Landscape Architecture vs. Consumerism

The design professions are at a crossroads, struggling to reconcile design’s role as an engine for consumer-driven economic growth with its role in imagining and implementing sustainable lifestyles and businesses. There’s a “meaning” gap between designers’ potential for social good and the ruthless commercialism and consumerism that serves as the context for the professions.

In my new book, Architecture & Design versus Consumerism: How design activism confront growth, I explore this gap and present examples of how designers are confronting key problems of consumerism. Here I look at a few examples from landscape architecture.

Consumerism acts as an engine for economic growth. This engine shapes design as market values increasingly outweigh civic or environmental values. One example is private suburban communities. Peter Cannavò reports that the growing trend for making new suburbs private—privatization is a requirement in a number of cities—means that more and more whole neighborhoods are managed as property rather than as communities or civic places. This type of management usually limits the variety of structures and allowable types of landscapes, often aiming for an outdated suburban ideal of big houses, big cars, and resourced-intensive landscapes, all of which drive increased consumption.

New suburbs are privatized, becoming consumption-driven commodities rather than communities. Photo Patrick Huber.

Consumerism also shapes landscape design when market actors control the location of public places. Emily Talen describes how cities such as Phoenix and Chicago implement new parks and other public spaces not according to where they are needed, but rather, according to where developers have paid impact fees. In the case of Phoenix this means that parks are planned for low-density, peripheral locations rather than strategic locations that might synergistically enrich the public landscape. This is similar to other “privately owned public spaces.” Whoever has money to pay impact fees determines location, whether or not the location adds wider value. The locations and contexts then dictate the benefit that any landscape design can bring to the urban fabric as a whole.

How Landscape Architecture is Reshaping Consumption

Despite these problems we’re also seeing cases where landscape design is shaping, or reshaping, consumerism. Here we look at the examples of sharing, appropriation and interactivity. The discussion above suggests that the location of landscape amenities can limit the way they enrich the public realm. Although we think of a landscape as stationary, recent examples of mobile urban farms and floating parks begin to question what it means to share a landscape. Two examples are the Neptune Foundation’s floating swimming pool, essentially a floating park, and “The Farm Proper,” a mobile urban farm.

Set & Drift developed this experimental, mobile urban farm using abandoned shopping carts, among other things.

Landscape architects are also looking at ways to appropriate and reassign existing landscapes that are underperforming socially, often because spaces are shaped by market efficiencies, to the exclusion of social or environmental values. In these cases designers highlight and uncover added value in tactical ways. An example is the Park(ing) Day project by ReBar, where money in the meter converts on-street parking spaces into temporary pocket parks.

Western countries are driven increasingly by “positional” consumption—for status rather than to meet basic needs. But research indicates that providing a better quality commons, including public space, could offer new means for gaining social distinction and weaken the link between status and private consumption. To this end, designers are enriching public spaces in new ways.

Play encouraged by flexible, fiber-optic “stalks” that emit sound and light as people passed near them in “White Noise, White Light” by J. Meejin Yoon. Courtesy of Howler + Yoon Architects.

Examples are experiments in interactive landscapes such as Enteractive (by Electroland Studio) and White Noise White Light. In both cases public spaces were “wired” to react to public and social activity. This interaction introduced play, but also temporarily personalized the place without privatizing it. Interesting developments occur as these interactive components are deployed in urban greenscapes as well as hardscapes.

This guest post by author Ann Thorpe is part of a virtual book tour for the book, Architecture & Design versus Consumerism (Earthscan/Routledge 2012). Thorpe currently serves as strategist with a Seattle-based startup, a social enterprise called Luum. She is also author of The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability.

Wade into Barangaroo’s Central District

In the past few years, the massive, 22-hectare Barangaroo redevelopment project on Sydney’s iconic harbour has been mired in controversy. First, an international competition was announced in 2006, which was won by Hills Thalis Architecture. Then, upon concerns about the transparency of the development process and that the project was out of scale with the surrounding Sydney Harbour, a new competition was launched a few years later, which was then won by starchitect Sir Richard Rogers. In those years, the scope of the project also changed to improve the commercial viability of the A$ 6 billion project. The amount of space dedicated to commercial use was increased by one-third. To accomodate all the expected business influx, Rogers, controversially, proposed a nearly 800-feet-tall hotel among the parks and commercial offices. Rogers defends his approach as appropriate for the massive scale of the development.

The site is divided into three segments: Barangaroo South, Headland Park, and Barangaroo Central. Barangaroo South is home to Rogers’ three skyscrapers, including the 800-feet-tall hotel, while Headland Park, a 6-hectare site, will be designed by Australian architecture firm Johnson Pilton Walker in association with U.S. landscape architecture firm Peter Walker and Partners. The park is expected to include 100 percent native “common” plant species growing on recycled water. Interestingly, prior to the announcement of the final designs, famed urban designer Jan Gehl said, due to the size of parkland, it can’t be anything but “a wasteland” and “fearful at night.” Given the park won’t be completed until 2015 and the other sites won’t come online for a few years after that, it will take some time to see if he’s proved to be correct.

Now, according to the Barangaroo Development Authority, an international competition is underway for Barangaroo’s 5.2-hectare central district. The development authority, which has been the subject of its own controversy — with a few of its members removed by the city for conflicts of interest, will be seeking world-class master planning services from a landscape architecture, urban design, or planning firm.  

On the upside, the project plans to be the first major climate positive development in Australia. However, on the other hand, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, the developers are already talking about creating a huge casino in the new central district, making any plans that don’t include a spot for gambling moot from the get-go.

CEO of the Authority John Tabart said, “On the western edge of Sydney’s CBD, Barangaroo is a 22 hectare former container port, being transformed into a vital new extension of the city, as a new global financial hub and the spectacular Headland Park. Playing a pivotal role between these two icons, is Barangaroo Central, planned to be a stimulating new place with commercial and cultural development, creating spaces for living work and leisure.” 

The successful team will create a conceptual vision while revising the existing concept plan, along with a new master plan, land use framework, and public domain plan. Beginning at the end of August, firms can find the RFP online. Submissions must be in by September 26, 2012. 

Image credit: Barangaroo Development Authority

Interview with Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett on the Power of Downtowns

Mick Cornett
is now serving his third term as mayor of Oklahoma City. Cornett, the national president of the organization representing Republican Mayors and Local Officials (RMLO), was named public official of the year by Governing Magazine in 2010. Cornett was the featured guest of First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of Union in large part because he put Oklahoma City “on a diet” in 2007, challenging citizens to lose a collective one-million pounds. The goal was reached in January 2012. More than 47,000 residents logged their weight loss on the awareness campaign’s website.

In The Huffington Post you wrote that twenty-five years ago few companies wanted to come to Oklahoma City because of the lack of amenities. The quality of life wasn’t viewed as great, so you decided to do something about it. What did you understand to be the absolutely necessary pieces in improving quality of life? What was Oklahoma missing?

We had established low standards for ourselves. We had considered ourselves a good place to live and a nice place to raise a family, but I don’t think any of us would have maintained that it was a great place to visit. It wasn’t the city where you invited your family and friends from other parts of the country to come visit. We didn’t have a city worth showing off.

When we started about 20 years ago on this track to create some amenities we were not only proud of but that we create a city worth showing off, a lot of it was just raising the standards for what was acceptable. That included a lot of big projects like building a new ball park and sports arena and putting money into our performing arts center. But there was also water projects and beautification projects along the way — putting a canal through our entertainment district and building dams to actually put a stable body of water into our river. There were a lot of things people who lived in Oklahoma City had just never really considered. We decided to invest in ourselves. Even if no one moved here and created jobs, we’d at least have a better place for us. That was the thinking initially. It’s evolved quite a bit since then.

