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

Ala Moana Beach Park, Honolulu, Hawaii / John Hook

A Retail District in Houston Reimagines the Strip Mall, One Building at a Time The Architect’s Newspaper, 3/5/18
“Caution and timidity have been the ruling traits of Houston’s commercial real estate market for the past three decades.”

The Future of Honolulu Depends on Its Parks Next City, 3/5/18
“Public parks have emerged as battlegrounds in the city’s response to a changing climate and a growing housing crisis. Could they also hold the solutions?”

Building a ‘Second Nature’ Into Our Cities: Wildness, Art and Biophilic Design The Conversation, 3/7/18
“Given the increasing popularity of this urban design technique, it’s time to take a closer look at the meaning of nature and its introduction into our cities.”

Climate Readiness: Think Big, Act Fast The Boston Globe, 3/8/18
“Until recently, Boston was ahead of other cities in planning for sea-level rise and the effects of climate change before a catastrophic storm like Sandy or Harvey hit.”

In Britain’s Playgrounds, ‘Bringing in Risk’ to Build Resilience The New York Times, 3/10/18
“Educators in Britain, after decades spent in a collective effort to minimize risk, are now, cautiously, getting into the business of providing it.”

The Gateway Arch, a Global Icon, Reconnects to St. Louis CityLab, 3/12/18
“St. Louis’ Gateway Arch once stood in splendid isolation. A new $380-million renovation of its grounds brings it closer to downtown.”

Concrete Jungle Hong Kong to Get Diverse Array of Plants on Urban Streets in Drive to Green the City The South China Morning Post, 3/14/18
“About 20 tree and shrub species can now be found across urban areas but this will increase to 120, with city planners shown how to ‘match plants to places.’”

Michael Sorkin: Eleven Theses on the Obama Presidential Center

Proposal for Barack Obama Community Library on 63rd and South Cottage Grove Avenue, a bird’s eye view from the South, with Jackson Park at the south edge of this rendering / Michael Sorkin Studio, 2013

1. Jackson Park wouldn’t have been my first choice as a location for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC). Better right on 63rd, half-way down to South Cottage Grove Avenue, where the public draw and ground floor commerce would have breathed life back into that dull, desiccated, yearning street. There might have been direct goals to shared vitality: the archive above, and clubs, cafés, and community facilities below to spark the lively commerce of strollers to and fro, equidistant from Metra and El.

2. But the Jackson Park site can still engender happy knock-on effects if the OPC meaningfully disaggregates by, for example, providing artifacts and art works to the Du Sable Museum of African American History, agriculture to vacant lots, a high school of governance and community affairs nearby, neighborhood nutrition centers, and a stimulating array of distributed community benefits, including many not yet imagined. 63rd Street should be the spine, and there’s plenty of vacant “adjacent land” in Woodlawn.

Woodlawn Botanic Garden & Village Farm Initiative. Commissioned for Blacks in Green (BIG), West / Terreform, 2017
Woodlawn Botanic Garden & Village Farm Initiative. Commissioned for Blacks in Green (BIG), West / Terreform, 2017

3. The OPC can enhance the park, activating the shabby streetscape of Stony Island, closing Cornell Drive to commuter traffic, converting acres of pavement to green space, improving accessibility for pedestrians. Even the reconstruction of Lake Shore Drive can be a wise piece of public work that would otherwise never happen. Getting rid of the proposed garage on the Midway is a real victory that offers hope for future influence and suggests that the OPC is open to serious negotiation about making itself better and more transparent.

Cornell Drive and proposed site of Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park / The Chicago Tribune

4. The argument from expense against these roadway improvements might have merit if the cash were truly fungible, assuredly going instead for rent-support or day-care. But does anyone actually believe in this zero sum? This is an opportunity to leverage major improvements in local infrastructure and it shouldn’t stop with roads. Restore the El anyone?

5. Of course, the subtraction of public park space reflexively affronts, but this isn’t exactly Columbia ’68, not an aggrandizing and oblivious act of racial imperialism. A more apposite comparison is the construction of the Metropolitan Museum in Central Park in 1876, built on donated public land with public funds and designed by Olmsted’s collaborator, Calvert Vaux. Would anyone now want it gone? Still, the OPC should acknowledge its effect on the ground and provide, in perpetuity, a two to one local replacement of any green space subtracted from the park.

Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould. Map of the Central Park 1871–72 (detail showing proposed Museum at 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue). From Second Annual Report of the Department of Public Parks (year ending May 1, 1872) / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

6. The preservationist claim from Olmsteds’ original intent conflates precedent and exception. The OPC is the project and commemoration of America’s first black president, itself an exception many of us never thought we would live to see. Obama was from here, an activist here, lived here, taught here, and chose a place for his library here. This seems an exception worth making, a celebration of rarity. Moreover, the precedent for the museum exception in parks – including Olmsted’s – is voluminous and includes the Art Institute, the Field, the Museum of Science and Industry, the St. Louis Museum, the De Young in San Francisco, not to mention the Brooklyn Museum in Prospect Park.

