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.

Impact_03
Sabine Pass LNG Terminal in Cameron Parish Lagoon, Louisiana. / Birkhäuser

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

Xuhui Runway Park, Shanghai, China / Courtesy Insaw Photography, via Metropolis

Shanghai’s Longhua Airport Is Converted into a New Public Park — 11/30/20, Metropolis
“Designed by Sasaki, Xuhui offers a palimpsest of a reused airport, preserving its materials and forms. The 36-acre space is an intensely ‘linear composition,’ says Dou Zhang, senior associate director of Sasaki’s Shanghai office.”

There’s No Room for Teens in the Pandemic City — 11/30/20, Bloomberg CityLab
“With schools remote, sports canceled, and libraries closed, teenagers in many U.S. cities find themselves unwelcome in parks and public spaces.”

Ford Reveals Plans for Michigan Central, a 30-acre “Mobility Innovation District” in Detroit’s Corktown — 11/24/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“As for the disused rail tracks-turned-mobility platform behind Central Station, that effort is being headed by Boston-based landscape architecture studio Mikyoung Kim Design in partnership with Detroit-based livingLAB.”

Mellon Park, ‘a Prime Example of Landscape Design,’ Is up for Historic Designation — 11/23/20, Next Pittsburgh
“Dating to 1910, the property consists of pastoral parkland, formal gardens, a fountain and several buildings that once were part of estates belonging to the Mellon, Marshall, Scaife, Frew and Darsie families.”

More Parks, Longer Lives — 11/19/20, Parks & Recreation Magazine
“The research suggests that if all the census tracts in L.A. County expanded park access up to the county median, it could add up to 164,700 years in life-expectancy gains for residents living in park-poor tracts. Latino and Black community residents comprise almost 72 percent of the gain (118,000 years).”

Google Launches New Tool to Help Cities Stay Cool — 11/18/20, The Verge
“Google’s new Tree Canopy Lab uses aerial imagery and Google’s AI to figure out where every tree is in a city. Tree Canopy Lab puts that information on an interactive map along with additional data on which neighborhoods are more densely populated and are more vulnerable to high temperatures.”

‘Tiny’ House Village for St. Louis Homeless Coming to Downtown West, Mayor Announces — 11/18/20, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Tiny houses are a lot safer, more secure and comfortable than living in a tent,’ Krewson said during a news conference, adding that the homes will create a ‘stronger foundation’ for homeless people to rebuild their lives.”

Towards a New Landscape of Racial Justice

Hunts Point Riverside Park, South Bronx, NY / Rudy Brunner Award

“We need to take a hard look at the racial injustice that has poisoned American society. This is an issue for all professions — it’s not unique to landscape architecture,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, the new CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), during the first general session of reVISION ASLA 2020.

“Racism has played a role in countless development and design decisions, environmental injustice, and disinvestment in many communities.” To start on a new path, ASLA, as a professional society, and landscape architecture firms need to have an “essential dialogue that can help us all move forward,” Carter-Conneen said.

Carter-Conneen brought more than a thousand virtual attendees through a wide-ranging discussion with Majora Carter, an urban revitalization strategist who led the creation of Hunts Point Riverside Park, the first new park in the South Bronx in 60 years; and landscape designer and artist Walter Hood, ASLA, who is designing the landscape of the International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, South Carolina, and co-editor of the new book Black Landscapes Matter.

Instead of focusing on diversity, Hood argued the best way to move forward is to celebrate our differences, which can be “empowering.” As part of this, we need to “create broader definitions of landscapes” and move past “colonial landscapes in which everything is the same.” He stated that “everything is not the same — that is the fiction of the colonial landscape.”

Underserved communities of color can also move past tired conversations around gentrification and development. Instead of seeing all new community-driven development as bad, it’s important to understand the nuances rooted in history.

“The communities that are now being gentrified were once redlined and created out of inequality. These places have largely stayed the same, because they were once where they stuck Black folks and all the crap, devaluing these neighborhoods.”

Prior to being devalued and redlined, these communities were actually “historically very diverse, with a mix of working class people.” So, for Hood, the solution is not to further maintain the “ghetto,” but to “reshape it, dismantling segregation through amazing artistry and advocacy.” Planning and designing neighborhoods that restore historic diversity will lead to places “where people can live together.”

But Hood also noted that after some neighborhoods integrated in the 1960s, “many white people fled to the suburbs.” It’s unclear what the future will bring: “To live together or not — this is the big conundrum of the 21st century.”

Carter has called for historically “low-status” communities like the South Bronx to “self-gentrify.” This is driven by her desire to retain talent in these communities. “You don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one. In the past, it has been about growing up and getting out. But there is already lots of value in these communities.”

In fact, predatory real estate speculators have long seen the value, which is why perhaps so many historically marginalized and underserved communities fear development. Self-gentrification is different though: it’s about communities seeing the value and making improvements for themselves, reaping the rewards in the process.

Carter said she has recently stopped using the term self-gentrification because it is “too triggering for some.” While some people “get it right away,” others may see nefarious motives. “But I stand by the concept. The idea that there is no value in these communities is untrue. I want to mess with that idea.”

Hood largely concurred, arguing that he has purposefully kept his studio in West Oakland, a predominantly Black community, because “I’ve been here 25 years. This is my place, people here look like me, and it’s key to establishing self.” Plus, he added that “I can’t trust my future to someone else.” The future of West Oakland needs to be protected by the people who have deep roots there. They can beautify and improve it best.

2020 is the year of the pandemic. And in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by the police, it’s also the year of reckoning about racial injustice. When asked what the turmoil of this year means for low-status communities in the future, Carter said “I am hopeful and pray that the changes will turn into something real.”

