Jane Jacobs: The Case for Diversity

Jane Jacobs / The Jane Jacobs Estate
Jane Jacobs / The Jane Jacobs Estate

“There is no way of overcoming the visual boredom of big plans. It is built right into them because of the fact that big plans are the product of too few minds. If those minds are artful and caring, they can mitigate the visual boredom a bit; but at the best, only a bit. Genuine, rich diversity of the built environment is always the product of many, many different minds, and at its richest is also the product of different periods of time with their different aims and fashions. Diversity is a small scale phenomenon. It requires the collection of little plans” — Jane Jacobs, Can Big Plans Solve the Problem of Urban Renewal, 1981.

In Vital Little Plans, a new collection of the short writings and speeches of Jane Jacobs, one of the most influential thinkers on the built environment, editors Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring have done readers a great service. They’ve brought together the best of this brilliant autodidact’s compelling arguments for why planners and designers must never forget the importance of small-scale diversity given it results in interesting cities created, first and foremost, for people.

In essays and speeches that range from the 1940s — years before she became famous for The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 — to 2004, just two years before her death, we learn how her thinking evolved and grew more ambitious, but was always rooted in what she learned from watching people interacting on the streets.

In 1958, a few years before she published Death and Life, she writes a thoughtful piece for Fortune magazine, contrasting her experience walking through the liveliest parts of cities with the deadening urban renewal projects to come, the projects she saw as killing organic, small-scale diversity through a homogenized, imported model. Early on, she identified the faults of those vast Modernist urban design projects: “They will be spacious, park-like, and uncrowded. They will feature long green vistas. They will be stable and symmetrical and monumental. They will have all the attributes of a well-kept, dignified cemetery. And each project will very much look like the next one.”

To fight these projects, she then called for urban citizens to empower themselves by thinking critically about cities and then making their thoughts heard and influence felt. “Planners and architects have a vital contribution to make, but the citizen has a more vital one. It is his city after all.” Citizens must go out and really study their city. “What is needed is an observant eye, curiosity about people, and a willingness to walk.”

For Jacobs, walking, and later biking, were central to experiencing that attractive diversity of city life. As such, any transportation plans that undermined walkability, that downgraded the status of the pedestrian on the street in favor of cars, were anathema to her, as we would later see in her committed advocacy to stop New York City planner Robert Moses’ effort to put an expressway through her beloved Greenwich Village. Her writings in the 60s also made the case for architectural preservation, which she viewed as central to the aesthetic diversity that makes cities a visual adventure. For Jacobs, diversity in the built environment was not only an indicator of a vibrant, social place, but also economic vitality.

After leading the assault against urban renewal for multiple decades, beginning in the 1980s, she began to write more ambitious, theoretical essays that explore the “ecology of cities.” For her, this was less about urban ecosystems, but the intricate dance of systems that drive innovation, that make cities the place to be not only for social and cultural life, but also make them critical economic drivers. “A natural ecosystem is defined as ‘composed of physical-chemical-biological processes active within a space-time unit of any magnitude.’ A city ecosystem is composed of physical-economic-ethnic processes active at a given time within a city and its close dependencies.” She again relates the importance of diversity: “Both types of ecosystems — assuming they are not barren — require much diversity to sustain themselves. In both cases, the diversity develops organically over time, and the varied components are interdependent in complex ways. The more niches for diversity of life and livelihood in either kind of ecosystems, the greater its capacity for life.”

Her speech in 1984 on the need to enhance diversity through specific policies that support multiculturalism, which in turn supports innovation, is just as important today. Analyzing her adopted city — Toronto, Ontario, which she moved to in the early 70s — she says: “The Canadian ideal is expressed metaphorically as the mosaic, the idea being that each piece of the mosaic helps compose the overall picture, but each piece nevertheless has an identity of its own. As a city, Toronto, has worked hard and ingeniously to give substance to this concept.”

In the last years of her life, she became increasingly concerned about the future of urban development, about whether diversity, enabled by the many, many “vital small plans,” would win out or be trampled by the forces of gentrification, homogenization, and governmental centralization. In the Vincent Scully Prize lecture at the National Building Museum in 2000, she identified future threats to that diversity. For example, she saw that immigrant communities could no longer afford to take root in downtowns, thereby enriching cities from within, but often landed farther out in sprawled-out suburbs that limit their positive cultural and economic impacts.

