The world’s cities are growing at a rapid pace. By 2030, nearly 70 percent of people will live in urban areas. Cities not only face immense challenges related to climate change, migration, mobility, infrastructure, equity, and security, but are also dealing with the problems associated with scaling up to meet rapid growth.
So how can cities better plan for future challenges and growth? Dr. Blair Ruble, distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, tried to answer that question by illustrating ways cities are grappling with the new reality, in a discussion at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco, which was moderated by Gordon Feller, founder of Meeting of the Minds, a non-profit network focused on cities.
First, Ruble said, growth must be accommodated through the right framework. “We have a very good example in our own country. In 1811, a bunch of commissioners sat down and planned a grid for an empty island of Manhattan. They created a framework, and that’s the mode we need to get into when we talk about the future of cities.”
But the amount of future planning needed is incredible. “When you think about a billion people and limited resources in the context of a planet struggling with climate change and migration, you realize this is an enormous challenge,” he said.
A silver lining might be where the growth is happening. In the U.S., where the population will be 400 million by 2050, most growth will occur in secondary cities. “Mega-cities have actually kind of plateaued,” Ruble said. “Most of the growth in cities right now is taking place in so-called medium cities of 5 to 10 million people.” Mid-sized cities’ manageable population size leaves an opportunity for more thoughtful development and policies that can enable sustainable urban growth.
As an example, Ruble pointed to future settlement planning in the Central Asian country of Kazakstan, as well as efforts to retrofit existing infrastructure in Africa and South America. Cities there have enabled government services to be available in self-built neighborhoods.
In addition to integrating a growing number of people, cities are grappling with a massive flow of data. Ruble said unless cities focus on the human component of data collection, they can be caught up in collecting data for data’s sake.
“The actual numbers are not the end themselves,” Ruble said. “Cities don’t just exist to generate data for analysts to play with. Connected to each information point is a human being.”
Issues of inequality should be front and center in any discussion of urban challenges.
Take Toronto, and Canada more broadly. There is generally a more multicultural definition of citizenship than in the U.S. Still, racial inequality persists. Ruble pointed to a 2017 survey on the state of the Black population in Toronto showing 72 percent of respondents between ages 20 and 40 who identified as Black had been stopped by police; and data shows Blacks are “much more likely to be shot by police” than any other group.
“To address that problem, you can use all the technology you want, but if you don’t begin to get real about the limitations of your own vision of multiculturalism, the technology isn’t going to help.”
Flexible urban systems will be key to recognizing challenges and issues as they arise and adjusting course. “Urban success is not a noun, it’s a verb,” Ruble said.
Until recently, our city’s margins were neglected by researchers. Precisely how much neglect seems to have corresponded with the margin’s distance from its urban core, the city’s beating heart and a real draw for analytical minds. But Infinite Suburbia, a mammoth collection of 52 essays edited by MIT landscape architecture professor Alan Berger, geographer Joel Kotkin, and environmental urbanist Celina Balderas Guzman, seeks to elevate the discourse on our suburbs. The compendium is the result of a yearlong study at MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism, and, like suburbia itself, is sprawling, often beautiful, and a bit relentless.
We have, over the last decade, heard repeatedly that the 21st century is the age of the city. But Infinite Suburbia’s editors rightly recognize the vast majority of people who have moved to cities do not populate the cores but rather the edges. In the United States, for example, 69 percent of the population lives in suburbs. Our edges are rapidly shifting and expanding, demanding meaningful evaluation.
Still, the term suburbia isn’t specific; it has a vagueness with which many of the essays engage. Historian Jon Teaford writes about the myth of the homogeneous suburb, noting that industrial suburbs differ from those pocketed with shopping malls or others that serve primarily as wealthy enclaves. The variety of activity present in suburbs today is as rich as the variety present in urban cores.
