Studio-MLA won the 2021 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for landscape architecture. The firm, which has been led by Salvadorian-born landscape architect Mia Lehrer, FASLA, for 25 years, seeks to “integrate landscape architecture, urban design, and planning to create places that inspire human connection, unite communities, and restore environmental balance.” The firm’s staff of 45, based in Los Angeles and San Francisco, includes landscape architects, planners, ecologists, and botanists.
On winning the award, Lehrer said: “we’re indebted to our collaborators, in particular our visionary clients, non-profit partners, and design teams for their commitment to building places that create social justice and equity, and projects that tell the stories layered within places — stories of people, neighborhoods, hope and conflict, water, air, ecology, and empowerment.”
The firm’s design philosophy is focused on creating broader impact: “Through our projects, pro bono efforts, and strategic relationships, we advocate by design. For over twenty years, our role as catalyst has educated and empowered people to translate ideas into culturally-relevant and climate-appropriate places.”
In an interview with ASLA, Lehrer, who has been an advocate for climate action and restoring ecosystems, said: “I didn’t grow up in the U.S., but my parents were community activists. We all don’t have a choice but to be engaged and educated about the dire situation we’re all in.”
Studio-MLA is known for taking on highly complex large-scale landscape planning projects that involve navigating layers of government jurisdictions. They often use legacy infrastructure as an opportunity to address climate impacts, restore ecosystems, and reconnect underserved and immigrant communities. In particular, the firm has led large-scale landscape planning efforts that re-imagine outdated river infrastructure, so these systems become more ecological and accessible. The firm’s goal is to create healthier human-ecological systems at all scales.
The firm recently won a major landscape planning and design project — the River-Side Gateway Project Suite in Riverside, California, which includes a series of nine sites along seven-miles of the Santa Ana River. The project seeks to “create access to water and recreation for citizens while also designing solutions for stormwater mitigation, threatened habitat, and air quality impacts,” explained Matt Romero, ASLA, landscape designer at Studio-MLA.
Another recent landscape planning project is the Upper Los Angeles Rivers & Tributaries Revitalization Plan, which proposes imaginative ways to transform the “heavily channelized waterways that meander eastward through the San Fernando Valley.” To develop the plan, Studio-MLA “mapped spatial obstacles and constraints including, but not limited to, government jurisdictions, land use, park access, pollution load, ecological habitat, water quality, flood risk, safe access, and connectivity.” This information enabled them to examine existing economic, environmental, and social impacts, and create a new equitable framework for reconnecting communities to more natural rivers and tributaries.
Destination Crenshaw in Los Angeles is also an exciting large-scale effort that demonstrates the firm’s inclusive planning and design approach. A new “community-inspired” 1.1-mile-long, outdoor museum along Crenshaw Boulevard, where a new Metro line and stations will surface, will become a “living celebration of Black Los Angeles” in the “heart of the largest black community west of the Mississippi River.” Studio-MLA, along with Perkins+Will, Raw International, and Gallagher & Associates is imagining the urban and landscape design for the project, which will include community-driven public art.
Throughout Lehrer’s projects, there is a commitment to inclusive engagement, particularly with underserved and immigrant communities. In an ASLA interview, she said that through a planning process, “you can embolden people, allow them to feel comfortable that it’s their right to communicate, not necessarily demand, but to be part of a dialogue. It’s education, creating a set of tools, and allowing people to understand they can be advocates for their own needs.”
The firm’s built community and residential projects are also characterized by a deep respect for water and native plants. A prime example is the 10-acre Vista Hermosa Natural Park in Los Angeles, which was carefully designed to capture 95 percent of the precious rainwater that falls on the site through an interconnected system of “permeable paving, green roofs, grassy meadows, vegetated swales, and a 30,000-gallon cistern that supplies irrigation.” The park was designed with native plants to educate visitors about the Southern Californian landscape.
“In nature, creeks and streams collect rain that falls on the mountains and hillsides. Trees and vegetation soak up the water, shade the soil, and drop leaves that decompose to become habitat, a protective layer of mulch, and eventually soil. The soil acts like a sponge, holding water for long enough periods of time for native plants to make it through the summer. You can mimic nature at home by reducing impermeable surfaces, grading to keep rainwater on site, planting climate-appropriate shade trees and plants, and adding a thick layer of mulch to conserve soil moisture.”
