Michigan Gets $105M Grant from Feds To Turn I-375 in Detroit Into Boulevard – 09/15/2022, The Detroit News
“City leaders have envisioned the elimination of I-375 as a way to reconnect once-predominantly Black neighborhoods divided by the highway when it was built in the 1950s and ’60s, bulldozing the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley residential and commercial districts in the name of urban renewal.”
The Best of Urban Design 2022 – 09/15/2022, Fast Company
“See all the honorees of Fast Company’s 2022 Innovation by Design Awards in the Urban Design category.”
The Town Squares We Used to Have — and Could Have Again – 09/12/2022, Governing “This historic importance of town squares, in towns of all shapes and sizes, is impossible to dispute. The question is how badly we need them now — not just as picturesque garden spots but as gathering places for a functioning community.”
First Look at Frisco’s Newest Park – 09/07/2022, Local Profile
“OJB Landscape Architecture, the firm behind Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park, is handling the park’s design that’s centered around providing inclusive and accessible year-round arts and culture programming to reflect North Texas’ diverse character.”
Can Nature-based Alternatives to Seawalls Keep the Waves at Bay? – 08/12/22, The Guardian
“’We can’t build single-purpose infrastructure any more,’ said Pippa Brashear, ASLA, project manager for the Living Breakwaters. The structure that comprises granite rocks and eco-concrete, along with the biological activity that will latch on to and grow out of these structures are intended to work together.”
Highway Removal a High Hurdle, Even With New Funding – 08/11/22, Governing
“Removing highways is a tricky business, a costly and time-consuming physical feat, but advocates say even a small commitment to addressing the harms of legacy highway infrastructure is a positive sign.”
RAISE Grants to Fund Complete Streets in Nearly Every State – 08/11/22, Streetsblog
“The U.S. Department of Transportation released the list of projects that were approved as part of the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity grant programs, which funds roughly $2.2 billion across 166 initiatives spanning all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.”
A Landscape for Clean Water on the Chesapeake Bay– 08/09/22, Metropolis
“‘We understood the slope necessary for the historic structures up there, and still wanted to maximize the amount of shoreline that could survive,’ says Carlin Tacey, Waterstreet’s project manager. ‘We’re slowing down the water flow, and trying to use a planted landscape to absorb nutrients that would end up in the bay.'”
Led by climate leaders in the field of landscape architecture, ASLA is developing a profession-wide Climate Action Plan
ASLA has announced it is developing its first Climate Action Plan for the U.S. landscape architecture community. The ambitious plan seeks to transform the practice of landscape architecture by 2040 through actions taken by ASLA and its members focused on climate mitigation and adaptation, ecological restoration, biodiversity, equity, and economic development. The plan will be released at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture, November 11-14, 2022, in San Francisco, CA.
The ASLA Climate Action Plan is led by a five-member Task Force and 16-member Advisory Group of climate leaders from the landscape architecture profession.
The diverse, intergenerational Task Force includes climate leaders at different stages of their professional life.
“Landscape architects are leaders in designing solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises that also provide multiple environmental, economic, social, and health co-benefits. ASLA purposefully included both established and emerging climate leaders in this critical Task Force, which will shape the profession far into the future,” said Eugenia Martin, FASLA, ASLA President.
Task Force members include:
Chair: Pamela Conrad, ASLA, PLA, LEED AP, Principal, CMG Landscape Architecture, and Founder, Climate Positive Design, San Francisco, California
Conrad built Climate Positive Design into a global movement with the goal of ensuring all designed landscapes store more carbon than they emit while providing environmental, social, cultural, and economic co-benefits.
Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, D. Eng., PLA, Director, Program in Landscape Architecture, University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), and Principal Landscape Architect, DesignJones, LLC, Arlington, Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana
José M. Almiñana, FASLA, SITES AP, LEED AP, Principal, Andropogon Associates, Ltd., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Sarah Fitzgerald, ASLA, Designer, SWA Group, Dallas, Texas
Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, PLA, Former ASLA President, Seattle, Washington
The goals, objectives, and action items of the plan are also shaped by a Climate Action Plan Advisory Group of 16 diverse climate leaders, who are based in 12 U.S. states and two countries and in private and public practice and academia. The Group consists of nine members who identify as women, seven as men, two as Black, four as Asian and Asian American, one as Latina, and one as Native American.
“ASLA believes equity needs to be at the center of climate action, because we know climate change will disproportionately impact underserved and historically marginalized communities. It is important that the group guiding the Climate Action Plan and the future of the profession mirrors the diversity of the landscape architecture community and its breadth of educational and practice areas,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO.