Espen Aukrust Hauglin and Janike Kampevold Larsen, professors of urbanism and landscape at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, write about how in Norway, suburbia springs up in the pockets of limited spaces between geographical features. One clear example is the Grorud Valley. The valley’s history and geomorphology create a fabric of land use that contrasts with more traditional ideas of suburbia. In the valley, farmland, residential communities, and old mining infrastructure are adjacent to one another. Nature and recreation were large influences on the design of Norway’s satellite towns, so the path systems that gird these towns create a transition between the city and surrounding environment that enables recreation. Recent developments suggest that inner-city parks are gaining prominence in the valley, though.
Dr. Margaret Grose, landscape professor at the University of Melbourne, asks in her essay the pertinent question, “how can we design ecologically-richer suburbs?” It turns out biodiversity is not high on many planners lists of goals, if it’s considered at all. Grose suggests inverting the planning process so that ecological goals come first. Designing backwards through the planning stages and analysis can help give ecology its due in suburban design.
The expansion of cities outwards in the last few decades and the resultant land use change has been both rapid and irreversible. As both editor and author of Infinite Suburbia, Berger investigates how planners in the past sought to “belt” suburbia with agrarian and recreational landscapes.
But with the clustering of cities into polycentric city-regions, greenbelts are being ask to function in new and peculiar ways. Rather than serving as a container for development, greenbelts can connect regions. Berger warns that they must be employed intelligently and compatibly with demands for growth, or they risk being ineffectual. For some examples of greenbelting done right, Berger recommends the Brussels capital region of Belgium as well as Hamburg, Germany.
Despite the potential ecological benefits of greenbelts or prioritizing biodiversity, experts still consider suburbia the most ecologically-destructive form of development. Consider the growth of the east coast megalopolis, a region defined decades ago by French geographer Jean Gottman, running from Washington, D.C. north to Boston. What habitat it hasn’t destroyed it has badly fragmented.
Alex Wall, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, asks in his essay what a counter-figure to this megalopolis might look like. While his essay doesn’t quite describe such a figure, it does make a strong argument for analyzing development at the regional scale in order to better understand the true ecological scope.
Over the past decade, podcasts have emerged as a popular storytelling platform and captivating way to learn more about the world around us.
Podcasts offer a source of inspiration for designers exploring other disciplines and seeking fresh perspective within their own. For landscape architects, podcasts reveal new opportunities and ways of thinking about the way we design space.
The podcasts on this list seeks to capture the range of topics that influence the field — from interviews with leading landscape architects, to stories on cities, urban planning, communities, and sustainability, as well as insight from creative people in other professions.
99% Invisible:Roman Mars and his team at 99% Invisible pull together seemingly disparate pieces of information to weave compelling stories of why things are the way they are. While not landscape-specific, this podcast is a must-listen for anyone interested in places, people, and design.
Recommended episodes: “Making Up Ground” is all about cities built on constructed land and the modern day implications of reclamation. 22 minutes
American Planning Association: The APA produces a series of podcasts that focus on everything from the people behind plans, to disruptive transportation technologies, to planning for public health and for public space. Together, the podcasts offer a good way to keep up with all things planning.
Recommended episode: In “Planning for Parks in Washington D.C.’s NoMa,” APA’s Mike Johnson interviews Robin-Eve Jasper and Stacie West, who are shaping the future of a D.C. neighborhood where, in an era of rapid development, almost no land was set aside for public parks. 23 minutes
Design Matters: If you’re in the design world and don’t know who Debbie Millman is, this podcast is a great introduction. Her podcast, Design Matters, has been around since podcasts about design have been a thing. She has interviewed influential people from a multitude of creative industries. Their stories are inspiring for designers in any field.
Recommended episode: Interview with architect Pierluigi Serraino about what creative people have in common. 28 minutes
Infinite Earth Radio: This weekly podcast explores solutions for a more sustainable world. Hosts Mike Hancox and Vernice Miller-Travis interview people — from government officials to local entrepreneurs — who are working to advance more equitable, resilient communities.
