“Cities have been demanding reduced car dependence,” said Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Curtin University and elder statesman of sustainable transportation, at a talk in Washington, D.C. As a result, 2015 saw a 3 percent decline in greenhouse gas emissions globally. And yet Newman’s indicators show global wealth rising.
“All the economists and transport planning modelers still think that if you get wealthier, you will drive more.” According to Newman’s data, this is not necessarily true. “We are driving less and still getting wealthier.” The book traces the decline of auto-dependence in global cities.
There are four drivers of this momentous change, according to Newman: increased urban density, the transition to the knowledge economy, generational change, and the relative convenience of public transportation.
“Since 1999, cities are becoming denser,” Newman said. “The young and the wealthy want to see people face to face. And density of jobs increases productivity.”
According to Newman, car use dropped 23 percent from 2001 to 2009 among 16 to 34 year olds. People in their 40s and 50s are driving less, people in their 20s and 30s less still. But those in their 60s or older are still reluctant to relinquish their steering wheels, according to Newman’s data.
With regards to the convenience of public transportation, Newman stated, “time dominates transport.” Last decade, as people were limiting car use, public transit use increased by 100 percent, biking 122 percent, and walking a respectable 37 percent.
Newman’s data elicited several audible gasps during the presentation, one of which was heard when he demonstrated how 240 people could commute in either 1 train, 3 buses, or 177 cars. “Traffic is slowing down because of how many cars there are, and rail is getting fast,” Newman said. “The demand now is for walking and transit fabric.” To further emphasize the decoupling of wealth and car use, Newman showed how the six most walkable cities in the US enjoy a 38 percent higher GDP, on average.
Europe, which never bought into the cult of the car, and Asia, which has only experienced massive economic growth relatively recently, are leading the way on sustainable transportation, Newman said. His book cites 82 Chinese cities and 51 Indian cities that are currently building metro systems.
As for how to fund urban rail, Newman suggested identifying areas ripe for redevelopment, involving the private sector in unlocking that value, then examining what transit numbers might be achieved. He shared how his city of Perth in Australia has done just that.
“The walkable city is a delight,” Newman said while answering attendees’ questions, but he admitted that successful density is still an elusive goal for many cities.“The cities that are doing it right are doing it with biophilic urbanism.”
Newman offered Singapore, the island city-state of 5.4 million people, as an example. Roughly 10 percent of the city is devoted to public parks. Additionally, all new buildings must integrate natural habitat into their designs, replacing the potential habitat lost by their footprint. “You may not want to go out walking in a hot, dense city,” Newman suggested. “But if that city is a forest, well…”
West Palm Beach, a city of nearly 100,000 some 70 miles north of Miami, is grappling with how to protect itself from sea level rise. Much of this long, thin 50-square-mile city fronts the Atlantic Ocean. While in the past this form of development maximized its appeal as a waterfront city, now that exposure elevates their risk.
To create a sustainable and resilient future, the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency has partnered with the Van Alen Institute to create Shore to Core: Vision for a Waterfront City, an urban design competition, to rethink its future trajectory. The design competition though calls for interdisciplinary teams of designers (landscape architects, urban designers, architects) along with experts in resilience, economic development, place-making, psychology, and other fields.
The competition brief asks: “How can we recreate an urban core so its design is intelligent, flexible, and responsive to the needs of residents and visitors?” A new urban core is needed to better address the future needs of the community, strengthen the city’s ability to handle storms and flooding, improve the economy, and improve “individuals’ well-being through the city’s design.”
This last point is essential to this competition: there will also be a separate research competition that aims to bring a team of environmental psychologists, neuroscientists, and other social scientists to “look at the relationship between the relationship between the built environment and the well-being of individuals and communities.” Results from this study will likely inform future plans and designs for a resilient urban core that can also boost public health.
Two multidisciplinary teams selected as finalists will be given $45,000 stipends while a research team will be given $40,000.
According to the competition organizers, West Palm Beach has become a magnet for young people, and some 50 percent of the population is African American or Latino. To continue to draw a young, diverse community and grow far into the future, the city must continue to adapt to its increasingly precarious environment.
Toody Maher is the founder and executive director of Pogo Park. She is an artist, inventor, and entrepreneur and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, California.
In the Iron Triangle in Richmond, California, which is one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the country, you’ve created an exciting model, which combines community development, child development, play, and parks. What are the essential elements of a Pogo Park?
Any public space can be transformed into a Pogo Park. In essence, a Pogo Park is an amazing place, a magical place for children to play. There are five key elements. First of all, a Pogo Park must be staffed. You need someone there who clean the park, welcome folks as they come in, and make it a safe and welcoming gathering place for the community. Second, there needs to be an office there. The third is a rich play environment. We have to get away from plastic, static play equipment. Experts on play talk about how kids need loose parts and environments they can manipulate, so they can build their own things and explore. The key feature of a Pogo Park is a super-rich play environment. The fourth element is just basic amenities — a place to sit in the shade, a bathroom, and running water. And the last is to make it a hub of the community. We have the book mobile, farmer’s market, and visits from the National Park Service who want to show the kids a ranger tour. We’re just the place. We are the community hub.
If you’re knowledgeable about Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language, that’s the Bible for us. There’s certain things that you can do that are essential, but you can do it 500 or 5,000 ways.
To give you some background: Elm Playlot was an existing park for 70 years, but it failed. The city has renovated it three times, and the latest in 2009 cost $300,000. We begged the city not to do it, but they went ahead because they had a grant. Within a week, somebody tried to burn it down.
