Berms Aren’t Enough: NYC Shifts Course on “Big U” Resilience Plan

East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government

To protect against future super storms and long-term sea level rise, New York City proposed creating a set of landscaped berms around the southern tip of Manhattan, a plan deemed the “Big U.” The city secured some $330 million from the U.S. department of housing and urban development (HUD)’s Rebuild by Design competition in 2014 to kick start the project. After four years of intensive community engagement, the city suddenly switched gears last fall, throwing out those plans in favor of raising the first proposed segment of the Big U — the waterfront park between 25th street and Montgomery Street on the east side — by 10 feet. Instead of berms, the existing 60-acre East River Park will be buried under landfill and its new higher edge will become a wall holding back the East River, which is expected to rise with the Altantic Ocean by 2.5 feet by 2050.

In conjunction with retractable flood gates set within neighborhoods, the park will provide flood protections up to 16 feet above current sea level, protecting 100,000 residents along the east side and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Drive.

At a Dumbarton Oaks symposium on landscape, sport, and environment, landscape architect Simon David, ASLA, a founder of OSD|Outside and former director of the project for Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), explained the facets of the $1.5 billion project, which he said provides both “recreation and resilience in the era of climate change.”

The East River Park revamp is a central component of the East Side Coastal Resilience Project (ESCR), just one piece of what will be wall, gate, and park infrastructure that run down the east side, around the financial district, and up the west side of Manhattan. The east side design team includes Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), AKRF, One Architecture, and Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA).

The area near this first segment has an interesting history. Famous (and infamous) city builder Robert Moses cleared the area of “slums” in order to create the FDR Drive (then the East River Drive) highway and to its west, affordable housing complexes. To the east of the drive, the shoreline was built up over landfill into the East River, creating new park space and sports fields for the complexes’ residents, who now cross a less-than-ideal caged bridge over FDR Drive to get there.

David called the park itself a “gallery of fences,” separating the various sports areas, with few pleasant green spaces. Salt water intrusion has killed off a number of the trees. And the ones that remain are “reaching the end of their lives.”

East River Park / Wikipedia

The new vision released by the city last fall has been controversial. According to The New York Times, elements of the community feel like they weren’t consulted on the new sea wall approach approved by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.

To raise the entire park up, what’s there now will be covered in landfill, which upsets some long time residents, particularly because the city just spent $3 million to renovate it. There are also concerns about the increased project costs. The original plan with the berms would have cost $765 million, while the new raised park will cost nearly $1.5 billion. Carlina Rivera, a councilwoman from the East Village, told The New York Times: “The new plan represents a fundamental departure from anything the City had discussed. The mayor’s office has failed to provide detailed analyses on why the cost increase is necessary.”

NYC parks and recreation commissioner Mitchell J. Silver told The Times that raising the park up is the only way to save it from sea level rise. City representatives have also said they are moving forward on an accelerated planning and design schedule in order to begin construction next year. They have to or will forfeit the $330 million from HUD.

Flood protections are expected to be in place by 2022. But in a compromise with the community, the city will stagger construction so as to reduce impact on the community that depends on the park and all the vehicle drivers who rely on FDR Drive.

The challenge for the design team has been to integrate the sea wall, retractable inland gates, pedestrian bridges, sports facilities, and social spaces bisected by a highway into one cohesive design.

In the latest and nearly final designs, the team widened the important Delancey Street Bridge and created a continuous, accessible pathway across FDR Drive to the park.

Delancey Street Bridge / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC government

The city and design team kept soccer and football fields, basketball courts, tennis courts, but also added an amphitheater, open lawns, and a playground near the north end. “We created more green space in between the fields, creating parks for non-sports people,” said David. Those green spaces will include more than 50 species of trees, much more than the three species there now, including water-friendly black tupelos and cypresses.

East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government
East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government
East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government
Nature playground / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government

Green infrastructure will be incorporated throughout to manage stormwater coming in from the city and FDR Drive. To accommodate major storm events, the park will also include a cistern with a 40-million gallon capacity. “This is for the super storm that happens once every 50 years.”

