The Pandemic Offers an Opportunity to Re-Wild Our Communities

Re-wilded urban park / Illustration by Sarah Welch; courtesy SWA Group

By Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA

As the pandemic has worn on, the American public has adopted parks and neighborhood streets as safe spaces. This will not be a short-lived phenomenon – bikes have been repaired, running shoes purchased, and puppies adopted. People are growing accustomed to spending time in the outdoors to exercise, spend time with family, enjoy nature – and take that growing puppy for walks.

As landscape architects, we understand that engaging with nature and green space is an innate instinct for city dwellers during times of illness. While those using parks and streets today are not expecting a nature cure, they do experience a renewed comfort in these spaces.

At the same time, city and state budgets are being ravaged by COVID-19-imposed economic shutdowns. Hotel and restaurant taxes are not being collected. Sales taxes are miniscule. Property taxes will likely drop as high unemployment numbers linger. All of this is happening while governments are increasing spending on health-related costs and managing their response to the pandemic.

Parks and recreation are typically among the first government departments to have their funding cut when budgets get tight. At a time when the public will rightfully be demanding more open spaces, our parks departments will be unable to marshal the funds to maintain existing open spaces, much less deliver new parks.

I believe that this disconnect will be resolved through the rewilding of the American city. A lack of public dollars for parks will result in an unkempt, rambling, and wild style of park “design” created in an organic, vernacular character.

Like the home-made masks worn by Americans working to “flatten the curve,” our rewilded lands will create a new urban aesthetic born out of found land that is low-design and has a local do-it-yourself appeal. This new aesthetic will provide more comfort and delight than current design trends offer. The result: lively and wild.

Flirting in a re-wilded space / Illustration by Sarah Welch; courtesy SWA Group

In some ways, this transformation is already beginning with the conversion of public infrastructure to socially-distanced outdoor dining and socializing space. Cities across the country have closed streets and allowed merchants to colonize spaces once dedicated to cars. Makeshift dining terraces and outdoor bars – some stylish, others functional; all cheap, fast, and locally inspired — are transforming the streets. Parking lots have become everything from gyms to outdoor clothing boutiques. Is this the beginning of a tipping point where cities will invite communities to use the same “can-do” spirit within their parks and open spaces?

My view is that feral green agglomerations will pop up across cities and suburbs. Residents will benefit from their habitat patches, stormwater storage, carbon sequestration, and makeshift community gathering areas.

A re-wilded round-a-bout / Illustration by Sarah Welch; courtesy SWA Group

As viral hot spots continue to require work-from-home or reduced hours, workers with new found free time will spend it in the community gardens and on neighborhood exercise trails. Pandemic survivors will find solitary comfort in forest bathing rituals as they enter these spaces for a moment of stress relief and sanitary sanity. Native opossum and raccoons will colonize these spaces and thrive; children will build forts and clubhouses; and communities will co-opt them as gyms and meeting space.

Re-wilded parks will attract people and wildlife. / Illustration by Sarah Welch; courtesy SWA Group

The benefit of this new breed of make-shift open space starts with the sense of ownership that communities will feel for them and the functional programming and features they create. The benefit to cities expands exponentially by just getting out of nature’s way.

Lands that are released from traditional maintenance regimes will quickly begin to cleanse stormwater, sequester carbon, reduce the heat island effect, improve habitat, and become a low-tech but important part of a new infrastructure that is needed now more than ever.

Crumbling parking lots and parks released from maintenance will take time to rewild, but once that transformation occurs, cities will feel greener and like a true respite. Families will go outside to exercise and feel comforted by nature. Desk-bound office workers will take strolling meetings through visually inspiring landscapes. And our streets have taken on a new life.

The longing for wild places have been growing for some time now. Maybe the pandemic will be the catalyst for more therapeutic, nature-rich public spaces and lead to a new found interest in the healing and wellness that small natural spaces can bring.

Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, is managing principal of SWA Group’s Houston studio. He has traveled the globe over the past 30 years creating places that are culturally and ecologically resonant.

Where Will Climate Migrants Go?

Urban farm in Braddock, Pennsylvania / iStock Images

We are living where we shouldn’t be living. In more communities across the U.S., climate change is causing flooding, wildfires, extreme heat, and sea level rise. According to a group at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU)’s Virtual Gathering, one solution is for communities threatened with climate impacts to move to “receiver cities.” The hollowed-out “legacy” cities and small towns of the Midwest could become new homes for displaced climate migrants because they have solid infrastructure, many open lots and empty homes, access to water, and lower risks of climate change-driven weather impacts.

But more planning is certainly needed to ready receiver cities for a possible influx of migrants from coastal communities, particularly cities like Miami, which are experiencing rising sea levels and flooding, and desert communities in the Southwest, which are battling drought and reduced water supplies.

Legacy cities are former industrial communities that have fallen on hard times. Dan Baisden, a midwest urban planner, said these mid-sized cities in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, have experienced major population declines, job losses, and increased concentrations of poverty. “Braddock, Pennsylvania has seen a 90 percent drop in population, and Johnstown, Ohio, a 70 percent drop.” While these legacy cities may be good places for climate migrants, they also aren’t “fully ready to accept them.” Through the CNU Legacy Labs project, he is helping these cities devise climate adaptation plans that “build density and social structures.”

There are other planning efforts underway to help guide migrants to receiver cities. Scott Bernstein, founder and director emeritus of innovation at the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), is developing a series of urban climate action plans, mapping instances of extreme heat, drought, and flooding. He has located the places with the highest and lowest frequencies of severe weather, heavy water events, and bearing winds. His goal is to identify the communities with the lowest risk of climate dangers.

Similarly, architect and urban designer Dhiru Thadani is examining development patterns of 120 small cities in the U.S., including dozens of small towns, to determine which could best expand to handle population growth and a large influx of climate migrants. He noted that the U.S. population is expected to grow by 100 million by 2050.

With new urbanists Andrés Duany and Paul Crabtree, Korkut Onaran, principal of PEL•ONA Architects & Urbanists is writing a book on “directives for enabling adaptation” aimed at federal and state policymakers. The book calls for a new federal policy-making framework, an Adaptation Enabling Act in the vein of the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act of 1924 and the Standard City Planning Enabling Act of 1928, which devolved powers to local communities to zone and plan. A proposed Adaptation Enabling Act would give states and local governments the power to generate strategies to address climate change.

Large influxes of climate migrants could happen sooner than expected. Patty Steinschneider, president of Gotham Design & Community Development, asked us to envision 100,000 people moving north from Brooklyn, New York, in the immediate aftermath of some major natural disaster like Superstorm Sandy. Communities near Brooklyn need to plan for emergency receivership as well as a potential long-term permanent influx. Just as many who have fled cities because of COVID-19 will not return, not all climate migrants will be able to or want to return to their original communities.

Baisden noted for a community like Toledo, Ohio, which has a very small planning staff that is already overrun with existing responsibilities, planning for a rapid influx of, say, just 100 families would be very challenging. “They have no long-term planning capacity. We instead need to work directly with communities on the ground.” Onaran said communities could possibly designate “receiving zones.”

For Jesse Carpentier with ICLEI USA, the case for long-range climate adaptation planning needs to be better made. “People act on emotions rather than logic. Immediate gratification will always be more appealing than long-term benefits.” So these planning efforts, which have a multi-decade horizon, need to bolster stakeholders through short-term incentives like awards, recognition, and certificates, “which really do work.” Adaptation efforts must also have “tangible co-benefits” for communities in the form of economic gains and aesthetic improvements.

