ASLA’s Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Online Exhibition demonstrates how landscape architects are designing smart solutions to climate impacts, such as flooding, extreme heat, drought, and sea level rise. 10 new projects added to the exhibition exemplify best practice approaches to landscape architecture in the era of climate change.
The projects include a mix of landscape-based and often nature-based solutions across the U.S., which range in scale from residential and school landscapes to master plans for entire cities and counties. There is also a focus on projects that address climate injustices and meet the needs of historically-marginalized and underserved communities.
“The projects clearly show how landscape architects can help all kinds of communities reduce their risk to increasingly severe climate impacts. Landscape architects design with nature, which leads to more resilient solutions that also improve community health, safety, and well-being over the long-term,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO
With the new projects, which were selected with ASLA’s Climate Action Committee, there are now a total of 30 projects featured in the online exhibition. Each project was selected to illustrate policy recommendations outlined in the 2017 report produced by ASLA’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change & Resilience.
Being solely dependent on cars increases communities’ risks to climate impacts. Through the 815-mile Cuyahoga Greenways Framework Plan created by landscape architects and planners at SmithGroup, some 59 communities will have healthier and more resilient transportation connections to downtown Cleveland, Lake Erie, and each other.
Too few schools offer educational green spaces that can spark children’s appreciation for nature, which is critical to helping them become future Earth stewards. Jane Tesner Kleiner, ASLA, with nature+play designs partnered with school leaders, students, and volunteers to design native plant gardens, meadows, and tree groves that create environmental education opportunities; support pollinators, such as butterflies, bees, and birds; and also manage stormwater.
By 2012, more than 50 percent of the tree canopy of the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center had been lost due to drought and hurricanes made more severe by climate change. By removing trees and restoring the original prairie, savannah, and woodland ecosystems found at the Arboretum, landscape architects with Design Workshop and Reed Hilderbrand designed a landscape naturally resilient to future climate shocks.
Historically marginalized and underserved communities, like those found in the South Side of Chicago, are disproportionally affected by climate impacts such as flooding. Through the Space to Grow program, a flooded asphalt schoolyard at the John W. Cook Academy, an elementary school on the South Side, was redesigned by landscape architects at site design group, ltd (site) to become a green learning and play space that captures stormwater.
Through their research capabilities and campus infrastructure, universities and schools can also help solve the climate crisis. For the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, landscape architects with Andropogon integrated an innovative water management system that captures and reuses 100 percent of stormwater runoff from the building and also cleanses and reuses building greywater in the ecological landscape.
Orange County, California | Jodie Cook Design, Inc.
Climate change has severely reduced the availability of fresh water in arid Western states. Turf lawns require vast amounts of water to maintain and also provide no habitat for native plant and animal species. Through NatureScape, an innovative program in Orange County, California, Jodie Cook, ASLA, helped homeowners transform their turf front yards into water-saving native plant gardens that can sustain a range of native bird, bee, and butterfly species.
Climate change is making communities’ struggles with aging combined sewer systems, which carry both sewage from buildings and stormwater from streets, even worse. With more frequent extreme weather events, these systems now more often overflow, causing untreated sewage to enter water bodies. Rain Check 2.0, an innovative program in Buffalo, New York, led by landscape architect Kevin Meindl, ASLA, offers grants to private landowners to capture stormwater through trees, rain gardens, green roofs and streets.
Historically marginalized and underserved communities, like those in the South Bronx in New York City, experience higher than average heat risks because they typically have fewer parks and recreational spaces. The lack of safe and convenient pedestrian and bicycle access to nearby green spaces exacerbates the problem. Working with two community groups and the New York City government, landscape architects with MNLA designed the Randall’s Island Connector, a ¼-mile-long multi-modal path underneath an Amtrak freight line.
