While we look ahead to what’s new in the built and natural environments, it’s also valuable to look back at what attracted readers’ attention the most last year. Here’s a review of the 10 most popular DIRT posts of 2020.
Readers wanted to know more about the causes of the pandemic and its impacts on human and environmental health and local economies. Contributions from ASLA members explored the health risks of destroying biodiversity and expanding into natural areas and offered creative planning and design solutions to reduce the chances of another virus-driven catastrophe. Amid the global Black Lives Matter protest movement, readers also sought to learn more from Black landscape architects on their experiences with racism — and the need to preserve and celebrate Black landscapes.
ASLA members: please send us your original op-eds or articles on topics that inspire you. And tell us about your new projects and research. Please email us at email@example.com.
Robert Gibbs, FASLA: “Since the earliest human settlements, the retail experience has evolved to meet the needs of the public. This evolution has taken us from rural markets to towns, cities, suburban shopping malls, big box mega-stores, and, more recently, the Internet. But what will retail shopping look like once COVID-19 lockdowns are over and people return to the wild for their shopping experiences?”
Walter Hood, ASLA: “Sometimes places are palimpsests, meaning part of the brick and mortar, and some of them are based in memories, the passing of time. For people of color who are marginalized, stories get lost. Each project is fraught with chance. I am not trying to solve a problem, per se. I’m trying to put something out in the world that has been covered up, erased, which might allow people to see the world and themselves in a different way.”
Amid the continuing devastation, an interactive map from ESRI, which creates geographic information system software, enables users to track active fires by name or location in near real time and sort by timeline and magnitude. The map indicates each fire’s estimated start date and its current level of containment. Another layer provides a smoke forecast for any given location.
Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA: “My view is that feral green agglomerations will pop up across cities and suburbs. Residents will benefit from their habitat patches, stormwater storage, carbon sequestration, and makeshift community gathering areas.”
Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA: “In the 21st century, globalized economic growth has reached the end of its rope. Economies can’t continue to expand without creating new pandemic risks, as more people press up against the habitat of more wildlife or raise domestic animals in unhealthy conditions. We’re now part of one big, highly connected planetary ecosystem that’s going to bite us back hard if we step on it the wrong way.”
If you are in a place impacted by COVID-19, spending 20 minutes experiencing nature in a park, street, or even your backyard can significantly reduce your stress levels. Just be sure to follow federal, state, and local guidelines and maintain social distancing of 6 feet. But even if you cannot or are unable to go outside, taking a break by opening a window and looking at a tree or plant can also help de-stress.
Michael Grove, FASLA: “Degraded habitats of any kind can create conditions for viruses to cross over, whether in Accra or Austin. The disruption of habitat to support our suburban lifestyle is bringing us closer to species with which we have rarely had contact. By infringing on these ecosystems, we reduce the natural barriers between humans and host species, creating ideal conditions for diseases to spread. These microbes are not naturally human pathogens. They become human pathogens because we offer them that opportunity.”
At first, the images of Thammasat University Rooftop Farm seem like renderings, but they are in fact real. Designed by Landprocess, which is led by landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA, the 1.7-acre rooftop farm in Bangkok, Thailand, is not only mesmerizing but also a model of sustainable multi-use infrastructure.
Andrew Sargeant, ASLA: “We must change the narrative about investing in Black landscape architects and other minority designers as ‘helping them.’ Investment in diverse people and communities is investing in the future of the profession. I don’t want ‘help.'”
Throughout the Congress for New Urbanism’s Virtual Gathering, landscape architects, planners, architects, and developers struggled to figure out how the pandemic is impacting communities and the built environment — and tried to foresee what changes are coming in the near future.
Shanghai’s Longhua Airport Is Converted into a New Public Park — 11/30/20, Metropolis
“Designed by Sasaki, Xuhui offers a palimpsest of a reused airport, preserving its materials and forms. The 36-acre space is an intensely ‘linear composition,’ says Dou Zhang, senior associate director of Sasaki’s Shanghai office.”
More Parks, Longer Lives — 11/19/20, Parks & Recreation Magazine
“The research suggests that if all the census tracts in L.A. County expanded park access up to the county median, it could add up to 164,700 years in life-expectancy gains for residents living in park-poor tracts. Latino and Black community residents comprise almost 72 percent of the gain (118,000 years).”
Google Launches New Tool to Help Cities Stay Cool — 11/18/20, The Verge
“Google’s new Tree Canopy Lab uses aerial imagery and Google’s AI to figure out where every tree is in a city. Tree Canopy Lab puts that information on an interactive map along with additional data on which neighborhoods are more densely populated and are more vulnerable to high temperatures.”
“We need to take a hard look at the racial injustice that has poisoned American society. This is an issue for all professions — it’s not unique to landscape architecture,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, the new CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), during the first general session of reVISION ASLA 2020.
“Racism has played a role in countless development and design decisions, environmental injustice, and disinvestment in many communities.” To start on a new path, ASLA, as a professional society, and landscape architecture firms need to have an “essential dialogue that can help us all move forward,” Carter-Conneen said.
Carter-Conneen brought more than a thousand virtual attendees through a wide-ranging discussion with Majora Carter, an urban revitalization strategist who led the creation of Hunts Point Riverside Park, the first new park in the South Bronx in 60 years; and landscape designer and artist Walter Hood, ASLA, who is designing the landscape of the International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, South Carolina, and co-editor of the new book Black Landscapes Matter.
Instead of focusing on diversity, Hood argued the best way to move forward is to celebrate our differences, which can be “empowering.” As part of this, we need to “create broader definitions of landscapes” and move past “colonial landscapes in which everything is the same.” He stated that “everything is not the same — that is the fiction of the colonial landscape.”
Underserved communities of color can also move past tired conversations around gentrification and development. Instead of seeing all new community-driven development as bad, it’s important to understand the nuances rooted in history.
“The communities that are now being gentrified were once redlined and created out of inequality. These places have largely stayed the same, because they were once where they stuck Black folks and all the crap, devaluing these neighborhoods.”
Prior to being devalued and redlined, these communities were actually “historically very diverse, with a mix of working class people.” So, for Hood, the solution is not to further maintain the “ghetto,” but to “reshape it, dismantling segregation through amazing artistry and advocacy.” Planning and designing neighborhoods that restore historic diversity will lead to places “where people can live together.”
But Hood also noted that after some neighborhoods integrated in the 1960s, “many white people fled to the suburbs.” It’s unclear what the future will bring: “To live together or not — this is the big conundrum of the 21st century.”
Carter has called for historically “low-status” communities like the South Bronx to “self-gentrify.” This is driven by her desire to retain talent in these communities. “You don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one. In the past, it has been about growing up and getting out. But there is already lots of value in these communities.”
In fact, predatory real estate speculators have long seen the value, which is why perhaps so many historically marginalized and underserved communities fear development. Self-gentrification is different though: it’s about communities seeing the value and making improvements for themselves, reaping the rewards in the process.