While often working at the scale of miles, Lehrer seems to say no site is too small to make a positive impact.
Through a new framework plan, the 317-acre Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee is being re-imagined as an accessible, equitable educational center that tells the story of the incredible biodiversity of Tennessean landscapes. Once a drive-through arboretum, Reflection Riding is poised to become an important model for ecological restoration and wildlife conservation, with expanded enclosures for wolves and eagles. As part of a six month planning process, SCAPE Landscape Architecture developed a proposal that will re-orient and create new buildings, offer a new entry sequence and visitor center, prioritize restoration areas, and expand a forest school and kindergarten, canopy walks and trails, and a native plant nursery.
“We are fortunate we can work with clients that align with our ethos and values. Reflection Riding is focused on some of our key priorities: access, education, and conserving and restoring natural landscapes. This is what landscape architecture in the 21st century should be,” explained Nans Voron, senior associate at SCAPE, in a phone interview.
The framework plan celebrates the vision and legacy of John A. Chambliss, who founded the arboretum in the early 20th century. SCAPE and the arboretum sought to maintain Chambliss’ core values, rooted in “his deep love and respect for the landscape.” But they also sought to make the arboretum more accessible and equitable through a more welcoming entry sequence and expanded educational programs geared towards underserved communities that live nearby.
In its first few decades, the arboretum was designed as a drive-through loop. Later, once cars were excluded, horses became a means of exploring the landscape. With the new ecological restoration goals, the horses stabled on site will eventually be phased out.
“My impression is that many people who live near Reflection Riding don’t know it exists,” Voron said. This could be a result of the gates that limit access at the entrance; the horse-back riding in the arboretum, which may be viewed as exclusive; and confusion about the arboretum’s connection to a neighboring national park.
With a redesigned entrance, SCAPE hopes more visitors will feel the arboretum is also a place for them. A new visitor center will make all the educational options more easily understood. The existing forest school and kindergarten will approximately double in size and be moved closer to the entrance, where an expanded native plant nursery, which offers plants for sale to the public, will also be located.
Trails throughout the arboretum and nature center will be made ADA accessible, and a new “Braille trail” for blind and low vision users is being considered. SCAPE proposes a series of learning stations along shorter loops organized around themes such as geology, hydrology, and the role of this landscape in the Civil War.
While the framework plan is rooted in a comprehensive analysis of the many complex natural systems found within the arboretum, which range from creeks and streams to meadows, wetlands, and forests, Voron said SCAPE focused in on some key restoration opportunities in the wetlands around Lookout Creek and the many small streams that feed into it. “There are currently two artificial ponds; we instead propose restoring the wetland and tidal landscapes so they can create more wildlife habitat and also better accommodate more water in the wet season.”
Elevated canopy walks now exist in the arboretum but will be extended into the restored wetlands and redesigned to offer greater flexibility, a lighter footprint, and a higher elevation to accommodate for climate change. “The new canopy walks will be more resilient and offer a different experience,” Voron contends.
In forested parts of the arboretum, there have been continual efforts to remove invasive plants. New plans to scale up the native plant nursery create opportunities to accelerate the restoration of the natural landscapes and make the arboretum a showcase for restorative design. Another goal is to invite researchers to study ecological change, making the arboretum a true learning laboratory.
New enclosures for the animals protected in the arboretum’s wildlife center won’t function like a typical zoo. “While the animal enclosures will be accessible to the public during business hours, Reflection Riding won’t be caging animals in small pens. You may or may not see the wolves and raptors when you visit.”
Voron explained that the new plan for the wildlife center was challenging, because “each species has many requirements, and some couldn’t be adjacent to others.” Different species of native eagles and other raptors will be carefully separated from various kinds of native wolves. “The goal was to limit disturbances to each species.”
