The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s most recent class of innovation and leadership fellows spent the past year “unearthing assumptions and trying to find a path forward” through the “disorienting dilemmas” facing the world, explained Cindy Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in the kick-off off LAF’s now annual symposium. Each fellow seeks to generate “ethically-motivated societal change,” which in the process required “personal transformation.” Over two days, this year’s six fellows delved into the results of their independent research and leadership building efforts, which were each supported by a $25,000 grant from LAF.
Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo: Taking on the Army Corps of Engineers in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is an island of 3.2 million Americans. An unincorporated U.S. territory, it has a population larger than 20 U.S. states. The San Juan Estuary faces many challenges, including flooding, explained Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo, Principal, ECo. Efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to channelize the Rio Piedras, which spreads south from San Juan into the heart of the island, have brought up a complex set of issues related to “politics, economics, and flood conveyance.” Along its course, the river is both “polluted and biodiverse, near and inaccessible, beautiful and dangerous.” As a response to extreme flooding from Hurricane Maria, the Army Corps has allocated $1.5 billion to transform 9.5 miles of a “soft, natural river into a concrete, high-velocity channel” and insert five new bridges into the river landscape. “This shows a total disregard for climate change and environmental science” and also for the Army Corps own new nature-based engineering approach, Colón Izquierdo argued.
To better advocate for a nature-based approach that can make Puerto Rico more resilient to flooding, Colón Izquierdo has joined with scientists, advocates, and scholars who created Alianza Por La Cuenca del Rio Piedras, guided by the message “el rio esta vivo,” or “the river is alive.” While taking on the Army Corps, a complex bureaucracy, is analogous to “David attempting to defeat Goliath,” Colón Izquierdo believes the effort is critical because the design is “many decades behind in its conception.” In fact, the design is from 1992 and environmental impact statement from 1993; the project was resuscitated after Hurricane Maria decimated the island and exposed the vulnerability of so many living in Puerto Rico’s floodplains. By organizing design charettes and educating the public about nature-based options to improving the safety and health of the river, Colón Izquierdo seeks to build capacity, find leverage, and “get a seat at the table” — and perhaps save other rivers in Puerto Rico from the same fate.
Andrea Johnson: Imagining New Forms of Community-owned Renewable Energy
Bounded at one side by the Bronx-Queens Expressway, the neighborhood of Sunset Park in Brooklyn includes a jail, mechanic shops, warehouses, and vacant land, explained Andrea Johnson, a visiting assistant professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. A maritime hub, the community is home to the Brooklyn Terminal, a massive industrial and commercial building that is now covered in a solar array cooperatively managed. This array got Johnson thinking about the hidden energy systems that comprise the community that can be re-imagined to provide “collective social value.”
When electricity demand in NYC increases, gas-driven peakers in Sunset Park start up, which contributes to the noxious air quality in the neighborhood, which includes mostly people of color. UPROSE, a community group, and other local organizations, have been trying to get the New York Power Authority to permanently close the peakers in favor of renewable energy, but the authority has only put them on stand by. Johnson said “decommissioning the peakers and replacing with publicly-owned renewable energy would lead to a more just and equitable energy system.” If decarbonization occurs through community-run renewable energy, then people in Sunset Park could benefit from electricity surges.
“There is a role for landscape architects here that needs to be seized. We can get ahead of the policy and innovate from how energy is perceived, stored, and used.” She analyzed and discovered 75 megawatts of energy could be generated on public rooftops in the community. “Back-up storage sources could then be spread across the public sphere.” Johnson and her students at CUNY have been imagining other new solutions that involve wind turbines, micro-grids, utility-scale batteries, a “gravity park” in which heavy blocks are raised to create kinetic energy that can be stored, and other systems that can both generate and store energy and serve as cleaner, more just forms of peakers.
Diego Bermúdez: A Comprehensive Plan for Protecting Bogotá’s Cultural Landscapes
Bogotá, Colombia, is a city of 9 million people and continues to expand rapidly at its periphery. This sprawl threatens the historic Bogotá savanna, an important high-altitude wetland landscape. Diego Bermúdez, principal and partner, Bermúdez Arquitectos, in Bogotá, explained that 2,500 years ago, the area formed the vast floodplains of the Bogotá River and its many tributaries. Pre-Hispanic settlers, the indigenous Muisca people, who lived in small villages, built canals and berms to create flood-proof zones for growing food. “They lived amid 100,000 acres of wetlands and were amphibious people.”
When the Spanish arrived in the 17th century, they removed the Muisca and subdivided the land to scale up industrial food production. Farms were organized into grids, with protective canals, to increase yields. By the 1920s, the government created a water management district that was meant to preserve the irrigation systems. Those layers of water management history are now threatened by rampant sprawl and development into the savanna region. Bermúdez said the city’s population is expected to increase to 10.5 million in 2035 and reach upwards of 14 million by 2050.
To protect the savanna landscape, which grows 40 percent of the city’s food, Bermúdez proposes a strategy that first protects the historic canals, which are also hubs for biodiversity, including 200 species of birds. “Water management can be a tool for reimagining the future.” As he spent a year traveling to these agricultural communities and also meeting the developers who are urbanizing the area, he found “new hope,” because “people want to protect the water management system for flooding, biodiversity, and recreation.” Bermúdez has been working to connect the disparate players and layers of plans into a regional plan that can guide development away from the savanna, create protective zones for the historic agricultural landscapes, and further densify the core of Bogotá.
Static. According to Barbara Wilks, FASLA, landscapes are too often designed with that operating assumption.
Even though humans have been around for the past 200,000 years, we still have a proclivity to design landscapes to remain the same for 20 to 50 years.
Wilks argues this is a problem that needs to change. Given the projected growth of cities and the challenges of a rapidly shifting climate, she asserts that dynamic landscapes are required for resilient, healthy urban communities.
She strives to create these landscapes at her firm, W Architecture & Landscape Architecture. Her ideas about landscapes emerge from decades of professional experience. In a new book, Dynamic Geographies, Wilks demonstrates how she centers natural processes through her designs. As most of her projects unfold in cities, this necessarily includes altering how humans perceive the landscapes around them.
Wilks defines dynamic geographies as complex systems that use non-anthropogenic forces for adaptation. For landscape architects to integrate these systems into projects, they must consider other species, the interconnectivity of various forms of life, and time as a landscape element. Landscape architects must design to larger and multiple time scales. They must gauge “what could be as opposed to what we want changed now.”
A key aspect to designing at various time scales involves transforming how we manage landscapes—and that includes the management of W’s projects. At present, they require humans to maintain. A truly sustainable landscape, Wilks asserts, can exist without humans, allowing “different flows and rates of change for different species.” As a result, W designs landscapes that welcome these processes: it’s these forms of maintenance that in the long run can yield diverse and sustaining landscapes.
The book divides W’s projects into three categories: “(In)visible Geographies,” “Layered Geographies,” and “Unleashing Geographies.” Each section builds on the other, and projects across these sections seek to illuminate landscapes’ dynamism and situate geographies within extended time scales. While Wilks doesn’t claim success in all her projects—“this book is a critical look back at our success and failures at W”—one can glean effective strategies to instill dynamism throughout projects.
