During Life under Lockdown, City Parks Become Sanctuaries

Central Park, New York City / Wikipedia

In these stressful and uncertain times, parks have become even more central to our physical and mental health, and safe access to them must be maintained. That was the key message from a packed webinar organized by the City Parks Alliance with brave and exhausted city park leaders from New York City, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco.

Mitchell Silver, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, said that New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., is allowing people to use parks and exercise outside if they follow social distancing guidelines, but the department has closed sports fields and playgrounds. “Solitary exercise is OK but not group exercise.”

Silver said the situation is changing “hour by hour and day by day,” and they are following the latest guidance from the health department, which is in the lead on setting rules.

That is not to say that NYC Parks and Recreation hasn’t made their voice heard in internal city government discussions. They have repeatedly made the case for keeping parks open so people can get “fresh air and access to green space, which are critical to mental health and boosting immune systems.”

“All indoor and outdoor programs have ended,” explained Phil Ginsburg, general manager with San Francisco Recreation and Parks. Large parks are still open, but the city has closed smaller parks, playgrounds, and play structures where it’s impossible to maintain social distancing.

The San Francisco parks department is very focused on equity issues, as a portion of the city’s population relies on programs and services at their recreational centers. Many of those facilities have have been converted into childcare centers for the children of front line healthcare workers. Children can get three meals a day there.

The pandemic shows why cities need green open spaces. “Parks are more important than they have ever been. Before, they were a nice-to-have, but now we’re seeing heavier park use than we’ve ever seen.”

San Franciscans are by and large complying with social distancing guidelines. “But the problem is that they are all complying at the same time. We tell people not to gather, to find their own space in parks.”

Crissy Field, San Francisco / Hargreaves Jones

“Park use is up and social media use in parks is also up,” said Jayne Miller, President & CEO of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, a non-profit that works in conjunction with the city’s parks department and is active in 22 parks throughout the city. She said parks are open for running, walking, bicycling, or sitting 6 feet apart from others.

The Conservancy is blasting out public safety messages to align with city-issued rules and guidelines. They have also suggested new activities people can do from the safety of their home, like virtual environmental education webinars, and videos. To reach all audiences young and older, they are creating graphics, memes, FAQs, and emails.

Frick Park, Pittsburgh / Pittsburgh Park Conservancy

Nancy Goldenberg, co-chair of the board at the City Parks Alliance, asked each park leader how parks departments are coordinating with health departments.

Silver said that the parks department is assisting with contigency planning with the city’s operational center during the crisis. The park has 3,200 essential workers who are still coming into the office. If one essential worker comes into contact with someone with the virus or is infected themselves, they have policies for disinfecting work spaces and then unaffected staff returning to work.

In San Francisco, there is an integrated command structure that became operational under the state of emergency. A city-wide policy group meets every week.

“The health department is now in charge and issuing directives that we then implement. They are prioritizing health with every decision.” But he said the parks department continues to make the case that “parks are an essential part of maintaining physical and mental heath and well-being.”

The parks department also wanted more streets closed to cars to create more walkable open space but the health department didn’t support the proposal. They worried the move would create a sense of “over-exuberance and bring too many people outside.”

Another question related to how city parks are helping vulnerable populations in a time when fewer programs and services can be offered.

In San Francisco, Chinese speaking park rangers have been assigned full-time to public spaces in Chinatown where they urge residents “not to gather or conduct business as usual,” Ginsburg said.

He was concerned that many smaller parks and playground where they can’t guarantee social distancing guidelines are being closed. Dense urban communities rely on these tiny parks. “Many are living in small, cramped apartments but we have to be mindful. There are trade-offs.”

He is worried that low-income residents will have fewer places to go outside. Those with a car or who live near Golden Gate Park or the Marin headlands have access to vast outdoor spaces that low-income residents won’t be able to get to. “I have some angst about that.”

In New York City, many schools, even while closed, are offering three meals a day to children of families that rely on those meals. Senior populations are also being delivered meals.

One final question was about the financial implications of COVID-19 on city parks.

Ginsburg indicated that their three primary revenue streams — fees from park-owned spaces, permits, and taxes from home sales — have all plummeted to nearly zero. “Resources were already stretched thin. Looking three months out, the budget consequences are dire.”

NYC’s annual parks budget, which is much higher than San Francisco’s, is also facing major challenges. Silver said “everything is now on hold. It’s not looking good.”

More money from state governments will be needed to keep parks, which are vital social and public health infrastructure, open during the crisis.

Smart Lighting? Not So Fast!