A Landscape Architect’s Outdoor Artwork — Harvard Magazine
“Decades later, that synthesis was part of what propelled him toward a master’s degree in landscape architecture, after 20 years as a curator, graphic-design artist, set designer, and furniture designer. ‘I got to a point in my work as an artist where I felt like I needed some traction in a way that I wasn’t quite finding in the arts,’ [Todd Gilen] says. ‘Landscape architecture has a kind of scientific rigor about it. It’s a discipline that has a basis in both science and the arts.'”
So Long, Traditional Lawn. The New Turf Trends—From Wildflowers to Fescue — 08/27/21, The Wall Street Journal
“‘I have an enormous moss garden just naturally because I don’t do anything to it,’ said Sandra Youssef Clinton, a landscape architect in Hyattsville, Md. Sixteen large oak trees provide constant shade, she said. Though fans of classic turf tell her, ‘Oh, you should get rid of that, it looks so terrible,’ Ms. Clinton finds it quite beautiful. Said Mr. Moore, ‘Even the word ‘moss’ conjures elves and fairies and deep forest.'”
Good News: The Most Popular Material on Earth Is Great for Storing CO2 — 08/27/20, Fast Company
“Our Earth is heating up because of all the carbon dioxide in the air. But even if we can suck that much CO2 out of the atmosphere, there’s still a problem: What do we do with all of it once it’s recaptured? The short answer is, put it into products. The longer answer is, put it into the right products. Specifically, concrete.”
Study Suggests Bike Lanes Do Not Lead to Displacement, Gentrification — 08/27/21, Bike Portland
“The installation of new bike infrastructure in neighborhoods does not lead to displacement of people of color, and low-income areas received more “hard” facilities like buffered or protected bike lanes than high income areas, according to a new study published in July by Elsevier.”
After Years of Failure, California Lawmakers Pave the Way for More Housing — 08/26/21, The New York Times
“Suddenly zoning reform has been thrust to the top of the urban agenda. Cities including Charlotte, N.C.; Minneapolis; Portland, Ore.; and Sacramento have moved to allow multifamily buildings on lots previously limited to single-family houses. The issue is now starting to attract higher-level attention: In the past two years 10 states, including Connecticut, New Hampshire, Montana and North Carolina, have considered bills to reform local zoning rules.”
In Fire Scorched California, Town Aims to Buy the Highest At-Risk Properties — 08/23/21, NPR
“The idea is to connect the burnt out lots to the town’s existing park land. That’s good for adding more recreation but it could also work as a fuel break. Efseaff’s department could strictly manage forests like this with the hopes that the next wildfire might slow down here and give firefighters a chance.”
In a Warming World, Consider the Mist Garden — 08/19/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Designed by landscape architects Quennell Rothschild & Partners, the new mist garden features 504 evenly spaced fog nozzles atop a new plaza that fills in the 310-foot pool end to end, even keeping the original 1964 stone coping. The new plaza’s edges are paved in a pattern of overlapping triangles, a nod to the Art Deco architecture of the park’s first World’s Fair in 1939, as well as Manhattan landmarks like the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center. Concrete lounges make it possible to simulate a spa day in the middle of Queens’ largest park.”
How a Pioneering Garden Designer Inspired Vogue’s Fall Fashion Fantasy — 08/17/21, Vogue
“‘Should it not be remembered that in setting a garden we are painting a picture?’ So asked Beatrix Farrand in her 1907 Scribner’s essay ‘The Garden as Picture.’ A pioneering American landscape architect whose career spanned the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and two world wars, Farrand wrote, ‘The two arts of painting and garden design are closely related, except that the landscape gardener paints with actual color, line, and perspective…while the painter has but a flat surface on which to create his illusion.'”
Is Artificial Turf Right for You? 3 Things to Consider Before Installing a Fake Lawn — 08/12/21, Architectural Digest
“According to San Clemente landscape designer Jodie Cook, although grass requires potable water and turf doesn’t, that’s too narrow a comparison. Other elements of the water cycle are a major issue. Plants, even grasses, create water themselves. ‘When you put turf down and replace a living plant, you’re removing moisture from the environment,’ she explains. ‘You’re removing atmospheric water.'”
