University of California San Diego Densifies to Protect Its Landscape

Pepper Canyon West at UC San Diego / Perkins & Will, courtesy UC San Diego

Like other state universities in California, the University of California at San Diego (UC San Diego) must develop to meet the needs of a rapidly increasing student body. The university, a designated growth campus in the UC system, currently educates 42,000 students and plans to accommodate thousands more by 2030. Approximately 30 percent of the 1,150-acre campus is an open space preserve that includes a fragile coastal zone. To protect the campus’ critically important ecosystems and cultural character, campus planners and landscape architects are weaving in transit-oriented development and dramatically increasing density in key areas, with up to 23-story student residential towers.

During a tour of the campus as part of the American Planning Association‘s National Planning Conference, Robert Clossin, director of planning, and Todd Pitman, ASLA, campus landscape architect at UC San Diego, explained that dense new “living and learning neighborhoods” were central to the long-term strategy of balancing growth and nature preservation.

In a campus where parking spaces for cars were largely hidden from view, but hundreds of racks for bicycles were in plain sight, it’s clear the campus planners and landscape architects are trying to move past vehicle dependence and plan for a denser light rail-, bike- and scooter-centric future.

After five years of construction and decades of planning, the expansive university is now connected to greater San Diego through two light rail stops. At the first stop on our tour, the Central Campus Trolley station, Clossin and Pitman, along with Raeanon Hartigan, principal planner for the campus, walked us through a vibrant new “front door” to the campus, which is now under construction.

A new “front door” to UC San Diego at a light rail station / Jared Green

There, landscape architects with the Office of James Burnett (OJB) designed an accessible urban landscape that weaves together an amphitheater that can hold 3,000, and a Design and Innovation Building, designed by architects with EHDD, which will serve as an entrepreneurial hub bringing together students and faculty with community inventors and firms.

A 750-foot-long pathway, a tactile artwork by artist Anne Hamilton, further stitches the new development together. “This is true transit-oriented development,” said Bryan Macias, with capital management projects on campus.

Concordance by Ann Hamilton at UC San Diego / Jared Green

Adjacent to the new trolley station is Pepper Canyon West, which includes two 23-story student housing towers designed by Perkins & Will that will soon house 1,300 students (see image at top). At the base of the towers, which will offer retail, there is a new stormwater management basin also designed by OJB. “The Office of James Burnett is really the glue between projects,” said Pitman.

As we walked further into the interior of the campus, Pitman said the university has increasingly recognized the value of landscape architecture over the past decades. Campus leaders realize that the walking and biking experience is central to a successful learning environment. “It’s about focusing on the user experience and connecting the public realm,” Pitman said.

UC San Diego bike racks / Jared Green

Partnering with the Stuart Collection Foundation, UC San Diego has also woven in public art throughout the campus. And this art isn’t just plopped down, but integrated into the landscape and architecture. Through the Stuart Collection program, artists take the lead on finding locations on campus where their art is best suited and then create site-specific works. A triangle park that was once a left-over space between buildings was transformed into a charming community space. Artist Tim Hawkinson partnered with Spurlock Landscape Architects to site his impressive 180-ton Bear sculpture and create a lush park to frame the work.

Bear sculpture and park at UC San Diego / Jared Green

At the Franklin Antonio Hall, a collaborative research and engineering laboratory, the campus planning and design team highlighted their efforts to balance protection of coastal ecosystems with the need to densify. The building offers views of the enveloping 300-acre preserve.

Franklin Antonio Hall and Open Space Preserve, UC San Diego / Jared Green
Open Space Preserve, UC San Diego / Jared Green

Here, OJB built benches into low walls, but instead of facing the courtyard around the building, they are positioned to provide views over the rugged landscape. It’s one of those subtle, thoughtful touches that highlights the user experience Pitman mentioned.

The landscape immediately surrounding the laboratory, which includes wide fire truck lanes, is designed to be resilient to fire and support the adjacent preserve. In addition to managing all stormwater, the landscape includes 100 percent native plants, which is much higher than the 30-50 percent the campus usually aims for in their projects. “It was really hard to do,” Pitman said. “We pushed the boundaries much farther and made this as sustainable and resilient as possible,” Clossin added.

A winding path in the form of a snake by artist Alexis Smith brings us through coastal shrubs to the Geisel Library, the iconic Brutalist building designed by architect William Pereira in 1970.

Snake Path by Alexis Smith / Jared Green
Geisel Library at UC San Diego / Jared Green

Underground levels added in the early 90s increase density. Deep caverns and surface skylights, designed to stream daylight to the subterranean stacks, add depth to the library plaza.

Library plaza surrounding Geisel Library at UC San Diego / Jared Green

And landscape architect Peter Walker’s Library Walk, also designed in the early 90s, terminates in the lower level of the library.

Library walk at UC San Diego / Jared Green

Continuing down Ridge Walk, a central spine on the campus that offers views of the Sun God sculpture by artist Niki de Saint Phalle, the bike infrastructure of the campus becomes more apparent. Designed with Spurlock Landscape Architects, Ridge Walk is actually a collection of landscape projects including parks, plazas, paths, irrigation and lighting systems, and bike lanes that cost $19 million, Pitman said. “It has been the university’s single largest investment in landscape architecture.” To fix previously unsafe conditions, the project separated bike and scooter traffic from pedestrians.

Ridge Walk at UC San Diego / Jared Green
Ridge Walk adjacent bike lane at UC San Diego / Jared Green
Ridge Walk adjacent bike lane at UC San Diego / Jared Green

The walkable, bikeable DNA of the campus enabled planners and landscape architects to densify through additional mixed-use development. This future is being realized in the North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood. Designed by HKS, Safdie Rabines Architects, and OJB, the project came out of a tough three-month design-build competition.

North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood at UC San Diego / Copyright © the Board of Regents of the University of California

Tiered student residential, educational, and retail spaces frame a central plaza and views of the Pacific Ocean, providing that indoor-outdoor experience so characteristic of Southern California.

North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood at UC San Diego / Copyright © the Board of Regents of the University of California

The orientation of the buildings and the open spaces, including layered-in terraces, were purposefully designed to democratize views of the ocean.

North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood at UC San Diego / Copyright © the Board of Regents of the University of California

“The sunset is a must-see celebration from these buildings,” said architect Ricardo Rabines. “And students only pay $14,000 in annual tuition and $1,300 a month for rent,” Clossin said. A pretty good deal for La Jolla.

A 10-acre Ridge Walk North Living and Learning Neighborhood is now in development, with beds for 2,000 students, along with a Theater District Living and Learning Neighborhood, also with 2,000 beds for a planned eighth college. These neighborhoods are part of the university’s long-range plan to house 65 percent of its students, making it the country’s largest residential campus.

Planners Must Now “Anticipate the Unanticipated”

Imagine Austin Growth Concept Map / City of Austin

“The planning practices of the past are inadequate for today’s challenges,” said David Rouse, ASLA, a landscape architect and planner, at the American Planning Association‘s National Planning Conference in San Diego. Rapid technological change, socio-economic inequities, natural resource depletion, and climate change are forcing planning and design professionals to adapt. “How can the practice of planning evolve to be more sustainable and equitable?”