In the first section, projects attempt to reveal aspects of sites often hidden, “making them manifest, so that urban dwellers have the opportunity to situate themselves in larger systems that transcend their immediate realities,” writes Alison Hirsch in the book’s introduction. Wilks is not nostalgic for us to return to previous time or to lost landscapes. “We can’t return to the past,” she writes, but “we can construct new relationships that bind us into the fabric of a place’s ongoing evolution.”
Through these new relationships, Wilks hopes communities can understand they are embedded in and not separate from nature. W’s projects facilitate this understanding in various ways. In Baltimore, a waterfront soap factory simultaneously reflects its location in the greater Chesapeake Bay region and in an industrial harbor. In Brooklyn, the off-kilter angles of the piers at the Edge project echo the turbulence of the East River into which they extend.
At West Harlem Piers Park in Manhattan, newly designed piers adopt the patterns of the Hudson River instead of the city grid. The site’s forms resemble sand dunes and the benches recall driftwood. The project, though, didn’t emerge solely of the designer’s ideas. In fact, the community spurned W’s initial conception of the project involving a “missing pier”—a field of piles in the Hudson—as too evocative of a ruin. In its place, New York City’s first reef ball structure was developed, which today serves as habitat to a diversity of aquatic life.
The book’s second section, “Layered Geographies,” doubles down on integrating the social and ecological systems comprising urban spaces. The projects here demonstrate the relationships between communities and the place in which they’re embedded. Several projects were designed for communities in places destroyed by urban renewal or disregarded by infrastructure projects, including in St. Louis and Detroit.
One such project is Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter in Tampa, Florida. The park was previously an African American neighborhood, which was demolished with the construction of a highway. A park was established in its place, from which the displaced community understandably felt estranged. W was brought in to work with them to develop a park that reflected what they wanted. Not only does the new park embody the community’s desires, but it weaves into the surrounding urban social fabric and allows the river ecology to flourish. Like many of W’s projects, this landscape necessitated considerations of many time scales — from the daily to the generational to the geological.
The final section, “Unleashing Geographies,” further elevates nonhuman systems and their agency in shaping landscapes, especially over extended time scales. Wilks is interested in how their landscapes will evolve and how they can support all varieties of biophysical systems through this evolution. They are about humans letting go.
This objective is exemplified by W’s design at St. Patrick’s Island in Calgary, Alberta. W accentuated the shifting nature of the island, removing static water-protective barriers around the edge and welcoming water flows through the island. The design fosters the emergence of streams and wetlands, which will move over time while designating certain “fixed” areas for human activity. According to Wilks, perhaps expressing her ideal of a designed landscape, “it is a living landscape with smaller human-managed areas set within it.”
Through their deference to natural systems, projects like St. Patrick’s Island achieve lasting change. These projects, Wilks insists, must enable new growth and development of adaptable systems—not just preservation of existing ones. As she points out, even small projects in this vein show how they can succeed on other sites, encouraging more such efforts to proliferate. Here, especially, the book may prove useful to other landscape architects and designers, who can glean inspiration from W’s projects.
As our climate shifts in increasingly surprising ways, the landscape architect’s challenge is to predict how and at what rate our world will change and to create designs that will adapt accordingly. Perhaps, like Wilks argues, allowing for nature’s agency is the key to effective adaptation.
Are European eco-cities models for the future or do they reflect poor urban design practices? During the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering, a group of architects and urban designers debated the merits of a few well-known sustainable cities, including Vauban in Freiburg, Germany; Bo01 in Malmö, Sweden; Kronsberg in Germany; and Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm, Sweden. While there was agreement on the need to densify cities through new compact low-carbon development, there was a lack of consensus on the best way to make sustainable communities more walkable and aesthetically pleasing and how to best incorporate landscape and access to nature.
According to Dhiru Thadani, an architect and urbanist, the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.2 billion by 2050. “Where will all these people live?,” he wondered.
Land scarcity isn’t the issue. “We could fit 14 billion people into the state of Texas if it was as dense as Paris.” But creating enough dense low-carbon communities is.
Increased density of human settlements is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Walkable, bikeable communities, with access to low-carbon transit, have the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any development model. The key to encouraging denser development is making these communities as livable and beautiful as possible.
Architect and academic Michael Dennis, author of Architecture & The City: Selected Essays, argued that “dense urbanism is the most efficient” way to live. He also believes that ecology can be integrated into compact developments — “density doesn’t preclude ecological considerations; ecology and density are fraternal twins.”
But he believes density must be the priority with any new development. Two-thirds of Americans now live in suburban environments where they are dependent on cars that use fossil fuels. These sprawled-out, car-based communities continues our dependence on the “oil empire.”
Citing arguments made in the books Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change by urban planner Peter Calthorpe and Green Metropolis by The New Yorker writer David Owen, Dennis argued that dense urbanism “uses less land, carbon, and energy, and is the best climate solution.” To stave off the climate crisis, “we have 10-15 years left to make major changes,” which he argues involves transforming our communities into higher-density ones. He added that “stormwater and recycling issues didn’t create this crisis.”
While contemporary European eco-cities offer a model for how to maximize density and incorporate ecological landscape design, his issue is with their urban forms, “which aren’t good.” He believes that the issue is “confusion in terms of the role of landscape: the urbanism-to-building connection.”
Dennis believes ecological systems can be integrated into traditional dense and humane European community forms, but European eco-cities haven’t created the right connections between urban form, buildings, landscape, and people. These communities have an urban design problem.
Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, which is one of the original European eco-cities built on the site of a former military base, “still looks like army barracks.” While Freiburg is a “beautiful traditional European city,” Vauban “looks like a trailer park on steroids, invaded by an untamed landscape that looks like a jungle.” Its environmental merits are solid — the development is powered by solar energy and includes all ultra-low energy passive house buildings — but “the landscape is confused and unclear.” It’s a “good environmental solution, but not necessarily good urbanism.” (Dennis didn’t mention the wealth of research on the health benefits of nearby nature).
As for Bo01, a development designed in the early 00s that is powered entirely by renewable energy, the community is too distinct from the beautiful streets and squares of Malmö. In Bo01, “there are no squares or real streets; it’s an architectural project, not an urbanism project. It’s formed of architectural lego blocks.”
For Dennis, Kronsberg was “so awful I couldn’t spend time on it.” Hammarby in Stockholm is the best of the set, but “it’s still problematic — it has an architectural design, not an urban design.”
John Ellis, a consulting principal, architect, and urban designer at Mithun, disagreed. “Hammarby isn’t as bad as Michael says.” The project, which transformed a polluted brownfield site, was created as part of an Olympics bid the city didn’t win. The development, which now has 20,000 residents and 11,000 jobs, was designed to extend public transit in a ring loop and provide close proximity to a number of other jobs in Stockholm. Hammarby is powered by 50 percent renewable energy and 50 percent biogas from waste.