Since 1993, to finance your MAPS initiatives, which are viewed as a really innovative model for how cities can change themselves with their own money, you used a limited penny tax passed, which you have used to raise more than a billion for local projects. How did the penny tax come about?

The mayor at the time was named Ron Norick. We had been successful in passing some sales tax increases for economic development projects. Now for the most part those projects never came to fruition so the tax was never collected. Nonetheless, he noted that our citizens were willing to invest in themselves for something better. We were trying to kick start a really gloomy economy. The decade of the 1980s was just a horrible time in the state of Oklahoma and a pretty gloomy time in Oklahoma City.

Norick chose the five-year time frame because it was a timeframe people were comfortable with in their own lives. If you bought a new car, chances are you were going to be paying for it for about five years. It seemed like a good, finite opportunity to put something in front of the voters. It would allow them to consider whether or not they thought this was a good way to fund projects. Also, voters took comfort in the fact that it was going to go away, and secondly, that it paid cash. There was no debt in the way we funded these projects. That was fundamentally new, and it’s still new from the way most cities do it.

The first MAPS project took aim at revitalizing Oklahoma City’s downtown. With some $350 million locally-raised funds, the city built a new canal riverfront development zone, ballpark, music hall, and convention center. A huge new park is coming to complement a revamped botanic garden. Why focus on the downtown first? Why was that the priority?

Fundamentally, most people in your city care about two things: They care about their neighborhood and their downtown. A city gets its identity from its core. One of the reasons Oklahoma City succeeded, now looking back 20 years, is that we convinced people who live in the suburbs that the quality of life downtown is important. We’ve convinced them their quality of life is directly related to the intensity of the core, that you can’t be a suburb of nothing.

In way too many cities across the country, what you see is some flourishing life in the suburbs and a core that has seen its life disappear. In Oklahoma City what we tried to do was put new life into the core of the city. We want to make a city where at five o’clock people still want to stay, whether they want to live or they want to play, or they want to continue to work. We want downtown to be an inviting place. If your downtown is dead, it’s hard to imagine that life in the suburbs is going to be a whole lot better.

A new set of $777 million in investments will create a new downtown park and riverfront recreation opportunities, build out a street car system, expand sidewalks and biking trails, and create new senior wellness centers. Another $180 million was raised just to redesign downtown streets. These projects seemed designed to improve the quality of life for locals as much to draw in further private sector investment. But what do you hope to accomplish with the new projects? How are you defining success?

If we’re creating a city that our kids and our grandkids are going to want to choose to live. In the 1980s when my contemporaries and I came of age, there weren’t that many good jobs available. Most people who got an advanced degree had to leave Oklahoma City. We lost a generation of leadership. To a certain extent, some of those people are coming back now.

What we want is to create a city where if a kid grows up in Oklahoma City, they want to remain here if they can. What we’re seeing is not only is that becoming true, but a lot of people are moving here from California, the east coast, and especially Texas. Those are communities that had been a drain on our most promising citizens for generations. Now we’re attracting that human capital. That’s going to be the key to economic development because no longer do people follow jobs. Jobs follow people. We’re succeeding now because we’re attracting the top human capital available.

Are you working with landscape architects on these projects? Also, have any designers really influenced your thinking on how to design successful public spaces? What do you hope to accomplish with these new public spaces?

What we’ve learned is that there wasn’t a lack of enlightenment either at City Hall or in the business community. We had just never prioritized the landscape architecture that can really help beautify a project or a city.

The city has now got a set of standards. It’s hard to imagine that you’re going to have businesses with high standards in a city that has low standards. When the city developed higher standards — and those are standards that I continually push, given they need to be ever increasing — what you see is that the businesses in the community want to reflect those standards or maybe even exceed them. So it feeds on itself. When you have a city of low standards you’re going to have businesses that exude that same quality. You’re not going to create a city that’s all that impressive or creates interesting opportunities for pedestrians.

We have a number of landscape architects, architects, and designers here in the city who are very capable of doing great work but they had never necessarily been funded or inspired until recently.

I’ve also worked with Jeff Speck, Hon. ASLA, on a series of projects over the last few years. Jeff has helped me learn about many of the ways you can create a more pedestrian-friendly community. We have a long way to go there. Jeff has been a great sounding board for me from the outside-in on what works in certain cities across the country.

But I will say there are wonderful landscape architects right here in Oklahoma City who are now doing incredible work. I can only assume this type of work has been possible for a long, long time. It just hasn’t been standard. Now, it’s the standard and we’re seeing it.

You say that the MAPS projects have yielded $5 billion in private sector investment, much of that in new real estate. With increased residential investment and improved transit and these nice new sidewalks, are you concerned about affordability downtown? How has the population changed since private sector investment has taken off?

There’s great demand downtown. We’ve had so little downtown housing for years. The affordability is an issue, but that’s based on the idea that it almost has to be new construction. Most of the opportunity to live downtown is brand new construction, which costs more. So we are seeing price ranges that are higher than we would like. I’m somewhat concerned about that but I think over time it will start to take care of itself.

There is quite a bit of high-end housing in downtown Oklahoma City. But housing is very affordable in Oklahoma City in general. When people move to the city, they’re very surprised at how affordable our housing stock is whether they want to live in suburbs or downtown.

I can tell you this: There is great demand for downtown housing. What we have yet to resolve is making the housing as affordable as the demand would indicate. When that tipping point arrives, you’re going to see downtown housing explode. Right now, there’s a nice market for it but it’s going to really take off when the price points get closer to the average price for a house.

What are your views on the federal debate on transportation enhancements, federal financing for bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure? The senators from Oklahoma seem to be very opposed to federal support for these measures. Has Oklahoma City ever benefited from transportation enhancement funding?

Well, sure we have and, you know, I’m all for walkability and a more pedestrian-friendly environment. I am for as many of those decisions that can be made locally as possible.

I do have a slightly different take than my senators on this issue but I think both of our senators will tell national audiences how extremely proud they are that Oklahoma City is a perfect example of a city that took care of its own destiny. The fact that we’ve done so much for ourselves might be reflected in their attitudes. Because they’ve seen what can happen. They’ve seen these types of amenities that can be instituted from the ground-up. They approve of that method.

I just like the idea of anything that improves the quality of life in communities, cities tapping into those resources, but I’m not speaking for the funding like they are.

Lastly, you famously put Oklahoma City “on a diet” and recently that initiative hit a benchmark: 1 million pounds lost. Why do you think the campaign took off like it did? How are you connecting your weight loss campaign now to the new park projects, the walking and biking infrastructure?

The new prioritization on obesity here in Oklahoma City was really just a reflection on the idea that we have higher and higher standards. What I noted when I launched the campaign was we were putting higher standards on seemingly everything — except us. We really needed to put higher standards on our health and our children so the campaign was really just an attempt to get a conversation going.

We needed to talk about obesity and health in general. When I came forward and was willing to discuss my own health issues and at the same time was exposing the fact that our city had a large problem with obesity, it allowed people to be more comfortable talking about it inside their home, business, or church. That conversation has been very helpful in getting people to recognize the dangers of obesity and that we need to do something about it.

That conversation was very instrumental in us plugging in some of these healthier concepts into MAPS 3. After that campaign, we were able to say these senior health and wellness centers are going to be important. These jogging and biking trails are instrumental to creating the city that we want our kids to grow up in. We have now made an incredible amount of infrastructure improvements downtown, improving the walkability of our core city.