Caren Yglesias, Affil. ASLA, a landscape historian and author, now based at the University of Maryland, asked David: “what will happen when the sea levels rise and don’t come back down? What will happen after 2050?”

David said the “park will be effective for a period of time, and many lives will be improved.” But the city and team have really only planned for 2050. “Things are changing rapidly. This buys us more time. There is no great solution.”

The Next Generation of Landscape Architecture Leaders (Part 2)

LAF Fellows. From left to right: Davi de la Vida; Andrew Sargeant; Sanjukta Sen; Pamela Conrad; Lauren Delbridge; Karl Krause; Maisie Hughes

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) is helping to grow the next generation of leaders in landscape architecture. At a symposium at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. seven of the 2018-2019 LAF fellows for innovation and leadership, who each received a $25,000 grant, presented the results of their year-long investigations into climate change and sustainable design, community development, visual representations of landscape, and other topics.

Below are summaries of three fellows’ TED-like talks. Read part 1 for the other four.

Sanjukta Sen: Landscape Resilience in New York City

Hurricane Sandy flooded 51 square miles of New York City, killing 43 people, damaging 12,000 homes, and causing $19 billion in property losses. But you wouldn’t think NYC’s policy makers or developers have learned from what can happen when you develop in areas that naturally flood. Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration further opened up the waterfront and floodplains to development, a process that continues unabated under Mayor Bill de Blasio. Just one example: 3,500 new apartments will be built in the floodplain in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. According to Sanjukta Sen, a senior associate at James Corner Field Operations, the “ludicrous” part is that the “net value of property in the floodplain has gone up.”

NYC’s expanded waterfront development fills Sen with both “pride and dread.” Pride because there are all these “amazing new places on the waterfront, which is now much more accessible.” Dread because she worries the city has not effectively and equitably created resilience to rising sea levels. “There are islands of protection that developers can afford but low-income communities don’t have the same protections.”

After Hurricane Sandy, the city quickly mandated that buildings build in protections, like elevating themselves or moving critical infrastructure out of ground or basement levels. But there is no cohesive landscape resilience strategy along public waterfront spaces. One solution is to take more waterfront land from developers for natural flood protection systems that can reduce the entire community’s risks. Sen proposed mandated setbacks and floodwater storage systems and incentives for developers. “Resilience is a social obligation and requires a long-term investment.”

Pockets of resilience across private parcels / Sanjukta Sen

Lauren Delbridge: Rethinking Wastescapes

In 2015, communities had to find a safe storage place for or re-use 117 million tons of coal ash, a by product of coal energy production that accounts for half of all municipal waste. According to Lauren Delbridge, Assoc. ASLA, a landscape designer with Land Design, coal ash is often pumped into poorly-designed ponds that can spill and seep. Coal ash sludge in these ponds, which can span 50 acres, is loaded with dangerous metals like arsenic, mercury, lead, and chromium that can poison groundwater supplies. Even more terrible, these ponds can break their banks, as in the case of the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, which released 1.1 billion of coal fly ash slurry into nearby communities and rivers. This kind of disaster could happen to any of the 735 active coal ash ponds in the U.S., many of which don’t meet safety requirements.

In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined coal ash to not be a hazardous waste product, putting the management of this toxic material into the hands of state governments. Some 60 percent of coal ash is recycled into concrete or grout or used to fill up old mines. Some ash fly is being “de-watered” and moved into sealed mounds that have a protective bottom layer and landscaped cap.

Delbridge called for more “imaginative solutions” for these unsightly ash fly-filled mounds, pointing to educational and artful places in Europe that have arisen out of industrial and waste landscapes in Germany, like Zollverein coal mine complex in Essen, which has been “left as is” and now functions as a park; the Tetraeder on Halde Beckstrasse in Bottrop, an inventive art piece on a slag heap mound; and the Metabolon in Lindlar, which includes fun trampolines at the top of the giant mountain of garbage.