7. A Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) is a formula to compel a subsidy for the distribution of public goods in compensation for both a taking and a predicted effect. CBA’s are conceptually fraught, forced to negotiate the contradictions of their dual pursuit of stimulation and prophylaxis, building and conserving. They don’t always work and Staples – the invariable Exhibit A – is the exception not the rule. Columbia University’s agreement with Harlem’s pols – a deal made behind closed doors — has not decelerated the terminal gentrification of upper Manhattan in the slightest and it was just reported that nine years after the treaty was inked, less than 1% of the promised investment in affordable housing has been made. The Atlantic Yards CBA was a total developer con, achieved by dividing the community and then negotiating with a small minority of local groups who signed on to a gag order to prevent any criticism of the miserable project for which they offered cover.

8. What’s clearly different here is that the CBA is community, not developer, driven. However, its crucial intention – building an equitable, sustainable, and beautiful neighborhood — not simply exceeds its own particular demands but is beyond Obama’s power — or obligation — to deliver alone. That doesn’t mean the OPC’s feet shouldn’t be held to the fire! But putting too many eggs in the CBA basket — and conscripting Obama as savior — downplays the equally decisive roles the city, the university, the propertied, community institutions, and the people must play and focusing investment on defensive redress isn’t nearly bold enough a strategy to truly rise to the opportunity of this massive infusion. Any development must take responsibility for its social and environmental impacts but the South Side needs more than mitigation! Communities must resist the reflexive conflation of any development with gentrification and take a longer, more nuanced view, working for something far more visionary and wonderful through coalition building and an ongoing fight for community ownership and the right to the city.

9. The hope and the promise for the OPC CBA lies is its origins in a broad community coalition, its articulate goals, and its track record, most notably its roots in the remarkable campaign that led to the university’s construction of its new Trauma Center, a win for everyone.

10. Pushback to the OPC is also a displaced expression of rage at the university’s historic role in the ethnic-cleansing and self-sterilization of Hyde Park via its massive urban renewal project and its decades of malign neglect of Woodlawn. But it’s clear that the university is seeking – as it loads its south campus with dorms, a hotel, a conference center – to efface the 61st Street DMZ and reform its relationship to Woodlawn in concert with the OPC and the municipality. How can this be made broadly beneficial? Surely, hands off isn’t the way. How about building the new University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration building on 63rd Street for the active benefit of the people it aspires to serve? How about lending some lawyers to the cause?

Other Plans: University of Chicago Studies, A Master Plan for the University of Chicago / Michael Sorkin Studio, 1998

11. The task at hand is to make sure communities are equal partners in fomenting a beneficial mix that will guarantee existing residents the right to remain and build a diverse and sharing community that especially embraces low income residents and people of color. There’s risk in an othering of Woodlawn by “protecting” it from a potentially magnificent opportunity to flourish but a greater one in giving up this amazing momentum for a just and wonderful transformation. This demands real cooperative planning.

Michael Sorkin is the Principal of the Michael Sorkin Studio, Distinguished Professor of Architecture and Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Design at The City College of New York, and president of Terreform, a non-profit urban research and advocacy center. Terreform is currently engaged in preparing a visionary urban design plan for Chicago’s South Side and welcomes collaboration.

How Can Cities Best Plan for Future Growth?

Model of Manhattan’s grid / Pinterest

The world’s cities are growing at a rapid pace. By 2030, nearly 70 percent of people will live in urban areas. Cities not only face immense challenges related to climate change, migration, mobility, infrastructure, equity, and security, but are also dealing with the problems associated with scaling up to meet rapid growth.

So how can cities better plan for future challenges and growth? Dr. Blair Ruble, distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, tried to answer that question by illustrating ways cities are grappling with the new reality, in a discussion at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco, which was moderated by Gordon Feller, founder of Meeting of the Minds, a non-profit network focused on cities.

First, Ruble said, growth must be accommodated through the right framework. “We have a very good example in our own country. In 1811, a bunch of commissioners sat down and planned a grid for an empty island of Manhattan. They created a framework, and that’s the mode we need to get into when we talk about the future of cities.”

But the amount of future planning needed is incredible. “When you think about a billion people and limited resources in the context of a planet struggling with climate change and migration, you realize this is an enormous challenge,” he said.