Advisory Group members include:
Monique Bassey, ASLA, Marie Bickham Chair, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Scott Bishop, ASLA, RLA, Principal, BLD | Bishop Land Design, Quincy, Massachusetts
Keith Bowers, FASLA, RLA, PWS, Founding Principal, Biohabitats, Charleston, South Carolina
Pippa Brashear, ASLA, RLA, Resilience Principal, SCAPE Landscape Architecture & Urban Design, New York, New York
Meg Calkins, FASLA, FCELA, Professor of Landscape Architecture, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina
Chingwen Cheng, ASLA, PhD, PLA, LEED AP, Program Head and Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, Urban Design, and Environmental Design, The Design School, Arizona State University, and President-Elect, Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA), Tempe, Arizona
Jose de Jesus Leal, ASLA, PLA, IA, Native Nation Building Studio Director, MIG, Inc., Sacramento, California
Kate Orff, FASLA, Professor, Columbia University GSAPP & Columbia Climate School, and Founder, SCAPE Landscape Architecture & Urban Design, New York, New York
Jean Senechal Biggs, ASLA, Transportation Planning Manager, City of Beaverton, Portland, Oregon
Adrian Smith, FASLA, Staten Island Team Leader, New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, New York, New York
Matt Williams, ASLA, Planner, City of Detroit Planning & Development Department (PDD), Detroit, Michigan
Dou Zhang, FASLA, SITES AP, LEED AP BD+C, Director of Shanghai Office, Sasaki, Shanghai, China
In 2021, ASLA joined with Architecture 2030 to call for the landscape architecture, planning, architecture, development, and construction professions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their projects and operations by 50-65 percent by 2030 and achieve zero emissions by 2040.
GGN’s Design for Umekita Park in Osaka, Japan Is Under Construction – 06/27/2022, Archinect
“Seattle-based landscape architecture firm GGN’s design for an urban park in Osaka, Japan is now under construction. This public/private collaboration is focused on creating sustainable urban public spaces and ecosystems that realize quality of life improvements for residents and visitors to Osaka, Japan.”
Where Did All of the Public Benches Go? – 06/27/2022, Arch Daily
“The design and functionality of public spaces in cities are always under scrutiny. But now a new issue and one that lives at a smaller scale is starting to arise- where did all of the public seats go?”
The Living City: Weaving Nature Back Into the Urban Fabric – 06/23/2022, Yale Environment 360
“Urban ecologist Eric Sanderson focuses on the natural history of cities. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains why recovering and restoring streams, salt marshes, and woodlands should be a vital part of how cities adapt to climate change in the 21st century.”
He’s Turning Dodger Stadium into a World-Class Garden, One Native Plant at a Time – 06/23/2022, Sunset Magazine
“It took five years for Perea and his crew to wholly reimagine and replant the hillsides and concrete planters, and meet the requirements for official accreditation from Botanic Gardens Conservation International. But today, the former hodgepodge of geraniums and petunias, ivy and lantana is now home to dozens of California natives, dotted with succulents, complete with a ‘tequila garden’ brimming with spiky agaves.”
Designer Julia Watson on Reaching the Age of the Symbiocene – 06/16/2022, Metropolis
“[Watson’s] 2019 book, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism, spotlighted nature-based infrastructures that have been honed over millennia, from the Living Root Bridges of the Khasis people in India to the floating island homes of the Ma’dan in Iraq, made from qasab reeds. As the creative world searches for planet-positive design solutions in the face of climate change, the book shows they have existed for centuries but have been overlooked.”
HGA and Nelson Byrd Woltz Complete Design Refresh at Monticello’s Burial Ground for Enslaved People – 06/16/2022, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The UNESCO World Heritage Site-designated mountaintop plantation was designed and inhabited by the third president of the United States from 1770 until his death in 1826. The Burial Ground serves as a final resting place for an estimated 40 enslaved African people who lived and toiled on the (originally) 5,000-acre plantation, cultivating tobacco and later wheat.”
The Green New Deal Superstudio inspired thousands of planning and landscape architecture students around the world to envision better futures for underserved communities. With the goals of the Green New Deal Congressional proposal in mind, Kathleen Garcia, FASLA, a lecturer at the University of California San Diego (UC San Diego) led her undergraduate planning students through multiple studios to re-imagine the Sweetwater River corridor, just south of the city of San Diego, near the border with Mexico.
“National City is a front line community” in dealing with the combined impacts of climate change, pollution, and inequities, Garcia said. The community and river corridor gave her studio opportunities to explore the three goals of the Green New Deal — decarbonization, jobs, and justice.
According to Garcia, the community is “crisscrossed with freeways and rail lines, polluted by heavy industry along its riverfronts, and separated from most remnants of nature.”
The rich lands around the Sweetwater River were once home to the Kumeyaay indigenous people, but is now a “flood-control channel.” The floodplain and grazing lands have been “converted into strip malls, scattered housing, auto dealerships, industry, active rail lines, and at the river’s mouth, a major marine terminal,” where nearly half a million imported cars arrive annually.
Climate change promises to increase the threat of wildfires and exacerbate existing urban heat islands, flooding, and air pollution in the community. “Local jobs are few. Residents commute at least 20 miles in congestion to jobs elsewhere. Native heritage has all been but erased. The city is highly dependent on car sales for its tax base. However, what will transportation look like in a cleaner, greener future?”
The students in her class range from third- to fourth-year students and major in diverse subjects such as planning, psychology, data sciences, and engineering. They are “looking for ways to make a difference,” and the Green New Deal inspired them to envision a much different National City and Sweetwater River.
