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 that 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:
Design for the Future When the Future Is Bleak — 09/28/20, The New York Times
“Amid pandemics and environmental disasters, designers and architects have been forced to imagine a world in which the only way to move forward is to look back.”
The Pandemic Bike Boom Hits in Some Unexpected American Cities — 09/23/20, Bloomberg CityLab
“Coupled with the effects of a warming planet, Covid-19 has produced little good news this year. Yet the two crises did pave the way for one positive social shift: a bike boom, including in some unlikely places. New data from Strava, the fitness tracking app used by 68 million global users, shows that several U.S. cities saw significant year-over-year growth in both bike trips and cyclists in much of 2020.”
West 8 Debuts First Phase of Houston Botanic Garden — 09/22/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“West 8, the award-winning Dutch landscape architecture and urban design firm with offices in Rotterdam and New York City, has unveiled the highly anticipated first phase of the Houston Botanic Garden, a years-in-the-making, first-of-its-kind horticultural hub for the Bayou City that aims to attract tourists, green thumbs, and the scientific community.”
Building Public Places for a Covid World — 09/11/20, The New York Times
“Walter Hood’s landscape architecture firm, Hood Design Studio, has created major parks and museum gardens in Oakland, San Francisco and New York. He is also doubling down on the work he has been doing for 20 years: helping historically African-American communities rediscover history that’s been erased through abandonment or demolished by urban renewal.”
Nine Fall Gardening Tips From a Texas Landscape Architect — 09/10/20, Texas Monthly
“Dallas-based landscape architect David Hocker says the coronavirus pandemic has led to a huge increase in demand for his work, as public health guidelines have pushed us out into nature for safer socializing, dining, and exercise.”
Beyond Complete Streets: Could COVID-19 Help Transform Thoroughfares Into Places for People? –09/07/20, Planetizen
“By changing the way we traditionally use streets, people are expanding the way they think about cities in real-time. In a relatively short period of time, cities have announced plans to permanently close some of these ‘COVID streets’ to create new recreational spaces in combination with mobility corridors—essentially, linear community commons, or places for people.”
The Case for Making Virtual Public Meetings Permanent— 09/02/20, Governing
“The question, as has been asked in many contexts through 2020, is why can’t this COVID-19-era innovation become permanent? Rather than return to the hassle of holding most public meetings in person, why not continue to make them remote?”
Statue Suggestions Roll in for Trump’s National Garden of American Heroes — 09/02/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Suggestions for ‘lifelike or realistic’ representations of ‘historically significant Americans’ that could potentially populate the Trump administration’s planned National Garden of American Heroes have now been submitted by officials in various states, territories, and counties.”
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) announces the 2020 Professional and Student Award winners. The ASLA Awards represent the highest honor in the profession of landscape architecture.
Chosen from 567 submissions, this year’s 31 Professional Award winners represent the best of landscape architecture in the General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, and Research categories. In addition, a single Landmark Award is presented each year.
Chosen from 560 submissions, this year’s 35 Student Award winners represent a bright and more inclusive future of the landscape architecture profession in the General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Research, Communications, Student Collaboration, and Student Community Service categories.
“ASLA’s Professional and Student Awards programs celebrate the best of our profession today, and the brightest hope for the future,” said ASLA President Wendy Miller, FASLA.
“From making sure Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) as well as other underserved individuals and communities prepare for the many challenges of the climate crisis – this year’s projects clearly demonstrate how landscape architects are designing a future that addresses the biggest problems facing our world.”
All Professional and Student Award recipients, their clients, and advisors will be honored at the awards presentation ceremony held virtually this fall.
Background on the ASLA Awards Programs
Each year, the ASLA Professional Awards honor the best in landscape architecture from around the globe. Winners of these prestigious awards are chosen by a jury that represents the breadth of the profession, including private, public, institutional, and academic practice, and exemplify diversity in professional experience, geography, gender, and ethnicity. Submissions are judged blind.