So what can potential receiver communities do to prepare for both climate change and incoming climate migrants? Recommendations included creating comprehensive policies that incentivize migration, developing plans for reusing and adapting existing community assets, and investing in green infrastructure and planting thousands of trees. Communities can also let others know they are open and welcoming of climate migrants.

Prisca Weems, a founding partner with interdisciplinary firm Future Proof, noted that climate migrants will not just an issue within the U.S. A 2018 report from the World Bank finds that 143 million people are now already migrating in-country each year.

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

Phase Shifts Park, Taiwan by mosbach paysagistes / Landezine

Winners of LILA 2020 Announced — 06/30/20, Landezine
“Jury members completed their task and selected recognition in 6 categories: public landscapes, infrastructure projects, residential project, private residential gardens, playgrounds + schools, and hospitality landscapes. There were over 280 entries this year.”

Landscape Architecture Professor Empowers Through Inclusive Approach to Design and Engagement — 06/28/20, Augusta Free Press
“Some designers from the past refused to design for the people and refused to treat them with dignity and respect. We need courageous designers now who are going to push forward to solve real problems and intervene against historical systems of oppression.”

How Uber Turned a Promising Bikeshare Company Into Literal Garbage — 06/23/20, Vice
“In cities with high rates of theft or vandalism, the same people hired to retrieve, charge, and fix bikes were also responsible for recovering stolen ones, an occasionally dicey proposition.”

Rising Seas Threaten an American Institution: The 30-Year Mortgage — 06/19/20, The New York Times
“Home buyers are increasingly using mortgages that make it easier for them to stop making their monthly payments and walk away from the loan if the home floods or becomes unsellable or unlivable.”

People of Color Account for Majority of Coronavirus Infections, New CDC Study Says — 06/16/20, Yahoo News
“Latinos represent 18.3 percent of the population, according to the last census of the American population, conducted a decade ago. But the CDC found that they suffered 33 percent of the coronavirus infections in the cohort covered by the study.”

How Will the Pandemic Impact the Built Environment?

Campus Martius Park, Detroit / Compuware

Throughout the Congress for New Urbanism’s Virtual Gathering, landscape architects, planners, architects, and developers struggled to figure out how the pandemic is impacting communities and the built environment — and tried to foresee what changes are coming in the near future.

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities will experience disproportionate negative impacts in the form of higher mortality rates, illnesses, bankruptcies, and evictions. Some also foresee a significant decrease in public financing for affordable housing developments.

There is also the fear that people are retreating to their cars, which are now viewed as “armored bubbles,” and to the suburbs — a trend that could lead to greater suburban sprawl, increasing transportation costs, and a steep rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

A few optimists argued that dense cities and communities, along with affordable and subsidized housing, multi-family housing, and transit-oriented development, will weather the storm. People will still be drawn to walkable communities and being near one another. Resilient communities will find a way, like during other recessions.

Low-income Communities Are at Greater Risk

In a session that looked at low-income neighborhoods in cities, Kit McCullough, an urban designer and lecturer at the University of Michigan, emphasized the need to protect and invest in communities where hospitality and restaurant workers live — places where COVID-19 is already exacerbating existing economic strain.

Small affordable housing property owners facing financial problems are increasingly at risk of being bought out by large Wall Street-backed development firms. This would result in more “wealth extraction in low-income communities” in the form of higher rents and increased evictions.

Many people who used to rely on transit to get to work must now use a car, which is a more expensive transportation option and “adds economic pressure.”

John Sivills, lead urban designer with Detroit’s planning department, added that “if you can decamp from the city, that says something about your income level.” In Detroit, the community has “rediscovered the value of public spaces” given most don’t have the funds to leave.

COVID-19 Requires New Urban Models

In another session, Mukul Maholtra, a principal at MIG, focused on how COVID-19 is impacting BIPOC communities much more than others.

“Black Americans die from COVID-19 at three times the rate of white Americans.” In tribal lands in New Mexico and elsewhere, “there are much higher fatality rates among Native Americans.” He called for investing in “healthy density” that works for everyone.

Christopher Leinberger, a land use strategist, developer, and author, said correlations between COVID-19 and metropolitan area density are “spurious and unproven.” He said “walkable urbanism has been through this before — crime, terrorism, and now the pandemic.”

There are three challenges to a rebound in cities: “lost jobs in the ‘experience economy’ — retail, restaurants, sports, and festivals — which is what makes ‘walkable urbanism’ special; transit safety; and land costs.”

He blames zoning and not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) forces for skyrocketing land costs and gentrification in cities like Washington, D.C. The answer is allowing greater density where land prices are high and making walkable, mixed-use development legal in more places.

Public Financing Will Be Increasingly Unavailable

Andrés Duany, an architect, planner, and one of the most influential New Urbanists, said a total “rethink of New Urbanism is needed,” because the public funds that make many walkable developments possible have disappeared.

The pandemic is expected to have a negative impact on city and state budgets into the near future, which means far less public funds available for transit, affordable and subsidized housing, transit-oriented development, and the public portions of public-private partnerships. “Everyone is broke. There will be no capital budget and no tax credits anymore.”

Demand for walkable communities as currently defined will decrease. “Home deliveries are way up because neighborhood ‘third places‘ [such as coffeeshops, book stores, grocery stores, etc] have become toxic. And transit now equals death.”

Duany also foresees a rise in social instability in the U.S., and perhaps gangs of “marauders.” This is because “110 million Americans have no savings” and are facing rising healthcare costs and unemployment and failing social safety nets.

He proposed rapidly expanding mobile home communities, given they are subject to fewer regulations and therefore lower cost. Abundant and cheap old shipping containers could be used as the base of new modular mobile home reached via a staircase.

Well-designed Places Still Matter

In contrast, Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of urban design at Georgia Tech and author of Designing Suburban Futures, seemed a bit more optimistic.

Through her research into 2,000 suburban developments that have been retrofitted for other uses, she has found that “urbanism is the new amenity.”

In the suburbs, people increasingly want walkable, mixed-use developments that offer “experiential retail.” Dead malls have meant growth for small town main streets. Dead strip malls are being reused as offices or healthcare centers. Big box stores have been converted into markets with small vendors.

“The pandemic could mean more urbanites return to the suburbs. Office parks could be refilled, instead of infilled. There could also be more experimental suburban public spaces.” In this scenario, the car is an “armored bubble” that offers a sense of safety in a world filled with dangerous viruses.

But ultimately, she thinks the pandemic will mean walkable places will become even more valuable. If you can live and work from anywhere, “the quality of place will matter even more.”

Demand for Different Residential Amenities

In a session focused on how home design may change with COVID-19, Paul Whalen, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, said with many people cooped up at home, “visual and audio privacy, cross-ventilation, and multiple rooms that provide space for extended family” are becoming more important.

Homeowners and renters also now want separate spaces for making the transition from street to home, a “clear entrance where they can change out of clothes and take off shoes.”

Interior designer Kiki Dennis sees a changing relationship between public and private spaces within homes. Home offices are becoming semi-public domains that co-workers can see on Zoom, so they are being expanded and re-configured.

There is also much greater demand for residential outdoor spaces. “Underused outdoor spaces are being converted.”

