How Will the Pandemic Impact the Built Environment?

Campus Martius Park, Detroit / Compuware

Throughout the Congress for New Urbanism’s Virtual Gathering, landscape architects, planners, architects, and developers struggled to figure out how the pandemic is impacting communities and the built environment — and tried to foresee what changes are coming in the near future.

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities will experience disproportionate negative impacts in the form of higher mortality rates, illnesses, bankruptcies, and evictions. Some also foresee a significant decrease in public financing for affordable housing developments.

There is also the fear that people are retreating to their cars, which are now viewed as “armored bubbles,” and to the suburbs — a trend that could lead to greater suburban sprawl, increasing transportation costs, and a steep rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

A few optimists argued that dense cities and communities, along with affordable and subsidized housing, multi-family housing, and transit-oriented development, will weather the storm. People will still be drawn to walkable communities and being near one another. Resilient communities will find a way, like during other recessions.

Low-income Communities Are at Greater Risk

In a session that looked at low-income neighborhoods in cities, Kit McCullough, an urban designer and lecturer at the University of Michigan, emphasized the need to protect and invest in communities where hospitality and restaurant workers live — places where COVID-19 is already exacerbating existing economic strain.

Small affordable housing property owners facing financial problems are increasingly at risk of being bought out by large Wall Street-backed development firms. This would result in more “wealth extraction in low-income communities” in the form of higher rents and increased evictions.

Many people who used to rely on transit to get to work must now use a car, which is a more expensive transportation option and “adds economic pressure.”

John Sivills, lead urban designer with Detroit’s planning department, added that “if you can decamp from the city, that says something about your income level.” In Detroit, the community has “rediscovered the value of public spaces” given most don’t have the funds to leave.

COVID-19 Requires New Urban Models

In another session, Mukul Maholtra, a principal at MIG, focused on how COVID-19 is impacting BIPOC communities much more than others.

“Black Americans die from COVID-19 at three times the rate of white Americans.” In tribal lands in New Mexico and elsewhere, “there are much higher fatality rates among Native Americans.” He called for investing in “healthy density” that works for everyone.

Christopher Leinberger, a land use strategist, developer, and author, said correlations between COVID-19 and metropolitan area density are “spurious and unproven.” He said “walkable urbanism has been through this before — crime, terrorism, and now the pandemic.”

There are three challenges to a rebound in cities: “lost jobs in the ‘experience economy’ — retail, restaurants, sports, and festivals — which is what makes ‘walkable urbanism’ special; transit safety; and land costs.”

He blames zoning and not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) forces for skyrocketing land costs and gentrification in cities like Washington, D.C. The answer is allowing greater density where land prices are high and making walkable, mixed-use development legal in more places.

Public Financing Will Be Increasingly Unavailable

Andrés Duany, an architect, planner, and one of the most influential New Urbanists, said a total “rethink of New Urbanism is needed,” because the public funds that make many walkable developments possible have disappeared.

The pandemic is expected to have a negative impact on city and state budgets into the near future, which means far less public funds available for transit, affordable and subsidized housing, transit-oriented development, and the public portions of public-private partnerships. “Everyone is broke. There will be no capital budget and no tax credits anymore.”

Demand for walkable communities as currently defined will decrease. “Home deliveries are way up because neighborhood ‘third places‘ [such as coffeeshops, book stores, grocery stores, etc] have become toxic. And transit now equals death.”

Duany also foresees a rise in social instability in the U.S., and perhaps gangs of “marauders.” This is because “110 million Americans have no savings” and are facing rising healthcare costs and unemployment and failing social safety nets.

He proposed rapidly expanding mobile home communities, given they are subject to fewer regulations and therefore lower cost. Abundant and cheap old shipping containers could be used as the base of new modular mobile home reached via a staircase.

Well-designed Places Still Matter

In contrast, Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of urban design at Georgia Tech and author of Designing Suburban Futures, seemed a bit more optimistic.

Through her research into 2,000 suburban developments that have been retrofitted for other uses, she has found that “urbanism is the new amenity.”

In the suburbs, people increasingly want walkable, mixed-use developments that offer “experiential retail.” Dead malls have meant growth for small town main streets. Dead strip malls are being reused as offices or healthcare centers. Big box stores have been converted into markets with small vendors.

“The pandemic could mean more urbanites return to the suburbs. Office parks could be refilled, instead of infilled. There could also be more experimental suburban public spaces.” In this scenario, the car is an “armored bubble” that offers a sense of safety in a world filled with dangerous viruses.