There is a transit stop every 984 feet (300 meters), and the tram arrives every 12 minutes. Studies found that 80 percent of trips in Hammarby occur through walking, biking, or public transit.
Blocks were scaled at 200 feet by 360 feet, and buildings are all U-shaped in order to give everyone views of the surrounding lake. There are networks of landscaped pathways that criss-cross the development, adding green space and alternative ways to traverse the community. The development includes a high school and childcare facilities. “While there is a certain monotony, there are many ingredients that create a good urban pattern. And with buildings 5-8 stories tall, Hammarby is 2.5 times as dense as San Francisco,” Ellis said.
Architect Doug Farr, who Planetizen called one of the top 100 most influential urbanists, said the world is now facing a climate emergency, so we need to move on from the traditional urbanism of the past. A leading sustainable architect, he has also found design inspiration in Freiburg and Vauban, which he has studied in depth in person.
“Traditional urbanism is part of the fabric of 19th century Europe. But we are facing 21st century questions. Traditional urbanism is good for creating walkability, but development models can’t be fixed in amber. They need to evolve to meet the challenges of today.”
Congressional debate on the massive new infrastructure legislation President Joe Biden has proposed is a “big glorious mess,” said Jason Jordan, director of public affairs at the American Planning Association, during their virtual national conference.
President Biden’s infrastructure proposal, which is called the American Jobs Plan, calls for spending $2.2 trillion over the next 8 years. Some $620 billion would go to funding improvements to roads, bridges, public transit, rails, ports, waterways, and new electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure. $115 billion of that would go to modernizing 20,000 miles of highways, roads, and main streets, along with another $20 billion for road safety. $100 billion would be for improving water infrastructure.
The plan defines infrastructure much more broadly than just roads and bridges and includes social, technological, educational, and economic infrastructure. Biden asks for another $400 billion for home care services and workforce development, $300 billion for manufacturing, $213 billion for housing, $100 billion for broadband infrastructure, $100 billion for new schools, $180 billion for research and development, and $100 billion for workforce development. To pay for these priorities, Biden calls for increasing the corporate tax from 21 percent to 28 percent and setting minimum corporate taxes.
Jordan asked a panel he assembled tough questions like: “Will budget reconciliation be used to fund the infrastructure investments? Will Biden’s infrastructure proposals be bound up in transportation legislation re-authorization? Will the financing mechanisms for these infrastructure proposals be increased corporate taxes, user fees, or gas taxes?”
Sam Mintz, a transportation reporter with Politico, said “there’s a high level of uncertainty around infrastructure, because there are unprecedented and vast policy changes proposed.”
“Republicans have made a much smaller counter-proposal that would just focus on transportation, water, and broadband infrastructure. They would finance this investment with increased infrastructure user fees rather than corporate taxes,” he explained.
The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which passed in 2015, and then was extended through this year, adds another element to Congressional deliberations on transportation. A number of bills are being developed in committees to replace the FAST Act. “Biden may bounce off the baseline re-authorization of transportation spending or spend more on top of this bill,” Mintz said.
He also believes that budget reconciliation, which is a way to get past the 60 votes required for legislation in the Senate, is likely to be used given the “progressive climate components” of Biden’s infrastructure plans.
For Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, director of federal government affairs at ASLA, the debate on transportation infrastructure is personal. “I grew up in West Baltimore, a once vibrant working-to-middle class community, which is now called an underserved community. Like many former industrial cities, Baltimore encountered some severe challenges — from the loss of factories and their blue collar jobs, to white flight, urban decay, and so called ‘urban renewal,’ and increased crime.” West Baltimore now has “rows of abandoned houses, vacant lots, food deserts, deserted and decrepit playgrounds and parks, ineffective public transit — and yes – a highway to nowhere – that replaced blocks and blocks of homes and Black families.”
According to Blackwell, landscape architects are focused on increasing equitable access to safe pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, such as Complete Streets; transit-oriented development; and green infrastructure. “We also strongly believe that parks are infrastructure, and have not been elevated in the conversation as much as they should be. Parks are a critical part of the social fabric.”
She called for a broad-based collaboration between planning and design organizations and local community groups to transform inequitable elevated highways — which destroyed diverse urban communities as part of “urban renewal” — into green, surface-level boulevards. “This is a no brainer and something the nation needs to do. It can be the first step in atonement.”
And this is where Blackwell believes the resurgence of Congressional earmarks presents a real opportunity. Congressional committees are being more inclusive in their earmark review process and asking for proposals directly from community groups. “So this is not just about capital investment but also about community engagement. These community groups — and our grassroots network of landscape architects — can now advocate for specific projects in specific places. It’s a huge opportunity for our members to address environmental injustices.”
There may also be new opportunities on climate change-related measures in Biden’s proposals. “While the terminology may be different — the Democrats say climate change, and the Republicans talk about resilience — the message is the same and there is a new willingness to work on these issues. Climate change, and nature-based solutions, are now part of the conversation,” Blackwell said.
Mintz said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who was determined to make President Barack Obama a one-term president, can be expected to be recalcitrant towards any new major investments on mitigating or adapting to climate change. Biden’s infrastructure proposal is “probably the only climate bill we will get — it’s the chance for climate action before the mid-term elections next year.” He added that “climate change may be used as a cudgel” by Republicans in the mid-terms.
Blackwell argued that senators and representatives need to “listen to their constituents who have been flooded, seen their backyard on fire, or experienced drought. There will be a political price to pay for more theater.”
Democrats and Republicans are still far apart on EV infrastructure. “Republicans see this as giving a big gift to China, as EV batteries are produced there, and there isn’t a domestic U.S. battery industry,” Mintz said. But he noted that President Biden has been talking about 500,000 EV charging stations since the very early days of his campaign so is not expected to compromise on this policy area.
Blackwell said that ASLA is focused more on building out safe, accessible bike and pedestrian infrastructure so as to reduce the number of short trips taken in vehicles. “We need complete streets for everyone.”
Stoss Landscape Urbanism, led by Chris Reed, FASLA, has produced a fascinating 40-minute video about their new design for Moakley Park in South Boston, which vividly conveys how to create next-generation waterfront parks in the era of sea level rise, social and environmental injustices, and COVID-19.
Through Stoss’ inventive resilience plan and landscape design, which was created in partnership with a range of community groups, Moakley Park will be transformed into an inclusive, resilient, biodiverse, and accessible recreational hub for diverse nearby neighborhoods, including the predominantly Black Roxbury and Dorchester communities.
Stoss states that updates to the 60-acre park, which were just approved by agencies in Boston, present “a rare opportunity to address pressing climate change needs while also prioritizing social, cultural, economic and environmental equity.”
Stoss led a large multi-disciplinary team for the project. Their design builds in climate resilience by creating multi-layered solutions for coastal flooding, stormwater, and extreme heat. The planning and design team proposed a landscape berm that will help protect the park and surrounding neighborhoods from a “predicted sea level rise of 21-40 inches in the next 50-60 years.” Constructed coastal marshes, tree orchards, and stormwater meadows help with both stormwater management and storm-related inundation from the coast. Some 500 new trees will help cool the space.
