters also have the benefit of being fun to ride. Tourists are a major subset of electric scooter riders, as they enjoy the ability to see a new city at a leisurely pace without breaking a sweat.

Renting an electric scooter for a ride isn’t quite as simple as hopping on and zipping off. Riders must first download each company’s app using a smartphone. The app shows locations of nearby scooters that are currently unoccupied and ready to be checked out. Typically, scooters are placed in neat rows in groups first thing in the morning, after being charged overnight. Later in the day, scooters may be distributed in more irregular groups as they are ridden and parked in various places by the riders. First-time users of an app also need to enter a credit card for payment (entered one time then used for all subsequent purchases, similar to the way the Uber and Lyft apps work), and a photo of a driver’s license to verify age.

Access to Bird app / Wikipedia
Bird app display / Bird.co

Critics have noted these requirements limit use across the socioeconomic spectrum; Washington D.C. is hoping to develop a method for cash payment. Rides are priced by the minute, timed from check-in to check-out using the app. Some apps also require riders take a photo of the scooter where it is stopped at the end of the ride, in order to record potentially illegal parking practices used by some riders. Riders can expect to pay a typical fee of $1 to unlock the scooter, plus $0.15 per minute.

Lime scooter in San Diego / Wikipedia

Electric scooters may have launched in California, but 2018 saw the trend spread across the country and throughout the world. With such exponential growth, many cities have multiple competing brands of scooters within the same area. Austin, Texas, has had such high rates of usage that scooter providers have needed to schedule mid-day servicing of their fleets to charge scooters’ batteries. The usefulness of scooters in urban settings and the potential to replace short car trips has increased enormous investment to electric scooter companies. Ford recently purchased Spin for nearly $100 million, while Uber has partnered with Lime.

The first of many regulatory challenges comes with the way a scooter company might choose to launch a fleet in a new city. Several companies initially gained the industry the reputation of “begging for forgiveness rather than first asking for permission” after launching electric scooter fleets without consulting city officials. This prompted San Francisco to temporarily ban all electric scooters, eventually offering two permits to electric scooter companies Skip and Scoot. Other cities issue permits to a certain number of total electric scooters, split among different providers.

If an electric scooter company approaches a city first to request permission to operate locally, how might a city respond? Some jurisdictions might be glad for the private investment in public transit and permit operation without caveats. Others, hesitant of the demands electric scooters place upon the public right of way, may take a different approach — as did New York City, when, considering the density of sidewalks and bicycle lanes without scooters, issued a firm “thanks, but no thanks” to scooter companies.

State regulations may also play a role in whether electric scooters must operate on city streets, sidewalks, or not at all:

To address safety concerns, electric scooter companies require all scooter riders wear helmets and meet a minimum age requirement. These requirements are frequently violated by users, as are regulations requiring scooters be ridden on the sidewalk, roadway, or in a bike lane. Conflicts between pedestrians, bicyclists, vehicles, and scooters are difficult to avoid without formally set and well-understood rules for where and how a scooter should operate. One particularly active period of reported scooter accidents in Austin, Texas, led the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to partner with Austin city government to study the most common source of incidents. This study is currently underway, but Austin is already planning to put a safe riding ordinance into effect in the spring of 2019.

Bird electric scooter riding rules, which are often ignored / Wikipedia

Electric scooter companies are beginning to put money and effort toward improving the safety of scooter riders. Bird scooters recently announced plans to form a Global Safety Advisory Board, led by the former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with the goal of improving electric scooter safety. Bird has also proposed a funding strategy whereby $1 daily per vehicle in a city’s fleet would be dedicated to a fund for improving bicycle lanes and infrastructure in that city. Bird scooters currently offers cities data on usage within that city, which can be a valuable data metric in understanding the flow of people through the city, scoping a site pre-development, or for post-occupancy analysis.

Electric scooters can replace much more vehicular use, particularly single-occupant, short-distance car trips, in congested urban environments. At the same time, city management and planning authorities must carefully weigh the risks to public safety before approving electric scooter programs for operation.

With clear rules and robust public awareness campaigns to ensure all users understand the rules for legal operation, scooters may come to safely co-exist with existing users of the public right of way. Electric scooters are here to stay, and cities have the opportunity and challenge of establishing a safe framework in which citizens and visitors can enjoy the full benefits of this technology.