But ultimately, she thinks the pandemic will mean walkable places will become even more valuable. If you can live and work from anywhere, “the quality of place will matter even more.”

Demand for Different Residential Amenities

In a session focused on how home design may change with COVID-19, Paul Whalen, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, said with many people cooped up at home, “visual and audio privacy, cross-ventilation, and multiple rooms that provide space for extended family” are becoming more important.

Homeowners and renters also now want separate spaces for making the transition from street to home, a “clear entrance where they can change out of clothes and take off shoes.”

Interior designer Kiki Dennis sees a changing relationship between public and private spaces within homes. Home offices are becoming semi-public domains that co-workers can see on Zoom, so they are being expanded and re-configured.

There is also much greater demand for residential outdoor spaces. “Underused outdoor spaces are being converted.”

“Ultra-luxe residential fixtures” like automatic sliding doors, face and hand readers, and personal elevators may trickle down to the masses, said Brian O’Looney with Torti Gallas + Partners. In some buildings in the Middle East, when an elevator is in use, it is locked and can’t be accessed by others in the building. This technology could become more widespread in denser cities.

Bill Gietema, a developer with Arcadia Realty Corporation, said people are buying homes online without seeing them in person.

“People want double ovens so they can bake more, expanded kitchens, home offices, workout spaces, and porches.” Some are simply lifting their garage doors to create a porch-like environment.

Multi-family housing complex designs are also shifting to include much more outdoor space and larger balconies.

A recent survey of developers that create large-scale community developments found that 16 percent are adding more shade; 22 percent, more parks; 23 percent, more trails; 57 percent, more bike lanes; and 42 percent, more playgrounds, which are now incorporating natural materials rather than steel and plastics. “There is a new desire to create a sense of community.”

In the end, though, Whalen believes many people who have fled cities will return to them. “People all want to be together. That’s why people live in cities.”

Once a vaccine has been developed, “there will be a joy in coming out of this together.”

Landscape Architects Use Drones to Collect Geospatial Data in the Galápagos

19-0921 UAV Pts on BW Aerial_KV
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) collected elevation data / PEG Office of Landscape + Architecture

Accurate geospatial data is needed to plan and design coastal resilience efforts. Landscape architects use elevation representations to understand flooding, storm surges, and sea level rise. But what happens when there is no unified elevation data?

Karen M’Closkey, ASLA, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered this was the case for the Galápagos Islands during a studio she conducted exploring the island chain. Together with Keith VanDerSys, her partner at PEG Office of Landscape + Architecture and the director of digital media at the University of Pennsylvania, the duo contacted INOCAR, the Ecuadorian oceanography agency, about the lack of data.

Ultimately, INOCAR requested help in creating the data and digital models for the community and designers. To sort out the technological and engineering challenges of the project, Michael Luegering, senior associate at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, and Michael Tantala, adjunct professor at The City College of New York, were brought onto the team.

The Galápagos, while typically considered first and foremost a biodiversity hotspot, is also home to some 34,000 residents living on four islands.

A growing ecotourism industry over the last forty years has resulted in the “Galápagos Paradox” — the advertised pristine wilderness of the archipelago increases the flow of goods and people into the chain of islands, resulting in greater pressures on the naturalized world and labor demands to maintain it. Furthermore, revenue from ecotourism is used to fund and protect the national parks, limiting the amount of public funding for the local population and infrastructure. To aid urban growth planning, PEG decided to create detailed 3D models of the town’s waterfront.

Data collection began in the town of Puerrto Baquerizo Moreno, located on the island of San Cristóbal, which has the second highest population and only fresh water source in the Galápagos and is the location of Charles Darwin’s first landing.

There, PEG noted that “water demand and building have increased dramatically, causing major challenges in water management.” Accurate accurate topographic and bathymetric, or underwater topographic data, was needed to propose solutions.

19-0813 Lidar Pts on BW Aerial_KV
UAV Surveyed data of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno / PEG Office of Landscape + Architecture

Puerto Basquerizo Moreno is continuing to expand upland without regard for the impact it is having on the town’s water management. PEG identified four principles to guide urban growth for the town: prioritize mixed development over the recent trend towards single family homes; offer flexible multi-use community space within the development blocks of the urban fabric; work with existing water flow patterns and areas with significant vegetation within the urban fabric; and, lastly, bring the natural beauty of the national park into the urban environment through a connective ravine setback.

These principles were developed to help protect existing open spaces within the urban fabric. The geospatial data collected was used to communicate the value of the principles to local community members and INOCAR officials as they craft future development plans for the area.