The video makes the science very clear — it models where sea level rise, exacerbated by heavy storms, would inundate the park and surrounding neighborhoods. This is planning and design rooted in the Boston city government’s latest climate projections.
Petra Geiger with Stoss, who produced and narrated the video, explains how Stoss and its team, which includes local Boston landscape architecture firm Weston & Sampson, delved into the complex legacy of the park. She explains Moakley Park’s rich history — from a garbage dump in the early 20th century to the site of protests against racial injustice in the mid-1970s.
Stoss also reframes the site — as a node in a larger waterfront Harborwalk network; as part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, his grand system of parks; as part of a new coastal bulwark against seal level rise; and as a crucial recreational space for nearby communities that are expected to double in population over coming decades.
The new park is designed to increase public health and well-being, and therefore social resilience. As a first step, Stoss and team analyzed all the physical and non-physical barriers to access. A highway, busy streets, and dangerous rotaries that surround Moakley Park all prevent older residents and those with disabilities from accessing the space. Some 55 percent of the current park is dedicated to sports, which is great, but there aren’t many alternatives for people who want to just enjoy nature or take an interesting walk.
Given the predominant sports focus, “the park is largely dormant in winter,” explained Amy Whitesides, ASLA, director of resilience and research at Stoss. And while Carson Beach is just over the other side of William J. Day Boulevard, which bounds the eastern edge of Moakley Park, relatively few go there because they can’t see it and it is difficult to access.
The planning and design team’s strategy for building climate and social resilience is to layer in an amazing set of multi-functional amenities. In an effort to create a more inclusive and equitable recreational center, there will be even more sports areas, including for basketball, skateboarding, and street hockey.
But the park will not just be about sports any longer. Amid the fields and courts are relaxing (and resilient and biodiverse) green spaces filled with native plants, playgrounds, picnic and BBQ areas, and more. All of these are made much more accessible through new safe routes into the park.
Stoss and team have also forged a greater connection with Carson Beach, better integrating the park and beach into the Harborwalk and surrounding neighborhoods. There are now more accessible pathways under the boulevard that take visitors back and forth between the park and beach.
In the video, the design team reiterates how “deep community engagement,” including open houses, in-person and web-based surveys, virtual tours, free movie night events, and countless interviews with residents of the area informed the planning and design process. Stoss and team also worked closely with community advocacy groups and even hired an equity consultant.
Reed said: “the goal has been to create a safe place for everyone.” Everything from the protective coastal berm, to the safer street-level access points, to the trees, which help cool the air, help achieve that mission. “This is what a new 21st century park looks like.”
Global temperatures are rising. 2020 was tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record. Since the 19th century, the planet has warmed by 2° Fahrenheit. Within the built environment, which is too often formed of glass, steel, asphalt, and concrete, dangerous urban heat islands are increasing the risks of heat stress. Underserved communities are particularly at risk, given they often lack trees and green spaces to mitigate the effects.
According to Devanshi Purohit, associate principal of urban design at CBT Architects, who led a session at the American Planning Association (APA)’s virtual national conference, extreme heat is the number-one climate killer in the U.S., accounting for more deaths than sea level rise, flooding, drought, and other impacts. But, strangely, extreme heat doesn’t get the focus it deserves. Reducing urban heat islands should be a central focus of the planning and design professions.
In three cities — New York City, Copenhagen, and Abu Dhabi — new approaches have been designed to both reduce urban temperatures and help communities adapt to a hotter world.
In NYC, there is a Mayor’s office of resilience, and Daphne Lundi is deputy director for social resilience. Lundi seeks how to leverage communities’ support systems to lower risks to climate impacts.
Lundi said on average cities can be up to 22° F hotter than surrounding natural areas. Furthermore, apartments and homes without air conditioners can be 20° F warmer than the outside. This is why each year in New York City, more than 1,100 people are hospitalized for heat stress and more than 100 die.
Heat risk levels vary by neighborhood. Through the Heat Vulnerability Index, which was created in partnership with Columbia University, the city government now understands that 3.4 million NYC residents are highly vulnerable (see image at top). “Risk is based in environmental factors, such as the amount of green space but also tied to poverty and race,” Lundi explained. Her department has identified low-income and older Black residents as at the greatest risk of falling ill or dying from extreme heat.
In 2017, NYC launched its Cool Neighborhoods plan, its first plan to combat extreme heat, and allocated $100 million for targeted investments in green infrastructure and tree plantings in higher risk neighborhoods.
Those most at risk are the home bound who have physical and mental issues. So as part of the effort, the city is focused on increasing risk preparedness by educating home health aids who assist older adults, helping them to identify “the early signs of early heat stress and illness.”
NYC also launched the Be a Buddy campaign, which aims to provide support for the most hard-to-reach New Yorkers. According to Lundi, during heat waves, the program leverages “long-existing bonds” and activates a system in which people check in on neighbors who may be home bound. “The system leverages trusted messengers. It was also used during the pandemic.”
The city is painting roofs on city-owned property white in order to reflect more heat back into the atmosphere. They have improved access to cooling centers. And they have purchased air conditioners for low-income, heat vulnerable residents. To date, the city has installed 74,000 air conditioners in residents’ homes and also created a utility assistance program, which offers a subsidy of $30 month during warmer months, to ensure those new air conditioners are actually used.
Moving to Copenhagen, Denmark, Rasmus Astrup, design principal and partner at SLA, a landscape architecture and urban design firm, explained that cities, with all their warming surfaces, are actually part of the climate problem — amplifying the heat impacts and creating more heat. “Cities, as they are planned and designed now, are super dumb and creating many new problems.”
Nature, which is self-sufficient and resilient, offers the best strategies for addressing extreme heat. “Nature is the most clever, so we need to re-think cities and make them more ecological.”
He noted that he said ecological and not just green, because climate change is also adversely impacting biodiversity, which underpins all life on Earth. Ecological urban solutions are needed to not only combat heat islands but to also support biodiversity.
Astrup focused on SLA’s Bryggervangen and Sankt Kjeld’s Square in Copenhagen, as a solution for tackling multiple climate issues at once: heat, flooding, and biodiversity loss. In just a few decades, “Copenhagen will have a climate similar to Barcelona, Spain,” so Astrup believes more places like this are urgently needed.
A standard roundabout in a neighborhood with very little nature was transformed into a forested area, but one that “traffic engineers can also love,” given SLA integrated bike lanes and tram lines.
Astrup described the project as a “blue green climate adaptation,” which created a biodiverse landscape that ably reduces heat and manages stormwater. “Every pocket now has green space.”
Another result is a new sense of place for this community in Copenhagen. This is a climate adaptation project people can connect to.
Kishore Varanasi, principal of urban design with CBT, then took the audience to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. He made the case for evidence-based design to tackle heat challenges.
