Los Angeles, Wildfires and Adaptive Design: Greg Kochanowski on Creating New Futures — 09/15/21, ArchDaily
“At UCLA, I additionally became interested in landscape, particularly through an interest in a more holistic way of thinking about the built environment. This has subsequently become a passion of mine to, the point of becoming a licensed landscape architect, and has significantly shaped my personal ideology and methodology of working. I see the world holistically as a complex series of relationships between cultural and organic systems – from cities to climate, buildings to landscapes, racial inequality to ecosystems.”
SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters Project Begins In-water Construction Off of Staten Island — 09/14/21, The Architect’s Newspaper “Earlier this week, the New York State Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) announced that Living Breakwaters, the $107 million coastal resiliency-slash-marine biodiversity project was now taking shape off the South Shore area of Staten Island; an area pummeled by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.”
Report: To Close the Park Access Gap, Open up Schoolyards — 09/13/21, Grist
“The nonprofit environmental advocacy group The Trust for Public Land, or TPL, estimates that 100 million people in America, including 28 million kids, don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of their home. Race plays a major role in the divide: The group estimates that, in the 100 largest U.S. cities, communities of color have access to an average of 44 percent less park space than predominantly white neighborhoods.”
What We Talk About When We Talk About Gentrification — 09/05/21, Vox
“Our focus on gentrification might lead people to believe that it is the dominant form of inequality in American cities (our outsized focus on the phenomenon may be due in part to the fact that gentrification scholars, journalists, and consumers of digital media tend to live in gentrifying neighborhoods themselves). But the core rot in American cities is not the gentrifying neighborhoods: It is exclusion, segregation, and concentrated poverty.”
Studio-MLA won the 2021 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for landscape architecture. The firm, which has been led by Salvadorian-born landscape architect Mia Lehrer, FASLA, for 25 years, seeks to “integrate landscape architecture, urban design, and planning to create places that inspire human connection, unite communities, and restore environmental balance.” The firm’s staff of 45, based in Los Angeles and San Francisco, includes landscape architects, planners, ecologists, and botanists.
On winning the award, Lehrer said: “we’re indebted to our collaborators, in particular our visionary clients, non-profit partners, and design teams for their commitment to building places that create social justice and equity, and projects that tell the stories layered within places — stories of people, neighborhoods, hope and conflict, water, air, ecology, and empowerment.”
The firm’s design philosophy is focused on creating broader impact: “Through our projects, pro bono efforts, and strategic relationships, we advocate by design. For over twenty years, our role as catalyst has educated and empowered people to translate ideas into culturally-relevant and climate-appropriate places.”
In an interview with ASLA, Lehrer, who has been an advocate for climate action and restoring ecosystems, said: “I didn’t grow up in the U.S., but my parents were community activists. We all don’t have a choice but to be engaged and educated about the dire situation we’re all in.”
Studio-MLA is known for taking on highly complex large-scale landscape planning projects that involve navigating layers of government jurisdictions. They often use legacy infrastructure as an opportunity to address climate impacts, restore ecosystems, and reconnect underserved and immigrant communities. In particular, the firm has led large-scale landscape planning efforts that re-imagine outdated river infrastructure, so these systems become more ecological and accessible. The firm’s goal is to create healthier human-ecological systems at all scales.
The firm recently won a major landscape planning and design project — the River-Side Gateway Project Suite in Riverside, California, which includes a series of nine sites along seven-miles of the Santa Ana River. The project seeks to “create access to water and recreation for citizens while also designing solutions for stormwater mitigation, threatened habitat, and air quality impacts,” explained Matt Romero, ASLA, landscape designer at Studio-MLA.
Another recent landscape planning project is the Upper Los Angeles Rivers & Tributaries Revitalization Plan, which proposes imaginative ways to transform the “heavily channelized waterways that meander eastward through the San Fernando Valley.” To develop the plan, Studio-MLA “mapped spatial obstacles and constraints including, but not limited to, government jurisdictions, land use, park access, pollution load, ecological habitat, water quality, flood risk, safe access, and connectivity.” This information enabled them to examine existing economic, environmental, and social impacts, and create a new equitable framework for reconnecting communities to more natural rivers and tributaries.
Destination Crenshaw in Los Angeles is also an exciting large-scale effort that demonstrates the firm’s inclusive planning and design approach. A new “community-inspired” 1.1-mile-long, outdoor museum along Crenshaw Boulevard, where a new Metro line and stations will surface, will become a “living celebration of Black Los Angeles” in the “heart of the largest black community west of the Mississippi River.” Studio-MLA, along with Perkins+Will, Raw International, and Gallagher & Associates is imagining the urban and landscape design for the project, which will include community-driven public art.
Throughout Lehrer’s projects, there is a commitment to inclusive engagement, particularly with underserved and immigrant communities. In an ASLA interview, she said that through a planning process, “you can embolden people, allow them to feel comfortable that it’s their right to communicate, not necessarily demand, but to be part of a dialogue. It’s education, creating a set of tools, and allowing people to understand they can be advocates for their own needs.”
The firm’s built community and residential projects are also characterized by a deep respect for water and native plants. A prime example is the 10-acre Vista Hermosa Natural Park in Los Angeles, which was carefully designed to capture 95 percent of the precious rainwater that falls on the site through an interconnected system of “permeable paving, green roofs, grassy meadows, vegetated swales, and a 30,000-gallon cistern that supplies irrigation.” The park was designed with native plants to educate visitors about the Southern Californian landscape.
“In nature, creeks and streams collect rain that falls on the mountains and hillsides. Trees and vegetation soak up the water, shade the soil, and drop leaves that decompose to become habitat, a protective layer of mulch, and eventually soil. The soil acts like a sponge, holding water for long enough periods of time for native plants to make it through the summer. You can mimic nature at home by reducing impermeable surfaces, grading to keep rainwater on site, planting climate-appropriate shade trees and plants, and adding a thick layer of mulch to conserve soil moisture.”