A silver lining might be where the growth is happening. In the U.S., where the population will be 400 million by 2050, most growth will occur in secondary cities. “Mega-cities have actually kind of plateaued,” Ruble said. “Most of the growth in cities right now is taking place in so-called medium cities of 5 to 10 million people.” Mid-sized cities’ manageable population size leaves an opportunity for more thoughtful development and policies that can enable sustainable urban growth.

As an example, Ruble pointed to future settlement planning in the Central Asian country of Kazakstan, as well as efforts to retrofit existing infrastructure in Africa and South America. Cities there have enabled government services to be available in self-built neighborhoods.

In addition to integrating a growing number of people, cities are grappling with a massive flow of data. Ruble said unless cities focus on the human component of data collection, they can be caught up in collecting data for data’s sake.

“The actual numbers are not the end themselves,” Ruble said. “Cities don’t just exist to generate data for analysts to play with. Connected to each information point is a human being.”

Issues of inequality should be front and center in any discussion of urban challenges. 

Take Toronto, and Canada more broadly. There is generally a more multicultural definition of citizenship than in the U.S. Still, racial inequality persists. Ruble pointed to a 2017 survey on the state of the Black population in Toronto showing 72 percent of respondents between ages 20 and 40 who identified as Black had been stopped by police; and data shows Blacks are “much more likely to be shot by police” than any other group.

“To address that problem, you can use all the technology you want, but if you don’t begin to get real about the limitations of your own vision of multiculturalism, the technology isn’t going to help.”

Flexible urban systems will be key to recognizing challenges and issues as they arise and adjusting course. “Urban success is not a noun, it’s a verb,” Ruble said.

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

A child plays in Santiago, Chile / Ricardo Moraes, Reuters

How to Design Cities for Children CityLab, 2/2/18
“A billion kids are now growing up in urban areas. But not all cities are planned with their needs in mind.“

Animals Are Using Colorado’s Wildlife Crossings, Reducing Collisions, CDOT SaysThe Denver Post, 2/2/18
“Wildlife bridges and underpasses led to a dramatic decline in animal-related car crashes, according to Mark Lawler, a biologist for Colorado Department of Transportation.

Boston Rethinks the Design of a 60-Acre Park, With an Eye Towards Preventing Flooding WGBH, 2/6/18
“For seven-year-old Ellen Anna Sosa, the best thing about living in South Boston’s Mary Ellen McCormack public housing development is that it’s right across the street from Joe Moakley Park.”

The Case Against Sidewalks Curbed, 2/7/18
“For the past year, the nonprofit Investing in Place has been holding these summits all over Los Angeles as part of an effort to train an army of sidewalk advocates, teaching neighborhood and community groups how to petition the city to fix broken pavement, improve bus stops, and plant more trees.

DFA Proposes “Floating” Affordable Housing for Dilapidated Manhattan PierDezeen, 2/9/18
“New York architecture studio DFA has imagined a series of latticed apartment towers for Manhattan’s Pier 40, which would be able to remain above water in the event of rising sea levels.”

Curbs Have the Power to Transform CitiesModern Cities, 2/9/18
“Everyone wants to work on expanding small business districts, improving health and education outcomes and leveraging data and technology to transform cities (because that’s all the rage these days).

Participatory Design Must Evolve

Design as Democracy / Island Press

Participatory design is “hands-on democracy in action,” argue the editors of the impressive new book Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity. Participatory design (also known as cooperative or co-design) is a process in which a designer actively involves all stakeholders in a design process. Unfortunately, many of the best-known techniques to enable this approach, which have been used for the past few decades, have become stale. This has led to complacency among designers, and less-than-ideal outcomes for communities that need their help. To revitalize the approach and achieve better results, the authors call for making participatory design “truly democratic.” Furthermore, it must become “contextual, open, experiential, substantive, and holistic.”

One can tell the many editors, who are all landscape architects and professors, wrestled with themselves and perhaps each other to come up with a new synthesis of this design approach. The hard work of David de la Pena; Diane Jones Allen, ASLA; Randolph T. Hester, Jr, FASLA; Jeffrey Hou, ASLA; Laura J. Lawson, ASLA; and Marcia J. McNally paid off: the book is a well-organized compendium of proven techniques designers can apply in their projects. Their collective voice is determined and impassioned, which really helps make their case.

The editors note up front that none of these techniques will work if designers don’t have the right mindset when they begin to engage a set of stakeholders. And the right mindset can only come from close examination of oneself — one’s own history, preferences, position in society, and hidden biases. One section is worth quoting at length:

“Once we are clear on who we are are, we can see our position in society relative to the cultural and economic context of the community in which we plan to work. This in turn equips us with empathy rather than sympathy. This distinction is important because designers can find themselves in communities with acute needs that have been repeatedly ignored. Although providing technical assistance to a community in need is a critical role of participatory design, responding with sorrow or pity hampers one’s effectiveness. Sympathy, even when its grounded in understanding, can subtly convey to residents that only the designer’s expertise counts. Another pitfall lies in creating a patronizing process that diminishes the community’s self-worth.” For the editors, only fully self-aware designers can succeed at this work. Furthermore, designers who come in as arrogant experts risk doing real damage.