Recommended episode: “Bottom Up Water Solutions” talks about freshwater, keeping our streams clean, and smart growth in the face of climate change. 28 minutes
The Landscape Architect Podcast: This podcast, which is focused on landscape architecture, broadens the discourse within the profession by talking to leaders from all areas of the field. Host Michael Todoran with co-host Margaret Gerhart hold candid discussions with professionals in landscape architecture, as well as writers, researchers, and innovative thinkers influencing the future of the profession.
Recommended episode: “Feng Shui & Landscape Architecture” discusses movement and the environment with landscape architect Shelley Sparks as she analyzes Feng Shui for homes, business, and gardens. 53 minutes
Placemakers:Slate is a major hub for podcasts, and their Placemakers is a story-driven show about urban design and planning. Host Rebecca Sheir and the producers at Slate explore how innovative communities are tackling environmental and social issues.
Roots of Design: This podcast is by landscape architects for landscape architects. Produced by the New York Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), hosts Frank Varro and a variety of co-hosts discuss the breadth of opportunity in the profession through interviews with leaders in the field. It fills a crucial need for a landscape architecture-exclusive podcast and raises awareness of an often misunderstood field.
The Urbanist: For a global perspective, listen to Monocle’s The Urbanist. Host Andrew Tuck covers everything from urban policy to environmentalism to art. This podcast packs a variety of topics in each 30-minute episode, providing a well-rounded but thorough update on urban developments each week.
Recommended episode: “River crossing” on how rivers and bridges can both connect and divide urban areas. 26 minutes
What did I miss? Comment below and share your favorite podcasts.
Creating a Garden Oasis in the City – The New York Times, 6/23/17
“Samira Kawash and Roger Cooper bought their Park Slope brownstone five years ago with the idea of giving big dinner parties and enjoying lazy afternoons in the extra-large backyard.”
Highland Park’s First ‘Green’ Stormwater System Completed – The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 6/26/17
“The first, and so far only, green infrastructure solution to flooding in Highland Park’s valleys is completed along Negley Run Boulevard — a 1,100-foot bioswale that will intercept an estimated 600,000 gallons of water running off pavement annually.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that 79,000 people work in manufacturing in the New York City metro area, down from 190,000 in 1990. However, the long downward trend may be ending: manufacturing employment increased by 1,300 over last year.
There couldn’t be a more appealing locale for the rebirth of American urban manufacturing than the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which was built before World War I to support the war effort. In some 4-million-square feet spread over two buildings — each the size of the Empire State building if it was laid flat on the ground — there are 110 businesses, employing 3,500 in manufacturing and distribution.
As seen from the tour, contemporary manufacturing looks much different from the big factories of the past. Small urban manufacturers are making everything from salad dressings and luxury clothes to 3D printed objects and advanced technological parts.
Out of the 3.1 million square feet now online, there is a 90-plus percent occupancy rate, explained Will Stein, an official with NYCEDC. He said an additional 500,000 square feet will soon be operational. “Every New York City Mayor has a project at the Terminal. Mayo de Blasio’s project is this expansion.”
In addition to using the traditional metrics, NYCEDC evaluates possible tenants based on “how many manufacturing jobs they offer, the quality of the jobs, benefits, and opportunities for growth.”
Coming in September is the DIY TechShop, which will feature 3D printers and CNC machines. “It will be like a gym membership. Members can use the machines and other services.”
The Terminal is incredibly accessible. For workers, the subway express stop is a 5-10 minute walk, and there’s a nearby ferry terminal. There are many options for freight transit as well. “We are close to the Gowanus Expressway, and the rail line is connected to the yard.”
Work is underway to make the 100-year-old building designed by architect Cass Gilbert even more sustainable. “We put in energy-efficient windows and solar panels on the roof. We are adding LED lighting throughout the building and motion sensors inside to reduce energy waste,” explained the Terminal’s Dave Aniero.