“We’re feeling hotter, but what strategies can we use to solve the problem? Buildings, cars, asphalt all make communities hotter, so we need a layered strategy to address sources of heat.” There are shading, evaporation, convection, and conduction-based approaches.
For Varanasi, the Universal Thermal Climate Index is a useful tool for measuring environmental heat and its impact on us. “We can handle up to 30° C (86° F) comfortably but not much hotter than that.”
In Abu Dhabi, summer temperatures can already be extreme by late morning, past humans’ comfort zones. To reduce heat stress, CBT has been working with city stakeholders to create “cool paths and cool zones.”
Given there isn’t enough water to grow large shade trees in Abu Dhabi, CBT designed architectural shade structures that offer “intermittent shading.” For example, a pedestrian walking down a pathway would be in the shade for one minute and then direct sun for one minute. “People can handle a minute in high heat.” The structures are also angled in order to provide shade at different times of the day.
Varanasi said the spaces between buildings can be transformed into passive cool zones without a great deal of effort. Vertical shading, green walls, and reflective paving, along with misters help create thermally-comfortable zones that can also be “delightful at night.”
The panel concluded that while climate change is a global problem, solutions to extreme heat must be local. “You have to understand the environmental and socio-economic context,” Varanasi said.
Lundi noted that new developments are often designed to be climate resilient, but cities are made up of mostly old stocks of buildings. “We also need to bring our older neighborhoods into the future.”
Also worth checking out is a recent comprehensive report from the Urban Land Institute: Scorched: Extreme Heat and Real Estate, which outlines regional impacts and solutions in the U.S. in more detail.
Jennifer Toole, ASLA, is the founder and President of Toole Design and has over 30 years of experience planning and designing multimodal transportation systems. A certified planner with a degree in landscape architecture, Toole has a strong background in urban design. She has been involved in numerous projects of national significance for the Federal Highway Administration, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
In Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, bike infrastructure is identified as one of the top 80 solutions for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. The book finds that in 2014, 5.5 percent of urban trips worldwide were by bicycle. If that number grew to 7.5 percent by 2050, displacing some 2.2 trillion passenger miles completed by vehicles, some 2.2 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions could be avoided, realizing approximately $400 billion savings over the next 30 years. What are the most important steps cities and communities can take to rapidly grow bike use?
Most people just don’t feel safe bicycling, which is the greatest disincentive. We spent nearly a century in this country building a transportation system that essentially only caters to people who are driving motor vehicles. We have a system that fundamentally doesn’t support bicycling.
The best thing cities can do to incentivize bicycling is make it feel safer for people. This can be accomplished through interconnected networks of bike facilities separated from traffic that don’t end at major barriers.
That’s a big problem right now: we have a lot of bikeways that might get you part of the way to where you want to go, but then you get to a big intersection or an interchange with a highway and the bikeway ends.
We also need need to reduce motor vehicle speeds across the board, so that when bicyclists and motorists cross paths, it’s in a safe and controlled way. And we need to provide high-quality and secure places to park your bike once you get to where you’re going.
None of this is rocket science. If you look at countries that have successfully increased the percentage of people bicycling by even a few percentage points, it’s because they invested in infrastructure to make bicyclists feel safe — and, in fact, bicyclists are now safer in those places.
Drawdown also identifies e-bikes as a critical climate solution. While many bike-riders feel comfortable biking a few miles on flat surfaces, half of all trips are estimated to be 6.2 miles, which may be too far in the heat or if the route is hilly. E-bikes also better support riders who may be older or less able. What are some other ways cities and communities can incentivize e-bike use?
I am really excited about e-bikes because they eliminate another major disincentive to bicycling: hilly areas, with long, difficult uphill climbs. I live at the top of a really steep hill. Many times I have done that calculus in my head. Am I going to ride my bike? If I ride my bike, when I come home, I am going to have to come back up that hill.
When you look at a normal bike trip, it’s usually someplace between one to three miles in length. An e-bike trip is typically a little bit longer than a normal bike trip, because you don’t have to expend as much energy to make that trip.
The keys to incentivizing e-bike use are the exact same as they are for regular bikes. You’ve got to provide spaces where people feel safe riding their bike. E-bikes are a little bit faster than regular bikes, so that makes it even more evident that sidewalks are not the right place for them. E-bikes really need their own space. They need separated bike lanes. They need shared-use paths and bike boulevards. You have to feel like you have safe places to ride.
Cities are also providing e-bikes through their bike share services, which gives people a way to check them out and realize how much fun they are to ride. It’s one of the reasons why e-bike sales are just soaring all around the country.
According to the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), researchers in the U.K. found that biking to work is associated with 45 percent lower risk of developing cancer and a 46 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, compared to commuting by car or public transit. UNEP also states: “daily exercise prolongs life expectancy by approximately 3.4 years. Regular cycling boosts physical health as an efficient way to prevent obesity.” How can we better promote the health benefits of biking to communities?
Those are some pretty incredible statistics I think that most people are not aware of.
It’s more about providing ways for people to introduce exercise into their normal, everyday life without even thinking about it. There are a lot of studies that show people are more active and healthy in places where walking and biking for everyday trips is common, so making sure that destinations in shopping areas and workplaces are in close proximity to home is really an important part of making sure that people take those everyday trips on foot and by bicycle.
We need to make bicycling the logical choice — the no-brainer choice — for a certain segment of short trips we make. When you go to The Netherlands and ask people why they are riding bikes, they almost never talk about the exercise or the environment. They are riding a bike, because it’s the most efficient way to get where they want to go.
Countries like The Netherlands have a lot of folks who bike well into their 70s and 80s, because they have provided places that feel safe for riding a bike. I have no doubt it contributes to a much longer lifespan.
Data also shows that the pandemic has resulted in a bike boom in many cities and communities. According to a report from Strava, a fitness tracking company, bike use in car-centric cities like Houston increased by 138 percent and in Los Angeles by 93 percent. The Rails to Trails Conservancy found that trail use increased threefold in March 2020 over 2019. Do you think bike use will continue to remain at high levels after we have all been vaccinated? What role do you think “slow streets” have played? And if the bike boom continues, will it result in greater investment in permanent bike infrastructure?
I think it will. Bike use will continue to remain at higher levels, because our travel patterns have been disrupted in ways that we’re only now just beginning to realize. There’s a whole segment of workers who will probably never go back to working in an office from 9:00 to 5:00 five days a week. The flexibility of being able to work from home will mean that our rush hour is going to look different in the future.
Why drag yourself out of bed to go and sit in the car for an hour longer than you really need to just to get to work at a certain time? A certain segment of workers are going to make that calculus and say, “I don’t need to go into the office to work. I can do it right here,” because they’ve been doing it for over a year, and it worked fine. Working from home is going to become much more accepted and prevalent and, with that change, people are going to continue to look for ways to use a bicycle for trips that originate from their homes.
Slow streets have really been great, because they gave people places to ride that feels safe. I’ve heard so many stories of slow street projects that had opposition in the beginning and now people are getting upset when cities remove their slow-street designation. From what we’re seeing, cities are looking for ways to have more permanent, connected networks of bike facilities, and that was starting well before COVID-19. It’s not something that was new; I just think COVID brought it home how much we needed more infrastructure.