“Ultra-luxe residential fixtures” like automatic sliding doors, face and hand readers, and personal elevators may trickle down to the masses, said Brian O’Looney with Torti Gallas + Partners. In some buildings in the Middle East, when an elevator is in use, it is locked and can’t be accessed by others in the building. This technology could become more widespread in denser cities.

Bill Gietema, a developer with Arcadia Realty Corporation, said people are buying homes online without seeing them in person.

“People want double ovens so they can bake more, expanded kitchens, home offices, workout spaces, and porches.” Some are simply lifting their garage doors to create a porch-like environment.

Multi-family housing complex designs are also shifting to include much more outdoor space and larger balconies.

A recent survey of developers that create large-scale community developments found that 16 percent are adding more shade; 22 percent, more parks; 23 percent, more trails; 57 percent, more bike lanes; and 42 percent, more playgrounds, which are now incorporating natural materials rather than steel and plastics. “There is a new desire to create a sense of community.”

In the end, though, Whalen believes many people who have fled cities will return to them. “People all want to be together. That’s why people live in cities.”

Once a vaccine has been developed, “there will be a joy in coming out of this together.”

New Urban Solutions Needed for COVID-19 and Racial Injustice

Sign within CHOP, Seattle / UW College of Built Environment

By Kristi M. Park, ASLA

COVID-19 has brought significant complexities to cities. Protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd and countless Black lives have filled our streets and public open spaces. Community leaders and designers, who are already scrambling to solve immediate public pandemic-related health issues, must take a hard look in the mirror and finally address systemic racism.

As the design professions investigate the way forward, many cities and communities are heading towards an uncertain future without a roadmap for addressing the pandemic and urban inequality.

In Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, a new normal has emerged through a center of protest against racial injustice, known as the Capitol Hill Occupy Protest (CHOP). The site organically formed as a result of protester standoffs with Seattle police officers in the streets, even while the pandemic has closed most of the city.

In an unexpected twist, the City of Seattle closed the police station and essentially gave the streets to the protesters. Nearly six blocks of city streets and Cal Anderson Park, a large Olmsted-designed park, have been occupied by hundreds of people who are redesigning the community.

Cal Anderson Park now includes freshly dug communal gardens and campers. The nearby streets are hosting bands, documentarians, speakers, and a shared food coop, art, and volunteer aid stations.

The creation of CHOP did not involve typical community meetings, street use permits, planning, and design. But the space galvanized Seattle’s historic undercurrent of resistance to expose injustices in Seattle.

CHOP, Seattle / UW College of Built Environment
CHOP, Seattle / UW College of Built Environment

CHOP is unlikely to survive long term but still demonstrates how quickly communities are re-organizing.

In April — prior to Mr. Floyd’s murder and the spontaneous creation of places like CHOP — seven University of Washington (UW) College of Built Environments Ph.D. students engaged community leaders, educators, urban planners, and landscape architects in a discussion on their predictions for a post-pandemic urban future. This conversation resulted in the Pandemic Urbanism Symposium held in May.

One panel discussed the importance of public space in the context of the pandemic and within the framework of equity, justice, and resilience. The panel was opened by UW faculty members Jeff Hou, ASLA, moderated by Catherine De Almeida, and featured four panelists: Jesús Aguirre, superintendent of Seattle Parks and Recreation; Cary Moon, citizen activist; Brice Maryman, FASLA, a principal landscape architect with MIG; and Cary Simmons, program director at the Trust for Public Land.

Of primary concern to all panelists was equitable access to public spaces from a social, economic, racial, and ethnic perspective.

The pandemic will further exacerbate inequalities in cities like Seattle, with a particular impact on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. One question lingered: how will the design professions simultaneously cultivate pandemic-resilient cities and break down the barriers of systemic racism?

Panelists discussed both long- and short-term solutions.

One important long-term solution, which could be similar to the New Deal of the 1930s, is to make a significant and equitable investment in public infrastructure — parks, housing, healthy ecosystems, and sanitation access. Greater investment in public infrastructure can help ensure prosperity for all citizens.

Other solutions include the Seattle Street Sink, which was designed and installed by a team of local architects and landscape architects. The innovative system creates immediate and equitable public access to hygiene, which can help stop the spread of disease. The simple act of washing one’s hands should be available to everyone.

Seattle Street sink / UW College of Built Environment

Seattle has permanently closed 20 miles of streets to vehicular traffic. Street closures provide safe recreational opportunities and support community development.

Public park parking lots can be used as space for temporary housing, providing a place to live that has access to natural and recreational opportunities.

With the pandemic and protest movement, the door to address injustice, inequality, and the unhealthy nature of cities has been thrown wide open, creating opportunities for imaginative actions.

Kristi M. Park, ASLA, is a lecturer at University of Washington, an adjunct faculty member at Western Washington University, and principal of BioDesign Studio. Additional contributors include Jeff Hou, ASLA, and Erin Irby, Student ASLA.

Interview with Walter Hood: Black Landscapes Matter

Walter Hood, ASLA / Hood Design Studio

Walter Hood, ASLA, is the creative director and founder of Hood Design Studio in Oakland, California. He is also a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and lectures on professional and theoretical projects nationally and internationally. He is a recipient of the 2017 Academy of Arts and Letters Architecture Award, 2019 Knight Public Spaces Fellowship, 2019 MacArthur Fellowship, and 2019 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.

An estimated 1,000 people are killed while being arrested by the police in the U.S. each year. According to studies, young black men are killed by the police between nine and 16 times the rate of other groups, and black people overall are killed at three times the rate of whites. Furthermore, the U.S. leads the world in killings by police. Canada, which also has high gun ownership rates, has less than one-seventh the rate of police killings of civilians. Many European countries count just a few deaths by police each year.

What change do you think can result from the killing of George Floyd by the police and the Black Lives Matter protest movement against racial injustice and police violence? The movement has become global and supported by millions of people.

That’s a hard question. My first response is that we’ve been here before. In light of the pandemic and other things, I’m really hesitant to say there’s going to be some major changes in the way black people are regarded and accepted in our society. We’ve had these moments before.

What makes it really hard, as a person of color, is understanding our history. In my short life — I’m in my early 60s — I grew up in a segregated neighborhood. My school was integrated when I was in junior high. For the first time, at age 13 or 14, I started living with other people who didn’t look like me.

That’s the hardest and most difficult thing we’re not talking about: the racial construction of this country. We’ve only had 50 plus years where we’ve actually lived together in an integrated way. We have close to 300 plus years of living separately. So the idea that we can just all of a sudden flip the switch and people will change and accommodate the “other,” it’s a really tough one.

I don’t think we’re asking the right questions. You’ve listed these facts and metrics. Why are these numbers so high? When one looks back, why are we still policed in similar ways? Why are people of color harmed at a greater frequency?

In a country that was “separate but equal,” there had to be an institution to keep that separation and keep people in their place. We have had close to 100 years of the Jim Crow institution, keeping us in a subservient place. This is U.S. culture. Even post integration, we still have to look at these institutions, which go back to the founding and the development of the country. You can’t separate the two. We would like to, but they’re inextricably tied together.

It’s important to allow these issues and histories to come to a greater light and clarity, because now more people are interested in trying to understand this predicament than I’ve ever seen in any point in my life. The pandemic has a lot to do with it. People are thinking about the future. Everything is unsettled at this moment, and all the pieces have come together. It’s the perfect storm.