This guest post is by Alison Kennedy, ASLA, PLA, LEED AP ND, a landscape architect with O’Dell Engineering in Modesto, California. She is the co-chair of the ASLA Women in Landscape Architecture professional practice network (PPN) and chair of the ASLA Archives & Collections Committee.

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

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Lake Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin / Lake Park Friends

Atlanta’s Plans for Parks over Highways Get National Attention Bisnow, 1/2/19
“Atlanta’s efforts to create new swaths of green space over its major interstate has taken the national spotlight.”

Spotlighting Historic Landscapes Could Benefit Milwaukee The Shepherd Express, 1/8/19
“Milwaukeeans have inherited a treasure trove of historic parks and other public landscapes rivaling in significance those in Chicago, Minneapolis and other major cities.”

CRÈME Proposes Floating Timber Bridge to Connect Brooklyn and Queens The Architect’s Newspaper, 1/10/19
“Currently the only link between the rapidly developing neighborhoods of Long Island City, Queens, and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is the Pulaski Bridge, a six-lane drawbridge with a narrow pathway where pedestrians and bikers jostle for space.”

National Parks Get Some Volunteer Love During Government Shutdown CityLab, 1/10/19
“With National Park Service employees furloughed and trash mounting, cleaning up ‘helped me feel like I was doing as much as I could,’ said one volunteer.”

Expressway Hideaways a Chance for Urban Renewal The Bangkok Post, 1/13/19
“Areas under expressways in Bangkok often go overlooked. Despite some of this space being located in business areas, the property remains untouched.”

Most Popular DIRT Posts of 2018

Approach to Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park, Australia / TCL

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 2018. Readers were most interested in the debate over whether beauty still matters in an age dominated by science; how the practice of landscape architecture is evolving to deal with climate change and increasingly diverse communities; how urban sprawl is impacting biodiversity; and the interesting relationship between landscape architecture and retail. As in past years, new research on the health benefits of nature remains a favorite topic.

Always worth mentioning: We are looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners, on topics that inspire you. And tell us about your new projects and research. Please email us at info@asla.org.

1) Is There Still a Place for Aesthetics in Landscape Design?

Kicking off a two-day planting symposium at the University of California at Berkeley, professor emeritus Marc Treib posed the question: Is there still a place for the “art of landscape design” in an age “dominated by the science of landscape ecology?” Planting design is often brushed aside as superfluous or unserious. British historian and critic Tim Richardson reminded the audience of the litany of unfavorable adjectives associated with artful planting: the bourgeois, the small-scale, the amateur, the hobbyist, the ephemeral, the female.

2) Best Books of 2018

If you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or just one for yourself to delve into over the winter break, explore THE DIRT’s top 10 books of 2018, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape.

3) To Become More Resilient, Boston Takes a “Landscape First” Approach

Instead of simply responding to catastrophe, Boston is getting out front on climate change. As part of its Climate Ready Boston plan, the city of 670,000 aims to act fast and protect two coastal neighborhoods most vulnerable to rising sea levels and storms: East Boston and Charlestown. New plans for these neighborhoods explain how a simple fix like creating a temporary flood wall at the coastal end of the East Boston Greenway, at a cost of just $100,000, would protect 4,300 residents, 70 businesses and critical infrastructure, and result in $17 million in benefits.

4) Landscape Architects May Be Liable for Climate Impacts

When a neighborhood floods, who is at fault? A class action lawsuit in Houston asks that question. The residents of a master-planned community that flooded during Hurricane Harvey are suing the engineering firm that designed the neighborhood’s stormwater management system. While that suit targets engineers, it nonetheless represents the heightened risk landscape architects face from climate impacts on their projects.

5) New Maps Show How Urban Sprawl Threatens the World’s Remaining Biodiversity

At the United Nations World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, next month, the McHarg Center for Ecology and Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania will display an alarming set of new maps. They show, in bright red, that the growth of cities worldwide is on a direct collision course with the world’s remaining biodiversity.