Pogo Park started with a core team of eight: the Elm Playlot Action Committee (EPAC). The first person I met was Carmen Lee, who lives right next door to the park. I just went around knocking on doors and meeting folks. There were people who wouldn’t open the door. I would show up each day and they wouldn’t even say hello. From 2009 to 2016 the composition of EPAC has changed. It went from eight to six to ten to twelve to fourteen to seven. All of the members have deep ties to the Iron Triangle: they were born there, they live there. But the members of the same core team who started at the beginning have been through all seven years of the project.
What’s great is the power of incremental change. We avoided the usual process: the park fails, then you helicopter in, and, in one week’s time, there’s a new park, and then the mayor comes, and you cut the ribbon, and the moment that everyone leaves — the moment the 76-piece marching back leaves — the whole thing goes back to what it was, so nothing is really transformed. As some residents say, you can’t put a mink coat on a skunk. By coming in and putting this thing down, it doesn’t mean lives are going to change. Transformation needs to be deeper.
EPAC started working with the residents to reclaim the park. Before we got our $2 million state park grant to redo the park, I told the team about Burning Man in the Nevada desert, how folks build this mini city in a week. I said: “let’s do Burning Man in the Iron Triangle!” We went to Home Depot and bought a $2,000 3-foot fence and built a fence around Elm Playlot to claim the boundary. We came in each day and cleaned the park, so it was super clean. We brought in a shipping container we got from the Port of Richmond and built a little office inside the shipping container we could open each day. We put out our play materials and made our enriched play space. We rented a porta potty, which we covered in beautiful plants and artwork. And if somebody needed to go to the bathroom, they’d come up to somebody on our staff and we would let them in. Folks would come just to go to the bathroom, because the porta potty was tricked out. We bought the house next to the park for $50,000. And got a $300 fridge off Craigslist and became an official distribution point for the school free summer lunches. We served 9,000 meals one summer. We got into the space and claimed it.
Going back to how to involve the community: Elm Playlot came alive because people from the neighborhood went and worked there each day. They cleaned it, built things, or served as staff. As folks drive by, they could see something was changing. Everybody started to come by because they were like, “What you all doing next? Oh, this so great.” One thing I learned: If the community makes the changes themselves, then the change is deeper and felt more widely.
It wasn’t just like there was a one-week charrette. We did a five year one! As the great park designer, Susan Goltsman, FASLA, with MIG in Berkeley, said: “Great playgrounds are in a constant state of change.” They can’t just be static. To be alive, parks need to evolve. Pogo Park has been a living charrette.
How did the process of 3-D prototyping the park design work? And why do you think it was better than the typical approach with charrettes, maps, renderings?
The real language needed to communicate design is the opposite of what you need to understand a landscape architecture plan on paper. With a 3-D model, you get to see what’s coming in life size. You’re actually experiencing it. If we want to put a tree somewhere, we’ll just go out and buy a tree in a five gallon bucket and put it there, so people can actually say, “Oh, a tree’s there.” They can walk around and see spaces.
I’ve noticed that when I’m dealing with some landscape architects and designers, they come out with the dimensions of what something should be right away. They’ll say, “Oh, well, why don’t we put the door at three feet and this at two feet.” And they work all by numbers. But our approach is: “Do not impose a number.” First of all, mark it, and when it feels right, measure. That is the measurement that goes on the paper. So many times when design is done on paper, it looks good on paper, because it’s all math. But when you build it, there’s so many little things that were off. The spacing is usually off. The only way you can really get spacing is to do it.
Pogo Park involved the community in the actual construction of the park, paying neighbors of the park to build it. How did the process of co-developing the park with the community work?
We have put over $1 million in wages and contracts into the Iron Triangle. Everyone expects people who are poor and have no job to come in and volunteer. Everywhere I went, people said: “Oh, Toody, you and your volunteers.” No. Everyone was paid for their contribution.
We were also blessed to partner with Scientific Art Studio, which happens to have a 2-acre fabrication studio six blocks from our park in the Iron Triangle, to build the park. The guy who runs it — Ron Holthuysen — is a world famous designer of children’s play spaces. He’s the bomb. He just did a $3.5 million new playground for the San Francisco Zoo. His belief is that children must be free to run wild and to explore.
Ron helped us figure out how to work with a playground safety inspector. We were building custom-made, artisanal play elements. Every step of the way we made sure we conformed with the safety regulations. He set up a studio for us in his studio where he acted as our training wheels, empowering local people to do it for themselves.
It was this holy trinity. First, we had community residents. Second, we had the city of Richmond, which is very entrepreneurial and forward thinking. They gave us the green light to do this radical thing: to try and build a park with the community by hand. And, third, we had Ron from Scientific Arts. However, the residents were the most powerful force. All we did was create a system where someone could think up an idea and then just do it. Residents started getting into it, saying things like: “Well, we should put a bench there.” So then we would just go to Ron’s shop and build a bench and bring it back. Residents started gaining a lot of confidence by thinking, doing.
The numbers who have been employed with Pogo Park over the past decade is around 110-120 community residents. We’ve had probably another 250 who come and work for two weeks. But we primarily pour our money into our core staff. We have 10 people on the community resident team now that work between 15 hours a week and full-time. And they’re paid between $16 and $22 an hour. Those working full-time have full health, dental, and vision benefits. All of these people have never had insurance before. Pogo Park has definitely helped transform the lives of the key folks on our team. And we now have $1.5 million in contracts to design and build more parks in Richmond, too.