Demonstrators pull down a smart lamppost during a protest in Hong Kong. / AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Last summer, masked anti-government protestors in Hong Kong began tearing down light poles and gutting them, looking for facial recognition technology embedded alongside the Smart City WiFi and 5G. For the protestors, “smart” light poles, like a Trojan horse, represent the vanguard of mainland China’s surveillance state. Trust in what had previously been ignored as a boring, albeit useful, public utility had broken down.

While highly politicized in Hong Kong, there is a worldwide trend to embed Smart City data collection devices and surveillance technologies into street furniture. Some of these technologies, such as city-wide wireless internet and 5G cellular service, have great appeal while facial recognition technology and sensors that record conversations, track foot traffic or purchasing transactions remain controversial. Light poles play a key role in Smart City planning because their “perfect elevation,” strategic positioning, and complex wiring capabilities make them the ideal host for the new technologies.

Many in the international and American lighting industry are on board with this trend. They see the Smart City movement as an opportunity for the lighting industry to enter the data collection and analytics business, providing the industry with “the Holy Grail of all companies, recurring revenue.” As an editorial in LD+A, the journal of the lighting engineering world, put it last June: “Lighting IS a platform to gather information and process and analyze it at the edge where it is collected ….or pass it on to another location where it can be analyzed.”

Example of a more traditional post top lantern lamppost model designed for data collection. / Jeanne Choi, Tillett Lighting Design Associates
Example of a contemporary light column lamppost model designed for data collection. / Jeanne Choi, Tillett Lighting Design Associates

As lighting designers working in the public realm, we are very concerned. We have already witnessed the “frictionless” integration of data collection devices and surveillance technologies into new light pole designs at the private industry level in the U.S. This is proceeding rapidly without public knowledge, debate, or oversight. And in another worrisome new development, we have also seen tech giants offering these systems at little or no cost directly to municipalities, where fiscal deficits may make such offers irresistible. The priority accorded lighting in the design of nighttime public space may well be compromised by data collection and revenue generating.

As lighting designers, we believe the purpose and value of public lighting is its ability to create pleasing, social, intimate, safe nighttime experiences. We use our training and expertise to do that in cities across the country.

What — we ask ourselves — is a picnic at dusk or an evening turn at the dog run to feel like when the primary purpose of light poles is to house machine learning algorithms trained to recognize specific people, objects or behaviors? Will people still draw near the light they cast once they learn that their casual conversation is being captured day and night? And if the platform/data monopolies become the de facto suppliers of civic infrastructure, and lighting manufacturers morph into tech companies, what will become of the design of public lighting? Will it actually light our parks and plazas? Will the value of lighting design — its careful balance of function, aesthetics, ecological sensitivity, and the psychological and social needs of communities at night — become subservient to, or dismissed in favor of, the strategic needs of data collection?

As citizens, we support those institutions and individuals who are raising privacy concerns about the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement and public housing developers, among others. As professionals, we need to urgently and loudly argue that the value of lighting in public space is its ability to foster public life at night rather than stand by as light poles are converted into a Swiss Army knife of technologies controlled by corporations whose motives are not civic-minded but financial.

We must be committed to transparency and argue for meaningful oversight and accountability. Giant tech companies and lighting manufacturers that promote friendly-sounding Smart City services embedded in strategically-placed light poles, need to be clear with us, our clients and communities about the type of granular data collection involved and for whose benefit it is being collected. If tech companies (or their avatars) offer “free” equipment to our clients in return for ownership of the data that they collect, we need to help our clients navigate the implications of such contracts so that the present and future implications for the community are clear.

While public lighting has always played a role in policing and other government-sponsored public safety measures, it is worth remembering that lantern smashing has been around just as long. During the French Revolution and other rebellions of the 19th century, lantern smashing was a popular movement, not to plunge areas into darkness, but because street lanterns had become symbols of a hated authority.

As the protestors in Hong Kong showed, street lighting – far from promising gentle evening experiences — can again become a hated symbol of corporate and governmental control of our public life.

This guest post is by Linnaea Tillett, PhD, founder and principal of Linnaea Tillett Lighting Design Associates. Tillett is a lighting designer, environmental psychologist, and public artist. She was on the faculty at The New School: Parsons School of Design for 15 years.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16-29)

Chattahoochee RiverLands Greenway Study in Georgia / SCAPE

Landscape Architects Shift Emphasis to the Ecosystem, 02/22/20, AP News
“Landscape architects are finding themselves on the front lines of the climate change crisis, having to come up with creative ways to adapt and help mitigate problems like rising oceans and extreme weather as they design projects across the country.”