Metabolon in Lindlar, Germany / Lauren Delbridge

Pamela Conrad: Climate Positive Design

Landscape architecture projects can be carbon-intensive but they don’t have to be. Specifying low-carbon materials and low-maintenance green spaces and planting more trees and shrubs helps to ensure projects sequester more carbon than they emit through their life spans. For Pamela Conrad, ASLA, a principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, it’s as simple as doing the math: sources (materials used in a landscape) subtracted from sinks (the carbon captured in a landscape) added to the costs (carbon embodied through long-term maintenance) equals a landscape’s carbon footprint. With this algorithm, landscape architects can achieve carbon positive landscapes in just 5 years for parks and 20 years for plazas.

To spread this approach in the marketplace, she has invented an easy-to-use website and app that will help landscape architects and designers find appealing ways to reduce their project’s carbon footprint.

Climate Positive Design / Pamela Conrad

Material amounts and site dimensions are inputted and then the app calculates the number of years it will take for the project to be carbon positive. The tool also offers recommendations, like cement substitutes, ways to reduce paved surfaces and lawn, add more trees and shrubs, and minimize soil disturbance — all to reduce the time needed to reach a state of carbon positivity.

Climate positive design / Pamela Conrad

Conrad said environmental product declarations for landscape materials will soon be incorporated as well, making it easier to find products with transparent carbon profiles. (The landscape product marketplace is far behind the architecture product marketplace in providing this information).

Conrad believes that if all landscape architects around the world adopted a climate positive approach, the reduction in carbon emissions would equal a gigaton, putting landscape architecture among the top 80 solutions listed in Paul Hawken’s Drawdown book.

Check out the website and app at ClimatePositiveDesign.com.

New ASLA Exhibition: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate exhibition / EPNAC

Across the country, landscape architects are stepping up to face the growing global climate crisis head-on. In 2018, ASLA’s interdisciplinary Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience issued a report that outlined policy recommendations and design best practices for creating resilient, sustainable communities.

The new Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Exhibition showcases 20 diverse case studies that illustrate the success these recommendations can have in harnessing natural systems, reducing carbon emissions, and improving communities’ resilience to climate change.

Some projects lower carbon emissions from transportation by improving access to bicycle lanes and sidewalks and limiting space for vehicles, like the Jackson Street Reconstruction Project in Saint Paul, Minnesota, by Toole Design Group.

Jackson Street Reconstruction, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design

Others show how we can restore natural systems and bring back biodiversity on previously-developed sites, like the Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects.

ASLA 2010 Professional Honor Award in General Design. Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona. Ten Eyck Landscape Architects. / Bill Timmerman

Some projects show how cities can design to prepare for worst-case flooding scenarios using natural systems, like the Buffalo Bayou Promenade in Houston, Texas by SWA Group.

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

Others integrate renewable energy facilities into communities, like the Solar Strand project in Buffalo, New York by Hood Design Studio.

Solar Strand project in Buffalo, New York. Hood Design Studio / Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo

The exhibition is free and open to the public at ASLA’s Center for Landscape Architecture (636 I Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20001) every weekday from 10am to 4pm EST (excluding holidays) through May 1, 2020.

ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture / ASLA

There is also an expanded companion to the exhibition at the website: climate.asla.org.

To put on the Smart Politics for a Changing Climate Exhibition, ASLA was awarded an Art Works Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. “These awards, reaching every corner of the United States, are a testament to the artistic richness and diversity in our country,” said Mary Anne Carter, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Organizations such as the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) are giving people in their community the opportunity to learn, create, and be inspired.”

ASLA is also calling for the submissions of further case studies that show how landscape architects design for a changing climate. If you know of a project that fits the bill, please submit at the exhibition website.

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

Wilson-Lagoon-1260x800
A lagoon is planned for the southern end of LaSalle Park, Buffalo, New York / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

In the Hudson’s Image Urban Omnibus, 5/2/19
“Over the last two centuries, artists have painted, sketched and photographed the Hudson, while scientists, surveyors and others have mapped the river landscape as a first step to shaping it with human hands.”

For Colleges, Climate Change Means Making Tough Choices The Chronicle of Higher Education
“The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation’s awarding of $100 million to reinvent LaSalle Park and to complete a regional trail system represents the largest philanthropic gift ever in Western New York.”