About 25 percent of our team does cleaning and maintenance. It’s a lot of work, because you’re cleaning not only the park, but also the streets around the park. When people come into our block, they can just feel it, because the streets are all clean, and there’s all these trees planted. I mean we clean up. Last year, we had 15,000 kids sign in at our sites. And these kids play hard, so things get broken. You have to replace the wooden planks and other things. When things break things, we take them to a work shop where we have a team. Our maintenance team can also build things.
About 50 percent are employed in running the park. We have a park host who comes in somebody who comes into the office every day. They put out all the play stuff and open up the bathrooms. They’re the ones scheduling all the programs Monday through Saturday. The other 25 percent does outreach and design for The Yellow Brick Road, plants trees, plant trees, and individual and group skills training. They train community members on how to use email, resolve conflicts, speak in public, etc.
How do you generate deep community buy in and involvement where others have failed?
We just show up every day and keep showing up. Most folks come into a community for a year or two and then leave. And then things go back to what they were. So the community doesn’t trust new initiatives, because they too will leave. It’s taken us nine years of work in this neighborhood, showing up Monday through Friday and not leaving, to gain that trust.
Some 7,500 neighborhood kids use Elm Playlot and Harbor-8 Parks annually. What do these places try to do about works and what doesn’t in terms of play? And, specifically, what’s needed to create a safe, welcoming playground in a neighborhood that has a lot of crime?
If you go into any of these neighborhoods, the first thing is you have got to staff the park. What makes it safe is there’s someone who’s there watching out to make sure the park is clean, safe, and welcoming. Second, parks must be “bespoke,” custom made for the particular neighborhood, so they can then be woven into the fabric of the neighborhood. The park has got to have soul. Most of these new plastic playgrounds that are plopped in from a catalogue just don’t have soul.
The design of the playground has to be generated from the inside out. The community has to be involved and figure out how it’s going to weave into the neighborhood. Children’s play is very complicated. It’s the mother’s breast milk of healthy development. Parks departments typically put in static play equipment that’s only good for physical play. You go up a ladder and slide down the slide and then go on the swing. But there’s all kinds of play: cognitive play, linguistic play, and imaginative, creative play. We have to create playgrounds that meet all the play needs of kids, not just physical needs. That’s why we say Pogo Park is an enriched play environment.
How have the new parks helped resolve community conflict and build inter-community trust? And what do you think still needs to happen?
Parks provide a community space for every human being on the planet. We’re social beings and gravitate toward public spaces where we can be with other people. Just claiming and holding this space, it becomes a sacred watering hole for the community. That has helped build the trust of the community, because it’s a place where people can actually connect in a real way with other residents and families.
You can’t just put the bones of the park down. You can’t just come into a neighborhood like the Iron Triangle and just plop something down and leave. You have bones but you also have to spirit. The spirit is programming, which makes the park come to life.
Now you’re rethinking another form of community space, streets. A project now in the works is the Yellow Brick Road, a “safe, green and clean” route for walking and biking that connects neighborhood schools, parks, transportation, shopping. Pogo Park organized another preview of a full scale 3-D prototype for the community to try out. What is your approach for designing, building, and maintaining this Yellow Brick Road?
We used the same 3-D modeling language we used for the parks, but translated it into the streets. We had to slow down traffic on the corners of the park, as we had some 15,000 people sign into the park last year, including thousands of kids. We worked with some of the top transportation engineers to design a new roundabout. We figured out what the dimensions needed to be and then mocked up a 3-D roundabout model. In the middle of the roundabout there is a hand-carved, eight-foot-tall totem pole the Pogo Park community team carved. Over two days, we let the neighborhood, police, and fire fighters actually drive through it.
We’ve spoken to others who have done 3-D models out of the street, but they never opened theirs to actual traffic. Neighbors could see what is going to be built rather than see it on a piece of paper. They could then add their thoughts right away. The community team, who are people the neighborhood knows, facilitated. Many neighbors, police, and fire fighters came up and thanked us so much for this. The 3-D models really got the community and city involved in a new way. We received a grant from the California department of transportation, and the Yellow Brick Road opened in January.
After a couple of days happily playing the game, my answer is a qualified yes. The qualification: it is possible to play a circumscribed version of the game while sitting at your desk or sofa. But the game is really designed to get you out into streets, parks, and plazas. It got me out into two public places — the town square in downtown Rockville, Maryland, and Pershing Square Park in Washington, D.C. — where I had different yet intriguing experiences.
Pokémon Go, which may be downloaded on iOS and Android devices, is a free, location-based augmented reality game in which players capture adorable-looking creatures called Pokémon. The game is played not from a comfy sofa, but out in the real world.
The app provides a map of the player’s real-world surroundings. Players move outside in order to find Pokémon and capture them using Poké-balls. The map provides a handy way to locate Poké-stops, which are found in such public spaces as public art installations, historical markers, and monuments and contain additional Poké-balls and other items. Poké-gyms, where players unleash their Pokémon to fight, are also located near prominent local businesses and other attractions.
I spent my first afternoon playing the game at Rockville Town Square, a 12-acre suburban public plaza that opened in 2007, part of a larger master plan to create a “daytime, evening and weekend activity center that is easily identifiable, pedestrian-oriented and incorporates a mix of uses and activities.” Not only is it home to shops and restaurants, the square also includes a number of Poké-stops. The large crowd who congregated there on a Sunday afternoon included many Pokémon Go players, smartphones in hand, searching for virtual goodies hidden in the colorful public art.
