Deanna Van Buren: How to Unbuild Racism

“To unbuild racism, we have to build what we believe,” said Deanna Van Buren, an architect, urban developer, and founder of Designing Justice+Designing Spaces, in a powerful keynote speech at the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering.

Van Buren believes that unearthing and rooting out “ingrained racism and patriarchy” requires daily practice because these issues are so embedded in our society. “There have been hundreds of years of displacement and disenfranchisement — redlining, ‘urban renewal,’ and reverse redlining in the form of predatory lending.” In too many communities, “there is a continued manifestation of racism through the co-location of toxic waste sites, freeways that cut through cultural hearts, inadequate housing, and food deserts.”

To bring equity to the built environment, architects, landscape architects, planners, and developers need to “stop creating prettier versions of racist systems.” Instead, planning and design professionals should focus on restorative justice, a system of justice “not anchored in enslavement, but in indigenous processes.”

Restorative justice is a process in which those who have created harm can make amends and heal the people they have hurt. In many communities, restorative justice is increasingly becoming a viable alternative to the conventional justice system. Cases are being steered out of court to mediators trained in restorative justice.

“The process involves Native American peace making approaches,” Van Buren explained. Peace making is led by a trusted elder figure, a “circle keeper,” who can facilitate the addressing of wrongs. Someone who stole a car or committed a theft at gunpoint sits in a circle across from the person they have wronged. Peace making has to be “hyper local but also happen on neutral ground.”

Her planning, design, and development projects all aim to replace the conventional justice system with a new holistic approach rooted in community needs.

In Syracuse, New York, her organization designed the Center for Court Innovation, a peace making center out of an abandoned house, creating a space that feels like a home, not a court, and include circles of chairs, sofas, a kitchen, and gardens. The center is a safe place and has become a true community mecca that offers food and drink and space for other events, even engagement parties.

Near Westside Peacemaking Project, Syracuse, NY / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Near Westside Peacemaking Project, Syracuse, NY / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

Van Buren hopes restorative justice system will become the primary way to provide justice. She envisions a network of restorative justice centers distributed in neutral places, outside of gang zones, across communities.

In Oakland, California, she has been realizing this vision through Restore Oakland, which will host a “constellation of non-profit organizations” that provide both restorative justice and economics. In addition to peace making spaces, the center will include community organizing spaces and a restaurant on the ground floor that trains people to work in fine dining. “It will be an anchor for this entire community.”

To create more equitable and safe communities in the Bay Area, Van Buren and her team are also co-organizing pop-up villages with custom-crafted wood stalls. “These are temporary projects designed for impact.” Visitors can have everything from a breast cancer screening to an AIDS test to a haircut. “These villages help build community relationships, which is how we keep people safe and also support local businesses.”

Popup Village, Bay Area, California / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Popup Village, Bay Area, California / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

In another project, Van Buren’s organization re-imagined a re-entry center for incarcerated women. “When they get out of prison, they are confronted with so many barriers.” Her team collaborated with women just released to design a mobile refuge that provides a safe space to get oriented before moving to transitional housing and its dormitory living. The mobile refuge provides therapy and social services.

Women’s Mobile Refuge / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Women’s Mobile Refuge / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

Another goal is repurposing hundreds of downtown jails that have closed in recent years. “These are toxic holes in downtowns that can be re-imagined as community centers,” she said.

Van Buren has worked with community groups to re-imagine the Atlanta City detention center as a community center with co-located city services and new revenue streams. One option is to daylight the old jail, creating daycare space and meeting rooms. With the right broadband infrastructure, the dark spaces in the bowels of the building could be rented out as server farms. Another option is to simply tear the existing building down and distribute restorative justice centers across the city.

Reimagining the Atlanta City Detention Center / Designing Justice + Designing Spaces
Reimagining the Atlanta City Detention Center / Designing Justice + Designing Spaces

And over the long-term, Van Buren wants to see more wealth come to underserved communities. This can happen if more low-income residents can purchase their own homes or earn profits from development projects.

In Detroit, Van Buren’s team and a number of partners are working on an ambitious community land trust — the Love Campus, which aims to “build the infrastructure to end mass incarceration by creating re-investments that can divert funding from criminal justice into restorative community assets.”

Love Campus, Detroit / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Love Campus, Detroit / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

Retrofitted buildings will become an arts and culture hub, with low-cost gallery space, digital fabrication tools, and industrial design spaces. The community development will also include housing; job training, because “people don’t kill each other when they have jobs;” and a youth center, because “youth have no place to go.” The project will be crowd-funded so people who don’t meet minimum real estate investment thresholds can participate in wealth generation. “Affordable housing is a poverty trap; people need to own their own homes.”

These projects demonstrate that designers play an important role — they can “ignite radical imagination, create a co-learning process and democratic tools for change.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 16-31)

Swing Time by Höweler + Yoon Architecture, Boston / via Bloomberg CityLab

Teen Girls Need Better Public Spaces to Hang Out — 05/28/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Basketball courts, skate parks and playgrounds overlook an important demographic: teenage girls. A burgeoning design movement is trying to fix that.”

D.C. Retakes Top Spot in Annual Survey of Nation’s Best Parks; Arlington at No. 4 — 05/27/21, The Washington Post
“The survey, released Thursday by the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group, ranks the nation’s 100 largest cities on park access, acreage, investment, amenities — and, for the first time this year, ‘park equity.'”