She was also fearful of the World Bank and other international development agencies, along with national and metropolitan governments, that intervene in the intricate economic life of developing world cities by investing in major infrastructure projects that can wipe out diversity on the ground. She seems to equate the “comprehensive planning efforts” of the World Bank with Robert Moses. In a talk at the World Bank in 2002, she tells their leadership that it’s best to do no harm — and not invest at all — rather than inadvertently upset the dynamics of a balanced urban ecology. “The minute you begin to prescribe for cities’ infrastructure or programs comprehensively, you try to make one size fit all.”

To the end, she stayed true to what she knew: successful, vibrant, happy cities arise out of the visions of many, not the powerful few.

Collaboration Is King

heatherwick-hudson-yards
A rendering of the proposed Hudson Yards gardens by Nelson Byrd Woltz, with Thomas Heatherwick’s sculptural tower / Hudson Yards

If one were to pen a history of landscape architecture, who would emerge as the central hero? Or would it be a person at all? Thomas Woltz, FASLA, principal at Nelson Byrd Woltz, proposed collaboration as landscape’s protagonist in a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. Collaboration, according to Woltz, “is the only way to realize incredibly complex and layered projects.

“We live in a society that wants chest-beating heroes,” Woltz said. But the practice of landscape architecture offers little room for excessive pride.

“Your project is only as good as the next tsunami, hurricane, or flood. Landscape straddles horticulture, civil engineering, culture, storm water management, and all these systems have to work together. It is a very humbling profession.”

For that reason, Nelson Byrd Woltz actively engages with experts from a number of fields – conservation biology, soil science, ornithology, cultural history, and archaeology, to name a few – as a means “to tell the story of the land.”

Richard Weller, ASLA and chair of the School of Design’s landscape architecture department, noted that the resulting design work is “intrinsically of its place, evidently beautiful, and poetic without lapsing into spectacle.” It marries ecological restoration with highly-composed and relevant designs. In other words, it has integrity.

Woltz prefers the word authenticity. He described authenticity not as a byproduct of a design, but rather the result of an intentional process on the part of the designer.

“We research events, traces, and artifacts of the specific place, then find ways through the design process to reveal and celebrate those narratives.” It just so happens that the history of a site serves as an inventory of rich design ideas.

Asked for a recent example of this pursuit of authenticity, Woltz offered his firm’s work on the daylighting of Cockrill Spring in Nashville’s Centennial Park.

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The excavated Cockrill Spring / Nathan Hubbard

“In early traveler’s letters there was repeated mention of returning to Nashville along the Natchez Trace and knowing you were home when you ‘drank the cold waters of Cockrill Spring’.” So Woltz and his team worked with archaeologists to locate and excavate the spring. They then designed a contemporary fountain that celebrates the water and tells the story of an important but relatively unknown early settler, Anne Cockrill. The spring now supplies much of the park’s irrigation.

Isn’t examining early maps and historic artifacts the natural thing to do when beginning a project? “In my opinion, it’s the responsible thing to do,” Woltz said. “We owe it to every site to look carefully at what was there before we showed up.”

One would think this method is perhaps less applicable on a site as developed as Manhattan. But Woltz received a laugh from the crowd when, presenting his firm’s recent work on the eastern Hudson Yards, he shared that his firm’s research began with the examination of maps of Manhattan island from 1609. This research clued them into the existence of several streams underneath the train yards. During early talks with the project’s civil engineer, Woltz asked, “How does all of the water underneath the site get out to the Hudson River?” “How,” the civil engineer responded, “did you know there’s water down there?”

Collaboration was an integral part of the Hudson Yards project from the beginning, Woltz said, as the project deals with enormous complexities in sewage, transportation, irrigation, and engineering systems. Initially, there was no one entity coordinating those elements. But Woltz emphasized that landscape architects can inhabit this coordination role, as his firm has done.

In concluding the survey of his firm’s work, Woltz touched on humility once again. “I’m showing you the successes,” Woltz said. “I would love to give a lecture on all the failed things we’ve tried.”