The game turned into a communal experience as we chatted with strangers along the wide sidewalks. We all certainly benefited from Rockville’s cohesive pedestrian policies and were able to crisscross the square and surrounding streets safely with little interference from traffic. While it may be facile to urge landscape architects to create Pokémon-friendly landscapes, they should continue to design high-quality and lasting public spaces that accommodate ever-evolving recreation preferences and pedestrian safety.
A couple of days later, I felt the urge to play the game at D.C.’s Pershing Square Park, a multi-level park designed by M. Paul Friedberg + Partners that opened in 1981. It features a monument to General John J. Pershing as well as a bronze sculpture of an eagle by Lorenzo Ghiglieri — both, unsurprisingly, are Poké-stops. I spent half an hour in the park on a Thursday afternoon and quickly gathered items from the statues (this is done on the app by spinning a photo of the public art or feature).
After capturing these Pokémon, I found myself with nothing to do. The park was seemingly devoid of Pokémon, no matter where I stood, so I gave up and sat down to enjoy the calm retreat from the noisy traffic streaming on all sides. Tree branches shook in the breeze, and a parade of Falun Dafa supporters marched by. One woman paused in front of the Pershing monument, not to admire its historical significance, but to retrieve items for the game. Once she finished, she quickly walked away.
Later, a family of tourists arrived with cameras. They stood in front of the monument and photographed it and each other as they spoke in their native language. Clearly they were savoring a moment to be remembered later — a traditional experience of a public space that still serves a time-honored purpose.
My experiences with Pokémon Go, and observations of other players, show that the game may not fit the traditional definition of outdoor recreation, but it certainly creates enthusiasm for exploring your environment and engaging in physical exercise.
And perhaps this new enthusiasm for augmented reality games can be tapped to generate more creative designs of public spaces that integrate real and game worlds. Similar games are sure to come in the future.
There are 165 acres of urban gardens and farms under cultivation in Detroit, Michigan. In a tour, Ken Weikal, ASLA, co-founder of the non-profit GrowTown and the firm Hagenbuch Weikal Landscape Architecture, explained that everyone from Capuchin Monks to non-profit cooperatives, university labs to self-sufficient farmers, corporations to small businesses are involved in using Detroit’s vacant lands to produce food. The goals of these efforts are to increase food production “for Detroiters and by Detroiters,” generate new sources of income, and build community. The grand, long-term vision: “food sovereignty” for this resurgent rust-belt city.
A few farms we toured downtown were examples of corporate social responsibility efforts — spaces for company employees to volunteer. For example, an empty lot next to the MGM Grand casino and hotel in downtown Detroit was transformed into Plum Street Market Garden, where everyone volunteering the day we went was wearing an MGM employee t-shirt (see image above). The 2-acre garden produces 20 types of fruits and vegetables. MGM has invested some $600,000 in the project so far, and partnered with Keep Growing Detroit, a local non-profit, to hold some 60 community classes there a year.
Another example is Lafayette Greens, a nearly half-acre garden set in the empty lot where once stood the historic Lafayette building. The garden was financed and administered by Compuware Corporation, which has its headquarters a block away, but is now run by the Greening of Detroit, a non-profit. Designed by Beth Hagenbuch, ASLA, a partner at Hagenbuch Weikal Landscape Architecture, the market garden won an ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award. Weikal said the garden helped start the conversation downtown among everyone from policy-makers to school kids and tourists about the opportunities with urban gardening.
Heirloom apple trees line one edge of the garden. “They have ornamental, productive, and screening qualities.”
Within the garden, raised beds, with smart benches at the end, grow a range of herbs and vegetables. “The beds are programmed like a museum exhibition but for flavor and color. They are vegetal exhibitions.”
Sheds made of reclaimed wood house gardening tools and supplies.
Detroit’s bottom-up food movement was the focus of a session at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). Ashley Atkinson, who runs Keep Growing Detroit, explained that urban farming and gardening is not a new thing in Detroit. In the 1890s, Republican Mayor Pinzen Stuart Pingree, who was elected to four terms, encouraged the poor and hungry to grow food. “He was the laughing stock of the country, but hunger was reduced dramatically.” Urban farming was seen as “low value, low education work,” but decades later, during World War I and World War II, nearly “every major city practiced urban farming.”
The mission of Keep Growing Detroit is food sovereignty in Detroit. “We want the majority of food vegetables in Detroit to be grown by Detroiters.” Her goal is to transform some 40 square miles of vacant land in the city into productive assets. Keep Growing doesn’t differentiate between “family gardens, school or market gardens.”
In 2003, Keep Growing Detroit started a garden resource program to grow seeds and transplants. They had to build this whole system from the ground-up, because “no one knew where to get these.” They now grow 250,000 organic transplants a year that are given away to the community. “We distribute them equitably” through local educational workshops and training sessions. In every district of the city, local farmers lead these training sessions. There are also tool sheds where hand tools and shovels can be borrowed for free, and compost centers where some 200 tons of compost worth $1.5 million is also distributed at no charge. And “we use shared work days and community events to build community infrastructure. Plus, we eat a lot together.”