Anna Halprin, Teacher and Choreographer Who Embraced Improvisational Style, Dies — 05/25/21, The Washington Post
“Mrs. Halprin [wife of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin] made a bold statement by making California her base. ‘I’m accused of being touchy-feely,’ she once said. ‘Well, I am. California is a very sensual place, and its landscape has become my theater. I’ve found much inspiration in the way nature operates.'”

An Open Space Plan for Cultural Landscapes, Resilience, and Growth in the Coastal Southeast — 05/25/21, Planetizen
“The Beaufort County Greenprint Plan, completed in 2020, offers an innovative model of open space planning integrated within a larger planning framework.”

Canadian Landscape Architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Dies at 99 — 05/24/21, The Architect’s Newspaper 
“German-born Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, who revolutionized mid-20th century urban play spaces and cleared the path for women in the profession, has died in Vancouver, British Columbia, just weeks ahead of what would have been her centenary on June 20.”

A New $260 Million Park Floats on the Hudson. It’s a Charmer — 05/20/21, The New York Times
“Signe Nielsen, a co-founder of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, designed everything green and flowering that visitors will see, smell, lay a blanket on and walk past.”

Moakley Park: The Inclusive, Resilient Park That Prepares South Boston for the Future

Stoss Landscape Urbanism, led by Chris Reed, FASLA, has produced a fascinating 40-minute video about their new design for Moakley Park in South Boston, which vividly conveys how to create next-generation waterfront parks in the era of sea level rise, social and environmental injustices, and COVID-19.

Through Stoss’ inventive resilience plan and landscape design, which was created in partnership with a range of community groups, Moakley Park will be transformed into an inclusive, resilient, biodiverse, and accessible recreational hub for diverse nearby neighborhoods, including the predominantly Black Roxbury and Dorchester communities.

Stoss states that updates to the 60-acre park, which were just approved by agencies in Boston, present “a rare opportunity to address pressing climate change needs while also prioritizing social, cultural, economic and environmental equity.”

Stoss led a large multi-disciplinary team for the project. Their design builds in climate resilience by creating multi-layered solutions for coastal flooding, stormwater, and extreme heat. The planning and design team proposed a landscape berm that will help protect the park and surrounding neighborhoods from a “predicted sea level rise of 21-40 inches in the next 50-60 years.” Constructed coastal marshes, tree orchards, and stormwater meadows help with both stormwater management and storm-related inundation from the coast. Some 500 new trees will help cool the space.

The video makes the science very clear — it models where sea level rise, exacerbated by heavy storms, would inundate the park and surrounding neighborhoods. This is planning and design rooted in the Boston city government’s latest climate projections.

Petra Geiger with Stoss, who produced and narrated the video, explains how Stoss and its team, which includes local Boston landscape architecture firm Weston & Sampson, delved into the complex legacy of the park. She explains Moakley Park’s rich history — from a garbage dump in the early 20th century to the site of protests against racial injustice in the mid-1970s.

Stoss also reframes the site — as a node in a larger waterfront Harborwalk network; as part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, his grand system of parks; as part of a new coastal bulwark against seal level rise; and as a crucial recreational space for nearby communities that are expected to double in population over coming decades.

The new park is designed to increase public health and well-being, and therefore social resilience. As a first step, Stoss and team analyzed all the physical and non-physical barriers to access. A highway, busy streets, and dangerous rotaries that surround Moakley Park all prevent older residents and those with disabilities from accessing the space. Some 55 percent of the current park is dedicated to sports, which is great, but there aren’t many alternatives for people who want to just enjoy nature or take an interesting walk.

Given the predominant sports focus, “the park is largely dormant in winter,” explained Amy Whitesides, ASLA, director of resilience and research at Stoss. And while Carson Beach is just over the other side of William J. Day Boulevard, which bounds the eastern edge of Moakley Park, relatively few go there because they can’t see it and it is difficult to access.

The planning and design team’s strategy for building climate and social resilience is to layer in an amazing set of multi-functional amenities. In an effort to create a more inclusive and equitable recreational center, there will be even more sports areas, including for basketball, skateboarding, and street hockey.

But the park will not just be about sports any longer. Amid the fields and courts are relaxing (and resilient and biodiverse) green spaces filled with native plants, playgrounds, picnic and BBQ areas, and more. All of these are made much more accessible through new safe routes into the park.

Moakley Park / Stoss Landscape Urbanism
Moakley Park / Stoss Landscape Urbanism
Moakley Park / Stoss Landscape Urbanism

Stoss and team have also forged a greater connection with Carson Beach, better integrating the park and beach into the Harborwalk and surrounding neighborhoods. There are now more accessible pathways under the boulevard that take visitors back and forth between the park and beach.

Moakley Park / Stoss Landscape Urbanism

In the video, the design team reiterates how “deep community engagement,” including open houses, in-person and web-based surveys, virtual tours, free movie night events, and countless interviews with residents of the area informed the planning and design process. Stoss and team also worked closely with community advocacy groups and even hired an equity consultant.

Reed said: “the goal has been to create a safe place for everyone.” Everything from the protective coastal berm, to the safer street-level access points, to the trees, which help cool the air, help achieve that mission. “This is what a new 21st century park looks like.”