The book flows through the design process — starting with tools to help a designer achieve self-awareness, and then moving through how to interact with and learn from communities, reach an accommodation between “expert” and local knowledge, “catalyze new visions and certainty about the best course of action,” co-generate designs and co-construct, evaluate and improve, and, finally, how to “exercise power to make community improvements” actually happen. Each section has a few well-chosen techniques selected by invited contributors, which are detailed, illustrated with a case story, and then further qualified with a reflection on how to best apply.

One technique that helps a designer assemble the right team at the beginning is called “What’s in it for us?” Julie Stevens, ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at Iowa State University, explained how she applied this tool to develop and manage a team for a landscape project at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW). Stevens said the assessment helped her think more comprehensively about who should be on the project.

Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) garden / Kim Gaspari Photography

“I nearly dismissed an application from a potential intern, because his essay did not express any compassion for the prison population. In terms of what he offered to the project, I recorded that he had experience with construction tools and equipment. In terms of what the project could do for him, I recorded that this young, white man might benefit from a summer working with women from much less privileged and much more racially diverse backgrounds, which could open up new worlds as he engaged people both informally and through design. His inclusion on the team was validated when I saw him give an incarcerated woman a high-five after completing a difficult retaining wall.”

In the section “Going to the People’s Coming,” which covers how to start engaging with and learning from a community, Chelina Odbert and Joe Mulligan, with Kounkuey Design Initiative, discuss an ingenious technique they call Community Camera: Piga Picha, a “photo activity that helps residents introduce their community to an outside project team, and in the process, to see familiar places through a new lens.” Using the approach in Kibera, large slum of Nairobi, Kenya, they gave 30 diverse community participants a disposable camera. When the residents then got the photos back, “it was clear they were seeing very familiar sites from a new perspective — as spaces worthy of design consideration.”

Members of the Piga Picha group / Kounkuey Design Initiative

The next chapter is on “Experting,” which focuses on how to “transfer the title of expert to members of the community” in order to further empower them and build their capacity to achieve goals. In one technique described by Kofi Boone, ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at North Carolina State University, cell phones are passed out to community members so they can be used to create video diaries. This way “community members can document their place-based stories independently, on their own time, in their own voices.” For a new park in the neighborhood of Chavis Park, a historically African American community, videos, which ranged from 30 seconds to 7 minutes, were geo-tagged to an interactive map.

Cell phone diaries / North Carolina State University College of Design’s Downtown Studio

Smart, proven techniques cover how to encourage communities to prioritize efforts through fair and transparent voting processes using dots and tokens and create a shared vision through citizen-generated collages. Then, Design as Democracy delves into innovative ways to get to meat of these projects — and really co-generate designs and co-construct.

On a simple level, co-generating first involves breaking down the design process into easy-to-understand elements and options that community members can then manipulate and use to create design options. But as they create the design together, the community enters a process that “requires negotiation and sometimes creative compromise.” Through this process, the outside designer can then “actively nurture” multiple designers in the community, giving them agency and authority. Community design teams can also use green rubber stamps to quickly illustrate priorities, feast on a “design buffet” and “collect food (design ingredients)” that can result in a novel design, or place representative models on a mat as part of “animated visioning.”

Co-constructing, or building together, then lets everyone experience the “joy and energy of building,” which in turn “imbues a sense of accomplishment, pride, and ownership like nothing else can.” To avoid burnout from long visioning and co-design processes, the contributors in this section instead call for quick prototyping and making things spontaneously. The goal is to make sure the process doesn’t become a drag. “Making alleviates frustration, anger, and apathy from process without products.”

More powerfully, co-constructing with a community can be restorative in itself. In a project at the Rab Psychiatric Public Hospital, the Design/Build Service Learning Studio at the University of Washington redesigned 50 percent of the landscape as healing gardens and then co-constructed them with patients and staff. Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA, explains that despite the challenges, “the patients commented they found the act of building therapeutic. Many said they gained a sense of purpose, renewed self-confidence and self-esteem, and an appreciation for the garden work as a respite from the mandated intensive and exhausting therapies.”

Members of the design team socialize with a patient / Daniel Winterbottom

The editors conclude that “design is a political act.” And “participatory design is one of the most effective means in a democracy to create cities and landscapes that distribute resources and shape places to be sustainable, representative of diverse publics, well informed by local wisdom, and just.” But they seem to disagree on the extent to which participatory design should be used to actively fight injustice.

