Norfolk Forges a Path to a Resilient Future

Norfolk flood zones in orange / Norfolk Vision 2100

Surrounded by water along 144 miles of shoreline, Norfolk is highly vulnerable to sea level rise. The city is the second largest in Virginia, with a population of 250,000. It’s home to the world’s largest naval base, which hosts 100,000 federal workers and function as a city within the city. Its port is the third busiest in the country. The core of the city is the employment center for a region of 1.5 million people. All of this is under significant threat.

To better prepare for a changing future, Norfolk has undertaken an impressive set of resilience planning efforts, which have culminated in Vision 2100, a comprehensive 2030 plan, a new green infrastructure plan, and, finally, a new resilience zoning code approved last year. These efforts were supported by Dutch government water experts through a series of “dialogues,” the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, and a $115 million grant from the National Disaster Relief Competition, a program organized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to build resilience in the Ohio Creek watershed, which encompasses the Norfolk State University campus and the low-income Chesterfield Heights neighborhood.

At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, we heard about Norfolk’s recent efforts to live with with water while protecting vulnerable low-income areas, revitalizing and creating new urban centers, and ceding some parts of the city back to the ocean.

According to Martin Thomas, vice mayor of Norfolk, the question is: “how do we create a high quality of live given we are facing rising waters?” The answer involves creative economic, social, and environmental solutions that will lead to a transformed city.

Thomas said 30-40 percent of the regional economy is dependent on federal funding, “so we are diversifying the local economy.” There are disconnected communities with concentrated levels of poverty, so the city is investing in mixed-income redevelopment projects. There is recurrent flooding that can result in 2-3 feet of water rise, so the city is creating the “designed coastal systems of the future.”

An example of what Norfolk is dealing with is the highly vulnerable area of Willoughby Spit, which is 3 miles long and 3 blocks wide and where thousands of residents live. This area is a chunk of the local tax base, but “it won’t exist in a few decades.”

Willougby Spit / Pinterest

Through its Vision 2100 process, Norfolk mapped its most valuable assets, which included the Naval base, airport, botanical gardens, and the historic downtown core. Through comprehensive public meetings, city policymakers, planners, and residents created a map of where flooding is expected to worsen, where investments in hard protections and green infrastructure will be focused, and where the “future urban growth of the city will be built.”

The vision organizes the city into four zones: red, yellow, green, and purple.

Vision 2100 map / Norfolk city government

Red areas on the map are vital areas that will see “expanded flood protection zones; a comprehensive 24-hour transportation network; denser mixed-use developments; diversified housing options; and strengthened economic options.” These include the naval base, universities, ports, shipyards, and medical facilities that can’t be moved. Future housing and economic growth will be steered into these areas, which will be made denser. The red zone will receive priority levels of investment in both hard and green resilient infrastructure while maintaining access to the water.

The yellow zone will be where the city helps Norfolk residents adapt to rising waters and where it also cedes land back to the water. Programs there will aim to “exploit new and innovative technologies to reduce flood risk to the built environment; focus infrastructure investments on improvements that extend resilience; educate current residents about the risks of recurrent flooding; develop mechanisms to enable property owners to recoup the economic value lost to sea level rise; and develop a solution for sea level rise adaptation in historic neighborhoods.” Here, the focus is on more resilient housing, raised 3-feet above flood levels, and the widespread incorporation of green infrastructure.

The green zone features communities already on higher ground, safe from flooding, where Norfolk will create new transit-oriented development and resilient urban centers that can accommodate future growth.

The purple zone is where Norfolk will create the “neighborhoods of the future,” improving connections to key assets, creating affordable housing, and redeveloping under-performing residential and commercial areas. According to Vision 2100, the city found that 40 out of 125 neighborhoods were deemed assets and therefore not subject to major “transformation” — a euphemism for redevelopment or letting them be subsumed by rising waters. In many of these historic neighborhoods, which are found in the purple zones, small-scale improvements will be made to improve the quality of life — more parks, sidewalks, libraries, and community centers.

Norfolk’s 2030 comprehensive plan, green infrastructure plan, and resilience zoning code are the primary ways in which the city is moving towards this vision.

George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director, said that zoning requirements are a “blunt instrument” that they tried to make more flexible through a “resilient zoning quotient,” a system that developers and property owners can use to accumulate points to meet requirements. The zoning system itemizes “must do’s, should do’s, and nice to do’s (bonuses) for developers.”

Requirements differ depending on the expected level of risk to water rise, but must-do’s include green infrastructure for stormwater management, risk reduction through raising homes by 3-feet above flood levels, and energy self-sufficiency. The zoning ordinance seems critical to achieving the city’s ambitious green infrastructure plan, which also fits together with the vision and 2030 plan.

Green infrastructure plan for Norfolk, VA / City of Norfolk

Back-up power generation is not only required for the usual places like hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities, but also important community utilities like pharmacies, grocery stores, banks, and gas stations.