6) MIT Researchers Seek Optimal Form of Urban Stormwater Wetland

Cities are sitting on a largely underused public resource: urban stormwater wetlands. If properly designed, these landscapes can reduce flooding, support urban wildlife, and serve as public space. A new report Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands authored by an interdisciplinary group of researchers and students at the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism led by Celina Balderas Guzmán, Heidi Nepf, and Alan Berger — advocates for the positive role wetlands can play in cities and outlines research that provides insights for landscape architects, engineers, and planners.

7) This Is Your Brain on Nature

Neurosurgeon Edie Zusman, a real-life Doogie Howser who started medical school at 19 and has completed some 6,000 brain and spinal surgeries, said what landscape architects do saves far more lives than what she does. The early prevention of disease reduces the need for surgeries. Prevention is made possible by eating healthy foods and walking and getting exercise in green environments that lower stress and improve well-being.

8) Interview with Robert Gibbs: Trees Cause You to Spend More

Trees are really essential for a competitive shopping district. There was a study by Kathleen Wolfe that indicated trees increase price elasticity by 9-12 percent. In other words, people feel comfortable paying up to twelve percent more for the same product if they purchase in a well-landscaped place with nice streets. Also, when properly located, street trees keep people in the downtown district longer. They feel more relaxed and are more likely to spend more money.

9) Participatory Design Must Evolve

Participatory design is “hands-on democracy in action,” argue the editors of the impressive new book Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity. Participatory design (also known as cooperative or co-design) is a process in which a designer actively involves all stakeholders in a design process. Unfortunately, many of the best-known techniques to enable this approach, which have been used for the past few decades, have become stale. This has led to complacency among designers, and less-than-ideal outcomes for communities that need their help. To revitalize the approach and achieve better results, the authors call for making participatory design “truly democratic.” Furthermore, it must become “contextual, open, experiential, substantive, and holistic.”

10) New Study: Technology Undermines the Restorative Benefits of Nature

We experience “soft fascination” with nature when we sit on a park bench and let our mind wander, taking in the trees and flowers, noticing birds and squirrels, feeling the breeze. This gentle decompression in nature is actually critical to helping us restore our ability to pay attention. We need breaks where our minds can just go slack and subconsciously take in the complexity of the natural world. Researchers are still trying to figure out the ideal “dose” of this green medicine, but benefits have been seen with just 10 minutes.

GGN Re-envisions the Monograph

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GGN Landscapes 1999-2018 / Timber Press

In 2013, urban landscape historian Thaïsa Way, FASLA, embedded herself in the office of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) in Seattle, Washington in order to understand the firm’s inner workings. That initial academic curiosity sparked a collaborative relationship, the remarkable result of which is GGN Landscapes 1999-2018, a compendium of GGN’s projects that interweaves theory and practice. The book sets a new standard for landscape architecture monographs.

It was the goal of both Way and GGN to improve upon the typical monograph, characterized by photos of finished, successful projects and not much else. Both parties were also wary of getting too much into the weeds of each project. GGN Landscapes struck that balance, presenting not only each project’s final design but its evolution, told through detailed written accounts and built upon by process sketches, models, and photos.

The book’s richness is the result of the access Way was granted at GGN. Way looked over shoulders, asked questions, and attended meetings. Details such as which team members led discussions, which incessantly sketched, and on what sort of paper were all taken note of. Way pored over working documents and memos to clients and consultants, seeking to understand how GGN made and maintained relationships. Not confined to the office, Way visited each of the book’s featured projects, accompanied by their respective lead designers (save for one instance in which that designer was unavailable). She stressed that this effort would have been impossible without the benefit of GGN’s trust.

Way’s research paints a picture of an especially collaborative firm that is interested in the intersection of analog and digital techniques and embraces experimentation. It’s worth emphasizing that many firms would claim these same traits. Way witnessed them at GGN. Her analysis is borne out in the book’s featured projects, all of which could stand alone as case studies.

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GGN associate Rebecca Fuchs sketching over a digital model / Kyle Johnson

The first project presented in the book, and perhaps GGN’s most famous, is Lurie Garden in Chicago. Way’s text tells the story of GGN’s involvement, from the project’s procurement through research, design, and resolution. The book describes the technical challenges encountered and thought process behind GGN’s decisions. Iterative sketches show variations on the garden’s iconic breastplate form and planting scheme. And, of course, there are plenty of photos that attempt to capture the power of the space (Way thinks that even GGN failed to foresee just how impressive Lurie Garden would become).