While often working at the scale of miles, Lehrer seems to say no site is too small to make a positive impact.
On a clear fall day in 2005, a group of friends and collaborators from the art collective Rebar commandeered an 8-foot-wide by 20-foot-long metered parking space in downtown San Francisco. This two-hour guerilla art installation evolved into Park(ing) Day, a global public art and design activism event that has been celebrated every year since. In 2009, Rebar and other design studios were approached by the City of San Francisco to prototype a more permanent version of Park(ing) Day. In response, we created one of the world’s first parklets in San Francisco (we called our version walklet), and through the diligent efforts of Andres Power in the Mayor’s Office and City Planning, San Francisco’s pioneering parklet program was born.
By early 2020, San Francisco had created 70 parklets in every corner of the city, and the city’s parklet program, now part of Groundplay SF, had become a model for cities around the world.
And then came the pandemic.
After the initial period of lockdown restriction, data emerged that anything we could be doing outdoors, we should be doing outdoors. Communities around the country then began to look to outdoor spaces and the public right-of-way to accommodate outdoor dining, pick-up and drop-off, exercise, socialization, and play. Outdoor dining programs like the City of San Francisco’s Shared Spaces and the City of Oakland’s Slow Streets were launched across the country.
The proliferation of outdoor dining spaces was mind-boggling. In San Francisco alone, there are more than 2,000 outdoor dining platforms (don’t call them parklets — parklets are by definition public spaces). All over the country, almost overnight, parking spaces and streets have been transformed into places for people. While many of these spaces have succeeded in their original intended purpose of supporting local businesses and accommodating public health guidelines regarding social distancing, it may now be that they have outlived their useful lives. While many cities are making the move to make the outdoor dining spaces permanent, due the rapid nature of their creation, only a handful of these spaces live up to the original ideals of the parklet program to contribute something meaningful to the public realm.
Communities around the country are grappling with the future of these temporary outdoor spaces. To tackle this question, I have been in conversation with peers in Oakland, Seattle, Vancouver and other cities. My original thinking was that by default — because these spaces occupy precious curbside public right-of-way — the best outcome is that they all become parklets — that is public space, accessible during the city’s standard public space operating hours.
Parklets, by definition, are publicly accessible and open to all. They work best when their design cues create an invitation for many types of uses — from eating takeout from the adjacent restaurant or cafe, to bike parking, or simply taking a pause on a busy commercial street for a chat with friends. In fact, during the pandemic, when many of our more traditional venues of social infrastructure like schools and libraries have been closed, these smaller spaces have become that much more critical for supporting the everyday casual encounters that are the basis of social cohesion and community building.
But what I’ve learned in the course of my conversations with peers from across the country has resulted in an evolution of my previous thinking, and here’s why.
Lessons from the “Emerald City”
Inspired by San Francisco’s parklet program, businesses in Seattle became interested in building parklets and approached the city in 2011. Today, Seattle has both a parklet program and a streatery program. Seattle’s parklets are much like those in San Francisco where a local sponsor designs, builds, and maintains the space, and the city government issues the permit and ensures adherence to design standards. The streatery model is unique in that they provide commercial cafe seating during business hours as well as public access after business hours.
That’s right, it’s a hybrid public space. But how well does this work in practice? Do people use the streateries as public parklets after business hours? Has the city run into any issues regarding liability, or challenges with illicit behavior happening in the streateries when there is no one around to keep their “eyes on the street”?
According to my peers in Seattle, following an extensive community survey, they have concluded the following: Streateries perform well from an economic development perspective and have fulfilled a need in the city for outdoor dining, adding vibrancy to Seattle’s streets. They do provide a public benefit in terms of creating vibrant streets bustling with activity. (The city enforces strict design guidelines for streateries such as a 42-inch height maximum for surrounding enclosures that must be 50 percent transparent.) On the downside, streateries have not been perceived by the public as public space. The public amenities and invitation for use after business hours have been limited at best.
Seattle has some important lessons to share. First, private outdoor dining patios, like streateries, can contribute to economic development, social infrastructure, and create the public benefit of vibrant, safer streets when they adhere to basic good design principles. Second, the hybrid private / public space model sounds good in theory, but in practice it’s hard for an average member of the public to navigate unless there are strong design cues in either direction. In other words, don’t expect your thriving commercial district’s outdoor dining spaces to fulfill a public space need such as public gathering spaces or non-commercial community seating.
But what can we learn from the Queen of the Northwest? As a social democracy, everything is better managed and more beautiful in Vancouver, Canada, so it’s no surprise that this city is leading the way for all of us regarding the future of outdoor public and private spaces. Vancouver’s parklets are very different from San Francisco’s or Seattle’s in that they are designed, funded and built by the city. This has been good for adherence to design standards and ensuring high quality and beautiful parklets. The downside is that due to limited city funding and staff capacity, there were only a handful of parklets created each year.
In response to a growing demand from restaurants and cafes, Vancouver also created a curbside patio program for commercial outdoor dining. Prior to the pandemic, six patios had been approved by the city. When the pandemic hit, the city created a temporary expedited patio permit process. Since June 1, 2020, the city has approved over 400 temporary patios on private and city property.
Following the initial success of the parklet program, but acknowledging the inherent obstacles of city-led parklets, the city stopped accepting new conventional parklet applications and instead focused their energy on a pop-up plaza program in partnership with local business districts, which has resulted in the creation of 20 nicely-designed plazas with broad public support. Vancouver found that for about the same amount of time and money as a parklet, they could create much more generous and useful pop-up plaza spaces. The second initiative is a community focused parklet program, created in partnership with social service organizations in underserved neighborhoods like the Downtown Eastside. These parklets are designed and built by the city and programmed and managed with a dedicated community partner to offer such programs as health clinics and safe injection sites.