Carter said she has recently stopped using the term self-gentrification because it is “too triggering for some.” While some people “get it right away,” others may see nefarious motives. “But I stand by the concept. The idea that there is no value in these communities is untrue. I want to mess with that idea.”
Hood largely concurred, arguing that he has purposefully kept his studio in West Oakland, a predominantly Black community, because “I’ve been here 25 years. This is my place, people here look like me, and it’s key to establishing self.” Plus, he added that “I can’t trust my future to someone else.” The future of West Oakland needs to be protected by the people who have deep roots there. They can beautify and improve it best.
2020 is the year of the pandemic. And in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by the police, it’s also the year of reckoning about racial injustice. When asked what the turmoil of this year means for low-status communities in the future, Carter said “I am hopeful and pray that the changes will turn into something real.”
She believes there is a great opportunity to help revitalize “low-status communities, including inner-city communities, poor white communities that have seen the loss of manufacturing, and indigenous reservations.” This can be realized through renewed investment in green infrastructure, which creates good-paying green jobs.
Hood argued that with the pandemic, “more people now see the value of the working class. We even came up new terms for them” — essential workers or first-line defenders.
Hood’s new book Black Landscapes Matter, co-edited with Grace Mitchell Tada, offers a way to further understand how landscapes have shaped race relations in the U.S. The book came out of a series of lectures Hood organized after a series of police killings of Black people in 2016. For him, the killing of Michael Brown was particularly impactful.
“The landscape where he was killed was familiar, outside a liquor store. I know that store, that street.” After Brown was gunned down, he was left in the middle of the road for hours.
Places enable or disable these kinds of behaviors. “Certain back drops make you afraid that someone could kill you there. These places look a certain way and give people the right.” Hood pointed to George Floyd and the check cashing store he went into. “These places have signs and symbols.”
One way to change the deadly narrative of these places for people of color is to change the narrative of the landscapes. As an example, he pointed to his project — 7th Street Dancing Lights in Oakland— that created towering 8-foot-tall images of African Americans over a road. “When people see the images, they wonder, ‘what is that?’ They may see the place differently” — and then interact with the people there more respectfully.
This is why for Hood it’s so important to undo the homogenizing impact of colonial landscapes, which make all places seem the same, even though they aren’t. “Through post-colonial landscapes, we can articulate different origin stories — and futures. We can make change by changing the narrative.”
Carter said: “that is so brilliant. We can create agency by creating places that speak to us. This kind of work opens up all sorts of new possibilities, and it doesn’t take anything away from anyone else.”
“When there is a convergence of crises, like we have now, there needs to be a convergence of solutions,” argued Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), at the 2020 GreenBuild conference. These solutions need to be net-zero in terms of energy and greenhouse gas emissions, regenerative, and reconnect humanity to nature. And while progress towards these solutions is now “irreversible,” we need to move much faster towards a net-zero world.
Since stepping down from the UNFCCC, where she orchestrated the Paris Climate Accord, Figueres founded the Global Optimism group and wrote the book The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis. With decades of experience fighting in the trenches of UN bureaucracies for climate action, Figueres shared her vision for the future, which is rooted in her “stubborn optimism.”
The history of the planet is the “result of an evolving relationship between nature and humans,” she explained. For 99.99 percent of that relationship over the millennia, “nature had the upper hand, and this was to our benefit.”
Up until the 1960s, humans experienced the Holocene Epoch, which provided Goldilocks-like conditions on Earth, creating a “sweet spot” in terms of temperatures, biodiversity, and precipitation. “This era enabled us to prosper, progress, and multiply.”
But in mid 1960s, the Holocene came to an abrupt halt because of rising greenhouse gas emissions resulting from decades of industrialization. “Then, the relationship between nature and humans was suddenly inverted, and humans took the upper hand, creating the Anthropocene Epoch.”
“I am 60 years old, so I was actually born in the previous era. I’ve lived through two geological eras, and I have to say the Anthropocene is already a sad history.”
In just six decades, humans have actually changed the biophysical processes of the planet. “Atmospheric gases released by our activities have created a warming planet, which has increased cyclones, hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, and sea level rise. Air pollution now leads to the premature death of 7 million people annually.” We have destroyed half of the world’s original forests. As we move into areas that were once the sole province of nature, we are increasingly exposing ourselves to viruses like COVID-19. And soon, “our oceans will have more plastic in them then fish. It’s becoming a dystopian world.”
But this is where her stubborn optimism came in. Figueres doesn’t believe we are condemned to a future of more destruction. “Because we now have the upper hand over nature, this dystopia is not preordained. We can collectively change the course.” That new course is found through adopting “clean energy, designing buildings that produce their own energy, and regenerating our soils and oceans.”
The path of decarbonizing our economies and societies is already laid out. The issue is that according to the UNFCCC, we have about a decade left to orchestrate this major transition in how humans power themselves. “2030 is the eye of the needle. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030, and then 100 percent by 2050.”
There are reasons to hope we can make it. In the energy sector, renewable sources, like hydro, solar, and wind power are already the source of more than 25 percent of global electricity and are heading towards 30-plus percent this year. In a greater number of energy markets, renewables are also the cheapest energy source, beating out coal, oil, and natural gas. In the transportation sector, electric vehicles are growing due to government mandates. “Every major car manufacturer now offers a range of EV models.”
New European Union pandemic recovery funds are directed towards a green recovery. China has just stated it will reach peak emissions by 2060, a major commitment. The majority of G-7 countries are now “headed in the right direction.”
More than 1,400 major corporations worldwide are already moving to “diversify away from climate risks,” Figueres explained. Another 1,200 companies, with some $14 trillion in capital investments, are divesting from sectors with high climate risk, including fossil fuels. The 30 largest institutional investors, which have some $5 trillion in assets, “now understand climate risk and are not willing to strand assets.” 18 countries’ central banks now do climate change stress tests.
Amazon, the global e-commerce giant, just released its pledge to become net-zero in terms of its emissions by 2040. Apple, Nike, Starbucks have moved up their net-zero goals to 2030.
Figueres was very positive about these trends, because they “normalize corporate responsibility and create new expectations.” Plus, these companies are sending the message that “constraining carbon is good for innovation.”
But amid these developments, the future sustainability of the built environment looms large.
Figueres said planners and design professionals play a critical role, because they are the “architects of the future.” It will be design professionals that help us achieve the critical goals of all new buildings being net-zero in terms of energy use by 2030, and all buildings by 2050 — key goals required to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.
To make this more sustainable future happen, design professionals must “incorporate the human experience” and steer the world towards “more low-impact materials that have a high impact on human livability.”
Furthermore, 60 percent of the world’s infrastructure hasn’t been built yet. With the expected growth in population and new cities across the developed and developing worlds, there’s only one chance to get things right. Landscape architects, architects, planners will be responsible for determining “how we live on the planet” far into the future.