PEG’s hope is this landscape framework offers a “vital social and ecological resource” for local leaders, one that will encourage development that avoids low-lying areas.

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Multispectral UAV Surveying of / PEG Office of Landscape + Architecture

PEG established a vertical datum against which tide levels can be accurately and consistently measured, as well as topographic and bathymetric models of the town. INOCAR had a water level gauge at this location, but its measurements were not tied to a unified vertical datum, making it impossible to compare with the other gauges in the archipelago or globally.

Off-the-shelf drones were used to run Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) surveys of the areas shoreline and ravines. UAVs offer data capturing precision down to a centimeter, far superior to Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) produced by satellites. The drone is measured against pre-determined ground control points scattered throughout town to achieve this high level of resolution. The ground points were established with GPS/GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) survey equipment.

Overlapping data points helped further ensure the accuracy of each data point collected, which can then be aggregated into a high density point cloud and turned into a digital model of the topography and bathymetry of the region.

In fall 2019, PEG delivered this model to INOCAR, which will be instrumental in modeling past and future storm surges and seas-level rise and planning tsunami scenarios.

PEG plans to return to Santa Cruz, the most populous island in the archipelago, to complete the surveying process of the area surrounding the remaining two tidal gauges.

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Point cloud data produced from UAV Surveys / PEG Office of Landscape + Architecture

Climate change will increasingly threaten coastal communities in the global south. Digital models based in accurate geospatial data is paramount to helping these communities become more resilient. With the democratization of drone technology, landscape architects can play a larger role in creating needed geospatial data sets, rather than just consuming them.

Suburban Sprawl Increases the Risk of Future Pandemics

Suburban expansion into remnant habitat / La Citta Vita, Flickr

By Michael Grove, ASLA

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

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

Vilifying Density and Disregarding Equity

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

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

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

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

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

Habitat Fragmentation and Biodiversity Loss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brisbane’s Bird Population

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

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

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

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

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

Helsinki’s Biodiversity Database

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Video Series: Constructing Landscape

Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director for landscape architecture at the General Services Administration (GSA), has produced a series of five educational short videos, featuring conversations with 18 notable landscape architects on topics such as how to design with nature and time.

According to Gabriel, “the primary aim of the conversations with this informal industry advisory group was to educate the agency’s design and construction staff, thus enabling the agency to deliver higher-achieving projects,” which the “GSA plans, designs, builds, and manages on behalf of the American public.”

Material and Perspective explores the “world view” of landscape architects (see video above).

Designing with Time addresses the “unique temporal issues” that come with using trees and plants that change over seasons and as they grow.

Ecological Infrastructures explores how landscape architects design with natural systems to improve human and natural health and support biodiversity.

Site as Security shows how landscape architects can meet tough security requirements while also creating accessible, beautiful places.

Preservation and Design Evolution shows how historic places can be rehabilitated and re-purposed to fit contemporary needs.

Videos include interviews with:

  • Jose Alminana, FASLA
  • Diana Balmori, FASLA
  • Julie Bargmann
  • Charles Birnbaum, FASLA
  • Shane Coen, FASLA
  • David Fletcher, ASLA
  • Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA
  • Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA
  • Mikyoung Kim, FASLA
  • Tom Leader, FASLA
  • Patricia O’ Donnell, FASLA
  • Laurie Olin, FASLA
  • Marion Pressley, FASLA
  • Chris Reed, FASLA
  • Ken Smith, FASLA
  • Christy Ten Eyck, FASLA
  • Jerry Van Eyck, ASLA
  • Thomas Woltz, FASLA

And projects such as Brooklyn Bridge Park, the High Line, Columbus Circle, and Hunters Point South Waterfront in New York City; Rose Kennedy Greenway and Harvard University Plaza in Boston; Yards Park, the United States Coast Guard Headquarters, and the Washington Monument grounds in Washington, D.C.

Combating Alpine Sprawl with Gondolas

Urbanizing the Alps: Strategies for the Densification of Mountain Villages / Birkhäuser

Beyond the 14 million residents of the Alps, the region receives nearly 120 million visitors a year. Continued sprawl into mountain ecosystems, which are especially susceptible to the effects of climate change, threaten their long-term environmental health as well as the communities at lower altitudes that rely on their snow melt for water.

In her new book, Urbanizing the Alps: Densification Strategies for Mountain Villages, Dr. Fiona Pia rejects the picturesque chalet, set apart in nature, as a model for Alpine development, instead calling for walkable, compact villages accessible via gondolas. Graphic analyses offer visual insights into the planning strategies (or lack thereof) in five alpine villages.