What this means is that as a citizen of Vancouver navigating the city’s streets you have lots of choices. You can choose to pay for seating and experience the buzz and vibrancy of the commercial outdoor dining happening in one of the city’s 400 patios, or you can walk a bit further down the street and hang out at the free public seating in a city-sponsored pop-up plaza or a parklet.
From my point of view, this is the right balance of public and private use of the curb lane in the public right-of-way. We all want thriving, economically-vibrant commercial districts AND we want meaningful investment in high-quality and well-maintained public spaces in our neighborhoods. The role of the Vancouver municipality has been to be the referee — to ensure that in any given neighborhood or commercial district there are both public and private seating options.
So while my original view was that outdoor dining should be redesigned and converted to public parklets, I now see the powerful and important role that well-designed patios can play in adding to the social and economic vibrancy of our streets. What I don’t support is trying to force these tiny curb lane spaces to be all things for all people. Attempting to saddle commercial patios with public seating or public-use requirements both dilutes their ability to serve their primary commercial purpose and sends confusing signals to the public.
Nor do I support continuing to allow the free-for-all use of the curb lane that has occurred during the pandemic and which has resulted in the proliferation of low-quality, poorly designed, and potentially dangerous commercial outdoor dining platforms. Many of these spaces feel opaque and claustrophobic, blocking visual access to ground floor retail and obstructing city sidewalks.
Businesses who want to use curb lane space for commercial outdoor dining must recognize the immediate benefit of the use of the public right-of-way for their businesses and compensate cities for the use of the space. By pricing the curb appropriately, cities can generate revenue to support and invest in public realm improvements and city staff time to manage their outdoor space programs. Also, patios must adhere to basic good design principles like 42-inch height maximum for surrounding enclosures; 50 percent transparent walls; and a direct, accessible connection to the adjacent sidewalk in order to generate the public benefit of vibrant, lively streets.
With the revenue generated from commercial outdoor dining patio permit fees, cities can then invest in the parklets and pop-up plazas that can continue to fulfill a crucial role for everyday, informal social encounters that form the basis of social bonding and community cohesion. Parklets and pop-up plazas work well when there is a dedicated sponsor or steward — like a community organization, or an adjacent sponsor which has an established take-out business model like an ice cream shop or cafe — who is in charge of daily maintenance and programming of the space. Public space is a verb, not a static object. Public spaces must be cultivated and maintained to flourish and grow so that they are best able to contribute meaningfully to a city’s social infrastructure and a diverse, inclusive, resilient public realm.
Landscape architects and urban designers have a crucial role to play in shaping the future of the use of outdoor spaces. As upholders of design quality, we can ensure that the next generation of commercial outdoor dining patios are well-designed and contribute to a high-quality and vibrant public realm.
As stewards of public space and the public realm, we can ensure that in any given neighborhood or commercial district, there are beautifully-designed public spaces, with generous public seating and lively programming, to create invitations to all city residents to socialize and spend time together.
John Bela, ASLA, is an urban strategist and designer based in San Francisco. Bela co-founded Rebar, the creators of Park(ing) Day. A founding partner and design director at Gehl San Francisco, he left Gehl in 2021 to form his own design advisory and consulting practice: Bela Urbanism + Design. He is a licensed landscape architect in California.
Is Artificial Turf Right for You? 3 Things to Consider Before Installing a Fake Lawn — 08/12/21, Architectural Digest
“According to San Clemente landscape designer Jodie Cook, although grass requires potable water and turf doesn’t, that’s too narrow a comparison. Other elements of the water cycle are a major issue. Plants, even grasses, create water themselves. ‘When you put turf down and replace a living plant, you’re removing moisture from the environment,’ she explains. ‘You’re removing atmospheric water.'”
Your Garden May Be Pretty, but Is It Ecologically Sound? — 08/11/21, The New York Times
“Some gardeners react to any mention of ecological landscaping — the merging of environmental science and art — as if it were a compromise or concession meant to limit their creativity. Darrel Morrison, a landscape architect who has been practicing and teaching this philosophy for some five decades, begs to differ.”
Study: Protected Bike Paths Saved Lives During COVID — 08/10/21, Streetsblog
“In a report released today, researchers from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety dug into the nuances of America’s (still-ongoing) pandemic-era bike boom by scrutinizing the spatial and temporal distribution of pre- and post-lockdown bicycle trip counts and crash counts in the city of Arlington, VA.”
Using Nature to Combat Climate Change — 08/09/21, CNN
“Landscape architect and founder of SCAPE Kate Orff describes how regenerative living infrastructure can help mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change.”
The Seas Are Rising. Could Oysters Help?— 08/02/21, The New Yorker
“A great deal of [Kate] Orff’s work addresses the inescapable fact that the Atlantic Ocean is rising, and coming for the land. She’s the founder of the design firm scape, the director of the Urban Design Program at Columbia University, and the first landscape architect to win a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant. She’s also at the forefront of an emerging approach to climate resilience that argues we should be building with nature, not just in nature.”
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first major report as part of its sixth assessment of global climate science — the first significant analysis of research since 2014, covering more than 14,000 studies. Its core finding: global warming of 1.5°C (2.7 °F) over pre-Industrial Revolution levels is inevitable over coming decades, but if we act now, we can stave off further, more dangerous warming of 2°C (3.6°F), or, even worse, 3°C (5.4°F), which is what the world is now on a trajectory to experience. As climate reporter Andrew Revkin notes, humans are currently adding “40-billion-plus tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere each year (and rising).” The IPCC argues that limiting warming to 1.5°C is only possible if the world’s governments accelerate efforts to reduce emissions by transitioning to renewable energy and net-zero communities and transportation systems. “Achieving global net-zero carbon dioxide emissions is a requirement for stabilizing carbon dioxide-induced global surface temperature increases.”