While landscape architects and planners should of course work with communities to map environmental injustices, should they engage in conflict to achieve their ends? For Randolph Hester, FASLA, professor emeritus of landscape architecture at University of California at Berkeley, “no truly transformative design occurs without confronting status quo powers.”

But going back to the beginning for a moment: What this book leaves out is basic guidance on to how to find and partner with existing community leaders who are seeking positive change, who have been fighting injustice. How can a planner or designer know they’ve found the right client in a community? What are the tools for evaluating whether to engage or not? And what does a designer owe a client if the client’s goals end up being different from the community’s?

Plus, grey areas around financing seem to be avoided. For example, many participatory design projects in developing countries are financed by government aid agencies, companies, and non-profits with their own agendas. How can an ethical, self-aware designer establish and finance projects in a transparent way that builds trust with a community?

New Maps Show How Urban Sprawl Threatens the World’s Remaining Biodiversity

Hotspot map of Baku, Azerbaijan / The Atlas for the End of the World

At the United Nations World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, next month, the McHarg Center for Ecology and Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania will display an alarming set of new maps. They show, in bright red, that the growth of cities worldwide is on a direct collision course with the world’s remaining biodiversity.

The study, of which these maps are a part, is titled Hotspot Cities and focuses on urban growth in the world’s 36 so-called biodiversity hotspots – large regions where unique flora and fauna is threatened with extinction. By combining data sets of 2030 urban growth forecasts from the Seto Lab at Yale University with the habitats of endangered species from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, the study has mapped over 400 Hotspot Cities to reveal that over 90 percent of them appear likely to sprawl directly into remnant habitat harboring the world’s most endangered biodiversity.

Hotspot map of Tel Aviv, Israel / The Atlas for the End of the World

The study also zooms in on 33 of the biggest and fastest growing of these hotspot cities to assess the degree of imminent conflict between growth and biodiversity. The cities are Sao Paulo, Los Angeles, Houston, Cape Town, Port-au-Prince, Baku, Brasilia, Santiago, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Sydney, Lagos, Rawalpindi, Mecca, Guangzhou, Esfahan, Osaka, Antananarivo, Ciudad de México, Durban, Tel Aviv, Guadalajara, Tashkent, Chengdu, Auckland, Davao, Honolulu, Perth, Jakarta, Bogotá, Guayaquil, Makassar (Ujung Padang), Colombo.

The 2016 UN-Habitat World Cities Report states that “urban and environmental planning provides opportunities and formal legal mechanisms for biodiversity conservation through design guidelines, building codes, zoning schemes, spatial plans and strategic choices, all coupled with effective enforcement.” Through detailed analysis, the study gauges the degree to which these sorts of mechanisms are being leveraged in the sample set of the 33 hotspot cities.

The conclusion is the overwhelming majority of these cities have not adopted long-term planning visions or mechanisms that include biodiversity values or, if they do, then they do not make such planning documents available or refer to the existence of such documents online. A notable subset set of cities such as Sydney, Perth, Cape Town, Sao Paulo, and Los Angeles do, however, and have transparent, readily available, variously-integrated planning documents inclusive of biodiversity protection across levels of governance.

Hotspot map of Los Angeles, California / The Atlas for the End of the World

A survey of the cities’ promotional materials, popular press, and institutional publications also indicates a low degree of cultural association with being hotspot cities, let alone hotspot stewards. Typically, one finds a city’s projected identity pertains to the characteristics of its urban core rather than its peripheral landscapes. Yet, the peri-urban landscape and its regional connections beyond, can not only support biodiversity but also provide cities with the essential ecosystem services they require. As Harvard ecologist Richard T.T Forman writes “you can have a small impact in a city center, but if you want to have a big impact, go out to this dynamic urban edge where solutions really matter for both people and nature.”

A major obstacle to the development of spatial biodiversity planning is also the apparent lack of baseline biodiversity data for each city. Furthermore, this data, where it does exist, tends to focus on wildlife in the city rather than on ecosystem integrity at the periphery. If cities are to properly understand their relationships with biodiversity, there is a significant need to develop and share measurement and monitoring practices that relate to the peri-urban zone and how this zone functions as a filter and conduit for biodiversity.

It is also important to note here that attention to biodiversity is not just a matter of protecting certain charismatic species, rather, biodiversity is a proxy for a healthy ecosystem, without which there can be no healthy city.

The overarching question to ask then is whether the growth trajectories of these hotspot cities can be redirected to avoid the further destruction of biodiversity, and if so how? Having taken the first step of identifying likely conflict areas as this study does, it is important now to recognize and understand the true complexity of the problem. The conflict between sprawl and biodiversity cannot be approached reductively or simplistically, as if sprawl (formal and informal) is only an outcome of economic and demographic growth and conservation only a matter of fencing off areas in its path.