Sapwi Trails Community Park
Thousand Oaks, California | Conejo Recreation & Park District and RRM Design Group (consulting landscape architects)
In drought-stricken Western states, climate change has added stress to increasingly fragile ecosystems. Instead of moving forward with an earlier plan that could have damaged the Lang Creek ecosystem, planners and landscape architects at the Conejo Recreation & Park District and RRM Design Group designed the Sapwi Trails Community Park to be a model for how to preserve ecological systems while improving access and dramatically reducing water use.
Climate change and environmentally-insensitive development in the Pacific Northwest are exacerbating negative impacts on salmon. Grassroots environmental organizations sought to daylight the piped Thornton Creek. A new water quality channel was designed by landscape architects at MIG to clean stormwater runoff from 680 surrounding acres before the water flows into the South Fork of the salmon-bearing Thornton Creek.
New projects were submitted by ASLA members through an open call ASLA released in 2019. In partnership with the ASLA Climate Action Committee, projects were selected to represent a range of U.S. regions, scales (from residential to county-wide master plans), and firm types.
In 2017, ASLA convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change & Resilience, which resulted in a report: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate and a series of lectures and educational sessions at built environment conferences. In 2019, an exhibition outlining 20 cases that exemplify the policy goals outlined in the report opened at the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C., and a companion website was launched.
The exhibition was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
The global movement to protect at least 30 percent of the planet’s lands and 30 percent of its oceans by 2030 achieved a major breakthrough this week. At the One Planet Summit, the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) for Nature and People, which is led by Costa Rica, France, and the United Kingdom, announced 50 countries on six continents have agreed to protect 30 percent of their land and oceans by 2030. This commitment is a major step towards setting a new global target among all nations at the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15, which will be held in Kunming, China this year.
The global 30 x 30 campaign is one of the most high-profile efforts to reduce extinctions and save the Earth’s irreplaceable remaining terrestrial and marine ecosystems. According to The Guardian, the campaign’s goal is to make the upcoming Convention on Biological Diversity the “Paris Climate Accord for Nature.” However, pessimists note that government leaders have not met previous conservation commitments, and much greater financing for land and ocean conservation efforts is also needed to ensure new commitments can be realized.
The High Ambition Coalition includes major economies like Canada and Japan. A number of biodiversity powerhouses in Africa joined, such as Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Rwanda, Republic of Congo, Uganda, and others. In Europe — beyond France and United Kingdom — Denmark, Slovenia, Switzerland, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Finland, and the European Commission, along with other countries, got on board. In Latin America and the Caribbean — beyond Costa Rica — Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Grenada joined. The U.S., as represented by the Trump administration, Russia, China, and Brazil didn’t sign on.
There is a history of setting ambitious global conservation targets. More than a decade ago, 190 countries, as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity, agreed to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which called for “at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas” to be conserved by 2020. When those targets were created in 2010, just 13 percent of the world’s terrestrial areas were under any protection, and there were hardly any protections for ocean ecosystems. Fast forward to today and just 15 percent of terrestrial ecosystems and 7 percent of oceans are now legally protected. The world missed these relatively low targets, in large part because of the lack of financing.
In 2019, a major report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) — the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services — found that 75 percent of terrestrial environment have been “severely altered” to date by human actions, along with 66 percent of marine environments. Furthermore, there has been a 47 percent reduction in “global indicators of ecosystem extent and condition against their estimated natural baselines.” In other words, the health of remaining ecosystems is also dramatically falling.
The report’s central finding was a shock: “around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.” Of existing species, “more than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.”
Globally, landscape architects and planners have a crucial role to play in reducing plant, animal, and insect extinctions; restoring ecosystem health; and expanding legally-protected natural areas. The United Nations calls for the adoption of “multi-functional landscape planning, cross-sector integrated management,” and the expansion of ecologically-sound agricultural practices. They state that cities and suburbs also present opportunities for the preservation of natural areas and biodiversity. These are all domains in which landscape architects can help plan and design smart solutions that also increase people’s connection to nature.
Landscape architects and planners can also partner with and empower indigenous communities, which currently manage nearly 25 percent of the world’s remaining natural areas.