An inspection of the immense sprawl of Verbier, a Swiss town that began expanding in the 1930s with the rise of recreational skiing, provides the basis for Pia’s critique. The town has nearly 3,000 residents, a number that swells to 35,000 during the winter season. Some 90 percent of the properties here are categorized as residential. Many are designed as chalets despite their uncharacteristic proximity to one another. Verbier has expanded from its core up the mountainside. Pia likens the expanding roads to a “principal network onto which are grafted a multitude of capillaries.” Matched with a disconnected pedestrian path system, the result is overcrowded roads.

Collection of individual chalets in Verbier / Wikipedia

Some 64 percent of residential property in Verbier is classified as second homes. At the beginning of 2016, the Foundation Franz Weber Second Homes Initiative went into effect, denying construction of new second homes in communities that already have over 20 percent second homes. This limits the economic model on which many Swiss alpine villages, including Verbier, were developed.

Pia states: “Verbier is reaching its limit of sustainability” due to the “depletion of building plots, major mobility problems, climate disruption, and the prohibition to build new second homes.”

Four other towns — Zermatt, Switzerland; Avoiraz, France; Whistler-Blackcomb, Canada; and Andermatt, Switzerland — are studied in a similar fashion.

Sprawl of Whistler Blaccomb, Canada / Google Earth

Sprawl found in four of the villages is countered by the hope of a new, sustainable approach to development in Andermatt, a village of around 1,500 people about 75 miles south of Zurich, which is undergoing a significant redevelopment project to improve walkability and create new social spaces. The Egyptian billionaire-led, 1.8 billion Swiss Franc redevelopment of the village, which began in 2007 and will run through 2030, is adding new cultural and sports centers, six high-end hotels, and vehicular and gondola transportation capacity to the city core. The architecture and plan of the new development mimic the existing feel of the village.

Using the ideas developed through these analyses, Pia returns to Verbier, proposing a series of chair-lift nodes that could form a ring around the city to alleviate traffic congestion and offer access to nearby housing and cultural spaces. Each of the five chair-lift bays are located on land owned by the city. The two eastern-most bays would connect to the surrounding landscape, establishing a network of towns along the mountainside. Although certainly an expensive investment, the result is a feasible plan that creates a village accessible without a car.

Under current conditions, chair-lifts connect sprawled-out communities / Birkhäuser
Proposed ring of transportation nodes surrounding Verbier / Birkhäuser

The balance of clear and consistent graphic diagrams accompanied by explanations of their social, economic, environmental viability leaves the reader aching for a solution to these towns’ plights. While Pia offers a specific solution for Verbier, accompanied by a series of guidelines, these could be used to increase density for alpine communities across the globe.

Kongjian Yu: To Save China’s Environment, Educate the Leaders

Letters to the Leaders of China / Terreform

Many have called Kongjian Yu, FASLA, president of Turenscape, the Frederick Law Olmsted of China. And with his new book Letters to the Leaders of China: Kongjian Yu and the Future of the Chinese City, one understands why. This collection of letters to Chinese president Xi Jinping and provincial governors, essays, interviews, and other advocacy pieces reveal how much Yu has invested in promoting his ecological, water-centric “sponge city” approach. His book demonstrates that every landscape architect can become a leader and a powerful force for improving environmental and human health in their community.

Yu connects the professed communal and environmental aspirations of the Communist Party leadership with his own goals — healthy places for people and well-functioning ecosystems. But he also believes there has been some deviation from the original goals of the Communist revolution, with the pursuit of Western-style, car-based development; isolated, residential skyscrapers; and widespread environmental degradation.

He submits typical contemporary urban design in China to a kind of criticism study session, asking mayors and governors to re-examine their own motivations and re-align themselves with the true needs of the Chinese people and the environment.

He takes aim at the Chinese version of the western City Beautiful movement that has been carried out “aimlessly and autocratically,” damaging both the civil realm through the development of highways that split communities, giant soulless plazas, and parks filled with non-native plants; and the natural environment, through the country-wide pollution of air and water. His core argument: to mindlessly ape Western development models — and profit from these destructive approaches — is fundamentally un-Chinese and certainly not Communist.