Houston Launches Multi-billion-dollar Resiliency Master Plan – 02/24/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner revealed plans for a multi-billion-dollar initiative designed to prepare the city against future climate change-related disasters. The 186-page document, Resilient Houston, elaborates on methods the coastal city can adopt to become better prepared for future storms, sea-level rise, and the urban heat island effect.”

Fix for a Hated N.Y.C. Highway: How About an $11 Billion Tunnel? – 02/24/20, The New York Times
“Cities like Boston, San Francisco and Seattle have all done it — razed hulking, unsightly highways dividing the heart of their downtowns, pushed a new roadway underground and turned the space above into an urban paradise. Could New York be next?”

Want to Grab a Late-Night Taco in Boston? The Neighbors Won’t Hear of It – 02/25/20, The Boston Globe
“El Jefe’s Taqueria founder John Schall is in a food fight with the City of Boston, and he doesn’t want it to play out quietly.”

Twitter for Urban Planning, 02/28/20, Planetizen
“Twitter is like all great cities: if you keep looking and figure out how to avoid a few key triggers, there are places and people for everyone. ‘Keep looking until you’ll find something you love,’ is a frequent saying about my home city of Los Angeles. The same is true of Twitter. The same is definitely true of Twitter, if what you love is planning.”

Lunar Life: Planning Underway for a Moon Village

Science fiction writers have long envisioned people living on the moon, perhaps in underground chambers. For the past two years, the European Space Agency (ESA) has been trying to figure out how to make a permanent settlement happen sometime after 2050. With the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and architecture firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM), they have honed conceptual plans and designs for a self-sufficient Moon Village at the rim of the Shackleton Crater on the Moon’s south pole. Recently, the partnership expanded to study how actual living modules would function.

The team settled on the crater because the area offers both total sunlight and total darkness. Within the sections of the crater that never receive light, there is ample ice that can be harvested to create breathable air and rocket propellant for transportation. The village itself would be set on the rim of the crater, which receives light nearly all lunar year. The development would rely on the sun to generate energy and grow food.

Moon Village / SOM, Slashcube GmbH
Moon Village / SOM, Slashcube GmbH

ESA realized that an interdisciplinary team of scientists and astro-planners, designers, and engineers would be needed to make the Moon livable. They brought in the expertise of the European Astronaut Centre and the European Space Research and Technology Centre, while MIT has involved its aerospace engineering department, and SOM, its architecture, planning, and engineering divisions.

SOM design partner Colin Koop said: “the Moon Village must be able to sustain human life in an otherwise uninhabitable setting. We have to consider problems that no one would think about on Earth, like radiation protection, pressure differentials, and how to provide breathable air.”

The team envisions clusters of modules that would be connected to enable “seamless mobility between structures” like a giant lunar ant farm.

Moon Village master plan / SOM, Slashcube GmbH

Each module would be a 3-4-story structure made up of pressurized work spaces, living quarters, and life support systems where 4-6 Moon residents would live.

The modules are enclosed by three structural columns, built out of lunar regolith, and an inflatable outer shell. According to SOM, “these inflatable structures would provide—together with regolith-based protective shells—resistance to extreme temperatures, projectiles, regolith dust, and solar radiation.”

Inflatable living structure / SOM
Interior structure of living module / SOM
Interior of living module / SOM, Slashcube, GmbH

Like ESA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is also looking to “long-term exploration and utilization” of the Moon and other planets, as are the space services of China and India.

NASA hopes to return astronauts to the Moon in 2024 with its Artemis mission, but this time send them to the South Pole, perhaps to scope out the best real estate.

Interview with Kotchakorn Voraakhom: How to Live with Water

Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA / Landprocess

Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA, is founder of Landprocess and the Porous City Network. Voraakhom is featured in TIME magazine’s 2019 TIME 100 Next, a list that spotlights 100 rising stars who are shaping the future of the world, along with their list of 15 women fighting against climate change. Voraakhom is chairwoman of Landscape Without Borders of the International Federation of Landscape Architects, Asia Pacific Region (IFLA APR). She is a TED Fellow and Echoing Green Climate Fellow. She received her master’s in landscape architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego.

The 12-acre Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park in Bangkok, the first new park in the city in 30 years, is a model for how to design with nature. Tilted at 3 degrees, the park funnels storm water into a retention basin that can safely double in size amid heavy rains. How did you come up with this idea to incline the entire park?