We are becoming a city where people want to get out and walk, which is really important. For decades, we created a life where everything revolved around the car. That’s less true today. I hope it’s less true in the coming years.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Myriad Botanical Gardens and Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory (project by Office of James Burnett) / Image credit: McNeese Fitzgerald Associates, (2) Myriad Botanical Gardens (project by Office of James Burnett) / Image credit: Carl Shortt, (3) Bricktown canal revitalization / Image credit: City of Oklahoma, (4) Central Park concept / Image credit: Hargreaves Associates, (5) Sidewalk improvements downtown / Image credit: Office of James Burnett

In D.C., New Eco-District Plans Unveiled

After two years of internal debate among 17 different federal agencies and the D.C. government, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) released its long-awaited plans for a new Southwest Eco-District designed to undo the worst damage of the massive “urban renewal” projects inflicted on L’Enfant neighborhood over the past decades. Designed to transform the spooky, almost pedestrian-free area just south of the Mall into a highly sustainable, people-friendly cultural and business destination, the Eco-district plan means to take on many challenges at once. As Elizabeth Miller, ASLA, the intrepid landscape architect who is guiding the project, explained, this 110-acre, 15-square block project is meant to showcase “high performance buildings and landscapes” while creating space for 19,000 new federal workers and solving some of the worst pedestrian access problems.

At the beginning of the hearing today, NCPC Chairman L. Preston Bryant, Jr said the project can go a long way to “breathing new life into the city.” While the whole Eco-District may take 20 or 30 years to design and implement, “we have a once in a generation opportunity to make this happen.” He added that NCPC and its many federal partners are eager to move forward because there are some synergies that make the timing right: The Department of Energy (DOE) building is “coming to a lifecycle decision,” meaning that it’s ready to be torn down because it’s now highly inefficient in terms of energy and water use; the Southwest waterfront plans are moving forward, with $2 billion in private sector investment set; and the D.C. government-led Maryland Avenue redevelopment project is on its way.

Miller outlined a vision for an Eco-District that provokes the imagination, at least among sustainable designers. She said the new District will “capture, manage, and reuse water, energy, and waste” and work beyond a single building, leveraging clusters of buildings to create a new system. At the same time, the plan will take aim at the incredible lack of public access — the barriers, the highways, and grade changes — that keep people away, except for the federal workers that have to go there for work.

Diane Sullivan, sustainability planner for NCPC, said a sustainable mixed-use community will arise out of a set of new “guidelines, objectives” that will frame neighborhood development efforts and the creation of new environmental systems.

On developing the neighborhood, Sullivan said that a user survey of D.C. residents found that the lack of amenities was the overwhelming reason why people didn’t want to move down there or even hang out there. So the goal is create a new tree-lined 10th street (or L’Enfant Place) that can connect the Mall to the new Southwest waterfront development while also making that connection itself an exciting cultural destination, lined with 1.2 million square feet in new space for up to 5 new museums, along with farmers’ markets and other draws.

Better pedestrian access is also key to making all this work. In the new plans, Miller said Virginia and Maryland Avenues will re-appear, carving new paths through new buildings as park-like avenues for promenading. Sullivan said the new local street designs cutting up the mega-blocks are still being worked out. She asked, “which streets should be monumental? Which should be local?”

To better get those pedestrians — all those federal workers — to the area, a “better inter-modal system” will be put in place, with a revamped, solar roofed-L’Enfant station, offering both commuter rail and Metro. To ease pressure off Union Station, more commuter rail may be directed there somehow.

The saving grace of the scary L’Enfant Place now is the fountain in Dan Kiley’s Modern-era Benjamin Banneker park, with its dramatic overlook across the Washington Channel. Unfortunately, the rest of Kiley’s park was not well realized. With spaghetti loops of highways cutting through, it’s a matter of taking your life in your own hands to go from the park to the waterfront. In the new plans, Kiley’s park will be completely redone but the area will still serve as a monument to African American surveyor Banneker. The new, more sustainable park will more easily connect to the waterfront while providing a new visual identity for the “eco” part of the district.

Now, on the systems that will make the district more eco: First, many of the old federal buildings will go, getting a revamp so they meet the goals of Obama’s Executive Order 13514, which calls for federal agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy use. The ones that stay, like the famed Brutalist HUD building, will be updated to be more efficient.

Sullivan said the goal is to have “zero-net energy district as measured in carbon.” Pretty near impossible unless fully renewable power is the rule for the new Eco-District. Sullivan said solar PVs and solar thermal systems (for hot water) will be added to the roofs of the new buildings wherever possible, while ground-source heat will also be tapped. A central facility run by GSA, which runs on natural gas, will still be used (but that won’t get them to zero emissions).

Heading down towards the water, the freeway that cuts off the connection between Benjamin Banneker park and the waterfront will be capped with a new layer covered in solar panels.

For water, the goal is to reduce potable water use throughout the Eco-District by 70 percent and manage all stormwater where it falls. All building greywater will be reused while blackwater will go to the new anaerobic plant. Rainwater will be caught by acres of green roofs (including edible ones), green streets, trees, and planters. What isn’t caught will be funneled into cisterns underneath 10th street and used later. Green infrastructure is then clearly a central part of the strategy. Permeable areas overall are to grow to 35 percent, while the tree canopy is to reach 40 percent (a solid target). (Right now, the barren area has just 8 percent tree cover). While we didn’t hear anything substantive about creating a wildlife-friendly landscape designed to attract diverse species, we hope that’s in the works.

There are more ambitious goals for waste reductions: Some 75 percent of construction materials for the new buildings will be reused, and 80 percent of everyday waste will be diverted from the landfill. A composting program will be put in place, too.

So, how will this all actually work? Sullivan sees some government buildings first getting a light rehabilitation and then others will undergo a full rehabilitation. Three federal buildings will be “re-purposed” as major infill development begins. Then, big redevelopment will start over the freeway. At the same time, critical projects like a new Banneker park and a new 10th street landscape will begin next year.

What’s this all going to cost? Miller and Sullivan said an economic feasibility study only provided some high-level numbers, but they did say the federal government would make back its multibillion dollar investment over 20 years through reduced energy, water, and waste fees; increased revenues from private sector developers; and improved local tax gains.

While we hope this project is a sure thing, new governance structures and partnership and financing agreements will need to be worked out among all the partners, including the private sector developers who are key to making this all happen. Let’s hope this is not a protracted process. As the Eco-District gets moving, it can become an innovative showcase for how to revamp government hubs across the U.S.

Learn more about the bold plans. D.C. residents can attend a public hearing on the proposals on July 19. The comment period will be open for three months. Comments will be incorporated into a final plan ready to go by early 2013. By the end of next year, NCPC hopes to have design competitions launched for a new Banneker park and 10th street, its two priority public projects.

Image credit: ZGF Architects, courtesy of NCPC

D.C. Offers a Bold Vision for a More Sustainable Future

At a historic church in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray said there are either two future directions for the city: “The gaps between us could further divide our city,” or the city could become “greener, more equitable, and more prosperous” for all. Outlining a bold vision for a Sustainable D.C., Gray said he wanted the city to not only be the greenest in the U.S. but among all world cities. D.C. is currently ranked 8th in a recent ranking of North American cities by the Economist Intelligence Unit so the city has quite a ways to go to get to number one in this continent, let alone the world. In the near term, can D.C. beat New York City, Vancouver, or San Francisco? That’s a stretch and only possible with deep collaboration with the non-profit and private sectors.

Gray is giving the city one generation — 20 years — to accomplish his ambitious objectives, which weave in health, economic, employment, and environmental goals. The idea is that D.C. will not only become greenest but healthiest, with the most number of green jobs. On top of this, Gray wants to continue to grow the city’s population in a big way. Gray said “sustainability will need to be a continual process.”

In terms of carbon dioxide, the city wants to cut emissions by 50 percent by 2032. In presenting the goals, Christopher Tuluo, head of D.C.’s Environment Department, said “climate change is happening. If someone says it isn’t, they are flat out wrong.” A key part of achieving this goal will be reaching objectives on energy use and efficiency. The city seeks to cut district-wide energy use by 50 percent while increasing renewable energy use to 50 percent. Given some 75 percent of emissions come from buildings, the District will push for adaptive re-use of old buildings so they can become greener. The idea is to maintain and improve the current building stock and increase the number of LEED buildings (the city is already number one for that metric). Another way to fight the effect of climate change: strengthening D.C.’s already considerable urban forest, which stores much of the city’s carbon, reaching a 40 percent tree canopy by 2032. Here Tuluo added that “trees are important when it’s 100 degrees out because of climate change.”