“We can create a new relationship between nature and society. We can claw back nature in cities, creating a more harmonious and regenerative relationship. We must regenerate nature in cities for humans to thrive.”
To achieve this new world, humanity will also need to shift its mindset. “We need to shift from thinking about ‘the other’ to thinking about ‘each other.’ We need to get away from thinking we have power over something or someone and move towards the idea that we have ‘power for’ someone or something. This will create the sense of collective agency.”
Humanity has become totally out of synch with the planet’s biophysical systems — for proof, just look to climate change, COVID-19, environmental degradation, ocean acidification, and the accelerated extinction of species. As we now begin to understand, the planet is a single organism, a complex, inter-connected system that can either be healthy and in balance — or not. Furthermore, our health and well-being are intrinsically connected to the health and well-being of natural systems.
In Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves, a new book edited by Drs. Howard Frumkin and Samuel Myers, we are given a roadmap for how to undo the damage to the Earth and live in a way that is more respectful of the planet’s limited capacity. The authors convince us to take this path not just for nature’s sake but also for our own future health and well-being.
Dr. Howard Frumkin is former Dean of Public Health at the University of Washington and former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Samuel Myers is principal research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Together, they have put together a thought-provoking and rich 500-page overview of the emerging field of planetary health, which is increasingly used by UN organizations, governments, non-profits, and universities as a framework for understanding the relationship between human and environmental health.
Frumkin and Myers and their contributors build their case so methodically, with loads of persuasive data, that by the end of the book, it seems difficult to imagine a better framework for understanding Earth’s contemporary human-environmental dynamics. This book is a must-read for anyone passionate about creating better outcomes for more people, far into the future.
In their introduction, the editors explain how today is “the best of times and the worst of times.” On one hand, it has “never been a better time to be a human being.” In the past 65 years, the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty fell from 63 percent to 10 percent, despite the population tripling in size. Child mortality rates are the lowest in recorded history.
But on the other hand, human activity is “driving biophysical change at rates that are much steeper than have existed in the history of our species.” 40 percent of the planet is now dedicated to agriculture, at the expense of natural systems. Habitat destruction and the anticipated extinction of up to a million species threatens the underlying biodiversity that maintains the resilience of natural systems.
Some may see promise in the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch created by humans, and imagine a future planet optimized by direct human control. But in reality, the poor human management of the planet’s biophysical systems to date means that more of the status quo will lead to civilizational collapse.
According to Frumkin and Myers, we have disrupted the climate system; polluted air, water, and soils; caused rapid biodiversity loss; reconfigured biogeochemical cycles; made pervasive changes in land use; and depleted fresh water and arable land. These changes all have significant health implications for billions of people. A new approach rooted in planetary health is needed.
The book first provides a background on the intellectual history of the concept of planetary health, which only began as a systems-scale field of research in the 1990s. As Dr. Warwick Anderson explains in his essay, the field made a big leap in 2010, when The Lancet, a major research journal, and the Rockefeller Foundation partnered with other public health groups to promote a “new health discipline — public health 2.0.” In 2015, with the release of the seminal Lancet – Rockefeller Foundation commission report Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch, Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, deemed the new field of inquiry “planetary health,” which Anderson states, “rapidly gained currency.”
The book then lays out the scale and complexity of the problems and offer some positive models to addressing them:
A chapter by a team of esteemed researchers from organizations such as the Population Council, Population Reference Bureau, and Population Institute explore how the growth in human population and consumption are driving environmental change. They argue that “given the tight interconnectedness of the two drivers, it may be best to see them as coequal challenges.”
These contributors call for disincentivizing the excessive consumer consumption of the U.S. and western Europe, which would doom the planet if expanded to a global scale. They also point to the connected drivers that can further reduce population growth, including greater investment in the education of girls and women around the world, which helps to empower them to make their own decisions, and the expansion of access to contraceptives.
Their conclusion: a “multi-pronged strategy that integrates education, sound policies, and high-quality health services — all while guaranteeing the rights and respecting the dignity of all people — could dramatically accelerate the transition to truly sustainable levels of human population and consumption.”
A companion essay outlines the environmental impacts of the twinned growth in population and consumption. The authors argue: “We live on a different planet than the one our great-grandparents called home a century ago. It is a warmer planet, a more crowded planet, a planet with fewer species, a planet marked by widespread contamination and altered biogeochemical cycles.”
In this chapter, we learn about humans’ many impacts on the environment — ranging from the climate to the nitrogen cycle in agriculture, from land use and cover to water scarcity, biodiversity loss, and pollution.
Through a series of essays, Planetary Health delves into how those specific environmental changes — all driven by human behavior — are in turn jeopardizing human health and well-being by increasing risks in the area of nutrition, infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, population displacement and conflict, and mental health.
In the section on nutrition, Myers explains how rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels increase risks in the agricultural sector, impacting everything from the amount of time farm workers can stay in the heat to the nutritional yield of important mainstay plants. He also flags the lack of genetic diversity of the few plant species we rely on and the need to greater protect plant diversity.
A chapter on infectious diseases by Richard Ostfeld, with the Cary Institute of Ecological Studies, and Felicia Keesing, a biologist at Bard College, explains the growing risks of various infectious diseases. They write: “key environmental drivers, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, land use change, pollution, and alteration of biogeochemical cycles cause changes in the abundance, distribution, physiology, and behavior of important species involved in the transmission of both zoonotic and nonzoonotic pathogens to humans.” They analyze the relationships between land use, biodiversity, and diseases like malaria, lyme disease, and schistosomiasis, among others.
Non-communicable diseases, which include cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, and other conditions, account for 70 percent of global deaths each year. In this chapter, Frumkin and Andy Haines, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases, lay out the data on how climate change, urbanization, and air pollution increase non-communicable disease risk. Of particular interest for landscape architects and planners is a section on the dangers of automobile-dependent communities.
A team of researchers then connect the dots between environmental change, migration, conflict, and heath impacts, explaining how the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, is now understood as the first “modern climate change conflict,” and how we can expect more to come.
One of their arguments for investing in climate solutions is worth re-stating: “Adaptation to global environmental change is part of preventing migration. Adaptation can reduce vulnerability to both sudden shocks and long-term trends. Examples include switching farming practices to drought-tolerant crops and soil-conserving techniques, not building in floodplains, constructing levees and sea walls, restoring coastal barrier systems (mangroves, vegetated dunes, coral reefs, wetlands), and altering building codes to put key utilities on roof instead of in basements.”
Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster, provides a much-needed overview of the expected mental health impacts of climate and environmental change. She collects many useful studies in one place, providing a valuable reference.
One worrying conclusion: “Higher temperatures can provoke increased aggression. This manifests in many ways: from pitchers beaning batters during baseball games and drivers aggressively honking their horns, all the way to violent crime, particularly when combined with frustration over limited access to resources, such as fresh water or arable land.” One of her key solutions is expanding access to nature, particularly in cities. “Reconnecting with nature…offers a range of direct and indirect mental health benefits.”