Bangkok is a city of water but we don’t know how to drain our water. We’ve been through many floods: either disastrous flash floods or the ones that are part of our daily life in Bangkok. This happens because we don’t know where the water should go. We don’t use the canal system as it should be used. In Bangkok, it is very sad that the canal department is under the sewage department. Canals have been destroyed through urban development.

The city, along with the entire center of the country, is flat because of sedimentation. So I wondered: how can we create a water container in the city? I thought about our legendary Monkey King, and his “monkey cheek” approach to storage. Do you know about the monkey cheek? The monkey holds food in its cheek. When he is hungry, he just continues eating. If not, he just holds the food there. It’s very simple way; no deep theory or anything, but just a natural way of being.

If you don’t have hilly topography, like in Bangkok, you create the topography and just tilt it.

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Award. Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park, Bangkok, Thailand / LANDPROCESS

At the detention basin’s edge, there are stationary bicycles. When visitors peddle the bikes, they turn wheels that aerate the water. Why is it important to engage visitors this way?

Because it’s so human. I remember walking my dad to the park. He’s a designer and said: “This is the highlight.” You know when you get complimented from your parent, it’s the best.

The park addresses climate change and flooding in a very technical way. But at the end I wanted people to feel they can be part of the solution by just being there, peddling the water bike. The water level in the detention basin also changes. Just the physical nature of pedaling is quite direct.

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Award. Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park, Bangkok, Thailand / LANDPROCESS

In your TED Talk, you said the 15 million residents of Bangkok are living on a “shifting, muddy river delta.” Bangkok, New York City, Shanghai, New Orleans and many other delta cities are slowly sinking as sea levels rise. How can landscape architects help solve this problem?

We try to fix problems, but we are actually the problem. The reason our city is sinking is systematic. The issue doesn’t just come from building a city on top of this delta; it also because there is no more sediment coming from upstream. Dams that create electricity are blocking sediment flow. We also don’t let the land absorb rain. We have to see the problem systematically and fix what you have done rather than try to fix nature.

As landscape architects, we work with the land. We know how these systems should function. We can teach people how to live with water again, which is much better than fearing it. Living with water is the vernacular way in Thailand. We have long had homes on stilts and floating platforms. We even have floating markets. We are used to living on the edge between land and water.

In the future, floating cities are even possible. But they are not really futuristic, as they have already happened in the past. The future is about knowing where you’re from and using that in a new context. I don’t think the future will be these flying cyborgs or something, nothing so inhuman.

In the past, flooding meant food. Sediment was part of seasonal change. Thailand would flood for one or two months and we would just deal with it. Today, we forget that flooding is about transformation. It’s only our relationship with water that has changed in a negative way. Landscape architecture can help people see a different relationship with water is possible.

For Bangkok’s 250th anniversary, which is in 2032, city leaders are creating the Bangkok 250 Plan, a major redevelopment effort that aims to create a more livable city in 17 districts in the urban core. By then, the city’s population is expected to grow to 11 million, an 18 percent increase over today, and the number of vehicles on the road is expected to grow by 1 million to 10 million. As a consultant on this planning effort, what are you advising the city to do?

We have a big team of urban designers, architects, and urban planners, and then there’s me, the landscape architect. Of course, we want to revitalize the canal system. We want to incorporate much more green space. But we don’t want to be naïve and just hope for more green space if there is no land. We have to be innovative about how we insert green spaces.

There is one project we are implementing right now with the current mayor to reuse a failed governmental mega-project. In Asian cities, there are many projects like this that were built and then stopped. There’s so much that can be renewed. But this also means the city is a challenging context.

You have often gone to the rooftops, designing the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Garden on the former helipad of the Ramathibodi Hospital, the Siam Green Sky Urban Farm on top of a building at Chulalongkorn University, and a new green roof on the Puey Learning Center at Thammasat University. How does developing rooftops help you achieve your goals for the city?

At the Ramathibodi Hospital, we removed a helipad and replaced it with a healing garden. Green roofs are one of the key solutions for how to make a city more porous and sustainable.

Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Garden / LANDPROCESS

The Thammasat University in Bhutantanang, which is in the greater Bangkok area, will become the biggest urban farming green roof in Asia at 7,000 square meters (75,000 square feet). The roof mimics the structure of rice terraces and how farmers use topography to absorb rain, slow down runoff, and grow food.

Puey Learning Center at Thammasat University, Panoramic Studio / LANDPROCESS
Puey Learning Center at Thammasat University, Panoramic Studio / LANDPROCESS

You have also planned and designed many health care environments that provide patients with access to nature, including the Siriraj Hospice Center. How do you incorporate Thai cultural and spiritual beliefs about nature?