Her group then formed Grown in Detroit, a collaborative network of some 80 gardeners and farmers who sell their produce at farmers markets and to local restaurants. According to Atkinson, “some $100,000 is made and 100 percent of that money goes to the growers.” There is also a network of 1,400 community gardeners who help bring healthy food to the neighborhoods. They are part of an effort to establish healthy eating behavior among very young children. “If we can introduce healthy food recipes and cooking at a young age, we can impact them their whole lives.”
In 2013, the Detroit city government finally changed regulations so urban farming is now legal. While Atkinson considers that a win, she has a much broader vision: 25 percent of the 40 square miles of vacant land, which is some 5,000 acres, under cultivation. With that much farming, “we can produce 70 percent of the vegetables and 40 percent of the fruit consumed in Detroit and raise incomes.”
Devita Davidson, who heads communications for FoodLab Detroit, made the moral argument for local food production. “If you look closely at the supermarket, it’s a facade. The industrial food system is the site of injustice; the food system is failing so many people.” While she sees Detroit as the “comeback city,” she still sees major issues: 70 percent of adults are obese as are 40 percent of kids. “Detroit is dying from diet-related diseases.” She wants some of those locally-grown fruits and vegetables to be transformed into value-added products like ketchups, salsas, jams, and sauces. Her group’s innovative effort — Detroit Kitchen Connect, which was been lauded by Oprah Winfrey — enables local entrepreneurs to use restaurant, church, and other facility kitchens during off-hours to develop their products. Such a smart variation on the sharing economy, with food justice and social equity at its heart.
And Pashon Murray, a co-founder of Detroit Dirt, sees access to good-quality compost as central to the entire food sovereignty effort. She said Americans are incredibly wasteful, disposing of $218 billion in uneaten food, which is then dumped into landfills. “Some 52 million tons of food waste is sent to landfills each year, while 10 million tons is just left in the fields.” Much of that food waste can instead be collected and turned into compost, revitalizing soils in the process. Plus, “waste recovery equals revenue and jobs.”
She has partnered with GM and Chrysler, collecting their food waste from factory cafeterias weekly and turning it into compost that is then distributed to local gardeners and farmers. To do this work, she hires ex-cons, “people we associate with dirt, the forgotten and left-behind.”
Her dream is to raise enough funds for an “in-vessel composter digester” that will help her scale up compost production. She hopes to realize this in 2017. “Compost is the root of the soil, and soil is the foundation.”
“The battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities.” So reads the preamble to the New Urban Agenda, a draft document recently released by UN-Habitat ahead of its Habitat III Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, to be held this October in Quito, Ecuador. Habitat III, which picks up 20 years after Habitat II in Istanbul, Turkey, aims to help global cities cope with climate change and exploding population growth by offering a global plan for sustainable urbanization over the next two decades. UN Habitat has spent the past year collecting input from around the world for this new plan; their hope is it represents the latest global thinking on sustainability and cities and captures the collective wisdom of academia, non-governmental organizations, citizens groups, and local and national governments.
Here are some highlighted ideas in the latest draft, which will continue to be debated, but will ultimately become, in some form, part of the agreement among 150-plus national governments meeting in Quito:
Preserve nature to build sustainability and resilience
The New Urban Agenda notes that cities, many of which are on coasts or rivers, are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As such, national governments will be asked to commit to sustainable urban development efforts that protect the environment, preserve natural resources, reduce risks associated with natural disasters, and promote economic and social well-being. This is to be done through “environmentally-sound planning, infrastructure, and basic services.”
A very positive step: the current draft gives special consideration to the protection of ecological corridors, urban deltas, coastal areas, “and other environmentally sensitive areas, highlighting their importance as ecosystems’ providers of significant resources for transport, food security, economic prosperity, ecosystem services, and resilience.”
The agenda also focuses on a common issues for cities: their heavy reliance on distant sources of food, water, and energy, and the implications for sustainability and resilience.
While these statements might not sound groundbreaking, they represent a sea change in the thinking on how cities should perform since the Habitat II conference twenty years ago.
Urban form and infrastructure are key to prosperous and equitable cities
The agenda describes affordable housing options and quality public spaces as two ingredients necessary for a prosperous and equitable city for all.
The agenda contains strong language on affordable housing. Adequate housing for all is seen as key to raising urban living standards. Also, cities, the document reads, should focus “on the needs of the homeless and persons in vulnerable situations, while enabling participation and engagement of communities and stakeholders.” This is a change from an earlier draft that some considered weak with regards to supporting under-served populations.
The principles of efficient land use and appropriate density, along with considerations for safety and security, inter-generational interaction, and respect for diversity, will guide the development of public spaces.
Public space is central to sustainable urbanization
The latest draft calls for national governments to commit to “developing universally safe, inclusive, accessible, green and quality public spaces.” This includes parks and public squares but also streets and sidewalks. Multi-functional spaces — those that serve “social interaction and inclusion, economic exchange and cultural expression among a wide diversity of people” — will be prioritized.
Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, principal of Heritage Landscapes LLC, who has followed the Habitat discussion for several years, believes the agenda can still be improved. “My key issue,” O’Donnell said, “is having Habitat III outcomes recognize the critical intersections of cultural diversity and biodiversity upon which life on earth depends.”
O’Donnell expressed hope that the agenda items and outcomes of the conference would make a difference. “Action will rely on the commitment of leaders at the national level in any country, to champion and give voice to the objectives and programs.”
For too long national governments have not provided enough financial support to cities as they seek to transition to more sustainable forms of growth. Hopefully, Habitat III, which will be approved by all the leading housing and urban development officials of the world, will lead to more smart planning and increased investment in our cities, which are expected to be home to 2.5 billion people by 2050.
