Where Will Climate Migrants Go?

Urban farm in Braddock, Pennsylvania / iStock Images

We are living where we shouldn’t be living. In more communities across the U.S., climate change is causing flooding, wildfires, extreme heat, and sea level rise. According to a group at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU)’s Virtual Gathering, one solution is for communities threatened with climate impacts to move to “receiver cities.” The hollowed-out “legacy” cities and small towns of the Midwest could become new homes for displaced climate migrants because they have solid infrastructure, many open lots and empty homes, access to water, and lower risks of climate change-driven weather impacts.

But more planning is certainly needed to ready receiver cities for a possible influx of migrants from coastal communities, particularly cities like Miami, which are experiencing rising sea levels and flooding, and desert communities in the Southwest, which are battling drought and reduced water supplies.

Legacy cities are former industrial communities that have fallen on hard times. Dan Baisden, a midwest urban planner, said these mid-sized cities in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, have experienced major population declines, job losses, and increased concentrations of poverty. “Braddock, Pennsylvania has seen a 90 percent drop in population, and Johnstown, Ohio, a 70 percent drop.” While these legacy cities may be good places for climate migrants, they also aren’t “fully ready to accept them.” Through the CNU Legacy Labs project, he is helping these cities devise climate adaptation plans that “build density and social structures.”

There are other planning efforts underway to help guide migrants to receiver cities. Scott Bernstein, founder and director emeritus of innovation at the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), is developing a series of urban climate action plans, mapping instances of extreme heat, drought, and flooding. He has located the places with the highest and lowest frequencies of severe weather, heavy water events, and bearing winds. His goal is to identify the communities with the lowest risk of climate dangers.

Similarly, architect and urban designer Dhiru Thadani is examining development patterns of 120 small cities in the U.S., including dozens of small towns, to determine which could best expand to handle population growth and a large influx of climate migrants. He noted that the U.S. population is expected to grow by 100 million by 2050.

With new urbanists Andrés Duany and Paul Crabtree, Korkut Onaran, principal of PEL•ONA Architects & Urbanists is writing a book on “directives for enabling adaptation” aimed at federal and state policymakers. The book calls for a new federal policy-making framework, an Adaptation Enabling Act in the vein of the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act of 1924 and the Standard City Planning Enabling Act of 1928, which devolved powers to local communities to zone and plan. A proposed Adaptation Enabling Act would give states and local governments the power to generate strategies to address climate change.

Large influxes of climate migrants could happen sooner than expected. Patty Steinschneider, president of Gotham Design & Community Development, asked us to envision 100,000 people moving north from Brooklyn, New York, in the immediate aftermath of some major natural disaster like Superstorm Sandy. Communities near Brooklyn need to plan for emergency receivership as well as a potential long-term permanent influx. Just as many who have fled cities because of COVID-19 will not return, not all climate migrants will be able to or want to return to their original communities.

Baisden noted for a community like Toledo, Ohio, which has a very small planning staff that is already overrun with existing responsibilities, planning for a rapid influx of, say, just 100 families would be very challenging. “They have no long-term planning capacity. We instead need to work directly with communities on the ground.” Onaran said communities could possibly designate “receiving zones.”

For Jesse Carpentier with ICLEI USA, the case for long-range climate adaptation planning needs to be better made. “People act on emotions rather than logic. Immediate gratification will always be more appealing than long-term benefits.” So these planning efforts, which have a multi-decade horizon, need to bolster stakeholders through short-term incentives like awards, recognition, and certificates, “which really do work.” Adaptation efforts must also have “tangible co-benefits” for communities in the form of economic gains and aesthetic improvements.

So what can potential receiver communities do to prepare for both climate change and incoming climate migrants? Recommendations included creating comprehensive policies that incentivize migration, developing plans for reusing and adapting existing community assets, and investing in green infrastructure and planting thousands of trees. Communities can also let others know they are open and welcoming of climate migrants.

Prisca Weems, a founding partner with interdisciplinary firm Future Proof, noted that climate migrants will not just an issue within the U.S. A 2018 report from the World Bank finds that 143 million people are now already migrating in-country each year.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (June 16-30)

Phase Shifts Park, Taiwan by mosbach paysagistes / Landezine

Winners of LILA 2020 Announced — 06/30/20, Landezine
“Jury members completed their task and selected recognition in 6 categories: public landscapes, infrastructure projects, residential project, private residential gardens, playgrounds + schools, and hospitality landscapes. There were over 280 entries this year.”

Landscape Architecture Professor Empowers Through Inclusive Approach to Design and Engagement — 06/28/20, Augusta Free Press
“Some designers from the past refused to design for the people and refused to treat them with dignity and respect. We need courageous designers now who are going to push forward to solve real problems and intervene against historical systems of oppression.”

How Uber Turned a Promising Bikeshare Company Into Literal Garbage — 06/23/20, Vice
“In cities with high rates of theft or vandalism, the same people hired to retrieve, charge, and fix bikes were also responsible for recovering stolen ones, an occasionally dicey proposition.”

Rising Seas Threaten an American Institution: The 30-Year Mortgage — 06/19/20, The New York Times
“Home buyers are increasingly using mortgages that make it easier for them to stop making their monthly payments and walk away from the loan if the home floods or becomes unsellable or unlivable.”

People of Color Account for Majority of Coronavirus Infections, New CDC Study Says — 06/16/20, Yahoo News
“Latinos represent 18.3 percent of the population, according to the last census of the American population, conducted a decade ago. But the CDC found that they suffered 33 percent of the coronavirus infections in the cohort covered by the study.”

Interview with Walter Hood: Black Landscapes Matter

Walter Hood, ASLA / Hood Design Studio

Walter Hood, ASLA, is the creative director and founder of Hood Design Studio in Oakland, California. He is also a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and lectures on professional and theoretical projects nationally and internationally. He is a recipient of the 2017 Academy of Arts and Letters Architecture Award, 2019 Knight Public Spaces Fellowship, 2019 MacArthur Fellowship, and 2019 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.

An estimated 1,000 people are killed while being arrested by the police in the U.S. each year. According to studies, young black men are killed by the police between nine and 16 times the rate of other groups, and black people overall are killed at three times the rate of whites. Furthermore, the U.S. leads the world in killings by police. Canada, which also has high gun ownership rates, has less than one-seventh the rate of police killings of civilians. Many European countries count just a few deaths by police each year.

What change do you think can result from the killing of George Floyd by the police and the Black Lives Matter protest movement against racial injustice and police violence? The movement has become global and supported by millions of people.

That’s a hard question. My first response is that we’ve been here before. In light of the pandemic and other things, I’m really hesitant to say there’s going to be some major changes in the way black people are regarded and accepted in our society. We’ve had these moments before.

What makes it really hard, as a person of color, is understanding our history. In my short life — I’m in my early 60s — I grew up in a segregated neighborhood. My school was integrated when I was in junior high. For the first time, at age 13 or 14, I started living with other people who didn’t look like me.

That’s the hardest and most difficult thing we’re not talking about: the racial construction of this country. We’ve only had 50 plus years where we’ve actually lived together in an integrated way. We have close to 300 plus years of living separately. So the idea that we can just all of a sudden flip the switch and people will change and accommodate the “other,” it’s a really tough one.

I don’t think we’re asking the right questions. You’ve listed these facts and metrics. Why are these numbers so high? When one looks back, why are we still policed in similar ways? Why are people of color harmed at a greater frequency?

In a country that was “separate but equal,” there had to be an institution to keep that separation and keep people in their place. We have had close to 100 years of the Jim Crow institution, keeping us in a subservient place. This is U.S. culture. Even post integration, we still have to look at these institutions, which go back to the founding and the development of the country. You can’t separate the two. We would like to, but they’re inextricably tied together.