Your Garden May Be Pretty, but Is It Ecologically Sound? — 08/11/21, The New York Times
“Some gardeners react to any mention of ecological landscaping — the merging of environmental science and art — as if it were a compromise or concession meant to limit their creativity. Darrel Morrison, a landscape architect who has been practicing and teaching this philosophy for some five decades, begs to differ.”
Study: Protected Bike Paths Saved Lives During COVID — 08/10/21, Streetsblog
“In a report released today, researchers from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety dug into the nuances of America’s (still-ongoing) pandemic-era bike boom by scrutinizing the spatial and temporal distribution of pre- and post-lockdown bicycle trip counts and crash counts in the city of Arlington, VA.”
Using Nature to Combat Climate Change — 08/09/21, CNN
“Landscape architect and founder of SCAPE Kate Orff describes how regenerative living infrastructure can help mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change.”
The Seas Are Rising. Could Oysters Help?— 08/02/21, The New Yorker
“A great deal of [Kate] Orff’s work addresses the inescapable fact that the Atlantic Ocean is rising, and coming for the land. She’s the founder of the design firm scape, the director of the Urban Design Program at Columbia University, and the first landscape architect to win a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant. She’s also at the forefront of an emerging approach to climate resilience that argues we should be building with nature, not just in nature.”
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first major report as part of its sixth assessment of global climate science — the first significant analysis of research since 2014, covering more than 14,000 studies. Its core finding: global warming of 1.5°C (2.7 °F) over pre-Industrial Revolution levels is inevitable over coming decades, but if we act now, we can stave off further, more dangerous warming of 2°C (3.6°F), or, even worse, 3°C (5.4°F), which is what the world is now on a trajectory to experience. As climate reporter Andrew Revkin notes, humans are currently adding “40-billion-plus tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere each year (and rising).” The IPCC argues that limiting warming to 1.5°C is only possible if the world’s governments accelerate efforts to reduce emissions by transitioning to renewable energy and net-zero communities and transportation systems. “Achieving global net-zero carbon dioxide emissions is a requirement for stabilizing carbon dioxide-induced global surface temperature increases.”
In this first comprehensive analysis of physical sciences, which was approved by 195 governments, the IPCC states that “many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years.” Analyzing the IPCC’s findings, The New York Times reports that “the last decade is quite likely the hottest the planet has been in 125,000 years. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have not been this high in at least 2 million years.”
To date, the report finds, “emissions from human activities are responsible for approximately 1.1°C (2°F) of warming since 1850-1900.” If the world can achieve “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” in the near term, climate change could be stalled at a 1.5°C increase. And 1.5°C of warming, while dire, will be far less destructive than 2°C.
“For 1.5°C of global warming, there will be increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons, and shorter cold seasons. At 2°C of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health.” A 2°C temperature increase would force almost unimaginable adaptations and migrations.
According to the IPCC, warming is occurring across all parts of the planet, but most in the Arctic and on land.
The impacts of climate change also already go beyond warming to include “changes to wetness and dryness, to winds, snow and ice, coastal areas, and oceans.” Climate change is intensifying the water cycles, which will lead to more intense rainfall and flooding but also more intense drought. In higher latitudes, there will likely be more rain, while it will decrease in the sub-tropics, which will get even hotter.
This is where landscape architects can plan and design nature-based solutions. In areas of higher flooding, landscape architects plan and design green infrastructure or sponge city approaches that safely retain stormwater; in areas experiencing drought, they design sustainable landscapes that collect and reuse water and reduce water use.
The IPCC finds that the high end of temperatures and heatwaves have increased due to human-driven greenhouse gas emissions. “It is virtually certain that hot extremes (including heatwaves) have become more frequent and more intense across most land regions.”
Seas, which have risen 8 inches over the past century, are expected to continue to rise, causing more frequent and severe flooding in low-lying areas and increased erosion and coastal habitat loss. “Extreme sea level events that previously occurred once in 100 years could happen every year by the end of this century.”
This is where landscape architects and planners are helping communities either manage retreat and relocation or become far more resilient to flooding through nature-based approaches. Landscape architects, planners, and ecologists are also helping to create room for coastal species at risk to migrate and adapt.