Black Landscapes Matter, a book you co-edited with Grace Mitchell Tada, which will be published November, came out of a lecture series you initiated in 2016 following police killings. In your book, TED Talk, and other writings, you have called for planning and designing landscapes that allow for a diversity of narratives and perspectives, instead of homogenized landscapes that just say one thing to one group of people. How do you bring out these different memories and histories in a landscape?

After the spree of police killings in 2016, we wanted to bring together people who could articulate different voices in the black community. I wanted the book to articulate what’s missing in how we design for other narratives, which is about difference. I say difference, not diversity — it’s about different ways of interpreting the world. When one puts out multiple narratives, they challenge the singular and its maintenance.

I’m thinking a lot these days about difference and sameness. Colonialism is about sameness. It takes difference and makes it into sameness. It does that to promote and maintain its construction. W.J.T. Mitchell talks about a double reading of landscape, a double semiotic.

Colonization is happening inside the colony, as ideologies are projected outside the colony. Our projection — America, home of the free, and the brave, diversity for all, “all men are created equal” — is sent out to the world. The Statue of Liberty, “give me your tired…” — all of these things. But inside, we’re being re-colonized to keep that narrative intact.

But that narrative is being torn. People are looking for other ways to see themselves and others around them. So in Black Landscapes Matter, we talk about different story lines.

If more people are aware of what is part of their environment, not just today but yesterday, and possibly even tomorrow, we’d have a different way of thinking about the world. In so many spaces in this country, something happened! It has not always been vacant and desolate, places exist! Placemaking is re-colonizing. Something is always there if you are interested in it.

Many of your projects are specifically focused on unearthing hidden layers, creating spaces for multiple consciousness. The International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, tells the story of slaves arriving in the port of Charleston and their descendants. A master plan for the Rosa Parks neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan, explores the history of the movement for racial equality. Double Sights, a public art piece at Princeton University, expands the interpretation of the many sides of former Princeton and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Navigating through all these layers of history, how do you get to the essentials and make planning and design decisions that really resonate?

For me, it’s the willingness to want to unearth. Your previous question had to do with memory and history, which is a little different than unearthing.

Sometimes places are palimpsests, meaning part of the brick and mortar, and some of them are based in memories, the passing of time. For people of color who are marginalized, stories get lost. Each project is fraught with chance. I am not trying to solve a problem, per se. I’m trying to put something out in the world that has been covered up, erased, which might allow people to see the world and themselves in a different way.

Privilege at times only produces singular narratives, which is what happened with the Woodrow Wilson project. The students at Princeton still want his name off the building, so the piece has not resolved the issue. But what I hope the piece does is allow that issue to always be there. If someone at Princeton University said “remove the name of Wilson,” then the piece wouldn’t exist.

Double Sights at Princeton University / Hood Design Studio

With the International African American Museum, there are clear, bold design statements. How do you really focus in on certain aspects of history and tell a broader story through design?

The design decisions for the landscape are very personal and I am consciously having conversations with those before me. I approached the Woodrow Wilson project through the narrative of W.E.B. DuBois, who has always been part of my thinking as a black man, and his idea of double consciousness. That gave me a point of view to criticize Wilson.

As for the International African American Museum in Charleston, the final was not the boldest design. We developed 29 different designs and worked through each one with the community. From my personal point of view, I wanted to put out imagery that had never been put out before. I took it upon myself to push the community. The Black Body in Space is something that really intrigued me conceptually.

International African American Museum / Hood Design Studio
International African American Museum / Hood Design Studio

For the Rosa Parks neighborhood in Detroit, I approached the project, again through history and identity. I’ve spent years with my peoples’ history. My research and design work has lived with these histories — not just American history but the history of black America.

Master plan for Rosa Parks neighborhood in Detroit / Hood Design Studio

Returning back to your larger question: I could have gone through practice with no interest in black history. I could have just accepted the privileged position of the designer. I could just work in the very homogeneous/standardized manner in which the profession trained me.

In my early years, that was really all I had to rely on, until I got to a point where it felt like something was missing. What was missing was myself. I did not see myself anywhere in landscape architecture, architecture, or planning. At the offices I worked, these ideas just didn’t exist. I had to create a context for my ideas to bear fruit, so I situated myself in the rigorous, intellectual world of academia and developed an art practice. This is what I’ve been doing the last 30 years.

Do you think because you’ve found yourself in your work, people can find themselves in it, too? Is that what creates a sense of resonance, when someone sees your work and connects with it?

No, they actually hear a different voice, which again, is playing off the homogeneous. Early on, I noticed the design decisions I was making were different than the decisions other people were making. I didn’t acquaint them because I’m black. It’s because of my advocacy for and interest in people and the particular places that they live, which comes from my experience of being black.

Very early, one of my projects in a disinvested neighborhood involved planting an allee of a hundred and fifty flowering trees at one time along a decomposed granite walkway. This was 30 years ago, and people weren’t doing stuff like that. To me, I wanted color to manifest in a bold way in a place that didn’t have color.

Those design choices came out of me seeing a black community in need of something. As a person making landscapes, that is what I could give them. I always go back that very simple act — that purity of impulse one has in a place where you’re engaged but also giving of yourself. And this relates to the questions: what are you feeding yourself? Where’s the inspiration coming from?

I try to bring in as much culture as I can to the work, which can offer multiple narratives and layers. I’m really not interested in singular gestures, but multiplicities.

People are yearning for difference. I just recently stopped using diversity and started using difference, because diversity is not really about difference. Difference is about opposition. Opposition is good. Double negatives are good. They exist in our world.

The doubles begin to tell stories we don’t tell. We see it in the language that is manifest over time by culture. You’ll see spaces given double negative terms, like Plaza Park. I was in San Jose, California, when Hargreaves was working on Plaza Park. I was like, “Plaza Park? Oh, this is interesting. Why does it have both?” If you go and look at the history, you know why it has two. These are the kinds of things people create over time through naming, adopting. Landscapes have a language.

If we’re critical enough, we can begin to read the landscape in different ways. Once you do, it changes you forever. There’s no way to go back.

Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the city government have painted “Black Lives Matter” in street-bounding yellow letters down 16th Street, NW in front of Lafayette Square and the White House. This was widely viewed as a response to President Trump’s order to teargas protesters and close off Lafayette Square — a key protest space and site of a former slave market — from public access. How do you unpack everything going on in that space? What is the role of public space in the protest movement?

In the history of this country, streets have been that number one space for protests. We can go back to women’s suffrage and civil rights. The streets are the public domain. In D.C., what’s public and what’s federal? That’s the interesting dichotomy in D.C. Lafayette Square, which is federal, gets acted upon differently than the city public. When I heard that, I was like, wow, I didn’t know the President had dominion over that particular space.

Protesting has always taken place in the public realm. You can go back to Kelly Ingram Park and the Edmond Pettus bridge. These are my first memories: people protesting in the streets. This is nothing new. The marking, particularly with the branding, might be something new, a kind of guerilla tactic. I applaud the mayor for doing it, because she was able to demark a space. People are calling it the plaza, but again, this it is about nomenclature. I applaud her for marking a space that was taken away from her.

Black Lives Matter Plaza / Photo By Bill Clark, CQ Roll Call via AP Images, Assisted by City of DC

Lafayette Square, like a lot of public squares, was among the first public parks in our country. They were also places where atrocious things happened in our country like slavery auctions, so they’re on hallowed ground to a degree. If we’re interested in changing how we think of ourselves, we can also be critical of the places where we’re actually protesting. To me, that could give credence to, or help articulate, issues we’re facing, particularly with the pandemic.