Planetary Health then turns to building the case for systemic changes in our societies and economies, including a shift away from using gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of growth and instead using gross national happiness and other metrics that better account for human health, well-being, and environmental health. Central arguments include: “happiness and human health are intertwined; natural environments make people happy; and happiness production is not resource-intensive.” In other words, more experiences in nature create happiness, not the latest purchases.
After wading through the problems, we then get to the solutions — healthier models for various sectors: energy, chemicals, cities, economic development, and private sector growth. The chapter on urban places and planetary health is particularly worth reading as it makes the health argument for “integrated green urbanism,” transit-oriented development, bicycle infrastructure, and urban food systems. Iryna Dronova, a professor of landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, contributes to this discussion. The chapter on chemicals outlines how to reduce the risk of endocrine disruptors and create new green chemicals.
This significant new book also proposes how to create a set of planetary health ethics that can guide current and future action — a mutual promise to do no further harm in our era of climate and environmental change. Here, the contributors call for a “social movement, a scientific framework, an attitude towards life, and a philosophy of living that fosters resilience and adaptation.”
The core message: If we truly commit to maximizing human and environmental health in all communities, and undertaking all that entails, we will get on a pathway to saving the planet.
The Little-Known Women Behind Some Well-Known Landscapes — 10/21/20, The New York Times
“‘Women have literally shaped the American landscape and continue to today,’ said Charles A. Birnbaum, president and chief executive of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, ‘but their names and contributions are largely unknown.’”
In the 1930s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), a government-sponsored corporation that issued mortgages, would send lenders and realtors out into communities with a standard form they were asked to fill out. The form was meant to capture data about areas’ characteristics and figure out which had “favorable influences,” such as good schools or views, and which had “detrimental influences,” such as “obnoxious odors, a lack of utilities, or a high number of African Americans or immigrants,” explained Rob Nelson, a professor at the University of Richmond, during a session at the Urban Land Institute’s virtual fall meeting. The forms were meant to calculate the “level of infiltration” by African Americans and immigrants. Areas with high levels were marked as “high risk” areas for mortgage lending.
What HOLC and other lenders had been doing for decades would later be named redlining. The term redlining came from the comprehensive color-coded maps HOLC and other lenders would create, which would indicate “security grades” for mortgage lending. According to Nelson, grade A or B grade neighborhoods were colored in green and blue, grade C in yellow, and the lowest level, grade D, in red.
Grade A neighborhoods were “hot spots for construction,” often in the suburbs, and entirely white. Grade B neighborhoods were “still desirable” and “good for lenders.” Grade C neighborhoods were somewhat “infiltrated by lower grade populations,” and grade D neighborhoods experienced the “detrimental influence of undesirable populations.” In these neighborhoods, HOLC urged lenders to “refuse to make loans.” These predominately African American areas were deemed “hazardous,” Nelson explained.
In Richmond, Virginia, D neighborhoods, marked in red, were found closer to the city center, while C neighborhoods were a little further out, and A and B neighborhoods were in the suburbs. “Almost all A, B, C neighborhoods had no African Americans, while D neighborhoods were predominately African American. The pattern was crystal clear.”
Nelson argued that other than the racial composition of the A and D neighborhoods, HOLC and other lenders had no clear sense of the demographics of these areas. The A neighborhoods weren’t further examined — they were assumed to have multi-generational wealth and the “best people, really.” In the D neighborhoods, “comprised mostly of Negroes,” there “was no occupations listed; they were assumed to be domestic workers or gardeners.”
C neighborhoods were defined by the degree they were influenced by D neighborhoods. A neighborhood categorized as C could include a “predominately white school in a Black area, or include ‘mostly respectable’ people who happened to live too near Negro areas.”
The conclusion from Nelson’s analysis is that lenders found African Americans to be a “profound threat to property values. Just having proximity to African Americans, who may be pedestrians walking through the neighborhood, would have material consequences.”
The same exact patterns of grading communities and redlining existed in a staggering 200-plus cities, both large and small, across the U.S. “This was structural racism that was state-endorsed.”
One of the results was to “direct public and private capital to white families in the suburbs.” In effect, redlining became “one of the greatest mechanisms for white families to generate wealth and for denying African Americans the opportunity.”
The legacy of redlining, which occurred over the course of many decades, continues to impact American society. As Kofi Boone, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University explained at last year’s ULI conference, without the opportunity to accumulate wealth through home ownership, African Americans to this day have little to pass on to future generations to inherit. “Today, the average white family has $122,000 in wealth; Latinx family $1,600; and African American family, just $1,300,” Boone said.
The African American communities denied access to home ownership also experienced other forms of public disinvestment. As Nelson pointed out, a recent study from The New York Times found that historically redlined communities had “much more asphalt and concrete and much fewer street trees or parks.” This resulted in higher levels of the urban heat island effect. These areas are now highly correlated with increased pollution and asthma rates. “These places are much more vulnerable,” and their populations have “far lower life expectancy, with higher rates of diabetes, asthma, kidney disease, and hypertension,” he said.
Nelson believes the racist housing policies of the past can be undone through “anti-racist real estate practices.” The past approach for wealth building can be “reversed.”
Dr. Fullilove said on their surface, the redlining maps are beautiful, almost like cartoons. But in reality, they represented a total stratification of cities, the “trashing” of cities. (She added it’s important to note there were no redlining maps of the suburbs).
Thinking like a psychiatrist, Dr. Fullilove said the maps have had a powerful impact that help maintain an “American apartheid in our heads” and create a “paradigm in our hearts.” She then outlined a few projects that are breaking down the hierarchies established by the redlining maps in Manhattan, particularly the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights.
In 2005, Dr. Fullilove founded Hike the Heights, a program that helps residents of northern Manhattan cut across neighborhoods once graded A,B,C, and D and break down the “mental map” that still segregates communities.
The program created a walking and biking map of a newly imagined linear North-South trail that begins from Central Park and ends at the Cloisters museum at Fort Tryon park in the northwestern edge of Manhattan.
After expanding her efforts by forming the City Life Is Moving Bodies (CLIMB) community group, Dr. Fullilove and team worked with designer Sagi Golan to fine tune a map they pass out at walking events and festivals.
The map’s route was entirely guided by the community, including children who helped with data collection. Dr. Fullilove then consulted with an urban designer, who advised that the trail, which children said looked a bit like a giraffe, needed a head, so it was decided that it should end at the Cloisters. The team added in east west components as the trails moves north south.
As groups of upper Manhattanites organized by CLIMB began to walk the trail, the community started to clean up derelict parks and revitalize “scary places” that had been occupied by junkies with children’s art, like papier-mâché giraffes.