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Early studies drawn for Lurie Garden / GGN

If the Lurie Garden chapter shows us a young firm getting a feel for itself, India Basin Shoreline Park, the book’s final featured project, shows a mature practice in full command of its faculties and with a firm grasp of landscape’s agency. Shannon Nichol, one of GGN’s three founders, led the concept design for the park in the Bayview-Hunters point neighborhood of San Francisco. The concept is, as Way describes it, “emblematic of 21st century design,” negotiating issues of environmental degradation, access to the water, historic preservation, and neighborhood revitalization. GGN’s concept includes a large meadow reminiscent of a patent slip that once existed on site. Included in the chapter are Nichols’ sketches showing the meadow’s origin in the concept, and a series of plans show its refinement over time.

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An aerial view of India River Basin Park concept / GGN

The book also contains less project-oriented views into GGN’s process. Way believes understanding the designer is crucial to understanding their approach. As such, we learn how GGN’s founders came to landscape and their attitude toward design. We also learn of how their practice benefited early on from successful collaborations with outside architects and engineers and how this helped form their broad view of landscape architecture.

With GGN Landscapes, Way and GGN have constructed a monograph better suited for backpacks than coffee tables. I cannot think of higher praise.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 16 – 31)

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St. Louis Gateway Arch Park / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Rebuilding a City from the Eye of a Child CityLab, 12/17/18
“The ambitious mayor of Tirana, Albania, is selling a wary constituency on economic transformation by putting kids at the forefront of his agenda.”

Climate Gentrification: Is Sea Rise Turning Miami High Ground Into a Hot Commodity? The Miami Herald, 12/18/2019
“Miami is the first city to study the impacts of climate gentrification, a shift in consumer preferences for higher ground as climate change sends sea levels rising that displaces poor residents of color in Miami’s few high elevation communities.”

2018 Was the Year of the Aspirational Park CityLab, 12/26/18
“Private funding and high-impact design were recurring themes of parks that opened in 2018. So was the hope that parks can unite, repair, and invigorate cities.”

Bangkok Is Sinking and Here Is the Solution Land8, 12/16/18
“Just as New York has Central Park, Bangkok has just received its lungs of the City – the Chulalongkorn Centenary Park, the first sizeable green infrastructure project, which has been designed for the city to face the inevitable realities of climate change.”

When a Developer Comes for Your Little Neighborhood ParkThe Intelligencer, 12/31/18
“This is a tale of two parklets, 1,000 miles apart. Combined, they cover less than an acre. They harbor no endangered species and embody no distinguished landscape design.”

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

Honda Woods by Takano Landscape Planning / World Landscape Architect

Honda Woods – Vibrant Forests for Our Children, for Our Communities World Landscape Architecture, 12/3/18
“Honda Woods project was launched in the year of 1976, respecting the founder’s strong will. The company looked into tree species that were suitable for the environment at each factory nationwide and planted them to create a woodland, which was called ‘home-woods.’”

The Newest Designs and a Revised Timeline for the Restoration of a Major Downtown D.C. Park The Washington Business Journal, 12/4/18
“The years long pursuit to revive the second-largest National Park Service-owned square in downtown Washington with a host of amenities and programmed open spaces is nearing an important milestone.”

Kate Orff: How Can Oysters Revive New York City’s Waterways? WBUR 90.9, 12/7/18
“Oysters filter water, their shells form protective reefs and habitats, and regenerate into more oyster shells. Kate Orff uses oysters to revive depleted ecosystems — like those around New York City.”

How the Trust for Public Land Is Converting Schoolyards to Playgrounds Architect’s Newspaper, 12/10/18
“Since 1996, the Trust for Public Land (TPL), has been working out of its New York City office to partner with the City of New York and its Department of Education, to transform low-performing asphalt ‘play yards’ into multi-benefit play spaces.”