It’s Playtime on the Bayou Trail – The Houston Chronicle, 6/24/16
“In a serene spot on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou Park – next door to the under-renovation Jamail Skatepark at the Sabine Street Bridge – the 1.5-acre play park is designed to bring natural and social ecologies together for young children.”
Urban Parks: From Dumping Grounds to Centers of Energy– The Huffington Post, 6/27/16
“A major initiative by New York City Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver cogently explored at the recent and fascinating Parks Without Borders Summit is to make parks more porous and accessible and, by extension, to foster park equity, the idea that all parks are well maintained.”
A Bike Path for the Entire East Coast– CityLab, 6/28/16
“The East Coast Greenway Alliance has been working since 1991 to connect the whole geography of the Atlantic seaboard with protected bike paths. So far, 850 miles of trail have been designated as Greenway. The project is about 31 percent complete.”
Open street initiatives temporarily close networks of streets to motor vehicles, allowing people to walk, bike, skate, dance, and hang out. These initiatives enable things that “usually feel illegal or unsafe,” said Mike Lydon, a founder of Street Plans Collaborative and co-author of Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change, at the Congress for New Urbanism in Detroit. But they also open up communities to new opportunities to improve their pedestrian and bicycle networks. And according to Lydon, “people love open streets.”
It has long been assumed that Bogotá, Colombia, started the movement with their Ciclovía in the mid-1970s, but Lydon argued that Seattle’s Bicycle Sundays, which started in 1965, may have been the first open street initiative. Still, Ciclovía was the first large-scale open street network, given some 70 miles of street are shut down every Sunday. Now many Central and South American cities offer the same — at 15, 20, or 70 miles. For these cities, open streets is about equity. “Everyone: rich, poor, old, young, disabled can participate in an unplanned activity together.”
There are now over 130 initiatives all over the U.S. While they may differ on the length of route or frequency, they all reap positive benefits. According to his research, on open street days, cafes, restaurants, and other retail stores see increased business, traffic falls and transit use increases. In many of these communities, open streets have resulted in long-term investment in more sustainable streets. They can be transformational experiences that “open up a gateway to introduce pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements.”
In Miami, where Lydon lives, there has been a 180-degree change in just two years — from a city with one of the worst biking experiences, to a city in the top 30 for bicyclists. He pointed to the city’s open street initiative as the catalyst for the transformation. “It opened up breathing room, politically,” showing people, businesses, and politicians what change would be like without committing first. After that experiment, the city later passed an ambitious city-wide 2030 bicycling master plan.
And in Burlington, Vermont, where his firm now consults with the city’s transportation department, city officials recently used open streets to test out their complete street vision, so people could experience the proposed network of bike lanes protected by greenery. “The lesson from Burlington is you can connect open streets with the planning process and work through all possibilities through real-time demonstrations.” The test was positively received by the 10,000 who tried it out, and the 55-mile complete street and bike plan is now underway.
Here are some of the elements that make an open street initiative successful: “Route planning is key. You don’t want to send people up hills.” Open street planners should brand the event and route and identify a local sponsor that makes sense, like a gym. It’s important that the route crosses “different neighborhoods, rich and poor.” It should be fairly easy to get to the open streets — they should be in a downtown area, where there are large populations and lots of neighborhoods connect in. Local businesses need to be brought in early. “Meet with local merchants and encourage street-level marketing.” Volunteers help keep costs down and they help shepherd people new to the concept.
He also pointed out some issues to watch out for: “If the road is too short, it will get packed quickly, so the route needs to be at least 2-5 miles to accrue benefits.” For example, he said Oklahoma City’s open street route is too compact, so it ended up being like a “street fair or festival.” One of the biggest costs at first will be paying overtime for police. In Miami, they spent $35,000 for the police to control traffic on one open street day, so it’s important to “simplify the route so you don’t need a big detail.” Lastly, more benefits accrue the more often the open streets happens. In Paris, they have it down to a science, so they can do away with hiring police and simply pull out the signs that block streets every Sunday.
“The opportunities Detroit has today are a logical evolution from its past mistakes and disinvestment. To an extent, change wouldn’t be possible without that,” explained Kent Anderson, ASLA, founder of KH Anderson, in a tour of downtown Detroit during the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). He added that Detroit native Dan Gilbert, the founder and owner of Quicken Loans, who has bought up nearly 80 buildings downtown over the past decade, is largely responsible for the resurgence today. “Gilbert recognized the time was right for setting a new direction.”
The city was founded by the French in 1701 as a fur trading outpost. In the early 1700s, the British took over control. In 1760, they were defeated by the American revolutionaries, but they largely maintained control over the growing city until the end of the 18th century, when the Americans retook it. In 1805, a fire started by a baker destroyed much of the city’s core. August Woodward, who was “trained in classics at Columbia University,” stepped in to create a new urban plan — a hexagonal plan with a set of radials, modeled on Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, D.C.
Many called Woodward a “charlatan and a fool; he was not the most popular guy.” But somehow much of his unique plan was implemented.
Woodward’s plan established small parks as nodes. Only a few of these remain today, Anderson said. In fact, so much was lost to misguided urban renewal efforts, which ran from the 1950s to 1970s. “Urban renewal also destroyed a lot of cultural heritage downtown,” wrecking particular havoc on important African American arts and music communities.