Vlad Gavrilovic with EPK, planning consultants to Norfolk, further explained that the new zoning code built off of existing neighborhood, landscape, and building design standards, the “pattern language” so critical to informing neighborhood character.

Homewood believes “climate change and sea level rise are very real to the folks who suffer from recurrent flooding.” But rolling-out the new, more complex zoning ordinance hasn’t been without its challenges, and the city planning department is on their fourth round of tweaks to address “unintended consequences.” Perhaps that is to be expected given it’s the “first, most-resilience focused zoning ordinance in the country.”

In a later conversation, Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA president and long-time resident of Norfolk, who was deeply involved in these planning efforts for decades, said that Old Dominion University in downtown Norfolk was key to kick-starting the multi-decade-long effort to make Norfolk more resilient. “Back in 2010, the university started an initiative to prepare Norfolk for sea level rise, asking Larry Atkinson in the oceanography department to lead a cross-disciplinary effort and create a coalition with the community that exists to this day. That was many years ago, but it was then that the seeds were planted for the approach we see today.” That approach, Rinner said, uses public-private partnerships and creates bottom-up, community-driven solutions that transcend politics. “Environmental issues are so close to people in Norfolk and Hampton Roads; it doesn’t matter if you are Democrat or Republican.”

For her, Norfolk’s resilience plans and codes are a true model for other communities because they show what can happen after years of effort — “major change seems to coalesce all of the sudden.”

More than 150 Cities Compete to Document Wild Urban Nature

Washington D.C. City Nature Challenge

In 2016, Lila Higgins at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and Alison Young at the California Academy of Sciences started a friendly competition to see which of their cities — Los Angeles or San Francisco — could identify the most species of plants and animals over a week. Harnessing the enthusiasm of citizen scientists, they launched the City Nature Challenge. Three years later, 159 cities around the world participated in this year’s competition, making some 960,000 wildlife observations, identifying tens of thousands of species, and discovering new ones in the process.

According to this year’s “leadership board” at the City Nature Challenge, Cape Town, South Africa took the top prize with 53,000 observations and 4,500 identified species, contributed by 1,100 citizen scientists. La Paz, Bolivia, made 46,000 observations and identified 3,000 species, with the help of 1,500. In third place is San Diego county, California, which made 38,000 observations and identified 3,000 species through the work of 1,100 locals.

Stella Tarnay, co-founder of Capital Nature (formerly Biophilic DC), said that Washington, D.C. placed in the top 20 in terms of the number of participating citizen scientists, observations, and species identifications. Some 1,200 people got involved through 120 events to collect nearly 30,000 observations and identify 2,250 species. While D.C. did well on observations, the city fell short on species identification.

Around the world, City Nature Challenge citizen scientists used the free iNaturalist app, which was created by the National Geographic Society and the California Academy of Sciences a decade ago, to crowdsource the identification of biodiversity. More than a million citizen and real scientists are now active on the app and have helped each other identify 180,000 species observed 16 million times in cities and the wild. The app is now also assisted by artificial intelligence.

Data was aggregated into local city challenge groups within iNaturalist. Once set up on the app, citizen scientists take photos of native or cultivated trees and plants, as well as fungi, insects, reptiles, and mammals. According to Tarnay, the scientists who run iNaturalist prefer “volunteer” plants, meaning they grew wild in a particular spot and weren’t planted there.

iNaturalist encourages users to take multiple photos of a species, add in notes, and mark the location of the species. Once uploaded, the app then considers that an observation and then offers up possible identifications. Once someone has confirmed the identity of a species, it becomes a “casual grade” identification. Once two users on the app have verified the species, the identification is determined to be “research grade.”

Research grade identification of Mayapple / iNaturalist

For one observational adventure on the National Mall — organized by the Potomac Chapter of ASLA and AIA DC’s committees on well-being and urban design and supported by Capital Nature — urban designer Michiel de Houwer created a handy map, identifying where different types of animals may be found via 5-minute walk zones. Smartphones in hand, we trekked to the National Museum of the American Indian to find native plants.

Map of biodiversity by walking zone / Michiel de Houwer
National Museum of the American Indian, designed by EDAW (now AECOM), Washington, D.C. / photo by OLIN, from the Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C.

At the end of the week-long bioblitz in D.C., Tarnay said the most identified species were:

Plant: Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) – 279
Bird: American Robin (Turdus migratorius) – 143
Mammal: White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) – 111
Butterfly: Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) – 68
Amphibian: Eastern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) – 66

In addition to helping map the extent of biodiversity and getting more young people outdoors to connect with nature, City Nature Challenge has led to the discovery of new species. One estimate find there are 8-9 million species on the planet, but only around 1.75 million have been discovered, identified, and catalogued, leaving 80 percent unknown. More recently, a group of scientists estimated that there could be up 1 trillion species on the globe if we include bacteria, archaea, and microscopic fungi, which could mean some 99.99 percent remain undiscovered.