It’s important to allow these issues and histories to come to a greater light and clarity, because now more people are interested in trying to understand this predicament than I’ve ever seen in any point in my life. The pandemic has a lot to do with it. People are thinking about the future. Everything is unsettled at this moment, and all the pieces have come together. It’s the perfect storm.

Black Landscapes Matter, a book you co-edited with Grace Mitchell Tada, which will be published November, came out of a lecture series you initiated in 2016 following police killings. In your book, TED Talk, and other writings, you have called for planning and designing landscapes that allow for a diversity of narratives and perspectives, instead of homogenized landscapes that just say one thing to one group of people. How do you bring out these different memories and histories in a landscape?

After the spree of police killings in 2016, we wanted to bring together people who could articulate different voices in the black community. I wanted the book to articulate what’s missing in how we design for other narratives, which is about difference. I say difference, not diversity — it’s about different ways of interpreting the world. When one puts out multiple narratives, they challenge the singular and its maintenance.

I’m thinking a lot these days about difference and sameness. Colonialism is about sameness. It takes difference and makes it into sameness. It does that to promote and maintain its construction. W.J.T. Mitchell talks about a double reading of landscape, a double semiotic.

Colonization is happening inside the colony, as ideologies are projected outside the colony. Our projection — America, home of the free, and the brave, diversity for all, “all men are created equal” — is sent out to the world. The Statue of Liberty, “give me your tired…” — all of these things. But inside, we’re being re-colonized to keep that narrative intact.

But that narrative is being torn. People are looking for other ways to see themselves and others around them. So in Black Landscapes Matter, we talk about different story lines.

If more people are aware of what is part of their environment, not just today but yesterday, and possibly even tomorrow, we’d have a different way of thinking about the world. In so many spaces in this country, something happened! It has not always been vacant and desolate, places exist! Placemaking is re-colonizing. Something is always there if you are interested in it.

Many of your projects are specifically focused on unearthing hidden layers, creating spaces for multiple consciousness. The International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, tells the story of slaves arriving in the port of Charleston and their descendants. A master plan for the Rosa Parks neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan, explores the history of the movement for racial equality. Double Sights, a public art piece at Princeton University, expands the interpretation of the many sides of former Princeton and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Navigating through all these layers of history, how do you get to the essentials and make planning and design decisions that really resonate?

For me, it’s the willingness to want to unearth. Your previous question had to do with memory and history, which is a little different than unearthing.

Sometimes places are palimpsests, meaning part of the brick and mortar, and some of them are based in memories, the passing of time. For people of color who are marginalized, stories get lost. Each project is fraught with chance. I am not trying to solve a problem, per se. I’m trying to put something out in the world that has been covered up, erased, which might allow people to see the world and themselves in a different way.

Privilege at times only produces singular narratives, which is what happened with the Woodrow Wilson project. The students at Princeton still want his name off the building, so the piece has not resolved the issue. But what I hope the piece does is allow that issue to always be there. If someone at Princeton University said “remove the name of Wilson,” then the piece wouldn’t exist.

Double Sights at Princeton University / Hood Design Studio

With the International African American Museum, there are clear, bold design statements. How do you really focus in on certain aspects of history and tell a broader story through design?

The design decisions for the landscape are very personal and I am consciously having conversations with those before me. I approached the Woodrow Wilson project through the narrative of W.E.B. DuBois, who has always been part of my thinking as a black man, and his idea of double consciousness. That gave me a point of view to criticize Wilson.

As for the International African American Museum in Charleston, the final was not the boldest design. We developed 29 different designs and worked through each one with the community. From my personal point of view, I wanted to put out imagery that had never been put out before. I took it upon myself to push the community. The Black Body in Space is something that really intrigued me conceptually.

International African American Museum / Hood Design Studio
International African American Museum / Hood Design Studio

For the Rosa Parks neighborhood in Detroit, I approached the project, again through history and identity. I’ve spent years with my peoples’ history. My research and design work has lived with these histories — not just American history but the history of black America.

Master plan for Rosa Parks neighborhood in Detroit / Hood Design Studio

Returning back to your larger question: I could have gone through practice with no interest in black history. I could have just accepted the privileged position of the designer. I could just work in the very homogeneous/standardized manner in which the profession trained me.

In my early years, that was really all I had to rely on, until I got to a point where it felt like something was missing. What was missing was myself. I did not see myself anywhere in landscape architecture, architecture, or planning. At the offices I worked, these ideas just didn’t exist. I had to create a context for my ideas to bear fruit, so I situated myself in the rigorous, intellectual world of academia and developed an art practice. This is what I’ve been doing the last 30 years.

Do you think because you’ve found yourself in your work, people can find themselves in it, too? Is that what creates a sense of resonance, when someone sees your work and connects with it?

No, they actually hear a different voice, which again, is playing off the homogeneous. Early on, I noticed the design decisions I was making were different than the decisions other people were making. I didn’t acquaint them because I’m black. It’s because of my advocacy for and interest in people and the particular places that they live, which comes from my experience of being black.

Very early, one of my projects in a disinvested neighborhood involved planting an allee of a hundred and fifty flowering trees at one time along a decomposed granite walkway. This was 30 years ago, and people weren’t doing stuff like that. To me, I wanted color to manifest in a bold way in a place that didn’t have color.

Those design choices came out of me seeing a black community in need of something. As a person making landscapes, that is what I could give them. I always go back that very simple act — that purity of impulse one has in a place where you’re engaged but also giving of yourself. And this relates to the questions: what are you feeding yourself? Where’s the inspiration coming from?

I try to bring in as much culture as I can to the work, which can offer multiple narratives and layers. I’m really not interested in singular gestures, but multiplicities.

People are yearning for difference. I just recently stopped using diversity and started using difference, because diversity is not really about difference. Difference is about opposition. Opposition is good. Double negatives are good. They exist in our world.

The doubles begin to tell stories we don’t tell. We see it in the language that is manifest over time by culture. You’ll see spaces given double negative terms, like Plaza Park. I was in San Jose, California, when Hargreaves was working on Plaza Park. I was like, “Plaza Park? Oh, this is interesting. Why does it have both?” If you go and look at the history, you know why it has two. These are the kinds of things people create over time through naming, adopting. Landscapes have a language.

If we’re critical enough, we can begin to read the landscape in different ways. Once you do, it changes you forever. There’s no way to go back.

Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the city government have painted “Black Lives Matter” in street-bounding yellow letters down 16th Street, NW in front of Lafayette Square and the White House. This was widely viewed as a response to President Trump’s order to teargas protesters and close off Lafayette Square — a key protest space and site of a former slave market — from public access. How do you unpack everything going on in that space? What is the role of public space in the protest movement?

In the history of this country, streets have been that number one space for protests. We can go back to women’s suffrage and civil rights. The streets are the public domain. In D.C., what’s public and what’s federal? That’s the interesting dichotomy in D.C. Lafayette Square, which is federal, gets acted upon differently than the city public. When I heard that, I was like, wow, I didn’t know the President had dominion over that particular space.

Protesting has always taken place in the public realm. You can go back to Kelly Ingram Park and the Edmond Pettus bridge. These are my first memories: people protesting in the streets. This is nothing new. The marking, particularly with the branding, might be something new, a kind of guerilla tactic. I applaud the mayor for doing it, because she was able to demark a space. People are calling it the plaza, but again, this it is about nomenclature. I applaud her for marking a space that was taken away from her.

Black Lives Matter Plaza / Photo By Bill Clark, CQ Roll Call via AP Images, Assisted by City of DC

Lafayette Square, like a lot of public squares, was among the first public parks in our country. They were also places where atrocious things happened in our country like slavery auctions, so they’re on hallowed ground to a degree. If we’re interested in changing how we think of ourselves, we can also be critical of the places where we’re actually protesting. To me, that could give credence to, or help articulate, issues we’re facing, particularly with the pandemic.

We know most low-income areas have higher cases of COVID, which you could also probably correlate to redlining policies and expulsive zoning, which was an institutional pre- and post-war planning practice. Redlined landscapes are still the same today if we are still in them.