In the 1920s, the Standard Zoning Enabling Act and the Standard City Enabling Act were passed. In the 1960s, the conventional 20th century planning model, which focused on land use policy and planning, came into being. In the 1980s, there was a shift to smart growth and “visionary, values-based planning.” In 2010, the American Planning Association began a process of rethinking past planning approaches through its Sustaining Places Initiative, which provided models and standards for how to prioritize sustainability through local planning.

According to Rouse, today’s comprehensive plans require a new 21st century model rooted in four key aspects. First, sustainability, resilience, and equity need to be at the center of all planning decisions. Second, a systems-thinking approach is needed. “A community is a system made up of sub-systems.” Third, any planning effort requires “authentic participation” and true community engagement that can answer the questions: “Where are we headed? Where do we want to go? How do we get there?” And lastly, there must be “accountable implementation,” including priorities for action, funding streams, policies that can guide decision-making, and specified responsibilities.

Rocky Piro, executive director of the Colorado Center for Sustainable Urbanism and former planning director of Denver, said Rouse and himself reviewed hundreds of plans for their new book — The Comprehensive Plan: Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Communities for the 21st Century. They found that “authentic engagement is foundational” to any new planning effort.

Planning processes must now include an engagement and communications strategy rooted in the issues and values of a community and be designed to reach all segments of a population. Any planning effort in 2022 also needs to be based in an understanding of the “impact of the past on the present.”

A vision statement is needed to kick-start these comprehensive planning efforts — “one with brevity, clarity, and the ability to inspire,” Piro said.

Land-use maps are still an important component of any comprehensive plan but they need to be smarter. In its plan adopted in 2012, Austin, Texas, created a “growth concept map” that includes places and their aspects (see image at top). Aurora, Colorado, included a “place typology” that includes a “sophisticated matrix” and a “place-based approach” in its plan.

Placetype plan / City of Aurora, Colorado

All communities are systems that include natural, built environment, social, economic, health, and regional connection sub-systems.

“Planning for natural systems has come out of the landscape architecture field,” Rouse argued. “Ecosystem planning should now happen in communities and in context with other planning elements instead of piecemeal.”

ASLA 2021 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Parsons Island Conservation and Regeneration Plan. Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, United States. Mahan Rykiel Associates

Planners and landscape architects need to increasingly plan for land, water, atmospheric, and biodiversity change within communities. And instead of planning for water use and quality alone, an entire watershed approach should also be integrated into comprehensive planning efforts.

The ecosystem component that landscape architects focus on can be integrated with the built environment components that planners focus on. Through the involvement of multiple disciplines, plans can address “land use, character, ecology, mobility, community design, and civic spaces, and public art.”

Other important systems that need to be included in any new comprehensive plan are social systems that improve equity — “the social infrastructure” of communities, including housing and education.

Economic systems also need to be re-thought for the 21st century. “Economic resilience is about creating opportunities for all in a fair and sustainable way. We can move to a circular economy and rely on local assets and regional resources. We need to move away from a linear, throw-away society.”

Health systems need to be factored into any planning effort, and this is not just “about disease prevention, but about healthy transportation and food systems. How we move and interface with the built environment impacts our health.”

There are now many lens — a “climate lens, equity lens, health lens. Can we bring the lenses together?”

Both Rouse and Piro returned to the idea that any planning effort can only happen with real community engagement.

Once the voice of the community in its totality has been considered, then a plan can be developed that results in the revision of regulations, codes, and ordinances to help achieve that plan. The next steps are to shift public and private investments to meet goals, align interests and decision-making processes within communities, and form public, private, and non-profit sector partnerships that can lead implementation.

In the 21st century, planners need to be “prepare communities for change, be proactive, and take an integrated approach instead of just reacting,” Rouse said.

The challenge is that planners are also operating within a “cone of uncertainty.” In the short term, there are tactics that can be used to manage community change, which may be foreseen or unforeseen and therefore disruptive. In the medium term, planners can set strategies and plans. But over the long-term, they will need durable visions. “All of this planning must happen sequentially and simultaneously.”

In their book, Rouse and Piro outline five core themes, including equity and engagement, climate change mitigation and adaptation, systems thinking, people-centered technology, and effective implementation.

“Equity must be interwoven, and an equity lens must be brought to all goals. Climate resilience must be a guiding principle of all planning work. Technology must be harnessed to serve communities. Planning participation is about co-creation with the community,” Rouse said.

“Planning is an art and a science. Our jobs are to anticipate the unanticipated. How can we do it better?” Out of the hundreds of plans that Rouse and Piro reviewed, “we couldn’t find one that did this well. It’s a journey society — and planners — must take. It’s the future of comprehensive planning.”

During the Q&A, one audience member asked whether “top-down, paternalistic comprehensive plans” are a thing of the past. A city comprehensive plan assumes there is one community in agreement, whereas there are many communities with different interests. The antithesis of a comprehensive plan is a neighborhood plan.

Community engagement is critical to forging consensus as is transparency about budgets and timelines, Piro argued. Ensuring grassroots buy-in is the “path to success.” But neighborhood plans need to be integrated with comprehensive plans and implemented in tandem. “You need consistency and coordination.” Ecological, social, and other systems “can’t be addressed in isolation.”

Another audience member wondered how comprehensive plans can address the communities who have been displaced due to gentrification. “How do we plan for who is not there?”

Rouse argued that it’s critical to retain populations by helping them create their own visions. “We can account for the past and systemic racism,” and planners and other design professions’ roles in creating those inequities.

Inglewood’s New SoFi Stadium Upends the Old Sports Arena Model

SoFi stadium with Hollywood Park lake and park in foreground / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA

Nestled between the runways of Los Angeles International Airport, the bold SoFi Stadium by landscape architecture firm Studio-MLA and architecture firm HKS sets a new standard for sports arenas, breaking the conventional “suburban fortress” model by opening up the arena to the sky, air, and nature, and blurring the lines between stadium, botanical garden, and public park. The new home of both the Rams and Chargers NFL teams will be highlighted on a national stage during Super Bowl LVI, but it is also a place to visit even if you have no interest in football.

SoFi stadium landscape / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA

“It’s all about how a stadium becomes part of a landscape and the landscape becomes part of the stadium,” said Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder and president of Studio-MLA, which recently won the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. “We’re honored to help imagine this extensive park and public district alongside the people of Inglewood, validating how sports stadiums inherently democratize space and bring people together.”

Kush Parekh, ASLA, associate principal at Studio-MLA, said this $5 billion mega-project is truly transformational because it’s rooted in the vision of the Inglewood community, which is predominantly Black and Latinx.

The nearly 300-acre site was once the Hollywood Park racetrack. When the city decided to redevelop the site as an urban infill project and the developers Kroenke Sports & Entertainment and Wilson Meany took on the project, Studio-MLA, HKS, and Hart Howerton began a process of community engagement as part of a planning process for a new Hollywood Park mixed-use district.

They discovered the racetrack had an artificial lake and green space at its center that the community appreciated and often used for events such as flower shows. When the community was asked what they hoped for in a new development, they said “a lake and green space,” Parekh explained.

The oceans of parking lots that had once surrounded the racetrack were also one of the few open spaces available to the community, which is among the most underserved in terms of access to green space, trees, and shade. “Parents would take their kids there to teach them to ride bikes,” Parekh said. The barren, uninviting parking lots had also become a walking and jogging destination, simply because there were so few other options.