The video was released as part of the American Planning Association (APA)’s virtual national conference.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 1-15)

Nanzen-in garden, Japan / Domus

Japanese Gardens Told by Landscape Architect Tomoki Kato — 05/13/21, Domus
“The relationship between cities and Japanese gardens goes back to the very origins of the Japanese garden itself. During the eighth century, gardens using Chinese landscaping techniques to innovate original Japanese features occupied the heart of the ancient capital of Nara.”

Gilbreth Column: Landscape Architect Briggs Created MasterpiecesPost and Courier, 05/13/21
“Born in New York, [Loutrel Briggs] graduated from Cornell in 1917 and ended up establishing an office in Charleston in 1929, where he worked for 40 years and designed some 100 gardens — many of which are (or were — more on that later) masterpieces.”

Planning Tribunal Dashes City’s Dreams of a Downtown Rail Deck Park in a ‘Hugely Disappointing’ Decision — 05/12/21, The Toronto Star
“The city could also still try to purchase the air rights over the corridor to build a public park, but since the site is now designated as mixed-use by the planning tribunal, it would be at great expense.”

Pratt Is Launching a New Master’s in Landscape Architecture Program — 05/11/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“‘The program will be profoundly connected to its Brooklyn context, and encourage students to develop advanced knowledge of what constitutes landscape design across a range of complex ecologies and community contexts,’ said School of Architecture dean Harriet Harris in a statement.”

Detroit Showed What ‘Build Back Better’ Can Look Like — 05/10/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“The city’s 2013 bankruptcy ushered in a new era of problem-solving that could be a model for a national infrastructure push, says one philanthropic leader.”

A Narrow Path for Biden’s Ambitious Land Conservation Plan — 05/06/21, The Washington Post
“Months after President Biden set a goal of conserving 30 percent of the nation’s land and waters by 2030, the administration Thursday laid out broad principles — but few details — for achieving that vision.”

The Atlanta BeltLine Wants to Prevent Displacement of Longtime Residents. Is it Too Late? — 05/04/21, Next City
“Concerns about affordable housing, gentrification and displacement have accompanied the development of the Atlanta BeltLine since its earliest days. The vision for the project — a 22-mile multi-use trail built on an old railway line looping the entire city of Atlanta — was so clear a catalyst for rising real estate value that the original development plan, completed in 2005, included a goal of building 5,600 workforce housing units to mitigate the impacts of gentrification.”

Urban Heat Islands Are Increasingly Dangerous, But Planners and Designers Have Solutions

A Case-Only Study of Vulnerability to Heat Wave–Related Mortality in New York City (2000–2011) / Jaime Madrigano, Rutgers, State University of New Jersey; Kazuhiko Ito, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; Sarah Johnson, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; Patrick Kinney, Columbia University

Global temperatures are rising. 2020 was tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record. Since the 19th century, the planet has warmed by 2° Fahrenheit. Within the built environment, which is too often formed of glass, steel, asphalt, and concrete, dangerous urban heat islands are increasing the risks of heat stress. Underserved communities are particularly at risk, given they often lack trees and green spaces to mitigate the effects.

According to Devanshi Purohit, associate principal of urban design at CBT Architects, who led a session at the American Planning Association (APA)’s virtual national conference, extreme heat is the number-one climate killer in the U.S., accounting for more deaths than sea level rise, flooding, drought, and other impacts. But, strangely, extreme heat doesn’t get the focus it deserves. Reducing urban heat islands should be a central focus of the planning and design professions.

In three cities — New York City, Copenhagen, and Abu Dhabi — new approaches have been designed to both reduce urban temperatures and help communities adapt to a hotter world.

In NYC, there is a Mayor’s office of resilience, and Daphne Lundi is deputy director for social resilience. Lundi seeks how to leverage communities’ support systems to lower risks to climate impacts.

Lundi said on average cities can be up to 22° F hotter than surrounding natural areas. Furthermore, apartments and homes without air conditioners can be 20° F warmer than the outside. This is why each year in New York City, more than 1,100 people are hospitalized for heat stress and more than 100 die.

Heat risk levels vary by neighborhood. Through the Heat Vulnerability Index, which was created in partnership with Columbia University, the city government now understands that 3.4 million NYC residents are highly vulnerable (see image at top). “Risk is based in environmental factors, such as the amount of green space but also tied to poverty and race,” Lundi explained. Her department has identified low-income and older Black residents as at the greatest risk of falling ill or dying from extreme heat.

In 2017, NYC launched its Cool Neighborhoods plan, its first plan to combat extreme heat, and allocated $100 million for targeted investments in green infrastructure and tree plantings in higher risk neighborhoods.

NYC Department of Environmental Protection has installed thousands of green infrastructure projects in the public right-of-way, which have replaced sections of sidewalk with rain gardens. / NYC Department of Environmental Protection

Those most at risk are the home bound who have physical and mental issues. So as part of the effort, the city is focused on increasing risk preparedness by educating home health aids who assist older adults, helping them to identify “the early signs of early heat stress and illness.”

NYC also launched the Be a Buddy campaign, which aims to provide support for the most hard-to-reach New Yorkers. According to Lundi, during heat waves, the program leverages “long-existing bonds” and activates a system in which people check in on neighbors who may be home bound. “The system leverages trusted messengers. It was also used during the pandemic.”