Editorial: A Welcome Grand Vision for Transforming Lasalle Park The Buffalo News, 5/6/19
“The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation’s awarding of $100 million to reinvent LaSalle Park and to complete a regional trail system represents the largest philanthropic gift ever in Western New York.”

Smithsonian Readies $650M Initial Phase of South Campus Overhaul The Washington Business Journal, 5/6/19
“The Smithsonian Institution is inching closer to kicking off work on its massive renovation of its 17-acre South Mall campus, which includes the historic Smithsonian Castle.”

Curator Will Plant 299 Trees in a Stadium to Make Statement on Climate ChangeSmithsonian, 5/8/19
“A large-scale public art installation scheduled to go on view in the Austrian city of Klagenfurt this fall will ask viewers to imagine a world in which trees, like nearly extinct animals found only in zoos, thrive solely in specially designated spaces such as soccer stadiums.”

Norfolk Forges a Path to a Resilient Future

Norfolk flood zones in orange / Norfolk Vision 2100

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willougby Spit / Pinterest

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

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

Vision 2100 map / Norfolk city government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green infrastructure plan for Norfolk, VA / City of Norfolk

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

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

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

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

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

ASLA Is Still In

U.S. Capitol Building / istockphoto

UPDATE: H.R. 9, the Climate Change Now Act, was passed by the House of Representatives on May 2, 2019, by a vote of 231-190. The final bill included amendment H.Amdt. 169 recognizing climate justice and environmental justice, which passed by a vote of 237-185.

ASLA applauds the House for taking bold steps in H.R. 9 to uphold U.S. commitments in the Paris Climate Agreement and for recognizing the importance of environmental justice in this process.

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This week, the House of Representatives will vote on H.R. 9, the Climate Action Now Act. This bill effectively blocks the president from withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement and requires the president to put forth a plan to achieve 26-to-28% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2025, as proposed by the U.S. under the agreement.

The House will also vote on an amendment to H.R. 9 that highlights the Paris Agreement’s commitment to environmental justice for vulnerable communities and for gender equity.

“In the Paris Agreement, the U.S. made a commitment to reduce our carbon emissions and start combating this growing threat to our communities. While some may want out, ASLA is still in,” said Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, Executive Vice President and CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects. “We applaud the House of Representatives for taking bold steps in H.R. 9 to uphold U.S. commitments in the Paris Climate Agreement – and for including an amendment addressing the need for environmental and climate justice in this process.”

ASLA is an official signatory of the “We Are Still In” declaration – a joint statement of support for the Paris Agreement signed by governments, academia, and the private sector. The bipartisan coalition includes over 3,500 representatives from all 50 states, collectively representing more than half of all Americans.

“Landscape architects design resilient and sustainable outdoor environments that can withstand the severe weather conditions and natural disasters exacerbated by climate change,” continued Somerville. “The threat climate change poses to our communities crosses party lines and affects people of all backgrounds.”

The House vote on H.R. 9 comes as ASLA leaders head to Capitol Hill for ASLA’s Advocacy Day 2019, where they will appeal to their elected officials for investments in climate-resilient, sustainable infrastructure.

“In 2016 and 2017, the transportation sector was the number one source of CO2 emissions in this country,” said Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, Esq., Director of Federal Government Affairs at ASLA. “If we’re going to meet the goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, we need more of the kind of policies our leaders are supporting this week, including active transportation projects, like Complete Streets, Safe Routes to School, recreational trails, and more.”

Background

Based on the scientific evidence about the causes and impacts of climate change, ASLA recognizes that global climate change presents a serious threat to humans and our environment. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its most recent report says the impact of a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in global temperatures will “disproportionately affect disadvantaged and vulnerable populations through food insecurity, higher food prices, income losses, lost livelihood opportunities, adverse health impacts, and population displacements.” Further, an internal report issued by thirteen federal agencies within the Trump Administration, stated that “Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth.”