In one compelling essay directed to mayors, he writes: “contemporary movements to build the ‘City Beautiful’ and the ‘eco-city’ are short-sighted. It is wrong to raze old homes downtown to erect a paved concrete square; wrong to demolish natural features to build ‘parks’ stuffed with exotic plants; wrong to cut down forests that meander along riverbanks, only to line those rivers with concrete; wrong to take productive rice fields that are over a thousand years old and cover them up with lawns of imported grass — all to inflate and publicize a mayor’s false achievements.”

He seeks to grow a new stock of governors and mayors who can change the status-quo urban planning paradigm in China. He wants them to adopt a “negative planning” approach in which important ecologies are purposefully protected from development. Instead of running population growth estimates and then creating a development plan based in standardized land requirements per person, Yu wants urban planners to preserve and enhance undeveloped land — hence the “negative” or zero planning or development approach — that provide vital ecosystem services. With negative planning, China can then build “landscape security patterns,” which form out of “strategic locations and linkages” that are “extremely important to the maintenance and control of ecological processes.”

ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

In a country that has become a toxic brownfield, landscape security could provide the stable foundation for the renewed sustainability and resilience of the country.

He calls for using a number of ambitious strategies for achieving landscape security, and bringing nature back to the cities in a real, not fake “eco-city” manner. Historic and cultural preservation, as well as agriculture, are woven through the ideas, too:

  • “Maintain and strengthen the overall continuity of the landscape pattern.
  • Establish and protect the city’s diversity of habitat.
  • Maintain and restore the natural configuration of rivers and shorelines.
  • Restore and protect wetland systems.
  • Integrate rural windbreaks into urban greenways.
  • Build greenways for pedestrians and cyclists.
  • Establish green cultural heritage corridors.
  • Improve urban green spaces by making them more permeable and accessible to the public.
  • Dissolve parks into the city’s matrix.
  • Dissolve the city, protect and integrate productive farmland as an organic element of the city.
  • Establish native plant nurseries.”
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

Amid the essays and lectures, Letters to the Leaders of China intermingles actual letters written by Yu to provincial governors, mayors, and Chinese president Xi Jinping himself. They give an insight into the opportunities and limits of Yu’s role as a leading intellectual and critic and the preeminent landscape architect in China. Unfortunately, though, Yu doesn’t provide any of their responses back to him, so these sections feel like a one-sided conversation. One doesn’t know the results of his lobbying.

Still, one letter to Wen Jiabao, premier of the state council, calling for a “vernacular heritage landscape network” — essentially, a national system of cultural landscapes that could also provide ecosystem services — is a particularly creative, efficient policy proposal that even includes specific governmental and regulatory changes to make his proposal happen. The letter shows an understanding of how the government is structured and what needs to change.

Through the letters, essays, and lectures, one gets a sense of how much Yu cares — and how driven he is to undo the unsustainable development patterns that repeat the same destructive errors made in the West over the past 50 years. He is trying to respectfully guide the leadership of China towards a more ecological, humane approach, and he works every angle he can find.

At the end of the book, there is a transcription of an interview with Chinese contemporary artist Ai Wei Wei. Ai presses Yu on his ideas, forcing him to justify his arguments. Yu states that China’s rustic, vernacular, “low culture” is what’s key to achieving sustainability — not the imported Western ideas of development, architecture, and landscape or bourgeois Chinese traditions. To achieve social and environmental reform, China must raise up what is considered low today — the wetland that functions, the productive aesthetics of the humble farm, the clean river.

ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. Framing Terrain and Water: Quzhou Luming Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu
ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. Framing Terrain and Water: Quzhou Luming Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

And so he seeks to educate China’s many mayors on the beauty of what is plain, which is why his works of landscape architecture are “consciously educational.”

Hope and Doubt about the Future of Walkable Suburbia

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Suburban Remix: Creating the Next Generation of Urban Places / Island Press

Yesterday’s suburbs have the potential to become tomorrow’s downtowns, according to Suburban Remix: Creating the Next Generation of Urban Places, a collection of essays and case studies edited by Jason Beske and David Dixon and published earlier this year by Island Press. Suburban Remix makes a compelling case for transforming the country’s aging suburban population centers into dense, walkable communities, but ultimately fails to demonstrate how broadly applicable that model may be. 

Suburban Remix’s central argument is the era of low-density suburban planning is over. In the book’s introduction, Dixon writes “the traditional suburban dream that built this world–promulgated widely in the decades following WWII–was about homogeneity represented by a growing middle class and symbolized by a single-family house with a white picket fence and car in the driveway.”

“That dream is dead. It simply no longer describes the places in which most North Americans aspire to live or for which they are willing to pay.”

The book’s contributors point to a number of different factors contributing to this dynamic, but none more compelling than the demographic forces that are reshaping the nation, ushering in changes that have big implications for housing, development, and land use.