Be a Buddy / NYC Mayor’s Office of Resilience

The city is painting roofs on city-owned property white in order to reflect more heat back into the atmosphere. They have improved access to cooling centers. And they have purchased air conditioners for low-income, heat vulnerable residents. To date, the city has installed 74,000 air conditioners in residents’ homes and also created a utility assistance program, which offers a subsidy of $30 month during warmer months, to ensure those new air conditioners are actually used.

Moving to Copenhagen, Denmark, Rasmus Astrup, design principal and partner at SLA, a landscape architecture and urban design firm, explained that cities, with all their warming surfaces, are actually part of the climate problem — amplifying the heat impacts and creating more heat. “Cities, as they are planned and designed now, are super dumb and creating many new problems.”

Nature, which is self-sufficient and resilient, offers the best strategies for addressing extreme heat. “Nature is the most clever, so we need to re-think cities and make them more ecological.”

He noted that he said ecological and not just green, because climate change is also adversely impacting biodiversity, which underpins all life on Earth. Ecological urban solutions are needed to not only combat heat islands but to also support biodiversity.

Astrup focused on SLA’s Bryggervangen and Sankt Kjeld’s Square in Copenhagen, as a solution for tackling multiple climate issues at once: heat, flooding, and biodiversity loss. In just a few decades, “Copenhagen will have a climate similar to Barcelona, Spain,” so Astrup believes more places like this are urgently needed.

A standard roundabout in a neighborhood with very little nature was transformed into a forested area, but one that “traffic engineers can also love,” given SLA integrated bike lanes and tram lines.

Bryggervangen and Sankt Kjeld’s Square in Copenhagen / SLA
Bryggervangen and Sankt Kjeld’s Square in Copenhagen / SLA

Astrup described the project as a “blue green climate adaptation,” which created a biodiverse landscape that ably reduces heat and manages stormwater. “Every pocket now has green space.”

Bryggervangen and Sankt Kjeld’s Square in Copenhagen / SLA

Another result is a new sense of place for this community in Copenhagen. This is a climate adaptation project people can connect to.

Bryggervangen and Sankt Kjeld’s Square in Copenhagen / SLA

Kishore Varanasi, principal of urban design with CBT, then took the audience to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. He made the case for evidence-based design to tackle heat challenges.

“We’re feeling hotter, but what strategies can we use to solve the problem? Buildings, cars, asphalt all make communities hotter, so we need a layered strategy to address sources of heat.” There are shading, evaporation, convection, and conduction-based approaches.

For Varanasi, the Universal Thermal Climate Index is a useful tool for measuring environmental heat and its impact on us. “We can handle up to 30° C (86° F) comfortably but not much hotter than that.”

In Abu Dhabi, summer temperatures can already be extreme by late morning, past humans’ comfort zones. To reduce heat stress, CBT has been working with city stakeholders to create “cool paths and cool zones.”

Given there isn’t enough water to grow large shade trees in Abu Dhabi, CBT designed architectural shade structures that offer “intermittent shading.” For example, a pedestrian walking down a pathway would be in the shade for one minute and then direct sun for one minute. “People can handle a minute in high heat.” The structures are also angled in order to provide shade at different times of the day.

Varanasi said the spaces between buildings can be transformed into passive cool zones without a great deal of effort. Vertical shading, green walls, and reflective paving, along with misters help create thermally-comfortable zones that can also be “delightful at night.”

The panel concluded that while climate change is a global problem, solutions to extreme heat must be local. “You have to understand the environmental and socio-economic context,” Varanasi said.

Lundi noted that new developments are often designed to be climate resilient, but cities are made up of mostly old stocks of buildings. “We also need to bring our older neighborhoods into the future.”

Also worth checking out is a recent comprehensive report from the Urban Land Institute: Scorched: Extreme Heat and Real Estate, which outlines regional impacts and solutions in the U.S. in more detail.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (April 16-30)

The Nation’s Capital Welcomes Its Newest Memorial, Dedicated to American World War I Troops — 04/30/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The proposal, designed by architect Joe Weishaar with sculptor Sabin Howard, grew into a collaboration with architects-of-record GWWO and the Philadelphia-based David Rubin Land Collective as landscape architect, resulting in the new memorial through years of iterative agency review and adjustment.”

Activists Want to Restore Tampa’s Kiley Garden, Once a Landscape Marvel — 04/29/21, Tampa Bay Times
“A downtown resident and photographer who uses Kiley Garden for shoots, Stehlik is on a mission to add shade to the 4 1/2-acre checkerboard of grass and concrete located next to the Rivergate Tower at 400 N. Ashley Dr.”

The Weitzman School of Design Will Ponder the Fate of a Fragile Planet at the Venice Architecture Biennale — 04/27/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Richard Weller, professor and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture and co-executive director of Penn’s Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology, will present three new works as part of the As One Planet exhibition at the Central Pavilion at the Giardini.”

Modi’s Sprawling Delhi Makeover Fuels Anger in Virus-hit India — 04/26/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Current plans suggest that many open spaces around India Gate that are visited by thousands daily may no longer be accessible to the public. ‘We common mortals will have no reason to go there, as government offices replace the quiet spaces of art, history, performance, leisure,’ Narayani Gupta, a Delhi-based historian said.”