Public safety is important. People should be allowed to use the spaces we have seen over the past few weeks, whether it’s the I-5 in L.A. or bridges in Minneapolis. These are spaces the public pays for.

You have equated the value of environmental diversity with that of social and racial diversity. Just as land comprised of diverse ecosystems are more sustainable and resilient, racially diverse or different communities also increase social sustainability and resilience. How can the fight for racial equality and justice support efforts to combat climate change and vice-versa? What are the connections?

The first connection one might think about is duplication. There really are two Americas, and we’re actually trying to support both of them, not equally though. There’s one America for one group of people and another for the other. It’s just not sustainable, because we’re having to spend more money on communities that are different, which is a result of the after-effect of not investing in these places in the first place. How to make communities more racially diverse is our next challenge.

We’ve been talking recently about a few new mixed-income housing projects in Oakland, California. When we think of mixed incomes, we think race, right? We can think of brown people, low-income; non-brown people, higher incomes. What might allow them to share the same space? That’s the question we’re beginning to ask. It comes back to public space, right?

We can develop parks and other types of landscapes that are more integrated into peoples’ patterns and practices, so they can begin to share space. The architectural question is a bit more difficult, because a lot of that is driven through the market.

As for environmental diversity, I’ve lately returned to reading Olmsted and early Central Park history. In Go Tell It On the Mountain, written by James Baldwin, he describes an experience in Central Park one day. He goes to this hill. It’s his favorite hill. When he gets to the top of that hill, having walked from Harlem to Central Park, with all the white eyes upon him, he’s king of the world. He could do anything. He’s standing there looking out to Manhattan. He’s on this hill in the middle of nature, and he could do anything, and then slowly reality comes back to him. He descends the hill and runs into an older white guy. Immediately, he’s about to apologize, but instead the man smiles. That moment is how I think about what landscape can do. In a certain way, how do we put ourselves together in a place where there is no label or stereotype of the other? That’s really tough to do, as we recently saw with that woman in the Ramble.

Gentrification of urban Black and brown communities most often results in their displacement. Some communities have viewed efforts to add new green space and trees to their communities as a gentrifying agent. So one response has been the “just green enough” design movement, which calls for adding green amenities but not to the extent that they would raise property values. What is your take? What approaches work best to stop displacement? And how do you think the protest movement can change conversations in communities where gentrification is happening?

All communities should be healthy. If we have the opportunity to increase biomass and improve the public-realm facilities in any community, we should do it. The fear of making something better particularly for those most vulnerable — really.

We should look at the issues that create the vulnerability. In many places, you have a high percentage of renters and low ownership. Some places you have little to no tax base. You have these institutional issue that don’t help. The first steps in some places are to figure out new and diverse housing types, increase ownership, and stabilize communities.

When communities were most healthy, successful, richest — whatever word you want to use to characterize them– they were diverse places. West Oakland has the moniker of having always been an African-American neighborhood. If you review its early formation, people came here because it was the western terminus of the railroad. Different communities of people worked and lived here: Latinos, Hispanics, African-Americans, Portuguese, Italians, etc. Post-war we see white flight, and then desegregation. First immigrant and then middle-class African Americans had opportunities to move into the places that whites had left. We then abandoned those redlined neighborhoods and left the most vulnerable.

That’s the dynamic of the city. We have to articulate these dynamics to communities in which we work and help them understand these processes.

I live in an area that was once redlined. There are single-family houses mixed with light industrial. It’s a pretty diverse, mixed neighborhood. Next to my building, there was no green space at all. People reacted to vacantness in various ways, which was to tag the walls, dump garbage or leave abandoned elements. I took it upon myself and started planting trees and shrubs adjacent the building. My little piece is the greenest part of the block.

What’s been refreshing and a reminder is watching how people reacted. Almost every day, the neighbor across the street tells me how great it is to see the green. People walk on my side of the street, and the behavior has changed. These are just little things that I just think we forget.

Part of our job is to help educate communities in which we’re working, based on shared knowledge. We can build an infrastructure to help with change, because change is going to happen. Cities are dynamic.

Very early in my career, I had a conversation with a black family here in the East Oakland neighborhood about moving out of the city. They wanted to move to the suburbs because the schools were better, and the crime was lower. I couldn’t change any of that from my position.

So the issues become more structural. We have to improve these basic infrastructures like public education and environmental factors. In many of the places where gentrification happens, they’re so easy to topple because all of the infrastructure is eroded.

In 2013, ASLA’s member leadership made diversifying the profession a top organizational priority. The number of diverse people entering the profession remains stubbornly low. The high cost of landscape architecture degree programs and lack of alternative degree programs are issues. So is the lack of diverse landscape architects who can advocate for the profession in diverse communities. What do you think are the most important steps that can be taken to bring more black and brown young people into the profession?

Landscape architects: just set the example. Make it interesting for people of color, so they want to come into the profession. This means you have to change the narrative. Reach out, do the work. Approach the way we make things through a cultural lens. Look for difference, so people might get excited by seeing and experiencing something that has them in mind.

Throw away the stereotypical and the feel good tropes — basketball, barbeques, community gardens. It would be attractive for people to say, “wow, this is how I can improve my neighborhood. Look at what they’re doing,” rather than settling. Really dig deep and contemplate these histories, the years of living separate.

How do we talk about living together? If enough of us are out making change and having a different conversation, the idea of attracting a diverse group becomes secondary.

Years ago, I was part of a landscape group that was pushing for diversity. You can’t expect to attract people if there is no interest in change.

I get excited when people of all persuasion get excited by the work we’re doing. It’s not about whether the project gets into a magazine and wins awards. To me, the best reward on any project is to get people excited, empowered, bringing them in, and making them part of the project.

We are currently working for the town of Nauck, Virginia. It’s a town square. Working with the community very early on the discussion centered on the Freedmen’s Village of Arlington Cemetery and the black diaspora that emerged when they were removed. Many in Nauck are descendants.

I had recalled years ago as an undergraduate, I met a black landscape architect, Everett Fly, who had uncovered some of the histories of these towns that were built during Reconstruction. That experience stayed with me, and when I had the opportunity to have a conversation with that work, I immediately began to ponder the semiotics of this term used to describe black and brown people. What does it mean to be F-R-E-E-D!

It took a lot of nerve for me to start this conversation since it was something I had never entered into a conversation with a community about. I can’t describe the kind of excitement and conversation that began from there.

Nauck Town Square / Hood Design Studio
Nauck Town Square / Hood Design Studio
Nauck Town Square / Hood Design Studio

We can bring more voices to the table when we discuss, gender, race, and difference. Tell the truth about colonization and its impact not just on native and immigrant communities, but on the black and brown communities as well. If we don’t talk about it, we are reinforcing a post-colonial view.

This will bring difference into our profession, so it’s not simply just about making beautiful things. It can become about what those beautiful things mean. Once we can attach diverse meanings to the things we make, our profession could be much more inclusive.

For maybe two-thirds of my projects, race never comes up. To me, that’s where we should be heading. I don’t want the moniker of “black designer.” I can design for anyone, because I’ve had to learn how to. This skill came from being the “other,” and having to learn about white America and how to navigate, which is what we (others) don’t see happening from white America, right? I don’t see that kind of investment in me.

All I hear is, “Walter, help me. I’m working in a black community. I need you.” No, you don’t need me. You need to do the work for yourself. You need to learn about us. You need to get in there and roll up the sleeves. This is not my (our) problem. Until it changes, we’ll be back in the same position 20 years from now, asking why we’re not a diverse profession.

2030 Climate Challenge Competition: $10 Million for Big Ideas

2030 Climate Challenge

Levers for Change, an affiliate of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, has announced a $10 million competition for bold solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the building, transportation, or industrial sectors.