Professional Awards are presented in seven categories: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, and the Landmark Award. In each of the first five categories, the Jury may select one Award of Excellence and any number of Honor Awards. It is not guaranteed that an Award of Excellence will be selected each year, as it is up to the jury’s discretion. Only one Landmark Award is presented each year.
This year’s Professional Jury included: Jose Alminana, FASLA (Chair); Jane Berger; Ujijji Davis, ASLA; Mark Hough, FASLA; Mark Johnson, FASLA; Kathleen John-Alder, FASLA; Mia Lehrer, FASLA; Tanya Olson, ASLA; and Robert Rogers.
Student Awards are presented in eight categories: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Research, Communications, Student Collaboration and Student Community Service. Like the Professional Awards, the jury may select one Award of Excellence and any number of Honor Awards. It is not guaranteed that an Award of Excellence will be selected each year, as it is up to the jury’s discretion.
This year’s Student Jury included: Terry Guen-Murray, FASLA (Chair); Adam Arvidson, FASLA; Lucia Athens, ASLA; Cermetrius L. Bohannon, ASLA; Jonathon Geels, ASLA; Rikerrious Geter, Associate ASLA; Luis Gonzalez, ASLA; Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA; Ernest C. Wong, FASLA.
The French landscape architect Michel Desvigne isn’t well-known in the U.S. but a new monograph of his firm’s work from the publisher Birkhäuser should help change that. Transforming Landscapes: Michel Desvigne Paysagistebeautifully conveys Desvigne’s simple yet striking parks, plazas, and master plans. There is a sense of clarity in his work that emerges as you look through the book’s many rich color photographs.
The book is entirely focused on Desvigne’s public projects, which is where his passion lies. As he explains on his website, his firm’s goal is “to play a part in the formation of common territory, transforming landscapes produced by society. Past and present traces of society’s activities inspire and help foster the design.” Desvigne aspires to “give an area meaning, at least legibility.”
At the same time, he does so with great restraint. He says his landscape designs have an elementary, even dumb composition. The landscapes “do not entail any heroic feats of execution or any extravagance.” These places are distinguished by a “certain poverty” or rustic quality. The landscapes are a bit austere, even just under done.
The purposeful minimalism perhaps enables people to more easily inhabit these landscapes and bring their own meaning. But he adds that his firm brings rigor to the design of these seemingly simple landscapes. In reality, simplicity takes hard work to achieve.
Transforming Landscapes begins with a photographic essay by Patrick Faigenbaum that immerses the reader in Michel Desvigne Paysagiste (MDP)’s landscapes. At first, it’s hard to tell what is a natural or agricultural lansdcape and what has been designed.
As Francoise Fromonot explains in the introduction, “the ditches and ponds, roadbeds and rubble, paths and valleys sometimes merge to such an extent that the current earthworks are no longer distinguishable from the agricultural land from which the work has molded the contours of a new public space.”
In Fromonot’s introduction, we get a sense of the intelligence of Desvigne’s landscapes, how he works at an urban scale, combining different strategies. Desvigne wants intersecting layers of landscape design at different scales to accrue into a landscape-driven urban design.
These layers include large park systems like the Emerald Necklace, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in Boston; new parks and recreational areas that bring back nature to the city; and tiny pocket parks that give a city “its porosity and comfort of daily use.”
The 10 case studies in the book feature master plans in France, the Middle East, and the U.S. that are realized through multiple scales — bigger parks and boulevards, and smaller parks, plazas, and green streets. Desvigne himself describes how the pieces cohere.
The first case explores his firm’s work in the Old Port and public spaces of Marseille, France. As part of a team with Foster + Partners, MDP created a framework plan for adding green public space to Marseille’s city center through multiple layers.
The plan envisioned a “chain of parks” to complement the remodeling of the port landscape, which was to be “uniformly mineral,” meaning without greenery. Desvigne explains that the space is “treated like a vast stone plateau, simple and homogeneous. Proposing vegetation here would have made no sense historically. It would have almost been a desecration!” Unfortunately, that means the space is blazing hot during the day time in summer.