Urban Agriculture Sprouting Roots in Illinois’ Legislative Soil Next City, 12/12/18
“’We grow 30,000-35,000 pounds of food every year,’ says Daniels. Growing Home claims to be first and only certified organic ‘high-production’ urban farming operation inside the city of Chicago.”

Down in Chicago’s Pedway, Space p11 Offers Notes from the Underground and Conceptual Art by Plants The Chicago Tribune, 12/13/18
“Essentially, french is playing with the Anthropocene, or the larger narrative about the symbiotic relationship between plants and humans — with work like videos made for audiences of flora and fauna.”

Landscape Architecture in 2018 Provided a Bold Vision for Our Shared Built Environment Dezeen, 12/14/18
“From public art to waterfront developments and urban planning, landscape architecture in 2018 provided a bold vision for our shared built environment.”

Kongjian Yu: To Save China’s Environment, Educate the Leaders

Letters to the Leaders of China / Terreform

Many have called Kongjian Yu, FASLA, president of Turenscape, the Frederick Law Olmsted of China. And with his new book Letters to the Leaders of China: Kongjian Yu and the Future of the Chinese City, one understands why. This collection of letters to Chinese president Xi Jinping and provincial governors, essays, interviews, and other advocacy pieces reveal how much Yu has invested in promoting his ecological, water-centric “sponge city” approach. His book demonstrates that every landscape architect can become a leader and a powerful force for improving environmental and human health in their community.

Yu connects the professed communal and environmental aspirations of the Communist Party leadership with his own goals — healthy places for people and well-functioning ecosystems. But he also believes there has been some deviation from the original goals of the Communist revolution, with the pursuit of Western-style, car-based development; isolated, residential skyscrapers; and widespread environmental degradation.

He submits typical contemporary urban design in China to a kind of criticism study session, asking mayors and governors to re-examine their own motivations and re-align themselves with the true needs of the Chinese people and the environment.

He takes aim at the Chinese version of the western City Beautiful movement that has been carried out “aimlessly and autocratically,” damaging both the civil realm through the development of highways that split communities, giant soulless plazas, and parks filled with non-native plants; and the natural environment, through the country-wide pollution of air and water. His core argument: to mindlessly ape Western development models — and profit from these destructive approaches — is fundamentally un-Chinese and certainly not Communist.

In one compelling essay directed to mayors, he writes: “contemporary movements to build the ‘City Beautiful’ and the ‘eco-city’ are short-sighted. It is wrong to raze old homes downtown to erect a paved concrete square; wrong to demolish natural features to build ‘parks’ stuffed with exotic plants; wrong to cut down forests that meander along riverbanks, only to line those rivers with concrete; wrong to take productive rice fields that are over a thousand years old and cover them up with lawns of imported grass — all to inflate and publicize a mayor’s false achievements.”

He seeks to grow a new stock of governors and mayors who can change the status-quo urban planning paradigm in China. He wants them to adopt a “negative planning” approach in which important ecologies are purposefully protected from development. Instead of running population growth estimates and then creating a development plan based in standardized land requirements per person, Yu wants urban planners to preserve and enhance undeveloped land — hence the “negative” or zero planning or development approach — that provide vital ecosystem services. With negative planning, China can then build “landscape security patterns,” which form out of “strategic locations and linkages” that are “extremely important to the maintenance and control of ecological processes.”

ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

In a country that has become a toxic brownfield, landscape security could provide the stable foundation for the renewed sustainability and resilience of the country.

He calls for using a number of ambitious strategies for achieving landscape security, and bringing nature back to the cities in a real, not fake “eco-city” manner. Historic and cultural preservation, as well as agriculture, are woven through the ideas, too:

  • “Maintain and strengthen the overall continuity of the landscape pattern.
  • Establish and protect the city’s diversity of habitat.
  • Maintain and restore the natural configuration of rivers and shorelines.
  • Restore and protect wetland systems.
  • Integrate rural windbreaks into urban greenways.
  • Build greenways for pedestrians and cyclists.
  • Establish green cultural heritage corridors.
  • Improve urban green spaces by making them more permeable and accessible to the public.
  • Dissolve parks into the city’s matrix.
  • Dissolve the city, protect and integrate productive farmland as an organic element of the city.
  • Establish native plant nurseries.”
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

Amid the essays and lectures, Letters to the Leaders of China intermingles actual letters written by Yu to provincial governors, mayors, and Chinese president Xi Jinping himself. They give an insight into the opportunities and limits of Yu’s role as a leading intellectual and critic and the preeminent landscape architect in China. Unfortunately, though, Yu doesn’t provide any of their responses back to him, so these sections feel like a one-sided conversation. One doesn’t know the results of his lobbying.