According to the organizers, the “vast majority of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from a small set of countries and sectors. In fact, only 20 countries produce 75 percent of GHG emissions, and three-fourths of GHG emissions land in four energy sectors: electricity, transportation, buildings, and industry.” Of those 20 countries, U.S. has “historically been the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter and currently has the second highest amount of emissions in the world.”

Levers for Change sees the U.S. building, transportation, and industrial sectors as critical in the global fight against climate change. “If the U.S. decarbonizes at scale in the next ten years –i.e. by 2030—then we have a chance to land at a decent future. Failure in the U.S. almost guarantees global failure.”

The competition organizers provide an organizational readiness tool that enables those interested to find out if they meet the criteria. Registrations are due July 23 and submissions are due August 20.

Another opportunity worth exploring: the McEwan School of Architecture in Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, has announced an ideas competition for revitalizing the urban core. The city, which has a population of 160,000, has hundreds of lakes and becomes a sports mecca in winter, with a 1.5-mile-long ice skating path.

The city occupies the crater of a meteorite that hit 1.8 billion years ago and left large deposits of copper, gold, platinum, palladium, and nickel. As a result, Sudbury is known as the “nickel capital of the world.” The goal is transform a mining city for the next generation of digital workers.

The Big Nickel / Sudbury 2050, Vanessa Tignanelli

Suburban Sprawl Increases the Risk of Future Pandemics

Suburban expansion into remnant habitat / La Citta Vita, Flickr

By Michael Grove, ASLA

The export of American culture is one of the most influential forces in our interconnected world. From Dakar to Delhi, American pop music, movies, and artery-clogging cuisine is ubiquitous. However, one of the most damaging exports is the American suburb. When the 20th century model for housing the swelling populations of Long Island and Los Angeles translates to 21st century Kinshasa and Kuala Lumpur, the American way of life may very well be our downfall.

In our pre-pandemic ignorance, most urbanists pointed to climate change as the most dangerous impact of our cherished suburban lifestyle. To be sure, the higher greenhouse gas emissions and rise in chronic health problems associated with living in subdivisions aren’t going away, but COVID-19 has exposed another threat we’ve chosen to ignore. The next pandemic may very well result from our addiction to—and exportation of—sprawl.

Vilifying Density and Disregarding Equity

The increasing traction of the anti-density movement in the wake of the current outbreak is alarming. Headlines proclaiming how sprawl may save us and that living in cities puts citizens at higher risk for contracting the novel coronavirus are deceptive.

Recent studies have debunked these myths, finding little correlation between population density in cities and rates of COVID-19, instead attributing the spread of the virus to overcrowding due to inequity and delays in governmental responsiveness.

Mounting evidence suggests that COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through close contact in enclosed spaces. Internal population density within buildings and, more specifically, within shared rooms inside buildings is what drives this, not the compact urban form of the city. In New York, for example, COVID-19 cases are concentrated in the outer boroughs, and suburban Westchester and Rockland counties have reported nearly triple the rate per capita than those of Manhattan.

The real issue is the systemic economic inequity that forces lower income people to live in overcrowded conditions, regardless of location. Innovative approaches to urban planning, equitable housing policies, and a reversal of over a century of environmental discrimination in our cities are absolutely necessary. Vilifying the city is counterproductive.

Moving out of dense cities into the open space and social distancing afforded by the suburbs is exactly the type of knee-jerk reaction that we must avoid. Cities are not at fault.

Habitat Fragmentation and Biodiversity Loss

In fact, cities are the answer if we plan them carefully. Among the many human activities that cause habitat loss, urban development produces some of the greatest local extinction rates and has a more permanent impact. For example, habitat lost due to farming and logging can be restored, whereas urbanized areas not only persist but continue to expand.

The Atlas for the End of the World, conceived by Richard Weller, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the best sources for documenting our collective risk. Mapping 391 of the planet’s terrestrial eco-regions, this research identified 423 cities with a population of over 300,000 inhabitants situated within 36 biodiversity hotspots. Using data modelling from the Seto Lab at Yale University, the Atlas predicts that 383 of these cities—about 90 percent —will likely continue to expand into previously undisturbed habitats.

Biodiversity hotspot map of the Indo-Burma ecoregion / Atlas for the End of the World

When we assault the wild places that harbor so much biodiversity in the pursuit of development, we disregard a significant aspect of this biodiversity—the unseen domain of undocumented viruses and pathogens.

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, meaning that they are transmitted to us through contact with animals. The initial emergence of many of these zoonotic diseases have been tracked to the parts of the world with the greatest biodiversity, both in the traditional and man-made sense. Traditional locations include tropical rainforests where biodiversity naturally occurs. Human-influenced conditions include places like bushmeat markets in Africa or the wet markets of Asia, where we are mixing trapped exotic animals with humans, often in astonishingly unsanitary conditions.

However, degraded habitats of any kind can create conditions for viruses to cross over, whether in Accra or Austin. The disruption of habitat to support our suburban lifestyle is bringing us closer to species with which we have rarely had contact. By infringing on these ecosystems, we reduce the natural barriers between humans and host species, creating ideal conditions for diseases to spread. These microbes are not naturally human pathogens. They become human pathogens because we offer them that opportunity.

This is already evident in the fragmented forests of many American suburbs where development patterns have altered the natural cycle of the pathogen that causes Lyme disease. When humans live in close proximity to these disrupted ecosystems, they are more likely to get bitten by a tick carrying the Lyme bacteria. When biodiversity is reduced, these diluted systems allow for species like rodents and bats—some of the most likely to promote the transmission of pathogens—to thrive.

This essentially means that the more habitats we disturb, the more danger we are in by tapping into various virus reservoirs. COVID-19 is not the first disease to cross over from animal to human populations, but it is likely a harbinger of more mass pandemics and further disruptions to the global economy. The more densely we build, the more land we can conserve for nature to thrive, potentially reducing our risk of another pandemic from a novel virus.

Increase of infected tick populations in fragmented forests / National Science Foundation, Nicolle Rager Fuller

Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary

In the United States, over 50 percent of the population lives in suburbs, covering more land than the combined total of national and state parks. Our urbanization is ubiquitous and endangers more species than any other human activity.

In 1979, Portland, Oregon offered a pioneering solution with the creation of an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). Devised by a 3-county, 24-city regional planning authority, the intent was to protect agricultural lands, encourage urban density, and limit unchecked sprawl.

Forty years into this experiment, Portland’s experience is a mixed bag of successes and missed opportunities. Investment in public transit and urban parks has certainly bolstered the city’s reputation as a leader in urban innovation, sustainability, and livability, with statistics to support its efforts.

On the other hand, two of Oregon’s fastest growing cities are situated just beyond the boundary’s jurisdiction, underscoring the limitations of the strategy. Again, inequity rears its ugly head, with higher prices within the UGB caused, in part, by an inability to deregulate Portland’s low density neighborhoods. This has driven much of the regional population further afield to find affordable housing in the form of suburban sprawl beyond the UGB’s dominion and into even more remote areas.

Another consideration that was overlooked when the original plan was established was the adequate protection of remnant habitat within the UGB. This lack of a regional plan for biodiversity protection has underscored the need for a more ecologically-focused, science-based approach to inform planning decisions.

Suburban development approaching agricultural land and remnant forest in Portland, Oregon / Google Earth

Brisbane’s Bird Population

Unfortunately, anticipating outcomes of urbanization on species diversity is not as pervasive in urban planning agencies around the world as it should be. A lack of detailed modeling specific to individual regions and cities with clear recommendations for how to minimize ecological devastation is absent from planning policy around the world.

However, researchers in Brisbane, Australia have attempted to quantify which development style—concentrated urban intensity or suburban sprawl—has a greater ecological consequences. By measuring species distribution, the study predicted the effect on bird populations when adding nearly 85,000 new dwelling units in the city. Their results demonstrated that urban growth of any type reduces bird distributions overall, but compact development substantially slows these reductions.