The new investment of community energy into these green spaces caused the city government to follow suit. CLIMB’s advocacy work led to the New York City government to invest $30 million in restoring Highbridge Park in Washington Heights.
Dr. Fullilove’s former students also started Design The We, an inventive research and planning project in New York City aimed at “un-designing the redline.”
Still, the legacy of redlining is being felt to this day. As Dr. Fullilove explained, redlining maps set up neighborhoods for urban renewal in the 1960s and 70s. “The refusal to invest led to communities to become blighted and then to be destroyed through urban renewal,” she said. Urban renewal also meant displacement.
Today, that displacement only continues. Too often urban development or revitalization efforts “happen to communities, not with or for them.” Community development is still too often a box to check; the developers “aren’t really listening.”
The foremost issue exacerbating community gentrification and displacement is the lack of affordable housing. An increasingly large share of the population is paying nearly half of their income on rent, which is unsustainable. The amount spent on housing should be around 30 percent.
Public housing no longer receives much support or investment, so housing development has been given over to the private sector. The issue is that private developers can’t afford to develop low-cost housing; they need further subsidies.
The lack of affordable housing is in turn “causing white people to gentrify previously redlined communities,” Dr. Fullilove said. “When I say ‘white people,’ it’s arbitrary, it’s who we think of this week.”
One way to slow this process down is to further densify communities and increase the amount of affordable housing available in every neighborhood. “We need to make the whole city fabulous at all price points — everywhere.”
Another way to be more responsive to existing urban communities is to diversify the people making development decisions. Showing a photo of the lenders who redlined New York City in the 1930s, it’s all white men. And then showing a photo of a group of community planners today, there is a “melange of people” providing different perspectives.
Snøhetta, OJB Landscape Architecture Top Winners of 2020 National Design Awards — 10/02/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Winner OJB Landscape Architecture, a landscape architecture and urban planning practice that maintains offices in San Diego, Boston, Houston, Dallas, and Philadelphia, released a statement where founder Jim Burnett noted: ‘I believe landscape has the power to transform cities and strengthen communities, and that now, more than ever, we have a responsibility to address issues of access, equity, and health in our shared public spaces.'”
Imagine a Transcontinental Network of Protected Bike Paths — 10/02/20, Fast Company
“Under an elevated rail line in Miami, a new park will open this fall with a 10-mile path dedicated to walking and biking. It’s an infrastructure improvement for Miami cyclists, but it’s also part of a larger, interstate network of trails that will eventually make it possible to ride from Florida to Maine with little interaction with cars.”
Landslide 2020 Spotlights Women-designed Landscapes and the Threats That They Face — 10/01/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“This year, to mark the centennial of the ratification of the 19th amendment, each of the dozen threatened landscapes (two containing multiple sites) were created, designed, tended to, and championed by women including a multitude of female landscape architects and designers, many of them pioneering in the field and some unsung and overlooked.”
It is especially gratifying to be recognized on the 120th anniversary of the birth of the man who established landscape architecture as “the mother of all arts”—Sir Jellicoe himself.
My Roots in the Village
I’d like to begin by talking a bit about my childhood, which ultimately had a profound influence on the way I’ve come to approach my work. I was born to a peasant family in Dong Yu village in southeast China’s Zhejiang Province. The village is located where White Sand Creek and the Wujiang River meet.
I swam in the creek during the summer and caught big fish when the monsoon season came. When I was small, I took care of a water buffalo, which grazed along the waterways and between the paddy fields. There were seven ponds, a patch of sacred forest and two big camphor trees in front of the village, under which many legendary stories about my ancestors were told.
The land was extremely productive. We planted three crops throughout the year, including canola, wheat, buckwheat, rice, sugar cane, peanut, sweet potato, corn, soybeans, carrot, turnip, radish and lotus.
The land and water were precious, but the weather could be unpredictable, so we had to design and manage our farm fields wisely, following nature’s cycle and wasting nothing, and adapting in order to make a living.
We worshipped the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, the legendary king who knew how to manage water and plan the land. We also worshipped our ancestors, who had the wisdom of adapting to nature and cultivating the land.
In all likelihood, I would have followed in the footsteps of my father, who taught me how to cultivate the land, manage water, and be a productive farmer.
But it was a difficult time. Although we were a peasant family, we had also been landowners. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, my family was labeled as members of the “landlord class.” Our land was seized and redistributed to communes, after which we collectively farmed it. More significantly for me, children from the landlord class were prohibited from attending school.
But in 1978, an army veteran who came to teach in my village, Mr. Zhou Zhangchao, caught up with me one day while I was riding my water buffalo home. He told me that Deng Xiaoping had reversed the policies that barred the children of the landlord class from going to school. I immediately enrolled in school and began studying hard to catch up.
In 1980, after 17 years working on the commune, I passed the national university entrance examination. I was the sole lucky university entrant out of 300-plus students in our rural high school.
On the Shoulders of Giants
By chance, I was chosen to enroll in Beijing Forestry University as one of 30 students in the entire nation to study gardening, which had been cancelled for ten years during the Cultural Revolution. I was fortunate to have some of the best landscape gardening professors in the nation as my mentors, including Wang Juyuan, the founder of the Landscape Gardening Program at the Beijing Forestry University; Chen Youming, my Master’s thesis advisor; and Sun Xiaoxiang and Chen Junyu.
In a certain sense, leaving the dusty countryside to make beautiful gardens in the city was a dream for me and my parents.
But when I finished college and was starting my career of teaching and making beautiful gardens for the city, I returned home to find that my village had been destroyed. The sacred forest and the camphor trees had been cut and sold off. The creek itself had become a gravel quarry, and the fish disappeared.
I began to ask myself: Was there something more I should be doing? What about my village and my fellow villagers? What about the land beyond the garden walls and beyond the city walls—where, at the time, almost three-quarters of a billion Chinese lived?
At this same time, I began looking abroad to learn more. In 1992, I was accepted at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. I spent the next four years working with Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, along with landscape ecologist Richard Forman and GIS and computing expert Stephen Ervin. I would often encounter Ian McHarg, Michael Van Vulkenburgh, FASLA, Peter Rowe, and others in the hallways.
For me, it was a tremendously exciting time. It was a chance to meld the village-level concepts of the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, from my childhood, with the ideas of the great Chinese “gardening” masters—and some of the best minds in the West.
The concepts of landscape and urban ecology, people-oriented urbanism, landscape perception and revolutionary anthropology, landscape and architectural phenomenology, etc., enlightened the left side of my brain. Design works by contemporary masters including Peter Walker, FASLA, Laurie Olin, FASLA, Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Richard Haag, FASLA, Maya Lin, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Peter Latz, Bernard Tschumi, and so on, inspired the right side of my brain.
It happened to be a time of great debate within academia, and I found myself fascinated by the tensions between design as political procedure versus design with nature, and art versus ecology.
I was captivated by two questions, which have subsequently driven my entire career:
Conservation vs. Development: Spatial planning based on the idea of balance –when land and space are limited, how can we balance ecological protection with development?