In 2017, ASLA convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience to offer communities strategies for adapting to global climate change and its impacts on human health and the environment. Their report, Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, identified the following core principles, key planning and design strategies, and public policies that will promote healthy, climate-smart, and resilient communities.

The American Society of Landscape Architects is also an official signatory to the “We Are Still In” declaration. The bipartisan coalition includes over 3,500 representatives from all 50 states, spanning large and small businesses, mayors and governors, university presidents, faith leaders, tribal leaders, and cultural institutions. “We Are Still In” signatories represent more than half of all Americans and, taken together, $6.2 trillion of economic activity.

The Case for Climate-Smart Landscapes

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate / ASLA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chesapeake Bay Watershed / NASA

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

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

Green infrastructure plan for Norfolk, VA / City of Norfolk

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

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

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

Ricardo Lara Linear Park / SWA Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isle de Jean Charles / Isle de Jean Charles.com

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

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

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

Book Review: The Uninhabitable Earth

The Uninhabitable Earth / Tim Duggan Books

Global warming may be near a tipping point; even the popular press says it is coming. Some experts warn it will be reached within a decade, others hold out for a twenty-year window — a generation at most. But it’s already in rapid motion scolds David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of The Future, beginning straight away in the first sentence of this riveting and deeply distressing overture to a tragic future: “It is worse, much worse than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all….”

Drawing from numerous credible scientific sources, some obscure and esoteric and others as widely circulated as recent U.N. sponsored or World Bank reports, Wallace-Wells hurls out a flurry of shock scenarios to delineate not just the more conservative probabilities, but also the higher and even scarier ranges of human-caused heat buildup. There is little doubt that devastation is occurring more frequently and it is getting more virulent. The book’s opening section, aptly titled “Cascades”, articulates a “new kind of ….violence….the planet plummeting again and again with increasing intensity, and in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond, uprooting much of the landscape we have taken for granted for centuries.”

Last year’s hellacious California wildfires and mudslides were not an isolated incident, but rather part of a massive threat to global plant life. Forest die back may amount to “….retreat[ing] of jungle basins as big as countries….which means a dramatic stripping back of the planet’s natural ability to absorb carbon, which means still higher temperatures, which means more dieback…”

The human costs, especially in politically vulnerable circumstances, are a consequence of similar accelerations. The one million Syrian refugees resulting from the 2011 civil war were also victims of drought. The World Bank estimates that by 2050 the number of climate change refugees from sub-Sahara Africa, Latin America and the rest of Asia could reach 150 million. The U.N. goes higher – ranging from 200 million to a billion.

Celsius degree increases are a suitable metric in comprehending different scenarios, and they are the author’s most relied-upon benchmark. There has been a 1.1 rise since the inception of the industrial revolution; the rise associated with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2016 Paris accords to year 2100 is 2 additional degrees by the end of this century. Wallace-Wells considers this the “best case scenario”, with ice sheets beginning their outright collapse, water scarcity for 400 million more people, unlivable cities along the equatorial band of the planet, and in northern latitudes, heat waves killing thousands each summer.

Last year’s heavily publicized Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has upped that to 3.2 degrees, even if immediate action were taken to implement the Paris accords. That could amount to major flooding in Miami, Dhaka, Shanghai and Hong Kong, along with a hundred other cities and multiple additional catastrophes. And the likelihood cannot been discounted that a rise of 4 degrees, or even much higher, might occur by the end of this century.

It takes little stretch of the imagination to conjure the connection between horrific disaster and the specter of mass extinction, and many other books have focused on this question exclusively. Of the five preceding extinctions, the first occurred an estimated 450 million years ago, when 85 percent of all species died, and the most recent occurring 80 million years ago when the tally amounted to 75 percent. What is likely to be happening now would constitute the first caused by homo sapiens.

Wallace-Wells concludes with wide-ranging speculations on what it means to be human, and thus self-aware, amidst a seemingly limitless universe where other such life forms may have both prevailed and expired countless times before ours. Here is where he searches for personal consolation in the Anthropic principle, which (depending on how it is interpreted) consigns to the very existence of earth-bound humanity, in the author’s words, a “sense of cosmic specialness.”