In this first comprehensive analysis of physical sciences, which was approved by 195 governments, the IPCC states that “many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years.” Analyzing the IPCC’s findings, The New York Times reports that “the last decade is quite likely the hottest the planet has been in 125,000 years. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have not been this high in at least 2 million years.”
To date, the report finds, “emissions from human activities are responsible for approximately 1.1°C (2°F) of warming since 1850-1900.” If the world can achieve “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” in the near term, climate change could be stalled at a 1.5°C increase. And 1.5°C of warming, while dire, will be far less destructive than 2°C.
“For 1.5°C of global warming, there will be increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons, and shorter cold seasons. At 2°C of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health.” A 2°C temperature increase would force almost unimaginable adaptations and migrations.
According to the IPCC, warming is occurring across all parts of the planet, but most in the Arctic and on land.
The impacts of climate change also already go beyond warming to include “changes to wetness and dryness, to winds, snow and ice, coastal areas, and oceans.” Climate change is intensifying the water cycles, which will lead to more intense rainfall and flooding but also more intense drought. In higher latitudes, there will likely be more rain, while it will decrease in the sub-tropics, which will get even hotter.
This is where landscape architects can plan and design nature-based solutions. In areas of higher flooding, landscape architects plan and design green infrastructure or sponge city approaches that safely retain stormwater; in areas experiencing drought, they design sustainable landscapes that collect and reuse water and reduce water use.
The IPCC finds that the high end of temperatures and heatwaves have increased due to human-driven greenhouse gas emissions. “It is virtually certain that hot extremes (including heatwaves) have become more frequent and more intense across most land regions.”
Seas, which have risen 8 inches over the past century, are expected to continue to rise, causing more frequent and severe flooding in low-lying areas and increased erosion and coastal habitat loss. “Extreme sea level events that previously occurred once in 100 years could happen every year by the end of this century.”
This is where landscape architects and planners are helping communities either manage retreat and relocation or become far more resilient to flooding through nature-based approaches. Landscape architects, planners, and ecologists are also helping to create room for coastal species at risk to migrate and adapt.
Since 1993, the rate of warming in oceans has doubled, and oceans will continue to experience “more frequent marine heatwaves, ocean acidification, and reduced oxygen levels. These changes affect both ocean ecosystems and the people that rely on them.” Coastal and indigenous communities at risk will need further support from landscape architects in adapting their way of life and livelihoods.
The IPCC indicates that the loss of seasonal snow cover, glaciers and ice sheets, and Arctic sea ice is expected to accelerate. Artic sea ice is at its lowest levels since at least 1850. The temperatures of Arctic and Boreal permafrost have also increased, heightening risks of releasing billions of tons of stored carbon dioxide and methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Landscape architects can help increase the health and resilience of Artic ecosystems by reducing man-made impacts that further disturb these soils.
Lastly, the IPCC finds that the effect of climate change in cities, where 56 percent of the global population now resides, “may be amplified, including heat (since urban areas are usually warmer than their surroundings), flooding from heavy precipitation events, and sea level rise in coastal cities.”
With the help of landscape architects and planners, cities are applying resilient green infrastructure or sponge city approaches that combat both increased heat and flooding at once.
Two recent articles in the American media — one from The New York Times and another from The Christian Science Monitor — raised questions about the efficacy of China’s sponge city concept in the face of climate change. As storms become more powerful and release more water faster, the flood control mechanisms of Chinese cities are being overrun. News stories have focused on recent dangerous flooding in Zhengzhou, a city of 12 million on the banks of the Yellow River, which killed more than 300 people and trapped others in tunnels and subways. The articles questioned whether nature-based solutions, rooted in the sponge city approach, can handle the increasing amounts of stormwater inundating Chinese cities on rivers and coasts.
In a Zoom interview, Kongjian Yu, FASLA — founder of Turenscape, one of China’s largest landscape architecture firms, and creator of the sponge city concept — said, “first of all, Zhengzhou is not a true sponge city. There has still been way too much development and grey infrastructure.” And many Chinese cities have been using the term “sponge city as a political slogan” and a way to attract central government funding, given the deep support for the approach from Chinese president Xi Jinping.
He believes the benefits of the sponge city approach, which involves designing and constructing city-wide systems of ponds, wetlands, and parks that retain stormwater, have been proven. “Since ancient times, Chinese cities along the Yellow River with monsoon climates have used ponds to manage flooding and stormwater. So we know these approaches worked for over 2,000 years because these cities survived.”
Chinese cities today are required to maintain 30 percent of the city as green space. Another 30 percent is dedicated to community space. For Yu, this means there is more enough space to create more ponds and water-absorbing parks that can capture vast amounts of water. “In 60 percent of the land in cities, we can use nature to retain water so it doesn’t drain away. In China, we have a saying — ‘water is precious, don’t let it go.’ There is plenty of space to be used to retain water.”
Yu outlined the key components of the sponge city approach. Stormwater should be captured using green infrastructure at its source, where it falls. Sponges should be evenly distributed and permeable so they can absorb water instead of shifting it somewhere else. “If properly designed, it’s a democratic water management system” made up of very local solutions.
Yu claims that with the story of Zhengzhou, the “media is seeking conflict and targeting something that isn’t a sponge city. Sponge cities can only solve the problem. We need more sponges, not less.”