Still, one letter to Wen Jiabao, premier of the state council, calling for a “vernacular heritage landscape network” — essentially, a national system of cultural landscapes that could also provide ecosystem services — is a particularly creative, efficient policy proposal that even includes specific governmental and regulatory changes to make his proposal happen. The letter shows an understanding of how the government is structured and what needs to change.

Through the letters, essays, and lectures, one gets a sense of how much Yu cares — and how driven he is to undo the unsustainable development patterns that repeat the same destructive errors made in the West over the past 50 years. He is trying to respectfully guide the leadership of China towards a more ecological, humane approach, and he works every angle he can find.

At the end of the book, there is a transcription of an interview with Chinese contemporary artist Ai Wei Wei. Ai presses Yu on his ideas, forcing him to justify his arguments. Yu states that China’s rustic, vernacular, “low culture” is what’s key to achieving sustainability — not the imported Western ideas of development, architecture, and landscape or bourgeois Chinese traditions. To achieve social and environmental reform, China must raise up what is considered low today — the wetland that functions, the productive aesthetics of the humble farm, the clean river.

ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. Framing Terrain and Water: Quzhou Luming Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu
ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. Framing Terrain and Water: Quzhou Luming Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

And so he seeks to educate China’s many mayors on the beauty of what is plain, which is why his works of landscape architecture are “consciously educational.”

Interview with Ignacio Bunster-Ossa: The New Geography of Green Infrastructure in Philadelphia

Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA

Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA, is national practice leader for landscape architecture at AECOM. He is the author of Reconsidering Ian McHarg and with David Rouse, ASLA, Green Infrastructure: A Landscape Approach. In his previous work as a principal at Wallace, Roberts & Todd (WRT), Bunster-Ossa led the development of the Palisades Park and Beach Boardwalk in Santa Monica, California, and the SteelStacks Art and Cultural Campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia has made great strides in its efforts to become a more sustainable city. Most recently, the city government announced it will be powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. The city’s green works sustainability plan, transportation plan, and city-wide vision plan lay out ambitious goals. Over the past decade, what have been Philadelphia’s major contribution to the sustainable city movement? And where does the city need to improve?

What propelled the big leap forward was the consent agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use green infrastructure to manage water pollution going into the Schuylkill and the Delaware Rivers. The agreement became the Green City, Clean Waters program, which is managed by the Philadelphia water department.

Philadelphia had a vast network of rivers, streams, and creeks, which in many cases were supplanted by underground sewers. These sewers erased the city’s hydrological foundation. Green City, Clean Waters is not quite undoing this system but introducing a new geography of green infrastructure that is not only shaping how the city ecologically functions but also how it looks. The program has produced fantastic parks and greenways. That’s a credit to the leadership: Howard Neukrug, director of watersheds and then commissioner of the water department, who instigated a lot of this; and Mami Hara, ASLA, his deputy for years, who is now the water chief in Seattle.

Fairmount Park rain gardens by Studio Bryan Hanes / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

Where we still need to improve: We see projects in areas that have the land. Parks and plazas have been retrofitted or designed anew to incorporate green infrastructure. But Philadelphia is an old, pre-industrial city where streets and sidewalks are tight. The challenge is how do you green streets in South, North, and West Philadelphia? There is so little space to implement a green vision.

Green trolley station in West Philadelphia. A concrete wasteland was transformed into a plaza with colorful plantings, porous paving, shaded seating and a café. Designed by landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates. / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

If you talk to engineers, they’ll say, “well, we can only put an underground cistern,” which works from a water quality point of view, but doesn’t provide the other benefits that green infrastructure produces: shade, biodiversity, and the like. This is the problem we need to address in the future.