The latest dire report from the United Nations makes clear why the public needs to engage with biodiversity. The 1,500-page report produced by 145 scientists from 50 countries found that up to one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction due to our degradation of the natural environment and climate change. Today, less than 70 percent of the forests that existed prior to the Industrial Revolution remain, with 100 million hectares cleared since 1980. Some 50 percent of coral reefs and 85 percent of wetland have been lost, while a third of the planet is now used for agriculture. The world’s most famous biologist — E.O. Wilson — has called for preserving half the Earth before it’s too late.

As this year’s challenge shows, cities like Cape Town are actually biodiversity “hot spots.” Documenting and then protecting pockets of biodiversity in cities may seem small in the grand scheme of things, but urban wildlife refuges are critical for the plants and animals that rely on them. More cities are becoming destinations for animals turned out of their natural habitats, spurring on further adaptation and evolution in ways we don’t yet understand.

In the end, the sustainability and resilience of humanity depends on the preservation of Earth’s biodiversity.

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

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Pier 35 on the East River waterfront / SHoP, Ken Smith Workshop

How Wildlife Bridges Over Highways Make Animals—And People—SaferNational Geographic, 4/16/19
“Bridges for bears and tunnels for tortoises have significantly reduced the number of wildlife-car collisions worldwide.”

Make America Graze AgainThe New York Times, 4/22/19
“Nashville’s Zach Richardson uses sustainable practices — and a flock of sheep — to clear overgrown landscapes.”

Design Center Unveils Land Bridge StudyNashville Post, 4/23/19
“There are many local urban place making experts and hobbyists alike who have often contended the single-greatest drawback to Nashville’s failure to maximize its most effective form and function is not limited to the city’s lack of comprehensive mass transit.”

Pier 35 Eco-Park and ‘Urban Beach’ Is Open to the Public6sqft, 4/23/19
“After years of anticipation, Pier 35 on the East River waterfront is officially open (h/t Curbed). The project, designed by SHoP with Ken Smith Workshop, consists of a new eco-park and an “urban beach” anchoring the northern flank of the East River waterfront esplanade and providing much-needed public space on the waterfront.”

Landscape Architect Pushes His Students to Serve Communities, Design For Greater Good The Daily Evergreen, 4/26/19
“Steve Austin, WSU Architecture professor and landscape architect, said he believes we need to hold open discussions on climate change.”

The Case for Climate-Smart Landscapes

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate / ASLA

“Humans have collective agency. We are driven, on an evolutionary basis, to collaborate and cooperate — to work together. This is what makes us the most advanced species on the planet. This also means we can collaborate to create an equitable, ecologically-sound future,” said landscape architect Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA president, in a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco.

Rinner was chair of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience, which met in 2017 and included a mix of landscape architects, urban planners, academics, and local government and foundation representatives. The discussions resulted in Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, a report with a set of planning and design solutions and policy recommendations.

Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO / Executive Vice President of ASLA, further explained the goal of the report: “Climate change is putting communities at risk. The standard development approach isn’t working. We instead need a new paradigm that incorporates natural systems in order to create healthy, climate-smart communities.”

The report outlines that new paradigm in five key areas: natural systems, community development, vulnerable communities, transportation, and agriculture. But, according to Rinner, what the report really describes is “one interactive system.”

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate is guided by a few concepts: “Collaborate, plan ecologically, maximize green, establish connections, seek multiple benefits, and secure multiple sources of funding.”

Maximizing the role of natural systems in the built environment is a particularly important concept. “When we ignore natural systems, you get the problems we have — drought, wild fires, flooding, etc”

Communities can scale up the incorporation of natural systems at the regional and urban levels. The Chesapeake Bay action plan is an example of an effective regional watershed plan because it crosses the political boundaries of six states and the District of Columbia to solve ecological problems.

Chesapeake Bay Watershed / NASA

At the urban level, coastal cities like Norfolk, Virginia, are moving towards becoming “‘sponge cities’ that not only absorb stormwater, but also enrich biohabitats with native vegetation.” In these communities, green infrastructure also acts as a “community development catalyst.”

Norfolk, which received a $120 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to improve its resilience to coastal flooding, has decided to invest heavily in green infrastructure to better manage flooding. The city created a model resilience strategy, resilience zoning code, and green infrastructure plan, as part of its 2030 comprehensive plan. Rinner, a former long-time resident of Norfolk, and participant in the city’s planning processes, said “collaborating through partnerships” was key to making that effort succeed.

Green infrastructure plan for Norfolk, VA / City of Norfolk

Ying-Yu Hung, FASLA, SWA Group managing partner in Los Angeles and a member of the blue ribbon panel, showed a few projects by her firm to further illustrate how resilient landscape projects can create multiple benefits.

The one-mile-long, 45-feet-wide Ricardo Lara Linear Park was created along the embankment of Highway 105, which bisects the mostly-Latino community of Lynwood, California. Hung said Lynwood is vastly underserved in terms of public green space. The community has just 0.5 acres acres of park per 1,000 people, whereas the city of Los Angeles on average has one acre per 1,000 people, and Malibu, one of the wealthiest areas, has 56 acres per 1,000 people.