Despite a recent video of a talk he gave, which he says has been viewed by more than 100 million Chinese citizens, there still needs to be more public education about the benefits of sponge cities. “Some of the public still doesn’t understand the sponge city concept, and some may find it a waste of money. Furthermore, some civil and hydrological engineers in China have been attacking the sponge city, nature-based approach because it takes away their jobs.”
If a sponge city is working as it should, “there would be no flooding. People forget when they don’t have disasters.”
When asked about NYC’s new approach to handling sea level rise-induced flooding in lower Manhattan, which will involve constructing a sea wall along with large-scale cisterns to store water, he said: “cisterns are unsustainable.” The concrete cisterns “have to be huge and therefore expensive and high maintenance.” Furthermore, this approach wastes water, which is a “living resources and when combined with plants and soils creates more natural resources.”
Yu calls for greater capacity building among the landscape architecture and civil engineering professions in China and elsewhere in the sponge city concept. “The issue in China is that some designers and engineers are building parks but not building in the stormwater management capacity needed.” In China, stormwater is still the responsibility of civil and hydrological engineers.
To address issues with the design and implementation of sponge cities, Yu will be hosting a summit with the leadership of the civil and hydrological engineers at his research and educational campus. “We will have a high-level discussion aimed to bridge the gaps.”
Furthermore, Yu’s team is publishing a new book in Mandarin — Performance Study of Designed Ecologies — that includes real data about sponge city projects. In addition to his videos, he has also produced a textbook for China’s thousands of mayors, who he said are on board with the approach.
“Flooding in the era of climate change presents an opportunity for landscape architects. We have an opportunity to build up our approach. Landscape architects can solve these problems — not with concrete pipes and cisterns — but with nature.”
Over the next hundred years, average global sea levels are expected to rise faster than they have in the last 8,000 years. By 2050, storm surges and high tides could flood homes, subways, and roads that are currently one or two feet higher in elevation than the homes, subways, and roads that have already flooded over the last twenty years in New Orleans, New York, Zhengzhou, and Boston. Hundreds of millions of people living in coastal cities and rural areas will be affected, even if communities stop burning fossil fuels completely today.
Adaptation to climate change is essential. But do landscape architects and planners understand the most important impacts of higher seas, assuming the goal is to design for adaptation without accidentally blowing it? And how will communities prioritize and achieve the social goals of adaptation in a systematically unequal society? Who will pay, who will benefit, and how can communities take the first steps? As this figure based on innovative planning in the UK reveals, there’s a long lead time before coastal communities can live in safety, so those first steps need to happen now.
Carolyn Kousky, Billy Fleming, ASLA, and Alan M. Berger, the editors of the new book A Blueprint for Coastal Adaptation: Uniting Design, Economics and Policy, set out to answer these questions. In their introductory essay, they make the claim that landscape architects and planners already have most of the tools needed to help communities adapt. The challenge, in their view, is the lack of action. They close the last paragraph of their introduction with the (overly?) triumphant claim that if we start now, “the future is ours.” Ouch. Remind me who “we” are? And is it a good thing for anyone to claim possession of the future, which will have its own claims? I realize this introductory chapter is a pitch, not a research paper, and the chapters themselves are far more self-reflective. But I want to start by putting this review in context, simply because the book is so important.
As a scholar and designer in the field of landscape architecture, I ask myself every day whether design professionals have the synthetic understanding needed to advise urban decision makers to act. For example, while the authors in this anthology consider flooding driven by saltwater, rainwater, and rivers overflowing their channels, not a single essay grapples with the risk that shallow coastal groundwater will rise through the soil and/or move laterally into river channels in response to rising seawater. Recent research indicates that groundwater-driven flooding may cause more water-related failures of urban infrastructure and buildings than seawater and that it will add to river and rainwater flooding. If landscape architects and planners haven’t considered the compounded physical and ecological risks created by rising coastal groundwater, it’s premature for us to give professional advice on adaptation.
To be “professional,” our advice has to go beyond selling a proposal. That advice has to reflect the shared knowledge of a field, or it won’t meet the standard of professionalism; at that point, we might as well be selling used cars. If we recommend spending billions of dollars to use levees to keep the sea out, our shared knowledge tells us that we will also need to pump the rainwater and groundwater out from behind the levees and design the protected district to be resilient to catastrophic failures of coastal structures. Levees and movable gates won’t keep coastal land from flooding by themselves, especially where the rock or sand under a city is very permeable.
The upshot is that the mantra of “sponge cities” or “sponge wetlands” won’t work in high groundwater conditions, because the “sponge” will already be full of groundwater. The really bad news is that changes in the elevation or flow direction of coastal groundwater could end up sending us to a dystopian ‘80’s theme party. New flows of groundwater can mobilize soil pollution that was capped in the 1980’s or 1990’s and carry it under buildings where people will be exposed to old pollution in new ways. Most cities don’t even have maps of their shallow water table. Rising groundwater will corrode and shift building foundations, fill old sewer pipes and basements, corrode electrical conduits, and make extreme shaking more likely in an earthquake. Groundwater management must be part of any viable climate adaptation strategy.
The ambition of the editors to consider the trifecta of hurdles in funding, policy, and design is what makes this book eminently worth reading. Although no one confronts coastal groundwater impacts, the authors in this book provide a robust set of useful ideas, many of which have been tested in practice.
On the design side, Matthijs Bouw, associate professor of practice at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, presents useful examples from his professional design experience in New York and Boston clearly and intelligently.
It was (and is) hard for a European firm to encounter and adjust to the state of American infrastructure. Adaptation is made more difficult by the fact that American cities coast on bridge and pipe investments made 100+ years ago and have cultivated a strategy of neglect since then. Bouw’s description of a more abstract ideas competition in San Francisco is less effective than his other examples, but together his experiences allow him to sincerely observe that adaptation with equity is in doubt in the U.S., where we continue to live under the long shadow of systemic racism and growing economic inequality.