Investing in more sustainable transportation systems is also key to both reducing transportation-related emissions and adapting to a carbon-constrained world. The district seeks to make 75 percent of all trips walking, biking, or transit in 20 years. Harriet Tregoning, D.C.’s planning director, said “this is a stretch goal but these trips already make up 50 percent of all trips right now.” She discussed how more young people may be moving to D.C. because the city’s transportation system is so affordable. This younger generation is so in debt with college loans they can’t afford cars. In fact, just 60 percent of D.C. residents own cars and that number is falling.

Sustainability means improving D.C.’s waterways, which are amongst the most polluted in the country. Gray wants 100 percent of District waterways to be fishable and swimmable, and 75 percent of D.C.’s green space to be used as green infrastructure that captures and filters rainwater for reuse. Tuluo wants the city to become much “spongier.” He wants the city to become “a much more natural place — not just for the environmental benefits. We want return on investment” in terms of stormwater management benefits.

The process for dealing with waste, which the Economist Intelligence Unit report said was among D.C. weak points, will need to be totally transformed if the city is going to reach zero waste in 20 years. Tuluo asked, “is zero waste a pipe dream?” Perhaps not. Organic waste is already turned into compost as a matter of practice in San Francisco, one of the best cities at dealing with waste. He sees D.C. residents “becoming urban farmers,” using their compost daily, and other waste consumed by digesters that turn other garbage into energy.

The front end of the reuse chain is local food production, which will also need to ramped up if the 75 percent of all food is to be grown within a quarter-mile of the population eating it. Tregoning argued that “it used to be really difficult to find a supermarket in the District.” While that has changed, improving the availability of local produce will be sped along by a network of food-productive roofs. She wants one million square feet of these vegetated roofs in place funneling produce to local shops and co-ops. (According to Gray, the city is already number-one in terms of green roofs so this may be possible). Getting local produce to D.C. residents seems to be a key focus. Health must be at the top of a sustainability agenda in a city where 22 percent of the population is obese. Gray wants to cut that rate in half in 20 years. 

D.C.’s plan won’t work without more equitable economic and employment growth. Right now, the unemployment rates in the city differ dramatically from ward to ward. In Ward 3, it’s as low as 2 percent, while in poorer parts of the city, like Ward 8, it’s 24 percent, among the highest in the country. Gray wants to boost the number of green jobs by five times — providing opportunities at all levels, from the PhDs experimenting with biofuels to the landscape architects designing parks, from the green roof installers to the maintenance crews keeping green infrastructure and waste reuse systems working.

Explore the plan. There are a few short, medium, and long-term actions listed. As Tregoning said, “the vision is a painting of what’s possible in the District.” A design and implementation strategy with hundreds of actions comes next. To see some actions that should be considered, explore ASLA’s 30-page set of recommendations: Becoming Greenest. One big focus of ASLA’s report was the need for a climate adaptation plan. If local species in D.C.’s great urban forest were to die off due to higher temperatures, none of the other goals related to water, air quality, or health will be possible.

Image credit: City Center, Washington, D.C. / SWF Institute

Playa Vista Overcomes Its Obstacles

Once mired in litigation and always fraught with controversy, Playa Vista, a 1,000-plus acre wetland, residential community, and commercial development in western Los Angeles, may now be considered a success story. While parts of the 3-mile-long by 1.5-mile-wide site are still in contention, Playa Vista’s combined parklands, residential community, and commercial district certainly offers an improvement on the usual Los Angeles model: sprawl on steroids. Sure, residents still need to drive to this publicly-accessible yet privately maintained community, but once there, cars are hidden in underground parking lots and residents can walk on nice sidewalks, bike, go to cafes, walk their dog, or chill in one of the many parks. Film and multimedia studio employees in the commercial sector can walk to the site’s central park or even hike a trail along the ridgeline. And at a tour of the site during the conference of the American Planning Association, bicyclists were even seen carrying trays of coffee, making their way to studios.  

Playa Vista’s innovative master plan was created in the 1990s by OLIN, a leading urban and landscape design firm, and other firms. There were a few major segments in the plan: a protected wetland, central park, multiple residential communities, and a commercial area, which houses Howard Hughes’ old aircraft facilities, structures that are mostly protected under California’s historic preservation rules. Then Playa Vista Capital and the Trust for Public Land worked off that plan to create an updated master plan that sets aside some 70 percent of the land as open space. 

Indeed, they may have had to set aside a big chunk as protected nature. A major share of the site is one of the last remaining wetlands in California and lies within the coastal zone. Also, lawsuits in the mid-80s prevented an earlier development team from damaging the Ballona wetlands so Playa Vista Capital decided to hand this piece over to the state. Preserving this area was a great thing though: the wetlands are lush, but could be further improved if the state moves forward with a major restoration project that will take out the narrow concrete lining parts of the river in favor of a meandering natural system. That’s still being debated between a number of local organizations and the state.

There’s some forward-thinking green infrastructure systems here that connects the development to the greater ecological system of the area. A 51-acre riparian corridor and reconstructed marsh (see image above) was designed by Friends of the Ballona Wetland, Psomas & Associates, landscape architecture firm Collaborative West, and Erik Streaker, a water quality expert, to cleanse and manage the development’s stormwater and connect with the wetlands. Already, the new marsh has brought in 100+ plus birds, including an endangered species. A new central park by the Michael Maltzan Architects and the Office of James Burnett is already in place to welcome the second residential segment, the new “Village,” now underway (moving forward only after more lawsuits were finally settled after they went to the State Supreme Court). Maltzan’s park provides a sustainable, multi-functional public space bridging the residential and commercial sides, which is also now under development.

First conceived as a New Urbanist community, given its tight density, multi-family housing complexes, and use of street grids, the first residential community diverges from that rigid model in a few key ways. There’s lots of affordable housing units. Diverse parks and street landscapes play a central role in making the community, a two-square mile development, seem a bit less like the creepy community in the Truman Show. According to Mark Huffman, Playa Vista Capital, the landscape architecture was central to making Playa Vista work so well. There are 17 acres of “active parks” and another 12 acres of “passive recreation” set within distinct park districts, with a “concert” park, “fountain” park, and others.

Streets, which have bicycle lanes, each have their own plant-based identities. “We want people to be able to find their own street,” said Huffman. Some of the buildings do look very similar to each other, even though many architects worked on the different buildings within the complex. Huffman added that 50 percent of all plants are native and drought tolerant, but some “did better than others,” with some trees felled by mites.

An innovative homeowners fee finances the upkeep of the landscapes, green infrastructure, and much of the community work. Given some 3,200 residences have been purchased, meaning some 6,000 people are living in these two square miles, the fees must not be onerous. In fact, one of the selling points of the fees may be that they help ensure the community keeps close watch over the initiatives that make this development more environmentally and socially-sound than others in Los Angeles. While the marsh is self-sustaining, said Huffman, fees are needed to cover all the permits and regulatory reporting and control the cattails in the marsh and corridor. The cattails, which are the heart of the constructed wetland system that remove pollutants from the water, often grow too wild so they have to be pruned back. Fees also help finance programs for the community, including widening the 4-lane street right out front of the development, and new computer labs for nearby schools.

Throughout, there are other sensitive ways of dealing with water. All the parks are watered with recycled water provided by automated systems. A new wetland “discovery” park designed by Levin & Associates still isn’t quite open to the public because the groups involved first need to finalize the details on the non-profit that will run the site, but that also promises to educate the public about the critical importance of water and wetlands.