Working with the non-profit From Lot to Spot, SWA Group designed a green strip along the highway, where some 300 trees catch some of the dangerous air pollution from vehicles passing by and bioswales and bioretention basins capture polluted runoff pouring off the highway. Further away from the highway, there is a trail and separate bicycle path, leading residents to community arts, fitness, and educational spaces, as well as a dog park. Ricardo Lara Linear Park builds community resilience to climate change by reducing the urban heat island effect and improving the health and well-being of Lynwood residents. The park is so beloved community volunteer groups maintain it.

Ricardo Lara Linear Park / SWA Group

In an example of how natural systems boost community resilience, Hung then described the 1.2-mile-long linear park, the Buffalo Bayou Promenade, which runs under freeways that cut through downtown Houston, Texas. SWA widened the slopes around the bayou, significantly increasing the amount of water it can contain when it floods. Some 14,000 new trees were planted to reduce erosion, provide wildlife habitat, and create an appealing social space for the 44,000 households who live within 10 miles of the park.

ASLA 2009 Professional Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade, Houston, Texas. SWA Group / Tom Fox

The park was purposefully designed to withstand the onslaught of severe flooding. When Hurricane Harvey hit the city and the bayou rose by some 40 feet, the Buffalo Bayou Conservancy had to remove 60 million pounds of sediment and re-plant 400 trees, but the essential infrastructure survived. “We designed the park for the worst-scenario possible.”

Lastly, Armando Carbonell, senior fellow and chair of the department of planning and urban form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, also a blue ribbon panel member, delved into the impact of climate change on low-income communities, as well as “the extremely difficult subject of relocation and retreat.” Climate change is deeply unfair in its impacts — it will have “disproportionate impact on low-income people who live in flood zones,” increasing the risk of their displacement.

According to Carbonell, in Latin America, city governments have been picking up and re-locating whole neighborhoods deemed at-risk to the far edges of cities. “The suspicion in these communities was the government had another agenda — they wanted to re-develop the land; and that’s true more often than not.”

In Staten Island, New York City, 23 people died when Hurricane Sandy hit the community of Oakwood Beach. A relocation effort there also generated suspicions about motives, despite the fact that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) rules dictate that any vacated land would become a permanent easement. Community members wondered: “If we vacate our property, how will it be used? Will our land become condos for rich people? Who’s benefiting?”

In Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, relocation has been particularly wrenching. In the late 1800s, the Indian Removal Act forced a group of Native Americans to this narrow strip of land in Terrebonne Parish. Given this place is the end of the Trail of Tears for the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, “there is a level of resistance” to moving and abandoning their homeland and burial ground. “They’ve been pushed to the edge; they can’t be pushed further.”

Isle de Jean Charles / Isle de Jean Charles.com

Unfortunately, due to rising sea level and the destruction of ecosystems, which has caused land subsidence, this community has lost 98 percent of its 22,000 acres, leaving the remaining tribe members in “absolute vulnerability” on just 320 constantly-flooding acres. Dissatisfied with the terms of relocation set by the state government, 30 plus members of the tribe have refused to leave.

Carbonell said some two million people in coastal Louisiana are now at risk of relocation due to rising sea levels. In coastal Bangladesh, which is similar in size and scale, there are some 14 million facing the same end. “The challenge ahead is daunting.”

Learn more in the Lincoln Institute’s report: Buy-in for Buyouts: The Case for Managed Retreats from Flood Zones.

The Absent Hand: A Memoir and Critique of Contemporary American Suburbia

The Absent Hand / Counterpoint Press

The Absent Hand: Reimagining our American Landscape by writer Suzannah Lessard is part memoir, part examination of the American cultural landscape. Lessard offers a unique and necessary perspective on the deterioration of our society’s connection to the landscape, manifested most prominently in the book as sprawl.

Lessard is an aficionado of sprawl. It transfixes and confounds her, creating a special tension. The reader can feel Lessard’s urge to aptly describe sprawl’s features, sometimes manufacturing new words when the right ones aren’t there. The right words are there often enough, though: schizoid, edgeless, and excrescent attached themselves to places like Rosslyn, Virginia, and King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

This struggle to read and relay the suburban landscape is part of Absent Hand’s larger theme: as technology collapses space, context is lost, and with it the ability to understand our place and purpose. Machiavelli explains to his readers in The Prince that to best view a mountain, one must descend to the valley. Context offers the promise of objective evaluation and control.

So what happens when a force such as sprawl saps context from our landscape or climate change outstrips our capacity to solve it? Bad things, you can imagine. Lessard views a cohesive landscape as cultural glue. Without it, there is no common geography to bind inhabitants. Suburbia gets experienced as “individual, customary routes.” And climate change continues its own destabilizing course.

Technology has historically been the primary instigator of this anti-contextualizing process. Lessard points to its impact on war and labor. The Internet has siphoned people from mills and farms into the same offices in front of monitors that bring us everywhere and nowhere. Our relatively recent fascination with industrial and pastoral relics like warehouses and barns is no coincidence, Lessard argues.