Sensitive species particularly benefited from compact development because remnant habitats remained intact, with predominantly non-native species thriving in sprawling development conditions. These results suggest that cities with denser footprints—even if their suburbs offer abundant open space—would experience a steep decline in biodiversity.

This is a common outcome found in similar studies around the world that exhibit a comparable decline in the species richness of multiple taxa along the rural-urban gradient. Although biodiversity is lowest within the urban core, the trade-off of preserving as much remnant natural habitat as possible almost always results in greater regional biodiversity.

Common bird species in urban and suburban Brisbane, Australia / Paula Peeters

Helsinki’s Biodiversity Database

One of Europe’s fasted growing cities, Helsinki faces similar pressures for new housing and traffic connections as many other major metropolises. However, in Helsinki, geotechnical and topographic constraints, coupled with its 20th century expansion along two railway lines rather than a web of highways, created the base for its finger-like urban and landscape structure. Today, one-third of Helsinki’s land area is open space, 63 percent of which is contiguous urban forest.

In 2001, Finland established an open source National Biodiversity Database that compiles multiple data sets ranging from detailed environmental studies to observations of citizen scientists. This extraordinary access to information has allowed the city to measure numerous data points within various conservation area boundaries, including statistics related to the protection of individual sites and species.

Measured by several taxonomies, including vascular plants, birds, fungi, and pollinators, Helsinki has an unusually high biodiversity when compared to neighboring municipalities or to other temperate European cities and towns. Vascular plant species, for example, average over 350 species per square kilometer, as compared to Berlin and Vienna’s average of about 200 species. By embracing biodiversity within the structure of the city, not only is the importance of regional biodiversity codified into the general master plan, it is also embedded into the civic discourse of its citizens.

Figure-ground diagram of Helsinki’s green fingers / Schwarz Plan

When it comes to where the next virus might emerge, Wuhan isn’t really that different from Washington, D.C. If the American model of over-indulgent suburban sprawl is the benchmark for individual success, we all lose.

Now is the moment to put the health of the planet before American values of heaven on a half-acre. Land use policies in the United States have just as profound an impact on the rest of the world as any movie out of Hollywood.

If we shift American values toward embracing denser, cleaner, and more efficient cities that drive ecological conservation—instead of promoting sprawl as a panacea for our current predicament—that may very well be our greatest export to humanity.

Michael Grove, ASLA, is the chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki, a global design firm with offices in Boston and Shanghai.

Biodiversity and Pandemic Diseases (or How We Came to Know Our World in 2020)

Infectious disease outbreaks in North America / Health Map

By Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA

The close friendships people make during the intensity of design school often last a lifetime. My studio bestie was a funny, talented guy named Merrick Zirtzman. We were like twins, except that he contracted AIDS and I didn’t. We ate garlic cloves together and tried to stay safe. But he died within two years of our graduation, along with about 700,000 other Americans who lost their lives to AIDS.

Subsequent research determined that HIV originated in chimpanzees in West Africa, showing that it became a human disease because humans ate chimpanzees. According to Michael Lai at the University of Southern California and his team of disease detectives, the chimps got it by eating monkeys that hosted a similar virus (red-capped mangabeys and greater spot-nosed monkeys, to be exact). This sounds like a version of saying you are what you eat: a food web in an ecosystem of viruses, hosts, predators, and habitat.

When I wrote and spoke about the research connecting biodiversity to infectious diseases in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was one of very few in our field who would broach the subject. At the time, if HIV/AIDS hadn’t roared through your friends, a pandemic seemed unlikely. Worrying about it seemed paranoid. After all, people said, contemporary medicine has made so many advances!

The last time I spoke about biodiversity and its role in suppressing pandemics was at the Large Parks conference at Harvard University in 2004. After that, my work centered on adapting to climate change, and there was so much other science to talk about. Eventually, pandemics dropped out of my slide set.

Every year, the World Economic Forum organizes a gathering of the global 1% in Davos, Switzerland, and produces a document to communicate the anxieties of money managers, called the Global Risk Report. In 2019, the Global Risk Report had a special section on health risks, titled “Going Viral.” It noted that there has been an increase in the frequency of new infectious disease outbreaks over the last few decades. There were more than 12,000 outbreaks between 1980 and 2013. But in June 2018, there were outbreaks in six of the eight categories of the especially dangerous priority diseases tracked by the World Health Organization (WHO).

For the first time, WHO included “Disease X” in its 2018 list of priority diseases to promote research on new zoonotic diseases that had not yet passed to humans. People who track diseases were expecting new ones, because the number of animal-to-human outbreaks has increased dramatically. The UN Environment Program also stated that a new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months now, and that 75 percent of those come from wild or domesticated animals.

The 2019 Davos Risk Report noted five main reasons for this alarming trend:

  • First, huge increases in the volume of inter-continental travel make it possible for a virus from an isolated village to infect major cities within days.
  • Second, an increasing percentage of the world’s growing population lives in dense urban districts.
  • Third, people are cutting the forests that provide habitat for animals like bats and primates that carry diseases, which humans can catch.
  • Fourth, climate change may accelerate disease transmission by extending the range of some key animal vectors, like mosquitos, but in other complex ways as well.
  • And fifth, poverty drives a lot of people to hunt bushmeat or to raise undernourished domestic animals.

Also, desperate refugees trying to escape wars or climate stressors often live in dense, unhygienic conditions created by societies who want to keep them out, producing hotspots of infectious diseases. The 2019 Risk Report concluded that “globalization has made the world more vulnerable to societal and economic impacts from infectious-disease outbreaks.”

Remember, this isn’t ecologists talking, this is the 1%, the people who spent the last 400 years profiting from the removal of “barriers” to global markets and building a world of white privilege through racism, armed colonization, and enslaved labor. Not to put too fine a point on it.

Ecologists who write about the links between biodiversity and disease typically emphasize the need to limit human impacts on animals that harbor the greatest number of viruses that can spillover to humans: waterfowl, primates, and bats.

When E.O. Wilson published Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life in 2016 and established the Half Earth Project, it sounded crazy to economists and governments to say we should protect half the earth’s land and seas from development.

Half Earth Project

Even sociologists who focus on poverty and development, like Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, slammed Wilson’s proposal. They saw it as a trade-off: protect biodiversity at the expense of the rural poor, who would then be arrested as poachers in their own traditional lands.

But social inequality will not be erased if biodiversity losses continue. Less biodiversity means more disease pandemics and more poverty. I think we can all see that now.

In the 21st century, globalized economic growth has reached the end of its rope. Economies can’t continue to expand without creating new pandemic risks, as more people press up against the habitat of more wildlife or raise domestic animals in unhealthy conditions. We’re now part of one big, highly connected planetary ecosystem that’s going to bite us back hard if we step on it the wrong way.

A lot of news stories are ascribing intention to viruses as if they make plans. While that creates a compelling bad guy, they’re not actually living things. We’re the sentient beings here.

New planetary health concepts advocated by many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provide the framework we need to see through metaphors about viruses invading our country with evil intentions, and the associated imagery of a refugee invasion from some place we imagine to be far away, disconnected from us. In fact, the U.S. is a global hotspot of emerging animal-to-human diseases.

What does this mean for landscape architecture, as a discipline that shapes urban and regional planning?

The challenge is to use our projects and our advocacy to fight for biodiversity (if only for our own survival), genuinely reduce economic inequality, and promote a culture that celebrates rather than denies the inherent limits to growth that come with sharing a single planet.

As Kate Jones, Chair of Ecology at University College London, has noted, pandemics are now “a hidden cost of human economic development…We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.”