The other hat I wear is creative art therapist. I have many questions about death: What does it feel like? How can I help these people?

When it comes to healing, no one can help you. Doctors can cure you, but they cannot heal you. You have to heal yourself. And how do you heal yourself? You heal yourself through natural processes.

Perhaps with my Buddhist beliefs, I feel there’s so much suffering in these hospices. Too many hospitals only think about more patients without thinking about how to create healthy spaces for them. I’m talking about government hospitals in Thailand; you can’t imagine how crowded they are. These people deserve healing environments, so we are trying to find the right space in hospitals. I’m helping many other hospitals as well.

In addition to the work with your firm, you’re also founder of Porous City Network, a nonprofit that co-designs water management solutions with vulnerable communities. What have been the results of the effort so far?

Porous City Network was started two years ago. Traditional client-based practice can only solve some problems. If we want to really tackle big problems, we need public education and advocacy. I’m going to try to expand the network into other cities in Southeast Asia where they are facing the same problems.

We helped a community along the coastline on the border of Cambodia, which is actually at the narrowest part of Thailand. The people are Thai but have no land rights on paper, so they build into the ocean. The government deemed them invaders and tried to displace them.

We helped them negotiate with the government and create a plan that allows them to inhabit land in the ocean, which also involves restoring mangrove forests. They are the first community that has received government permission to do that.

This means the solution can be implemented in Thailand’s other 7,000 fishing villages, rather than just displacing these communities.

I also bring landscape architecture students so they can learn about community participation processes. I use landscape architecture to help these communities.

The Hat Lek community on the border of Thailand and Cambodia / LANDPROCESS
Porous City Network community engagement process in Hat Lek / LANDPROCESS
Porous City Network community engagement process in Hat Lek. Voraakhom meets with community members. / LANDPROCESS

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

Creative Little Garden in New York City’s Lower East Side / Creative Little Garden on Instagram

Three City Parks That Encourage Inclusion in Their Communities — 1/16/20, Urban Institute
“Parks and green spaces can tremendously benefit a community. But if parks aren’t designed and activated with residents’ interests in mind, they can go underutilized, or the opposite—they can increase property values and price long-time residents out of the neighborhood.”

UGA Student Designs Winning ‘Kinda Tiny’ Home — 1/26/20, Athens Banner-Herald
“One of things that made her design stand out, after talking to some of the judges, is the fact that her building really specifically relates to the site. She took into account the topography, and I think it was her landscape architecture background that gave her the insight to how the building and the site would interact together.”

A Novel Plan to Fix One of New York’s Worst Highways: Remove Lanes — 1/30/20, The New York Times
“The idea of shrinking the highway to four lanes from six is a remarkable shift for the city, which, like the nation, has been shaped by a car-centric culture and is now wrestling with the consequences, including gridlocked streets, polluted air and rising pedestrian and cyclist deaths.”

Plans Unveiled for Hamtramck’s Veterans Memorial Park — 1/31/20, The Detroit News
“In the coming years, Hamtramck’s Veterans Memorial Park could be transformed into a major destination brimming with features such as a splash pad, wooded trails, even outdoor ‘living rooms.’ ”

Amsterdam Leads the Way on Wetland Restoration — 1/31/20, CityLab
“To find a way to restore the marshlands and pastures while maintaining its agricultural capacity, the Amsterdam Wetlands project will plow $9 million of funding into experiments. The scheme, a a collaboration between three nature preservation agencies, is intended to incorporate more water into low-lying areas instead of damming and pumping it out.”

With New Mobility, Design Is Even More Important

Escooter rider / Wikipedia

“New forms of mobility, autonomous vehicles (AVs), and e-commerce will impact everything we care about in cities,” said Nico Larco, professor of architecture at the University of Oregon and director of the Urbanism Next center, at an event at the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)’s Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C.

The event, which was held during the Transportation Research Board (TRB)’s annual meeting, was moderated by ASLA President Wendy Miller, FASLA, who is also a member of TRB’s AFB40 committee on landscape and environmental design.

Technology-enabled transportation systems have scaled up at an incredible rate. There will be even more rapid change coming, along with new forms of transportation not yet envisioned. The coming changes make smart street design that can create equitable access to multiple forms of personal mobility even more important.

A few examples of the shifts underway:

“There were 4.2 billion trips with Uber and Lyft in 2018; ten years ago, these companies didn’t exist,” Larco said.