“There is a new norm for the general US population,” Dixon writes. “Society is growing younger and older–and raising fewer children.” 

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The US population is predicted to grow both younger and older, with fewer school age children / Stantec graphic, courtesy Island Press

This new norm is reflected in some eye-catching numbers: “Between 2010 and 2030, people younger than 35 and older than 65 will account for more than three-quarters of US population growth,” Dixon says. People over 70 will be the fastest-growing demographic in the suburbs. Perhaps most startling, “two-parent households with children will represent only about 10% of all US households” by 2025.

As the single-family homes of formerly child-rearing baby boomers flood the market, they will find a paucity of young families lining up to buy. According to one estimate, “the United States already had more single-family suburban housing in 2010 than it would need to meet projected demand in 2030,” Dixon says. 

Compounding the issue, tastes are shifting away from automobile-dependent sprawl and toward denser, walkable communities, particularly among retiring baby boomers and the educated millennials who are taking their place in the workforce.

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Aerial view of Reston, Virginia, an example of incorporating density into a conventional suburban plan / La Citta Vita under CC BY-SA 2.0, courtesy Island Press

As proof of this shift, Dixon points to an analysis carried out by Richard Florida, who found that urban housing prices rose 60 percent faster than those of suburban housing from 2000 to 2015. “Urban places are now viewed as healthier and more environmentally responsible places to live and work,” he explains.

The implications of these changes are clear: the market for suburban single-family housing is on shaky ground. The end of the suburbs could be a result of economic forces as much as cultural ones.

Despite these challenges, the authors of Suburban Remix are optimistic about suburbia’s future.

“Without damaging a single blade of grass on a single lawn, suburbs across North America can seize opportunities to transform tens of millions of ‘grayfields’–outmoded predominantly single-use shopping centers and office parks–into a new generation of compact, dense, walkable, mixed-use–urban–places that accommodate multiple dreams,” argues Dixon.

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Before and after images of a proposal to create a walkable mixed-use development to replace a shopping mall parking lot in Roanoke, VA / Stantec, courtesy Island Press

In fact, it is the abundance of these large grayfield sites in suburban areas that the authors see as one of suburbia’s greatest strengths. Thanks to grayfields, “developers in suburbs will be in a far better position to assemble large, contiguous sites with a single or a few owners to create vibrant new districts.”

Suburban Remix is at its strongest when it is framing this broad argument about the demographic, economic, and social trends driving the future of the suburbs. The bulk of the book, however, consists of case studies of communities at various stages of this transformation, including the Washington D.C. region; Dublin, Ohio; and Bellevue, Washington.

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Lane markings in Tysons, Virginia, one the areas included in Suburan Remix‘s case studies / Andrew Wright

These studies undoubtedly represent valuable research, but suffer from a lack of geographic diversity. Three of the eight chapters are dedicated to Washington D.C. or Northern Virginia; two are in Ohio. The American southeast and southwest–regions where the lessons from this book are arguably most urgently needed–are notably absent.

Another glaring omission is the lack any meaningful discussion of the social implications of the suburban densification that the book’s authors extoll. Affordable housing, for example, is scarcely mentioned. Moderate- to low-income suburbs that fail to densify are at one point described as “probable slums,” a disturbing prediction that deserves far more attention than the three paragraphs it receives.

Finally, the authors fail to acknowledge the deep-seated cultural foundations of the suburbs, an urban form that is – for better or worse – deeply embedded in the American psyche and whose roots extend much further back than the housing boom of the post-war era.

The authors present strong evidence that this may be changing, but this argument rests, to a certain extent, on the assumption that recent trends are a reliable predictor of future outcomes.

In depicting the death of the suburban dream as a fait accompli, Suburban Remix fails to reckon with the stubbornness of the cultural attitudes that have historically driven demand for suburban development.

In fact, none other than Richard Florida has sounded the alarm about what appears to be, at the very least, a pause in America’s love affair with dense, urban places. “In the last two years the suburbs outgrew cities in two-thirds of America’s large metropolitan areas,” he wrote late last year in an op-ed for the New York Timesattributing the trend to rising crime, impossibly expensive real estate, shifting political winds, and the fact that “many Americans still want space.”

Despite these shortcomings, Suburban Remix represents a valuable resource for policymakers, planners, and designers engaged in large-scale re-imagining of what a suburb can be.