Much of National City Maritime Terminal is built on fill, which is “not friends with sea level rise,” said Juli Beth Hinds, an instructor of planning at UC San Diego, who participated in the tour. The mouth of the Sweetwater River, which is along one edge of the Maritime Terminal, can only be seen from the tiny Pepper Park, one of the few public green spaces along the waterfront.
Here, Ethan Olson, a third-year student who is majoring in planning and urban studies and hopes to pursue a master’s degree in landscape architecture, brought out his boards to show his ideas. He proposed a new open space corridor through the industrial area surrounding the port, but on the inland edge to provide space to retreat from sea level rise.
The new corridor would serve as a green spine for mixed-use development, including housing and retail, and local job creation that isn’t dependent on transporting cars out of the port. Olson also envisioned weaving in bike infrastructure and properly connecting the Bayshore Bikeway, along with boosting local healthy food production.
Olson noted that the Port of San Diego and nearby Naval facilities are already planning for sea level rise, with some projections indicating a potential of 9 feet by 2100. Much of this critical coastal infrastructure is under threat.
“The big scope of the Green New Deal Superstudio appealed to me. Climate change isn’t an environmental issue alone, but also an economic, social, planning, and political one. The Green New Deal doesn’t ignore that. I like it as a concept,” Olson said.
Nine students presented their ideas over the next three hours at locations throughout National City. The bus stopped at a strip mall and big-box store district; a desolate riparian green space at the outer edge of a parking lot; the location of a major swap meet; next to a solar power installation alongside the freeway; and in a deserted dealership along the Mile of Cars, a string of automobile showrooms.
At the Gateway Marketplace strip mall, Rashma Saini, a third-year student majoring in developmental psychology, walked us through her planning ideas, crafted with the perspective of a typical National City high school student in mind.
Envisioning a new direct connection to the high school across the Sweetwater River, riverfront promenade, and shopping and entertainment district, Saini wants a high-quality space for the many Mexican students who study in San Diego, a place for them to hang out with friends before returning by bus to Tijuana. “It’s important that students feel welcome. We need to focus on their mental health and well-being.”
A later stop in a parking lot near a Burlington Coat Factory offered a close-up view of the channelized river. Here, Mitchell Kadowaki, who recently graduated from UC San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in environmental systems, showcased his plans for improving the urban tree canopy of National City. The now concrete-lined river is ripe for restoration as a riparian corridor, providing habitat benefits.
Through his research, he found that only six percent of National City is park land, much lower than the San Diego county average. But he noted that significantly expanding the tree canopy with the wrong tree species, improperly sited, could also further contribute to the drought by taxing already low water reserves.
Hinds noted that “tree selection is a live issue” in San Diego county. Until recently, palm trees, which offer few ecological benefits, have been specified as part of city plans. Eucalyptus trees, which are also not native and can be a wildfire hazard, can’t be removed from UC San Diego’s campus “unless they are diseased.” One way to increase tree and shrub diversity in the county could be to restore habitat for birds, including the endangered California gnatcatcher.
Stricken with drought in 2015, the San Diego Housing Authority shut off irrigation to street trees, killing them in the process. This impacted underserved residents that already have fewer street trees, amplifying the effects of heat islands and air pollution. San Diego is now exploring greywater re-use for irrigation, and there are a growing number of contractors who can do these kinds of projects, Hinds said.
Through the Green New Deal Superstudio projects, Garcia sought to show there is a “lot of overlap” between planning, landscape architecture, and urban design disciplines.
What she learned working as a landscape architect at WRT and planning director for the City of Del Mar is that “you get better solutions when you get people outside their boxes and comfort zones.” Landscape architecture and planning, in particular, use the “exact same problem solving but just at different scales.”
Her undergraduate students learned the stages of planning, explored different disciplinary lenses, and some are even inspired to become landscape architects.
Like other state universities in California, the University of California at San Diego (UC San Diego) must develop to meet the needs of a rapidly increasing student body. The university, a designated growth campus in the UC system, currently educates 42,000 students and plans to accommodate thousands more by 2030. Approximately 30 percent of the 1,150-acre campus is an open space preserve that includes a fragile coastal zone. To protect the campus’ critically important ecosystems and cultural character, campus planners and landscape architects are weaving in transit-oriented development and dramatically increasing density in key areas, with up to 23-story student residential towers.
During a tour of the campus as part of the American Planning Association‘s National Planning Conference, Robert Clossin, director of planning, and Todd Pitman, ASLA, campus landscape architect at UC San Diego, explained that dense new “living and learning neighborhoods” were central to the long-term strategy of balancing growth and nature preservation.
In a campus where parking spaces for cars were largely hidden from view, but hundreds of racks for bicycles were in plain sight, it’s clear the campus planners and landscape architects are trying to move past vehicle dependence and plan for a denser light rail-, bike- and scooter-centric future.
After five years of construction and decades of planning, the expansive university is now connected to greater San Diego through two light rail stops. At the first stop on our tour, the Central Campus Trolley station, Clossin and Pitman, along with Raeanon Hartigan, principal planner for the campus, walked us through a vibrant new “front door” to the campus, which is now under construction.