Those relics suggest to us a tangible link between our work and our landscape. Modern work has a weak relationship to territory and leaves no such physical imprint (its infrastructure being another story).

Most of these insights dominate the second half of the book. Lessard’s anecdotes and experiences living and traveling, mainly in the Washington, D.C.-Boston corridor, populate much of the first.

Her opinions are never watery, but neither are her introspection and self-critique. I’m a product of suburbia, and her descriptions of it renewed its mystery to me. As a current resident of Lessard’s old neighborhood in Brooklyn, I found she captured well the charm of the ubiquitous brownstones.

Still, it’s fair to wonder if Lessard’s worries are just fear of modernity. There’s a healthy amount of technophobia expressed in Absent Hand, and Lessard’s outward refusal of nostalgia for bygone landscapes is undercut by her own more elegiac descriptions of said landscapes.

And yes, it’s a familiar trope to fear the encroachment of McMansions, as Lessard seems to. But it’s also highly relatable. The only thing scarier than sprawl’s idiosyncrasies is its sameness.

Still, I imagine Lessard would be amused to learn, as I recently did, that critics initially panned brownstone homes for their uniformity.

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

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The so-called Latino High Line, part of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park redevelopment, San Antonio, Texas / Muñoz and Company

First Look at Frank Gehry’s ‘Anonymous’ Building X for Facebook in Redmond The Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce, 3/21/19
“As part of GGN’s landscape plan, native plans will be restored. Gehry Partners says, ‘the intent is to return as much of the site as possible to its natural state by removing non-native plant material and replacing it with native species.’”

Eight Buildings That Incorporate Waterfalls Dezeen, 3/21/19
“The focal point of architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker’s memorial to the September 11 attacks is two square fountains.”

When a ‘Be In’ in Central Park Was Front-Page News The New York Times, 3/25/19
“Fifty-two years ago, thousands came to Central Park for a counterculture happening that influenced decades of political gatherings there.”

A ‘Latino High Line’ Promises Change for San Antonio CityLab, 3/25/19
“The San Pedro Creek Culture Park stands to be a transformative project for nearby neighborhoods. To fight displacement, the city is creating a risk mitigation fund.”

Harrisburg Plans ‘Chutes and Ladders’ Playground at Reservoir Park Penn Live, 3/27/19
“Kids of all ages will eventually be able to play in a life-sized version of the classic board game “Chutes and Ladders” at Reservoir Park, after Harrisburg City Council voted to hire a landscape architect to design the playground.”

A Landscape Architect’s Plant-filled Oasis in Lower Manhattan Architectural Digest, 3/29/19
“Of course, one shouldn’t expect any less from Von Koontz, a talented landscape designer who works on everything from large country estates to petite, elegant rooftop spaces in Manhattan.”

Why Bicycling Has Flatlined

Protected bike lane in Arlington, Virginia / BikeArlington

About 830,000 Americans biked to work in 2017, down from a high of 904,000 in 2014. Given communities large and small have made major investments in bicycle infrastructure — and bike share now seems ubiquitous — why haven’t the numbers of bike commuters dramatically increased?

In some cities, a safe, connected, and protected system of bicycle infrastructure has made it easy to get to work on two wheels. These cities include Berkeley, California, with a population of 120,000 people, where 9 percent of commuters travel by bike, and Portland, Oregon, with a population of 640,000, where more than 7 percent do. In those communities, safe infrastructure has been vital to achieving high numbers of bike commuters.

But looking from another angle, those numbers have been stuck at less than 10 percent for a number of years. Why? According to a number of speakers at the League of American Bicyclists’ National Bike Summit, held in Crystal City, Virginia, it’s because the bicycling movement hasn’t been inclusive.

Numerous sessions at the conference delved into how to broaden the appeal of bicycling for people of different ages, income levels, and races.

Christian Dorsey, chair of the Arlington County Board, said his community in Northern Virginia is in the process of revising its bicycle infrastructure master plan. The county’s goal is to “double the mode share of bike commuters.” But to achieve this goal, “we can’t just promote the new bicycle infrastructure to the bicycle advocates — it has to be for everyone.”

Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities at AARP, and an Arlington resident who bikes to work, said that just 6 percent of older adults regularly bike — and that number has “flatlined.”

Bicycling fatalities have increased over the past few years, with those 65 and older killed “over-represented.” She said if bicycle infrastructure isn’t designed to be safe for everyone — and therefore inclusive of everyone — then “it’s not safe for anyone.”

Dorsey said it is important that access to bicycle infrastructure and bike share systems is equitable. Bike share stations need to be set up in all neighborhoods, not just the wealthy downtowns.

Furthermore, an important but rarely-mentioned barrier is that most employers of low-income people don’t offer showers or bike lockers. If someone is biking to work, they have to do so in their work clothes. “There are often no facilities at the other end.”