The peri-urban territory of cities is a complex mosaic of different and often contradictory land uses in high states of flux. Indeed, the alteration of peri-urban land is not caused solely by urbanization but is also a consequence of extracting many of the resources required to support cities and their residents. The often invisible and myriad forces shaping these landscapes are not yet well understood by the urban design and planning professions, just as the novel ecology of these lands is not yet well understood by the scientific community.

Hotspot map of Antananarivo, Madagascar / The Atlas for the End of the World

The profession best able to negotiate complex landscapes such as the peri-urban is landscape architecture. Landscape architects work in equal measure with ecological and cultural data to build up holistic understanding of cities in their regional contexts. From that basis, with teams of ecologists and planners, scenarios for alternative forms of urban growth can be visualized and their costs and benefits weighed.

As both the custodians and immediate beneficiaries of the unique biodiversity at their doorsteps, the hotspot cities have a global responsibility and leading role to play in integrating biodiversity with development. It is our belief a better understanding of peri-urban territory, and the forces shaping it, is a prerequisite to the mitigation of further loss of biodiversity. This is not only relevant to cities in the world’s biodiversity hotspots, but cities everywhere.

To that end, we propose hotspot cities come together to form a global knowledge-creation and knowledge-sharing alliance to develop demonstration projects that show how urban growth and biodiversity can co-exist. The hotspot cities should lead the way in making the intent of the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, which will be discussed in Kuala Lumpur next month, a reality.

This guest post is by Richard Weller, ASLA, the Martin and Margy Meyerson chair of urbanism, professor and chair of landscape architecture, and co-director of the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Atlas for the End of the World-Atlas for the Beginning of the Anthropocene, a comprehensive audit of protected areas in the world’s biological hotspots. Research team includes: Chieh Huang, Sara Padgett Kjaersgaard, Zuzanna Drozdz, Nanxi Dong, Rong Cong, and Josh Ketchum.

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

The Automotive Liberation of ParisCityLab, 1/19/18
“For all the attention Paris gets for its transportation woes—awful smog, endless strikes, traffic jams—the city’s remarkable shift away from the car arguably deserves more.”

Obama Center Plans Won’t Destroy Olmsted’s Park — They Should Be Improved, Not Rejected Chicago Tribune, 1/22/18
“As debate heats up over the wisdom of putting the Obama Presidential Center in historic Jackson Park, opponents are painting the project as a self-indulgent statement by former President Barack Obama — a land grab whose slant-walled 235-foot museum tower would blight a park co-designed by the great 19th century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.”

These Future Doctors Are Learning How to Influence Urban DesignNext City, 1/22/18
“A new university program in Philadelphia aims to train medical students to think like city planners.”

Drone Footage Captures Bustling Chicago Riverwalk One Year After Completion Dezeen, 1/28/18
“This drone footage shows the promenade along Chicago’s riverfront, a year after its transformation by firms Sasaki and Ross Barney Architects into a public space with fishing platforms and kayaking spots.”

After NYC Truck Attack, How Can We Go Beyond Reactionary Design Responses? Architect’s Newspaper, 1/29/18
“The recent terrorist attack has sparked calls to fortify the bike path against further incidents, and the state department of transportation, which oversees the bike path, is studying the issue.”

Promising New Ways to Finance Urban Nature

Charlotte’s urban forest / UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

Companies and organizations are buying and selling billions of dollars of carbon credits every year worldwide. Carbon credits are a financial instrument that packages one metric ton of carbon dioxide into a commodity that can be traded. For example, if a company participates in a required, or even voluntary, cap-and-trade system and has exceeded the annual quota for their carbon dioxide emissions, they can purchase a credit from another organization that has excess credits. Credits sometimes come from carbon offset projects, which are explicitly designed to sequester or reduce greenhouse emissions in a verifiable amount.

Carbon credits and offsets are verified by 3rd party organizations, who root their evaluation in standards and protocols. Registries verify the amounts of carbon bought and sold, as well as the projects actively sequestering or reducing greenhouse gases, and help package the credits or offsets. Exchanges are marketplaces where credits and offsets are traded. Typically, credits and offsets feature renewable energy, energy-efficiency programs, the capture of methane or other pollution, or the expansion or protection of forests.

But now, a few start-up organizations are trying to figure out to how to make it easier for cities across the country to turn the carbon stored in urban forests into credits and offsets. If well-designed, implemented, and monitored, these new models have the potential to provide new revenue streams for strapped urban parks systems, protect existing green spaces from development, and bring more greenery to our cities and suburbs.