Working with the community, Studio-MLA began focusing on how to insert a lake into the site. “We wanted to bring the lake back, but it couldn’t just be recreational; it needed to be performative.” So Lehrer and team had an idea: a new lake could store water to irrigate a new botanical, sustainable landscape. But given how intermittent rainfall is in Southern California, they realized multiple water sources were needed for both the long, dry season, and the short, inundating ones.

Studio-MLA discovered the site had access to recycled water from the West Basin Municipal Water District facility that could be used to partially fill the lake in the dry season. First, the water would need to be chemically treated, so the team designed a custom filtration process with PACE Engineering. To fine-tune these systems, the design and engineering teams built a temporary laboratory on site.

In the wet season, when flash floods are a risk, the lake would be designed to handle all the stormwater run-off from the stadium, parking lots, and the 5-million square feet of surrounding retail, residential, and commercial buildings planned as part of Hollywood Park.

Their case to the developer was either pay a high amount to pipe stormwater to the Pacific Ocean and also pay hefty additional stormwater fees, or “mitigate stormwater on site and create a public amenity,” Parekh said. “The lake checked a lot of boxes. It was a win-win situation.” The development team was also “firmly committed to a sustainable approach.”

Given the site’s proximity to the Los Angeles airport, the stadium needed to be buried 100 feet into the ground to avoid the flight paths of planes. Digging down left huge amounts of soil that Studio-MLA then leveraged to subtly lift up the edges of the entire site and regrade to divert stormwater through a series of drains and pipes that daylight at the constructed lake. A planned constructed arroyo (river) that will connect with another park with sports facilities at the east end of the site will also eventually steer run-off to the lake.

Hollywood Park stormwater management concept / Studio-MLA

To treat both the recycled water and stormwater run-off, the constructed 6-acre lake also includes layers of natural and mechanical solutions. A series of wetlands filter out contaminants, then a filtration and pump system handle the rest of the purification needed to reuse 26 million gallons of water annually for irrigation.

Hollywood Park Lake / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA
Hollywood Park Lake / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA

With a water source in place, there was now a way to substantially green the indoor-outdoor SoFi stadium. Landscape was key to making the experience more “human,” Parekh said. Instead of feeling like “you are going down into a hole in the ground,” Studio-MLA designed inviting landscape canyons that provide an entry point to the arena stands. “The canyons allow for air, light, and views of the landscape from within the stadium.”

SoFi stadium landscape / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA
SoFi stadium landscape / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA
SoFi stadium landscape / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA

For Lehrer, Parekh, and the Studio-MLA team, this decade-long project has been a labor of love. “This project shows what landscape architecture can do for sports. Our goal was to make everyone completely comfortable there on a human level,” Parekh said.

He added that the integrated architecture and landscape architecture was the result of “collaboration from the beginning” between Studio-MLA and HKS, along with PACE, Fluidity Design Consultants, civil engineer David Evans and Associates, and contractors Turner and AECOM Hunt. Studio-MLA brought prior experience designing the landscapes of Dodger and Banc of California Stadiums, also in Los Angeles, but the entire design team agreed on the need to “change the paradigm of the stadium model” by further mixing public plazas and parks with the stadium structure.

SoFi stadium landscape / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA

The 28-acre sloping canopy of the stadium also covers two other spaces — the new YouTube Theater, a flexible event space that can hold 7,000, and the American Airlines Plaza, a covered yet airy space that can hold 15,000. The architecture and landscape architecture worked together to ensure this place won’t just be used for big NFL games and then sit empty but offers a variety of place for year-round events.

The 25 acres of open green space alone will also serve as a community draw. The public park and diverse landscape features 5,000 newly-planted native and climate-appropriate trees from Southern California and similar Mediterranean biomes, including Palm, Sycamore, and Evergreen trees. Plants that would do well in California’s desert, upper and low montane, and riparian ecosystems are found in various zones of the stadium landscape and adjacent park, which includes the first segment of the planned arroyo.

SoFi stadium landscape / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA
Arroyo at Hollywood Lake Park / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA

The design team crafted fully accessible plazas with organic planter forms, along with ribbon fences that guide visitors during big game days. “We tried to incorporate the gates and fences in a beautiful, sculptural way,” Parekh said.

SoFi stadium landscape / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA

This project is just the first phase of many for the Hollywood Park district. Studio-MLA laid the groundwork for natural infrastructure, with a promenade drawing visitors in from the west, and the arroyo trail that can lead to another park on the east. The firm has already designed the landscape for the adjacent NFL offices and retail district. Other developers may also take on sections of the development.

Hollywood Park district / Studio-MLA

For Inglewood, the new SoFi stadium and Hollywood Park redevelopment plan will change the narrative for an underserved community that was recently on the verge of bankruptcy. “Inglewood was once known as the city of champions,” Parekh said, but losing the Lakers NBA team to the Crypto.com Arena in downtown Los Angeles in 1999 was a blow. As part of the Super Bowl halftime show, Los Angeles hip-hop legends Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and Dr. Dre will join Eminem and Mary J. Blige in shining a light on Inglewood, which has its own rich hip-hop scene.

There are ongoing concerns that the stadium and district will further gentrify the community, as has occurred in other Black and Latinx communities in Los Angeles in recent years. Along with tech investment in neighboring communities, the stadium has acted as a catalyst for rising home values and increased rents. An upswell from residents led the city to pass a rent control law in 2019 to stop runaway annual rent increases of up to 100 percent and provide relocation support. But long-time Mayor James T. Butts Jr. of Inglewood, argues that the benefits of the development — more green space and thousands of new local construction and retail jobs — will help transform Inglewood from a struggling community into a growing one. A Star Trek fan, he calls the Hollywood Park district a “genesis device.

A new Inglewood stop on the $2 billion, 8.5-mile-long LAX-Crenshaw light rail line expected to open later this year will also lead to further investment and concerns. Lehrer and her team have partnered with the historically Black community of Crenshaw to “celebrate Black Los Angeles” and its history through a new linear park connected to the light rail line.

Washington, D.C.’s 11th Street Bridge Park Nears Final Design

11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN

“The Anacostia River has divided Washington, D.C. for generations,” said Scott Kratz, vice president of Building Bridges Across the River, in a public update of the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C. over Zoom. When the 11th street bridge built in the 1960s reached the end of its lifespan a decade ago, then Mayor Vince Gray and others saw an opportunity to “save part of the bridge, its precious pilings,” to create a new bridge park that would bring both sides of Washington, D.C. together. Spanning three football fields, the new bridge park designed by OLIN, a Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm, and OMA, a Netherlands-based architecture firm, will achieve a range of “health, environment, social, and economic goals,” Kratz argued. The hope is the project will become “an anchor for more inclusive development” in D.C. and help communities on both sides of the Anacostia “re-engage with the river and reconnect with each other.”

The journey to create a new bridge park began in 2011. Building Bridges Across the River spent two years listening to the diverse and historically marginalized communities along the river during over 200 meetings. The team heard demand for a new environmental educational center, a kayak and canoe launch, urban agriculture, public art, a performance space, a 21st century playground, and restaurant — all of which have made it into the final design.

A global design competition was then announced, attracting 81 firms from around the world. Some three dozen local stakeholders met with finalist teams over an eight-month-long competition. After extensive community review, the OMA+OLIN team won the project with their innovative X-design for a new bridge park.

11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN

James Guinther, vice president with Baltimore-based engineering firm Whitman Requardt & Associates (WRA), said designs will be finalized by early 2022 and construction on the bridge park will run through 2025. The design and engineering process has been complex given the new 1,000-foot-long park will be larger and heavier than the vehicular bridge it replaces. The park will be heavier because of the addition of soils for the new trees, so new pilings will be set in the river to support the additional weight and ensure resilience to flooding.