ASLA Announces 2016 Professional Awards

ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Underpass Park /
ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Underpass Park by PFS Studio / Tom Arban

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is excited to announce its 30 professional award recipients for 2016. Selected from 456 entries, the awards honor top public, commercial, residential, institutional, planning, communications and research projects in the U.S. and around the world. The winners will receive their awards at the ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in New Orleans on Monday, October 24 at the New Orleans Ernest M. Morial Convention Center.

The September issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM) features the winning projects and is available for free viewing.

The following is a complete list of 2016 professional award winners:

General Design Category

Award of Excellence (see image above)
Underpass Park, Toronto, Ontario
by PFS Studio for Waterfront Toronto

Honor Awards
Framing Terrain and Water: Quzhou Luming Park, Quzhou City, Zhejiang Province, China
by Turenscape for the Quzhou City Government

Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, Bishan, Singapore
by Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl for the Public Utilities Board / National Parks Board, Singapore

Converging Ecologies as a Gateway to Acadiana, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana
by CARBO Landscape Architecture for St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission

The Metro-Forest Project, Bangkok, Thailand
by Landscape Architects of Bangkok (LAB) for PTT Public Company Limited

The Power Station, Dallas
by Hocker Design Group for The Pinnell Foundation

Corktown Common: Flood Protection and a Neighbourhood Park, Toronto, Ontario
by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc. for Waterfront Toronto in Partnership with Toronto Region Conservancy Authority (TRCA) and Infrastructure Ontario (IO)

Grand Teton National Park Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, Moose, Wyoming
by Swift Company LLC for the National Park Service, Grand Teton National Park Foundation and Grand Teton Association

Eco-Corridor Resurrects Former Brownfield, Ningbo, China
by SWA for Ningbo Planning Bureau – East New Town Development Committee

Analysis and Planning Category

ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. The Copenhagen Cloudburst Formula: A Strategic Process for Planning and Designing Blue-Green Interventions. Ramboll and Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl / Ramboll and Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl
ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. The Copenhagen Cloudburst Formula: A Strategic Process for Planning and Designing Blue-Green Interventions. Ramboll and Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl / Ramboll and Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl


Award of Excellence

The Copenhagen Cloudburst Formula: A Strategic Process for Planning and Designing Blue-Green Interventions, Copenhagen, Denmark
by Ramboll and Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl for the Municipality of Copenhagen

Honor Awards
Central Puget Sound Regional Open Space Strategy, Puget Sound Region, Washington
by University of Washington Green Futures Lab for The Bullitt Foundation and The Russell Family Foundation

Rebuild by Design, The Big U, Manhattan, New York
by Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners for the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, Rebuild by Design

Memorial Park Master Plan 2015, Houston
by Nelson Byrd Woltz for the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, The Memorial Park Conservancy, and Uptown Houston

Baton Rouge Lakes: Restoring a Louisiana Landmark from Ecological Collapse to Cultural Sanctuary, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
by SWA Group for the Baton Rouge Area Foundation

Bayou Greenways: Realizing the Vision, Houston
by SWA Group for the Houston Parks Board

Communications Category

ASLA 2016 Professional Communications Award of Excellence. What's Out There Guides / The Cultural Landscape Foundation
ASLA 2016 Professional Communications Award of Excellence. What’s Out There Guides / The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Award of Excellence
What’s Out There Guidebooks
by The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Honor Awards
Roving Rangers: Bringing the Parks to the People
by BASE Landscape Architecture, for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and the Santa Monica Mountains Fund

Activating Land Stewardship and Participation in Detroit: A Field Guide to Working with Lots
by Detroit Future City, published by Inland Press

Landscape Architecture Documentation Standards: Principles, Guidelines and Best Practices
by Design Workshop, published by John Wiley & Sons

PHYTO: Principles and Resources for Site Remediation and Landscape Design
by Kate Kennen, ASLA, and Niall Kirkwood, FASLA, published by Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group

DredgeFest Event Series
by The Dredge Research Collaborative

Sea Change: Boston
by Sasaki Associates Inc.