Karen M’Closkey and Keith VanDerSys, co-founders of PEG office of landscape architecture, use their experience in the same California ideas competition as the basis for an argument that adaptation will also be a housing problem, as lower-income renters will need new options. They do an excellent job of bringing in the bigger national picture, suggesting policy avenues and making it clear that the gravity and scale of the housing problem is impossible to solve with design tools alone. All of these design chapters are well-referenced and thoughtfully written.
Susannah Drake, FASLA, founder of DLANDStudio, and Rafi Segal, associate professor of architecture and urbanism at MIT, describe their proposals for coastal New Jersey and Long Island and Jamaica Bay, New York, more in the style of a manifesto or a competition submission. They have an interesting core of ideas and intriguing claims, but without a critical frame, deeper references, or details, the chapter reads more as a point of departure than a fully-reasoned landscape architecture strategy. For example, their image of dense housing inserted at the edge of a marsh reveals the fundamental conflict between human housing needs and the needs of coastal ecosystems.
There is no question that putting housing in that location would degrade the quality of the habitat for the egret shown in the image. As we get real about climate, we also need to face the fact that real tradeoffs result from developing coastal ecosystems. This proposal shows an opportunity for landscape architecture to lead adaptation through an ambitious use of land form as an armature for adaptation, instead of concrete and steel walls.
The same site, Jamaica Bay, is also the subject of a proposal in another chapter led by Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA, professor and director of graduate landscape architecture program at the Spitzer School of Architecture, The City College of New York, which is also provocative but isn’t presented with enough detail to understand how the ecosystems of the Bay would not suffer from introducing new tide gates or how higher groundwater would be managed at the edge of the Bay. As in the Segal and Drake proposal, some separation (physical, temporal or behavioral) would be needed between marshes and lagoons that are managed for housing or recreation and marshes and lagoons that are intended to support diverse ecosystems. It’s a complex landscape, so perhaps this is considered but not described.
On the planning and finance side, several chapters deserve particularly careful reading. Joyce Coffee, founder of Climate Resilient Consulting, and Sarah Dobie, a PhD student at the Taubman College at the University of Michigan, describe strategies at the municipal scale, contrasting the retreat by attrition that is occurring in a small town in Louisiana with Miami Beach’s efforts to raise its streets to adapt in place. Their frank and clear presentation stresses the glaring differences between a community whose tax base and land area are shrinking and a city where a growing population and continued investment is expanding its capacity to adapt in place. It’s not as clear that they have translated the cases into recommendations, which raises the question of whether we know how to prioritize the goals of adaptation. What outcomes are acceptable and to whom?
Thomas Ruppert, a coastal planning specialist at Sea Grant Florida, examines the genuinely frightening prospect that abandoned coastal properties will cause pollution hazards and concludes that current legal tools are insufficient to prevent this dystopian outcome. Carlos Martin, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, makes a spirited case for public funding for adaptation as public works, and Allison Lassiter, an assistant professor at the Weitzman School of Design at Penn, describes the risks of sea level rise for urban drinking water in Philadelphia, which draws its water from the tidal Delaware River, along with New York. Fadi Masoud, assistant professor and director of the Centre for Landscape Research at the University of Toronto, and David Vega-Barachowitz, director of urban Design at WXY architecture + urban design, take a speculative approach to zoning, describing environmental overlay zones as a strategy for implementing incremental change and making it clear that designers should understand the history and legal context of zoning before altering it.
The real stand-out chapter in this section is by Shannon Cunniff, scientific advisor at Stone Living Lab, and her co-authors. They present environmental impact bonds as a new financing tool that has already been used in Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Atlanta, and considered in many others. To the extent that cities continue to rely on private capital to pay for adaptation, or simply to accelerate innovative pilot projects, impact bonds are a very useful strategy. Taking this one chapter seriously could make the difference between kick starting adaptation or failing by delay.
Overall, the book has a strong emphasis on conditions and strategies in the Mid-Atlantic and Gulf coasts. This is a limitation for translating some of the design ideas to the west coast, because different regions have different problems (earthquakes vs. hurricanes, karst geology vs. granite, etc.). The book also doesn’t include innovations from design or financing that have been adopted in California or the Pacific Northwest, outside of the rather abstract recent ideas competition in the San Francisco Bay area. But it’s strong on arguments for the East coast and Gulf.
The editors have taken a light-handed approach. Each chapter is encountered on its own without a broader synthesis or set of recommendations at the scale of a section or the book, leaving the reader challenged to identify gaps and draw conclusions by themselves. For example, in spite of the editors’ hopes, it’s not clear that any of the authors have a strategy for increasing social equity in U.S. cities while adapting to flooding. In that sense, some of the limits in this anthology reflect the genuine boundaries of what has been tried and even proposed. To achieve greater equity, several of the authors seem to conclude that we will need more radical strategies.
Everyone should read this book to see how the field of landscape architecture might help cities adapt to a changing climate, particularly with new federally-funded infrastructure investments. Each chapter of this book reaches beyond the conventional limits of our professional knowledge, by degrees or by leaps. But the most important bar this anthology has set for other books about adaptation is to place questions about funding and policy side-by-side with design proposals. For setting that bar higher, we should all thank the editors. Every future book on this topic should accept that challenge and rise to it. Without progressive new policies that can direct the sources and uses of funds for adaptation, even the best designs for adaptation will only reinforce the unequal status quo.
Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, is the director of the Institute of Urban and Regional Development and associate professor of landscape architecture & environmental planning and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley College of Environmental Design. She is writing a book about adaptation to sea level rise.