In the U.S., President-Elect Joseph Biden has committed to protecting 30 percent of American land and waters by 2030. His nominee for U.S. Interior Secretary — New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland — has sponsored legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to support the 30 percent by 2030 commitment. With such powerful advocates, there is now a greater chance of achieving the goal.
As the Sierra Club outlines, more work needs to be done to achieve the 30 percent target in the U.S. The group notes that 1 million acres of nature is lost to development each year. Due in large part to the loss of habitat to development, the number of birds in the U.S. and Canada have declined by 3 billion, or nearly 30 percent, in the last half century. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, half of all freshwater and saltwater wetlands have also been lost. Protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and water would not only preserve remaining ecosystems and biodiversity but also help offset an estimated 21 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions.
In 1964, architect, engineer, and critic Bernard Rudofsky curated the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition Architecture Without Architects in order to shatter the exclusive and discriminatory canon of architectural history, which was long overdue for redress. The exhibition examined “non-pedigreed architecture,” which, “for want of a generic label,” Rudofsky called “vernacular, anonymous, spontaneous, indigenous, rural.”
Julia Watson continues that discussion in her necessary new book Lo–TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism and introduces a new term: Lo–TEK—a meshing of “lo-tech” and TEK, which abbreviates Traditional Ecological Knowledge—redefines indigenous innovation and technology as models of symbiosis between humankind and nature–ones we direly need to confront the crisis of climate change. Radical indigenism advocates refashioning knowledge systems to include indigenous philosophies and create new discourses. Design that incorporates radical indigenism creates sustainable and climate-resilient infrastructure.
Lo–TEK catalogues indigenous technologies from across the globe, positing that scaling and hybridizing them with conventional technologies can provide a new vocabulary of sustainable innovations in the built environment. Watson, an Australia-born and New York–based architect, activist, academic, and founder of both Julia Watson and A Future Studio, researched and wrote Lo–TEK over six years. Exploring 18 countries, she pinpointed the inherent advantage of Lo–TEK design: it is “both an everyday response for human survival and an extraordinary response to environmental extremes, such as famine, flood, frost, drought, and disease.”
The technologies she presents span ecosystems and purposes: they purify water, grow food, maintain biodiversity, collect rain and groundwater, and enable habitation of aquatic and arid locales, to name a few.
The Ifugao people’s palayan rice terraces in the Philippines simultaneously irrigate, filter water, and support community-based rice farming. The Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania construct boma acacia corrals that prompt desert afforestation and ecological succession in lands grappling with desertification.
Sustainable agricultural practices increase productivity and preserve biodiversity. In Mexico, the Mayan people’s milpa system uses a cycle of burning, mulching, and fallowing to encourage forest succession, soil fertility, and polyculture gardens. In Tanzania, the Chagga people’s kihamba forest gardens support over 500 species by inter-cropping trees with agriculture.
The Ma’dan people in Iraq and the Uros people in Peru demonstrate how to live with water using buoyant, biodegradable infrastructure. All innovations are local, affordable, and made by hand. They enable the sustenance of both people and resources, not their exploitation. They rely upon indigenous communities remaining on their ancestral lands—unlike many conservation efforts. And “rather than primitive, as Le Corbusier would say, this knowledge is primal and known to us all,” Watson writes.
Designers in search of new tools and models to counter the mounting threats posed by climate change will find this book an accessible compilation of sustainable landscape innovations. Structured by ecosystem, the book categorizes the technologies as mountain, forest, desert, or wetland.
Each innovation receives a detailed description of its use and integral role inside the culture that created it. Sometimes interviews delve further into a design and its culture, like Jassim Al-Asadi’s insight into the floating civilizations of the Iraqi wetlands. Drawn diagrams break down each innovation. One could imagine a design firm nonchalantly co-opting certain elements—maybe the bheri wastewater treatment system used by the Bengalese people in Kolkata, or the waru waru cut-and-fill micro-topography of the Inca in Peru—within otherwise non-radical designs.
What will be harder to co-opt is the spirituality intrinsic to these indigenous technologies and the cultures from which they emerge. A worldview encompassing religion, ethics, and systems of belief is inherent to their ecosystem management.