Landscape architects and planners can take on this work in three important ways:

First, we can educate clients about the role that native habitat plays in preventing disease outbreaks. Here in California, recent research has revealed that our low rate of Lyme disease can be attributed to our remaining biodiversity. Both mountain lions and western fence lizards play key roles in limiting Lyme disease. Lions keep the deer population low, especially near urban areas where they kill fifty percent more deer per year, perhaps because they are interrupted in the act of eating their kill more often by humans. Our native lizard has proteins in its blood that seem to “turn off” the infection in ticks that bite the lizards, creating a less dangerous tick population that doesn’t host the Lyme bacteria. None of this would work if there were no lion or lizard habitat, no lions, and no lizards.

Lyme disease in California / Kristina Hill

We can work to genuinely promote social equality. Step one is to stop pretending that development investments, or even new parks, create benefits for everyone. In fact, investments in parks typically displace low-income residents (anyone been to the High Line?). Setha Low’s anthropological research in New York City showed that upscale materials or finishes, like brushed aluminum or polished rock, can make lower-income people of color feel unwelcome, setting them up to be followed and harassed because Caucasian park visitors think they don’t belong there. Creating new upscale mixed-use districts in historically African-American, Native American, and Hispanic spaces raises the likelihood that police will kill more people of color. Trickle-down public benefits from private real estate investments are a myth. We can stop repeating it and instead work to increase the health, wealth, and stability of low-income communities directly. In the San Francisco Bay Resilient by Design Challenge, our ABC Team re-thought our work in East Oakland to focus more on supporting local businesses and health, rather than trying to imagine the trickle-down benefits of big new real estate investments.

Third, we can promote a culture of restraint to protect local habitat areas. Persuading humans to back off and respect the territory of other cultures or other forms of life is the real “balance of nature,” created by our own sense of restraint. We can design windows in “walls” that surround key vegetated areas, instead of designing paths through them. Maybe these are literal walls, like the habitat island at Parc Henri Matisse in Lille, France by Gilles Clément. Or maybe they’re thorny hedge plants or wetland “moats” with an overlook platform. Physical trampling, noise, and pets exert real limits on biodiversity. And cultural self-restraint can be sexy—it can be theatrical and negotiated. Not going somewhere can make that special place valuable and mysterious. Bring back the sacred Greek temenos, and the hortus conclusus. Limits and social negotiation create deeper design opportunities and better designers.

Parc Henri Matisse in Lille, France / Gilles Clément

There’s more: are you designing new urban districts in China, Africa, or the Middle East? It’s time to reconsider taking that work unless it’s an infill strategy.

And we should all stop flying so much, considering its impact on our climate and our health — and now that we’ve mastered Zoom.

Prevent urban and agricultural sprawl into native vegetation. Promote increased wealth and self-sufficiency for the global poor. Support animal welfare by becoming an activist against large-scale animal farming.

Landscape architects can lead a re-think of how to design for biodiversity, cities, and health on our one little planet.

Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, is associate professor of landscape architecture, environmental planning, and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley College of Environmental Design.

Interview with Kate Orff on Earth Day 2020: The 50th Anniversary

Kate Orff, FASLA

Kate Orff, RLA, FASLA, is the founder and principal of SCAPE and also director of the Urban Design Program and Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). In 2017, Orff was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and, in 2019, SCAPE received the National Design Award in landscape architecture from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans, which at that time was some 10 percent of the population, took to the streets during the first Earth Day, demanding greater protections for the environment and decisive action to improve human health and well-being. 50 years later, the movement is now global, with an estimated one billion participating each year. What role does collective action play in solving today’s climate and ecological crises? What role do landscape architects play?

Earth Day is a chance to pause, take stock of the planet that sustains us, and think and act beyond ourselves to reach the scale of the globe and all its inhabitants. Landscape architects are largely concerned with the “middle scale,” but Earth Day forces us to conceive of the planetary landscape, and what our role is in retrieving the Earth from its climate emergency status.

Our book Toward an Urban Ecology describes the potential of collective action at a landscape scale and gives many examples of digging in, showing up, ripping out, and gardening with your neighbors. At the same time, it’s important to keep focus on the more radical, insidious challenges in our carbon-intensive economy mapped out at a national scale in Petrochemical America, which depicts the American landscape as a machine for consuming oil and petrochemicals with profound impacts on ecosystems and communities.

I guess the lesson here is that on an individual level, we have to consume less. At a neighborhood level, we can work together to repair the landscapes in our immediate environs through community oyster gardening or invasive species removal in a patch of forest. And at a global scale, we have to radically and equitably decarbonize our economy and rebuild the wetland and intertidal landscapes disappearing before our eyes. Our installation at the Venice Biennale called Ecological Citizens bridges these scales of thought and action. Plenty to do!

What connections do you see between the COVID-19 pandemic and our climate and ecological problems? How are environmental and human health connected?

COVID 19 shines a spotlight on our health care system and existing social inequity. The pandemic is truly playing out as a human tragedy on so many levels. It also reveals the incredible and irreversible harm we are inflicting upon non-human species and our extreme interdependence on each other and the natural world.

Whether the virus was transmitted through a bat or pangolin, it’s a parable about the exploitation of “the other” that must stop. This April, 25 tons of pangolin scales were seized in Singapore, taken from nearly 40,000 of these endangered creatures. An estimated 2.7 million are poached every year. It boggles the mind.

On a positive note, one can imagine our “stay at home” behavior, which is intended to curb the pandemic, has the unintended consequences of lowering our personal carbon footprints; and leading us to care for each other more, make time to mend the landscapes in which we live, and prioritize the basics of happiness and survival — food, shelter, clean water, clean air, neighbors, family, and the core of what matters to you.

You founded SCAPE in 2007. Your office’s stated mission is to “enable positive change in communities through the creation of regenerative living infrastructure and public landscapes.” What is regenerative living infrastructure and why do communities need it?

Today’s society faces compounding risks: a climate emergency, increasing social and income stratification, and a biological apocalypse termed “the sixth extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert in her 2014 book of the same name. Together, these forces are rapidly tearing at the fabric of our entangled social and natural worlds. In every SCAPE project, we identify the capacity of design to repair that fabric and regenerate connections over time.

The aim is to not just deliver built work, but envision a program that begins to generate new ties between communities working in, living in, understanding, and loving the landscapes that sustain them. This could take the form of unlocking sediment trapped upstream to nourish protective bay landscapes and cushion the impacts of extreme weather and sea level rise.

ASLA 2019 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Public Sediment for Alameda Creek, Alameda County, California / SCAPE and Public Sediment team

It might manifest as the integration of a state-certified science curriculum with an offshore reef rebuilding project, or reclaiming a forgotten canal and retrofitting it as a public park and water treatment system in partnership with a community-based organization devoted to its stewardship.

The Gowanus Lowlands, Brookyln, New York / SCAPE

For decades, infrastructure has been constructed as “single-purpose,” often designed by engineers to isolate one element of a system and solve for one problem. For example, on Staten Island, during Superstorm Sandy, a levee designed to keep water out was overtopped, resulting in a “bathtub effect” of trapping water inside a neighborhood rather than keeping it out. People perished because of this catastrophic failure. In many places, metal bulkhead walls are being raised in anticipation of sea-level rise only to block drainage during major rain events, flooding adjacent blocks.

Regenerative landscape infrastructure helps to maintain the structure and function of ecosystems embedded in the built environment, accounting for complex systems. This has been the organizing mission of SCAPE: to bring holistic, landscape-driven, and time-based thinking into the places we inhabit.

Through Living Breakwaters in Tottenville, on Staten Island in New York, SCAPE created a layered approach to ecological and social resilience, including oyster habitat restoration on a series of near-shore breakwaters. Working with communities in Boston, SCAPE has developed visions for a more resilient Boston Harbor and Dorchester neighborhoods. What are the benefits of these resilient landscape approaches?

The resilience benefits of these projects are clear. We can’t just look at one facet of the future: We have to synthesize how climate shocks and stressors compound each other. Extreme heat will increase drought and poverty. Extreme hurricanes will increase long-term rainfall projections used as a base for design efforts. How will these shocks and stressors combine to impact people and shape our future?