According to Jason Long, a partner at OMA, the trails leading to the bridge park from either Capitol Hill and the Navy Yard on the west side and Anacostia from the east side will be fully accessible and no more than a 20 minute walk on either side from the Metro. As the design was further fleshed out, OMA+OLIN decided to move a proposed open-air amphitheater off the bridge park and instead set it on the Anacostia side landing. Curving paths and ramps around the amphitheater will take visitors up into the park. Amazingly, no slope in the landings or the park is more than a 5 percent grade.

11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN
Walking into the Amphitheater on the east side of 11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN

The refined design also more closely fuses the adjacent local traffic bridge immediately to the north, creating multiple connection points between that bridge, which is accessible to vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians, and the new bridge park. A 16-foot-wide two-way bike and pedestrian path will be established to enable even better access to the bridge park as well. From there, visitors can gain entry to new picnic gardens and a hammock grove on the upper levels.

Lawns on top of the 11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN
Hammock Grove at the 11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN

The design of the bridge park has been modified in other ways. The width of the bridge park has been reduced by 15 feet overall, and now the ends have different widths, creating a more dynamic trapezoidal shape. At the Capitol Hill and Navy Yard side on the west, entry to the park will be a mere 30 feet wide, while at Anacostia, on the east side, the landing is now 127 feet wide. This also puts into form the equity goals of the project — there is a clear focus on ensuring easy access by Anacostia residents and providing greater benefits to those long-underserved communities.

Either ends of the upper levels of the X-shaped park will offer lookouts to both Capitol Hill and Anacostia communities. In between the great lawns on these upper levels is a central plaza where the upper levels join the lower levels.

View from the lookout facing west at 11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN
View from central plaza at 11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN

Back on the ground, the Anacostia landing of the park will include a new environmental educational center, a new home for the Anacostia Watershed Society; a kayak and canoe launch; and the amphitheater. An outdoor classroom and playground will be found near the educational center, while a new community restaurant with affordable options, and a large porch for markets and other events will be further up the slope from the east side. At the western entry point, OMA+OLIN will plant rain gardens that lead to the hammock grove.

Kayak and canoe launch at 11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN
The porch at 11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN

Hallie Boyce, FASLA, a partner with OLIN, explained that her firm and OMA have been working closely on all aspects of the project. “OLIN and OMA are very much an integrated team, and we have studied the entire bridge park together both over structure and on terra firma. There has been much overlap and collaboration between us towards a holistic design.”

While OMA has focused more on the architectural design of the new environmental center, restaurant and porch space, and central plaza, OLIN has been focused more on the amphitheater, lawns, play areas, and hammock grove. OLIN seeks to ensure a “richly layered landscape” with abundant color and vibrancy in all seasons, Boyce explained. On both the bridge park and landings, “there will be a lot of fall color and ample shade during the summer.” All of the new tree and plant life will also be supported by “advanced stormwater systems,” including bioretention basins and cisterns, which will capture stormwater for reuse in irrigation.

Rain gardens on the west side of the 11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN

Returning to the landscape design of the new amphitheater space on the east side, Boyce said that the space will be a “large woodland meadow with wetlands at its edges.” Native and adapted species will be planted to achieve biodiversity goals established with the Anacostia Watershed Society. There will also be urban agriculture plots for use by the community.

To highlight the role mussels play in filtering and cleaning the water, OLIN+OMA designed a charming “Mussel Power” playground that features these bivales with custom shell-shaped play elements that kids can hide in and run through. “The play area dovetails with the environmental education program,” Boyce said.

Mussel power playground at 11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN

All the planning and design work on the bridge park is the result of a broader equitable development plan for the communities surrounding park, particularly in Ward 8 on the east side of the river. Given the rampant gentrification and displacement that has occurred in D.C. over the past two decades, there was real concern among nearby communities that a new bridge park would only accelerate these trends. 11th Street Bridge Park has rightfully been recognized as a model of inclusive and responsible development, setting the bar high for other cities seeking to make major public space investments in underserved communities.

Vaughn Perry, director of equity for Building Bridges Across the River, said the priority is to ensure that long-term residents of Washington, D.C.’s Ward 8 can “thrive in place” — and the bridge park must serve that goal. He noted there is a significant gap in wealth among the communities on the east and west sides of the Anacostia River, with home values on the east side an estimated $450,000 less. Growing and protecting community wealth in Ward 8 is therefore a key focus of his organization and takes the form of programs that encourage home ownership, provide job training, and build cultural equity.

Over the past decade, as part of the equitable development plan, the organization has founded a community land trust that is meant to “ensure permanent affordability for residents” and now includes 220 non-profit-owned units. The group has organized tenant’s rights workshops and home buyers’ clubs, helping nearly another 100 residents purchase homes. On the job training front, the organization has held 20 training sessions for construction jobs on the bridge park and placed 81 people in positions. “These folks are gainfully employed right now,” Perry said. In terms of enhancing local arts and culture, Building Bridges has organized the Anacostia River Festival, which brings 8,000-10,000 people each year and include training programs to build empowerment. Total community investments to date have been around $77 million, which is almost the cost of the bridge park itself.

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

Taipingqiao Park in Shanghai / Design Land Collective, via Forbes

High-Profile China Communist Memorial Gets a Boost from American Landscape Architect — 06/30/21, Forbes
“Finished in 2001, a park across from the party congress site known as Taipingqiao Park has taken on new importance as home to the new memorial. Taipingqiao Park and the accompanying Taipingqiao Lake with have received a big facelift in the past year led by Dwight Law, an American landscape architect and principal of Design Land Collaborative in Shanghai.”

Step Inside a Los Angeles Home That’s All About Natural Tones and Clean Lines — 06/29/21, Architectural Digest
“Working with landscape architect Chris Sosa, Woods and Dangaran plotted the house in relation to trees and plantings that soften the emphatically rectilinear lines of the structure. Outside the plaster privacy wall, the front yard is lined with a swath of oak trees and boulders.”

Into the Archives: the Design of Central Park, a Masterpiece of Landscape Architecture — 06/27/21, Designboom
“In the 1850s, a competition was launched for the design of a large new park in manhattan. the project sought to address the recreational needs of the rapidly growing city by offering new yorkers an experience of the countryside where they could escape from the stresses of urban life.”

The U.S. Neighborhoods with the Greatest Tree Inequity, Mapped — 06/25/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Neighborhoods with a majority of people of color have, on average, 33% less tree canopy than majority-white communities, according to data from the Tree Equity Score map, a project of the conservation nonprofit American Forests.”

A Black Vision for Development, in the Birthplace of Urban Renewal — 06/24/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“A new $230 million project approved this month by local government authorities to redevelop the neighborhood puts Black people in the driver’s seat of the Hill District’s remaking. It’s a test of the nagging question: Can racist urban redevelopment practices of the past ever be corrected with more urban redevelopment?”

A Piet Oudolf-designed Garden at the Vitra Campus Makes Its Full-bloom Debut — 06/21/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Typical of Oudolf-designed landscapes, the garden at the Vitra campus embraces a naturalistic, almost wild appearance achieved through a rigorous, highly precise planning process and the use of self-regenerating species usually ignored in popular garden design in favor of more decorative plants.”