Research also finds that low-income communities bike to work more often than other groups. The Chicago Tribune reports that the biggest group of Americans who bike to work are from households that earn less than $10,000. But a report from the League of American Bicyclists also found that Hispanic bike-riders had a bike fatality rate 23 percent higher, and Black riders had a fatality rate 30 percent higher than white riders. How can cities and communities make bike infrastructure more equitable and improve safety for historic marginalized and underserved communities?
We need to do a better job at providing better infrastructure in underserved areas of our cities. Often these are the same neighborhoods that have been impacted by highway construction, where we have widened roads so that suburban commuters can get to their jobs and downtown. It’s not a surprise those are the same places that have higher rates of crashes for Hispanic and Black riders. They need more attention than we’re giving them in terms of providing safer facilities.
A lot of the work we do for cities is about adjusting that balance and giving more attention to neighborhoods that have been neglected when it comes to providing good places to not only to bike but also to walk. Among other things, we aim to reduce traffic speeds on those streets, which is not an easy thing because they were built for higher speeds.
Many of the projects we work on are focused on equity. For example, we are working on an expansion of the trail network in Fresno, California. We analyzed all the proposed trails the city has planned to build in the next 20 years using a tool that prioritizes equity factors. The city then selected four connecting trails segments in a community facing environmental injustices. It relied on a tool used in California that helps identify communities most affected by pollution and where people are often especially vulnerable to pollution.
The Biden administration just released a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which could result in much greater investment in complete streets, bicycle networks, trails. If you were somehow in charge of all the billions, how would you allocate it on bicycle infrastructure?
In many communities, they have already tackled their easier projects, the ones that weren’t difficult to build — streets that were overbuilt for the amount of traffic they’re carrying and required a road diet to reconfigure space.
The next phase of work is much harder. It’s closing the gaps between facilities. Imagine a trail that ends at a major intersection. It’s hard to get across that intersection in order to connect one part of town to another part of town where you have bike networks. You really need an overpass across the highway built for bike and pedestrian traffic. If I were in charge of that infrastructure investment, I would make it available for major infrastructure projects that close gaps in bike and pedestrian networks.
In South Bend, Indiana, your staff partnered with the administration of then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is now U.S. transportation secretary, to create an open space and smart streets plan to revitalize South Bend’s downtown. The plan resulted in the transformation of St. Joseph’s Boulevard to a green complete street. Secretary Buttigieg said the streetscape improvements led to $90 million in private investment by downtown businesses along the corridor. Can you tell us more about Secretary Buttigieg and his understanding of the connections between streetscape improvements and revitalization?
The most basic answer for how that revitalization led to all the private investment is that the design prioritizes the movement of people over cars. It was a very controversial approach to their downtown revitalization, and there were a lot of people who were worried that it wouldn’t work. To Secretary Buttigieg’s credit, he had a vision for making their downtown be a place where people felt comfortable walking everywhere.
The downtown businesses saw that it was going to be a place that was really special, which is what led to the investment. And it hasn’t stopped with downtown. The work we’re doing now in South Bend is going out like tendrils into the community. The city is systematically tackling their street network and prioritizing pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Secretary Buttigieg’s vision has continued to transform the city’s approach to transportation and it has clearly benefited the community.
Your firm is leading an interdisciplinary team working with the city of Atlanta’s Department of City Planning to re-imagine Peachtree Street as a shared space that blurs the lines between public space and streets. What are the benefits of these environments? How do you overcome safety or accessibility concerns?
Peachtree Street has long been Atlanta’s main street. The street receives a lot of traffic and is dominated by cars. The city is looking to change that dynamic and make it a destination for people. The benefit of making Peachtree Street a flush street — so all one level, no curbs — is that it really promotes that feeling that it’s a street where pedestrians are the highest priority. They don’t have to go to an intersection in order to cross the street. They can move freely across the street. It’s modeled on the types of streets that have been built really all over Europe, where there’s just one street surface.
Another benefit is that it slows everybody down. Cars can still travel down the street and park, but drivers don’t feel comfortable going fast down a flush street. Often there are fewer traffic signals or signs to direct traffic. This is due to a concept in traffic engineering: when you introduce an element of uncertainty, everyone slows down. It’s fundamentally about making sure motor vehicle traffic goes slower.
Also, a flush street is inherently more accessible. You can imagine people on wheelchairs don’t have to go to the corners to find a place to cross. People pushing baby strollers can easily move about. But you do need special accommodations for people who are blind or have low vision, because they need to know how to navigate down that street. They often use a curb line as a guide.
Fortunately, there are new ways to help people who are blind to navigate. A different type of pavement treatment with raised grooves can help guide a person with a cane down a street. These have been used in train stations and other places where there is a need to navigate through plazas and other open areas.
Landscape architects integrate safe, accessible pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure with green infrastructure. In St. Paul, Minnesota, your firm designed the Jackson Street Reconstruction Project, which transformed an outdated avenue into a truly multi-modal corridor that features two-way protected bike lanes, wider pedestrian walkways protected by green buffers that manage storm water. How is this project a model? How do you make the case that communities should spend the extra money for the green infrastructure?
Jackson Street is just such a great example of the way we should be designing streets in this country.
It’s important to think about what the street looked like before to understand the opportunity it represents for many other streets in this country. Jackson Street was as wide as six lanes, a classic example of an overbuilt street. Somebody at some point in the past decided that the road needed to have four lanes. The street didn’t have the traffic volume to support those lanes.
We were able to take up to two travel lanes off the road, which gave us 20-plus more feet of space to work with to provide a wider sidewalk, a two-way separated bike lane, and generous rain gardens between the bikeway and the road. We were able to use the green infrastructure to provide that much needed separation between the bikeway and the street. The bikeway itself is built from pervious pavement. The runoff from Jackson Street is directed into those rain gardens.
St. Paul is a city concerned about water pollution, runoff, and flooding. It’s on the banks of the Mississippi, so this type of street design is logical. There are so many cities around the country that are increasingly concerned about flooding and need to find ways to let stormwater seep into the ground instead of run off into nearby waterways. Cities are feeling the impact of major flood events and the financial cost of those events, which is why they are looking at these streetscape projects as an opportunity to rethink the way that water flows in their city.
There are generations of work for landscape architects to fix all these streets and make them greener by providing vegetation in the streetscape on a scale that we’ve never done before. We were sort of stuck in the past with these tiny tree boxes. That was the conventional way of providing green in the landscape. This new way of designing streets is going to give us so much more room to work with different types of plants and soils. It’s a really exciting time to be a landscape architect.
To address climate change, environmental degradation, and social inequalities, we need coordinated political action and systemic change on a global scale. With a mission to safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of the public, landscape architects can become important agents of that change.