The case studies are models for how to create dense, walkable communities in a present-day context, and the authors’ overarching argument for doing so is a strong one. In giving reasons to be hopeful about the future of the suburbs, however, they also reveal reasons to doubt.

Can the 11th Street Bridge Park Slow Gentrification in DC?

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The proposed 11th Street Bridge Park will span the Anacostia River in southeast Washington, D.C. / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

Scott Kratz is attempting something very difficult.

He’s walking backwards on a busy Capitol Hill sidewalk, straining to be heard over traffic as he leads a group of eager residents on a walking tour to the future site of the 11th Street Bridge Park in southeast Washington, D.C.

The park, which has been in development since 2011, will one day span the Anacostia River, connecting the well-to-do neighborhoods west of the river and the historically African American neighborhoods to the east.

More difficult than walking backwards, however, is Kratz’s larger goal of ensuring that the creation of this new landmark public space, designed by Philadelphia-based landscape firm OLIN and Dutch architecture firm OMA, does not unleash the waves of gentrification that are already lapping at the Anacostia’s western shore.

“We’re three or four years away from opening, but we’ve already had the park appear in real estate ads without permission,” he told me as we walked back towards Capitol Hill after the tour. “We had to send some gentle cease-and-desists.”

This illustrates both the reality of the gentrification threat posed by the park’s construction and the measures that Kratz, who is director of the project, and his team at the Congress Heights-based non-profit Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR) are taking to mitigate it.

“First and foremost, this is a park for the local residents,” Kratz said, explaining how that basic principle has caused BBAR to take a much more expansive view of their role in the park’s development. “There’s the site of the park, but we have to be thinking about the larger systems we’re engaging with. What are the policies that can ensure local residents thrive in place?”

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OMA and OLIN’s design features a unique “X” shaped structure of interlocking trusses / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

This broad approach has led to what he called a “deep and sustained” relationship with the surrounding community.

“Before we engaged a single architect, landscape architect, or engineer, we had over two-hundred meetings with faith leaders, business owners, ANC commissioners, civic associations — with anybody who would have us.”

“And we didn’t just go out and say ‘what color should the chairs be,’” but instead asked more fundamental questions: “Should we do this? Does the community want this?”

This initial round of dialogue helped to bridge what Kratz called a “deep, real, and justified” trust-deficit in nearby communities, especially those east of the river.

That same level of community involvement carried through to the design competition process. Program requirements for the park were decided through a series of charrettes with community members. BBAR then created a community-led design oversight committee that reviewed the final design brief and met with the competing design teams multiple times during the design process to provide feedback and input.

“We didn’t know if it would work,” Kratz told me, “but at the end, each one of the design teams said it was the most valuable part of the process.”

“It was incredibly helpful,” said Hallie Boyce, ASLA, who led the design team for OLIN. “What it allowed us to do was to quickly develop a deeper knowledge of the place, both from a natural systems standpoint but also a cultural-systems standpoint.”

Boyce pointed out some members of the committee have lived in the area for twenty-five or thirty years. “You just can’t beat that kind of knowledge of a place.”

At the end of the competition, the design oversight committee ranked the submissions and made a recommendation to the competition jury. “The jury ultimately could have overruled the community recommendation,” Kratz said, “but as it turned out, both the jury and the design oversight committee were unanimous” in their decision.

“If we’re really about community engagement, then we need to let the community have the decision-making authority,” Kratz said, adding that members of the design oversight committee are now working with OLIN and OMA as they refine their winning concept, providing a real time, community-driven feedback loop. “That level of agency is critical.”

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The park will include an amphitheater for performances, community events, or for watching the regattas that are frequently held on the Anacostia river / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

With the design selected and pre-construction underway, the team is now working to ensure the park doesn’t end up displacing the very community that has brought the project this far.

In 2015, BBAR released an Equitable Development Plan which outlined how it would achieve this goal. The plan makes recommendations for addressing workforce development, small businesses, and housing. BBAR will soon be releasing an updated version of the plan that adds strategies for cultural and political equity.

Remarkably, BBAR has so far been able to muster more in financial support for the Equitable Development Plan than it has for the park itself. The park will cost $50-60 million to construct, of which roughly half has been committed to by the city, private donors, and other sources. Meanwhile, philanthropic contributions to the equitable development arm of the project already exceed $50 million.

While the park itself is still a few years off, the impact from the Equitable Development Plan is already being felt. A newly-created Ward 8 Homebuyers Club has so far helped sixty-one Ward 8 residents purchase their own home. For renters, “we have started monthly tenant rights workshops, working in collaboration with Housing Counseling Services.” And the newly-created 11th Street Park Community Land Trust is close to acquiring its first property, a 65-unit apartment complex in Ward 8 that would be managed as affordable housing in perpetuity.