Research Category

Honor Awards
Weather-Smithing: Assessing the Role of Vegetation, Soil and Adaptive Management in Urban Green Infrastructure Performance
by Andropogon Associates Ltd. for the University of Pennsylvania

Residential Design Category

ASLA 2016 Landmark Award. Michigan Avenue /
ASLA 2016 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. DBX Ranch by Design Workshop / D.A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc

Award of Excellence
DBX Ranch: A Transformation Brings Forth a New Livable Landscape, Pitkin County, Colorado
by Design Workshop Inc.

Honor Awards
Kronish House, Beverly Hills, California
by Marmol Radziner

The Restoring of a Montane Landscape, Rocky Mountains, Colorado
by Design Workshop Inc.

Chilmark: Embracing a Glacial Moraine, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
by Stephen Stimson Associates Landscape Architects

The Rivermark, Sacramento, California
by Fletcher Studio for Bridge Housing Corporation

Water Calculation and Poetic Interpretation, Carmel, California
by Arterra Landscape Architects

ASLA 2016 Landmark Award. Michigan Avenue Streetscape /
ASLA 2016 Landmark Award. Michigan Avenue Streetscape by Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects for the City of Chicago / Steven Gierke

The Landmark Award
Michigan Avenue Streetscape: 20 Years of Magnificent Mile Blooms, Chicago
by Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects for the City of Chicago/Michigan Avenue Streetscape Association

The professional awards jury included:

  • Kona Gray, ASLA, Chair, EDSA, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
  • Keith Bowers, FASLA, Biohabitats Inc. Baltimore
  • Jennifer Guthrie, FASLA, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, Seattle
  • Mami Hara, ASLA, Philadelphia Water Department, Philadelphia
  • Christopher Hume, Architecture Critic, Toronto Star, Toronto, Ontario
  • Lee-Anne Milburn, FASLA, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, California
  • Willett Moss, ASLA, CMG Landscape Architecture, San Francisco
  • Suman Sorg, FAIA, DLR Group | Sorg, Washington, D.C.
  • Laurinda Spear, ASLA, ArquitectonicaGEO, Miami

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

Avenida Atlantica, along Rio's Copacabana Beach / The Los Angeles Times, via Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio / Jewish Museum
Avenida Atlantica, along Rio’s Copacabana Beach / The Los Angeles Times, via Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio / Jewish Museum

A Park Steeped in a Poetic Past Shanghai Daily, 8/23/16
“Suzhou is famous for its classic Chinese gardens, but one doesn’t have to leave home to appreciate the tranquility and grandeur of gardens that once attracted and inspired scholars and artists. This series will visit the most famous classic gardens in Shanghai — a panoply of pavilions, ponds, ancient trees, sculptures, flowers and rockeries right on our doorstep.”

What’s Next for Hermann Park?The Houston Chronicle, 8/18/16
“The designer of Hermann Park’s next 20-year master plan believes dreaming is as important as doing.”

More Images Reveal What James Corner’s Underline Project Will Look LikeThe Architect’s Newspaper, 8/19/16
“A pop-up preview of James Corner Field Operations’(JCFO) ‘Brickell Backyard’ will be unveiled Tuesday next week. The temporary mini-gym and fitness area has been designed and installed by Miami-Dade Parks and Recreation and will provide a six-month sneak preview of what is to come for the Underline project.”

How to Build a Better Skatepark CityLab, 8/19/16
“‘If a landscape architect is designing a space like this, they need to take the time and map land that’s accessible, but far enough away from residential areas so as to not disturb local neighborhoods,’ Saario says.”

Christchurch Dilemmas: How to Rebuild the City’s Heart – Stuff, 8/22/16
“Even before the earthquakes of 2011, Christchurch’s CBD was struggling. But with up to 70 per cent of the buildings in the center of the city scheduled for full or partial demolition, Christchurch has been left with an even larger hole at its center. Christchurch Dilemmas asks, how can the city rebuild its heart?”

When Parks Were Radical The Atlantic, August issue
“A century and a half ago, city dwellers in search of fresh air and rural pastures visited graveyards. It was a bad arrangement. The processions of tombstones interfered with athletic activity, the gloom with carefree frolicking. Nor did mourners relish having to contend with the crowds of pleasure-seekers. The phenomenon particularly maddened Frederick Law Olmsted.”