Anderson explained the state of the original immigrant communities — Corktown for the Irish, Chinatown, and Greektown. Only Corktown and Greektown now remain. In the 80s and 90s, Greektown offered the “only nightlife in Detroit.” To lure tourists, they created a “trappers alley, with trinket shops,” which failed. They then went in for casinos, which now frame the narrow streets bustling with restaurants and baklava shops.
In rapid-fire mode, Anderson pointed out the fate of many of the towering buildings built many decades ago, during the city’s golden age. The former Wayne County Building, built in the 1880s, is now viewed as a “dinosaur” by the local development community and has sit empty for years.
In the late 1950s, a cornice fell off a building downtown, killing a pedestrian. The city demanded building owners secure the cornices on their buildings, but to lower costs many just removed them, as seen in this charismatic but incomplete flatiron building. “If you see a cornice restored today on an older building, it’s most likely fiber composite.”
Walking down to the waterfront, we saw a prime example of a “fortress building,” the Renaissance Center, which was home to Ford’s headquarters, and now hosts GM. The building, towering and unfriendly, was another urban renewal effort, built in the 1970s. As race relations hit new lows after the riots and white flight, “there was a fear of cities,” Anderson said, hence it’s fortress-like nature.
Henry Ford the 2nd decided to bring Ford’s workers back to the urban core in an effort to “stop the decline of downtown, but the building had no connection to anything. Employees would drive in, park in the building, take a tube to their desk, take another tube to the cafeteria, and, then, at the end of the day, drive home.” Anderson called it a “failed” effort, despite a renovation by architects with SOM from 1995-2000, which introduced a somewhat inviting entrance and interior circulation system, and fake palm trees. “It just looks like an assembly line in here; people seem afraid to move the tables.”
Exiting the rear of the Renaissance Center, we came out at the Detroit Riverwalk, which was created in 2000 to connect the waterfront to Belle Isle, an island park. “It’s highly used, very successful.” We walk through a plaza more-recently created by Hargreaves Associates.
Then make our way to the vast Philip A. Hart plaza, another urban renewal effort, created by SmithGroupJJR with a fountain and sculpture created by the great Modern artist Isamu Noguchi, and another “failed, lonely space,” unless there is some massive event.
Decades of disinvestment in downtown Detroit means that many of the city’s Art Deco gems escaped the wrecking ball, and now stand as beacons of resurgence, as they attract new shops and cafes in their ground floors and companies in their towers. Entering the Guardian building, the tour group gushed over the intricate Native American motifs carved set in the ceilings. But not everyone was awed: a man who works there saw our tour group and said: “I don’t know why anyone come to see this building; it’s so old and outdated.”
Then on to one of the finest examples anywhere of how landscape architecture can drive a downtown’s resurgence: Campus Martius Park. The park, which occupied a central node in Woodward’s plan, was a central meeting space for over a century, but over 1980s and 90s, it was slowly eviscerated, becoming a glorified traffic circle with a statue. In the early 00s, the Detroit 300, a group representing old Detroit money, invested in creating a new park. The result, which opened in 2004 and was designed by Rundell Ernstberger Associates from Indianapolis, is a dynamic 1.2-acre space, often called “Detroit’s living room,” packed with performance stages, moveable chairs, lush greenery, multiple restaurants, and an urban beach. In the winter, there’s also a skating rink that draws tens of thousands.
For Anderson, Campus Martius Park “provided a glimpse of what was possible,” and served “as the stimulus for getting things started, just before Gilbert committed to downtown.”
Walking up Woodward Avenue seeing every storefront occupied by a hip restaurant or shop, it’s clear how far Detroit has come in the past few years due to a coordinated development effort, largely led by the private sector. “What’s important to understand is it wasn’t one building or so-called impact project this time around, unlike past efforts to revitalize the downtown. This time, it is a strategic approach involving many buildings with an intent to connect them with a network of public and semi-public spaces where everything works together to reveal the unique character of downtown Detroit and transform it.”
To further accelerate the process of turning Woodward Avenue into a live, work, play hub that can draw in people from the outskirts of this 140-square-mile city and the suburbs, a new streetcar, financed by the private sector, is expected to start running later this year. Anderson said Gilbert and other local developers, who are turning old vacant office buildings into apartment buildings that will bring upwards of 5,000 units onto the market, are confident “the entire district will soon be filled up.”
Indeed, a taxi driver I spoke to on the way to the airport said he had move out of downtown because his rent doubled in the past year in response to new demand. He believes people need to make at least $55,000 a year to live downtown now. But he wasn’t complaining. “Detroit has been waiting a long time for this to happen. I was just shocked they raised the rent so fast.”
Anderson believes after years of failed revitalization efforts, this is Detroit’s chance. “We’ll see how things go over the next five years, but I believe the city has gotten it right this time. Everyone is on the same page for the first time.”
The panel, which was led by Adam Greenspan, ASLA, a member of the LAF board of directors, essentially worried that the importance of “physical design, which engages culture and nature,” may be lost in the total quest for sustainability and restoring ecosystems. Their response was designed landscapes must be beautiful if we expect communities to love them and take care of them far into the future.
Claude Cormier, ASLA, principal of Claude Cormier + Associates, said aesthetics has always played a central role in landscape architecture. Frederick Law Olmsted was “focused on nature as an aesthetic experience.” For Mikyoung Kim, FASLA, Mikyoung Kim Design, it’s less about aesthetics, a term she dislikes, and more about the “process of creativity, which is methodical and conscious, and about tapping intuition, which occurs on a subconscious level.” But she cautioned that if landscape architects were “too creative, they risk missing the pressing global issues.”