As you mentioned, Philadelphia’s landmark green infrastructure plan — Green City, Clean Waters — and the Rebuilding Community Infrastructure program have led to the creation of more than 850 greened acres. A greened acre absorbs up to one inch of rainfall through trees, rain gardens, bioswales, and green roofs. What does the program need to accomplish next?

800 acres is less than 10 percent of the total required by the consent agreement, which is 9,300-plus greened acres. The question is: how do you implement green infrastructure in places where it’s the most difficult to implement?

Typical narrow downtown street in Philadelphia. A parklet helps absorb stormwater / Ignacio-Bunster Ossa

There’s also an issue of cost: if a greened acre costs $100,000 an acre, that is expensive. Another challenge is hiring a quality workforce who can work on green infrastructure in a way that benefits the most number of people.

Connect, the city’s first strategic transportation plan aims to make public transportation systems more integrated, equitable, and accessible. However, state funding for SEPTA, the regional railway system, is expected to fall. How can a sustainable regional transportation plan be forged among the Delaware River Valley community?

The issue is politics. The solution lies in Harrisburg; it doesn’t lie with SEPTA. Many communities in Pennsylvania don’t use or need transit because they are too spread out. These communities hold power in the allocation of funds that both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia need for transit. It’s a classic case of constituencies fighting for resources.

SEPTA has improved a lot over the years. It’s much more pleasant now to ride trains and buses. We’ve added many miles of bike lanes. And in a warehouse somewhere, there are thousands of electronic scooters ready to be rolled out. There is a new dynamic for moving around in the city.

Philadelphia bike lane / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

One of my biggest hopes is the city will dedicate streets or a whole corridor to low speeds, like 15- 20 miles an hour. If you hit a pedestrian at those speeds, they have an 80 percent chance of being unscathed; maybe a bruise, but that’s it. The city could do that along major corridors. Dedicated street are better than just bike lanes — they result in greater usage of sustainable transportation options.

Through its Rebuilding Community Infrastructure program, the city will be investing $500 million to make fair and equitable improvements in community parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, libraries across the city. What has the program accomplished so far? Are there fears new amenities could exacerbate gentrification?

The program is new so it hasn’t produced the scale of improvements that can lift up the whole city. The rebuild program has identified specific areas based on income, quality of the resource, need for the resource, and level of improvement. They’re spending the money in a prioritized way. And the $500 million is not all there. It’s being accumulated from a tax on soda, as well as from contributions from foundations. This is a long-term program that can produce results.

The issue of gentrification is very, very serious in Philadelphia. From a personal experience living in West Philadelphia, now known as University City District, I’ve been the recipient of the positive side of gentrification. But because of that, I’m acutely aware of the impacts.

I don’t think it necessarily follows that improvements will produce gentrification, in part because Philadelphia is one of the poorest cities. For large cities, the median income is one of the lowest, if not the lowest. The city is also predominately African-American, so the infusion, if you will, of white money that can produce gentrification won’t affect communities most in need of basic improvements. Perhaps long-term that could be the case. But the program isn’t prioritizing in any way, shape, or form projects that can induce re-development in a gentrifying way.

A recent study by Bloomberg found the City of Brotherly Love is sadly the third most unequal city in the U.S. behind Miami and Atlanta. Furthermore, the city jumped 17 spots in the past year, the sharpest negative move among the top ten most unequal cities. How can Philly better address the large income gap between those who live in or near Center City and those in low-income neighborhoods?

An associated consequence of the income gap is the gap in access to public resources. A research study by University City District called Just Spaces surveyed under-represented communities in the district. They want to find out: why don’t low-income people use bike lanes? Why don’t they use parks or public spaces? There are racial and economic reasons.

The report may point the way towards how you can create equity– not in terms of income, but at least in terms of access to affordable mobility and parks and recreation, which can elevate quality of life for everyone.

Philadelphia is also a hot spot for air pollution, earning an “F” grade from the American Lung Association and ranking just behind Memphis and Richmond for the country’s worst air. One in ten Philadelphians have asthma. Furthermore, asthma rates are spread unevenly, largely tracking with areas that are abnormally hot with fewer trees. This is because extreme heat combined with pollution forms dangerous levels of ozone that lead to asthmatic emergencies. How can Philadelphia address the inequity of the urban heat and air pollution issue?