Sustainability vs. Beauty: The creation of Deep Form — what is the relationship between sustainability and beauty, how can we unite ecology and art?
After graduating, I was recruited by SWA in Laguna Beach, California. There, I was able to work with Richard Law, FASLA, on luxury properties, new urban development, and projects in the booming Asian market. Life on the beach was pretty good.
But while I was happily designing luxury properties and imagining the grandeur of new cities, I found that the land at home was under assault. Old buildings were torn down; hills were leveled; lakes and wetlands filled and polluted; rivers channelized and dammed; and public squares and boulevards were built at gargantuan size. It was the opposite of everything I had learned about how to create livable cities and landscapes.
And it turned out to be a national-scale challenge. Over 80 percent of Chinese cities suffer air pollution, which kills 1.2 million people each year. Flooding causes some US$ 100 billion in damage. Four hundred of 662 cities suffer water shortages. Seventy-five percent of the nation’s surface water is polluted, and 64 percent of cities’ groundwater is polluted. 50 percent of wetlands have disappeared in past 50 years, resulting in tremendous losses of wildlife habitat.
Meeting the challenges
(1) Start with Education and a New Identity
I landed at Peking University as a professor in 1997 and was immediately joined by my lifelong friend Li Dihu. Together we started the landscape architecture program in the Department of Geography. We hoped to help an important new profession establish a foothold across a vast landscape. But we had humble beginnings: We started with a grand total of 3 students. (Today, we have 200 students enrolled, with more than 600 graduates.)
But people still tended to see me simply as “a gardener,” with no relation to urban development, land and water management, flood control, or ecological restoration.
In China, there’s a legend about “The Land of Peach Blossoms,” a magical realm of peace, a sort of Shangri-La. To a certain extent, I have always thought of Dong Yu village, where I grew up—with the two big camphor trees under which I heard the stories of my ancestors and the sacred forest where they rest–as the Land of Peach Blossoms. And landscape architecture, to me, seemed a way to recover the lost Land of Peach Blossoms.
So I felt compelled to reclaim the importance of landscape architecture itself and began describing it as “The Art of Survival.” In doing this, I was inspired by Ian McHarg’s pugnacious call to arms: “Don’t ask us about your garden. Don’t ask us about your bloody flowers …. We’re going to talk to you about survival.”
We launched a new magazine, Landscape Architecture Frontiers, to promote our new approach. We brought in top thinkers in the field to lecture and held over 15 landscape architecture conferences to educate a young generation and begin creating a consensus.
(2) Trying to reverse the damage and inspire policy change
We felt that immediate action had to be taken to reverse the damage, so we launched the concept of “Inverse Planning” (反规划 fǎn guīhuà), which emphasizes the protection of existing natural functions and prioritizes what is not built—what should be protected instead.
I also realized that the only way to reverse the damage caused by conventional planning procedure was to convince decision makers to change the policies. So I kept writing and talking and lecturing to decision makers, from top authorities to township leaders. I delivered over 300 lectures to municipal decision makers and ministers.
In 2006, I made a proposal to then-Premier Wen Jiabao that, to my surprise and gratification, initiated the process of national security pattern planning and ecological red line regulation.
These two concepts help identify and protect critical landscapes to safeguard natural, biological, cultural and recreational values and functions, thus securing this wide range of ecosystems services essential for sustaining human society. The State Council has since issued four state regulations to safeguard national ecological security.
(3) The “Big Foot” Revolution
I also realized that bad decisions were being made simply because of a misguided mentality about civilization and misguided aesthetic sensibilities. For thousands of years, the “civilized” urban elite worldwide has insisted on the privilege of defining civilization, beauty, and good taste. Bound feet, deformed heads, and twisted bodies are only a few such expressions of cultural practices that, in trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural bumpkins, have rejected nature’s inherent principles of health, survival, and productivity.
In China, for more than a thousand years, young girls were forced to bind their feet in order to be able to be considered beautiful enough to marry urban elites. Natural, “big” feet were considered rustic and rural. The obsession with “little feet” sacrificed function and dignity for ornamental value.
Today, landscaping and city building, by far, are the most visible and extensive manifestations of the folly of civilization and aesthetic standards defined from above—what I think of as “little foot” urbanism and the “little foot” aesthetic.
On one hand, the “manicured little foot” grey infrastructure simply lacks resilience and is a waste of energy and materials. On the other hand, urban elites with “little foot” aesthetics trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural peasants have rejected nature’s inherent goals of health and productivity.
These kinds of “little foot” grey infrastructure and aesthetics are not only expensive, but also wasteful and unsustainable. China’s carbon emissions in 2017 accounted for 28 percent of the world total. And according to 2018 figures from the World Economic Forum, China consumes 59 percent of the world’s cement and 50 percent of its steel and coal.
So I began advocating for what I call a Big Foot Revolution. This movement begins with questioning some of the basic values I have mentioned above, and my hope is that it will mirror an earlier revolution in the way Chinese thought about their own bodies and culture.
In the early 20th century, The New Cultural Movement was launched by teachers and students at Peking University, and ultimately led to the rejection of foot binding and a re-embracing of the natural beauty of the human form.
I believe the Big Foot Revolution will happen at three levels of action:
Planning the Big Feet (planning ecological infrastructure across scales)
Creating Working Big Feet (creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom)
Making Big Feet Beautiful (new aesthetics to create deep forms).
“Planning the Big Feet” or planning ecological infrastructure across scales, is critical for securing ecosystems services, and weaving green infrastructure together with grey infrastructure. Inspired by the ancient concept of sacred landscape—and by modern game theory¬—I developed the concept of the Landscape Security Pattern, which focuses on protecting the critical landscape patterns needed to ensure that natural processes can continue.
“Creating working Big Feet” means creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom, particularly from agriculture. We have developed replicable modules based on traditional farming techniques of terracing, ponding, diking, and islanding to address climate change and related problems at a massive scale in a cost-effective manner.
In China, all rivers are dammed and channelized with concrete flood walls. China has more than half of the world’s dams greater than 15 meters in height. More than US $20 billion is invested to control flooding each year, but US $100 billion is lost and 10 million people are affected every year. We need to accept and embrace flooding as a natural phenomenon, and turn grey infrastructure into green to help temper the damage of inevitable floods.
Due to the monsoon climate, over 62 percent of Chinese cities suffer from urban flooding. How much more flooding could be managed better if nature-based solutions were implemented nationwide? Using sponge city concepts would greatly increase water resilience.
In China, 75 percent of surface water is contaminated. Globally, 85 percent of sewage goes untreated. But the landscape can be a living system to clean water. Terraced, constructed wetland can be used to remove nutrients through biological processes.