In many cities, e-scooters essentially started in 2018 and, by the end of the same year, they accounted for some 38 million trips. “It took bike share systems nine years to reach the same number of trips.”

“Waymo is now testing driver less vehicles with select families in Arizona.” The company, which was formerly known as Google’s driverless vehicle company, has already purchased 82,000 vehicles from a Detroit manufacturing center that turns conventional vehicles into autonomous ones. “Waymo will run these AVs as part of their fleet.” (A recent Brookings Institution survey found that 61 percent of Americans are not inclined to ride in self-driving vehicles).

Waymo driverless vehicle / Wikipedia

E-commerce has increased to 14 percent of total retail sales in the U.S. In contrast, the number of walk-ins to brick and mortar stores has fallen 6-9 percent each year, and last year saw the largest number of store chains closing yet.

In 2018, some 15 billion packages were delivered in the U.S., which equals 118 packages per household, or one every three days. As the number of delivery packages continues to increase, what does that mean for malls and downtowns?

There are some 1-2 billion parking spaces in the U.S. The rise of Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare and carsharing services, which only need pick-up and drop off zones, will reduce the need for parking. And “when we have fully autonomous vehicles, the need for parking could be reduced by 80 percent.”

Typical suburban mall parking lot. Puente Hills Mall / Wikipedia

By reducing parking spaces, AVs could then generate demand for denser nodes in suburbia, create opportunities for urban infill in cities, and result in new parks and open space.

Furthermore, both commercial and residential buildings would no longer need to “carry the cost” of parking spaces. “Housing subsidizes parking, which means parking also increases the cost of housing.”

Without the need for parking spaces, the available land supply could also increase, and the price of land, particularly in suburbia and exurbia, could drop. So the net result of fleets of roving AVs could mean more vacant land, reduced property taxes, and lower revenues for communities — that is unless the AVs themselves are taxed.

Larco foresees considerable debate over curbside access fees for future rideshare, carshare, and AV services. Imagine crowded pick-up and drop-off areas in downtowns. How will access be guaranteed or prioritized? State and local governments will play an important role in deciding fees, perhaps by location, distance from popular destinations, or time.

With an increasing number of personalized modes of transportation competing for street space, a central challenge will be how to organize streets. If poorly planned, e-commerce delivery boxes will litter sidewalks, AVs could stop in bicycle / e-scooter lanes, and public transit could get squeezed out. “The new streets are a huge opportunity to show the importance of design.”

Furthermore, given transportation options will be more plentiful and ordering online will be even easier, location may be less important. The question that will increasingly matter is: “Where will you spend your time? Quality design is a magnet, so design will matter even more.”

(Learn more at Urbanism Next’s new hub called The Nexus, which explores the potential issues and impacts of new mobility).

For Sakina Khan, deputy director at the Washington, D.C. office of planning, AVs and other new transportation technologies pose new challenges as the capital city moves towards achieving “livability, equity, and safety,” which are the goals D.C. residents identified through surveys as the most important.

An update of the transportation, land use, and urban design portions of the Washington, D.C. 1,600-page comprehensive master plan is currently underway. As part of the process, D.C. is seeking to create more a more equitable transportation system, with multi-modal transit-oriented developments (TODs), traffic-calming measures to reduce traffic fatalities and accidents and achieve Vision Zero, and “transportation equity pilots” in the lower-income Wards 7 and 8.

Khan said D.C. has moved away from “vehicle carrying capacity” in their analysis of streets towards “person carrying capacity.” This reflects the increasing focus on personalized mobility options like e-scooters.

She discussed how critical access to transportation is to achieving a healthier population in D.C. Policymakers in the district are increasingly looking towards the “non-clinical social determinants of health, which account for 80 percent of health outcomes.” Non-clinical determinants of health could include access to good food, jobs, green spaces, and healthcare within walking distance.

In Ward 7 and 8, the city seeks to increase access to Metro through a subsidized taxi to rails program along with “heavy subsidies” for Capital Bikeshare, taking the subscription rate down from $85 a year to just $5 for low-income residents that qualify. The goal is to improve equitable transportation access and therefore health outcomes in some of the poorest neighborhoods.

Capital bikeshare / Wikipedia

As far as AVs, the city will incentive the use of shared rides instead of “zero or single rides.” Zero rides sounds fantastical, but fleets of AVs could roam the streets, waiting for rides, causing congestion. “AVs needs to be supplemental to transit, bicycle, and pedestrian networks — not a replacement.” The city is working with AV companies to map the entire district. But for Khan, it’s still unclear whether AVs will lead to infill or sprawl, and how they will impact jobs.