We know most low-income areas have higher cases of COVID, which you could also probably correlate to redlining policies and expulsive zoning, which was an institutional pre- and post-war planning practice. Redlined landscapes are still the same today if we are still in them.

Public safety is important. People should be allowed to use the spaces we have seen over the past few weeks, whether it’s the I-5 in L.A. or bridges in Minneapolis. These are spaces the public pays for.

You have equated the value of environmental diversity with that of social and racial diversity. Just as land comprised of diverse ecosystems are more sustainable and resilient, racially diverse or different communities also increase social sustainability and resilience. How can the fight for racial equality and justice support efforts to combat climate change and vice-versa? What are the connections?

The first connection one might think about is duplication. There really are two Americas, and we’re actually trying to support both of them, not equally though. There’s one America for one group of people and another for the other. It’s just not sustainable, because we’re having to spend more money on communities that are different, which is a result of the after-effect of not investing in these places in the first place. How to make communities more racially diverse is our next challenge.

We’ve been talking recently about a few new mixed-income housing projects in Oakland, California. When we think of mixed incomes, we think race, right? We can think of brown people, low-income; non-brown people, higher incomes. What might allow them to share the same space? That’s the question we’re beginning to ask. It comes back to public space, right?

We can develop parks and other types of landscapes that are more integrated into peoples’ patterns and practices, so they can begin to share space. The architectural question is a bit more difficult, because a lot of that is driven through the market.

As for environmental diversity, I’ve lately returned to reading Olmsted and early Central Park history. In Go Tell It On the Mountain, written by James Baldwin, he describes an experience in Central Park one day. He goes to this hill. It’s his favorite hill. When he gets to the top of that hill, having walked from Harlem to Central Park, with all the white eyes upon him, he’s king of the world. He could do anything. He’s standing there looking out to Manhattan. He’s on this hill in the middle of nature, and he could do anything, and then slowly reality comes back to him. He descends the hill and runs into an older white guy. Immediately, he’s about to apologize, but instead the man smiles. That moment is how I think about what landscape can do. In a certain way, how do we put ourselves together in a place where there is no label or stereotype of the other? That’s really tough to do, as we recently saw with that woman in the Ramble.

Gentrification of urban Black and brown communities most often results in their displacement. Some communities have viewed efforts to add new green space and trees to their communities as a gentrifying agent. So one response has been the “just green enough” design movement, which calls for adding green amenities but not to the extent that they would raise property values. What is your take? What approaches work best to stop displacement? And how do you think the protest movement can change conversations in communities where gentrification is happening?

All communities should be healthy. If we have the opportunity to increase biomass and improve the public-realm facilities in any community, we should do it. The fear of making something better particularly for those most vulnerable — really.

We should look at the issues that create the vulnerability. In many places, you have a high percentage of renters and low ownership. Some places you have little to no tax base. You have these institutional issue that don’t help. The first steps in some places are to figure out new and diverse housing types, increase ownership, and stabilize communities.

When communities were most healthy, successful, richest — whatever word you want to use to characterize them– they were diverse places. West Oakland has the moniker of having always been an African-American neighborhood. If you review its early formation, people came here because it was the western terminus of the railroad. Different communities of people worked and lived here: Latinos, Hispanics, African-Americans, Portuguese, Italians, etc. Post-war we see white flight, and then desegregation. First immigrant and then middle-class African Americans had opportunities to move into the places that whites had left. We then abandoned those redlined neighborhoods and left the most vulnerable.

That’s the dynamic of the city. We have to articulate these dynamics to communities in which we work and help them understand these processes.

I live in an area that was once redlined. There are single-family houses mixed with light industrial. It’s a pretty diverse, mixed neighborhood. Next to my building, there was no green space at all. People reacted to vacantness in various ways, which was to tag the walls, dump garbage or leave abandoned elements. I took it upon myself and started planting trees and shrubs adjacent the building. My little piece is the greenest part of the block.

What’s been refreshing and a reminder is watching how people reacted. Almost every day, the neighbor across the street tells me how great it is to see the green. People walk on my side of the street, and the behavior has changed. These are just little things that I just think we forget.

Part of our job is to help educate communities in which we’re working, based on shared knowledge. We can build an infrastructure to help with change, because change is going to happen. Cities are dynamic.

Very early in my career, I had a conversation with a black family here in the East Oakland neighborhood about moving out of the city. They wanted to move to the suburbs because the schools were better, and the crime was lower. I couldn’t change any of that from my position.

So the issues become more structural. We have to improve these basic infrastructures like public education and environmental factors. In many of the places where gentrification happens, they’re so easy to topple because all of the infrastructure is eroded.

In 2013, ASLA’s member leadership made diversifying the profession a top organizational priority. The number of diverse people entering the profession remains stubbornly low. The high cost of landscape architecture degree programs and lack of alternative degree programs are issues. So is the lack of diverse landscape architects who can advocate for the profession in diverse communities. What do you think are the most important steps that can be taken to bring more black and brown young people into the profession?

Landscape architects: just set the example. Make it interesting for people of color, so they want to come into the profession. This means you have to change the narrative. Reach out, do the work. Approach the way we make things through a cultural lens. Look for difference, so people might get excited by seeing and experiencing something that has them in mind.

Throw away the stereotypical and the feel good tropes — basketball, barbeques, community gardens. It would be attractive for people to say, “wow, this is how I can improve my neighborhood. Look at what they’re doing,” rather than settling. Really dig deep and contemplate these histories, the years of living separate.

How do we talk about living together? If enough of us are out making change and having a different conversation, the idea of attracting a diverse group becomes secondary.

Years ago, I was part of a landscape group that was pushing for diversity. You can’t expect to attract people if there is no interest in change.

I get excited when people of all persuasion get excited by the work we’re doing. It’s not about whether the project gets into a magazine and wins awards. To me, the best reward on any project is to get people excited, empowered, bringing them in, and making them part of the project.

We are currently working for the town of Nauck, Virginia. It’s a town square. Working with the community very early on the discussion centered on the Freedmen’s Village of Arlington Cemetery and the black diaspora that emerged when they were removed. Many in Nauck are descendants.

I had recalled years ago as an undergraduate, I met a black landscape architect, Everett Fly, who had uncovered some of the histories of these towns that were built during Reconstruction. That experience stayed with me, and when I had the opportunity to have a conversation with that work, I immediately began to ponder the semiotics of this term used to describe black and brown people. What does it mean to be F-R-E-E-D!

It took a lot of nerve for me to start this conversation since it was something I had never entered into a conversation with a community about. I can’t describe the kind of excitement and conversation that began from there.

Nauck Town Square / Hood Design Studio
Nauck Town Square / Hood Design Studio
Nauck Town Square / Hood Design Studio

We can bring more voices to the table when we discuss, gender, race, and difference. Tell the truth about colonization and its impact not just on native and immigrant communities, but on the black and brown communities as well. If we don’t talk about it, we are reinforcing a post-colonial view.

This will bring difference into our profession, so it’s not simply just about making beautiful things. It can become about what those beautiful things mean. Once we can attach diverse meanings to the things we make, our profession could be much more inclusive.

For maybe two-thirds of my projects, race never comes up. To me, that’s where we should be heading. I don’t want the moniker of “black designer.” I can design for anyone, because I’ve had to learn how to. This skill came from being the “other,” and having to learn about white America and how to navigate, which is what we (others) don’t see happening from white America, right? I don’t see that kind of investment in me.