Can City-owned Vacant Lots Fill the Need for Park Equity in Houston? — 04/21/21, Rice Kinder Institute for Urban Research
“The residents of University Village in Greater Third Ward made a very strong case for turning a vacant lot into a pocket park in their neighborhood — and the city listened.”

Midtown’s Highway-capping Park Boosters Release New Video, Continue Outreach — 04/21/21, Urbanize Atlanta
“The goal of the park’s green elements is to recapture the character of the land, as it was in the late 1800s, when Georgia Tech was a single building, Midtown just a series of stately homes along Peachtree Street, and the rolling landscape still bucolic, with Tanyard Creek slicing through.”

To Create a Better California, These Landscape Architects Design Inclusive Public Spaces for All — 04/20/21, University of Southern California News
“The Landscape Justice Initiative unites USC students and faculty with community organizations to tackle big social and environmental challenges in Los Angeles and beyond.”

Earth Day Interview: Jennifer Toole Makes the Case for Better Bike Networks

Jennifer Toole, ASLA / Toole Design

Jennifer Toole, ASLA, is the founder and President of Toole Design and has over 30 years of experience planning and designing multimodal transportation systems. A certified planner with a degree in landscape architecture, Toole has a strong background in urban design. She has been involved in numerous projects of national significance for the Federal Highway Administration, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

In Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, bike infrastructure is identified as one of the top 80 solutions for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. The book finds that in 2014, 5.5 percent of urban trips worldwide were by bicycle. If that number grew to 7.5 percent by 2050, displacing some 2.2 trillion passenger miles completed by vehicles, some 2.2 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions could be avoided, realizing approximately $400 billion savings over the next 30 years. What are the most important steps cities and communities can take to rapidly grow bike use?

Most people just don’t feel safe bicycling, which is the greatest disincentive. We spent nearly a century in this country building a transportation system that essentially only caters to people who are driving motor vehicles. We have a system that fundamentally doesn’t support bicycling.

The best thing cities can do to incentivize bicycling is make it feel safer for people. This can be accomplished through interconnected networks of bike facilities separated from traffic that don’t end at major barriers.

Safe separated bike lane in Denver, Colorado / Trung Vo

That’s a big problem right now: we have a lot of bikeways that might get you part of the way to where you want to go, but then you get to a big intersection or an interchange with a highway and the bikeway ends.

We also need need to reduce motor vehicle speeds across the board, so that when bicyclists and motorists cross paths, it’s in a safe and controlled way. And we need to provide high-quality and secure places to park your bike once you get to where you’re going.

None of this is rocket science. If you look at countries that have successfully increased the percentage of people bicycling by even a few percentage points, it’s because they invested in infrastructure to make bicyclists feel safe — and, in fact, bicyclists are now safer in those places.

Drawdown also identifies e-bikes as a critical climate solution. While many bike-riders feel comfortable biking a few miles on flat surfaces, half of all trips are estimated to be 6.2 miles, which may be too far in the heat or if the route is hilly. E-bikes also better support riders who may be older or less able. What are some other ways cities and communities can incentivize e-bike use?

I am really excited about e-bikes because they eliminate another major disincentive to bicycling: hilly areas, with long, difficult uphill climbs. I live at the top of a really steep hill. Many times I have done that calculus in my head. Am I going to ride my bike? If I ride my bike, when I come home, I am going to have to come back up that hill.

When you look at a normal bike trip, it’s usually someplace between one to three miles in length. An e-bike trip is typically a little bit longer than a normal bike trip, because you don’t have to expend as much energy to make that trip.

The keys to incentivizing e-bike use are the exact same as they are for regular bikes. You’ve got to provide spaces where people feel safe riding their bike. E-bikes are a little bit faster than regular bikes, so that makes it even more evident that sidewalks are not the right place for them. E-bikes really need their own space. They need separated bike lanes. They need shared-use paths and bike boulevards. You have to feel like you have safe places to ride.

E-bike riders in Seattle, Washington / Kenneth Loen

Cities are also providing e-bikes through their bike share services, which gives people a way to check them out and realize how much fun they are to ride. It’s one of the reasons why e-bike sales are just soaring all around the country.

According to the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), researchers in the U.K. found that biking to work is associated with 45 percent lower risk of developing cancer and a 46 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, compared to commuting by car or public transit. UNEP also states: “daily exercise prolongs life expectancy by approximately 3.4 years. Regular cycling boosts physical health as an efficient way to prevent obesity.” How can we better promote the health benefits of biking to communities?

Those are some pretty incredible statistics I think that most people are not aware of.

It’s more about providing ways for people to introduce exercise into their normal, everyday life without even thinking about it. There are a lot of studies that show people are more active and healthy in places where walking and biking for everyday trips is common, so making sure that destinations in shopping areas and workplaces are in close proximity to home is really an important part of making sure that people take those everyday trips on foot and by bicycle.

We need to make bicycling the logical choice — the no-brainer choice — for a certain segment of short trips we make. When you go to The Netherlands and ask people why they are riding bikes, they almost never talk about the exercise or the environment. They are riding a bike, because it’s the most efficient way to get where they want to go.