“A pipeline is a smooth, enclosed surface that moves something from A to B as quickly as possible,” explained Marc Miller, ASLA, vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA), at the 2021 CUT|Fill Unconference. When using the term pipeline in regards to the act of moving young people into the landscape architecture profession, there are a “lot of assumptions.” A pipeline conveys the idea of a single pathway into the profession and can be associated with the historic exclusionary nature of licensure. Instead of a pipeline, Miller called for a mat with many entry points that enables people of color to more easily access landscape architecture and other design professions.
Matt Williams, ASLA, a landscape designer and planner with the city of Detroit who has a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Louisiana State University (LSU), argued that for “black people, there is no straight line into the profession.”
And in the comments during the Zoom discussion, there were lots of agreement on this point. Cindy Gilliland, ASLA, a landscape architect, noted that “there is no straight line for women either.” Instead of a pipeline, perhaps there are “chutes and ladders,” commented Ujijji Davis, ASLA, a landscape architect in Detroit. For Jeana Pearl Fletcher, Student ASLA, the concept of a pipeline “makes me question the hierarchy that exists in institutions and pedagogy in general. How do we move forward without this constructed hierarchy, which often leads to the trajectory of a pipeline?”
The kick-off session of CUT|FILL was meant to initiate “difficult conversations” around the theme: “Are we building a bridge to the future?” Panelists called for major change in how landscape architecture is taught. A core argument: the non-inclusive framing of landscape architecture and its history, particularly in K-12 educational materials and design school curricula, turns off a lot of people of color from even considering the profession.
For Miller, the challenge working with CELA, a global organization that support landscape architecture academics and students across the planet, is the different conceptions of diversity. One way around this issue is to take a universal approach to unearthing the landscape traditions that have been long buried by colonialism in so many countries.
As an example, he pointed to American landscape writings from the late 1700s. He questioned why these should be among the few texts taught from the era, given they don’t include the history of 1619, when slaves first arrived on the shores of this country. When we revisit history from the understanding that many landscape traditions make up the landscape of the U.S., “we have a radically different history” that can resonate with more diverse students.
The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) has been trying to support multiple pathways into the profession of landscape architecture, explained Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, the organization’s CEO. LAF has supported research, which is “the basis of innovation,” through more than 170 Landscape Performance Series case studies; scholarships for those entering the profession; and leadership development programs, including their Leadership and Innovation Fellows programs. Their focus is on making the landscape architecture profession even more inclusive and growing diverse leaders. “We are trying to spread out a range of efforts out and look systematically at the whole journey of becoming a landscape architect.”
In his education and career, Williams said, he has made “hundreds of maps,” but he discovered young people had never seen their neighborhood mapped or even knew how zip codes or routes to schools were formed. “I saw young people go from not understanding to wanting to become planners, designers, and policymakers.” Planners and designers in his department are now working with K-12 students to teach mapping and the legacy of redlining and the impact of gentrification in the city.
“I have taken advantage of every crack in the pipeline over my career,” said Mae Lin Plummer, co-chair of the inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility task force at the American Public Gardens Association. And instead of directing people to one career pathway, “we need to use vast networks to create success — think of the fungal networks underneath the roots of trees. It’s about building relationships.”
For her, a key question is: “why doesn’t everyone want to do garden design?” She found her experience at a public botanical garden to be welcoming and uplifting but has since discovered many changes need to be made to make the field of public horticultural design more accessible and inclusive. “Public gardens are at a crossroads. In the past, they perpetuated elitism and had a passive influence on a small group of society.” There’s a shift underway in which public garden designers are taking an active role, everywhere from public gardens to hell strips to rooftops.
She urged anyone rethinking their approaches to inclusion and accessibility to “keep asking why you are making the change; peel back the layers; interrogate reality; mine for clarity, like you would weeding a garden, which can be dirty and uncomfortable.”
Jennifer Reut, acting editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, said that leadership and how “gatekeeping or boundary defining” occurs in the profession of landscape architecture are now evolving. Today, the profession is being challenged by “big ideas” that will shape what the field becomes in the future. She argued that different media are required for different audiences — “video, TikTok, and Twitter may be needed to reach some, while others still prefer print.” And that different media also alters the messages and stories. “It’s a major challenge to reach everyone.”
She also questioned whether images of finished plans and projects are the best ways to engage young people about the profession. “We show them projects rooted in a set of formal ideas and values about how things should look. In the magazine, we have been trying to instead show photos of community planning meetings where landscape architects and community members are building trust. I sometimes receive feedback: ‘Well, that isn’t landscape architecture.’ For me, it is, and I think that’s where we need to start in showing the design process.”
As the exchange flowed, Miller returned to the idea of a single pipeline and how it can be re-conceived for a more diverse world. American landscape history needs to more deeply explore “property, labor, and people.” Also, the “binary focus” on just white colonialists and enslaved Africans leaves out the story of indigenous people and their role in American landscapes.
In Australia, a new bi-cultural landscape pedagogy is being taught that integrates Aboriginal and white colonial histories. This approach could be a way to “take apart the entire foundation of Western frameworks” of landscape architecture education. Williams questioned whether existing Western frameworks are really Western to begin with. “We need to expand the foundations of pedagogy to attract more people.”
The Power of Getting Paid Not to Park at Work — 07/14/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Subsidizing employer-paid parking clogs streets boosts emissions and isn’t fair to commuters who can’t use this perk. But there’s an easy way to fix it.”
Covid Didn’t Kill Cities. Why Was That Prophecy So Alluring? — 07/12/21, The New York Times
“Inevitably, the city survives. And yet so does the belief it will fall next time. The Upshot asked more than a dozen people who think a lot about cities — historians, economists, sociologists and urban policy experts — about the strange staying power of this narrative.”