All I hear is, “Walter, help me. I’m working in a black community. I need you.” No, you don’t need me. You need to do the work for yourself. You need to learn about us. You need to get in there and roll up the sleeves. This is not my (our) problem. Until it changes, we’ll be back in the same position 20 years from now, asking why we’re not a diverse profession.

Racial Injustice and the Pandemic Are Inextricably Linked

Black Live Matter’s activist protest in Washington D.C. / Lenin Nolly, Sipa USA, AP Images

“I want to express my discomfort that we, as privileged white people, are discussing racial injustice without African American speakers on this panel. I want us to reckon with that,” said Allison Arieff, research and creative director at SPUR and op-ed contributor to The New York Times, during a plenary at the Congress for New Urbanism’s Virtual Gathering.

The non-diverse panel comprising Arieff, Emily Badger, a reporter for The New York TimesThe Upshot blog, and moderator Todd Zimmerman, principal at Zimmerman/Volk Associates, reached the conclusion that the twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustices are inextricably linked.

The pandemic and racial injustice protest movement are “exposing how poorly our systems work,” Arieff argued. As SPUR outlined in its recent Letter to White Urbanists, “the city is under strain because these places are not safe and healthy for everyone. White people are the problem and have to fix it.”

Badger, who covers all facets of urban policy for the Times, has been wrestling with a number of questions related to the pandemic when she realized the impacts of COVID-19 were connected with structural racism.

At first, she sought to answer big questions about the pandemic, such as: “Can we reconcile the benefits of density with its risks? Will a fear of density cause people to move to the suburbs? Will a fear of transit cause people to use cars more? Will transit agencies survive the collapse in funding? Will people working from home stay there permanently?”

With the understanding that racial inequalities in housing, education, transportation, land use are all connected, questions shifted to: “How does the police fit in with all of this? They are a part of this ecosystem of inequality and maintain racial segregation. What is their role? Why have segregation and poverty levels hardly budged since the 1960s? Why have income and racial inequalities become even worse? Should we spending more on housing than the police?”

Badger found that “COVID and race are not separate stories. Racial disparities and inequalities are feeding COVID and driving the protests.” Furthermore, COVID is likely to leave “lasting damage in the movement for racial equality,” as everything from deaths from the virus to evictions due to loss of jobs will be disproportionately higher in communities of color.

“Many of us working from home are protected and isolated. We don’t need to acknowledge how poorly the system works for most people,” Arieff said. “But the pandemic shows how fragile the social safety net is. Unemployment insurance doesn’t cover a huge set of workers. We can’t shut off evictions. Many didn’t realize schools feed a vast number of low-income students. Homeless people are now of interest because they could be carrying disease. All our structures are inadequate and need to be deeply rethought.”

One structure that many are calling for a total rethink is the police force. A recent analysis of police budgets in 150 cities by the Times found that police departments on average account for 8 percent of city budgets, and those numbers have gone up over the past 40 years even as crime has declined.

As police forces have grown, they have taken on more responsibilities. “They are now working with homeless populations and in schools. They have become mental health counselors and intervene in domestic abuse,” Badger explained. There is growing debate in many cities about taking away some of their responsibilities or defunding them. “Now that we know the jobs that they are doing, do we want them doing them?”

The ever expanding responsibilities of police forces is linked with the reduction in federal funds for social services and anti-poverty programs. Given there are no other groups mediating what is acceptable behavior in public spaces, “police have by default taken on the role,” Badger said. Instead, “community groups could take over some of the roles police are now playing.” Arieff commented that perhaps defund the police movement could be rebranded as “lightening the load.”

The debate turned to how the built environment professions — planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers — need to change how they work. Arieff said that “there is no easy, pat answer. Design is a top-down, white male-dominated field. But these issues aren’t limited to the design industry.”

The power structures in the built environment “controlled by white people have benefited them. White neighborhoods benefit from exclusionary zoning laws. Property values increase when there is no affordable housing near you,” Badger said.

Arieff argued that critical next steps are to “listen more and make greater effort to recruit panels of color for design conferences.”

To survive and grow, the design world needs to diversify. As an example, she pointed to Next City, a publication focused on cities, that changed the make-up of its editorial staff, significantly diversifying its team of writers. The result was that “readership massively diversified and grew.”

The conversation then veered to whether the concept of “eyes on the street,” and crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) in general, unjustly target people of color.

Arieff argued that “it’s not all or nothing. I’m not ready to dismiss the concept. There are different contexts and behaviors. We can’t homogenize all places. Different people of color use public space differently. We must be more open to how different cultures use public space.”

Zimmerman, the moderator, added that a once common description of a healthy city was that it was safe for a 7 year old. He thinks this should be changed to “safe for a 7 year old black child.”

ASLA seeks to facilitate open, respectful dialogue in its public forums. Opinions expressed in the comments section are not necessarily those of ASLA. By participating in ASLA’s websites, blogs, and social media accounts, the user agrees to the Terms of Use.

Suburban Sprawl Increases the Risk of Future Pandemics

Suburban expansion into remnant habitat / La Citta Vita, Flickr

By Michael Grove, ASLA

The export of American culture is one of the most influential forces in our interconnected world. From Dakar to Delhi, American pop music, movies, and artery-clogging cuisine is ubiquitous. However, one of the most damaging exports is the American suburb. When the 20th century model for housing the swelling populations of Long Island and Los Angeles translates to 21st century Kinshasa and Kuala Lumpur, the American way of life may very well be our downfall.

In our pre-pandemic ignorance, most urbanists pointed to climate change as the most dangerous impact of our cherished suburban lifestyle. To be sure, the higher greenhouse gas emissions and rise in chronic health problems associated with living in subdivisions aren’t going away, but COVID-19 has exposed another threat we’ve chosen to ignore. The next pandemic may very well result from our addiction to—and exportation of—sprawl.

Vilifying Density and Disregarding Equity

The increasing traction of the anti-density movement in the wake of the current outbreak is alarming. Headlines proclaiming how sprawl may save us and that living in cities puts citizens at higher risk for contracting the novel coronavirus are deceptive.

Recent studies have debunked these myths, finding little correlation between population density in cities and rates of COVID-19, instead attributing the spread of the virus to overcrowding due to inequity and delays in governmental responsiveness.

Mounting evidence suggests that COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through close contact in enclosed spaces. Internal population density within buildings and, more specifically, within shared rooms inside buildings is what drives this, not the compact urban form of the city. In New York, for example, COVID-19 cases are concentrated in the outer boroughs, and suburban Westchester and Rockland counties have reported nearly triple the rate per capita than those of Manhattan.

The real issue is the systemic economic inequity that forces lower income people to live in overcrowded conditions, regardless of location. Innovative approaches to urban planning, equitable housing policies, and a reversal of over a century of environmental discrimination in our cities are absolutely necessary. Vilifying the city is counterproductive.

Moving out of dense cities into the open space and social distancing afforded by the suburbs is exactly the type of knee-jerk reaction that we must avoid. Cities are not at fault.

Habitat Fragmentation and Biodiversity Loss

In fact, cities are the answer if we plan them carefully. Among the many human activities that cause habitat loss, urban development produces some of the greatest local extinction rates and has a more permanent impact. For example, habitat lost due to farming and logging can be restored, whereas urbanized areas not only persist but continue to expand.