Countries like The Netherlands have a lot of folks who bike well into their 70s and 80s, because they have provided places that feel safe for riding a bike. I have no doubt it contributes to a much longer lifespan.

Data also shows that the pandemic has resulted in a bike boom in many cities and communities. According to a report from Strava, a fitness tracking company, bike use in car-centric cities like Houston increased by 138 percent and in Los Angeles by 93 percent. The Rails to Trails Conservancy found that trail use increased threefold in March 2020 over 2019. Do you think bike use will continue to remain at high levels after we have all been vaccinated? What role do you think “slow streets” have played? And if the bike boom continues, will it result in greater investment in permanent bike infrastructure?

I think it will. Bike use will continue to remain at higher levels, because our travel patterns have been disrupted in ways that we’re only now just beginning to realize. There’s a whole segment of workers who will probably never go back to working in an office from 9:00 to 5:00 five days a week. The flexibility of being able to work from home will mean that our rush hour is going to look different in the future.

Why drag yourself out of bed to go and sit in the car for an hour longer than you really need to just to get to work at a certain time? A certain segment of workers are going to make that calculus and say, “I don’t need to go into the office to work. I can do it right here,” because they’ve been doing it for over a year, and it worked fine. Working from home is going to become much more accepted and prevalent and, with that change, people are going to continue to look for ways to use a bicycle for trips that originate from their homes.

Slow streets have really been great, because they gave people places to ride that feels safe. I’ve heard so many stories of slow street projects that had opposition in the beginning and now people are getting upset when cities remove their slow-street designation. From what we’re seeing, cities are looking for ways to have more permanent, connected networks of bike facilities, and that was starting well before COVID-19. It’s not something that was new; I just think COVID brought it home how much we needed more infrastructure.

Research also finds that low-income communities bike to work more often than other groups. The Chicago Tribune reports that the biggest group of Americans who bike to work are from households that earn less than $10,000. But a report from the League of American Bicyclists also found that Hispanic bike-riders had a bike fatality rate 23 percent higher, and Black riders had a fatality rate 30 percent higher than white riders. How can cities and communities make bike infrastructure more equitable and improve safety for historic marginalized and underserved communities?

We need to do a better job at providing better infrastructure in underserved areas of our cities. Often these are the same neighborhoods that have been impacted by highway construction, where we have widened roads so that suburban commuters can get to their jobs and downtown. It’s not a surprise those are the same places that have higher rates of crashes for Hispanic and Black riders. They need more attention than we’re giving them in terms of providing safer facilities.

Bicyclists in Columbus, Ohio / Catherine Girves

A lot of the work we do for cities is about adjusting that balance and giving more attention to neighborhoods that have been neglected when it comes to providing good places to not only to bike but also to walk. Among other things, we aim to reduce traffic speeds on those streets, which is not an easy thing because they were built for higher speeds.

Many of the projects we work on are focused on equity. For example, we are working on an expansion of the trail network in Fresno, California. We analyzed all the proposed trails the city has planned to build in the next 20 years using a tool that prioritizes equity factors. The city then selected four connecting trails segments in a community facing environmental injustices. It relied on a tool used in California that helps identify communities most affected by pollution and where people are often especially vulnerable to pollution.

The Biden administration just released a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which could result in much greater investment in complete streets, bicycle networks, trails. If you were somehow in charge of all the billions, how would you allocate it on bicycle infrastructure?

In many communities, they have already tackled their easier projects, the ones that weren’t difficult to build — streets that were overbuilt for the amount of traffic they’re carrying and required a road diet to reconfigure space.

The next phase of work is much harder. It’s closing the gaps between facilities. Imagine a trail that ends at a major intersection. It’s hard to get across that intersection in order to connect one part of town to another part of town where you have bike networks. You really need an overpass across the highway built for bike and pedestrian traffic. If I were in charge of that infrastructure investment, I would make it available for major infrastructure projects that close gaps in bike and pedestrian networks.

In South Bend, Indiana, your staff partnered with the administration of then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is now U.S. transportation secretary, to create an open space and smart streets plan to revitalize South Bend’s downtown. The plan resulted in the transformation of St. Joseph’s Boulevard to a green complete street. Secretary Buttigieg said the streetscape improvements led to $90 million in private investment by downtown businesses along the corridor. Can you tell us more about Secretary Buttigieg and his understanding of the connections between streetscape improvements and revitalization?

The most basic answer for how that revitalization led to all the private investment is that the design prioritizes the movement of people over cars. It was a very controversial approach to their downtown revitalization, and there were a lot of people who were worried that it wouldn’t work. To Secretary Buttigieg’s credit, he had a vision for making their downtown be a place where people felt comfortable walking everywhere.

Downtown South Bend, Indiana before image / City of South Bend
Downtown South Bend, Indiana after image / City of South Bend

The downtown businesses saw that it was going to be a place that was really special, which is what led to the investment. And it hasn’t stopped with downtown. The work we’re doing now in South Bend is going out like tendrils into the community. The city is systematically tackling their street network and prioritizing pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Secretary Buttigieg’s vision has continued to transform the city’s approach to transportation and it has clearly benefited the community.

Your firm is leading an interdisciplinary team working with the city of Atlanta’s Department of City Planning to re-imagine Peachtree Street as a shared space that blurs the lines between public space and streets. What are the benefits of these environments? How do you overcome safety or accessibility concerns?