There, landscape architects with the Office of James Burnett (OJB) designed an accessible urban landscape that weaves together an amphitheater that can hold 3,000, and a Design and Innovation Building, designed by architects with EHDD, which will serve as an entrepreneurial hub bringing together students and faculty with community inventors and firms.
A 750-foot-long pathway, a tactile artwork by artist Anne Hamilton, further stitches the new development together. “This is true transit-oriented development,” said Bryan Macias, with capital management projects on campus.
Adjacent to the new trolley station is Pepper Canyon West, which includes two 23-story student housing towers designed by Perkins & Will that will soon house 1,300 students (see image at top). At the base of the towers, which will offer retail, there is a new stormwater management basin also designed by OJB. “The Office of James Burnett is really the glue between projects,” said Pitman.
As we walked further into the interior of the campus, Pitman said the university has increasingly recognized the value of landscape architecture over the past decades. Campus leaders realize that the walking and biking experience is central to a successful learning environment. “It’s about focusing on the user experience and connecting the public realm,” Pitman said.
Partnering with the Stuart Collection Foundation, UC San Diego has also woven in public art throughout the campus. And this art isn’t just plopped down, but integrated into the landscape and architecture. Through the Stuart Collection program, artists take the lead on finding locations on campus where their art is best suited and then create site-specific works. A triangle park that was once a left-over space between buildings was transformed into a charming community space. Artist Tim Hawkinson partnered with Spurlock Landscape Architects to site his impressive 180-ton Bear sculpture and create a lush park to frame the work.
At the Franklin Antonio Hall, a collaborative research and engineering laboratory, the campus planning and design team highlighted their efforts to balance protection of coastal ecosystems with the need to densify. The building offers views of the enveloping 300-acre preserve.
Here, OJB built benches into low walls, but instead of facing the courtyard around the building, they are positioned to provide views over the rugged landscape. It’s one of those subtle, thoughtful touches that highlights the user experience Pitman mentioned.
The landscape immediately surrounding the laboratory, which includes wide fire truck lanes, is designed to be resilient to fire and support the adjacent preserve. In addition to managing all stormwater, the landscape includes 100 percent native plants, which is much higher than the 30-50 percent the campus usually aims for in their projects. “It was really hard to do,” Pitman said. “We pushed the boundaries much farther and made this as sustainable and resilient as possible,” Clossin added.
A winding path in the form of a snake by artist Alexis Smith brings us through coastal shrubs to the Geisel Library, the iconic Brutalist building designed by architect William Pereira in 1970.
Underground levels added in the early 90s increase density. Deep caverns and surface skylights, designed to stream daylight to the subterranean stacks, add depth to the library plaza.
Continuing down Ridge Walk, a central spine on the campus that offers views of the Sun God sculpture by artist Niki de Saint Phalle, the bike infrastructure of the campus becomes more apparent. Designed with Spurlock Landscape Architects, Ridge Walk is actually a collection of landscape projects including parks, plazas, paths, irrigation and lighting systems, and bike lanes that cost $19 million, Pitman said. “It has been the university’s single largest investment in landscape architecture.” To fix previously unsafe conditions, the project separated bike and scooter traffic from pedestrians.
The walkable, bikeable DNA of the campus enabled planners and landscape architects to densify through additional mixed-use development. This future is being realized in the North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood. Designed by HKS, Safdie Rabines Architects, and OJB, the project came out of a tough three-month design-build competition.
Tiered student residential, educational, and retail spaces frame a central plaza and views of the Pacific Ocean, providing that indoor-outdoor experience so characteristic of Southern California.
The orientation of the buildings and the open spaces, including layered-in terraces, were purposefully designed to democratize views of the ocean.
“The sunset is a must-see celebration from these buildings,” said architect Ricardo Rabines. “And students only pay $14,000 in annual tuition and $1,300 a month for rent,” Clossin said. A pretty good deal for La Jolla.
MUSK SEE: Three Reasons Why Congestion Decreases When Cities ‘Delete’ Road Lanes — 05/13/2022, Streetsblog USA
“A wildly inaccurate comment from Elon Musk about the traffic impacts of deleting lanes for drivers is prompting a conversation about the little-known phenomenon of ‘reduced demand’ — and how advocates can better debunk common congestion myths that powerful, but often ill-informed, people continue to promulgate.”
Security Features For Outdoor Living Trend In Latest Houzz Survey — 05/10/22, Forbes
“It’s no secret that outdoor living has become a huge trend. ‘It has exploded over the past five years with homeowners desiring to have resort-like backyards,’ declares Reno-based landscape architect and franchisor Ron DuHamel, president of FireSky.
Justice Department Unveils New Environmental Justice Moves (2) — 05/05/2022, Bloomberg Law
“The Department of Justice announced a trio of major environmental justice actions on Thursday, including the launch of a new office and the resurrection of a popular enforcement tool scrapped during the Trump administration.”
A Smarter Urban Design Concept for a Town Decimated by Wildfires— 05/03/2022, Fast Company
“SWA Group—a winner of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards—is helping Paradise, California, imagine a safer and more sustainable future with a design that buffers the town with parks, athletic fields, and orchards—areas less likely to burn than forests.”