Given our ability to work with social and ecological systems at multiple scales, landscape architects are uniquely positioned to bring about positive systemic change locally, regionally, and across temporal and territorial borders. But to become true changemakers, landscape architects also need to take a more proactive approach beyond the current business as usual. We need to work with a greater network of partners and allies. We need to approach design as a form of activism and a vehicle for change.
For landscape architects to become changemakers, we must change how they are taught. In a new report titled Design As Activism, we propose a framework that design schools can adopt to create opportunities within their programs for both immediate and enduring change:
Politicize – Develop the ability and capacity in students to engage in the political process to create change; understand better the language and systems of power; accept the responsibility of professionals as engaged citizens and as members of a democracy.
Hybridize – Build knowledge and capacity beyond the traditional core of the profession; engage in collaboration on research, teaching, and service with other disciplines; learn from how other fields generate, disseminate, and apply knowledge, and how they engage the public and advance their agenda.
Glocalize – Think and act both locally and globally; build connections with stakeholders, including communities, public agencies, civic organizations, and the professional community locally and across borders; examine the intersections between local and global challenges.
Improvise – Make use of what already exists, including courses, curriculum, programs, and other resources; utilize strengths and assets already in place in a program or a community, including existing connections and relationships; be tactical and creative with opportunities and circumstances.
Problematize – Question assumptions and challenges facing an institution or a community; develop a deeper understanding of issues and take a critical stance; make issues of equity, justice, and resilience in a current program, curriculum, institution, or community the focus of education and actions.
Authenticize – Create opportunities for self-discoveries through experiential learning; develop and support long-lasting relationships for collaboration with community stakeholders; work with communities and stakeholders in the actual context with real issues.
Entrepreneurize — Provide students not only with technical skills but also entrepreneurial knowledge; develop partnerships with programs on campuses and organizations in the profession to offer courses and workshops; provide students with skills and opportunities to pursue alternative practices.
(Re)organize – Examine critically how education and professional practices in landscape architecture are organized; collaborate with the movement organizations and find critical intersections of our work; identify allies and build coalitions and greater capacity for the profession
Democratize – Begin by reexamining the power structure within our educational institutions; fully engage students, faculty, and the professional community in program decision and implementation; ensure that all voices are included in courses, projects, and initiatives; build capacity in the community we work with.
This framework and additional recommendations in the report drew from discussions at national conferences, an online survey, and interviews with practitioners and program leaders in the U.S. We explored the skills and knowledge required for design activists and the challenges and opportunities facing the integration of design activism into landscape architecture education. To learn from the existing efforts in the field, we further examined the current models of engaged learning that included community design centers, community-university partnerships, and service-learning programs.
As educational programs in landscape architecture vary in their focus, size, and organization, and as they respond often to different contexts and constituents, the proposals here are not meant to be one-size-fits-all, nor are they exhaustive. Instead, we ask each program and school to assess its own mission and goals and develop appropriate strategies and actions together with students, faculty, and the professional community.
While the framework and suggested actions are specific to education, we firmly believe integrating this mission in the professional world of landscape architecture is also essential. A broader transformation can only occur through collaboration between education, practice, and social engagement.
The report was the outcome of a Landscape Architecture Foundation Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership awarded to Jeffrey Hou, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, Seattle, with the support of a working group whose members include: Kofi Boone, FASLA, North Carolina State University; Mallika Bose Pennsylvania State University; Chingwen Cheng, ASLA, Arizona State University; David de la Peña, University of California, Davis; Joern Langhorst, University of Colorado, Denver; Laura Lawson, ASLA, Rutgers University; Michael Rios, University of California, Davis; Deni Ruggeri, Norwegian University of Life Sciences; and Julie Stevens, ASLA, Iowa State University.
ASLA’s Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Online Exhibition demonstrates how landscape architects are designing smart solutions to climate impacts, such as flooding, extreme heat, drought, and sea level rise. 10 new projects added to the exhibition exemplify best practice approaches to landscape architecture in the era of climate change.
The projects include a mix of landscape-based and often nature-based solutions across the U.S., which range in scale from residential and school landscapes to master plans for entire cities and counties. There is also a focus on projects that address climate injustices and meet the needs of historically-marginalized and underserved communities.
“The projects clearly show how landscape architects can help all kinds of communities reduce their risk to increasingly severe climate impacts. Landscape architects design with nature, which leads to more resilient solutions that also improve community health, safety, and well-being over the long-term,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO
With the new projects, which were selected with ASLA’s Climate Action Committee, there are now a total of 30 projects featured in the online exhibition. Each project was selected to illustrate policy recommendations outlined in the 2017 report produced by ASLA’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change & Resilience.
Being solely dependent on cars increases communities’ risks to climate impacts. Through the 815-mile Cuyahoga Greenways Framework Plan created by landscape architects and planners at SmithGroup, some 59 communities will have healthier and more resilient transportation connections to downtown Cleveland, Lake Erie, and each other.
Too few schools offer educational green spaces that can spark children’s appreciation for nature, which is critical to helping them become future Earth stewards. Jane Tesner Kleiner, ASLA, with nature+play designs partnered with school leaders, students, and volunteers to design native plant gardens, meadows, and tree groves that create environmental education opportunities; support pollinators, such as butterflies, bees, and birds; and also manage stormwater.
By 2012, more than 50 percent of the tree canopy of the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center had been lost due to drought and hurricanes made more severe by climate change. By removing trees and restoring the original prairie, savannah, and woodland ecosystems found at the Arboretum, landscape architects with Design Workshop and Reed Hilderbrand designed a landscape naturally resilient to future climate shocks.
Historically marginalized and underserved communities, like those found in the South Side of Chicago, are disproportionally affected by climate impacts such as flooding. Through the Space to Grow program, a flooded asphalt schoolyard at the John W. Cook Academy, an elementary school on the South Side, was redesigned by landscape architects at site design group, ltd (site) to become a green learning and play space that captures stormwater.
Through their research capabilities and campus infrastructure, universities and schools can also help solve the climate crisis. For the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, landscape architects with Andropogon integrated an innovative water management system that captures and reuses 100 percent of stormwater runoff from the building and also cleanses and reuses building greywater in the ecological landscape.
Orange County, California | Jodie Cook Design, Inc.
Climate change has severely reduced the availability of fresh water in arid Western states. Turf lawns require vast amounts of water to maintain and also provide no habitat for native plant and animal species. Through NatureScape, an innovative program in Orange County, California, Jodie Cook, ASLA, helped homeowners transform their turf front yards into water-saving native plant gardens that can sustain a range of native bird, bee, and butterfly species.
Climate change is making communities’ struggles with aging combined sewer systems, which carry both sewage from buildings and stormwater from streets, even worse. With more frequent extreme weather events, these systems now more often overflow, causing untreated sewage to enter water bodies. Rain Check 2.0, an innovative program in Buffalo, New York, led by landscape architect Kevin Meindl, ASLA, offers grants to private landowners to capture stormwater through trees, rain gardens, green roofs and streets.