In the context of the overall summit, this seemed like a shocking statement: “We can’t save the world, but we can address some major issues through design in contemporary ways,” argued Chris Reed, FASLA, founder of Stoss. “Design can move people’s hearts to create action.” Ken Smith, FASLA, principal of Ken Smith Workshop, largely concurred, arguing that “aesthetics matter. The qualitative aspects — the spaces, programs, forms — provide meaning to humans. Landscapes can delight, confound, confuse, excite us.” He pointed to the art world, where the “new is often ugly,” arguing that perhaps landscape architects also need to be pushing the boundaries on concepts of beauty. Meanwhile, Maria Goula, associate professor at Cornell University, asked: “do we need new aesthetics or perhaps multiple aesthetics?”
Ecology: Make Ecological Design Mainstream
“People will look at us and this time and say we just didn’t get it,” said Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, professor at University of California, Berkeley, referring to the many dangers facing our ecosystems and planet. Hill, who moderated the ecology panel, relayed how San Francisco’s city government momentarily fell into crisis when a senior official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stated they expected a 6-9 feet sea level rise by 2050. While it was just one official’s personal opinion, San Francisco’s panicked response showed that “stronger sense of urgency is needed” in the push to adapt our ecosystems to the coming environmental changes. “Unprecedented instability is coming. The role of landscape architects is to think out the options and try not to panic.”
Ellen Neises, ASLA, an adjunct professor at University of Pennsylvania, said in this age of crisis, we need to move away from “sustainability propaganda in which ‘optimism sells.'” Instead, “designers need to provoke more.” Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon Associates and major force behind the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), rued that ecology is “still not mainstream in our profession.” He called for landscape architecture educators to “embed scientific rigor in the educational process,” and landscape architects to do the same in their design process. “Beauty and performance aren’t mutually exclusive. All forms of life matter.”
Brett Milligan, ASLA, University of California, Davis, argued that “if we do things to the landscape, they sometimes respond in some ways we dislike. We need a new, relational way to interact with the landscape.” Julie Bargmann, founding principal, D.I.R.T. Studio, urged caution against becoming too all-knowing about nature, arguing that “ecological models are slippery.” And Antje Stokman, International ASLA, professor at the University of Stuttgart, called for creating methods to encourage “direct community engagement with the environment,” particularly in environments characterized by heavy migration among both human and other species.
Society: Diversify and Co-design with Communities
Deb Guenther, FASLA, partner at Mithun, led a discussion that focused on the twinned goals of increasing diversity in the landscape architecture profession and better reaching under-served communities. Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, principal at DesignJones, pointed to ASLA’s ongoing efforts to increase diversity through its annual diversity summit, which brings together emerging African American and Latino landscape architects, but also called it like she saw it: “if we truly want diversity, we need to focus less on statistics and instead recognize and praise diversity and lift it up.” She pointed to the range of African American landscape architects doing important work, often under the radar. Jeffrey Hou, ASLA, professor at University of Washington, added that “landscape architects need to diversify their ranks or risk becoming a profession of colonialists,” coming in as white experts into communities of color.
“Landscape architecture can diversify in the next decade or two,” because just look at the huge gains that have been made to bring in more women over the past 50 years, argued Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, a professor at MIT. She explained her multiple decades of experience helping African American communities in Philadelphia unearth their own landscapes, explaining how “long-term commitments are needed to build trust.” She wondered whether landscape architecture programs, with their semester-long field projects, can truly engage and learn from communities in which they dip for a short time. Jones Allen concurred, arguing that “we have to be careful how we get students into these communities, but it’s important to get them out of their comfort zone of the studio and face real people with real issues. Students are learning.” Allison Hirsch, ASLA, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, was less positive, arguing that “landscape architects tend to avoid issues of inclusion; there are few community-oriented design practices.”
For Spirn and others, the solution is more equitable design processes rooted in co-design and a participatory process with stakeholders. The goal should be capacity building among communities. “Make the design process transparent, not opaque,” argued Spirn.
Innovation: Move Beyond the Discipline
Adrian McGregor, Internatonal ASLA, a founder of McGregor Coxall in Australia, envisions a “new economy that trades in carbon, which will raise underlying values of ecosystems,” eventually resulting in a new “NASDAQ for the environment.” The growing importance of sequestering carbon in the environment will “put landscape architects at the table.”
Andrea Hansen, founder of Fluxscape, wants landscape architects to “move beyond the discipline, embrace holistic thinking,” and embrace open data. But she added that increasing innovation doesn’t necessarily mean “increasing complexity; we must keep it simple when we communicate to expand our reach.” To realize this reach beyond the discipline, Marcel Wilson, ASLA, founder of Bionic, called for more experimentation and risks, even if they result in failures. “We must incentivize innovation; landscape architects have become too reactive.”
Liat Margolis, ASLA, director of the Green Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab), University of Toronto, appears to be doing what Wilson called and Hansen have called for, as she works to create the next generation of green roof technologies. “We need to discover different material composites, bridge performance gaps, and exceed current green design benchmarks through experimental design.”
And Karen M’Closley, ASLA, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, similarly called for a “new set of sustainable design indicators, set-up pre-occupancy and post-occupancy surveys, and capture results in real-time.” Margolis finally asked: “where is the landscape architecture field’s think tank?”