Who’s the Green City for, Really? — 07/12/21, Sierra Club Magazine
“This idea that all green spaces are an unmitigated social good is nothing new…It’s a concept that’s existed since the late 19th century. What is unique now, though, is public awareness of ecological concerns like climate change. Green cities are now the epitome of an ideal, modern urban life, and urban planners seek to integrate highly visible, nature-based projects into cities.”
The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s most recent class of innovation and leadership fellows spent the past year “unearthing assumptions and trying to find a path forward” through the “disorienting dilemmas” facing the world, explained Cindy Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in the kick-off off LAF’s now annual symposium. Each fellow seeks to generate “ethically-motivated societal change,” which in the process required “personal transformation.” Over two days, this year’s six fellows delved into the results of their independent research and leadership building efforts, which were each supported by a $25,000 grant from LAF.
Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo: Taking on the Army Corps of Engineers in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is an island of 3.2 million Americans. An unincorporated U.S. territory, it has a population larger than 20 U.S. states. The San Juan Estuary faces many challenges, including flooding, explained Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo, Principal, ECo. Efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to channelize the Rio Piedras, which spreads south from San Juan into the heart of the island, have brought up a complex set of issues related to “politics, economics, and flood conveyance.” Along its course, the river is both “polluted and biodiverse, near and inaccessible, beautiful and dangerous.” As a response to extreme flooding from Hurricane Maria, the Army Corps has allocated $1.5 billion to transform 9.5 miles of a “soft, natural river into a concrete, high-velocity channel” and insert five new bridges into the river landscape. “This shows a total disregard for climate change and environmental science” and also for the Army Corps own new nature-based engineering approach, Colón Izquierdo argued.
To better advocate for a nature-based approach that can make Puerto Rico more resilient to flooding, Colón Izquierdo has joined with scientists, advocates, and scholars who created Alianza Por La Cuenca del Rio Piedras, guided by the message “el rio esta vivo,” or “the river is alive.” While taking on the Army Corps, a complex bureaucracy, is analogous to “David attempting to defeat Goliath,” Colón Izquierdo believes the effort is critical because the design is “many decades behind in its conception.” In fact, the design is from 1992 and environmental impact statement from 1993; the project was resuscitated after Hurricane Maria decimated the island and exposed the vulnerability of so many living in Puerto Rico’s floodplains. By organizing design charettes and educating the public about nature-based options to improving the safety and health of the river, Colón Izquierdo seeks to build capacity, find leverage, and “get a seat at the table” — and perhaps save other rivers in Puerto Rico from the same fate.
Andrea Johnson: Imagining New Forms of Community-owned Renewable Energy
Bounded at one side by the Bronx-Queens Expressway, the neighborhood of Sunset Park in Brooklyn includes a jail, mechanic shops, warehouses, and vacant land, explained Andrea Johnson, a visiting assistant professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. A maritime hub, the community is home to the Brooklyn Terminal, a massive industrial and commercial building that is now covered in a solar array cooperatively managed. This array got Johnson thinking about the hidden energy systems that comprise the community that can be re-imagined to provide “collective social value.”
When electricity demand in NYC increases, gas-driven peakers in Sunset Park start up, which contributes to the noxious air quality in the neighborhood, which includes mostly people of color. UPROSE, a community group, and other local organizations, have been trying to get the New York Power Authority to permanently close the peakers in favor of renewable energy, but the authority has only put them on stand by. Johnson said “decommissioning the peakers and replacing with publicly-owned renewable energy would lead to a more just and equitable energy system.” If decarbonization occurs through community-run renewable energy, then people in Sunset Park could benefit from electricity surges.
“There is a role for landscape architects here that needs to be seized. We can get ahead of the policy and innovate from how energy is perceived, stored, and used.” She analyzed and discovered 75 megawatts of energy could be generated on public rooftops in the community. “Back-up storage sources could then be spread across the public sphere.” Johnson and her students at CUNY have been imagining other new solutions that involve wind turbines, micro-grids, utility-scale batteries, a “gravity park” in which heavy blocks are raised to create kinetic energy that can be stored, and other systems that can both generate and store energy and serve as cleaner, more just forms of peakers.
Diego Bermúdez: A Comprehensive Plan for Protecting Bogotá’s Cultural Landscapes
Bogotá, Colombia, is a city of 9 million people and continues to expand rapidly at its periphery. This sprawl threatens the historic Bogotá savanna, an important high-altitude wetland landscape. Diego Bermúdez, principal and partner, Bermúdez Arquitectos, in Bogotá, explained that 2,500 years ago, the area formed the vast floodplains of the Bogotá River and its many tributaries. Pre-Hispanic settlers, the indigenous Muisca people, who lived in small villages, built canals and berms to create flood-proof zones for growing food. “They lived amid 100,000 acres of wetlands and were amphibious people.”
When the Spanish arrived in the 17th century, they removed the Muisca and subdivided the land to scale up industrial food production. Farms were organized into grids, with protective canals, to increase yields. By the 1920s, the government created a water management district that was meant to preserve the irrigation systems. Those layers of water management history are now threatened by rampant sprawl and development into the savanna region. Bermúdez said the city’s population is expected to increase to 10.5 million in 2035 and reach upwards of 14 million by 2050.
To protect the savanna landscape, which grows 40 percent of the city’s food, Bermúdez proposes a strategy that first protects the historic canals, which are also hubs for biodiversity, including 200 species of birds. “Water management can be a tool for reimagining the future.” As he spent a year traveling to these agricultural communities and also meeting the developers who are urbanizing the area, he found “new hope,” because “people want to protect the water management system for flooding, biodiversity, and recreation.” Bermúdez has been working to connect the disparate players and layers of plans into a regional plan that can guide development away from the savanna, create protective zones for the historic agricultural landscapes, and further densify the core of Bogotá.