At the Congress for New Urbanism, A Critique of European Eco-Cities

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany / Freiburg Tourism Bureau. Copyright FWTM-Spiegelhalter

Are European eco-cities models for the future or do they reflect poor urban design practices? During the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering, a group of architects and urban designers debated the merits of a few well-known sustainable cities, including Vauban in Freiburg, Germany; Bo01 in Malmö, Sweden; Kronsberg in Germany; and Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm, Sweden. While there was agreement on the need to densify cities through new compact low-carbon development, there was a lack of consensus on the best way to make sustainable communities more walkable and aesthetically pleasing and how to best incorporate landscape and access to nature.

According to Dhiru Thadani, an architect and urbanist, the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.2 billion by 2050. “Where will all these people live?,” he wondered.

Land scarcity isn’t the issue. “We could fit 14 billion people into the state of Texas if it was as dense as Paris.” But creating enough dense low-carbon communities is.

Increased density of human settlements is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Walkable, bikeable communities, with access to low-carbon transit, have the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any development model. The key to encouraging denser development is making these communities as livable and beautiful as possible.

Architect and academic Michael Dennis, author of Architecture & The City: Selected Essays, argued that “dense urbanism is the most efficient” way to live. He also believes that ecology can be integrated into compact developments — “density doesn’t preclude ecological considerations; ecology and density are fraternal twins.”

But he believes density must be the priority with any new development. Two-thirds of Americans now live in suburban environments where they are dependent on cars that use fossil fuels. These sprawled-out, car-based communities continues our dependence on the “oil empire.”

Citing arguments made in the books Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change by urban planner Peter Calthorpe and Green Metropolis by The New Yorker writer David Owen, Dennis argued that dense urbanism “uses less land, carbon, and energy, and is the best climate solution.” To stave off the climate crisis, “we have 10-15 years left to make major changes,” which he argues involves transforming our communities into higher-density ones. He added that “stormwater and recycling issues didn’t create this crisis.”

While contemporary European eco-cities offer a model for how to maximize density and incorporate ecological landscape design, his issue is with their urban forms, “which aren’t good.” He believes that the issue is “confusion in terms of the role of landscape: the urbanism-to-building connection.”

Dennis believes ecological systems can be integrated into traditional dense and humane European community forms, but European eco-cities haven’t created the right connections between urban form, buildings, landscape, and people. These communities have an urban design problem.

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, which is one of the original European eco-cities built on the site of a former military base, “still looks like army barracks.” While Freiburg is a “beautiful traditional European city,” Vauban “looks like a trailer park on steroids, invaded by an untamed landscape that looks like a jungle.” Its environmental merits are solid — the development is powered by solar energy and includes all ultra-low energy passive house buildings — but “the landscape is confused and unclear.” It’s a “good environmental solution, but not necessarily good urbanism.” (Dennis didn’t mention the wealth of research on the health benefits of nearby nature).

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany / Taras Grescoe, Twitter
Vauban in Freiburg, Germany / Taras Grescoe, Twitter

As for Bo01, a development designed in the early 00s that is powered entirely by renewable energy, the community is too distinct from the beautiful streets and squares of Malmö. In Bo01, “there are no squares or real streets; it’s an architectural project, not an urbanism project. It’s formed of architectural lego blocks.”

Bo01, Malmo, Sweden / Wikipedia, Johan Jönsson, CC BY-SA 4.0

For Dennis, Kronsberg was “so awful I couldn’t spend time on it.” Hammarby in Stockholm is the best of the set, but “it’s still problematic — it has an architectural design, not an urban design.”

John Ellis, a consulting principal, architect, and urban designer at Mithun, disagreed. “Hammarby isn’t as bad as Michael says.” The project, which transformed a polluted brownfield site, was created as part of an Olympics bid the city didn’t win. The development, which now has 20,000 residents and 11,000 jobs, was designed to extend public transit in a ring loop and provide close proximity to a number of other jobs in Stockholm. Hammarby is powered by 50 percent renewable energy and 50 percent biogas from waste.

Hammarby, Stockholm, Sweden / Flickr, Design for Health, CC BY 2.0

There is a transit stop every 984 feet (300 meters), and the tram arrives every 12 minutes. Studies found that 80 percent of trips in Hammarby occur through walking, biking, or public transit.

Blocks were scaled at 200 feet by 360 feet, and buildings are all U-shaped in order to give everyone views of the surrounding lake. There are networks of landscaped pathways that criss-cross the development, adding green space and alternative ways to traverse the community. The development includes a high school and childcare facilities. “While there is a certain monotony, there are many ingredients that create a good urban pattern. And with buildings 5-8 stories tall, Hammarby is 2.5 times as dense as San Francisco,” Ellis said.

Hammarby, Stockholm, Sweden / Flickr, Design for Health, CC BY 2.0

Architect Doug Farr, who Planetizen called one of the top 100 most influential urbanists, said the world is now facing a climate emergency, so we need to move on from the traditional urbanism of the past. A leading sustainable architect, he has also found design inspiration in Freiburg and Vauban, which he has studied in depth in person.

“Traditional urbanism is part of the fabric of 19th century Europe. But we are facing 21st century questions. Traditional urbanism is good for creating walkability, but development models can’t be fixed in amber. They need to evolve to meet the challenges of today.”

New Research: The Built Environment Impacts Our Health and Happiness More Than We Know

ASLA 2020 Urban Design Honor award. Yongqing Fang Alleyways: An Urban Transformation. Guangzhou, China. Lah D+H Landscape and Urban Design

People living in dense cities are among the least happy. Their rates of depression are 40 percent higher than other populations; and their rates of anxiety are 20 percent higher. Why? Because the built environment is directly linked with happiness and well-being, and too often urban environments fail to put people at ease.

In a session at the American Planning Association’s virtual conference, Justin Hollander, professor of urban and environmental planning and policy at Tufts University, said planners, landscape architects, and architects have a responsibility to design a built environment that increases well-being. Through his fascinating research on cognitive architecture, he has found “we are deeply influenced by our surroundings” — even more than we know.

“We have an automatic (non-conscious) response to shapes, patterns, and colors. Our minds are like icebergs — we are only aware of less than 5 percent of our responses to our environment,” Hollander said. These findings, which are covered in greater detail in his book Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, co-authored with Ann Sussman, have significant implications for the planning and design of communities.

Hollander argued that “humans are wall-hugging species. Well-defined corridors and streets encourage our walking.” (see image at top)

On an innate level, humans are also “programmed to look for faces everywhere.” This may be why many traditional or vernacular buildings almost look like faces, with a central door and windows on either side.

A building that looks like a face / Ann Sussman, Tufts University

Humans connect with these forms because they help us tell stories about buildings and places. “We go to places because of stories we tell ourselves. We can imagine identities in these places. Tourist attractions always tell a story.”

Given nature is our original context, humans also have an innate biophilia — a deep attraction to and affinity for nature. “It’s an artifact of evolution.”

ASLA 2020 Landmark Award. Millennium Park — A Fortuitous Masterpiece. Lurie Garden by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol / P. Psyzka and City of Chicago

As we now understand, humans are drawn to landscapes that provide a refuge, a sense of safety, and prospect, a view of the entire scene, which supports that sense of safety. Storytelling is also important in landscapes, whether they are gardens, parks, or streetscapes. Humans are drawn to landscapes that provide clear sequences.