These organizations seem to build on the work already being done to monetize the carbon in urban forests in California — which has had an established, required cap and trade system since 2011 — spreading these ideas across states and cities where there are nascent markets. (It’s worth noting: after years of dysfunction but recent success, debate still rages on the effectiveness of California’s cap-and-trade system).

City Forest Credits, based in Seattle, is a registry that has developed a “unique bundled credit” — that goes beyond just packaging carbon. Each credit includes “a metric ton of CO2; stormwater runoff reduction in cubic meters; air quality for O3, NOx, PM10, and Net VOCs; and energy savings in kWh/yr and kBtu/yr.”

City Forest Projects makes the case for their approach: projects are “implemented locally, with visible and quantified ecosystem benefits.” Furthermore, individuals, companies, and organizations can purchase credits in their own communities, keeping benefits local.

They’ve developed their own protocols for measuring the benefits of their credits. And on their website, they claim they have solid leads with a number of cities, including Austin, Texas, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to turn urban forests into credits that can be traded.

For example, “we are beginning to work with urban forest stakeholders in Austin to assess larger-scale urban forest carbon projects that could generate significant volumes of CO₂ storage.” And in Pittsburgh, “a group of conservancy organizations has been working for over four years to preserve from development a large, 660-acre parcel of forested land in the City of Pittsburgh. We have had detailed discussions with the groups as they work to preserve not just the land, but the trees as well. A preservation carbon project could help preserve the trees, generate revenues for maintenance, demonstrate stewardship, and keep the many benefits of trees for the residents of the city.”

While City Forest Projects still seems to be formulating their approach and finding a market for the credits, Urban Offsets, another organization, appears to be farther ahead.

Their model is a bit different from City Forest Project’s. They package already-existing “high quality carbon offsets,” which have already been verified by registries, further evaluate the credits according to more than 50 criteria, and then bundle these offsets with “community tree programs.”

Urban Offsets makes the case for their approach: “Our unique offering involves the bundling of purchased third-party verified carbon offsets with tree plantings in local communities. This methodology presents a one-two punch against the traditional methods of offsets. Our model gives you the best of everything: local trees with proven ROI and positive impact that truly reduce carbon emissions.”

Urban Offsets is now partnering with urban tree planting organizations in New York City, Atlanta, Phoenix, Tempe, Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, St. Louis, and Fayetteville. In New York City, they are working with Bette Midler’s well-regarded organization, the New York Restoration Project, and in Charlotte, with TreesCharlotte. They state these organizations are ensuring the trees are well-maintained.

It’s important that the trees underlining these urban forestry-based financial mechanisms are in good health. Given the high mortality rates for urban street trees, maintenance needs to be guaranteed to ensure the credibility of urban forests as long-term financial assets.

Much of Urban Offsets’ efforts seems driven by demand from Duke University, and their carbon offsets initiative. The Ivy of the South seeks to be carbon neutral by 2024. To meet that goal, Duke University will need to “offset approximately 185,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent-emissions per year.” Urban Offsets is the “exclusive” provider of urban forestry offsets for Duke.

Boosting both the supply and demand for urban forestry credits and offsets is then critical to creating the market — and ultimately benefiting the tree planting non-profits, conservancies, and park systems that could really use the extra revenue.

New York City Steps Up in Fight Against Climate Change

Mayor Bill de Blasio at press conference / The Nation

Joining 17 other American cities, including Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Seattle; and Ann Arbor, Michigan, New York City announced its $187 billion pension funds will divest $5 billion of fossil fuel investments. In addition, the Big Apple is joining Oakland and San Francisco, California in suing the five leading fossil fuel companies — BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell — for their central role in adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. According to NYC city government, the city is seeking billions to “protect New Yorkers from the effects of climate change” — covering both funds that have already been spent in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to make the city more resilient and expected future expenses, which are expected to be upwards of $20 billion.

At a press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio said “we’re bringing the fight against climate change straight to the fossil fuel companies that knew about its effects and intentionally misled the public to protect their profits. As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient.” A recent report found just 100 companies are responsible for 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the five identified in NYC’s lawsuit as the largest historic emitters.

Some argue New York City’s action is important and will lead other major cities to follow the same path.

Bill McKibben, head of, told the The Guardian: “New York City today becomes a capital of the fight against climate change on this planet. With its communities exceptionally vulnerable to a rising sea, the city is showing the spirit for which it’s famous – it’s not pretending that working with the fossil fuel companies will somehow save the day, but instead standing up to them, in the financial markets and in court.”

And Jeffrey Sachs, a leading economist and professor at Columbia University, said: “This is a really big deal. Pension funds of other major US cities will follow, I think. New York is the neighborhood of the very big money managers. It’s a powerful, personal signal to them that they cannot keep funding the sorts of projects they have in the past.”