Brazil’s Modern Look: Why Olympic Viewers Should Know the Name Roberto Burle Marx The Los Angeles Times, 8/31/16
“The great Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, who died in 1994 at 84, has emerged as a mute and minor star, a compelling bit player, of these Summer Games.”

The End of Automobile Dependence

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Proposed streetcar for Downtown Brooklyn / Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector

“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.

Newman called this decoupling of wealth and fossil fuels, which is the crux of his new book, The End of Automobile Dependence: How Cities are Moving Beyond Car-Based Planning, co-authored with Jeffrey Kenworthy, extraordinary.

“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…”

Design Competition: A More Resilient West Palm Beach

Shore to Core / Van Alen Institute and West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Authority
Shore to Core / Van Alen Institute and West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency

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.”

West Palm Beach / Van Alen Institute
West Palm Beach / Van Alen Institute

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.

West Palm Beach / copyright Christopher Faycom via Van Alen Institute
West Palm Beach / copyright Christopher Faycom via Van Alen Institute

Teams are encouraged to pre-register by July 27 (but are not required to), and submissions are due August 21.

Interview with Toody Maher on Co-Designing Parks with the Community

Toody Maher / SF Gate
Toody Maher / SF Gate


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.

The community were co-designers of Elm Playlot and Harbor-8 Park. How did this work?

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.

Elm Playlot / KQED, Nancy DeVille
Elm Playlot / KQED, Nancy DeVille

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.

Elm Playlot / Pogo Park
Elm Playlot / Pogo Park

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.

Play element construction / Pogo Park
Play element construction / Pogo Park

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.

Park construction / Pogo Park
Park construction / Pogo Park

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.

Harbor 8 Park playground / Pogo Park
Harbor 8 Park playground / Pogo Park

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?

Yellow Brick Road rendering / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road rendering / Pogo Park

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.

Yellow Brick Road demonstration / Richmond Confidential
Yellow Brick Road demonstration / Richmond Confidential
Yellow Brick Road / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road totem pole and roundabout / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road opening, January 2016 / Kaboom.org
Yellow Brick Road opening, January 2016 / Kaboom.org

Pokémon Go Adds a New Layer to Public Spaces

Pershing Square Park as depicted in Pokémon Go
Pershing Square Park as depicted in Pokémon Go

According to the National Academy of Sciences, “nature-based recreation” has decreased 25 percent in the last 40 years. The average American now spends only one half of a day per week outdoors. Furthermore, kids now spend an average of only 30 minutes or less outdoors each day, half as much as 20 years ago. Is Pokémon Go — the explosively popular game app released worldwide this month — a way to get adults and kids off their sofas and into parks and other public spaces?

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.

Rockville Town Square via Better Cities & Towns / Dan Cunningham
Rockville Town Square via Better Cities & Towns / Dan Cunningham

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).

Pokémon in Pershing Park, Washington, D.C.
Pokémon in Pershing Park, Washington, D.C.

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.

Detroit Aims for Food Sovereignty

Plum street market garden / Jared Green
Plum street market garden / Jared Green

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.

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Heirloom apple trees line one edge of the garden. “They have ornamental, productive, and screening qualities.”

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

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.”

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Sheds made of reclaimed wood house gardening tools and supplies.

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

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.”

Keep Growing Detroit education and transplant distribution / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit education and transplant distribution / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit family demonstration garden / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit family demonstration garden / Keep Growing Detroit

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.”

Grown in Detroit produce at Eastern Market, Detroit / Seed sow grow
Grown in Detroit produce at Eastern Market, Detroit / Seed sow grow

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.”

Urban farm, Detroit / Jared Green
Urban farm, Detroit / Jared Green

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.

Devita Davidson, Detroit Kitchen Connect / Be a localist.org
Devita Davidson, Detroit Kitchen Connect / Be a localist.org

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.”

Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / Twenty Ten Club
Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / Twenty Ten Club

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.”

Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / The Detroit Hub
Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / The Detroit Hub

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.”

Habitat III: Towards a Vision for Sustainable Cities

habitat3
Habitat III / UN Habitat

“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.