We have already incorporated many of these ideas at several parks throughout China. In Zhejiang Province’s Taizhou City, we redesigned the Yongning Park as a “floating garden” with ecological embankments that can reduce peak flood flow by more than half, and create a seasonally flooded natural matrix of wetland and natural vegetation that sustains natural processes. This park demonstrates an ecological approach to flood control and stormwater management, while also educating people about new and forgotten solutions to flood control beyond engineering.
In Zhejiang’s Jinhua City, water-resilient terrain and planted vegetation were designed to adapt to monsoon floods. A resilient bridge and path system was designed to adapt to the dynamic flows of water and people. The river currents, the flow of people, and the gravity of objects are all woven together to form a dynamic concord. This is achieved through meandering vegetated terraces, curvilinear paths, a serpentine bridge, circular bioswales, planted beds, and curved benches.
In Harbin, in the far north, we turned the Qunli Stormwater Park into a “green sponge” that filters and stores urban stormwater while providing other ecosystem services, including the protection of native habitats, aquifer recharge, recreational use and aesthetic experience, which together help foster sustainable urban development.
At Dong’an Wetland Park on Hainan Island, off the coast of southern China, creating a green sponge in the center of the urban environment was an essential adaptation strategy for increasing resilience to climate change, particularly in an area where tropical storms can easily overwhelm conventional drainage systems.
In this case, a heavily polluted 68-hectare site was filled with non-permitted buildings and illegally dumped urban debris. Inspired by the ancient pond-and-dike systems and islanding techniques in the Pearl River Delta, and using simple cut-and-fill methods, a necklace of ponds and dikes was created along the periphery of the park that catches and filters urban runoff from the surrounding communities.
In the central part of the park, dirt and fill were used to create islands that are planted with banyan trees to create a forested wetland. Both ponding and islanding will dramatically increase the water-retention capacity of the park and increase the eco-tones between water and land to speed up the removal of nutrients. The constructed wetland can accommodate 830,000 cubic meters of storm water, dramatically reducing the risk of urban inundation.
Along the Huangpu River in Shanghai, we designed Houtan Park as a regenerative living landscape on a former industrial brownfield. The park’s constructed wetland, ecological flood control, reclaimed industrial structures and materials, and urban agriculture are integral components of an overall restorative design strategy to treat polluted river water and recover the degraded waterfront in an aesthetically pleasing way. The 10-hectare park, which is 1,700 meters long, filters phosphorous and other nutrients from 2,400 cubic meters of water per day, which is enough water for 5,000 people.
The Meshe River in Haikou has suffered flooding due to the monsoon climate and water pollution caused by sewage and non-point source pollution from urban and suburban runoff. The river had been channelized with concrete for the sole objective of flood control, which destroyed its ecological resilience.
We used nature-based solutions to create resilient green infrastructure that has revived the river. The concrete flood walls have been removed and the river was reconnected to the ocean so that tides could once again enter the city. Wetlands and shallow river margins were reconstructed so that mangroves could be restored. A terraced mosaic of wetlands along the banks of the river was designed as natural water-treatment facilities that catch and cleanse nutrient-laden runoff, and a significant amount of wildlife habitat has been recovered in the dense city center.
The Mangrove Park in Sanya City, on the island of Hainan, is another example of nature-based climate resilience. To mitigate urban flood risk caused by climate change, it was critical to restore mangrove along the waterways and coastal shorelines. One of the key challenges was finding an efficient and inexpensive method to reestablish the mangrove habitat that had been extensively destroyed due to rapid urban development. To that end, fill composed of urban construction debris and concrete from the demolition of the flood wall was recycled on site.
Cut-and-fill techniques were subsequently used to create a gradient of different riparian eco-tones for diverse fauna and flora, particularly different species of mangroves. An interlocking-finger design was used to lead ocean tides into the waterways, while also attenuating the impact of both tropical storm surge and flash floods originating in the urban and upland area upstream, both of which can harm establishment of mangroves. This also maximized habitat diversity and edge effects, which increase the interface between plants and water; this, in turn, enhances ecological processes such as nutrient removal from the water.
The dynamic aquatic environment that follows the rise and fall of tides and provides several aquatic species with the daily water-level fluctuation they need for survival. Terraces between city streets and the river have been augmented with bioswales to catch and filter urban stormwater runoff. In just three years, an area of lifeless land fill within a concrete flood wall in the center of the city was transformed into a lush mangrove park. This type of mangrove rehabilitation can be implemented at a large scale efficiently.
In China, 60 percent of urban soil is contaminated, and conventional remediation is usually very expensive. In Tianjin’s Qiaoyuan Park, I wanted to show how we can let nature do the work, by using nature-based soil remediation techniques. Through regenerative design and by sculpting land forms and collecting rainwater, the natural process of plant adaptation and community evolution was introduced to transform a former shooting-range-turned-garbage-dump into a low maintenance urban park. The park provides diverse nature-based services for the city, including retaining and purifying storm water to regulate pH, providing opportunities for environmental education and creating a cherished aesthetic experience.
Making Big Feet Beautiful means promoting the new aesthetics to create deep forms. In this, I was inspired by Anne Whiston Spirn’s New Aesthetics that “encompasses both nature and culture, that embodies function, sensory perception, and symbolic meaning, and that embraces both the making of things and places and the sensing, using, and contemplating of them.”
The timeless interdependence of culture and nature is most visible in the bond between peasants and their farmlands, and practices such as cut and fill, irrigate and fertilize, frame and access, grow and harvest, recycle and save — all of which embody some of the principles of new aesthetics that inspired my design.
In Qinhuangdao, I put a ribbon on the river to frame and transform the messy nature into an ordered urban park. Winding through a background of natural terrain and vegetation, the “red ribbon” spans five hundred meters and integrates lighting, seating, environmental interpretation and orientation. This project demonstrates how a minimal design solution can dramatically improve the landscape, while preserving as much of the natural river corridor as possible during the process of urbanization.
China has 20 percent of the world’s population, but only 8 percent of the world’s arable land—10 percent of which has been lost in the past 30 years due to urban development. Our project on the Shenyang Jianzhu University Campus uses rice paddies to simultaneously define the structure of the landscape design and introduce a productive landscape into the urban environment. It is a demonstration of a method to resolve the tension between urban development and food production in today’s developing world.
In Quzhou’s Luming Park, we embraced the concept of agricultural urbanism. On a site surrounded by dense new urban development, we created a dynamic urban park by incorporating the agricultural strategy of crop rotation and a low-maintenance meadow. An elevated floating network of pedestrian paths, platforms and pavilions creates a visual frame for this cultivated swath and the natural features of the terrain and water. Using these strategies, a deserted, mismanaged landscape was dramatically transformed into a productive and beautiful setting for urban living, while preserving the natural and cultural patterns and processes of the site.
I have also tried to show the possibilities of reusing and recycling. While China has been on an incredible building boom, it has also demolished large parts of its cities. In 2003, for instance, some 325 million square meters of new buildings were constructed, while 156 million square meters was demolished. Thousands of villages and factories were wiped out.