Peachtree Street has long been Atlanta’s main street. The street receives a lot of traffic and is dominated by cars. The city is looking to change that dynamic and make it a destination for people. The benefit of making Peachtree Street a flush street — so all one level, no curbs — is that it really promotes that feeling that it’s a street where pedestrians are the highest priority. They don’t have to go to an intersection in order to cross the street. They can move freely across the street. It’s modeled on the types of streets that have been built really all over Europe, where there’s just one street surface.

Re-imagining Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia / Toole Design

Another benefit is that it slows everybody down. Cars can still travel down the street and park, but drivers don’t feel comfortable going fast down a flush street. Often there are fewer traffic signals or signs to direct traffic. This is due to a concept in traffic engineering: when you introduce an element of uncertainty, everyone slows down. It’s fundamentally about making sure motor vehicle traffic goes slower.

Also, a flush street is inherently more accessible. You can imagine people on wheelchairs don’t have to go to the corners to find a place to cross. People pushing baby strollers can easily move about. But you do need special accommodations for people who are blind or have low vision, because they need to know how to navigate down that street. They often use a curb line as a guide.

Fortunately, there are new ways to help people who are blind to navigate. A different type of pavement treatment with raised grooves can help guide a person with a cane down a street. These have been used in train stations and other places where there is a need to navigate through plazas and other open areas.

Landscape architects integrate safe, accessible pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure with green infrastructure. In St. Paul, Minnesota, your firm designed the Jackson Street Reconstruction Project, which transformed an outdated avenue into a truly multi-modal corridor that features two-way protected bike lanes, wider pedestrian walkways protected by green buffers that manage storm water. How is this project a model? How do you make the case that communities should spend the extra money for the green infrastructure?

Jackson Street is just such a great example of the way we should be designing streets in this country.

It’s important to think about what the street looked like before to understand the opportunity it represents for many other streets in this country. Jackson Street was as wide as six lanes, a classic example of an overbuilt street. Somebody at some point in the past decided that the road needed to have four lanes. The street didn’t have the traffic volume to support those lanes.

We were able to take up to two travel lanes off the road, which gave us 20-plus more feet of space to work with to provide a wider sidewalk, a two-way separated bike lane, and generous rain gardens between the bikeway and the road. We were able to use the green infrastructure to provide that much needed separation between the bikeway and the street. The bikeway itself is built from pervious pavement. The runoff from Jackson Street is directed into those rain gardens.

Jackson Street Reconstruction Project, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design
Jackson Street Reconstruction Project, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design

St. Paul is a city concerned about water pollution, runoff, and flooding. It’s on the banks of the Mississippi, so this type of street design is logical. There are so many cities around the country that are increasingly concerned about flooding and need to find ways to let stormwater seep into the ground instead of run off into nearby waterways. Cities are feeling the impact of major flood events and the financial cost of those events, which is why they are looking at these streetscape projects as an opportunity to rethink the way that water flows in their city.

There are generations of work for landscape architects to fix all these streets and make them greener by providing vegetation in the streetscape on a scale that we’ve never done before. We were sort of stuck in the past with these tiny tree boxes. That was the conventional way of providing green in the landscape. This new way of designing streets is going to give us so much more room to work with different types of plants and soils. It’s a really exciting time to be a landscape architect.

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

Swampdoodle II / NoMA Parks Foundation, Lee and Associates

Here’s What NoMa’s Next Park, Swampoodle II, Could Look Like — 04/13/21, DCist
“Local landscape architecture firm Lee and Associates’ design for Swampoodle II emphasizes a mix of active and passive uses. The new space has spaces that can flex for a variety of uses: There’s a green oval surrounded by benches where people can sit or kids can run around, as well as a smaller concrete space for community art or performance activities.”

Great Parks Don’t Just Have Rec Space. They Create Jobs — 04/13/21, Fast Company
“A new report from the Knight Foundation reveals some of the ways that design, governance, and programming can turn parks from simple outdoor spaces to indispensable community assets.”

Lincoln Center’s Josie Robertson Plaza Will Become a Public Park for the Summer — 04/13/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“‘When invited to consider how the physical space of Josie Robertson Plaza could be re-envisioned to be a more inclusive and inviting environment,’ said set designer Mimi Lien, who created the expansive installation, ‘I immediately thought that by changing the ground surface from hard paving stones with no seating to a material like grass, suddenly anyone would be able to sit anywhere.'”

Philly Asks Residents What They Think of Trees for City’s 10-year ‘Urban Forest’ Plan — 04/13/21, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“The city has designed a 29-question survey to get a feel for how residents think about trees as part of a 10-year plan to reverse the declining tree canopy, especially in vulnerable neighborhoods.”

Landscape Architecture Meets Industrial Reuse at Smith Oaks Sanctuary in Texas — 04/08/21, Wallpaper
“The green expanse has just been enhanced with the light, expert touch of internationally acclaimed landscape architecture firm SWA Group and the industrial reuse designs of New York- and Houston-based architecture studio Schaum/Shieh.”

Groundbreakers: A Century Ago, Landscape Design Was a Man’s World. But These Women Created a Garden for the Ages — 04/07/21, The Washington Post Magazine
“[Beatrix Farrand’s] ability to tackle the slopes of that site is brilliant,” says Thaïsa Way, the institute’s director for garden and landscape studies. “That to me is the power of landscape architecture — engineered and comfortable but also designed so it’s beautiful.”