But business groups like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) think these “hyper-political” moves are a “fundamental waste of the court’s time and the taxpayer’s resources.”

According to Crain’s New York Business, NAM senior vice president Linda Kelly argued cities can’t sue energy companies for their role in climate change because “a 2011 Supreme Court decision determined carbon-dioxide emitters cannot be declared a ‘public nuisance,’ as the federal Clean Air Act pre-empts such claims.”

However, San Francisco and Oakland, which filed legal actions against oil companies in 2017, have “sought to sidestep the 2011 ruling by pointing to swelling ocean tides, not greenhouse gases, as the relevant public nuisance.” And New York City is also focusing on the impact of sea level rise and increased flooding and the high cost of coastal resilience efforts.

Beyond divesting by city governments, major universities like Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, Stanford University, and the University of Massachusetts have also committed to stop investing in coal or oil companies. And under pressure from students, Harvard University has also agreed to “pause” investment in fossil fuel companies.

Still, US universities are far behind UK universities in their pledges. As of August 2017, Times Higher Education reports that some $112 billion has been divested by universities globally, with more than half of that coming from UK universities.

Infinite Suburbia

Infinite Suburbia / Princeton Architectural Press

Until recently, our city’s margins were neglected by researchers. Precisely how much neglect seems to have corresponded with the margin’s distance from its urban core, the city’s beating heart and a real draw for analytical minds. But Infinite Suburbia, a mammoth collection of 52 essays edited by MIT landscape architecture professor Alan Berger, geographer Joel Kotkin, and environmental urbanist Celina Balderas Guzman, seeks to elevate the discourse on our suburbs. The compendium is the result of a yearlong study at MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism, and, like suburbia itself, is sprawling, often beautiful, and a bit relentless.

We have, over the last decade, heard repeatedly that the 21st century is the age of the city. But Infinite Suburbia’s editors rightly recognize the vast majority of people who have moved to cities do not populate the cores but rather the edges. In the United States, for example, 69 percent of the population lives in suburbs. Our edges are rapidly shifting and expanding, demanding meaningful evaluation.

Still, the term suburbia isn’t specific; it has a vagueness with which many of the essays engage. Historian Jon Teaford writes about the myth of the homogeneous suburb, noting that industrial suburbs differ from those pocketed with shopping malls or others that serve primarily as wealthy enclaves. The variety of activity present in suburbs today is as rich as the variety present in urban cores.

Infinite Suburbia shows the potential of the suburbs to be both beautiful and ecologically less-impactful / Matthew Niederhauser and John Fitzgerald

Espen Aukrust Hauglin and Janike Kampevold Larsen, professors of urbanism and landscape at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, write about how in Norway, suburbia springs up in the pockets of limited spaces between geographical features. One clear example is the Grorud Valley. The valley’s history and geomorphology create a fabric of land use that contrasts with more traditional ideas of suburbia. In the valley, farmland, residential communities, and old mining infrastructure are adjacent to one another. Nature and recreation were large influences on the design of Norway’s satellite towns, so the path systems that gird these towns create a transition between the city and surrounding environment that enables recreation. Recent developments suggest that inner-city parks are gaining prominence in the valley, though.

Dr. Margaret Grose, landscape professor at the University of Melbourne, asks in her essay the pertinent question, “how can we design ecologically-richer suburbs?” It turns out biodiversity is not high on many planners lists of goals, if it’s considered at all. Grose suggests inverting the planning process so that ecological goals come first. Designing backwards through the planning stages and analysis can help give ecology its due in suburban design.

The expansion of cities outwards in the last few decades and the resultant land use change has been both rapid and irreversible. As both editor and author of Infinite Suburbia, Berger investigates how planners in the past sought to “belt” suburbia with agrarian and recreational landscapes.

But with the clustering of cities into polycentric city-regions, greenbelts are being ask to function in new and peculiar ways. Rather than serving as a container for development, greenbelts can connect regions. Berger warns that they must be employed intelligently and compatibly with demands for growth, or they risk being ineffectual. For some examples of greenbelting done right, Berger recommends the Brussels capital region of Belgium as well as Hamburg, Germany.

One domestic example of a city-region attempting to belt its city is Atlanta’s BeltLine trail. /

Despite the potential ecological benefits of greenbelts or prioritizing biodiversity, experts still consider suburbia the most ecologically-destructive form of development. Consider the growth of the east coast megalopolis, a region defined decades ago by French geographer Jean Gottman, running from Washington, D.C. north to Boston. What habitat it hasn’t destroyed it has badly fragmented.

Alex Wall, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, asks in his essay what a counter-figure to this megalopolis might look like. While his essay doesn’t quite describe such a figure, it does make a strong argument for analyzing development at the regional scale in order to better understand the true ecological scope.