New Park Brings Residents of Los Angeles’ Chinatown Together— 05/01/2022, Parks and Recreation Business
“Designed by the landscape architecture and planning firm, AHBE/MIG, Ord and Yale Street Park represents the transformation of a once-vacant, one-acre hillside into a new pocket neighborhood park for the community.”
Richard J. Weller, ASLA, is the Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of landscape architecture and Executive Director of the McHarg Center at The University of Pennsylvania. He is author of seven books, including the forthcoming The Landscape Project, a collection of essays by the faculty at the Weitzman School of Design. He is also the creative director of LA+, the interdisciplinary journal of landscape architecture. In 2017 and 2018, Weller was voted by the Design Intelligence survey as one of North America’s most admired teachers, and his research has been published by Scientific American and National Geographic and exhibited in major museums around the world.
Later this year, the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will meet in China to finalize what is being called a “Paris Agreement for Nature.” The agreement will outline global goals for ecosystem conservation and restoration for the next decade, which may include preserving 30 percent of lands, coastal areas, and oceans by 2030. Goals could also include restoring one-fifth of the world’s degraded ecosystems and cutting billions in subsidies that hurt the environment. What are the top three things planning and design professions can do to help local, state, and national governments worldwide achieve these goals?
Design, Design, and Design!
There are now legions of policy people and bureaucrats, even accountants at the World Bank, all preaching green infrastructure and nature-based solutions. But the one thing all these recent converts to landscape architecture cannot do is design places. They cannot give form to the values they all now routinely espouse.
But design is not easy, especially if it’s seeking to work seriously with biodiversity, let alone decarbonization and social justice. Design has to show how biodiversity— from microbes to mammals— can be integrated into the site scale, then connected with and nested into the district scale, the regional, the national, and, ultimately, the planetary scale. And then it has to situate the human in that network – not just as voyeurs in photoshop, but as active agents in ecosystem construction and reconstruction.
Of course, wherever we can gain influence, this is a matter of planning — green space here, development there. But it’s also an aesthetic issue of creating places and experiences from which the human is, respectfully, now decentered, and the plenitude of other life forms foregrounded.
It’s as if on the occasion of the sixth extinction, we need a new language of design that is not just about optimizing landscape as a machine, or a pretty picture, but that engenders deeper empathy for all living things and the precarious nature of our interdependence.
In 2010, the CBD set 20 ambitious targets, including preserving 17 percent of terrestrial and inland waters and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by 2020. Of these targets, only 6 have been partially met. On the other hand, almost every week, we hear about billions being spent by coalitions of foundations or wealthy individuals to buy and protect vast swathes of land in perpetuity. And the protection of nature and leveraging “nature-based solutions” is increasingly a global priority. Are you positive or negative about the future of conservation?
In 1962, there were about 9,000 protected areas. Today, there are over 265,000 and counting. If our yardstick is humans setting aside land for things other than their own consumption, then there is reason to be optimistic.
In 2021, the total protected area sits at 16.6 percent the Earth’s terrestrial ice-free surface, not quite 17 percent, but close. The missing 0.4 percent is not nothing – it’s about 150,000 Central Parks and over the last few years my research has been motivated by wondering where exactly those parks should be.
The fact that humans would give up almost a fifth of the Earth during such a historical growth period is remarkable in and of itself. While targets are useful political tools, the question is one of quality not just quantity. And that’s where pessimism can and should set in. Protected areas, especially in parts of the world where they are most needed, arise from messy, not to say corrupt, political processes. They are not always a rational overlay on where the world’s most threatened biodiversity is or what those species really need.
The percentages of protected areas around the world are also very uneven across the 193 nations who are party to the Convention. Some nations, like say New Zealand, exceed the 17 percent target, while others, like Brazil fall way short – and they don’t want people making maps showing the fact. Protected areas also have a history of poor management, and they have, in some cases, evicted, excluded, or patronized indigenous peoples.
Protected areas are also highly fragmented, which is really not good for species now trying to find pathways to adapt to climate change and urbanization and industrialization. The global conservation community is keenly aware of all this but again, while they are good on the science and the politics, they need help creating spatial strategies that can serve multiple, competing constituencies. Under the Convention, all nations must produce national biodiversity plans, and these should go down to the city scale, but these so-called plans are often just wordy documents full of UN speak. There is a major opportunity here for landscape architects to step up.
So, the pessimist’s map of the world shows the relentless, parasitical spread of human expansion and a fragmented and depleted archipelago of protected areas. The optimist’s map on the other hand shows over 160 projects around the world today where communities, governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are reconstructing ecosystems at an epic landscape scale.
Rob Levinthal, a PhD candidate at Penn and I call these Mega-Eco Projects. As indicators of the shift from the old-school engineering of megastructures towards green infrastructure on a planetary scale, they are profoundly optimistic.
We don’t call these projects Nature Based Solutions. The reason being that “nature” comes with way too much baggage and “solution” makes designing ecosystems sound like a simple fix. These two words reinforce a dualistic and instrumentalist approach, things which arguably got us into the mess we find ourselves in today.