While the development isn’t really the “Live, Work, Play” development it’s sold as — given most of its residents still face a long car ride to their workplaces — the commercial district isn’t too far for those lucky ones that live nearby, perhaps a 10-15 bicycle ride. The commercial side, which is run by The Ratvokich Company, offers very nice reuse of historic buildings. The Hercules Campus is named after the Hercules, the wooden plane Howard Hughes created in World War II and was deemed the “Spruce Goose” by the press. Hercules was built in the old hangers now leased out by Ratkovich to movie studios. (We had to sign a non-disclosure agreement so can’t talk about the new Hollywood movie being produced there).

The beautiful, gargantuan hangers from the 1940s are actually made entirely of wood, like large boats turned upside down. There are molded, glued wood beams that tower 72 feet and provide the frame of the structures. New tenants coming in to use other buildings for “production support” include Google, with its new YouTube channel; social media marketing; and multimedia production studios. In Los Angeles, buildings can be zoned for “production support,” which is different from plain-old office space.

Milan Ratvokich, one of the developers, seemed bemused by what “creative professionals” like in these old buildings — the cavernous loft spaces and the old, authentic materials — but clearly “saw a place with a lot of opportunities.” Designed by a sensitive interior designer, the old spaces, one of which includes an old vault Hughes kept his plane designs in, could be amazing new creative spaces for movie and Web workers.

Ratvokich proves that they are at the cutting-edge of development: They are not only looking at bringing in a new hydrogen-powered fuel cell to serve as a generator for a cluster of buildings, but also working to preserve the 100-year old Sycamore trees that line the old 1940’s Hughes offices.

Image credits: (1) Ballona Marsh / Friends of the Ballona Wetlands. Lisa Fimiani (2) Central Park, Michael Maltzan Architects / Iwan Baan copyright, (3-4) Playa Vista Concert Park and Spyglass Park / Playa Vista Capital, (5) Playa Vista streetscape / Debra Berman and Pat Kandel Real Estate, (6) Ballona Wetland Park / Friends of Ballona Wetland, (7) Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose” aircraft hangar, Playa Vista / The Wall Street Journal, (8-10) Buildings at Hercules Campus / The Ratvokich Company.

How Does a Community Become a Gay Mecca?

In his now seminal book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida used rankings on diversity, bohemia, and openness to gay people to show how creative types — the people who create value out of nothing but their innovative ideas and designs — are attracted to cities that are open-minded, liberal, and gay-friendly. In a session at the American Planning Association conference in Los Angeles, city officials from two communities on the The Advocate magazine’s gayest cities index explained how small, seemingly random communities have become “gayest” and boosted economic development in the process.

Thomas Eddington, with Park City, Utah, which The Advocate said is the gayest city in the U.S., said some 3.8 percent of Americans (or around 9 million) are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, making this group the second smallest minority, right after American Indians. However, he said the data is at best a “guestimate” because the U.S. census doesn’t ask single residents about their sexuality. Now, there are about 650,000 same-sex couples in the U.S., and about 20 percent are raising children.

In the past, gay communities “congregated and created their own place.” A few examples come to mind: Provincetown, Massachusetts; Greenwich Village, New York; The Castro, San Francisco; and West Hollywood, California. However, in their recent list, The Advocate pushes these well-known locales further down in favor of smaller communities many haven’t heard of, largely through of their use of “qualitative factors, not real numbers.” Eddington thought that while The Advocate exercise was far from scientific, it may indicate that “gay is changing.”

Well-known gay neigborhoods all have liberal, tolerant populations that feature “coffeeshops, bars, cafes” in high-density mixed-use areas with lots of housing. They are often near universities. For gays and straights alike, “these are cool areas so economic development has often followed.” However, now, people are looking for “urban sophistication without urban gentrification.” As more of the country becomes tolerant, “gay people in Kansas can just go to Kansas City, they don’t need to go to D.C., New York City, or San Francisco.” 

As GLBT groups go mainstream, they may be diverging from the traditional gay areas, “going to places where people didn’t expect.” GLBT populations may be “assimilating more than we thought.” Still, Eddington thought that wherever these groups go, “community is still important.” And where the gay population lands, more educated, minority, and other creative populations often soon follow, “creating new centers of growth.”

One example is Wilton Manors in Florida. Hedi Shafran, who leads community outreach efforts in that city, said this “all-American small town has become the 2nd gayest city in the U.S,” using The Advocate’s approach. There are about 140 same-sex couples per 1,000, with an overall population of 11,863. She said that makes Wilton Manor very high on the list in terms of per-capita couples, but it’s total gay population is still very small in comparison with Ft. Lauderdale (the gayest mid-sized city), and D.C. (the gayest state).

Wilton Manors didn’t achieve its position through “gay gentrification, but through displacement.” In the 1990s, a number of factors came together to bring in gay populations: a growing affordable housing stock freed up by an aging population; a great location near the beach and Miami; attractive Florida-style homes; and economic opportunity. Shafran said local zoning changes combined with real estate investment basically triggered the gay migration.

In the 1920s, Wilton Manors was billed as a “upscale resort community.” It never really became that. A hurricane came through, the market crashed, and many of the dreams of the town’s founders went down the tubes. The town was almost exclusively white in a sea of Florida’s diverse population. There were even rumours of local KKK groups in action and “charges of homophobia.” Shafran said: “This place didn’t become a gay mecca because it was accepting.”

One community, Victoria Park, had become a “gay ghetto,” but “non-gays moved in because of the concentration of amenities.” The result was very steep rents, so gay people moved down the road into the more affordable Wilton Manors. There, after the community started to take root, the main strip was rezoned as a “arts and entertainment district.” Developers basically told the city council, “we can turn this into a gay mecca.” The city council, said Shafran, gave the thumbs-up as long as there were “no fortune tellers, no nudity, and no porn.” They said “this can’t become a seedy part of town.”

One result was booming commercial rents. In the arts & entertainment district, and the new transit-oriented development (TOD) that recently expanded the area, occupancy rates hit 100 percent and per square footage lease rates went from $8 to $32. The major increases in property values then increased city revenue, which was then funneled back into 10 new parks and other amenities. Shafran said “through gay-straight alliances, an old park was updated with gay money.” There has also been increased diversity. The town is now only 71 percent white, with a large number of Haitian immigrants moving in as well.

She said a really mixed town still has its own challenges though. The population is decreasing, particularly the share of the population under 18. While many of the businesses, which have names like “GaySha Sushi,” are popular among the gay residents, “we’ve heard that when straight people see a rainbow flag, they think it means ‘Don’t come in. You’re not welcome here.'” There are limited cross-cultural or really any cultural activities. Undoing a local zoning ban, a porn shop has opened (and it’s run by straight men). As rents increase in Wilton Manors, there has also been “gay suburban migration.”

So, one message was that while open, tolerant places do attract gay communities, which in turn help to bring in creative professionals, other minorities, and economic development, it’s really smart zoning that helped grow Wilton Manors. Shafran said arts & entertainment districts, business incubators, and film studio zoning all help build the foundation.

Image credit: Wilton Manors / Wilton Manors Real Estate

The Built Environment Is Broken

Dr. Richard Jackson, Professor and Chair of Environment Health Sciences, UCLA, said the built environment in the U.S. was designed in a way that is “fundamentally unhealthy” in a talk at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C. The environment is now making it difficult for people to achieve well-being. It’s getting so bad that this generation growing up may be the first in American history that has “a shorter life span than their parents.” Communities have to be redesigned to “make us all healthier – young or old.”

Host of the new four-hour PBS series Designing Healthy Communities, author of the series’ companion book, and co-author of a more in-depth text book, Dr. Jackson knows what he’s talking about. Primary care doctors, he said, are now inundated with young, overweight, depressed patients. These kids are sent to weight loss programs, told not to watch TV, and drink less soda, but they can’t really lose any weight because “they have no place to walk.” So, “two months later” they are loaded up medications to deal with their weight, anxiety, depression at a cost of about $400 a month. This is the part the medical community is missing: “These are environmentally-induced diseases. The environment is rigged against kids, doctors, communities.”