Robust, intact landscapes can’t do everything, but they can absorb a range of intersectional challenges and create immense protective value. Part of SCAPE’s approach is to begin to address the “sixth extinction” in the intertidal zone, restoring landscapes and habitats for marine critters that could be a lifeline to the future. We not only envisioned the Living Breakwaters project. Over many years, we navigated a federal, state, and local regulatory and budget environment to make it happen. We have a unique perspective on how to advance these kinds of projects despite many roadblocks and challenges.

Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NY / SCAPE
Resilient Boston Harbor Vision, Boston, Massachusetts / SCAPE

Our team just completed a long-term vision for the rapidly eroding Barataria Basin in Louisiana with an array of collaborators. This project combines marsh creation with bottomland reforestation, sediment diversions, and related landscape restoration and job creation strategies. A healthy and bountiful landscape means better economic opportunities for a wider range of people, rebounding shellfish and fisheries, and a coastal landscape that can absorb and adapt to a range of climate risks on the immediate horizon.

Your firm is also now planning a linear network of greenways and blueways along the Chattahoochee River, which spans 100 miles across the Metro Atlanta region. How does planning and design focused on rivers improve ecological and community resilience? With the risk of flooding increasing, how can communities better live with their rivers?

The Chattahoochee RiverLands is a vision to reconnect Metro Atlanta to its seminal river, building on a decades-long legacy of community planning in collaboration with the Trust for Public Land, Atlanta Regional Commission, Cobb County, and the City of Atlanta. It’s a radical effort to stitch together a historically fragmented public realm along a primary conduit – 125 miles of trail winding along the Chattahoochee that showcase the river’s ecology, history, and link into ongoing restoration and education efforts.

Rivers have such power to bring people together, link up disjointed places, and bring life and mobility into cities. For this project, we cut through red tape, charting a path of access through a mosaic of public and private lands. The overall vision was grounded in over 80 stakeholder and community sessions and events like “river rambles,” educational outings for focus groups to provide hands-on learning experiences.

Public engagement session for the Chattahoochee RiverLands greenway study, Atlanta, Georgia. / SCAPE

Beyond its physical footprint, the goal of the RiverLands is to raise public awareness, improve connections and access, address a long legacy of environmental racism, expand mobility for underserved communities, and build on a strong regional legacy of water resource conservation and protection.

This effort is a testament to open and inclusive design processes structured to empower residents and to shift from conceiving design as a “master” plan to a method of workshopping and co-creating with constituents. Advanced floodplain warning systems and sensors can be integrated into these linear landscapes to ensure public safety.

Lastly, you are also a Professor at Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP), where you are director of the Urban Design program. What have you learned from your students – the next generation of leaders – about how to solve our challenges? What new ideas have really astounded you?

Over the past five years, I’ve done a series of studios focused on Water Urbanism – global studios to uncover how water, climate, and migration patterns combine to shape the future of cities. I’ve learned so much from this endeavor and working alongside my incredible co-teachers Geeta Mehta, Dilip Da Cunha, Thaddeus Pawlowski, Julia Watson, and others. We’ve traveled to Amman and Aqaba, Jordan; Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil; Can Tho, Vietnam; and four cities in India: Kolkata, Madurai, Varanasi and Pune, among others.

From our collaborators and students, I’ve learned that excellence emerges in the space between people – in open dialogue, hard work, and collaboration among people with diverse and international backgrounds with a shared purpose.

Columbia University urban design studio in Pune, India / SCAPE

A few years back, I hosted “Water and Social Life in India,” a panel at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture with Geeta, Dilip, and Alpa Nawre. This session captured some of the big lessons for me. Over the years, we have learned water is not an abstract “issue” to be solved. To embrace a water-resilient future, we have to learn from past practices and small communities managing and communicating with each other. Designing with water is not just about adapting to changing conditions – it is also crucially about fostering forms of social life, maintenance, and care.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16-29)

Chattahoochee RiverLands Greenway Study in Georgia / SCAPE

Landscape Architects Shift Emphasis to the Ecosystem, 02/22/20, AP News
“Landscape architects are finding themselves on the front lines of the climate change crisis, having to come up with creative ways to adapt and help mitigate problems like rising oceans and extreme weather as they design projects across the country.”

Houston Launches Multi-billion-dollar Resiliency Master Plan – 02/24/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner revealed plans for a multi-billion-dollar initiative designed to prepare the city against future climate change-related disasters. The 186-page document, Resilient Houston, elaborates on methods the coastal city can adopt to become better prepared for future storms, sea-level rise, and the urban heat island effect.”

Fix for a Hated N.Y.C. Highway: How About an $11 Billion Tunnel? – 02/24/20, The New York Times
“Cities like Boston, San Francisco and Seattle have all done it — razed hulking, unsightly highways dividing the heart of their downtowns, pushed a new roadway underground and turned the space above into an urban paradise. Could New York be next?”

Want to Grab a Late-Night Taco in Boston? The Neighbors Won’t Hear of It – 02/25/20, The Boston Globe
“El Jefe’s Taqueria founder John Schall is in a food fight with the City of Boston, and he doesn’t want it to play out quietly.”

Twitter for Urban Planning, 02/28/20, Planetizen
“Twitter is like all great cities: if you keep looking and figure out how to avoid a few key triggers, there are places and people for everyone. ‘Keep looking until you’ll find something you love,’ is a frequent saying about my home city of Los Angeles. The same is true of Twitter. The same is definitely true of Twitter, if what you love is planning.”

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

Everglades Restored / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Miami Is the “Most Vulnerable” Coastal City Worldwide — 2/4/20, Scientific American
“Several major tourist attractions, including the Everglades, Biscayne National Park, and Miami Beach, are largely situated on land less than three feet above the high-water mark and may become permanently submerged by the end of the century.”

OLIN Receives Design Approval for D.C. Desert Storm Memorial — 2/6/20 The Architect’s Newspaper
“Once the site was secured (a location just north of the Lincoln Memorial and west of the Vietnam War Memorial) adjustments needed to be made to the design. The new design has lower walls that meld into the ground and includes a central water feature, which symbolizes a desert oasis as well as the international coalition that participated in the operations.

National Indigenous Landscape Architecture Award Announced — 2/9/20, Architecture & Design
“Planning for the [National Arcadia Landscape Architecture Award for Indigenous Students] has been in progress for almost twelve months, but the recent [Australian] bushfires brought a renewed focus on how Indigenous knowledge and traditional land and fire management practices can prevent fire damage and enable the return of healthy landscapes and ecosystems.”

Educator and Historian John Beardsley Selected to Curate Inaugural Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize — 2/11/20, Archinect
“The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) has named arts curator and landscape educator John Beardsley as the inaugural curator for the forthcoming Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize.”

A Native Plant Guru’s Radical Vision for the American Yard — 2/12/20, The Washington Post
“The idea of planting gardens for wildlife and shrinking the lawn isn’t new, but [entomologist Doug Tallamy] wants to enlist every home garden in the battle to address the loss of biodiversity. The need has never been more urgent, he says.”

Franklin Park Is Poised for $28 million in Upgrades — and the City Wants Ideas on How to Spend the Money — 2/12/20, Boston.com
“Legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted crafted the ‘country park’ … that completes the Emerald Necklace. Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson once lived in a small cabin on Schoolmaster Hill before Olmsted’s vision would arrive at the site decades later. Now, city officials want ideas to shape its future.”

Abandoned Amusement Park to Gain New Life as a Nature Park in Suzhou — 2/13/20, Inhabitat
“In Suzhou, China, an abandoned amusement park is being transformed into a 74-hectare nature park that will include a decommissioned roller coaster transformed into a habitat for birds. … Named ‘Shishan Park’ after its location at the foot of Shishan (Chinese for ‘Lion Mountain’), the urban park will provide a variety of family-oriented recreational amenities to cater to a rapidly growing, high-tech hub.”