The building itself has a fascinating history. At the height of World War II, there were some 30,000 workers moving ammunition, supplies, and soldiers out to war. Trains used to come right through the building. A crane that slides along the top of the Terminal would take material out of the trains, drop them in slots that cantilever out, so they could be easily taken into the building, sorted, and then moved via elevator or crane back to the trains. And, during the Korean War, “Elvis was shipped out of here.”
Nearby, there are other manufacturing and distribution centers. The Bush Terminal, a campus of 11 buildings, has about 50 tenants. The 72-acre South Brooklyn Maritime Terminal, now in development, seeks to bring back marine industries. And there’s the 4-million-square-feet privately-owned Industry City, which will combine commercial office and industrial space.
Bush Terminal, which is also managed by NYCEDC, will soon undergo a $136 million upgrade. But already there are some nice amenities: bike lanes bring workers from the campus and residents of the Sunset Park neighborhood to the new Bush Terminal Piers Park, which was built by NYCEDC, designed by landscape architects at AECOM, and is now managed by the NYC parks department.
“It’s really a neighborhood park. We wanted to improve the public space and make it safer,” said Ryan White, also with NYCEDC.
What do these projects have to teach other cities seeking to revitalize their urban manufacturing? A lot. Cluster industrial manufacturing and distribution facilities into districts near existing transportation infrastructure. Reuse warehouses and facilities. Make them attractive, sustainable, and accessible to the public. Spend the extra money on bike lanes, sidewalks, and amenities like public parks. They are worth it.
Now NYC just needs to create more affordable housing for the blue-color workers it hopes to lure back to the city. That’s the missing piece in the city’s strategy.
The High Line Conundrum– Slate, 5/9/17
“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A city in the throes of rapid demographic change, where rents are going through the roof, wants to convert an overgrown freight railway into a selfie-ready linear park.”
Making Houston Freeways a Little Less Ugly– The Houston Chronicle, 5/9/17
“Billboards notwithstanding, nothing installed along the freeway can be too distracting, the Texas Department of Transportation mandates. It’s a safety issue.”
New Urban Parks and Public Spaces to See in 2017– Curbed, 4/3/2017
“The urban park, from well-manicured, small lots in residential neighborhoods to massive, city-defining landmarks such as Central Park, have long been centerpieces of city life. But in an age of climate change and evolving urban-planning concepts, parks are being viewed through many different lenses.”
Homeowners Want Their Landscapes to Stand Out on the Block– Houston Chronicle, 4/7/17
“The backyard was once just about having trees, shrubs and annuals for pops of color. Today local landscape architects and designers say that stylish outdoor spaces are getting as much consideration as the homes they’re attached to.”
The 11th Street Bridge Park Isn’t Just a Vanity Project– The Washingtonian, 4/12/17
“The 11th Street Bridge Park will physically connect both sides of the Anacostia River. It’s a 1,200-foot-long, pedestrian-only expanse that will let people stroll between Capitol Hill and Anacostia. The big question is whether it will socially connect them.”
You Should Care About Preserving This Lake Park Bridge – Milwaukee Magazine, 4/12/17
“Do Milwaukeeans care about their Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parks and the current and potential value they offer? If the answer is yes, the debate about preserving the elegant Ravine Road Bridge in Lake Park deserves the attention of every concerned citizen.”
Living with the Legacy of Capability Brown – The Telegraph, 12/5/16
“The rolling terrain of this part of flat-landed Lincolnshire is not of the Exeters’ making, but Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s, the world’s most famous landscape architect, who worked on the estate from 1754.”
Sexy Infrastructure and Other Notable Developments in 2016– The Huffington Post, 12/12/16
“Judging by the heaps of praise for projects, including Governors Island in New York City, Chicago’s Navy Pier, the Lower Rainier Vista at the University of Washington in Seattle, and plans for Dallas’ hugely ambitious 10,000-acre nature district, infrastructure is sexy.”
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.
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.”
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.
In the developing urban world, many more landscape architects and designers, particularly from minority groups, are needed if the goal is more just cities.
“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?
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.