Since 1993, the rate of warming in oceans has doubled, and oceans will continue to experience “more frequent marine heatwaves, ocean acidification, and reduced oxygen levels. These changes affect both ocean ecosystems and the people that rely on them.” Coastal and indigenous communities at risk will need further support from landscape architects in adapting their way of life and livelihoods.
The IPCC indicates that the loss of seasonal snow cover, glaciers and ice sheets, and Arctic sea ice is expected to accelerate. Artic sea ice is at its lowest levels since at least 1850. The temperatures of Arctic and Boreal permafrost have also increased, heightening risks of releasing billions of tons of stored carbon dioxide and methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Landscape architects can help increase the health and resilience of Artic ecosystems by reducing man-made impacts that further disturb these soils.
Lastly, the IPCC finds that the effect of climate change in cities, where 56 percent of the global population now resides, “may be amplified, including heat (since urban areas are usually warmer than their surroundings), flooding from heavy precipitation events, and sea level rise in coastal cities.”
With the help of landscape architects and planners, cities are applying resilient green infrastructure or sponge city approaches that combat both increased heat and flooding at once.
Two recent articles in the American media — one from The New York Times and another from The Christian Science Monitor — raised questions about the efficacy of China’s sponge city concept in the face of climate change. As storms become more powerful and release more water faster, the flood control mechanisms of Chinese cities are being overrun. News stories have focused on recent dangerous flooding in Zhengzhou, a city of 12 million on the banks of the Yellow River, which killed more than 300 people and trapped others in tunnels and subways. The articles questioned whether nature-based solutions, rooted in the sponge city approach, can handle the increasing amounts of stormwater inundating Chinese cities on rivers and coasts.
In a Zoom interview, Kongjian Yu, FASLA — founder of Turenscape, one of China’s largest landscape architecture firms, and creator of the sponge city concept — said, “first of all, Zhengzhou is not a true sponge city. There has still been way too much development and grey infrastructure.” And many Chinese cities have been using the term “sponge city as a political slogan” and a way to attract central government funding, given the deep support for the approach from Chinese president Xi Jinping.
He believes the benefits of the sponge city approach, which involves designing and constructing city-wide systems of ponds, wetlands, and parks that retain stormwater, have been proven. “Since ancient times, Chinese cities along the Yellow River with monsoon climates have used ponds to manage flooding and stormwater. So we know these approaches worked for over 2,000 years because these cities survived.”
Chinese cities today are required to maintain 30 percent of the city as green space. Another 30 percent is dedicated to community space. For Yu, this means there is more enough space to create more ponds and water-absorbing parks that can capture vast amounts of water. “In 60 percent of the land in cities, we can use nature to retain water so it doesn’t drain away. In China, we have a saying — ‘water is precious, don’t let it go.’ There is plenty of space to be used to retain water.”
Yu outlined the key components of the sponge city approach. Stormwater should be captured using green infrastructure at its source, where it falls. Sponges should be evenly distributed and permeable so they can absorb water instead of shifting it somewhere else. “If properly designed, it’s a democratic water management system” made up of very local solutions.
Yu claims that with the story of Zhengzhou, the “media is seeking conflict and targeting something that isn’t a sponge city. Sponge cities can only solve the problem. We need more sponges, not less.”
Despite a recent video of a talk he gave, which he says has been viewed by more than 100 million Chinese citizens, there still needs to be more public education about the benefits of sponge cities. “Some of the public still doesn’t understand the sponge city concept, and some may find it a waste of money. Furthermore, some civil and hydrological engineers in China have been attacking the sponge city, nature-based approach because it takes away their jobs.”
If a sponge city is working as it should, “there would be no flooding. People forget when they don’t have disasters.”
When asked about NYC’s new approach to handling sea level rise-induced flooding in lower Manhattan, which will involve constructing a sea wall along with large-scale cisterns to store water, he said: “cisterns are unsustainable.” The concrete cisterns “have to be huge and therefore expensive and high maintenance.” Furthermore, this approach wastes water, which is a “living resources and when combined with plants and soils creates more natural resources.”