By placing the Mega-Eco Projects within the tradition of 20th century megaprojects — many of which failed socially and environmentally, if not economically, we are taking a critical approach to their emergence, which is important to working out what really makes for best practice as opposed to just greenwashing.
Whereas the definition of old school megaprojects was always financial — say over a billion dollars — our working definition of Mega-Eco Projects is not numerical. Rather, it is that they are “complex, multifunctional, landscape-scale environmental restoration and construction endeavors that aim to help biodiversity and communities adapt to climate change.”
Furthermore, unlike the old concrete megaprojects, Mega-Eco Projects use living materials; they cross multiple site boundaries, they change over time, and they are as much bottom up as top down. The project narratives are also different, whereas megaprojects were always couched in terms of modern progress and nation building, the Mega-Ecos are about resilience, sustainability, and a sense of planetary accountability.
There are four categories of Mega-Ecos. The first are large-scale conservation projects; the second are projects that seek to resist desertification; the third are watershed plans; and the fourth are green infrastructure projects in cities either dealing with retrofitting existing urbanity or urban growth.
As you would expect, landscape architects tend to be involved with this fourth category, but there is a bigger future for the field in the other three, which is part of our motivation for studying them.
By our current assessment, there are about 40 Mega-Eco Projects taking place in metropolitan areas around the world today. These tend to be in the global north and China, notably the Sponge Cities initiative, where so far over $12 billion has been spent in 30 trial cities. We have not yet conducted a comparative analysis of these projects, nor are many of them advanced enough to yet know if they are, or will be, successful.
With specific regard to urban biodiversity, I don’t think there is yet a city in the world that really stands out and has taken a substantial city-wide approach that has resulted in design innovation. It will happen. As they do with culture, cities will soon compete to be the most biodiverse. The conception that cities are ecosystems, and that cities could be incubators for more than human life is a major shift in thinking, and while landscape architecture has a strong history of working with people and plants, it has almost completely overlooked the animal as a subject of design. That said, we shouldn’t romanticize the city as an Ark or a Garden of Eden. The city is primarily a human ecology, and the real problem of biodiversity lies well beyond the city’s built form. Where cities impact biodiversity is through their planetary supply chains, so they need to be brought within the purview of design.
Singapore is a case in point. Because it developed the Biodiversity Index, Singapore has been able to tally its improvements with regard to urban biodiversity and tout itself as a leader in this area. Many other cities are adopting this tool and this is good.
But this is also where things get tricky, because whatever gains Singapore can afford to make in its urban biodiversity need to be seen in light of the nation’s massive ecological footprint.
I mean, Singapore can make itself into a garden because the farm and the mine are always somewhere else. I would call Singapore a case of Gucci biodiversity, a distraction from the fact that they bankroll palm oil plantations in Kalimantan, the last of the world’s great rainforests.
That said, every city is shot through with contradictions. The question then is to what degree do the designers play along or whether they can make these contradictions the subject of their work, as opposed to its dirty little secret. The Gardens by the Bay project, for example, is a brilliant case of creating a spectacle and keeping tourists in town for an extra day, but it’s got nothing to do with biodiversity beyond the boundary of the project.
The late E.O. Wilson and other biologists and ecologists have also called for protecting half the Earth’s lands and oceans. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) split the difference in their recent report, calling for 30-50 percent to be protected. What are the extra benefits to protecting 50 percent? What does this mean for the planning and design of existing and future human settlements?
I’d trust E.O. Wilson or better still, James Lovelock, with the calculation for a healthy planet, but the dualism of humans here and biodiversity over there that tends to come with Wilson’s notoriously puritanical position is problematic.
The world is a novel, highly integrated, human dominated ecosystem, and design has to work at improving the symbiotic nature of that condition. Each site needs to be assessed on its own biological and cultural terms as to what can be more deeply integrated or what should be separated out; what has to be actively curated and what can be left to its own devices. As Sean Burkholder and others have pointed out, this means designing time as well as space.
The thing with Wilson is where exactly would his 50 percent be? He never really explained it in spatially explicit terms. Half Earth means another 34.5 percent on top of what we currently have protected. As a priority, it would have to comprise any unprotected forest or other areas of remnant vegetation and whatever can be clawed back in the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
But the numbers don’t really add up. About 40 percent of the Earth’s ice-free earth is currently used for food production, 30 percent is desert, and 30 percent is forest – although “forest” is a loose term, and some of that already overlaps with protected areas. Given that the global foodscape is and will probably continue expanding, 30 percent total protected area seems more reasonable than 50. It is my belief that design, if given the chance, can weave viable biodiversity through the contemporary agricultural landscape whilst maintaining overall yield.
Even 30 seems a stretch, because if you project the expansion of crop land by 21st century population growth, we need most of the planet to feed people, so something has to give. Either we massively increase yields from the current agricultural footprint or biodiversity gets pushed further into the mountains. Or billions starve. The prospect of us reducing the planet to a monoculture is very real and very scary on every level.