Ken Ray, ASLA, deputy director of landscape architecture at Toole Design, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, which has developed innovative multi-modal transportation systems like Jackson Street in Saint Paul, Minnesota, argued that as modes change — for example, from docked bike share to dockless bikes and e-scooters — the fight for access is increasingly happening at sidewalks, the curb, and in bicycle lanes.

Jackson Street Reconstruction, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Toole Design

To figure out a way forward, the city of Boston, which recently released its Go Boston 2030 transportation plan, is piloting micro-mobility hubs in eight neighborhoods. Toole Design is working with city’s new mobility team, other agencies, and neighborhood groups to plan, design and implement the new hubs. According to Ray, these projects are the “first-of-its-kind at filling last-mile gaps in Boston’s transportation network by co-locating transportation mode choices.”

Micro-mobility hub / Toole Design Group
Micro-mobility hub / Toole Design Group

Designing for a few modes of transit is fairly straightforward, but “if you have to layer everything, including package delivery, AVs, pedestrians, bicyclists, vehicles, and app-enabled transportation systems, the street fills up quickly.”

Ray sees these hubs as potential models for balancing modes if they can also broaden access for users in an equitable way. He described work Toole Design has done to create “neighborhood mobility stations, where dockless bikes and e-scooters could be gathered and made available in centralized locations.” With geo-fencing, it’s possible to incentivize app-based transportation providers to drop off e-scooters in specific locations.

But he also cautioned that more work needs to be done to reach urban populations who are low-income or don’t have a credit card or smart phone and therefore can’t access app-driven forms of transportation. To be truly equitable, these systems need to provide other options as well.

In San Francisco, Toole Design is working with SPIN, a dockless bike provider, to redesign an equitable access program required by the city government to “lower barriers to entry.” The approach requires them to sign up one “access user” for every five scooters deployed. One issue is that SPIN had a “burden of proof” issue, forcing potential users to “jump through hoops, which is a huge barrier to sign-ups.” The redesign project aims to increase the number of SPIN access users by redesigning access points to make the process much easier.

SPIN equitable access hub / Toole Design

In the Q&A, Larco said state and local governments need to work with technology companies through collaborative pilots that can help undo the combative relationship companies like Uber have had with cities.

Miller and Ray also made an argument for using design, prototypes, and pilots to find solutions to complex street design challenges.

Ray said “things are changing so fast that policy can’t keep up. It’s important for policymakers to set goals and principles but allow landscape architects flexibility in meeting goals where possible.”

Khan argued that future transportation infrastructure design must be “start with people first.” This will help reduce the “huge disconnect between how we live and the infrastructure we have now.” Key goals include “sustainability, resilience, equity, and economic opportunity.”

Larco believes that “urban planners are looking ahead to the issues that AVs and other technologies will bring. Developers are just starting to, but architects and landscape architects are still far behind.”

In an 100 percent AV future, space freed up by the reduced need for parking could be transformed into green spaces, making cities more livable and healthy. But with this AV future, which would create demand for narrower lanes moving vehicles faster, there could also be “pressure to add more lanes,” said Larco.

“It will be hard to fight against the economic potential of AVs and focus on the ecological potential.” There will be increased demand to “cram as much as possible into spaces,” but it’s important to remember the economic, social, and health benefits of nearby green spaces. “One urban park can raise the value of the entire block.”

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

Seattle’s Asian Art Museum by LMN Architects and landscape architecture firm Walker Macy / copyright Tim Griffiths

My Internship at Palm Beach County Parks and Rec FIU News, 1/3/20
“During my time, I met landscape architects, directors, contractors, commissioners, as well as many other types of people. I didn’t try to only talk to designers or those who would help me in the future. I was just friendly and enjoyed each day as it came. By doing this, I would just stumble across friends.”

Landscape Architect Dorothée Imbert Picked to Lead Knowlton School of Architecture – Archinect, 1/9/20
“Landscape Architect and educator Dorothée Imbert has been named as the new Director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at The Ohio State University.”

City’s Plan to Remove Trees From Fort Greene Park Hits a Snag The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1/13/20
“Activists won a new round in their legal fight against a city project that would remove dozens of mature, healthy trees from Fort Greene Park and destroy park features designed by famous landscape artists.”