In reality, it’s easier for an executive, with access to those facilities, to bike to work than it is for someone who works at a fast food restaurant. That is unfortunate — as those working for less money would benefit far more from the lower transportation costs offered by commuting by bicycle.

If the many safety and social benefits of inclusive infrastructure aren’t enough, there are also economic reasons.

Steve Hartell, director of U.S. public policy for Amazon, said that Amazon selected Crystal City as the location of one of its second headquarters because it’s walkable, bikeable, and next to two Metro stations. “Look at downtown Seattle where Amazon grew up. There, 50 percent of our employees bike, walk, or take mass transit to work.” Amazon was looking for places with the same kind of connected network offering lots of transportation options. And other companies are too.

In another session asking attendees to “think outside the bike,” representatives from a number of urban bicycle non-profits explained how they are diversifying the community of bikers:

Nicole Payne, a program manager at NACTO, noted that Oakland, California required 50 percent of bike share stations to be placed in under served areas. NACTO and the Better Bike Share Partnership have released a guide to engaging a broader community in biking.

At West Town Bikes, a youth development center, in Chicago, Danni Limonez works hard to teach both bicycling and basic work skills. Kids are taught how to maintain bikes used for tours, and some end up getting hired around city bike shops. West Town Bikes also organizes rides for families on the 606 Trail, a 2.7-mile-long elevated bike way created by landscape architects at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA). And there are tours for “women, transgender, and non-binary riders.”

Chicago Tour de Fat / West Town Bikes, John Greenfield on Flickr

For Cindy Mense with Trailnet, a community will only have an inclusive, accessible bicycle infrastructure if everyone’s voice is heard. St. Louis, Missouri, was envious of Indianapolis’ cultural trail and decided to create their own extensive bike network to connect cultural centers. Ensuring that feedback was received from all communities — especially those north of the “Delmar divide,” the predominantly African American community — Trailnet financed community champions, who were each given $250 for targeted engagement. “They made all the difference, as they told us what music and neighborhood events to go to” to find people to fill out their surveys.

St. Louis connected bicycle network / Trailnet, HOK

And Waffiyyah Murray said her organization — the Better Bike Share Partnership — which is based in Philadelphia, is all about using bikes to build community. The organization provides low-cost tours throughout neighborhoods and to cultural centers like the Barnes Foundation; Internet, mobile phone, and bike safety education classes so people can better access Philly’s Indego bike share system; and free bike deliveries of food to the homeless. There are also programs using bikes to improve mental health and prevent suicides. “Biking can be a coping mechanism for anxiety and depression.”

Better Bike Share Partnership tour in Philadelphia / Better Bike Share Partnership

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

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Toronto’s Bentway / Nic Lehoux

How to Design a Better City for Deaf People CityLab, 3/4/19
“Lighting, sound-deflecting surfaces, big spaces—all of these elements can influence a deaf person’s ability to communicate. DeafSpace design considers it all.”

Kiley’s Chestnut Grove Provokes Hot Debate Urban Milwaukee, 3/7/19
“Shields is now in the strange position of overseeing the elimination of the 50-year-old chestnut grove created by Kiley for Milwaukee’s Performing Arts Center in 1969. The grove would go as part of a major renovation of the facility, now known as the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.”

The Bentway Transforms Space Under Toronto’s Expressway Into a Community Venue Designboom, 3/9/19
“The city of Toronto presents the transformation of the Bentway, a 1.75km space under the city’s Gardiner Expressway.”

Preventing Crime, One Park at a Time Planetizen, 3/11/19
“Deborah Marton, executive director of the New York Restoration Project, connects parks and open space to improved public safety.”

The Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden Set for a Hiroshi Sugimoto Overhaul The Architect’s Newspaper, 3/11/19
“A year after the Japanese artist and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto completed his renovation of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden lobby in Washington, D.C.”

Faced with Climate Impacts, Communities Turn to Green Infrastructure

Shelby Country Resilience planning / Sasaki

Climate change is causing seas to rise, flooding to worsen, and hurricanes and wildfires to become more destructive, all of which puts our infrastructure at greater risk. On top of that, America’s current infrastructure received a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in their latest scorecard. Increased risk from climate events and the massive backlog of maintenance projects means that our infrastructure has never been more vulnerable.

But for some forward-thinking communities, vulnerability means opportunity. For these communities facing climate impacts, the best way to protect themselves has been to move beyond the grey infrastructure of the past and transition to green infrastructure.

In the Neoclassical Rayburn building on Capitol Hill, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and Environment and Energy Study Institute (EESI) hosted a briefing for over a hundred Hill staffers to explain how communities and landscape architects are using green infrastructure to help communities become more climate-resilient.

Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO of ASLA, said infrastructure should be created or remodeled to work “in tandem with natural systems.”

As outlined in the report Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, which was the result of ASLA’s blue ribbon panel on climate change and resilience, green infrastructure — such as “green roofs, streets, and corridors; tree canopies; parks and open spaces; and wetlands and wild lands” — leverages the benefits of nature to soak up excess stormwater and protect against flooding. These innovative projects also provide many other benefits, such as improved water and air quality, cooler air temperatures, and psychological and cognitive benefits for people.