Yu calls for greater capacity building among the landscape architecture and civil engineering professions in China and elsewhere in the sponge city concept. “The issue in China is that some designers and engineers are building parks but not building in the stormwater management capacity needed.” In China, stormwater is still the responsibility of civil and hydrological engineers.
To address issues with the design and implementation of sponge cities, Yu will be hosting a summit with the leadership of the civil and hydrological engineers at his research and educational campus. “We will have a high-level discussion aimed to bridge the gaps.”
Furthermore, Yu’s team is publishing a new book in Mandarin — Performance Study of Designed Ecologies — that includes real data about sponge city projects. In addition to his videos, he has also produced a textbook for China’s thousands of mayors, who he said are on board with the approach.
“Flooding in the era of climate change presents an opportunity for landscape architects. We have an opportunity to build up our approach. Landscape architects can solve these problems — not with concrete pipes and cisterns — but with nature.”
Over the next hundred years, average global sea levels are expected to rise faster than they have in the last 8,000 years. By 2050, storm surges and high tides could flood homes, subways, and roads that are currently one or two feet higher in elevation than the homes, subways, and roads that have already flooded over the last twenty years in New Orleans, New York, Zhengzhou, and Boston. Hundreds of millions of people living in coastal cities and rural areas will be affected, even if communities stop burning fossil fuels completely today.
Adaptation to climate change is essential. But do landscape architects and planners understand the most important impacts of higher seas, assuming the goal is to design for adaptation without accidentally blowing it? And how will communities prioritize and achieve the social goals of adaptation in a systematically unequal society? Who will pay, who will benefit, and how can communities take the first steps? As this figure based on innovative planning in the UK reveals, there’s a long lead time before coastal communities can live in safety, so those first steps need to happen now.
Carolyn Kousky, Billy Fleming, ASLA, and Alan M. Berger, the editors of the new book A Blueprint for Coastal Adaptation: Uniting Design, Economics and Policy, set out to answer these questions. In their introductory essay, they make the claim that landscape architects and planners already have most of the tools needed to help communities adapt. The challenge, in their view, is the lack of action. They close the last paragraph of their introduction with the (overly?) triumphant claim that if we start now, “the future is ours.” Ouch. Remind me who “we” are? And is it a good thing for anyone to claim possession of the future, which will have its own claims? I realize this introductory chapter is a pitch, not a research paper, and the chapters themselves are far more self-reflective. But I want to start by putting this review in context, simply because the book is so important.
As a scholar and designer in the field of landscape architecture, I ask myself every day whether design professionals have the synthetic understanding needed to advise urban decision makers to act. For example, while the authors in this anthology consider flooding driven by saltwater, rainwater, and rivers overflowing their channels, not a single essay grapples with the risk that shallow coastal groundwater will rise through the soil and/or move laterally into river channels in response to rising seawater. Recent research indicates that groundwater-driven flooding may cause more water-related failures of urban infrastructure and buildings than seawater and that it will add to river and rainwater flooding. If landscape architects and planners haven’t considered the compounded physical and ecological risks created by rising coastal groundwater, it’s premature for us to give professional advice on adaptation.
To be “professional,” our advice has to go beyond selling a proposal. That advice has to reflect the shared knowledge of a field, or it won’t meet the standard of professionalism; at that point, we might as well be selling used cars. If we recommend spending billions of dollars to use levees to keep the sea out, our shared knowledge tells us that we will also need to pump the rainwater and groundwater out from behind the levees and design the protected district to be resilient to catastrophic failures of coastal structures. Levees and movable gates won’t keep coastal land from flooding by themselves, especially where the rock or sand under a city is very permeable.
The upshot is that the mantra of “sponge cities” or “sponge wetlands” won’t work in high groundwater conditions, because the “sponge” will already be full of groundwater. The really bad news is that changes in the elevation or flow direction of coastal groundwater could end up sending us to a dystopian ‘80’s theme party. New flows of groundwater can mobilize soil pollution that was capped in the 1980’s or 1990’s and carry it under buildings where people will be exposed to old pollution in new ways. Most cities don’t even have maps of their shallow water table. Rising groundwater will corrode and shift building foundations, fill old sewer pipes and basements, corrode electrical conduits, and make extreme shaking more likely in an earthquake. Groundwater management must be part of any viable climate adaptation strategy.