The park is also making its presence felt in other ways. Since 2014, BBAR has organized the annual Anacostia River Festival, which last year brought more than 9,000 residents to the site of the future park.

Then there is the park’s burgeoning urban agriculture program, which boasts seven urban farms providing fresh produce to a variety of businesses, residents, and non-profits in the area. Nearby residents can even sign up for a CSA.

“We’re not waiting until we open. We want to make sure that we’re testing and piloting these programming ideas before we launch.”

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The intersecting trusses create sheltered space for amenities such as food kiosks and a café, which will feature businesses from the surrounding area / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

The cumulative effect of these efforts is a strong sense of community ownership. He told me a story to illustrate this point.

“We were having a public meeting a year ago, and I was talking about the equitable development plan. Someone raised their hand and said, ‘So, with all the money that’s coming in, you’re starting a community land trust, you’re doing tenants’ rights workshops, you’re doing workforce development training. Do you need to build the bridge?'”

“And it totally floored me! I was a little speechless. Then someone from the community stood up and said: ‘He better build that bridge! We designed that bridge – this is our bridge!'”

According to Kratz, that level of ownership comes from sustained relationships, shared experiences, and leadership of the decision making process.

Boyce echoed that sentiment, saying the community-led design process and the scope of the Equitable Development Plan have built trust in the community, allowing residents to become invested in the long-term success of the project.

“We have multiple champions now. That’s what it’s going to take.”

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The park will also feature a new playground on southeastern end of the bridge. / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

Construction on the park should begin in 2020, with an opening date in 2022 or 2023. BBAR is already looking ahead to understand how its role will change at that juncture.

BBAR is exploring ways to help demystify the planning process for local residents, so they are empowered to shape those decisions that will in turn shape their neighborhoods.

“Sometimes when we have these larger conversations about displacement and gentrification, there’s a feeling of inevitability. We reject that. The reason we’ve been living in segregated cities is because of a series of intentional decisions. We now need to make a series of intentional decisions to undo that disinvestment.”

“We’re increasingly looking at what is our role to help move the needle on some of those larger policy questions,” he added.

As an example of that expanding scope, BBAR has now begun advising other Washington, D.C. neighborhoods as they create their own equitable development plans. They’ve even met with officials from Los Angeles, Dallas, and St. Louis to discuss how the 11th Street Bridge model can be applied in those cities.

“We had no idea that this could have such an influence across the United States. But we’re the nation’s capital. We often talk about being the template for how we should do things. Sometimes we’re successful, sometimes not so much. This is a chance to actually get it right.”

11th Street Bridge Park walking tours continue throughout the summer.

Landscape Architecture in the Next Highlights (April 1 – 15)

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ASLA 2017 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Klyde Warren Park, Dallas, Texas / Thomas McConnell Photography

More Cities Are Banishing Highways Underground — And Building Parks on Top Stateline, 4/2/18
Cities looking to boost their downtowns, or to improve downtrodden neighborhoods, are creating ‘highway cap parks’ on decks constructed over freeways that cut through the urban center.“

Pittsburgh ‘Cap’ Park Plans to Honor Neighborhood History Next City, 4/3/18
“A new park in Pittsburgh will attempt to reconnect the Hill District to downtown, while striving to honor the past and future of this historically black neighborhood.”

Don’t Just Rebuild the Collapsed Pedestrian Bridge in Miami City Lab, 4/4/18
“It’s been three weeks since a pedestrian bridge that had been billed as an engineering feat collapsed over a busy Southwest Eighth Street in a Miami suburb, killing six motorists.”

Preservation-Minded Renovation of Halprin’s Freeway Park Moves Forward The Architect’s Newspaper, 4/10/18
“Even as SOM bulldozes Lawrence Halprin‘s Los Angeles atrium (the only atrium he ever designed), officials 1,000 miles to the north are gearing up to preserve Freeway Park, the eminent landscape architect’s highway-capping park in Seattle.”

Landscape Architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander on Why It Should be Easier to be GreenWallpaper, 4/12/18
An early proponent of rewilding, community consultation, pedestrian-friendly accessibility and creative playgrounds for children, her projects span the globe from the Canadian embassy in Berlin, to The New York Times building, and Erickson’s Robson Square and Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver.”

How Can Cities Best Plan for Future Growth?

Model of Manhattan’s grid / Pinterest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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