Seattle’s Asian Art Museum Readies for Reopening After Renovation and Expansion Designboom, 1/14/20
“following a 24-month-long renovation and expansion, Seattle’s asian art museum will reopen to the public on February 8, 2020. the museum’s historic 1933 building closed in early 2017 to address critical needs of infrastructure, accessibility, and program space. now enhanced with a design by LMN Architects, working alongside landscape architect walker macy, the building reopens as ‘a modern museum within an historic icon’.”

Landscape Architect Appointed to Piccadilly Gardens Insider Media, 1/14/20
“A landscape architecture practice has been appointed to produce concept designs for improvements to Piccadilly Gardens and the surrounding area.”

A Tree-First Exhibition Space in Beijing

Tree umbrella open space at Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University / Zhongzhong Zeng

Instead of chopping down 10 fully-grown poplar trees and 8 gingko trees to make way for a new glass-box pavilion in front of the Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University, Bo Zhang, ASLA, and his colleagues convinced the university to create an open, canopied exhibition space that works around the trees.

Zhang, a landscape architect and assistant professor of landscape architecture at the Oklahoma State University, partnered with Zhongzhong Zeng, associate professor of architecture, and Yongquan Chen, also on the faculty of architecture at Beijing Jiaotong University, to create a tree-first pavilion that both preserves nature and creates a charming space for exhibitions and events.

Tree umbrella open space at Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University / Zhongzhong Zeng

The tight site along the glass-fronted wall of the college is just 21 feet wide by 183 feet long. Within these challenging parameters, Zhang and his colleagues developed a set of hexagonal structural units made of Douglas Fir, carefully siting them to avoid hurting the trees and their roots.

Tree umbrella open space at Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University / Zhongzhong Zeng and Bo Zhang

At top, gaps between the forms allow trees to penetrate through; and below, spaces in the elevated wood floor covering the trees’ roots enable stormwater to permeate into the ground.

Tree umbrella open space at Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University / Zhongzhong Zeng
Tree umbrella open space at Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University / Zhongzhong Zeng

Other gaps between the forms are covered in glass, creating more usable spaces.

Tree umbrella open space at Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University / Zhongzhong Zeng

Zhang tells us the hexagonal forms were prefabricated and trucked into Beijing, where they were assembled onsite. “The whole process of construction took only ten days.” In that short time, the design team also avoided using heavy machines and vehicles that would compact the top soil.

Zhang and his colleagues purposefully kept the space open so it can be configured for multiple uses, such as lectures, meetings, or exhibitions. Removable wood exhibition panels and chairs give the university flexibility.

Tree umbrella open space at Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University / Zhongzhong Zeng

College administrators have also opened up the space to the surrounding neighborhood: residents use the space to teach classes, practice Tai Chi, dance, or just relax.

“Our vision was achieved by blending architecture and landscape, civility and nature, people and space. We hoped to create a model relationship between educational institution and surrounding community.”

Tree umbrella open space at Architecture College of Beijing Jiaotong University / Zhongzhong Zeng

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

Chicago_(Millenium_Park)_-_panoramio_(5)
Millennium Park in Chicago / Photo Credit: Jakob von Raumer

Weiss/Manfredi’s ‘Loops and Lenses’ Concept Wins La Brea Tar Pits Redesign CommissionKCRW, 12/17/19
“One of LA’s most beloved sites is the La Brea Tar Pits, consisting of a park, pools of asphalt in which are trapped fiberglass mammoths; and the 1977 George C. Page Museum, embedded in a raised mound, or berm, that children love to roll down.”

Professor Invents Wearable Garden Fertilized by Human WasteThe New York Post, 12/18/19
“Aroussiak Gabrielian, a landscape architecture professor at the University of Southern California, has created the world’s first wearable farm, which can grow a variety of fresh produce using fertilizer supplied by your own human waste.”

Thomas Woltz CLAD, 12/22/19
“Thomas Woltz, owner of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, leads one of the most revered landscape architecture firms on the planet. Kath Hudson caught up with him while he was on a fact-finding mission, camping on the Montana plains.”

Column: Rating Chicago’s Latest Wave of Parks and Public Spaces by the Three ‘E’s: They’re Better on Entertainment and Ecology than Equity The Chicago Tribune, 12/24/19
“Beginning with the triumphant opening of Millennium Park in 2004, a remarkable collection of new public spaces has sprung up, like spring blossoms, in Chicago.”

Mikyoung Kim and DiMella Shaffer Will Design Boston’s First LGBTQ-friendly Senior Housing Facility The Architect’s Newspaper, 12/14/19
“Boston will get its first LGBTQ-friendly senior housing facility, designed by Boston-based architecture firm DiMella Shaffer and landscape architecture by Mikyoung Kim Design.”