Before, 75 percent of the quays were used for parking and just a third accessible to the public. The design team made the entire perimeter of the port open to the public.
Green spaces surrounding the port act as a counterpoint to the expansive stone quays. Further into the interior of the city, MDP created a plan for creating or revitalizing many small green spaces and boulevards.
In another case, Desvigne explains his work in Lyon since 1999 with various partners, including urban designer Francois Gerther and architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron. Over more than a decade, a succession of projects at the confluence of the Saône and Rhône rivers transformed a peninsula. An abandoned industrial area, crisscrossed by railway tracks and once rife with prostitution and drug dealing, became a new green, livable urban district. MDP accrued green spaces by “progressively establishing ‘filaments’ of vegetation running toward the interior of the peninsula.” The peninsula became a “ramified park” — ramified meaning branched.
As described in the Bordeaux Rive Droite case, MDP also created green filaments extending from the City of Bordeaux into the Garonne riverfront. What is amazing though is that he persuaded the mayor, local policymakers, and developers to abandon their plans to urbanize riverfront land that had been set aside for development. Instead, some 50 hectares (123 acres) of land adjacent to the river was “delisted and made unbuildable,” so that those green fingers could terminate at a grand park.
In Burgos, Spain, MDP partnered with Herzog & de Meuron again to create Bulevar del Ferrocarril, a new 9-kilometer (5.5 mile)-long urban boulevard where was once a railway. Abandoned railway infrastructure, including disused warehouses, marshalling yards, and other parcels, became the basis for new neighborhood development. These impactful before and after photos show the range of people-friendly transformations along the length of the project.
And, lastly, in a case that underscores the ambitious city-making scale of MDP’s work, we once again see how small and large green spaces form a new layer of green urban design. MDP created a series of urban parks along the coastline of Doha, the capital of Qatar, in the Middle East. There are striking landscapes around major new museums such as the National Museum, designed by Jean Nouvel, and Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei.
And in the Lusail marina district, the Emir of Qatar first wanted to MDP to design a prototype landscape at 600 meters (1,930 feet) long. Once the prototype was approved, the rest of seafront was developed in the same lush patterns.
The same sense of clarity as found in Desvigne’s other work can be seen here, but adapted to the landscape forms and native plant palette of Qatar.
Trump Repeals Rule Meant to Integrate Neighborhoods, Further Stoking Racial Divisions in Campaign — 07/23/20, The Los Angeles Times
“The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would scrap a regulation known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which was implemented by President Obama in an attempt to promote more integrated communities. Under the rule, cities receiving some federal housing aid had to develop plans to address patterns of segregation or risk losing money.”
SWA Group Tapped for Freedom Park Master Plan in Atlanta — 07/20/20, The Architects’s Newspaper
“Linear and lined with both temporary and permanent public art installations, the cruciform Freedom Park—more of a greenway-cum-sculpture park than anything—encompasses over 200 acres of land that links downtown Atlanta with a patchwork of historic neighborhoods on the city’s east side. ”
The A.D.A. at 30: Beyond the Law’s Promise — 07/20/20, The New York Times
“This series explores how the Americans With Disabilities Act has shaped modern life for people with disabilities in the 30 years since it was passed.”
Biden’s Climate Plan Puts Inequality and Jobs on Par with CO2 — 07/18/20, Bloomberg
“When Joe Biden released his climate plan last week, the Democratic candidate for president emphasized one overarching goal—and it wasn’t the reduction of greenhouse gases. Instead, he unequivocally linked broad climate action to employment.”
Jan Gehl on 60 Years of Designing Cities for People — 07/15/20, Planetizen
“The 10th anniversary of ‘Cities for People’ offers the occasion for this interview with Jan Gehl, who has devoted a 60-year career to ideas about humanistic city planning—ideas of increasing relevance in 2020.”
Landscapes for Justice — 07/01/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Taken as a whole, these murals, stencils, portraits, paintings, graffiti scripts, and photographs are the most powerful grassroots public art that Minneapolis has ever seen. They grew into momentary streetscapes expressing the full range of emotions swirling at the moment.”