This sudden glint of optimism comes as a surprising and confounding about-face, given the preponderance of doom and gloom that precedes it, and yet for David Wallace-Wells, parent to a child born while this blunt screed was being written, the primal instinct to survive and the desire for meaning may be sufficient fuel for his rejection of despair, despite the preponderance of scientific arguments for a worst-case scenario.

This guest post is by Martin Zimmerman, who writes from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he is an urban planner, free-lance journalist, and sustainable city activist.

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

The Absent Hand / Counterpoint Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16-year-old Activist Inspires Global Student Protest on Climate Change

At age 8, Greta Thunberg, who lives in Stockholm, Sweden, learned about climate change. By age 11, she had fallen into a deep depression because of the lack of global action to solve the climate crisis. A doctor diagnosed her with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), selective mute syndrome, and Asperger’s syndrome, which means she is on the autism spectrum. Being autistic, she said in a TEDx talk, means she sees the world in “black and white.” And for her, acting on climate change is a black and white issue: “We must stop carbon emissions from fossil fuels. We have to change.”

Beginning at age 15, Thunberg started channeling her frustration into being a dedicated climate activist, sitting in front of Sweden’s National Legislature every day, during school hours, demanding the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions by at least 15 percent each year. Thunberg decided on such a radical move because “no one in the media is talking about climate change; and you would think they would talk about nothing else.”

Thunberg — who was inspired by the teen activists at Parkland in Florida skipping school to protest gun violence — has herself inspired a global movement of student-led climate protests. Last year, an estimated 20,000 school children held climate strikes in 270 cities. On March 15, the biggest global protest yet occurred — with an estimated one million students skipping school to march for climate action. Organizers estimated there were some 2,000 strikes in 125 countries.

The UK Student Climate Network, which organized protests in London, released a manifesto that clearly relays the protesters’ frustration and anxiety about the future:

“We’ve joined a movement that’s spreading rapidly across the world, catalyzed by the actions of one individual in taking a stand in August last year. Greta Thunberg may have been the spark, but we’re the wildfire and we’re fueled by the necessity for action.

The climate is in crisis. We will be facing ecological catastrophe and climate breakdown in the very near future if those in power don’t act urgently and radically to change our trajectory. Scientists have been giving increasingly dire warnings about the state of our planet for years, with the urgency and severity of their message escalating in recent times. It’s abundantly clear: change is needed, and it’s needed now!”

According to CBS News, protesting school children were united in their demand for a rapid transition to 100 percent renewable energy.

In the U.S., the strike was organized by Youth Climate Strike, a coalition led by Isra Hirsi, a 16-year-old sophmore from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Haven Coleman, 12-year-old 7th grader from Denver, Colorado. In San Francisco, hundreds of students marched from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office, demanding action. And in St. Paul, Minnesota, 1,000 students stood in front of the state Capitol chanting: “Stop denying the Earth is dying.”

Protests also occurred on March 15 across Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa. In Berlin, Germany, an estimated 20,000 student protestors waved signs such as “‘March now or swim later’ and ‘Climate Protection Report Card: F'” on their march towards German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office. And in New Delhi, school children protested inaction on climate change as well as poor air quality, which causes an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide annually.

A recent Pew survey found that Generation Z, now aged 13-21, is equally as focused on climate change as the Millennial generation, now 22-37 years old. Some 54 percent of Gen Z sees climate change as being driven by human activity, while 56 percent of Millennials think the same. These numbers are considerably higher than for Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, or the Silent Generation.

The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres wrote an op-ed supporting the student protesters:

“These school children have grasped something that seems to elude many of their elders: we are in a race for our lives, and we are losing. The window of opportunity is closing – we no longer have the luxury of time, and climate delay is almost as dangerous as climate denial.

My generation has failed to respond properly to the dramatic challenge of climate change. This is deeply felt by young people. No wonder they are angry.”

Guterres said the “commitment and activism” shown by these students gives him hope the world’s leaders will shift course in time but it’s important to keep up the pressure. A recent United Nations report found that dramatically reducing emissions over the next 11 years is absolutely critical.