Now, 18 percent of the U.S. economy goes to healthcare, which is more than the country spends on defense. Among developed countries, the U.S. now ranks 47th in terms of average life span. Meanwhile, Costa Rica, whose population has about the same life span as the U.S., spends seven times less per person than the U.S. While the U.S. life span rates have improved (30 years has been added over the past 110 years), only “five years can be attributed to the work of doctors.” The rest of the gains come from immunizations and “infrastructure” that helped defeat diseases like tuberculosis.

These days, the challenge is chronic disease caused by our shared environment: asthma, obesity, diabetes, along with mental disorders like anxiety and depression. Jackson, who (amazingly) lives in Los Angeles without a car, said “people are now appendages to their cars” so it’s no wonder these diseases have skyrocketed. People are isolated and communities are broken, largely because people now have car-centric lifestyles and there are no longer any real community spaces in the average suburban subdivision. The result: “Antidepressants have increased 400 percent over 20 years.” Jackson thinks this number shows how the power of community to undo depression has itself been totally undone. “For thousands of years, community has gotten us through depression. Unfortunately, we’ve unravelled our communities.” Jackson also said what landscape architects have always known: getting out and walking in green spaces is about as effective as antidepressants (that is, if people can get to them).

Dealing with diabetes now takes up 2 percent of the GDP of the country given that in many states almost 10 percent of the population has the disease. By 2050, that number is expected to grow to more than 20 percent. Obesity is another, well, big problem: In comparison with past generations, the average American is now 25 pounds heavier and the average kid, 14 pounds heavier. In some states, 30 percent of the population is severely obese. The problem is particularly depressing with kids, but, again, one can point directly at the built environment as a primary cause of the weight gain. “One generation ago, 2/3 of kids walked or biked to school. Now, it’s 1 in 8.” On top of that, the country subsidizes soy and corn products to be used in highly processed foods, but doesn’t do the same for fruits and vegetables. “In fact, if everyone at the surgeon general’s daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, the country would run out in three days. We just don’t have the produce available. This is why it’s so expensive.”

Jackson believes that every school should have a garden and every community should have a farmer’s market. Walkable green spaces should be used to fight mental health issues. Kids should live in walkable, bikeable areas so they can further their own “autonomous development.” Moving up in scale, cities can create active design guidelines like New York City has, and states can even incorporate healthy community designs into their planning efforts.

These health arguments are more powerful than the wonkier ones related to transportation financing or economic development, said Christopher Leinberger, a professor at the University of Michigan, smart growth developer, and writer for The Atlantic. Still, he thought it was odd that “public health people and nurses get these ideas,” but doctors still don’t. 

While many doctors need to be brought around, many communities may be realizing they can affect change on their own, and put pressure on elected officials and planners to do things differently. AARP certainly thinks so. The organization, said Amy Levner, who manages their mobility programs, is now focused on supporting local activists in improving quality of life for those over 50. Now active in the Complete Streets Coalition, AARP is financing “pedestrian audits” that help figure out the obstacles that prevent people from walking. For this group, one of the most powerful in D.C., it’s about improving quality of life for older people who are “past their driving years.” But what’s good for those older folks will be good for all.

Shannon Brownlee, Health program director, New America Foundation, said siloed policies have meant that policymakers haven’t realized all the end costs of their decisions. For example, subsidizing unhealthy foods just passes the costs onto people and the healthcare system. “We don’t think of the costs to health – on the other end.” Indeed, according to Leinberger, the problem just continues at the federal level. Few on Capitol Hill are thinking of the health or economic costs of the transportation bills now being considered, which simply push forward the same old model: 80 percent of funding for highways, and 20 percent for “alternative” transportation. Leinberger said that “alternative” financing, which sounds like something marginal, devious, actually covers “all transportation networks in cities,” things like pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

In the Senate, which is a “rural body” even though it’s run by Democrats, “most still refer to this as the highway bill.” Leinberger didn’t seem to be hoping for much, just that “transit-oriented development and mixed-use development is made legal. Currently, it’s illegal.” He also rang a hopeful tone by saying that the market will eventually succeed over dysfunctional Washington.

This is because there’s a 40-200 percent premium for walkable, well-designed communities. “The market desperately wants this. There’s 30 years of pent-up demand.” He said some 56 percent of the U.S. wants to live in these communities but maybe only 20 percent actually do. So even though the new transportation bill is actually “going the wrong way” by incentivizing more highways, the market will eventually “get what it wants,” overcoming any obstacles the federal government puts in the way.

See more of Dr. Jackson on PBS and check out his new books: Designing Healthy Communities and Making Healthy Places (also see a review of the 2nd book).  

Also, see ASLA’s resources on healthy and livable community design, including an animation explaining how landscape architects help undo the damages of car-centric environments: Designing for Active Living:

Interview with Robert Hammond, Co-Founder of the High Line

Robert Hammond is Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Friends of the High Line, the non-profit conservancy that manages the High Line, a public park built atop an abandoned, elevated rail line on the west side of Manhattan. Hammond was awarded a Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, as well as the Rockefeller Foundation’s Jane Jacobs Medal for New Ideas and Activism.

In the beginning of your and Joshua David’s personal story about transforming the abandoned High Line rail line into the most applauded park of recent years, The High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky, you say that early on, living in Chelsea you’d seen parts of the High Line, “but never realized all the bits and pieces connected.” What did the High Line mean in your community? When did you first understand the space in its entirety?

I lived in the neighborhood so I had always seen it when walking around, but I didn’t think it was all connected. I really didn’t think that much about it until I read an article in The New York Times in the summer of ’99 that said it was threatened with demolition, and it included a map. The article showed that it was a mile and a half long running through the Meatpacking District and Chelsea, all the way up to Hell’s Kitchen near the Javits Convention Center. That’s when I first realized the whole extent of it.

I assumed someone would be working to preserve it. I called around and thought the American Institute of Architects or the Municipal Arts Society would be working on this. So many things in New York have preservation groups attached to them. But pretty quickly I found no one was doing anything for the High Line and that it was actually going to be demolished. I heard the proposed demolition was on the agenda for a community board meeting in my neighborhood so I went to my first community board meeting ever and sat next to Joshua, who I didn’t know at the time. By the end of the meeting we realized everyone in the room was in favor of demolition except for us. So we exchanged business cards and we said, “Well why don’t we start something together?”

Early on, you and Joshua had a multi-faceted strategy to keep the dream alive, to prevent the Guiliani administration from tearing down the High Line. You focused on building community support, visually documenting the site, creating design visions of what could be, while finding powerful advocates in the city government and also filing lawsuits. Which aspects of the strategy, in retrospect, proved to be most critical to moving the High Line forward in those early days?

Josh and I get a lot of credit for this great strategy. I think the most important thing we did was start the project, and it allowed other people to come along and help us get it done. In some ways, it was an asset that neither Josh nor I was an architect, landscape architect, or city planner. It forced us to basically go to other people for help. Talking to people who are interested in starting their own kind of project, that’s always the point I try to make: The most important thing that they can do is just start something. That enables other people to come along and help them get it done.

People always ask, “What was the one most critical time or event?” There wasn’t. The project had so many different pieces — the political, the economic, real estate — that there wasn’t one specific thing that made a difference. There were a whole bunch of different things. One of the things that I think is very interesting and that really connected the landscape and the ultimate design of the High Line were the photographs by Joel Sternfeld.