ASLA 2018 Professional Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Juliane Schaer

At Tufts University, Hollander is examining students’ cognitive responses to a variety of images of the built environment. Through eye-tracking software, “we can see the unseen — we can see what our minds are looking at an unconscious level.”

In his lab, Hollander uses 3M’s visual attention software to map the path students’ eyes take across an image — where they fixate and experience an unconscious response to visual stimuli. In a study of 30 students, Hollander found they universally looked at the entrance and windows on a traditonal building first, ignoring the blank areas. And when he showed students’ eye tracks of a contemporary all-glass library, they fixated briefly on the edges, but the glass facade itself seemed faceless, almost invisible. They just looked at the sky because the image simply caused too much cognitive stress. (In the image below, the areas of highest fixation are in red, followed by orange, with blue indicating the least attention).

Eye tracking of a traditional building and a glass library / Justin Hollander and Ann Sussman, Tufts University

Hollander said eye tracking software shows that New Urbanist-style communities, which have homes closer to the street; traditional architecture that mimic faces; and sidewalks all “encourage walking.” If a pedestrian can see a sequence — one, two, three, four homes in a row — they are more likely to want to walk down that row. He knows this because he could see the students unconsciously looking at all the facades down the street in a sequence.

In contrast, an image of a row of parking garages, with no clear doors or windows, caused students to scan for windows, quickly give up, and again look at the sky. “There was far less visual intensity, and it’s a less walkable environment.”

Flags and columns succeed in grabbing attention, which has been known for millennia. Flags predate permanent settlements, and the ancient Greeks and Romans used columns in their architecture.

Why does this matter? Hollander argues that environments that are easier to fixate on cause less cognitive stress.

Megan Oliver, an urbanist based in Baltimore, Maryland, and founder of Hello Happy Design, said the research of Hollander and others is critical, because there is a “mental health crisis” in the U.S., particularly American cities.

People are constantly responding to the built environment and in turn trying to shape it in order to reduce the impact of environmental stressors, such as blank glass or concrete building facades, crowds, noise, and air pollution. These stressors combine to make people anxious, sick, and unhappy.

In contrast, happy places are designed to encourage pro-social behavior. This is because “people need social connections in order to thrive.” Happy places help create layers of social relations, including “weak ties,” which are actually very important. “Weak ties create a sense of belonging and identity. They build trust, which helps pull communities through challenges.” Communities with higher weak ties and trust fought the COVID-19 pandemic better.

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Honor Award. Walker Art Center Wurtele Upper Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Inside | Outside + HGA / Theodore Lee

Oliver argued that communities with pro-social behavior are also more inclusive and participatory and therefore better at shaping the built environment to meet their needs. The ethos in these communities is “change ourselves by changing the city.” These communities shape their spaces, creating shared identity through gardens, public art, and other improvements that help reduce stressors. Happy places then go beyond “places we inhabit and become extensions of ourselves.” These places enable us to “bond with the environment around us.”

A related conversation, also with Hollander, occurred at the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering. In a rapid-fire Zoom roundtable, the debate about what makes people happy or not in the built environment continued.

Architect Don Ruggles, CEO of Ruggles Mabe Studio, argued that “humans are always looking for safe spaces. We think about survival every minute of the day. But beauty is equally as important. We have an intuitive response — it creates a sense of pleasure.”

The problem, he argues, is that “our survival instinct is about five-to-seven times stronger than our pleasure instinct,” so anything in the built environment that is a stressor overwhelms our ability to experience beauty. He called for designers to focus on projects that engage our parasympathetic system that create deep relaxation so that pleasure can be experienced.

According to Nikos Salingaros, professor of mathematics, architecture, urban, and complexity theory at the University of Texas at San Antonio, architects today are wed to a style rooted in 1920s Germany — the Bauhaus — that creates an unhealthy built environment. “Trillions of dollars are wasted on creating stylistically irrelevant glass boxes that are essentially invisible to people. Whole cities — districts, neighborhoods, and downtowns — have become invisible, because of the geometries and math of the structures built.” Given humans are cognitively stressed by Modernist or contemporary glass buildings, these places are “close to malpractice, based on the medical evidence.”

Instead, Salingaros called for privileging human connections through walkable, bikeable places. “Start with network connectivity. No giant blocks. Create intimate networks that are comfortable to humans.” Furthermore, all urban spaces should be “continuations of those people-centric networks. Use the correct dimensions, apply pattern languages, and make the boundaries of buildings and spaces permeable.”

Urban designers, architects, and landscape architects should be “applying mathematical symmetries at multiple scales. The urban, landscape, architectural, and ornamental scale should all be aligned through sub-symmetries” — or the entire design will fail. “The measure of success will be the flow of people.”

He especially cautioned against contemporary buildings that purposefully try to be disharmonious — “these place intentionally violate symmetry laws,” creating stress in their attempt to grab attention.

For Ann Sussman, an architect, author, and researcher, designers can retrofit environments that create stress and anxiety, but only to a degree. She pointed to a project in Somerville, Massachusetts, where the negative impact of the blank concrete wall of a parking garage was mitigated through public art and greenery. Students shown the blank wall and then an image of the redesigned wall while wearing eye-tracking monitors experienced higher visual fixation on the art.

But in the case of a car-centric suburb, with a wide road with few houses along it, even adding in sidewalks would do little to reduce the impact of its inherent car-centric nature. “As people look down the street, they can’t fixate on the sidewalk and therefore safety. There are some suburbs built in the 1950s and 60s that just will never be walkable. These places are too foreign to our brain architecture.”

Unfortunately, new developments can have the same problems. Sussman asked: “Why is the Seaport district in South Boston so loathed? It’s because people can’t focus on it — they can’t anchor their sight on the glass buildings, so their fixation is anchored to the sky.”

Seaport District, Boston / Signature Boston

10 New Projects in Online Exhibition Demonstrate Value of Landscape Architecture as a Climate Solution

NatureScape homeowner in Orange County, California / Jodie Cook Design, Inc.

ASLA’s Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Online Exhibition demonstrates how landscape architects are designing smart solutions to climate impacts, such as flooding, extreme heat, drought, and sea level rise. 10 new projects added to the exhibition exemplify best practice approaches to landscape architecture in the era of climate change.

The projects include a mix of landscape-based and often nature-based solutions across the U.S., which range in scale from residential and school landscapes to master plans for entire cities and counties. There is also a focus on projects that address climate injustices and meet the needs of historically-marginalized and underserved communities.

The John W. Cook Academy Space to Grow Schoolyard / site design group, ltd. (site)

“The projects clearly show how landscape architects can help all kinds of communities reduce their risk to increasingly severe climate impacts. Landscape architects design with nature, which leads to more resilient solutions that also improve community health, safety, and well-being over the long-term,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO

With the new projects, which were selected with ASLA’s Climate Action Committee, there are now a total of 30 projects featured in the online exhibition. Each project was selected to illustrate policy recommendations outlined in the 2017 report produced by ASLA’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change & Resilience.

Explore all the new projects:

Cuyahoga Greenways Framework Plan
Cuyahoga County, Ohio | SmithGroup

Being solely dependent on cars increases communities’ risks to climate impacts. Through the 815-mile Cuyahoga Greenways Framework Plan created by landscape architects and planners at SmithGroup, some 59 communities will have healthier and more resilient transportation connections to downtown Cleveland, Lake Erie, and each other.

Green Schoolyards
Vancouver, Washington | nature+play designs

Too few schools offer educational green spaces that can spark children’s appreciation for nature, which is critical to helping them become future Earth stewards. Jane Tesner Kleiner, ASLA, with nature+play designs partnered with school leaders, students, and volunteers to design native plant gardens, meadows, and tree groves that create environmental education opportunities; support pollinators, such as butterflies, bees, and birds; and also manage stormwater.

Houston Arboretum and Nature Center
Houston, Texas | Design Workshop and Reed Hilderbrand

By 2012, more than 50 percent of the tree canopy of the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center had been lost due to drought and hurricanes made more severe by climate change. By removing trees and restoring the original prairie, savannah, and woodland ecosystems found at the Arboretum, landscape architects with Design Workshop and Reed Hilderbrand designed a landscape naturally resilient to future climate shocks.

The John W. Cook Academy Space to Grow Schoolyard
Chicago, Illinois | site design group, ltd (site)

Historically marginalized and underserved communities, like those found in the South Side of Chicago, are disproportionally affected by climate impacts such as flooding. Through the Space to Grow program, a flooded asphalt schoolyard at the John W. Cook Academy, an elementary school on the South Side, was redesigned by landscape architects at site design group, ltd (site) to become a green learning and play space that captures stormwater.

The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design
Atlanta, Georgia | Andropogon

Through their research capabilities and campus infrastructure, universities and schools can also help solve the climate crisis. For the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, landscape architects with Andropogon integrated an innovative water management system that captures and reuses 100 percent of stormwater runoff from the building and also cleanses and reuses building greywater in the ecological landscape.

NatureScape
Orange County, California | Jodie Cook Design, Inc.

Climate change has severely reduced the availability of fresh water in arid Western states. Turf lawns require vast amounts of water to maintain and also provide no habitat for native plant and animal species. Through NatureScape, an innovative program in Orange County, California, Jodie Cook, ASLA, helped homeowners transform their turf front yards into water-saving native plant gardens that can sustain a range of native bird, bee, and butterfly species.

Rain Check 2.0
Buffalo, New York | Buffalo Sewer Authority

Climate change is making communities’ struggles with aging combined sewer systems, which carry both sewage from buildings and stormwater from streets, even worse. With more frequent extreme weather events, these systems now more often overflow, causing untreated sewage to enter water bodies. Rain Check 2.0, an innovative program in Buffalo, New York, led by landscape architect Kevin Meindl, ASLA, offers grants to private landowners to capture stormwater through trees, rain gardens, green roofs and streets.

Randall’s Island Connector
The Bronx, New York | Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA)

Historically marginalized and underserved communities, like those in the South Bronx in New York City, experience higher than average heat risks because they typically have fewer parks and recreational spaces. The lack of safe and convenient pedestrian and bicycle access to nearby green spaces exacerbates the problem. Working with two community groups and the New York City government, landscape architects with MNLA designed the Randall’s Island Connector, a ¼-mile-long multi-modal path underneath an Amtrak freight line.

Sapwi Trails Community Park
Thousand Oaks, California | Conejo Recreation & Park District and RRM Design Group (consulting landscape architects)

In drought-stricken Western states, climate change has added stress to increasingly fragile ecosystems. Instead of moving forward with an earlier plan that could have damaged the Lang Creek ecosystem, planners and landscape architects at the Conejo Recreation & Park District and RRM Design Group designed the Sapwi Trails Community Park to be a model for how to preserve ecological systems while improving access and dramatically reducing water use.

Thornton Creek Water Quality Channel
Seattle, Washington | MIG

Climate change and environmentally-insensitive development in the Pacific Northwest are exacerbating negative impacts on salmon. Grassroots environmental organizations sought to daylight the piped Thornton Creek. A new water quality channel was designed by landscape architects at MIG to clean stormwater runoff from 680 surrounding acres before the water flows into the South Fork of the salmon-bearing Thornton Creek.

Background:

New projects were submitted by ASLA members through an open call ASLA released in 2019. In partnership with the ASLA Climate Action Committee, projects were selected to represent a range of U.S. regions, scales (from residential to county-wide master plans), and firm types.

In 2017, ASLA convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change & Resilience, which resulted in a report: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate and a series of lectures and educational sessions at built environment conferences. In 2019, an exhibition outlining 20 cases that exemplify the policy goals outlined in the report opened at the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C., and a companion website was launched.

The exhibition was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Street Trees Are Important, But Need to Be Respectfully Sited

Misplaced trees in front of a civic building, Nantucket, Massachusetts / Robert Gibbs
Trees respecting the Civic-Commercial C-Zone / Robert Gibbs

By Robert J. Gibbs, FASLA, AICP

For most of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American cities prospered as their region’s center of commerce. Central business districts thrived as shopping destinations by having densely populated cores, mass transportation, large employment centers, on-street parking, and numerous governmental and civic institutions. During the 1960s, America’s larger cities began installing street trees and designer furnishings in an effort to revitalize downtowns in the wake of losing significant market share to suburban shopping centers.

Even though they are a relatively recent phenomenon in many city centers, street trees enhance a downtown’s uniqueness and authenticity. A well-planned, tree-lined urban street contributes to shoppers’ perception that downtown stores offer quality goods and services not commonly found in shopping malls.

Studies dating back to the 1970s, including those by Kathleen Wolf, a research social scientist at the University of Washington, have documented the effects of trees and other plant life on the “restorative experience,” a concept advanced through two interpretations: Stress Reduction Theory and Attention Restoration Theory. The former theory contends that environments containing natural elements reduce levels of “physiological arousal” (stress) in the brain; the latter contends that the presence of vegetation in an environment is “uniquely capable” of effortlessly capturing attention, which allows those elements of the brain used for direct concentration to recuperate. This mitigates what is known as “directed attention fatigue” (DAF), or simply the depletion of the ability to focus on a directed task.

These findings have implications for urban retail areas. It has been proven that shopping, as a goal-oriented activity constrained by many external factors, can induce a stressed state in the consumer. Research has also documented a positive correlation between a shopper’s “mood state” and his or her willingness to buy. Further, the mood state of retail employees correlates with job performance. The vast array of merchandising techniques retailers employ when aggregated across the urban or mall setting can result in DAF, a form of “information overload” that affects the consumer. It has likewise been proven that DAF results in decreased consumer confidence because of poor or rushed purchasing decisions, which may translate into dissatisfaction with a specific store or the overall retail area.

However, street trees alone cannot solve the problems and challenges that commercial urban areas face. Frequently, too much emphasis has been placed on planting street trees and installing decorative streetscape enhancements in an effort to improve retail sales in historic downtowns.

Retailers, shopping center developers, and urban designers have differing opinions regarding the layout and use of trees. Some shopping center developers even design by the “24-inch rule”: any tree is acceptable in any location as long as it is less than 24 inches tall (a metaphor for no street trees of any type).

In some cities, planners have installed short shrub-like trees that block motorists’ and pedestrians’ views of storefronts and signage but fail to provide useful canopies. In some newer and renovated urban centers, trees have either been organized around an abstract grid or randomly scattered according to some new design theory. In each case, trees have been sited without regard for the visibility of signage, storefronts, and civic buildings.

To enhance the sustainability of an urban commercial center, street trees should be carefully located to provide protection from extreme heat, reduce the scale of the street, mitigate the height of tall buildings, and improve the overall aesthetics of the shopping area. Asymmetrically sized sidewalks can respond to local climate conditions: wide sidewalks accommodate more shade in hot climates or the warming sun in colder regions.