Historically marginalized and underserved communities, like those in the South Bronx in New York City, experience higher than average heat risks because they typically have fewer parks and recreational spaces. The lack of safe and convenient pedestrian and bicycle access to nearby green spaces exacerbates the problem. Working with two community groups and the New York City government, landscape architects with MNLA designed the Randall’s Island Connector, a ¼-mile-long multi-modal path underneath an Amtrak freight line.
Sapwi Trails Community Park
Thousand Oaks, California | Conejo Recreation & Park District and RRM Design Group (consulting landscape architects)
In drought-stricken Western states, climate change has added stress to increasingly fragile ecosystems. Instead of moving forward with an earlier plan that could have damaged the Lang Creek ecosystem, planners and landscape architects at the Conejo Recreation & Park District and RRM Design Group designed the Sapwi Trails Community Park to be a model for how to preserve ecological systems while improving access and dramatically reducing water use.
Climate change and environmentally-insensitive development in the Pacific Northwest are exacerbating negative impacts on salmon. Grassroots environmental organizations sought to daylight the piped Thornton Creek. A new water quality channel was designed by landscape architects at MIG to clean stormwater runoff from 680 surrounding acres before the water flows into the South Fork of the salmon-bearing Thornton Creek.
New projects were submitted by ASLA members through an open call ASLA released in 2019. In partnership with the ASLA Climate Action Committee, projects were selected to represent a range of U.S. regions, scales (from residential to county-wide master plans), and firm types.
In 2017, ASLA convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change & Resilience, which resulted in a report: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate and a series of lectures and educational sessions at built environment conferences. In 2019, an exhibition outlining 20 cases that exemplify the policy goals outlined in the report opened at the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C., and a companion website was launched.
The exhibition was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Highways and elevated train and subway lines that cut through cities can be seen as barriers. But through innovative landscape design, the spaces beneath these transportation systems are becoming new linear parks that help bring communities back together. Offering built-in shelter for rain and snow and shade during warmer months, elevated infrastructure provides communities and landscape architects an opportunity to create new forms of public space.
After more than six years of planning, design, and construction, the first half-mile-long segment of The Underline, Miami’s 10-mile-long linear park, has opened below the city’s Metrorail system. Designed by a multidisciplinary team led by James Corner Field Operations (JCFO), a landscape architecture and urban design firm, The Underline is a model for how to separate pedestrian and bicycle networks and incorporate exercise facilities and outdoor spaces — all while leveraging existing infrastructure.
When The Friends of the Underline, a non-profit organization, and JCFO complete the project, the new park will span from the Miami River in Brickell to the Dadeland South Metrorail station and create more than 120 acres of multi-use public space. Restored natural habitats will mix with public spaces of all kinds along with pedestrian and bicycle paths that link directly to the Metrorail’s stations.
The first segment is already a far cry from what was once there. Isabel Castilla, ASLA, design principal-in-charge for The Underline at JCFO, said: “I still remember one of our first site visits when we had to strategically run between oncoming traffic to cross the street because there was no safe way to cross the SW 7th or SW 8th Street intersections!”
Through outreach sessions, Castilla’s team discovered that improving pedestrian and bicycle access below the Metrorail lines was a priority for the community. “We learned there was a strong desire to create separate paths as some cyclists wanted to travel fast while using The Underline for commuting while others desired a space for strolling,” she said.
To reduce conflicts between pedestrians and bicyclists, JCFO implemented a few strategies: “First and foremost, we added traffic lights, pedestrian signals, and crosswalks. Second, the path geometry is always straight and perpendicular to intersection crossings in order to ensure cyclists have proper visibility.”
Furthermore, “all intersections feature designated crosswalks for pedestrians and cyclists in order to give room to everyone and minimize conflicts. Lastly, we implemented bold pavement graphics — not only at intersections to make drivers aware of those crossing on bike or by foot, but also along the bike path to alert cyclists of an upcoming intersection so they can reduce speeds,” Castilla explained.
For Alejandro Vazquez, ASLA, design project manager for The Underline at JCFO, the project’s transportation safety benefits are personal: “My grandparents lived in Little Havana and their street didn’t even have a sidewalk to walk on. I remember my grandfather being one of the few people riding a bike in Miami in the 80’s and 90’s, and we were always worried that he would get hit by a car. In a county that has the highest number of pedestrian and bicycle crashes in the state of Florida, the simple act of creating connections through Miami with The Underline’s safe bike trail and pedestrian paths is quite revolutionary. The Underline and its connections to the Metrorail, Metromover, bus transport system, and projected trails—including the future Ludlam trail and the Miami Riverwalk extension—will contribute to a robust network of sustainable mobility corridors.”
The Underline has also become part of the greater East Coast Greenway, which runs 2,900 miles from Maine to Florida. Phase one of The Underline links with the Miami River Greenway, and the completed linear park will connect to six major trails in Miami-Dade county.
Beyond the street-level transportation network, JCFO incorporated a range of public spaces, all designed with a bold green brand identity and way-finding system designed by Hamish Smyth of Order Design. Brickell Backyard, the first phase of The Underline, found at the northernmost portion, is organized into a “procession of rooms” — the River Room, Gym, Promenade, and Oolite Room. Many of these spaces will also eventually be populated by public art, selected in collaboration with Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places.
The River Room offers views of the Miami River, native and South Florida-friendly plants, and space for residents and their dogs.
The Gym is designed for fitness, with a flexible court for basketball and soccer surrounded by exercise spaces that have strength training equipment, stretch and balance areas, and a running track.
The Promenade area, which includes the multi-modal Brickell Metrorail station, features wide sidewalks for bus and trolley commuters, a pedestrian path, and a separate bike path between the Metrorail columns that increases safety, JCFO notes.
Social spaces in the Promenade include a Station Grove, which offers moveable tables and chairs and bicycle parking for commuters; a game area with tables for chess and dominoes; a 50-foot-long communal dining table; and a plaza and stage that hosts activities organized by the Friends of the Underline.
The Oolite Room, named after the Oolite sedimentary limestone of Miami that naturally compresses into ooid forms, frames native plant gardens designed to attract butterflies.
Castilla explained that The Underline is found in the monarch butterfly migration corridor. “The park has already seen a resurgence of butterflies that include the Atala butterfly, an endangered endemic South Florida species that thrives with plants such as Coontie and Lantana involucrate,” she said.
As Miami faces climate impacts such as extreme heat, sea level rise, and increased ground-up flooding through its limestone landscape, the entire project was also designed to be climate resilient.
To reduce heat gain, Castilla tells us “the project is carefully designed around existing mature trees to preserve them while also carving out sizable new planting areas, minimizing hard surfaces, and, in turn, minimizing heat gain. All hardscapes use light-colored materials. In particular, the bike path asphalt paving was coated with a light-colored finish.”
The landscape architects also made sure the project did its part to reduce flooding from stormwater. “The Underline corridor sits on the Miami Rock Ridge, benefiting from some of the highest elevations in Miami. As such, it is not as prone to flooding or sea level rise as other parts of Miami. That said, we have carefully graded the site to direct all surface water to planting beds in order to minimize direct runoff to the city’s sewers.”