When Josh and I went up there, we realized what was right there in the middle of Manhattan. I first fell in love with the High Line from the street. I loved the structure, the rivets, but then when I walked up there, there was a mile and a half of wildflowers running right through the city. That’s what I really fell in love with: the combination of this wild landscape on top of this industrial structure in the middle of the city. We knew most people were never going to see it like this so we took our snapshots which just didn’t look that great. They didn’t really capture the impact of it. So I got a photographer named Joel Sternfeld to go up there and over the next year, between 2000 to 2001, he took a few pictures in all four seasons. He ultimately published a book called, Walking the High Line, back in 2002. Josh and I think of him as the third co-founder because those photographs of the wild landscape are what really helped galvanize people. I realized the most effective way to bring people on board was to show them the photographs, talking less and taking more time for people to experience the High Line through the photographs. Joel’s images really made the case for the project.

In the beginning, we didn’t know what the High Line should ultimately look like. We didn’t know exactly what the design should be. We always thought the community and the city should decide what it should be. Over time, people coalesced around Joel’s photo and when you asked them, “What do you want the High Line to be?” they’d point to Joel’s photos and they’d say, “I want it to be like that.” In some ways, that was the biggest inspiration behind the design, Joel’s photos of the landscape.

Getting the Bloomberg administration behind the effort meant coming up with a solid economic feasibility study, which you had to raise lots of funds to do. The study came up with the idea of transferring developers’ air rights and rezoning the area for commercial development. As the High Line developed, it has helped spur literally billions of dollars of new property development with a number of buildings by many marquee architects going in. Was that part of the original plan?

It was. We knew that the High Line had to make economic sense in the long-run, so we realized that for some people pretty pictures weren’t enough. We also needed an economic impact study, which is a really powerful tool for people working on parks projects because landscape, park, and public space projects can have a tremendous economic impact. Too often people just rely on what it looks like to make the case.

Of the design teams you invited to participate in the competition you said, “If I could do it over again, I’d require a landscape architect to be in the lead.” Why?

I think it’s really important. In the beginning I didn’t feel that way. I thought it would make sense for an architect to be a lead, but this is truly a landscape project. There are some architectural problems, but one of my favorite quotes is from one of our architects, Ric Scofidio, who said his job was to save the High Line from architecture. We were lucky to have that kind of architect. But going back, it’s really a landscape issue. When I talked to architects about their concept it was all additives, about adding things to the High Line. Landscape architects are better at dealing with existing conditions. Landscape architects almost always have some existing conditions, whereas architects are used to beginning from scratch. The existing condition was so important to us and had such a deep connection with the history and what people fell in love with, and James Corner recognized that.

I can’t emphasize it enough: too many times, I’ve seen people doing public spaces mesmerized by architects. For better or worse, architects have a higher profile. Architects are the name brands in public spaces. How many landscape architects can the average person name? It’d be zero that are alive. But they know architects. However, I think that’s changing. James Corner, Michael Van Valkenburgh, Hargreaves. It’s starting to change, but I think it’s just so critical for people not to be mesmerized by the famous names of the architects. What is really needed is experience working with existing stuff.

You say that a line from the book, The Leopard, sums up really your design philosophy for the High Line. “If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” You had wanted to preserve the wild plants that had taken root on the abandoned tracks, but Piet Oudolf, a key part of the winning James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro team convinced you that you could create something as beautiful as the High Line in its natural state. How did the winning team change the High Line but keep it the same, preserving the idea of its natural state?

From the very beginning, they were arguing among themselves about this challenge of how do you keep what’s magic but at the same time create something new? What I liked is that they knew you couldn’t just preserve it exactly as is. That would be a mistake. If you just tried to keep it exactly as is, you would create some kind of Disney World version. It’s coming back to that quote: you need to create something new to preserve that magical feeling.

Going up there by yourself where you had private garden was magical but what the design team was able to create was an experience that is really better with people in it. It looks better with people in it. Now when I see pictures of just the High Line without any people, I realize it wasn’t as good. It’s really beautiful when you have people interacting with the new landscape of the High Line. Also, the High Line has this unique ability to make people look better. People just look better on the High Line. I think that the landscape enhances that, too. The plants are able to do that in a way I think it’s hard for buildings to do.

During the design competition you found James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro to be “avant-garde,” but dealing with details like bench width and comfort, they showed a “real practicality.” How did the landscape architects, architects, and garden designer work with you and Joshua to realize your vision for the details of the park?

One of the reasons that sometimes things would come back more expensive is that the contractors had never done the things the designers were looking to do. Like the stairways, they came back and it was incredibly expensive. The designers calculated that it would be just as cheap to crush Mercedes-Benz and have them be the stairs as what the contractors did. The contractors were offering these high estimates just because they hadn’t seen this before. It wasn’t what they normally saw. For example, our paving wasn’t normal. But at the end of the day it wasn’t that complicated. Our paving system is really pre-cast concrete planks, so it’s just fancy parking curbs done in an array of different forms. Our design team would work with the contractor to help them understand how it was not that complicated or different from things they’d done in the past.

A number of cities now seem ready to jump on the High Line bandwagon. However, some landscape architects and planners caution that given the High Line was community-driven, it can’t really be replicated. Any copies may succeed as an economic development engine, but these projects may not get any true buy-in from communities. Do you think the High Line’s success can be replicated?

There are certain projects I really like, which have their own integrity. A lot of them are generated by communities. There’s the Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago, which was originally based in the community and came from a few people who lived in the area. The Atlanta Beltline, which is a much bigger ambitious project, started as one student’s thesis. The Jersey Embankment right across the river is definitely a community-based project. A project has to have that spirit from below. I think the best ones are not trying to copy the High Line; they’re trying to be something new altogether. This is the test to determine success: whether they try to create something original just like the High Line did or not.

I have my personal goals for the High Line: one is that it’s a well-loved park by New Yorkers; two is that it gets better after Josh and I leave; and three (and most importantly) is that it inspires other people to start these kind of things — not just elevated rail lines, but any kind of project. You don’t have to have experience, you don’t have to have all the money, you don’t have to have the plans all set. We developed all those things over time. That’s what stymies a lot of people. They think, “Oh, I don’t have the experience,” or, “I don’t have the money.” Those things can come.

Well, you’ve just kind of answered the last question, but I’ll just throw it out there in case you have anything else to add. What advice would you have for other community groups trying to save and perhaps transform their local infrastructure and cultural assets, whatever they may be? What advice would you have for the landscape architects partnering with them?

There’s no perfect way to do it. The most important advice is just start it and experiment. Just try things. There’s no one specific path. There are multiple ways to get started. Now a great way to do these things and galvanize a project is Facebook. Start a Kickstarter account — I’ve seen that working a lot now. One of the really important things is to raise money. It also helps start building the community. Whether someone gives five dollars, five thousand, or five million dollars, when they give money they become more invested in the project. It’s literally skin in the game. It’s an important part of building an organization or a whole movement.

We had a lot of people donate their time and energy to this project before it got off the ground. By finding community groups that need help, landscape architects and architects can, in effect, create more clients for themselves. Landscape architects can donate their services, get involved in local spaces, or just create their own.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Robert Hammond / Image credit: Annie Schlechter, (2) A Railroad Artifact, 30th Street, May 2000 / Joel Sternfeld © 2000, (3) Looking East on 30th Street on a Morning in May, 2000 / Joel Sternfeld © 2000, (4) 23rd Street Lawn, the northern end of the 4,900-square-foot lawn peels up over West 23rd Street, looking West, toward the Hudson River.  ©Iwan Baan, 2011, (5) A meandering pathway passes by old and new architecture in West Chelsea, between West 24th and West 25th Streets, looking South.  ©Iwan Baan, 2011

It Takes a Village to Raise a Mayor

Smart mayors who get the value design and its ability to transform communities don’t just grow on trees. They are the product of lots of different advisors and their thinking is shaped by organizations like the Mayor’s Institute on City Design (MICD), an initiative founded in the mid-1980s by the American Architectural Foundation, U.S. Conference of Mayors, and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). At a session at the 2011 ASLA Annual Meeting, MICD director Story Bellows, Mitchell Silver, director of planning, Raleigh, North Carolina and president of the American Planning Association (APA), Mark Dawson, ASLA, Sasaki Associates, and Mami Hara, ASLA, Wallace, Roberts & Todd and Philadelphia Water department, discussed how MICD has helped educate and empower mayors. They also covered the role the various design professions play in advising elected officials, and how they are all more effective if they work collaboratively.