She believes there is a great opportunity to help revitalize “low-status communities, including inner-city communities, poor white communities that have seen the loss of manufacturing, and indigenous reservations.” This can be realized through renewed investment in green infrastructure, which creates good-paying green jobs.

Hood argued that with the pandemic, “more people now see the value of the working class. We even came up new terms for them” — essential workers or first-line defenders.

Hood’s new book Black Landscapes Matter, co-edited with Grace Mitchell Tada, offers a way to further understand how landscapes have shaped race relations in the U.S. The book came out of a series of lectures Hood organized after a series of police killings of Black people in 2016. For him, the killing of Michael Brown was particularly impactful.

“The landscape where he was killed was familiar, outside a liquor store. I know that store, that street.” After Brown was gunned down, he was left in the middle of the road for hours.

Places enable or disable these kinds of behaviors. “Certain back drops make you afraid that someone could kill you there. These places look a certain way and give people the right.” Hood pointed to George Floyd and the check cashing store he went into. “These places have signs and symbols.”

One way to change the deadly narrative of these places for people of color is to change the narrative of the landscapes. As an example, he pointed to his project — 7th Street Dancing Lights in Oakland— that created towering 8-foot-tall images of African Americans over a road. “When people see the images, they wonder, ‘what is that?’ They may see the place differently” — and then interact with the people there more respectfully.

7th Street Dancing Lights / Hood Design Studio

This is why for Hood it’s so important to undo the homogenizing impact of colonial landscapes, which make all places seem the same, even though they aren’t. “Through post-colonial landscapes, we can articulate different origin stories — and futures. We can make change by changing the narrative.”

Carter said: “that is so brilliant. We can create agency by creating places that speak to us. This kind of work opens up all sorts of new possibilities, and it doesn’t take anything away from anyone else.”

Six Months into the Pandemic, Leading Investors Outline the State of Real Estate

Amazon e-commerce warehouse in Madrid, Spain / Wikipedia, Álvaro Ibáñez, CC BY 2.0

Since the beginning of the spread of COVID-19 in March, some real estate sectors are growing while others are contracting. At the Urban Land Institute (ULI)’s fall meeting, Owen Thomas, CEO of Boston Properties, explained that the biggest gains are being seen in data centers, industrial, science, self-storage, and healthcare properties, while residential, lodging, shopping centers, and malls have seen the greatest declines.

Thomas asked a panel of real estate investors with more than $300 billion in assets to provide their take on the current real estate market.

He noted that in July 2020, e-commerce sales were up 60-70 percent over the same time the previous year.

According to Hilary Spann, managing director and head of the Americas for real estate investments at CPPIB America, Inc., this e-commerce growth is occurring among all demographic segments, even those who previously preferred shopping in person. Even after the pandemic, she thinks e-commerce will succeed in keeping these new buyers.

With the digitization of the U.S. economy and the growth of online shopping and entertainment, there has also been massive growth in data centers and last-mile warehouses and distribution facilities. AJ Agarwal, senior managing director at Blackstone added that “we are seeing less infill warehouses in cities, and more 20 miles or so outside urban centers.”

For Francois Trausch, CEO of Allianz Real Estate, the trick has been how to figure out what people are doing in the real world via online proxies. For example, Allianz is now tracking Open Table reservations in major cities around the globe, as lunch reservations can be viewed as a proxy for nearby office building occupancy. “In Germany and other parts of Europe, we can see from Open Table that things are essentially back to normal. But in New York City, reservations are down 40 percent.”

He also noted that from his analysis, Asia seems to have largely overcome the coronavirus. “China is back at work. They have unbelievable capabilities and can administer COVID-19 tests to 9 million people in the city of Qingdao in five days; that’s something Paris could never do.”

Thomas noted that with any recession, demand for office space goes down, but over the long-term, office building development is tied to the location of jobs. “Where will jobs go? We are seeing an out-migration from cities into suburbs.”

He added that “working from home is here to stay.” There’s only 20 percent occupancy in office buildings in the U.S. right now, and those numbers may not come back to where they were post-pandemic.

All panelists seemed bullish on the long-term value of the world’s leading cities. “Our creative cities can’t experience disruption forever,” Spann argued.

While she sees Millennial families leaving the city for nearby suburbs, many people want to stay in the city. “With a viable vaccine, cities will continue to thrive over the long term.”

Across all real estate sectors, “the biggest change has been the impact of the fiscal stimulus,” said Agarwal. The stimulus, combined with recent actions by the Federal Reserve, means that “financing costs for real estate are now 30 percent less than they were pre-COVID.” But this has not translated into increased investment in certain sectors.

All were also negative about the prospects for shopping centers and malls. Frausch wondered whether malls can fill their vacant spaces, whether there are enough large retailers who will take on the risk. He sees a positive trend in the re-purposing of malls as hospitals, offices, and community spaces. “In Japan, there are now educational classes in malls.”

The investors then discussed the future outlook for hotels. When a vaccine is developed, Agarwal thinks there will be an explosion of leisure travel to resorts. But what is considered essential business travel will be redefined, and many trips will be deemed unnecessary. As a result, business hotels in cities will face continued challenges.

When asked what they foresee as the #1 topic in six months, answers were all over the board: the efficacy of vaccines, the distribution of vaccines, tax burdens for real estate development, and what shape the recovery will be. Frausch explained: “We could have a V-shaped recovery, or a K-shaped one, which bifurcates the economy into one that does well for some people and not well for others.”

Perhaps one positive note: the COVID-19 recession could also yield some innovation in the building sector. “We’ll soon see new companies that enable the online visualization of construction sites” — software that better facilitates the collaborative, virtual planning and design of projects, Spann said.

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

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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.

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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.