The Zhongshan Shipyard Park near Guangzhou, inaugurated in 2002, was an effort to show that existing building and other structures can be incorporated into new development. The park reflects the remarkable 70-year history of socialist China and has been lauded as a breakthrough in Chinese landscape architecture. The original vegetation and natural habitats were preserved and only native plants were added. Machines, docks, and other industrial structures were retained not only for functional purposes, but also to educate and because of their aesthetic appeal. The park demonstrates how landscape architects can create environmentally-friendly public places full of cultural and historical meaning on sites not previously designated for attention and preservation. Its design supports use by the common people, as well as the environmental ethic that “weeds are beautiful.”
For over 20 years, we have tested and built over 500 projects in 200-plus cities and showcased numerous replicable models for healing and transforming our land at various scales.
Looking back, I have a better understanding of how my village-level landscape experiences, melded with modern concepts of landscape and urbanism, sustainability and aesthetics, which were developed by my many teachers and mentors, have helped me to address some of the common challenges that our profession is facing today.
I find myself thinking often of my roots in Dong Yu village. I think of King Yu the Great, who had the vision of healing the earth and living with nature. I think of the peasants who transform the landscape in which they live with their own hands. And I want to think like a king, but act like a peasant.
This is an incredibly sobering time to contemplate the relationship between humans and the natural world. The global pandemic is a powerful reminder that any belief in the conquest of nature is pure folly. We are all living in a new era of humility.
Yet I also believe that the pandemic—together with climate change—is also highlighting how important it is to create landscapes that can not only heal bodies and minds, but also the planet itself.
It is such a great honor to be in the company of the many great and thoughtful landscape architects who come together under the banner of IFLA. As former IFLA president Martha Fajardo said in 2005: “Landscape architect is the profession of the future.”
Thank you, and I wish everyone the best in collectively keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.
At first, the images of Thammasat University Rooftop Farm seem like renderings, but they are in fact real. Designed by Landprocess, which is led by landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA, the 1.7-acre rooftop farm in Bangkok, Thailand, is not only mesmerizing but also a model of sustainable multi-use infrastructure.
This kind of infrastructure is exactly what we need in an urbanizing world dealing with climate change, flooding, pollution, and a lack of access to high-quality fresh produce.
The most successful forms of this infrastructure use an integrated design approach in which architects, landscape architects, and engineers cross disciplinary boundaries and unite to create better projects for people and the environment.
According to Voraakhom, the initial design for the new campus building was just a building. But she convinced the architecture and engineering teams to collaborate with her on a new concept. Given a large park was being developed in front of the building, why not just continue up over the building and link the rooftop green space with the park on the ground? “In the end, the design team and the clients all agreed this option will have a bigger impact,” she said.
For Voraakhom, the $31 million project shows what is possible through an integrated design approach — and also what landscape architects can bring to the table. In an email, she explained her thinking:
“My profession, landscape architecture, should not be left as the last amenity to be added while finishing up a project. Landscape architecture should not take up the last of the budget for some minor greening. Instead, landscape architecture should be the source of the initial concept and be the voice for, and restorer of, a healthy urban environment. If architects and engineers work more collaboratively with landscape architects, I’m certain we can strengthen our climate-focused architecture in significant ways. At the beginning of any project, we need to bring everyone on board, at par, to openly discuss and brainstorm, especially across disciplines, without fear of judgment or domination. With that, I’d like to express my gratitude and officially thank the architects and engineers with whom we worked with on this project for allowing us to be a major part of the overall concept.”
Integrated design enabled the entire design and engineering team to layer in solutions to multiple problems.
The first big challenge was managing the vast amount of rainwater that lands on Bangkok, creating frequent and destructive floods. Inspired by traditional terraced farming found in mountainous regions across Southeast Asia, the rooftop farm uses an intricate structure and gravity to cascade rainwater down each level.
Landprocess explains: “As rainwater zigzags down the slopes, each level harvests runoff from the previous cell, forming unique clusters of micro-watersheds along the terrace to help absorb, filter, and purify rainwater while growing food for the campus.”
The structure slows down water 20 times more efficiently than a conventional roof, and any run-off is captured in four retention ponds at the feet of the building, which can hold up to 3,095,570 gallons of water.
To address the problem of the lack of local access to healthy organic foods, the design team created a productive rooftop landscape. To soak up all that free water, Voraakhom’s firm introduced nearly 50 kinds of edible species, including rice, indigenous vegetables and herbs, and fruit trees.
There are Jamaican Cherry, White Cheesewood, Camphor, Red Sandalwood, and Ceylon Oak trees, intermixed with azaleas, lemongrass, holy basil, amaranth, rice, and okra. Rows of dill, Thai eggplant, red and green oak-leaf lettuce, green roselle grow amid the source of Thai food’s heat: bird’s eye chili peppers.
After one season’s harvest, the team discovered the roof can grow 20 tons of organic food annually, enough for 80,000 meals in the campus canteen. Food scraps are composted and returned to the roof farm, creating a sustainable food cycle.
Another issue the project addresses: urban Thai are increasingly divorced from their agricultural heritage. The rooftop farm helps reconnect students and community members to their history and educates them about sustainable, organic growing practices.
A century ago, King Rama V created the Rangsit rice plantations and a vast network of canals on the site of the rooftop farm. King Rama’s goal was to make Thailand a major jasmine rice producer. Paved over as Bangkok expanded, the rice fields were lost, but through this project, rice production has returned in a contemporary form.
Through volunteering, 40,000 students and nearby residents learn about this cultural landscape and their heritage. They can volunteer on the roof and learn how to plant and harvest. They have access to workshops on agriculture, nutrition, and permaculture, which are embedded into the university’s sustainability curricula.
The rooftop landscape also helps solve the problem of fossil fuel use to generate power. Photovoltaic panels installed at the top of the roof generates 500,000 watts of electricity per hour.
This energy powers water pumps that pull water up from the retaining ponds to irrigate the crops during the dry season. The renewable energy is complemented by passive strategies that reduce energy use overall. The green roof further insulates the building, reducing its cooling energy needs. And air that passes over the retaining ponds is cooled before it reaches the building, creating natural air conditioning.
All of these layers of solutions are united in the building’s H-shaped form, which represents the university’s long-standing commitment to egalitarianism and democracy.
Landprocess explains: “Divided into four equally-accessible sections, each chamber represents a core element of democracy—people, liberty, equality, and fraternity.”
To realize that spirit of egalitarianism, there are 12 social spaces set within the farming terraces that function as outdoor classrooms.
At the very top, there is a large amphitheater space that offers 360-degree panoramic views.
And back on the ground, at the entrance, there is another accessible, terraced amphitheater for events, with life-sized sculptures of the two founders of the university.
To learn more about Voraakhom, watch a recent short film produced by Mercedes-Benz: