Environmental Justice a Growing Concern Among Landscape Architects

Shanghai / Flickr
Shanghai / Flickr

Environmental justice, which is about the fair distribution of environmental benefits and costs, is a “growing concern” among landscape architects across the globe, said Kurt Culbertson, FASLA, Design Workshop. For example, in ASLA’s 2016 Student Awards, 68 percent of the award-winning designs focused on environmental and social justice. 

At the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, global perspectives on the subject were offered by Kongjian Yu, FASLA, Turenscape; Senator Kamel Mahadin, ASLA, MK Associates; and Mario E. Schjetnan, FASLA, Grupo de Diseno Urbano.

Good intentions for people and the environment can lead to bad results if they are pursued in an unfair way. Yu focused on villages demolished to create an urban greenbelt around Shanghai. In the name of “good will,” 100 square kilometers, comprised of thousands of villages surrounding the city, were demolished to make way for another population explosion in Shanghai, which has expanded 4 times in 20 years.

Villages were demolished and parks were built, but to what end? “Goodwill may not necessarily lead to a good or justifiable result,” said Yu.

Green space is central to the equitable growth of cities, said Jordanian Senator Mahadin, who was a landscape architect before becoming a politician.

The Jordanian city Aqaba, which has grown by over 180,000 people in recent decades, has handled it’s growth successfully, in part because it is one of the “few cities in the Middle East with a master plan that holds green space” as important.

The master plan holds that the Port of Aqaba – the only one in Jordan – should not be further developed, but held for the people. “Cities are not painted by landscape architects or architects, they are painted by the people.” 

Aqaba 2012 Master Plan / Aqaba Development Corporation
Aqaba 2012 Master Plan / Aqaba Development Corporation

Mahadin made a pitch for more landscape architects to push for environmental justice through politics. “Lead by example.”

“Landscape is a human right,” Schjetnan argued. Landscape has the ability to de-marginalize people and integrate them into society.

Preserving landscape is especially critical in developing-world cities, which are “not developing, so much as developing too quickly through accelerated growth. Four-fifths of the world is like this,” he added, “neither developed nor undeveloped – just growing too quickly.”

In Schjetnan’s Mexico City, and many other exploding cities, landscapes are deteriorating due to worsening problems with congestion, natural resource depletion, water and air pollution, especially for those communities with lower incomes. 

Mexico City expansion / Dual Warez
Mexico City expansion / Dual Warez

In the developing urban world, many more landscape architects and designers, particularly from minority groups, are needed if the goal is more just cities. 

Ending “Code Talk” about Gentrification

Brooklyn anti-gentrification activists / Kirra magazine
Brooklyn anti-gentrification network activists / Kirra magazine

“When we talk about gentrification, there is a lot of ‘code talk’ that is often very subtle,” said Timothy Cassidy, ASLA, a landscape architect with Bernardon, at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. That code talk is a way to hide the racial nature of a process in which a group of mostly-white newcomers move into a neighborhood predominantly made up of people of color, renovate buildings, increase property values, change the character of the place, and then, eventually, displace the existing community.

Cassidy said gentrification is often described as an incremental process, with code words like “renovation, renewal, and revival.” The problem with these seemingly-positive words is they convey the “idea of improvement,” but it’s not clear who these improvements benefit. In many cases, developers, which are “external forces,” jump in and reap the benefits with new high-rise luxury developments, particularly with adaptive reuse projects. Existing communities that may have made incremental improvements over the decades and inadvertently laid the foundation for gentrification lose out and then eventually lose their neighborhood, too.

The problem is most pronounced in the communities nearest the central business districts. This is because of some larger shifts. “The suburbs are now dead. Nobody wants to move into a single family home anymore.” Instead, companies have moved back into downtown cores. And their surrounding neighborhoods, with a range of entertainment options, are now the place to “live, work, and play.” With inner-city neighborhoods now in higher demand, increased competition means neighborhoods once cheap and undesirable are now more valuable. For Cassidy, the ultimate question is: “Can you tell people where to live?”

Unfortunately, existing studies of gentrification may not tell the full extent of the story. James Brasuell, managing editor at Planetizen, went through study after study, pointing out their limitations. For example, an often-cited 2015 report on the state of the housing marked in New York City from the Furman Center at New York University said gentrification was occurring in 15 out of NYC’s 55 neighborhoods. But the researchers made these conclusions looking at only one measure: rents. Furthermore, the report was largely financed by banks who may have an interest in downplaying any of the negative effects of gentrification.

Another study by Governing magazine, also widely cited, showed that gentrification is up 20 percent in 50 cities since 2000, in comparison to only 9 percent over the 1990s. However, he said the study only relied on “inflation adjusted home values and the percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees.” And a footnote in the study showed that for a city to be eligible for gentrification it had to be in the bottom 40 percent of household income numbers. “Right off the bat, the study tilts the table.”

Brasuell researched and found all the possible measures used to studies to analyze gentrification. These include average rent, median home values, median incomes, percentage who are renters, population density, housing types, proximity of transit, parks, and schools — which he thought all failed to measure the complex experience of being gentrified. One scholarly study even used fried chicken restaurants and coffee shops as indicators, which he found absurd.

He identified some of the policies that are pro-development, that spur on gentrification. These include: upzoning, which is about expanding the envelope of development options in a neighborhood; regulations that reduce parking; increased redevelopment powers; loan policy reforms; and bonuses developers receive for increasing density.

There are also a set of policies cities can use to mitigate the worst impacts of gentrification, that are anti-development. These include: downzoning, which involves reducing the types of development that can occur; building moratoriums; improved tenants rights; rent control programs; inclusionary zoning that promotes an intermix of affordable housing in development projects; condo conversion protections; tax abatements; community land trusts; limited equity coop housing; and others.

He cautioned that given the complexity of these topics, planning and design media should not simply use terms like investment, revitalization, and redevelopment in their stories. “These empty euphemisms really create more of a problem.”

And that flowed into Cassidy’s broader critique of the prevailing analyses on gentrification. “We need to look at the impact on neighborhood composition and character rooted in community identity. When change occurs, it triggers an emotional response that’s beyond empirical measure. It’s an existential change in which neighborhood familiarity is gone. Your community literally disappears before your eyes, which is emotionally draining.”

Kelly Majewski, Affiliate ASLA, an urban designer at Superjacent in Los Angeles, delved into the ethical responsibility of landscape architects and designers in gentrifying cities. She wondered if the “spirit of a place can guide ethical building.” She said community “authenticity, distinctiveness, and narrative” are worth preserving, even if “change has become a constant.”

If a landscape architect sees gentrification happening in a community, then “it’s too late; policy and planning have already made an impact.” But she also argued that efforts to slow gentrification with projects that try to undertake the “just green enough” approach won’t work. These kinds of park and other public space projects call for making improvements that may please locals, but are not so grand as to attract outsiders. Majewski said “these projects don’t make a ton of sense; they are both inclusionary and exclusionary at the same time.” And, furthermore, how does a landscape architect decide where to stop: will that one extra tree make it too nice?

Designers can ensure they don’t inadvertently contribute to gentrification by working with communities in developing their own visions. “If communities can plan out their vision before a rezoning process, they can get ahead.” She pointed to a planning initiative started by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as a model: the Planning for Livability, Affordability, Community, Economic Opportunity and Sustainability (PLACES) program, which creates a larger role for communities in planning processes. For example, the Bridging Gowanus process and the East Harlem neighborhood plan were empowering and helped ensure that “growth advances community goals.”

In the Q&A, Charles Cross, ASLA, an African American landscape architect with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, stood up and said the “landscape architecture profession must diversify” if it wants to play a greater role in fighting gentrification. In a recent survey of graduating landscape architecture students, African Americans are still at only 3 percent of the student body. Much more work needs to be done to ensure landscape architects look like the communities they are helping.

The Resurgence of Downtown Detroit

John Varvatos boutique, downtown Detroit / John Varvatos
John Varvatos boutique, downtown Detroit / John Varvatos

“The opportunities Detroit has today are a logical evolution from its past mistakes and disinvestment. To an extent, change wouldn’t be possible without that,” explained Kent Anderson, ASLA, founder of KH Anderson, in a tour of downtown Detroit during the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). He added that Detroit native Dan Gilbert, the founder and owner of Quicken Loans, who has bought up nearly 80 buildings downtown over the past decade, is largely responsible for the resurgence today. “Gilbert recognized the time was right for setting a new direction.”

Anderson raced us through a tour of downtown, explaining the history of the area and how the city got to where it is today. We raced in part because almost none of the crosswalks in this still car-centric city alotted adequate time to cross the expansive, multi-lane streets.

The city was founded by the French in 1701 as a fur trading outpost. In the early 1700s, the British took over control. In 1760, they were defeated by the American revolutionaries, but they largely maintained control over the growing city until the end of the 18th century, when the Americans retook it. In 1805, a fire started by a baker destroyed much of the city’s core. August Woodward, who was “trained in classics at Columbia University,” stepped in to create a new urban plan — a hexagonal plan with a set of radials, modeled on Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, D.C.

Woodward Plan / Map of the Week
Woodward Plan / Map of the Week

Many called Woodward a “charlatan and a fool; he was not the most popular guy.” But somehow much of his unique plan was implemented.

Woodward plan aerial, 1920 / State of Fred
Woodward plan aerial, 1920 / State of Fred

Woodward’s plan established small parks as nodes. Only a few of these remain today, Anderson said. In fact, so much was lost to misguided urban renewal efforts, which ran from the 1950s to 1970s. “Urban renewal also destroyed a lot of cultural heritage downtown,” wrecking particular havoc on important African American arts and music communities.

Anderson explained the state of the original immigrant communities — Corktown for the Irish, Chinatown, and Greektown. Only Corktown and Greektown now remain. In the 80s and 90s, Greektown offered the “only nightlife in Detroit.” To lure tourists, they created a “trappers alley, with trinket shops,” which failed. They then went in for casinos, which now frame the narrow streets bustling with restaurants and baklava shops.

Greektown, Detroit / Jared Green
Greektown, Detroit / Jared Green

In rapid-fire mode, Anderson pointed out the fate of many of the towering buildings built many decades ago, during the city’s golden age. The former Wayne County Building, built in the 1880s, is now viewed as a “dinosaur” by the local development community and has sit empty for years.

Old Wayne County Building / Crain's Business
Old Wayne County Building / Crain’s Business

In the late 1950s, a cornice fell off a building downtown, killing a pedestrian. The city demanded building owners secure the cornices on their buildings, but to lower costs many just removed them, as seen in this charismatic but incomplete flatiron building. “If you see a cornice restored today on an older building, it’s most likely fiber composite.”

Detroit's Flatiron building / Flickr
Detroit’s Flatiron building / Flickr

Walking down to the waterfront, we saw a prime example of a “fortress building,” the Renaissance Center, which was home to Ford’s headquarters, and now hosts GM. The building, towering and unfriendly, was another urban renewal effort, built in the 1970s. As race relations hit new lows after the riots and white flight, “there was a fear of cities,” Anderson said, hence it’s fortress-like nature.

Renaissance Center, Detroit / Wikipedia
Renaissance Center, Detroit / Wikipedia

Henry Ford the 2nd decided to bring Ford’s workers back to the urban core in an effort to “stop the decline of downtown, but the building had no connection to anything. Employees would drive in, park in the building, take a tube to their desk, take another tube to the cafeteria, and, then, at the end of the day, drive home.” Anderson called it a “failed” effort, despite a renovation by architects with SOM from 1995-2000, which introduced a somewhat inviting entrance and interior circulation system, and fake palm trees. “It just looks like an assembly line in here; people seem afraid to move the tables.”

Renaissance Center interior / SOM
Renaissance Center interior / SOM

Exiting the rear of the Renaissance Center, we came out at the Detroit Riverwalk, which was created in 2000 to connect the waterfront to Belle Isle, an island park. “It’s highly used, very successful.” We walk through a plaza more-recently created by Hargreaves Associates.

Detroit river boardwalk / Jared Green
Detroit river boardwalk / Jared Green

Then make our way to the vast Philip A. Hart plaza, another urban renewal effort, created by SmithGroupJJR with a fountain and sculpture created by the great Modern artist Isamu Noguchi, and another “failed, lonely space,” unless there is some massive event.

Dodge foundation in Philip A. Hart Plaza, Detroit / Wikipedia
Dodge foundation in Philip A. Hart Plaza, Detroit / Wikipedia

Decades of disinvestment in downtown Detroit means that many of the city’s Art Deco gems escaped the wrecking ball, and now stand as beacons of resurgence, as they attract new shops and cafes in their ground floors and companies in their towers. Entering the Guardian building, the tour group gushed over the intricate Native American motifs carved set in the ceilings. But not everyone was awed: a man who works there saw our tour group and said: “I don’t know why anyone come to see this building; it’s so old and outdated.”

Guardian building, Detroit / Wikipedia
Guardian building, Detroit / Wikipedia

Then on to one of the finest examples anywhere of how landscape architecture can drive a downtown’s resurgence: Campus Martius Park. The park, which occupied a central node in Woodward’s plan, was a central meeting space for over a century, but over 1980s and 90s, it was slowly eviscerated, becoming a glorified traffic circle with a statue. In the early 00s, the Detroit 300, a group representing old Detroit money, invested in creating a new park. The result, which opened in 2004 and was designed by Rundell Ernstberger Associates from Indianapolis, is a dynamic 1.2-acre space, often called “Detroit’s living room,” packed with performance stages, moveable chairs, lush greenery, multiple restaurants, and an urban beach. In the winter, there’s also a skating rink that draws tens of thousands.

Campus Martius Park / Campus Martius Park
Campus Martius Park / Campus Martius Park
Campus Martius Park / Show Me Detroit Tours
Campus Martius Park / Show Me Detroit Tours

For Anderson, Campus Martius Park “provided a glimpse of what was possible,” and served “as the stimulus for getting things started, just before Gilbert committed to downtown.”

Walking up Woodward Avenue seeing every storefront occupied by a hip restaurant or shop, it’s clear how far Detroit has come in the past few years due to a coordinated development effort, largely led by the private sector. “What’s important to understand is it wasn’t one building or so-called impact project this time around, unlike past efforts to revitalize the downtown. This time, it is a strategic approach involving many buildings with an intent to connect them with a network of public and semi-public spaces where everything works together to reveal the unique character of downtown Detroit and transform it.”

To further accelerate the process of turning Woodward Avenue into a live, work, play hub that can draw in people from the outskirts of this 140-square-mile city and the suburbs, a new streetcar, financed by the private sector, is expected to start running later this year. Anderson said Gilbert and other local developers, who are turning old vacant office buildings into apartment buildings that will bring upwards of 5,000 units onto the market, are confident “the entire district will soon be filled up.”

Rendering of M-1 Streetcar line, Woodward Avenue / Next City
Rendering of M-1 Streetcar line, Woodward Avenue / Next City

Indeed, a taxi driver I spoke to on the way to the airport said he had move out of downtown because his rent doubled in the past year in response to new demand. He believes people need to make at least $55,000 a year to live downtown now. But he wasn’t complaining. “Detroit has been waiting a long time for this to happen. I was just shocked they raised the rent so fast.”

Anderson believes after years of failed revitalization efforts, this is Detroit’s chance. “We’ll see how things go over the next five years, but I believe the city has gotten it right this time. Everyone is on the same page for the first time.”

Duany: The Promise of Suburbia Has Been Betrayed

The transect / PlaceMakers
The transect / PlaceMakers

“The promise of suburbia — to live in nature amid the easy flow of cars — has been betrayed. Sprawl is not sustainable; its growth chokes on itself,” argued architect and urban planner Andrés Duany at the Congress for New Urbanism in Detroit.

Duany calls for using New Urbanism, an approach he and others have promoted for the past few decades, in order to “preserve nature.” New Urbanist developments can preserve nature because they can “make cities places people love to live in,” so they stop moving to the suburbs, contributing to sprawl. New Urbanist communities, he argues, are also inherently healthy and just, because there people “walk, so they don’t get fat,” and “you don’t need a car to get around.” In contrast, car-based communities are “un-just,” because the old can’t drive cars and the poor can’t afford them. Some 50 million Americans don’t have cars.

New Urbanism can also result in a more balanced relationship with nature. “In Europe, they had to integrate with nature. In contrast, in America, our relationship with the wilderness has been adversarial.” But Duany argues that if we use his model of the transect, which shows how cities can become denser as they move from untrammeled nature on the peripheries to dense urban cores, “we can bring nature into the city. Wildlife habitat can be assigned everywhere. The transect is also for bringing nature in.”

Sprawl, Duany argued, is rooted in a dendritic, inefficient, car-based system that must be overthrown with a new grid-based, walkable system. Furthermore, it’s one system or the other: “sprawl and new urbanism are incompatible and can’t be intermixed.”

Unfortunately, the “enemy” — sprawl — is backed by a range of “powerful” forces. There are “whole professions, like traffic engineers, who are vested in this system.” The solution is to provide these “administrators” with a new set of guidelines they can manage. “They just want to administer something. Let’s just change the manual, and then we can change what they administer.”

He envisions New Urbanist communities in which there are multiple choices that coincide with human nature, and the stages of life. These communities have a dense core that can sustain nightlife, which is critical for young people, “whose job it is to date and mate.” Once they’ve mated, they find a starter home, perhaps just out of the core. As they grown older and wealthier, they move closer to the periphery, where they have a larger house immersed in nature. Then, when they retire, they move back into a smaller apartment in the urban core.

Furthermore, human nature is to form hierarchies, and New Urbanist communities simply enable that basic tendency. “We can break up communities into wealthy mansions, mid-range, and low-range housing.” But for Duany, the key is they all live near each other in walkable communities, which enables a local economy, e.g. the maid and nanny live walking distance from the mansions. Duany is also all for allowing people to chose whether they want to live in a homogeneous or diverse community.

Duany said New Urbanists have enabled these kinds of neighborhoods by participating in writing the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Hope VI standards, which enabled 270,000 units of affordable housing to be added in a subtle way to mixed-income communities. “We can integrate but keep the housing for the poor to 10-20 percent.”

He concluded that 30-60 percent of Americans want to live in New Urbanist developments where this kind of set-up is possible. “We just need to level the playing field to let the market operate.” In these communities, “life is better; people are more satisfied.”

F. Kaid Benfield, senior advisor to PlaceMakers, and author of the great book People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, followed Duany, making many of the arguments outlined in his book. However, he further emphasized the need to better “integrate nature into the urban fabric,” perhaps going beyond what Duany and the New Urbanist’s transect offers. “We need nature inside cities, the kind that fits well.” For Benfield, that largely means mid-size (8 acres or less) and pocket parks, along with lots of trees, green complete streets, and all other forms of small-scale green infrastructure. As an example of a perfect-sized park, he pointed to Russell Square in London, “which is a great size — just small enough to reach but large enough to escape in.”

While landscape architects and designers may find some things to agree with here, what was left out of this discussion was the idea of cities as ecosystems. University of Virginia professor and author Tim Beatley, with his biophilic urbanism, shows that dense, walkable cities like Singapore and Wellington, New Zealand, can also be more biodiverse and create those rich connections to nature that sustain life for many species, even in cities.

Detroit Halts Its Decline

 

Detroit's Revival / The Bell Towers
Detroit’s Revival / The Bell Towers

In Detroit, Michigan, there has been 50 years of continuous population decline. But that decline finally stopped this year, said Detroit mayor Michael Duggan, to rousing applause, at the Congress for New Urbanism, which met this year in this resurgent rust-belt city. In the 1950s, the city topped 1.8 million people. Last year, it slid to a new low of 677,000 but is now holding steady. A model of the car-centric city, Detroit tops 142 square miles; it can fit San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan within its boundaries. Some 400,000 single family homes had been built within the city limits, because “every car factory worker could afford one.” Now thousands of vacant buildings and lots litter neighborhoods.

The decline of manufacturing coupled with “racist policies” eventually inflicted their toll. Banks red-lined whole swaths of the city, going as far as even building a four-foot wall in one community at 8 Mile and Wyoming to ensure “African Americans would not be allowed to buy homes past there.” After years of injustice, what followed were destructive riots that tore the city apart and further accelerated white flight to the suburbs. By the end of the 60s, “us versus them politics had taken over.”

Today, Mayor Duggan, the first white man elected mayor of the majority-African American city since the mid-70s, with 90 percent of the vote, said the city is “open to everyone, black or white, gay or straight.” The city is moving beyond the divisions of the past with a new agenda that focuses on improving services for everyone and concentrating development in order to create an “authentic Detroit” urban experience.

Duggan said one of the first things he fixed was all the streetlights. Instead of burnt out bulbs, all of Detroit’s streets are now lit at night. He also ensured that ambulances, which used to arrive up to an hour after a resident called 911, now make it in 8 minutes, which is less than the required average time.

Given the wealthy suburbs of Detroit still offer a great draw, “we can’t compete with them.”  Instead, Detroit must offer a new urban experience by leveraging “the tight urban grids” and building in more density. “We want to create more 20-minute neighborhoods” using light-rail, transit-oriented development, and the riverfront. Duggan recruited Maurice Cox, who was planning director for New Orleans and Alexandria, Virginia, to lead these efforts. With Cox, Duggan wants to create an “authentic Detroit experience” that can pull people in from the suburbs and elsewhere.

Duggan also wants to spread the benefits beyond downtown. “We have an enormous responsibility to make sure every neighborhood has a future.”

Carol Coletta, senior fellow at the Kresge Foundation, which has been committed to supporting the city’s resurgence for years, said that as Detroit rebounds, there are already concerns about gentrification. But she argued that “there are a lot of people in Detroit who wouldn’t mind a little gentrification if it results in new houses and shops.”

Coletta pointed to a number of studies, arguing that communities actually must gentrify, given the alternative is often a “slow, often-unnoticed deterioration.” Once that decline sets in, it’s nearly impossible for the community to rebound. “Only 105 communities out of the 1,100 deemed high poverty in 1970 have rebounded over the past 40 years.” And today, there are now 3,000 high-poverty communities, and the number of poor have grown from 2 million to 4 million. “Over the past 40 years, we’ve tripled the number of poor communities and doubled the number of poor, which is an abysmal record.”

To ensure “more poor communities don’t displace poor people with their lack of opportunities,” we need to use “government incentives, foundation funds, and market forces” to increase investment without displacement. “Mixed-income communities are the goal because they increase life outcomes.”

However, moving the poor to wealthier communities in order to create mixed-income places is “slow and expensive.” Instead, she called for a special effort to “ensure low-income neighborhoods benefit new people coming in and to create incentives to get the wealthy to move to poor areas.” With equitable gentrification, “we can accelerate the benefits and share them.” Coletta also called for dramatically increasing the supply of affordable housing in these gentrifying neighborhoods, beyond what Portland, Oregon, and New York City, have accomplished, and called an end to the “just green enough” movement, which calls for adding new parks and other amenities to poor areas, but not any that are so nice they will raise property values.

“The ‘just green enough’ idea is craziness born of real frustration. We need more quality neighborhoods, not less. We need new parks, libraries, trails, gardens, and re-imagined community infrastructure in places that offer good options at all price points. Equity is not about being opposed to thriving, appealing cities. That’s actually central to equity.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (June 1 – 15)

waterfall-olafur-eliasson-versailles-installation-art-france-anders-sune-berg_dezeen_1568_3
A towering waterfall appears to fall from midair into the Grand Canal at the Palace of Versailles / Dezeen

The Forgotten Space Under this Sao Paulo Highway Will Become a Hanging Garden and ParkCo.Exist, 6/2/16
“When an elevated highway was built in the middle of downtown São Paulo in 1971, the city said it was attempting to improve traffic. Instead, congestion got worse. The two-mile stretch of road, called Minhocão (‘Big Worm’) is now one of the most polluted parts of a city where smog kills thousands of people a year.”

DLANDstudio Launches Phase 1 Design for Rails-to-Trails QueensWayThe Architect’s Newspaper, 6/2/16
“After years of debate over what to do with the 60-year old abandoned Rockaway Long Island Railroad (LIRR), the coalition has been moving toward the goal of converting 3.5 miles of the railroad—which extends from Rego Park to Ozone Park—into a park similar to the High Line.”

A Look at Apple’s Insanely Ambitious Tree-Planting Plans for Its New Spaceship Campus  – Venturebeat, 6/4/16
“While construction crews work furiously to finish Apple’s mammoth new headquarters in Cupertino this year, another critical piece of the campus’ design is taking shape 100 miles to the east.”

Olafur Eliasson Installs Giant Waterfall at Palace of VersaillesDezeen, 6/6/16
“A towering waterfall appears to fall from midair into the Grand Canal at the Palace of Versailles as part of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s latest exhibition (+ slideshow).”

Design Team Led by Mia Lehrer Picked for New Downtown L.A. Park The Los Angeles Times, 6/9/16
“A group led by landscape architecture firm Mia Lehrer & Associates has won a design competition for the 2-acre park, on the site of a former state office building adjacent to Grand Park at the foot of City Hall, city officials announced Thursday.”

His Landscape Designs Take an Artist’s (Quirky) VisionThe Los Angeles Times, 6/10/16
“If there were a competition for tackling out-of-the-ordinary landscaping projects, Mitch Kalamian, a landscape designer, would be on auto entry.”

Sensory, Universally Accessible Playground Designed for Chanticleer Park The Santa Cruz Sentinel, 6/12/16
“The Santa Cruz Playground Project and Santa Cruz County Department of Parks, Open Space, and Cultural Services revealed designs Sunday for a $4 million wheelchair-accessible playground planned for Chanticleer Park in Live Oak.”

Best Books of 2015

30:30 Landscape Architecture / Phaidon Press
30:30 Landscape Architecture / Phaidon Press

Looking for the perfect present? Or taking time off during the holidays to delve into the latest thinking on design, cities, and the environment? Well, The Dirt’s picks for the top ten books of 2015 are worth exploring:

30:30 Landscape Architecture (Phaidon Press, 2015)
Landscape architecture gets the Phaidon treatment in this appealing and innovative coffee table book by Meaghan Kombol. 30 of the world’s leading landscape architects and designers are paired with 30 up-and-coming ones. Well-known landscape architects featured include Kate Orff, ASLA, Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Kongjian Yu, FASLA, and many others. 30:30‘s scope is truly international, with designers from over 20 countries.

The Age of Sustainable Development (Columbia University Press, 2015)
Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, one of the world’s foremost experts on global development, makes complex, inter-connected issues understandable in this book that explores the future of the planet. E.O. Wilson writes: “Inspirational, encyclopedic in coverage, moving smoothly from discipline to discipline as though composed by multiple experts, the book explains why humanity must maintain sustainability as its highest priority — and outlines the best ways to do it.”

Artful Rainwater Design: Creative Ways to Manage Stormwater (Island Press, 2015)
As our climate becomes more unpredictable, finding better ways to manage stormwater is crucial to reducing floods. However, traditional stormwater management strategies can be unforgettable at best and unsightly at worst. In their new book, Pennsylvania State University professors Stuart Echols, ASLA, and Eliza Pennypacker, ASLA, prove that this doesn’t always have to be the case — it’s possible to effectively manage runoff without sacrificing aesthetics. Read the full review in The Dirt.

The Authentic Garden: Naturalistic and Contemporary Landscape Design (Monacelli Press, 2015)
Richard Hartlage, Affiliate ASLA, and Sandy Fischer, ASLA, founders of Land Morphology in Seattle, have put together a book of visual inspirations, showcasing 60 contemporary designs that feature “beauty for beauty’s sake.” Over 250 full-color photographs highlight the work of Andrea Cochran, FASLA, Raymond Jungles, FASLA, Christine Ten Eyck, FASLA, Michael Vergason, FASLA, and many others.

Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (Verso)
Yale architecture professor and author Keller Easterling has written a fascinating book on infrastructure, and its role in setting the “hidden rules that structure the spaces around us.” Her book looks at the “emergent new powers controlling this space and show how they extend beyond the reach of government.” After reading Extrastatecraft, you aren’t likely to think the same way again about free trade zones, suburbs, or, really, any other standardized spatial form.

Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks (The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted) (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015)
Charles Eliot Beveridge, PhD, Hon. ASLA, Lauren Meier, and Irene Mills bring together Olmsted’s plans and designs for seventy public parks, including Central Park, Prospect Park, the Buffalo Park and Parkway System, Washington Park and Jackson Park in Chicago, Boston’s “Emerald Necklace,” and Mount Royal in Montreal, Quebec. “It is a perfect gift for Olmsted aficionados.”

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Knopf, 2015)
Author Andrea Wulf delves into the life of German scientist and adventurer Alexander von Humboldt, the “Einstein of the 19th century,” who discovered climate and vegetation zones, among many other natural phenomena. Humboldt also predicted climate change. “Arresting. . . . readable, thoughtful, and widely researched,” writes The New York Times Book Review.

The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design (University of Washington Press, 2015)
Thaïsa Way, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, places Haag’s nearly five decade-long career as a landscape architect, activist, and teacher in the context of “changes in the practice of landscape architecture.” Even at 90, Haag still continues to practice in Seattle. Though his work is not entirely finished, his legacy is well established. Read the full review in The Dirt.

Phyto: Principles and Resources for Site Remediation and Landscape Design (Routledge, 2015)
Harvard Graduate School of Design landscape architecture professor Niall Kirkwood, FASLA, and landscape architect Kate Kennen, ASLA, have created a smart and practical guide on how to incorporate phytoremediation, which involves using plants to absorb, remove, or mitigate pollutants, into the actual landscape design process. Kirkwood and Kennen show how to apply helpful plants in sites that are already toxic, but also how to “create projective planting designs with preventative phytotechnology abilities.” The thoughtful book layout and design enables learning, too.

Planting in a Post-Wild World (Timber Press, 2015)
Landscape architect Thomas Rainer, ASLA, and Claudia West, International ASLA, have written an accessible and creative guide to resilient planting design. Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, said: “Rainer and West describe how to translate natural plant relationships and ecological patterns into aesthetically pleasing yet functional landscapes. With their advice we can change gardening from an adversarial relationship with nature to a collaborative one. Expertly researched, and rife with witty advice, this is the universal how-to guide to sustainable landscaping we have all been waiting for. A masterful accomplishment!”

Also, worth knowing: buying these books through The Dirt or ASLA’s bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (October 16 – 31)

The Xixi Wetland Estate in Hangzhou is the latest housing project by David Chipperfield in China / Simon Menges, Wallpaper.com
The Xixi Wetland Estate in Hangzhou is the latest housing project by David Chipperfield in China / Simon Menges, Wallpaper.com

The Spiritual and Spectacular Meet at an Ultramodern Community Center in Connecticut The New York Times, 10/16/15
“A group of friends and neighbors thought that this area could use a new community center with a spiritual underpinning. So they built one. But Grace Farms, as the project is called, will never be mistaken for a modest Amish barn-raising. In this corner of Connecticut, budgets are less tight than elsewhere.”

Wild Gardens That Grew Out From WashingtonThe Washington Post, 10/19/15
“Washington doesn’t export a lot of aesthetic ideas, and the exceptions only prove the rule. Yes, the city can lay claim to the Washington Color School, more than a half-century ago, but that always feels a bit like the region’s claim to culinary fame, the crab cake: predictable, ubiquitous and uninspiring.”

Putting the Wilderness Back in Houston Arboretum The Houston Chronicle, 10/26/15
“The incessant hum of Loop 610 traffic permeates the western edge of the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, like waves crashing on a beach. Just 75 feet from the state’s busiest freeway, rabbits scamper through the underbrush, purple beautyberries cling to the drooping canes of bright green plants and a dry, woodsy scent hangs in the air.”

Verdant Village: David Chipperfield Completes the Xixi Wetland Estate Wallpaper, 10/26/15
“For two thousand years, Hangzhou has been celebrated for its incomparable tableau of unruffled lakes at the foot of green hills, and ancient waterways lined with gardens, temples, and graceful buildings designed by a succession of dynasties enamored with the landscape.”

Landscape OperationsThe Architect’s Newspaper, 10/27/15
“An ongoing debate resurfaced at the Chicago Architecture Biennial. One critic in particular, Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects, criticized the curators, saying that it seems that “contemporary architecture [has] ceased to exist, the discipline’s guilt and bad conscience has sapped its vitality, and driven it to self-annihilation.”

America’s Green Giant The New York Review of Books, 11/15
“The nearly universal acclaim that greeted the High Line—the linear greenway built between 2006 and 2014 atop an abandoned elevated railway trestle on Manhattan’s lower west side—reconfirmed the transformative effect parks can have on the quality of urban life.”

Landscape Architects Can Help the World Achieve New Sustainable Development Goals

VPUU-project, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa, 2012 / KKH.se
VPUU-project, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa, 2012 / KKH.se

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were created through an open, global process over the past two years, will be adopted by United Nations member states later this week. The 17 goals, with their 169 targets, will guide nations towards a more sustainable pattern of development that favors diverse life on Earth. Global transformation on multiple levels is the end goal.

Establishing a transformational agenda for 2015 to 2030, the SDGs begin with a compelling vision statement:

“We envisage a world in which every country enjoys sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all. A world in which consumption and production patterns and use of all natural resources – from air to land, from rivers, lakes and aquifers to oceans and seas – are sustainable. One in which democracy, good governance and the rule of law as well as an enabling environment at national and international levels, are essential for sustainable development, including sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development, environmental protection and the eradication of poverty and hunger. One in which development and the application of technology are climate-sensitive, respect biodiversity and are resilient. One in which humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and other living species are protected.”

It’s impressive that the world’s 200-plus nations, through a UN process fostering peace and mutual respect, can articulate a global agenda for working together. As the document explains, “never before have world leaders pledged common action and endeavor across such a broad and universal policy agenda.”

Learning more about the SDGs is worth the time of landscape architects. We can help the world make progress in solving the inter-connected problems we collectively face.

Let’s back up a minute and recall that sustainability was defined in 1987 as achieving a long-term balance between three equal pillars — economy, society, and the environment. The publication of Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, coined the term “sustainable development” and popularized these pillars. To be sustainable today, a consideration of these three pillars is central. (In my own landscape preservation work, I favor a model that also integrates culture, which permeates all the facets of sustainability and plays a role in whether we can achieve inclusivity, equity, and justice). Then, in 2000, world leaders agreed to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which laid out 8 goals for the world to pursue from 2000 to 2015. And then, at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2012, all countries agreed to create a new set of sustainable development goals to pick up where the MDGs left off.

A landscape architect looking at how to work towards the new SDGs might focus on goal 13, which deals with climate action, goal 14, which focuses on life below water, and goal 15, which looks at life on land, but looking deeper at all the goals and their specific targets helps us to understand how we can contribute as individuals and collectively to the many other important goals and targets as well.

Landscape architects can contribute to reaching goal 2 — which seeks to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” — by working with agricultural communities to increase the productivity of small farms and create better access to markets, as detailed in target 2.3. Landscape architects can also help communities create sustainable and resilient agricultural practices, maintain ecosystems, and strengthen the capacity to respond to climate change, as detailed in target 2.4.

In goal 3, which calls on governments to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages,” we find target 3.6, which aims to “halve the number of global deaths and injuries for road traffic accidents.” Landscape architects are already working on designing better intersections, green complete streets, and multi-modal corridors that contribution to achieving this important target.

ASLA and each of us its members can contribute to goal 4 — which calls on nations to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” — by teaching everyone about sustainable development and how to become global citizens who act from that awareness and commitment in their daily lives.

Goal 6, which calls on nations to “ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” is perhaps the most direction contribution to the goals made by landscape architects. We can help reach global goals on water quality, including protecting water resources, counteracting pollution, and restoring water-related ecosystems, which are included in targets 6.3, 6.5, and 6.6.

ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park, Turenscape / Kongjian Yu
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park, Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

What about goal 7, which calls on nations to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all?” Target 7.2 asks that countries, “by 2030, increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global mix.” I have had the opportunity to site two solar arrays. Other landscape architects can then certainly become engaged in growing the share of renewable energy.

solar-array
Shelburne Farms, Shelburne, Vermont, a 1,400-acre National Historic Landmark, installs solar array / Patricia O’Donnell

Or perhaps consider the important target 8.4 that seeks to “improve progressively, through 2030, global resource efficiency in consumption and production and endeavor to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, in accordance with the 10-year framework of programs on sustainable consumption and production, with developed countries taking the lead.” This decoupling process will result in better quality landscapes that provide ecosystem services.

Addressing goal 11 — “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” — is well within the realm of landscape architecture. And many of us are already helping to achieve target 11.7, which seeks to provide universal access that is safe and inclusive, to public green spaces. Landscape architects can play a role in achieving target 11.2, which seeks to create more sustainable urban transportation systems, and target 11.7.a, which aims to “support  positive  economic,  social  and  environmental  links  between  urban,  peri-urban  and  rural  areas  by strengthening national and regional development planning.” Cities, which are expected to contain 75 percent of the world’s people by 2030, are fertile ground for the skills of landscape architects working collaboratively with other planning and design professionals.

ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Honor Award. Lafayette Greens: Urban Agriculture, Urban Fabric, Urban Sustainability, Detroit, Michigan, Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture / Beth Hagenbuch
ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Honor Award. Lafayette Greens: Urban Agriculture, Urban Fabric, Urban Sustainability, Detroit, Michigan, Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture / Beth Hagenbuch

The last goal — goal 17, which calls for nations to “strengthen  the  means  of  implementation  and  revitalize  the  global  partnership  for  sustainable development”– is a fitting capstone to this ambitious effort. Cooperation is needed to build momentum and create measurable change toward a thriving Earth, with all its diverse life forms and resources.

The overarching goal is to halt and then reverse the degradation of the Earth. I urge you to learn about these goals and apply your skills as a landscape architect toward achieving these goals from now through 2030. Registering SDG initiatives is one way to join this pivotal movement toward a sustainable planet.

This guest post is by Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, AICP, principal of Heritage Landscapes LLC, preservation landscape architects and planners. She is committed to sustainable living and using heritage as a platform for a vibrant today and tomorrow in her work and volunteer activities. 

World Leaders Will Agree to Ambitious Sustainable Development Goals

african girls school
African girls in school / Girls Changing Africa, Batonga Blog

Later this week, the world’s leaders will meet at the United Nations to launch the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of ambitious goals and targets designed to get the world on a more sustainable future course. The SDGs pick up where the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire this year, left off. Much like Pope Francis’ encyclical, the SDGs call for a new approach that enables economic growth for everyone, not just the wealthy, greater environmental protection, and a more sustainable use of increasingly limited natural resources. The SDGs will create a path for the next 15 years, up until 2030. They are important in getting governments, non-profit organizations, and the socially-conscious private sector behind a common set of objectives.