Dream of Connected NYC Greenway Re-Envisioned as Path to COVID Recovery — 04/04/21, The City
“Even before Biden unveiled his massive proposal in Pittsburgh Wednesday, more than 30 environmental justice, cycling, and parks groups had sent a letter to New York’s congressional delegation. Their plea: a $1 billion commitment in federal stimulus funds to build out new and link sections of existing trails separated from automobile traffic.”

RSVP to Frederick Law Olmsted’s 199th Birthday Celebration

Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY / tupungato, istockphoto.com

By Olmsted 200

To mark Frederick Law Olmsted’s 199th birthday, Olmsted 200 is inviting everyone to participate in a special two-part event — a viewing of Olmsted and America’s Urban Parks, narrated by actress Kerry Washington, and a panel discussion with landscape architects and park directors from around the country.

Stream the film for free at your leisure from April 24 to 25 and then join Olmsted 200 via Zoom on April 26 at 5:30 pm EST for a discussion on Olmsted’s thinking about today’s social, environmental, economic, and health challenges. TIME Magazine’s senior correspondent for climate, Justin Worland, will moderate.

Panelists include:

  • Dr. Thaisa Way, FASLA, Resident Program Director for Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks
  • Happy Haynes, Executive Director of Denver Parks and Recreation
  • Justin DiBerardinis, Director of FDR Park, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation

To learn more about the birthday celebration, RSVP on the event page.

This event is hosted by the National Association for Olmsted Parks (NAOP), the managing partner of Olmsted 200. ASLA is one of ten founding partners of Olmsted 200, the bicentennial celebration of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted (FLO).

Olmsted 200

April 26, 2022, marks the 200th birthday of FLO— author, journalist, public official, city planner, and father of American landscape architecture—and Olmsted 200 is teaming up with organizations across the country to celebrate him all year long.

Olmsted and his successor firms designed thousands of landscape projects across the country, transforming American life and culture. His vision of public parks for all people — and their ability to strengthen communities and promote public well-being — are now more important than ever.

Through events, education, and advocacy at the local and national levels, Olmsted 200 ensures that Olmsted’s legacy lives on by renewing public and policy commitments to the preservation and maintenance of our historic parks and places.

We hope you’ll use Olmsted 200 as a resource to find parks near you, share your stories, and celebrate with us.

Visit the Olmsted 200 website for event information, blog posts written by diverse thought leaders, teaching materials, and so much more.

Subscribe to the Olmsted 200 newsletter for updates and inspiration and follow Olmsted 200 on social media: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Use #CelebrateOlmsted, #ParksForAll, #KnowFLO to join the campaign conversation online.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (March 16-31)

The Center for Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Nursing at Bowie State University in Bowie, Maryland, designed by Perkins&Will / Courtesy of Sahar Coston-Hardy, via Metropolis

Moving the Workplace Outdoors — 03/29/21, Metropolis
“‘There is an increased value of outdoor space as a result of the pandemic,’ said Zan Stewart, associate principal landscape architecture, Perkins&Will. ‘Central Park in New York and the grand boulevards of Paris both emerged from pandemics. Our teams can be happier, healthier and more productive with access to nature.'”

Rooted in St. Louis: The Creation of a Campus Forest — 03/29/21, Student Life: The Independent Newspaper of the Washington University in St. Louis
“The diversity on campus speaks for itself––it is a testament to great landscape design that you do not notice all the work and planning that went into it. Yet the design behind the campus landscape, and its hidden mechanics, are as impressive as the results.”

Palm Beach Landscape Designer Williams Pens Book, ‘The Graphic Garden’ — 03/24/21, Palm Beach Daily News
“Those who dream of an elegant garden, filled with inviting natural elements that provide solace from the daily hustle and bustle, will find a kindred spirit in landscape designer Keith Williams.”

A Black Architect Is Transforming the Landscape of Golf — 03/22/21, The New York Times
“Brandon Johnson developed a love of golf and course design at an early age. He has mastered a field that has historically lacked diversity.”

Biden Team Prepares $3 Trillion in New Spending for the Economy — 03/22/21, The New York Times
“A pair of proposals would invest in infrastructure, education, work force development and fighting climate change, with the aim of making the economy more productive.”

Williamsburg’s Cove-side Towers Are Still Moving, Get a Redesign — 03/18/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The additional waterfront parks, inlets, and beaches, according to Two Trees, are expected to act as a storm buffer and could protect over 500 properties further inland in the event of a flood.”

Chuck Schumer Wants to Replace Every Gas Car in America with an Electric Vehicle — 03/17/21, The Verge
“Under the proposal, anyone who trades in their gas car for an electric one would get a ‘substantial’ point-of-sale discount, Schumer says. He wouldn’t say how much of a discount, only that it would be ‘deep.'”

WXY Reveals a Sustainable Master Plan for Downtown Davenport, Iowa — 03/16/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The Downtown Davenport Partnership (DDP) commissioned the New York-based WXY, Chicago real estate consultants SB Friedman Development Advisors, and New York City engineers Sam Schwartz Engineering to draw up a path toward downtown resiliency that would also spur economic development.”