The ambition of the editors to consider the trifecta of hurdles in funding, policy, and design is what makes this book eminently worth reading. Although no one confronts coastal groundwater impacts, the authors in this book provide a robust set of useful ideas, many of which have been tested in practice.
On the design side, Matthijs Bouw, associate professor of practice at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, presents useful examples from his professional design experience in New York and Boston clearly and intelligently.
It was (and is) hard for a European firm to encounter and adjust to the state of American infrastructure. Adaptation is made more difficult by the fact that American cities coast on bridge and pipe investments made 100+ years ago and have cultivated a strategy of neglect since then. Bouw’s description of a more abstract ideas competition in San Francisco is less effective than his other examples, but together his experiences allow him to sincerely observe that adaptation with equity is in doubt in the U.S., where we continue to live under the long shadow of systemic racism and growing economic inequality.
Karen M’Closkey and Keith VanDerSys, co-founders of PEG office of landscape architecture, use their experience in the same California ideas competition as the basis for an argument that adaptation will also be a housing problem, as lower-income renters will need new options. They do an excellent job of bringing in the bigger national picture, suggesting policy avenues and making it clear that the gravity and scale of the housing problem is impossible to solve with design tools alone. All of these design chapters are well-referenced and thoughtfully written.
Susannah Drake, FASLA, founder of DLANDStudio, and Rafi Segal, associate professor of architecture and urbanism at MIT, describe their proposals for coastal New Jersey and Long Island and Jamaica Bay, New York, more in the style of a manifesto or a competition submission. They have an interesting core of ideas and intriguing claims, but without a critical frame, deeper references, or details, the chapter reads more as a point of departure than a fully-reasoned landscape architecture strategy. For example, their image of dense housing inserted at the edge of a marsh reveals the fundamental conflict between human housing needs and the needs of coastal ecosystems.
There is no question that putting housing in that location would degrade the quality of the habitat for the egret shown in the image. As we get real about climate, we also need to face the fact that real tradeoffs result from developing coastal ecosystems. This proposal shows an opportunity for landscape architecture to lead adaptation through an ambitious use of land form as an armature for adaptation, instead of concrete and steel walls.
The same site, Jamaica Bay, is also the subject of a proposal in another chapter led by Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA, professor and director of graduate landscape architecture program at the Spitzer School of Architecture, The City College of New York, which is also provocative but isn’t presented with enough detail to understand how the ecosystems of the Bay would not suffer from introducing new tide gates or how higher groundwater would be managed at the edge of the Bay. As in the Segal and Drake proposal, some separation (physical, temporal or behavioral) would be needed between marshes and lagoons that are managed for housing or recreation and marshes and lagoons that are intended to support diverse ecosystems. It’s a complex landscape, so perhaps this is considered but not described.
On the planning and finance side, several chapters deserve particularly careful reading. Joyce Coffee, founder of Climate Resilient Consulting, and Sarah Dobie, a PhD student at the Taubman College at the University of Michigan, describe strategies at the municipal scale, contrasting the retreat by attrition that is occurring in a small town in Louisiana with Miami Beach’s efforts to raise its streets to adapt in place. Their frank and clear presentation stresses the glaring differences between a community whose tax base and land area are shrinking and a city where a growing population and continued investment is expanding its capacity to adapt in place. It’s not as clear that they have translated the cases into recommendations, which raises the question of whether we know how to prioritize the goals of adaptation. What outcomes are acceptable and to whom?
Thomas Ruppert, a coastal planning specialist at Sea Grant Florida, examines the genuinely frightening prospect that abandoned coastal properties will cause pollution hazards and concludes that current legal tools are insufficient to prevent this dystopian outcome. Carlos Martin, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, makes a spirited case for public funding for adaptation as public works, and Allison Lassiter, an assistant professor at the Weitzman School of Design at Penn, describes the risks of sea level rise for urban drinking water in Philadelphia, which draws its water from the tidal Delaware River, along with New York. Fadi Masoud, assistant professor and director of the Centre for Landscape Research at the University of Toronto, and David Vega-Barachowitz, director of urban Design at WXY architecture + urban design, take a speculative approach to zoning, describing environmental overlay zones as a strategy for implementing incremental change and making it clear that designers should understand the history and legal context of zoning before altering it.