To your question, the benefits would be that by more or less doubling the current conservation estate, we could create larger patches in the hotspots and seek to achieve connectivity between the existing fragments of protected areas. As landscape ecology teaches, it is only with larger patches and substantial connectivity that we can create a truly resilient and healthy landscape. The problem is of course that the patches and corridors have to be reverse engineered into hostile territory. Human settlements and agriculture have to make way for larger patches and greater connectivity and planned around it. To turn the whole thing on its head, human settlements and human land uses have to protect the global conservation estate. Easy to say.
Biodiversity loss is often considered a result of the climate crisis. But there are other issues also driving increased biodiversity loss and extinction rates worldwide, such as increased development in natural areas, the spread of transportation systems, and pesticide and chemical use. How do explain the relationship between climate change and biodiversity loss?
When people hear “biodiversity” they almost invariably think of charismatic megafauna, but as you indicate, the problem runs deeper and at a much finer grain. Of course, we are now obsessed with chasing every carbon molecule, but for life on and in the land and its waters, the problem is also excess manufactured nitrogen along with other toxins. Ironically, despite ultimately killing microorganisms upon which soil health depends, industrialized fertilizers have slowed the rate of deforestation that would have occurred had the world tried to feed itself without industrial fertilizers because they have, at least in the short term, increased yields.
The main problem from a spatial planning and land use perspective is that species increasingly need to migrate so as to adapt to a changing climate but they find themselves trapped in isolated fragments of protected areas or stranded in unprotected scraps of remnant habit.
There is another part of this though, and that is that the entire discourse and politics of environmentalism is couched in terms of loss. But a truer picture perhaps is that as ever in the chaos of evolution, there will be winners as well as losers. I don’t think we know what is really happening or what will happen, so in that sense we need to design landscapes as insurance policies, as expressions of the precautionary principle where we just try to maximize the potential of life to evolve. In this regard landscape architectural research and design becomes less about finished projects, and more about conducting experiments based on both scientific and cultural questions related to biodiversity.
The Metatron at the Theoretical and Experimental Ecology Station in Moulis, France is a good example. The Metatron is an experimental field of 48 enclosures in which species composition, temperature, light and humidity can be controlled. Each enclosure is connected to the others via small passages that can also be controlled. In this way, the Metatron is a simulator of landscape dynamics, a model microcosm in which each enclosure is understood as a “patch” and each connector a small simulation of a landscape “corridor.” Since 2015, given the limitations of its size, experiments have focused on studying how small species like butterflies and lizards move through the system, but many more species could be studied using a similar system at larger scales. In essence, the Metratron is learner’s kit, helping us understand how best to reconstruct landscapes at scale.
Your own research, including the ASLA-award winning Atlas for the End of the World, documents how areas at the edge of sprawling cities around the world are increasingly colliding with biodiversity hotspots, which are defined as highly valuable reservoirs of diverse and endemic species. What are the implications of your research?
By conducting an audit of land use and urban growth with regards to CBD targets in the world’s biodiversity hotspots, the Atlas set the scene for my two current research projects.
The first is the Hotspot Cities Project and the second is the World Park Project. A hotspot city is a growing city in a biodiversity hotspot – the 36 regions on Earth where endemic biodiversity is most diverse and most threatened. We’ve identified which of these cities —over 90 percent— are sprawling on direct collision courses with remnant habitat harboring endangered species.
In our mapping we identify the conflict zones between development and biodiversity and then we conduct design case studies as to how the conflict could be mitigated. The argument is that destructive sprawl is not a fait accompli, and designers—especially landscape architects skilled in urban design— can create credible alternatives by taking a holistic, city-wide perspective. This research especially draws attention to peri-urban landscapes that are largely overlooked by the profession, because the design dollar has mainly been invested in city centers.
The World Park Project is a big vision for a new form of conservation landscape, one that actively involves humans in its construction. It’s an answer to the question of where those 150,000 Central Parks should be, as I mentioned earlier.
The idea of the World Park begins with the creation of three recreational trails: the first from Australia to Morocco, the second from Turkey to Namibia, and the third from Alaska to Patagonia.
Passing through 55 nations, these trails are routed to string together as many fragments of protected areas in as many hotspots as possible. The trails are catalysts for bringing people together to work on restoring the ecological health of over 160,000 square kilometers of degraded land in between existing protected areas.
In this way, the Park is about building a coherent and contiguous global network of protected area. It addresses the two biggest challenges facing global conservation today: ensuring adequate representation of biodiversity in protected areas and connectivity between those areas. It sounds crazy, but forging connectivity at this scale is just what we do for every other form of global infrastructure. Humans build networks, and it’s high time to build a green one.
I was expecting derision from design academics about World Park, because “going big” is generally seen as neo-colonial or megalomaniacal. I was also expecting world weary eye-rolling from the conservationists or outright rejection of the idea because it would suck the oxygen out of their own efforts, but generally the reaction has been very positive.
Most people, particularly in the NGOs, have reacted like “wow – this is exactly what we need right now.” They know they can’t just keep adding more fenced-off fragments of protected area to meet UN targets. There are now so many conservation efforts going on but they are all disconnected from one another. A World Park could galvanize these efforts into something that is greater than just the sum of its parts.