A Daughter’s Disability. A Mother’s Ingenuity. And the Playground That’s Launching a Revolution — 2/14/20, Palo Alto Weekly
“Magical Bridge was inspired by [Olenka] Villarreal’s daughter, Ava, who has developmental disabilities, and by the utter lack of safe, public play spaces suited to Ava and others like her. Tucked in a corner of Mitchell Park, the brightly colored Magical Bridge includes a wheelchair-usable spinner and slides, swings that keep a user upright and fastened in, wheelchair-friendly surfaces, a wheelchair-usable treehouse and a stage — features that are friendly to people with visual impairments, autism and cognitive disabilities.”

Interview with Kotchakorn Voraakhom: How to Live with Water

Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA / Landprocess

Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA, is founder of Landprocess and the Porous City Network. Voraakhom is featured in TIME magazine’s 2019 TIME 100 Next, a list that spotlights 100 rising stars who are shaping the future of the world, along with their list of 15 women fighting against climate change. Voraakhom is chairwoman of Landscape Without Borders of the International Federation of Landscape Architects, Asia Pacific Region (IFLA APR). She is a TED Fellow and Echoing Green Climate Fellow. She received her master’s in landscape architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego.

The 12-acre Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park in Bangkok, the first new park in the city in 30 years, is a model for how to design with nature. Tilted at 3 degrees, the park funnels storm water into a retention basin that can safely double in size amid heavy rains. How did you come up with this idea to incline the entire park?

Bangkok is a city of water but we don’t know how to drain our water. We’ve been through many floods: either disastrous flash floods or the ones that are part of our daily life in Bangkok. This happens because we don’t know where the water should go. We don’t use the canal system as it should be used. In Bangkok, it is very sad that the canal department is under the sewage department. Canals have been destroyed through urban development.

The city, along with the entire center of the country, is flat because of sedimentation. So I wondered: how can we create a water container in the city? I thought about our legendary Monkey King, and his “monkey cheek” approach to storage. Do you know about the monkey cheek? The monkey holds food in its cheek. When he is hungry, he just continues eating. If not, he just holds the food there. It’s very simple way; no deep theory or anything, but just a natural way of being.

If you don’t have hilly topography, like in Bangkok, you create the topography and just tilt it.

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Award. Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park, Bangkok, Thailand / LANDPROCESS

At the detention basin’s edge, there are stationary bicycles. When visitors peddle the bikes, they turn wheels that aerate the water. Why is it important to engage visitors this way?

Because it’s so human. I remember walking my dad to the park. He’s a designer and said: “This is the highlight.” You know when you get complimented from your parent, it’s the best.

The park addresses climate change and flooding in a very technical way. But at the end I wanted people to feel they can be part of the solution by just being there, peddling the water bike. The water level in the detention basin also changes. Just the physical nature of pedaling is quite direct.

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Award. Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park, Bangkok, Thailand / LANDPROCESS

In your TED Talk, you said the 15 million residents of Bangkok are living on a “shifting, muddy river delta.” Bangkok, New York City, Shanghai, New Orleans and many other delta cities are slowly sinking as sea levels rise. How can landscape architects help solve this problem?

We try to fix problems, but we are actually the problem. The reason our city is sinking is systematic. The issue doesn’t just come from building a city on top of this delta; it also because there is no more sediment coming from upstream. Dams that create electricity are blocking sediment flow. We also don’t let the land absorb rain. We have to see the problem systematically and fix what you have done rather than try to fix nature.

As landscape architects, we work with the land. We know how these systems should function. We can teach people how to live with water again, which is much better than fearing it. Living with water is the vernacular way in Thailand. We have long had homes on stilts and floating platforms. We even have floating markets. We are used to living on the edge between land and water.

In the future, floating cities are even possible. But they are not really futuristic, as they have already happened in the past. The future is about knowing where you’re from and using that in a new context. I don’t think the future will be these flying cyborgs or something, nothing so inhuman.

In the past, flooding meant food. Sediment was part of seasonal change. Thailand would flood for one or two months and we would just deal with it. Today, we forget that flooding is about transformation. It’s only our relationship with water that has changed in a negative way. Landscape architecture can help people see a different relationship with water is possible.

For Bangkok’s 250th anniversary, which is in 2032, city leaders are creating the Bangkok 250 Plan, a major redevelopment effort that aims to create a more livable city in 17 districts in the urban core. By then, the city’s population is expected to grow to 11 million, an 18 percent increase over today, and the number of vehicles on the road is expected to grow by 1 million to 10 million. As a consultant on this planning effort, what are you advising the city to do?

We have a big team of urban designers, architects, and urban planners, and then there’s me, the landscape architect. Of course, we want to revitalize the canal system. We want to incorporate much more green space. But we don’t want to be naïve and just hope for more green space if there is no land. We have to be innovative about how we insert green spaces.

There is one project we are implementing right now with the current mayor to reuse a failed governmental mega-project. In Asian cities, there are many projects like this that were built and then stopped. There’s so much that can be renewed. But this also means the city is a challenging context.

You have often gone to the rooftops, designing the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Garden on the former helipad of the Ramathibodi Hospital, the Siam Green Sky Urban Farm on top of a building at Chulalongkorn University, and a new green roof on the Puey Learning Center at Thammasat University. How does developing rooftops help you achieve your goals for the city?

At the Ramathibodi Hospital, we removed a helipad and replaced it with a healing garden. Green roofs are one of the key solutions for how to make a city more porous and sustainable.

Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Garden / LANDPROCESS

The Thammasat University in Bhutantanang, which is in the greater Bangkok area, will become the biggest urban farming green roof in Asia at 7,000 square meters (75,000 square feet). The roof mimics the structure of rice terraces and how farmers use topography to absorb rain, slow down runoff, and grow food.

Puey Learning Center at Thammasat University, Panoramic Studio / LANDPROCESS
Puey Learning Center at Thammasat University, Panoramic Studio / LANDPROCESS

You have also planned and designed many health care environments that provide patients with access to nature, including the Siriraj Hospice Center. How do you incorporate Thai cultural and spiritual beliefs about nature?

The other hat I wear is creative art therapist. I have many questions about death: What does it feel like? How can I help these people?

When it comes to healing, no one can help you. Doctors can cure you, but they cannot heal you. You have to heal yourself. And how do you heal yourself? You heal yourself through natural processes.

Perhaps with my Buddhist beliefs, I feel there’s so much suffering in these hospices. Too many hospitals only think about more patients without thinking about how to create healthy spaces for them. I’m talking about government hospitals in Thailand; you can’t imagine how crowded they are. These people deserve healing environments, so we are trying to find the right space in hospitals. I’m helping many other hospitals as well.

In addition to the work with your firm, you’re also founder of Porous City Network, a nonprofit that co-designs water management solutions with vulnerable communities. What have been the results of the effort so far?

Porous City Network was started two years ago. Traditional client-based practice can only solve some problems. If we want to really tackle big problems, we need public education and advocacy. I’m going to try to expand the network into other cities in Southeast Asia where they are facing the same problems.

We helped a community along the coastline on the border of Cambodia, which is actually at the narrowest part of Thailand. The people are Thai but have no land rights on paper, so they build into the ocean. The government deemed them invaders and tried to displace them.

We helped them negotiate with the government and create a plan that allows them to inhabit land in the ocean, which also involves restoring mangrove forests. They are the first community that has received government permission to do that.

This means the solution can be implemented in Thailand’s other 7,000 fishing villages, rather than just displacing these communities.

I also bring landscape architecture students so they can learn about community participation processes. I use landscape architecture to help these communities.

The Hat Lek community on the border of Thailand and Cambodia / LANDPROCESS
Porous City Network community engagement process in Hat Lek / LANDPROCESS
Porous City Network community engagement process in Hat Lek. Voraakhom meets with community members. / LANDPROCESS