The Atlas for the End of the World, conceived by Richard Weller, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the best sources for documenting our collective risk. Mapping 391 of the planet’s terrestrial eco-regions, this research identified 423 cities with a population of over 300,000 inhabitants situated within 36 biodiversity hotspots. Using data modelling from the Seto Lab at Yale University, the Atlas predicts that 383 of these cities—about 90 percent —will likely continue to expand into previously undisturbed habitats.

Biodiversity hotspot map of the Indo-Burma ecoregion / Atlas for the End of the World

When we assault the wild places that harbor so much biodiversity in the pursuit of development, we disregard a significant aspect of this biodiversity—the unseen domain of undocumented viruses and pathogens.

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, meaning that they are transmitted to us through contact with animals. The initial emergence of many of these zoonotic diseases have been tracked to the parts of the world with the greatest biodiversity, both in the traditional and man-made sense. Traditional locations include tropical rainforests where biodiversity naturally occurs. Human-influenced conditions include places like bushmeat markets in Africa or the wet markets of Asia, where we are mixing trapped exotic animals with humans, often in astonishingly unsanitary conditions.

However, degraded habitats of any kind can create conditions for viruses to cross over, whether in Accra or Austin. The disruption of habitat to support our suburban lifestyle is bringing us closer to species with which we have rarely had contact. By infringing on these ecosystems, we reduce the natural barriers between humans and host species, creating ideal conditions for diseases to spread. These microbes are not naturally human pathogens. They become human pathogens because we offer them that opportunity.

This is already evident in the fragmented forests of many American suburbs where development patterns have altered the natural cycle of the pathogen that causes Lyme disease. When humans live in close proximity to these disrupted ecosystems, they are more likely to get bitten by a tick carrying the Lyme bacteria. When biodiversity is reduced, these diluted systems allow for species like rodents and bats—some of the most likely to promote the transmission of pathogens—to thrive.

This essentially means that the more habitats we disturb, the more danger we are in by tapping into various virus reservoirs. COVID-19 is not the first disease to cross over from animal to human populations, but it is likely a harbinger of more mass pandemics and further disruptions to the global economy. The more densely we build, the more land we can conserve for nature to thrive, potentially reducing our risk of another pandemic from a novel virus.

Increase of infected tick populations in fragmented forests / National Science Foundation, Nicolle Rager Fuller

Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary

In the United States, over 50 percent of the population lives in suburbs, covering more land than the combined total of national and state parks. Our urbanization is ubiquitous and endangers more species than any other human activity.

In 1979, Portland, Oregon offered a pioneering solution with the creation of an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). Devised by a 3-county, 24-city regional planning authority, the intent was to protect agricultural lands, encourage urban density, and limit unchecked sprawl.

Forty years into this experiment, Portland’s experience is a mixed bag of successes and missed opportunities. Investment in public transit and urban parks has certainly bolstered the city’s reputation as a leader in urban innovation, sustainability, and livability, with statistics to support its efforts.

On the other hand, two of Oregon’s fastest growing cities are situated just beyond the boundary’s jurisdiction, underscoring the limitations of the strategy. Again, inequity rears its ugly head, with higher prices within the UGB caused, in part, by an inability to deregulate Portland’s low density neighborhoods. This has driven much of the regional population further afield to find affordable housing in the form of suburban sprawl beyond the UGB’s dominion and into even more remote areas.

Another consideration that was overlooked when the original plan was established was the adequate protection of remnant habitat within the UGB. This lack of a regional plan for biodiversity protection has underscored the need for a more ecologically-focused, science-based approach to inform planning decisions.

Suburban development approaching agricultural land and remnant forest in Portland, Oregon / Google Earth

Brisbane’s Bird Population

Unfortunately, anticipating outcomes of urbanization on species diversity is not as pervasive in urban planning agencies around the world as it should be. A lack of detailed modeling specific to individual regions and cities with clear recommendations for how to minimize ecological devastation is absent from planning policy around the world.

However, researchers in Brisbane, Australia have attempted to quantify which development style—concentrated urban intensity or suburban sprawl—has a greater ecological consequences. By measuring species distribution, the study predicted the effect on bird populations when adding nearly 85,000 new dwelling units in the city. Their results demonstrated that urban growth of any type reduces bird distributions overall, but compact development substantially slows these reductions.

Sensitive species particularly benefited from compact development because remnant habitats remained intact, with predominantly non-native species thriving in sprawling development conditions. These results suggest that cities with denser footprints—even if their suburbs offer abundant open space—would experience a steep decline in biodiversity.

This is a common outcome found in similar studies around the world that exhibit a comparable decline in the species richness of multiple taxa along the rural-urban gradient. Although biodiversity is lowest within the urban core, the trade-off of preserving as much remnant natural habitat as possible almost always results in greater regional biodiversity.

Common bird species in urban and suburban Brisbane, Australia / Paula Peeters

Helsinki’s Biodiversity Database

One of Europe’s fasted growing cities, Helsinki faces similar pressures for new housing and traffic connections as many other major metropolises. However, in Helsinki, geotechnical and topographic constraints, coupled with its 20th century expansion along two railway lines rather than a web of highways, created the base for its finger-like urban and landscape structure. Today, one-third of Helsinki’s land area is open space, 63 percent of which is contiguous urban forest.

In 2001, Finland established an open source National Biodiversity Database that compiles multiple data sets ranging from detailed environmental studies to observations of citizen scientists. This extraordinary access to information has allowed the city to measure numerous data points within various conservation area boundaries, including statistics related to the protection of individual sites and species.

Measured by several taxonomies, including vascular plants, birds, fungi, and pollinators, Helsinki has an unusually high biodiversity when compared to neighboring municipalities or to other temperate European cities and towns. Vascular plant species, for example, average over 350 species per square kilometer, as compared to Berlin and Vienna’s average of about 200 species. By embracing biodiversity within the structure of the city, not only is the importance of regional biodiversity codified into the general master plan, it is also embedded into the civic discourse of its citizens.

Figure-ground diagram of Helsinki’s green fingers / Schwarz Plan

When it comes to where the next virus might emerge, Wuhan isn’t really that different from Washington, D.C. If the American model of over-indulgent suburban sprawl is the benchmark for individual success, we all lose.

Now is the moment to put the health of the planet before American values of heaven on a half-acre. Land use policies in the United States have just as profound an impact on the rest of the world as any movie out of Hollywood.

If we shift American values toward embracing denser, cleaner, and more efficient cities that drive ecological conservation—instead of promoting sprawl as a panacea for our current predicament—that may very well be our greatest export to humanity.

Michael Grove, ASLA, is the chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki, a global design firm with offices in Boston and Shanghai.

The Pandemic Is Accelerating the Shift to E-Commerce

Hub and spoke distribution network in Cincinnatti, Ohio / Rick Stein

Amazon and other e-commerce sites have seen record sales in the past few months. Brick-and-mortar stores are closing at higher rates. The transition to online and omni-channel retail will change how shopping areas are planned and designed. During a session at the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference @ Home, a group of planners outlined how this shift to e-commerce may play out.

According to Rick Stein, an urban planner and founder of Urban Decision Group, there have been 30,000 store closures in the past five years. In just the first few months of 2020, 2,000 more stores have shut their doors, with another 15,000 expected this year.

While recent closures are due to the pandemic, the underlying issue is “U.S. retail is overbuilt.”