The SDGs came out of an intensive two-year process involving negotiators from both developed and developing countries. Among the many goals, the SDGs call for ending poverty and hunger in all forms; improving health and well-being; achieving gender equality; sustainably managing fresh water resources; restoring terrestrial and ocean ecosystems; combating climate change; and making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. The SDGs are said to more clearly reflect the input of developing countries than their predecessor, the MDGs.

Improved rights and educational opportunities for girls and women around the world, but particularly in least developed countries, is a major theme in the SDGs. As Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, explained at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago, educating girls and women is key to a sustainable future. Sachs believes that future sustainability is only possible if population growth rates are reduced. The current world population is 7 billion. The total carrying capacity of the Earth is estimated to be around 10 billion. Over the past 50 years, Sub-Saharan Africa has grown from a hundred million to 1.1 billion today. If high fertility rates continue unabated, Africa will double its population by 2050 and eventually reach 4 billion, sending the world past its uppermost carrying capacity. Sachs argued that a sustainable future will be impossible if Sub-Saharan African women continue to have 5 children, which is the average today. Even a middle school education helps dramatically lower fertility rates, so educating African women and girls really is central to the fate of the planet.

The SDGs also seek to link economic growth that can yield benefits for all with greater resource efficiency and environment protection. As many world leaders are beginning to understand, long-term growth is impossible if there are no natural resources to underpin that growth. At the same event at the National Book Festival, world-famous biologist and author E.O. Wilson called for setting aside 50 percent of the surface of the Earth for conservation purposes, banking resources for wildlife and also future generations. Currently, only about 15 percent of the planet is protected from development. He said reaching 50 percent is possible if the vast middle of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were protected from industrial fishing. Then, fish stocks, which are down to just 2 percent of their historic levels, will have a chance to recover for the long-term. In addition, Wilson called for everyone to become a vegetarian, arguing that the world’s one billion cows, which require so much land and water and have been a major driving force behind deforestation, are incompatible with the approaches needed to create a sustainable future on a planet with 10 billion people.

Earth’s resources are finite but economic growth needs to somehow continue to provide opportunities for the billions more soon to join us. While this seems like an incredible challenge, Wilson has faith in human ingenuity and technology. In agreement with SDG target 2.5, Wilson calls for diversifying crops away from the dozen or so that the world’s farmers primarily rely on today. He said there are potentially thousands of other crop plants that could provide greater nutrition and improved yield. And it’s important to keep these other crops as real options given climate change can wipe out yields for many of the crops we rely on today.

Urban leaders rejoiced that cities are the focus of a goal and whole slew of targets. World leaders now recognize that the world’s population is predominantly urban, with more than half of the world in cities, and the urban population is expected to hit 75 percent by 2050. These trends are a good thing. Those living in cities have lower per capita energy and water use and give off fewer carbon emissions than those living in suburbs or rural areas. However, issues abound in cities: Not every urbanite has access to safe drinking water, clean air, affordable housing, low-cost public transportation, or green spaces. One SDG target, 11.7, amazingly aims to provide “universal access to safe, inclusive, and accessible green and public spaces.” Creating a more sustainable plan for the world’s cities will be the focus of Habitat III, a major conference hosted by UN-Habitat in Quito, Ecuador, next year.

There are fears that the SDGs, with their sprawling 17 goals and 169 targets, are too idealistic and will not be as easy to achieve as the MDGs, which strategically targeted eight goals, and still came up short. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called the MDGs the “most successful anti-poverty campaign in history.” And according to The Financial Times, there was significant progress on achieving the MDGs since 2000, when they came into effect. “On paper, at least as far as the data can be relied upon, there has indeed been significant progress. Extreme poverty in developing countries has fallen from 47 per cent in 1990 to 14 per cent this year, while annual global deaths of children under five have halved to 6 million.” But China and India, development experts argue, were responsible for the bulk of the poverty reduction. Without China’s gains, the effect of the MDGs would be negligible, given Sub-Saharan African countries, which are the among the least developed places, missed their goals. For example, in the sub-continent, it will still take another decade for the child mortality rates to fall by the target of two-thirds.

And there are critics of the overall effort. William Easterly, professor of economics at New York University and long-time detractor of Western aid agencies, told The Financial Times: “The MDGs communicated a very wrong idea about how development happens: technocratic, patronizing, and magically free of politics. It’s not about western saviors, but homegrown efforts linked to a gradual extension of political freedom.” Furthermore, he added: “The SDGs are a mushy collection of platitudes that will fail on every dimension. They make me feel quite nostalgic for the MDGs.”

There are also concerns about whether governments can accurately measure and then track progress on all these squishy goals and targets. A UN working group is now devising the means of measuring all these items, but, according to the International Council for Science and International Social Science Council, “less than a third of the SDG goals were ‘well developed’, with some objectives not quantified and many containing contradictory trade-offs and unintended consequences.” Solid data is expensive and time-consuming to collect, particularly in less developed countries. For example, The Economist reports that only 74 countries out of the 193 currently have the capacity to track the SDGs’ nutrition targets. But perhaps the SDGs will spur more countries to boost investment in their statistical services to measure gaps between where they are and where they need to be, which can only be a good thing. New satellite, drone, and GPS technologies should be put to greater use.

Still, never has such an ambitious global agenda been put in place. Sachs told The Financial Times: “Whether it can work out is an open question. There is a sense that this is a sensible framework. I’m not saying a new dawn has broken, but at least governments are saying we need to try.”

Read Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.