The Value of Design Professionals in City Design

Some 873 mayors from 500 communities have gone through MICD’s program in the last 25 years. In sets of eight, mayors are expected to bring a major issue that confounds them. The problems are then discussed with design teams comprised of eight expert architects, urban designers, landscape architects, and planners. The goal, said Bellows, was to give mayors a “great set of strategies,” and a deeper understanding — that “design is more than just pretty parks.”

For APA president Mitchell Silver, it’s important to educate elected officials that great cities “don’t just happen by accident.” In 1959, Raleigh became the first city to create a research park. As a result, beginning in the 1990s, the city became a top place to do business and live. In addition, part of the process of education is explaining to elected officials the true nature of demographic change. “We have to understand who were planning and designing for.” Building in diversity for different generations is crucial. “Their values drive consumer preferences and what the community looks like.” It’s increasingly important for planners and design professionals to design for a younger generation as well: “We can’t be building a polaroid community for a digital generation. Communities fail if not designed for the right demographic.”

Silver made the point that planners and design professionals are crucial to ensuring that communities guide development efforts. “Do you want communities to define character of new development or have new developments guide the character of the community?” He said people know if something isn’t authentic so it’s very important to get that right. Silver pointed to Savannah as an example of a city that understands this, and “builds off its local anatomy.”

Furthermore, planners can also value by using land differently. High-rise residential buildings in downtowns provide a much better return on investment, tax-wise, in comparison with a sprawled-out suburban development. “By not investing in downtowns, mayors will be saying I will raise your taxes.” He also tells his own planning staff it’s the role of planners to “create an experience,” but it can’t be done alone – it must be a multi-disciplinary process with landscape architects and other design professionals, and mayors are also demanding this as well.

Mark Dawson, ASLA, a landscape architect with Sasaki Associates, said MICD has helped “elevate the understanding of key objectives” and the “value of landscapes.” He added, however, that it’s important to forge an understanding with communities. “Sometimes this is rewarding. Other times this is very hard work. It can be a struggle, but once the communities informs the designers and the designers inform the communities, solutions are found.”

Mami Hara, ASLA, WRT and interim chief of staff at the Philadelphia Water department, now works with elected officials, including federal and state representatives. She creates briefings for the Philadelphia mayor on green infrastructure. She said, funnily, that it really “takes a village to raise an elected official.” Like anyone, they use an iterative learning process and glean things from many different advisors. So it’s important for landscape architects, in the context of MICD programs and elsewhere, to collaborate with other designers to build consensus and “circle the wagons” so elected officials feel compelled to make the right decisions. As with anyone, elected officials get things better if they connect their ideas to personal experiences.

MICD’s Recommendations Put Cities First

Recently, MICD convened 300 attendees, including some 50-60 mayors, the heads of the major U.S. federal departments, and leaders of philanthropies, to discuss how to “set the agenda for cities for the next 25 years.” Key recommendations that came out of a 2-day series of workshops included:

  • Break down government barriers and silos
  • Government needs to change the 20th century regulations that stand in the way of innovation
  • Support and reward innovation
  • Direct funds towards cities instead of states
  • Incorporate urban design into the structure of government.

In the area of design and transportation, MICD recommendations included:

  • Create a new, more sustainable federal vision that can be translated at the state and local levels
  • Generate revenues through local transportation and services
  • Level with the American people about the true cost of transportation
  • Shift thinking away from single-modal and towards multi-modal transportation and balanced transportation systems.

To generate new models of development, recommendations were:

  • Take advantage of existing building stock
  • Make under-utilized land more available for redevelopment
  • Get the federal government to assist with brownfield remediation and reuse
  • Encourage developers to “provide necessities”
  • Prepare for market shift to urban development.

To more towards 21st century cities, recommendations focused in on:

  • Revisit ways to evaluate success. What about public health?
  • Leverage new technologies to engage the public
  • Focus on operational elements. Maintenance is critical
  • Find new models of public engagement.

All agreed that perhaps the central recommendation was directing funds towards cities, not states. Hara said “sometimes the federal government trusts cities and sometimes they don’t. It’s important to gain and keep the federal government’s trust by being consistently responsible with the use of funds.” Cities need to prove their capacity to manage their own development, but aren’t many already doing this? As Mayor Michael Nutter said at MICD’s summit, “give me the money. I know what to do with it.” Silver added that in one closed session, Nutter also stuck it to some  of Obama’s top appointed officials, saying “if I behaved like the federal government, I’d be fired.” Silver said the focus on cities is crucial, but funds should really go to metro areas more broadly.

Another point of agreement was the need to undo the legacy codes stifling innovation. Silver said codes turn into “bloated homeowner association documents.” There needs to be a shift to “form-based codes.” Still so many things he wants to do in Raleigh are technically illegal.

There was some disagreement as to whether small-scale projects really add value. Hara believed that small, grassroots projects are an “important trend today,” given “single, large-scale projects are harder to do.” Pragmatic design is the new approach, but mayors are still pushing the boundaries. Dawson agreed, asking the question: “what is small scale?” He believed these projects are easier to scale up. However, Silver thinks it’s time to go big scale. “We need to press the reset button. America is demanding big solutions to big problems. I don’t want ‘It’ll do’ to be good enough.” 

No More Divide and Conquer Among the Design Professions

Design professionals must better sell their own value. “It can’t just be an attractive landscape. A project has to transform a place.” Parks do create more value but their value must be communicated in economic terms, “the currency of today,” said Silver. Hara agreed that landscape architects think they are providing great value, but they may be the only ones who do. “We can synthesize all the elements that go into urban systems better than anyone, but we have to learn the language people on center stage, the bankers and financiers, use. Our language is not mainstream.” Silver said designers and planners are actually more critical to public health than doctors, and have more impact and responsibility. “The bumper sticker should read: Landscape architects: We make you healthy.”

One irate planning professor, who stormed out of the room after delivering his missive, put it to Silver that “landscape architects have eaten our lunch, and have taken over the role of planners, while planners have been regulated to code enforcement.” He wondered why planning organizations have been talking about revising codes for 30 years but have made so little progress? Also, public finance is tapped out, so when will planners get serious about leveraging private financing? Silver said there were a number of reasons landscape architects have begun to take the lead in creating master plans, but largely agreed, saying he was elected APA president to fix this. He added: “Planners are in the public sector. We can’t approve codes.” He also called for expanding the use of private-public partnerships (PPPs). But his big point was that all design professions need to collaborate.

While the architecture, landscape architecture professions and “social reformers,” who later became planners, were born around 1909, their divergence has been to their detriment. “We need more collaboration between urban designers, architects, engineers, landscape architects, and planners. They all need to be at the table. It can’t be the destructive divide and conquer approach among the design professions. We have to work together.” Hara added that consolidation among government departments reflects this attempt to become more multidisciplinary. She and Dawson also called for the rise of new hybrid “landscape architect / engineers” who can add credibility. Silver said “plan-gineers” are already doing great work on transportation infrastructure in Raleigh.

Lastly, another audience member, Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA, principal at WRT, also called for the formation of a new “Institute of Community Design,” saying that community-driven design presents an enormous “untapped opportunity.” “More and more communities have to realize their own visions in the absence of coding.” In other words, elected officials don’t have the monopoly on cities. It may be important to grow the efforts of communities themselves.

Image credit: City of Raleigh Moore Square Redevelopment / City of Raleigh