Green infrastructure is a real solution — and it was embedded in the precursor to Green City, Green Waters, which was the Green Plan Philadelphia, a landmark report that Mami Hara also guided. The problem in Philadelphia is the tight streets where you can hardly fit a tree, given all the utilities. God forbid you remove a parking space. There’s a tremendous need for vegetation, particularly in South Philadelphia, where it’s very hard to find a tree in any given block.

The other component is obviously the roof landscape. In much of the city, roofscapes exceed streets in area. I would start programs that can produce green roofs, certainly blue roofs, but also change the material on the roof, so they are more reflective. You would see temperatures go down. I would do everything possible to improve the shade cover on streets as well.

Comcast Tower green roof by OLIN / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

Philadelphia did a program called Green Streets that I was part of. They have a design manual for green streets, which explains how to incorporate green infrastructure every time you fix a street. Over time, the city can make a dent in the air pollution problem.

After many years as a principal at Wallace, Roberts & Todd (WRT), where you designed projects such as the Palisades Park and Beach Boardwalk in Santa Monica and the SteelStacks Art and Cultural Campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, you moved to AECOM, where you’re now national practice leader for landscape architecture. In your new position, how do you hope to move Philly in a more sustainable, equitable direction?

We have folks in Philadelphia working for the water department on the green infrastructure program. We collaborate on where the rubber hits the road: How do you take a very small area and make it green? If there’s one lesson about the Green City, Clean Waters program is we’re almost dealing at the micro-landscape scale. That’s the level at which improvements are made over time.

The other work is focused on building parks near creeks to improve the quality of the water, but also recreational trails, such as in Pennypack and Tacony Creeks, and the Schuylkill River boardwalk, which is part of one the nation’s top urban trails.

Schuylkill River boardwalk / AECOM

The city has a very robust community engagement process. Philadelphia has a neighborhood-centric social structure. It’s great to work with people at that scale to make change.

And what have you learned from your 20-plus years’ experience in Philly that you want to bring to other cities and the national level?

It’s all about the scale of the city. Compare downtown Philadelphia to downtowns in other places, compare the widths of streets. I’ve measured this: it takes me 12 steps to cross most Center City streets. That’s 2-3 seconds. It’s a highly pedestrian-friendly environment because it’s so easy to cross a street.

When I go to other places and they tell me, “oh, you need a radius of 30 feet, because you need a truck to move around the city,” I say, “No you don’t.” I can show examples of big fire trucks moving around the city in this tight environment.

If I had to say anything about Philadelphia that would lead to a better future — it’s we need to take vehicles out of Center City and dense urban areas. Uber and autonomous vehicles (AVs) create on-call circulation that can travel at very low speeds. You no longer need parking. This evolution is inevitable in American cities. Philadelphia is ready made to lead the way.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 16 – 30)

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Ford Foundation restoration, New York City / Simon Luethi, Ford Foundation

Building Your ValuesCurbed New York, 11/20/18
“The Ford Foundation’s restoration of its landmark building makes a bold statement about what architecture owes the public today.”

It’s High Time to Memorialize the South’s History of LynchingThe Architect’s Newspaper, 11/2018
“According to a new report by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) entitled, Landslide 2018: Grounds for Democracy, numerous lynching sites in Shelby County, Tennessee, are virtually unmarked for their historical significance.”

Planning a Neighborhood SquareWestern Planner, 11/21/18
“Designing a neighborhood square to fulfill these social functions is not so simple. One of the biggest challenges is to get the proportions of the square right.”

How the Olmsted Brothers Shaped Our Natural Landscape Into a System of Interconnected, and Enduring, Public SpacesThe Seattle Times, 11/21/18
“John Charles Olmsted, the primary visionary of the Seattle Park System, developed a master plan that connected existing and planned green spaces across the city.”

Growing Green Spaces in the Sky CNN, 11/26/18
“At 85, landscape architect Richard Tan is still creating some of Singapore’s most iconic green walls and rooftop gardens.”

The State of City ParksU.S. News and World Report, 11/28/18
“City parks departments grapple with competing priorities as they recover from the Great Recession.”