In any event, my research team (Alice Bell, Oliver Atwood and Elliot Bullen) have completed the mapping of the Park’s territory. Now I’m talking with UNESCO about how we might move the idea to a proper feasibility study. Realistically, nothing will happen unless the major NGOs adopt it, along with some philanthropic champions and the relevant ministers in those nations whose sovereign territory is involved.
Only half-jokingly, I think Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson should bring their toys back to earth and take this on. Musk could fund the African trail, Bezos the Americas, and Branson would pick up the Australia to Morocco piece. At current landscape restoration rates, I worked it out at about $7 billion.
That’s an expensive park, but the better question to ask is not what it costs but what is it worth? For a mere $7 billion a World Park could provide investment in impoverished landscapes. It could provide meaningful experiences and jobs for lots of people. Above all, it would be a profound sign of hope that humanity can work together to be a constructive force of nature instead of its executioner.
Lastly, how can landscape architecture academics and practitioners better partner to address the twinned biodiversity and climate crises? What additional research is needed to better weave biodiversity considerations into broader climate solutions?
Well, as someone who has spent a lifetime in both the academy and practice, I would really like to take this opportunity to attest to the value of both. I think it’s a problem that the academy demands young faculty have PhDs but not necessarily any practice experience. Just as I think it’s a problem that certain elements of the profession become anti-intellectual over time and associate this with being savvy professionals.
Academics have the luxury of formulating research questions and methods, whereas practitioners are generally making it up on the run and learning by doing. These are both entirely valid ways of forming knowledge, and they actually need each other.
My work over the last decade has been very big picture, but it means nothing unless it can translate into design. So I think there are two forms of design needed right now with regard to biodiversity and they both bring academics and practitioners together.
The first is taking on a whole-of-city scale and considering the city as an incubator and protectorate for biodiversity and offer plausible scenarios as to how the city’s growth can be best managed to minimize negative impact on existing biodiversity. Until city authorities pay properly for this work, the academics have to act as the start-ups. They can form interdisciplinary teams to find research funding to do this work, preparing the way, as it were, for practitioners to come in and realize specific projects.
Which brings us to the second form of design — the project scale. Take any project at any scale and ask how to approach it if your client was every living thing, not just humans, and then work as if your life really depended on serving all of them – which, incidentally, it does! To answer this takes both time and levels of knowledge beyond landscape architects irrespective of whether they are in the academy or in practice. We are very accomplished at designing for humans but still have everything to learn if we consider biodiversity as our client.
In terms of both professional and academic practice, the role of the landscape architect, now more than ever, is to bring the world of development and the world of conservation together over the same maps and serve as a negotiator.
It sounds like a platitude, but it goes to the core of our job description, and it’s never been more important. There has never been more at stake.
ASLA urges governments to focus on cities and nature to meet climate goals.
The third assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change — which was created by nearly 300 scientists in 65 countries over the past seven years, finds that cities are a significant contributor to global emissions.
Recent estimates place cities’ share of global emissions at more than 70 percent. With expected population growth, existing and future cities can either be the primary source of future warming or a key solution.
According to the IPCC, if little is done, future cities could contribute 40 billion metric tons of emissions each year by 2050. But by taking important steps starting this decade, that number could reach as low as 3 billion tons.
“Landscape architects are systems designers. We are already designing the next generation of park, transportation, and water infrastructure needed to make this transformation happen. But we need more policymakers to prioritize these changes,” said ASLA President Jeannie Martin, FASLA.
“Landscape architects plan and design walkable environments that are central to reducing urban energy demand and emissions. This work has involved partnering with planning and design professions to pair public transit with transit-oriented development, and integrate Complete Streets, which offer safe, accessible pedestrian and bicycle access, and trails and greenways,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO.
Designing with nature is also critical to achieving broader urban climate goals. Landscape architects integrate green infrastructure in the form of parks, green roofs, green streets, rain gardens, and bioswales. As the IPCC notes, these strategies not only sequester carbon but also manage stormwater, reduce urban heat islands, increase biodiversity, and improve health and well-being.
“We design cities to include living systems. Landscape architects store carbon by incorporating diverse ecologies into the urban landscape. This also helps cities become more resilient to climate impacts,” said Scott Bishop, ASLA, Chair of the ASLA Climate Action Committee.
The IPCC’s latest report calls for preserving existing ecosystems outside cities that store carbon as well, such as forests, prairies, peatlands, mangroves, and wetlands. But notes that these ecosystems are also increasingly threatened by rising temperatures, wildfires and other climate impacts, and sprawl.
Renewable energy now powers nearly 40 percent of global electricity, with wind and solar now making up 10 percent of the total. The IPCC report finds that since 2010, the cost of solar panels has decreased by 85 percent and wind turbines by more than 50 percent. Still, governments and companies need to spend an estimated $1.8 to 3.6 trillion each year on renewable power, approximately 3-6 times the current amount, to reach climate goals.
Landscape architects can help plan an expansion of wind and solar across our landscapes in a way that supports ecological restoration and provides greater community benefits.