Trees are often planted in a 25-30-foot on-center grid, frequently evenly spaced between predetermined street lighting fixtures or curbside parking spaces. While this modular approach contributes to a balanced and organized urban aesthetic, trees frequently cause havoc with retailers and civic buildings. Rather than installing trees at regular intervals in a row, which may inadvertently align with and thus block the view of building entrances, each building’s significant architectural features or signage should be analyzed during the initial site analysis process. Where worthy building features are present, or proposed with new development, a Civic-Commercial C-shaped Zone should be included in site plans.

Diagram of the Civic-Commercial C-Shaped Zone at the entrance of a building. / Gibbs Planning Group

Proposed street trees, light fixtures, site furnishings, and landscaping should be planted outside of the C-Zone, near or on common property lines, clustered where they can hide blank walls, or spaced to avoid blocking the view of retail entrances, storefront windows, signage, important commercial architectural features, and civic buildings.

Trees planted along storefront edges that respect the Commercial C-Zone, Nantucket, Massachusetts. / Robert Gibbs

As an idealistic young landscape architect early in my career, I designed a textbook perfect streetscape for a small Wisconsin town. Large Linden trees were spaced exactly 25 feet apart, to align with the center of each adjacent parallel parking space and for a continues tree canopy at maturity in 25 years. Street furnishings and flower beds were precisely spaced in a “landscape zone” along the outer edge of the walkway. I was convinced that my design would almost immediately revitalize the then declining business district by creating a human-scaled, beautiful destination for eager shoppers and diners. Adjacent building features, storefronts of commercial signage were not even considered in my design. Symmetry and scale were all that mattered for my brilliant placemaking and hopefully award-winning design.

However, during the tree installation, a hardware store owner taught me a lifelong lesson. One of the new trees directly blocked all views of this historic neon sign from both passing vehicles and pedestrians. The owner explained how he would lose vital business to a competing larger chain store located in a nearby shopping center. Although I did my best to enlighten the businessman that my design would create a “sense of place” to attract many more people to the downtown, and that views of his storefront or sign were not important, or that the trees would eventually grow tall enough to expose his sign after 20 years, he wasn’t buying it and let me know his concerns in no uncertain terms. He was angry, and I knew he was right. I had mistakenly misplaced trees relative to the adjacent facades and commercial signage. One tree even blocked the portico of a historic landmark church. I had made a blunder that provided a lifelong lesson for future urban designs. This approach was later reinforced during my tenure as the director of planning for a major shopping center developer.

It’s almost unbelievable, but many landscape architects and designers still routinely align trees and furnishing in an abstract grid without consideration of the surrounding architecture.

Misplaced tree obstructing landmark historic building in Nantucket, Massachusetts / Robert Gibbs
A tree blocks views of the store’s entrance / Robert Gibbs
Another poorly located tree that could have easily been located asymetrically along the sides of the storefront in Nantucket, Massachusetts / Robert Gibbs
Misplaced tree blocks view of an entrance to a building / Robert Gibbs
Misplaced trees block view of store sign in Nantucket, Massachusetts / Robert Gibbs

Since the humbling lessons learned during my Wisconsin streetscape design, I have frequently lectured about my C-Zone theory at universities. When possible, I include photographs of local misplaced street trees, often resulting in rapid tree relocations or removal by the city. Below, see 2009 “before” and 2011 “after” photographs of a street tree blocking a luxury store along Worth Avenue, Palm Beach, Florida. The ill-located tree was moved within month of my Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce address on urban retail best practices.

In 2009, a street tree blocked the entrance to a luxury store in Palm Beach, Florida / Robert Gibbs
In 2011, the tree was removed and two street trees created space for the entrance, in Palm Beach, Florida / Robert Gibbs

Robert Gibbs, FASLA, is president of the Gibbs Planning Group, which has advised and planned commercial areas in some 500 town centers and historic cities in the U.S. and abroad. Gibbs is a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, a lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, author of Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development, and co-author of eight books.

Our Vanishing Coasts, Pictured

McLean_Impact_Ueberzug_as_d_e_262032020.indd
Alex MacLean Impact / Birkhäuser

Impact: The Effect of Climate Change on Coastlines, aerial photographer Alex MacLean’s latest book, captures our Atlantic and Gulf coastal communities at their most vulnerable. Even in a media environment inundated with images of climate change, MacLean’s photos have the ability to shock.

Trained as an architect, MacLean is well-known for his decades-long work photographing landscapes from above. A cursory review of MacLean’s aerial photography shows a fixation with the seams and stitches at the edge of our built environment. Those interstitial zones offer valuable insight into our relationship with rising sea levels. Impact’s photos show us pristine lawns and asphalt driveways grafted on to lagoons, mansions pinned to subsiding cliffs, and suburban housing divisions encircled by tumultuous waves.

Impact’s photos are endowed with an instant nostalgia. Knowing that sea level rise is in the process of re-configuring the pictured landscapes, Impact feels similar to a yearbook, freshly published. “Remember when,” one might find themselves saying while flipping through the images years from now. Remember when Casino Pier extended proudly from the boardwalk at Seaside Heights in New Jersey? The Jet Star roller coaster perched on top, not crumpled in the water like it was found after Hurricane Sandy?

Impact_02
Casino Pier post-Sandy / Birkhäuser

MacLean dedicates a portion of his book to the documentation of hurricane devastation, showing what high winds and flood waters can do to the built environment. But we’ve seen these photos before, haven’t we? And after Superstorm Sandy humbled Seaside Heights, Casino Pier was rebuilt, complete with a new roller coaster, Hydrus. So what lessons does Impact have for us that we haven’t already declined to learn? That depends on the reader, but MacLean’s photos will leave an impression, regardless.

Impact’s most sublime photos are those that maximize nature in the frame. It’s easy to cover the strip of land shown in some if his images with a hand, giving the page over to ocean. MacLean has captured the radical flatness of his coastal environments, where buildings and people are co-planar with the sea.

Impact_01
In his photos, aerial photographer Alex MacLean captures the radical flatness of the Atlantic coastline. / Birkhäuser

MacLean expresses slight repulsion at the opulence on display at some of the beachfront communities he photographed. The recreational boating, the ostentatious architecture. He seems to desire that nature be re-grafted back over the development.

It’s tough to argue with him given the glut of development MacLean photographs. Faux-Italian villas situated on barrier islands seems comical. So do the beachfront homes supported by more stilts than there is likely lumber in the house’s frame. MacLean cuts any humor though with images of the aftermath of devastating storms. Stilts remain upright, but there’s hardly a house left to support.

What many of us know and have come to accept is that our foothold in coastal areas is precarious. Most would acknowledge our coasts receding and anticipate our structures drowning. But we count on insurance recouping us. We may even choose to rebuild in hazard zones. Whether these two latter statements remain true, this stance underestimates the willful endangerment we’ve engaged in at the coast.

Perhaps Impact’s most striking photo is of the Sabine Pass liquified natural gas production facility in Louisiana, sitting directly in the path of future hurricanes. When critical infrastructure, energy, and waste facilities are impacted by sea level rise, we will be left with very different, less desirable memories than we hoped for.

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Sabine Pass LNG Terminal in Cameron Parish Lagoon, Louisiana. / Birkhäuser