The real stand-out chapter in this section is by Shannon Cunniff, scientific advisor at Stone Living Lab, and her co-authors. They present environmental impact bonds as a new financing tool that has already been used in Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Atlanta, and considered in many others. To the extent that cities continue to rely on private capital to pay for adaptation, or simply to accelerate innovative pilot projects, impact bonds are a very useful strategy. Taking this one chapter seriously could make the difference between kick starting adaptation or failing by delay.
Overall, the book has a strong emphasis on conditions and strategies in the Mid-Atlantic and Gulf coasts. This is a limitation for translating some of the design ideas to the west coast, because different regions have different problems (earthquakes vs. hurricanes, karst geology vs. granite, etc.). The book also doesn’t include innovations from design or financing that have been adopted in California or the Pacific Northwest, outside of the rather abstract recent ideas competition in the San Francisco Bay area. But it’s strong on arguments for the East coast and Gulf.
The editors have taken a light-handed approach. Each chapter is encountered on its own without a broader synthesis or set of recommendations at the scale of a section or the book, leaving the reader challenged to identify gaps and draw conclusions by themselves. For example, in spite of the editors’ hopes, it’s not clear that any of the authors have a strategy for increasing social equity in U.S. cities while adapting to flooding. In that sense, some of the limits in this anthology reflect the genuine boundaries of what has been tried and even proposed. To achieve greater equity, several of the authors seem to conclude that we will need more radical strategies.
Everyone should read this book to see how the field of landscape architecture might help cities adapt to a changing climate, particularly with new federally-funded infrastructure investments. Each chapter of this book reaches beyond the conventional limits of our professional knowledge, by degrees or by leaps. But the most important bar this anthology has set for other books about adaptation is to place questions about funding and policy side-by-side with design proposals. For setting that bar higher, we should all thank the editors. Every future book on this topic should accept that challenge and rise to it. Without progressive new policies that can direct the sources and uses of funds for adaptation, even the best designs for adaptation will only reinforce the unequal status quo.
Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, is the director of the Institute of Urban and Regional Development and associate professor of landscape architecture & environmental planning and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley College of Environmental Design. She is writing a book about adaptation to sea level rise.
To Curb Urban Flooding, China Is Building ‘Sponge Cities.’ Do They Work? — 07/29/21, The Christian Science Monitor
“Yu Kongjian, a professor of landscape architecture at Peking University, is credited as the main architect of the sponge city concept. In a 2019 video for the World Economic Forum, he described the previous approach to flood prevention as ‘totally wrong.'”
National ‘Vision Zero’ Resolution Introduced — 07/28/21, Streetsblog
“After months of intense campaigning from advocates, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) introduced a bi-cameral resolution Tuesday expressing the desire of the legislature to ‘reduce traffic fatalities to zero by 2050.'”
As China Boomed, It Didn’t Take Climate Change Into Account. Now It Must. — 07/26/21, The New York Times
“Yu Kongjian, the dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at Peking University, is credited with popularizing the idea in China. He said in a telephone interview that in its rapid development since the 1980s, China had turned to designs from the West that were ill-suited for the extremes that the country’s climate was already experiencing. Cities were covered in cement, ‘colonized,’ as he put it, by ‘gray infrastructure.'”
The Architectural League Celebrates 2021 President’s Medal Recipient Walter Hood— 07/22/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“As noted by the League, Hood, as an artist and designer dedicated to ‘creating beauty in everyday environments, revealing hidden histories, renewing connections, guiding the way to co-existence in all our multiplicity and difference,’ was a ‘fitting person to honor at the moment of our re-engagement of public life.'”
How to Give a Modernist Icon a Makeover — 07/22/21, Bloomberg CityLab “Hiroshi Sugimoto’s renovation of the Hirshhorn Museum’s sculpture garden will bring the Japanese designer’s touch to a space long acclaimed as a modernist landmark.”
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.