“The risks of coastal, riverine, an urban flooding are increasing,” said Mark Dawson, FASLA, managing principal at Sasaki, one of the leading landscape and urban design firms in the U.S., which incorporates green infrastructure into all its community resilience projects.

His firm is now working with flood-inundated Shelby County in Tennessee, which won a national disaster resilience grant of some $60 million, to protect itself from persistent, destructive riverine flooding. Sasaki mapped the extent of current and expected future flooding and developed comprehensive plans with the impacted communities. In one especially hard-hit low-income community, there was serious conversation about selling and relocating but planning turned towards how to use parks and reconfigured residential lots with floodable zones to better protect homes. A new green infrastructural park now in development will accommodate an expanding and contracting flood plain (see image at top).

Montgomery county, Maryland, has also gone all-in on using green infrastructure to improve community resilience to climate change. Adam Ortiz, director of environmental protection for the county, said the county government is focused on bringing green infrastructure to previously under-served communities in order to spread the benefits to everyone.

For example, the Dennis Avenue green street, found in an “under-invested” neighborhood, is not only a “beautiful upgrade” but cleans and infiltrates stormwater runoff and protects against flooding. These projects aren’t just good for the environment and property values, they also create economic benefits. According to Ortiz, “green infrastructure projects have contributed $130 million to the local economy,” spurring the creation of county businesses that offer well-paying green jobs.

Dennis Avenue green street / Montgomery County department of environmental protection

It’s worth reiterating that some communities need green infrastructure more than others, because some communities have borne “environmental insults” far longer. Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome with the Kresge Foundation argued that environmental justice considerations should guide who gets much-needed resilient green infrastructure. She said low-income “black and brown” communities are often more vulnerable to climate impacts because they are already dealing with so many contemporary issues and the legacy of past injustices. “First, you take institutional racism, then throw climate change on top of that, and it makes things only worse.”

White-Newsome said anyone working on these projects should seek to use good local science; conduct a comprehensive environmental justice analysis before starting a project; remove barriers to “education, access, and financial decision-making;” and empower local communities as part of the process. Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange and Earth Economics are helpful organizations for communities seeking to finance their own plans and projects.

In the past few years, there has been progress on Capitol Hill in incentivizing more resilient infrastructure, but not nearly enough. Ellen Vaughn, director of public policy for EESI pointed to the Disaster Recovery Reform Act; the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act; Defense appropriations around climate resilience; and the recently-passed Natural Resources Management Act, which provides permanent financing for the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). And Somerville noted that ASLA has been promoting the Living Shorelines Act and hopes it will be re-introduced this Congress.

But more must be done at the federal level to spread the protective benefits of next-generation resilient infrastructure to more communities. Somerville said: “what is needed is dedicated federal funding for green infrastructure.”

A New, Inclusive Civic Center for San Francisco

San Francisco Civic Center Plan  / CMG Landscape Architecture with Kennerly Architecture + Planning

CMG Landscape Architecture has revealed their new plan for San Francisco’s Civic Center, the culmination of two years of public outreach, which proposes 11 acres of multi-use, homeless-friendly green space in the center of San Francisco — what the city calls its “civic heart.”

The district encompasses San Francisco City Hall, the Asian Art Museum, the San Francisco Public Library, and UN Plaza, among other civic spaces. It also touches S0Ma and the Tenderloin, two of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and most under-served in terms of public space.

CMG’s plan is the result of two years of community outreach, though it sits within a series of outreach efforts led by others that started in 2010. CMG arrived on the scene in 2017, conducting online and in-person surveys, installing mobile outreach stations, organizing focus groups, and reaching out to the diverse ethnic communities in the area. Vietnamese, Chinese, and Spanish-speaking communities, as well as youth, received particular attention as they are heavy and underserved users of the district. Because this area also includes the city’s highest concentration of single-room occupancy buildings in the city and their related services, CMG also reached out to organizers in those communities.

The plan pulls elements from three possible schemes that were unveiled in 2018. Lauren Hackney, ASLA, a landscape architect with CMG, explained the three plans were intended to “provoke conversation,” and allowed CMG to subsequently incorporate the most popular and consistently-desired aspects of the three proposals into the final plan.

San Francisco Civic Center public realm plan / CMG Landscape Architecture with Kennerly Architecture + Planning

The final design strives to simultaneously meet the needs of a civic space and those of surrounding residents, while also calibrating the space’s historic design with contemporary needs.

Noteworthy for its Beaux-Arts plan implemented at the turn of the 20th century, Civic Center comprises a National Historic District, and it was necessary to respect that history. But “the crazy thing is that Beaux-Arts planning doesn’t align with contemporary ambitions around how you use space,” said Willet Moss, ASLA, a partner at CMG. Thus, CMG stripped the Beaux-Arts plan to its foundational principles of cohesion, axes, integrity, and unity. Doing so allowed the Beaux-Arts ideas to serve as “a starting point” from which the designers could accommodate contemporary needs.