Comparing retail space per capita in the U.S., Canada, Australia, UK, France, and elsewhere, the U.S. tops the charts with 24 square feet of retail space per capita and $14,614 in per capita sales annually. While incomes have increased 11 percent since 2009, the amount Americans spent shopping each year has increased by 37 percent in the same time frame.

Stein outlined four types of brick-and-mortar shopping centers, which total 6.2 billion square feet of retail space and generate $2 trillion in revenue annually: strip malls, neighborhood centers, community centers, and malls. There are 70,000 strip malls, which account for $300 billion in revenue; 32,000 neighborhood centers that total $750 billion; 10,000 community centers that generate $620 billion in sales; and 1,200 remaining malls, which are “rapidly shrinking” as a retail type, that account for $325 billion in retail sales.

In-store retail sales in the U.S. have been declining since the early 2000s, with sales now less than $325 per square foot. The pandemic is accelerating this decline in sales. “Some 60-70 percent of retail stores are now closed,” with an estimated $1 trillion in lost revenue.

Most shopping centers were built in the suburbs because land was cheap. But within suburbia, there are different levels of risk.

Stein argued that locally-owned shopping centers — the community and neighborhood centers — are likely more stable. Malls, which are mostly owned by large corporations, are at greater risk of closure.

E-commerce, which increased by 25 just last year to reach 12 percent of all sales, is now putting pressure on all types of purely brick-and-mortar retail stores. Large grocery stores aren’t safe either: e-commerce now also accounts for 8 percent of all grocery sales.

In the future, “the winners will be omni-channel retailers, which are not purely e-commerce,” Stein argued. Stores like Target and Walmart that successfully leverage brick-and-mortar with e-commerce are the new model other stores need to follow.

Stein sees more retailers like Kohl’s partnering with Amazon as distribution and return centers. These brick-and-mortar stores can leverage their prime locations in local markets to become part of a “hub and spoke” distribution system that makes it easier for customers to pick up or return purchases (see image above). More relationships will form to maximize the benefits of the “last mile” — being close to the consumer.

Stores within a 10 minute drive in Columbus, Ohio / Rick Stein

Stein surveyed some 500 retailers from mid-March to mid-April and found that 80 percent will be moving to an online or omni-channel approach. Included in the survey responses was some bleak news: “40 percent of apparel retail may never re-open. And 1 in 5 restaurants may never re-open.”

“30 percent of what is purchased online is returned. 15 percent of what is purchased never makes it into customers’ hands. What does this mean for local traffic?,” asked Lisa Nisenson, a vice president at WGI, an engineering and transportation consultancy. “Deliveries have spiked. Will this stick?”

She thinks the pandemic will lead to changes in how goods are transported, bought, and sold. With social distancing, now is the time for technology-based delivery companies to perfect their approach. Many are ramping up tests to facilitate same-day delivery in more places across the country.

Proposed delivery solutions for rural, suburban, and urban areas are different. There are cargo bikes and terrestrial delivery drones of all sizes for dense urban areas, vans that can launch drones in suburban residential communities, and aerial drones for long-range delivery of medical supplies in rural areas.

Drones launch from roof of a Mercedes van / Daimler AG

The delivery model is also changing. In the past, goods moved from the factory to the distributor to the store where consumers made purchases. With the expanding same day delivery model that calls for a highly-local approach to distribution, goods are moving from the distributor to either stores or local sorting centers that then enable in-store picket, local deliveries, or access to delivery lockers, like you find with Amazon lockers in Whole Foods stores. Goods distribution is moving closer to where consumers are.

Flexible delivery model / WGI

That model could further evolve if there is growth in the use of autonomous delivery drones. Distributors and warehouses will become even more local. Niesenson even envisions “micro-warehouses” in neighborhoods.

Drones now a part of the delivery mix / WGI

The configuration of all those retail hubs with acres of parking has become outdated. “Dwell times in stores could drop from 40 minutes to 2 minutes,” really just enough time for picking up or returning items. “Or if the store also has a coffee shop, dwell times could increase to 1.5 hours.” What is clear is that these retail hubs needed to be redesigned to become more flexible and allow for a higher number of consumers visiting for a few minutes to handle pick ups and returns.

According to Jason Sudy, national lead on transportation technology planning at HDR, many companies are trying to expand the use of aerial and terrestrial autonomous drones for deliveries.

Wing, an aerial drone company of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has partnered with Walgreens to deliver medications to customers in Virginia. They have seen a surge in drone deliveries since the COVID-19 crisis began. The drone drops packages in backyards, so only lightweight deliveries under 5-10 pounds are allowed. At The Villages, a retirement community near Orlando, Florida, UPS and CVS are also testing drone deliveries of medications. To apply the technology in rural areas, the company Zipline is running long-range drones in Ghana that can make deliveries of up to 70 pounds.

WIng and Walgreens partner on drone delivery / Walgreens
Zipline drone launch / Wikipedia

Sudy imagines parts of streets and neighborhoods reconfigured for aerial drone launch zones, and new permits to allow vans to launch drones into suburban neighborhoods.

Demand for deliveries by terrestrial drones could mean re-imagining how space on streets is allocated. “Are drones deployed from the public right of way or private property?” There are many zoning (and privacy) implications.

Solutions will need to be crafted for different types of communities — rural, suburban, or urban — creating new work for planners, transportation engineers, urban designers, and landscape architects.

Given autonomous drones are continuously collecting data about their surroundings, they need to be integrated into the built environment in a way that protects privacy.

In the Q&A, discussion veered towards Main Streets and downtown shopping districts. Stein believes that “Main Streets will have a tough time over the next 18 months until a vaccine is discovered, but over the long-term, they will be extremely important. Main Street retail is most likely to survive this great disruption.”

Nisenson added that with the rise of online deliveries, people will crave “experiential retail” that offers more meaningful and social shopping experiences. With so many people seeking community and connection, stores that offer a safe coffee shop or outdoor social space may be ahead of the curve.

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

Field Day campers / Jonathon Geels

A Virtual Landscape Architecture Camp Introduces Girls to Careers They Didn’t Even Know Existed — 05/13/20, Next City
“The eight-week camp covers key concepts in landscape architecture, from the meaning of ‘place’ to interpreting information about the environment, understanding the ways that different people use spaces, and the early stages of the design process.”

How the Virus May Change Your Next Home — 05/12/20, The New York Times
“After spending so much time indoors, having access to fresh air and nature at home is likely to become a priority.”

BIM in Landscape Architecture: Scenarios, Possibilities and Breakthroughs 05/11/20, ArchDaily
“For professional landscape designers, a greater effort is needed to understand how to behave within this new universe of intelligent modeling and how to contribute, through landscape architecture projects, to the multidisciplinarity that BIM brings.”

Architect of Sweden’s No-lockdown Strategy Insists It Will Pay Off – 05/07/20, The Financial Times
“Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist who devised the no-lockdown approach, estimated that 40 per cent of people in the capital, Stockholm, would be immune to Covid-19 by the end of May, giving the country an advantage against a virus that ‘we’re going to have to live with for a very long time.'”

A Schoolyard Fence Proposal for Greenwich Village Raises Questions about Creeping Privatization — 05/05/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“To screen or not to screen? That was the question before New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) on April 28, when panel members reviewed a seemingly innocuous proposal to permanently alter a chain-link fence surrounding a schoolyard in Greenwich Village.”

How Life in Our Cities Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic — 05/03/20, Foreign Policy
“The pandemic is transforming urban life. We asked 12 leading global experts in urban planning, policy, history, and health for their predictions.”