That balancing act is one of the project’s biggest challenges: designing a single framework for  many desired needs and overlapping jurisdictions and for a client composed of eight city agencies. “One of the real sincere challenges is how you get such a diverse spectrum of stakeholders to talk about identity — and about this place that everybody in San Francisco has a relationship with,” Hackney said. From protests to City Hall marriages, from the library to the farmers’ market, the ways people experience the space are numerous and varied.

CMG addressed these disparate needs by emphasizing the central axis and enlivening the sides and edges of Civic Center. The space can function ceremonially while accommodating multiple uses around its fringe.

Civic Center’s public realm will “support large and small public gatherings, celebrations, and demonstrations.”  / CMG Landscape Architecture

Planting, paving, and lighting organize the district’s civic “spine.” CMG has given the plaza facing City Hall a room-like feel—reinforcement of the Beaux-Arts plan—by framing the space with planting. The frame provides structure while leaving space for large gatherings (Gay Pride, for instance, can see hundreds of thousands of people pass through the space).

Identical paving throughout the district provides cohesion, and marks its transformation from car-centric to pedestrian-oriented. This is also the first effort to comprehensively light the entire district, making it safer to navigate from BART to public spaces at night. These qualities all contribute to accessibility. After all, Hackney said: “The linchpin of democratic public space is access to it.”

To meet the needs of surrounding communities, CMG proposes incorporating green and other spaces for recreation. A shallow mirror pond that turns on and off can be playful, while nodding to the ceremonial. Gardens that surround existing playgrounds, lawns that transform into soccer fields, and a sculpture garden with ample seating exemplify smaller scale spaces activating the plaza.

The outreach process also made clear that the new plan needed to address basic needs of its constituents. At present, there are no benches, and a single bathroom. The common reaction in San Francisco is to do without seating, lest it become crowded with homeless people.

CMG’s response? “Let’s have so much seating that there will never not be a seat for anyone,” Moss says. And the same principle applies to bathrooms across the site, too. “Homeless people are an important constituent of the public space,” Hackney says. “You need to meet the needs of the people who are in the space long term.”

Linked to similar concerns, Lawrence Halprin’s fountain within UN Plaza has stirred strong feelings from both its proponents and its detractors. Ultimately, CMG decided to retain the fountain, harnessing it as part of a gateway to the Tenderloin and UC Hastings College of Law.

Their plan attempts to restore people’s engagement with the fountain (right now it is fenced off), maintaining it in a way consistent with Halprin’s intention to “invite people to engage with their environment in a different way.” CMG has also leveraged it as a piece of their stormwater infrastructure so that it becomes a large detention basin when it rains. “I believe we could breathe new life into it,” Moss says.

“Adaptation of the existing fountain provides visibility, planting, accessible and usable space, and productive stormwater function, transforming a barrier into an amenity to the neighborhood and a welcoming gateway” / CMG Landscape Architecture with Kennerly Architecture + Planning

Halprin’s fountain is only one component of the district’s complex green infrastructure strategy. At present, no stormwater treatment exists, and all the surrounding civic buildings pump out foundation water, which then flows into San Francisco’s combined sewer systems and causes downstream flooding. The new plan harvests that water; some is used for irrigation and toilet flushing, some is treated to become potable (72 hours of drinking water will be stored for use during emergencies). An underground infiltration “gallery” comprised of gravel media allows rainwater to infiltrate to the water table.

Beyond water concerns, CMG also incorporated tenants of San Francisco’s Green Connections and urban forest plans. In designing, attention was given to tree canopy and habitat, species diversity, optimal growing conditions, and understory planting.

The implementation timeline of the plan is unclear, and likely will be for some time. The plan will first undergo one to two years of environmental review, and its phasing and budget are still in development. A project of this scale necessitates many funding streams for different areas. Funding efforts are now directed towards an identified first phase, which aligns with the in-progress project Better Market Street and includes 6th to 8th Streets. As for an exact timeline, CMG is reluctant to say—it depends on decisions, reviews, and city processes.

Grove Street between Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and Civic Center Plaza  / CMG Landscape Architecture with Kennerly Architecture + Planning.

This vagueness garners skepticism. After having crafted a design based in extensive outreach, the question is now how to realize it financially and politically. “It’s less about what people want than people’s confidence in the city’s culture; and the city bureaucracy making change and sustaining this place in the long term,” Moss said. But CMG is hopeful: the city understood the fundamental need for long-term management and operation, and included that in discussion from the start.

But even with the worthy intentions of the landscape architects and city players, the plan calls into question the ability of a public space to address mounting social ills in San Francisco. Even if the space is designed for everyone, will the community at large support this mission? Can accessibility to public space truly provoke change in a city rife with inequity? An important first step would be to meet the urgency of these problems with a similar haste to build the proposed plan.

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.