In Bali, the Subak people, who maintain highly biodiverse and productive subak rice terraces, practice water temple rituals based in their belief that the goddess Dewi Danu provides their irrigation water. J. Stephen Lansing, director of the Complexity Institute at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, notes such understandings are not so-called “‘magical’ ideas.” They’re critical to the operation of these landscapes; the temples are the locus of a cooperative water distribution system. Though the technologies themselves are innovative, the people tending them ultimately ensure their performance through their systems of belief. Lansing writes: “the wedding of these ideas with the managerial capacity of temple networks provides powerful tools for communities to impose an imagined order on the world.”
It’s in part the very dearth of the spiritual that Watson asks her readers to question. In championing indigenous technologies, she invites readers to critique the mythology of technology that has dominated the world since the Enlightenment.
Adherence to this myth—itself an outgrowth of humanism, colonialism, and racism—has fueled resource extraction and the dismissal of natural systems. Questioning it means interrogating its hegemony, homogeneity, and sidelining of indigenous peoples and wisdom. After all, in many indigenous cultures, “spirituality in the landscapes is directly related to sustainability and resource management.” Watson suggests embracing a different and new mythology of technology, one that unites humanism with radical indigenism.
Advocating that nuanced practices deeply rooted in indigenous cultures can be extricated from their contexts and duplicated, hybridized, or adapted engenders a tricky balancing act. Watson herself notes that popular culture in our current eco-friendly era encourages milquetoast versions of greenwashing premised upon a merged spiritual and scientific understandings of the environment.
It’s dangerously easy to cross the line into romanticizing indigenous cultures, as has been wont over the past several hundred years. In the US landscape, for instance, permutations of the mythology of technology materialized as manifest destiny and the fiction of empty space. “Like imperialism itself, landscape is an object of nostalgia in a postcolonial and postmodern era,” writes W. J. T. Mitchell, “reflecting a time when metropolitan cultures could imagine their destiny in an unbounded ‘prospect’ of endless appropriation and conquest.”
Watson, from the vantage of our postcolonial era, nods to this nostalgia by asserting indigenous techniques as components of myth. But in also calling out technology as myth, she proposes a subversion of it with a co-evolved mythology that joins the two. She checks myth with myth.
The danger in Watson’s proposal would be that in building this new mythology, indigenous innovations and the people behind them become assimilated and appropriated by technology’s homogenizing forces. Throughout Lo–TEK, Watson repeats that indigenous technologies offer “clues,” “inspiration,” and “models” for a future built environment of soft systems that collaborate with nature, but she stops short of articulating precisely how. “They are not instructions, but, like a compass, they provide an orientation rather than a map for the future,” she writes.
Nonetheless, one may still crave more specificity from Watson, who from her thorough field research certainly has some ideas. If Lo–TEK offers a timely, overdue, and respectful catalogue of indigenous technologies that can bring wisdom, other voices, and heterogeneity to our current unsustainable paradigm, the next effort lies in determining how to realize and maintain those heterogeneities.
Shanghai’s Longhua Airport Is Converted into a New Public Park — 11/30/20, Metropolis
“Designed by Sasaki, Xuhui offers a palimpsest of a reused airport, preserving its materials and forms. The 36-acre space is an intensely ‘linear composition,’ says Dou Zhang, senior associate director of Sasaki’s Shanghai office.”
More Parks, Longer Lives — 11/19/20, Parks & Recreation Magazine
“The research suggests that if all the census tracts in L.A. County expanded park access up to the county median, it could add up to 164,700 years in life-expectancy gains for residents living in park-poor tracts. Latino and Black community residents comprise almost 72 percent of the gain (118,000 years).”
Google Launches New Tool to Help Cities Stay Cool — 11/18/20, The Verge
“Google’s new Tree Canopy Lab uses aerial imagery and Google’s AI to figure out where every tree is in a city. Tree Canopy Lab puts that information on an interactive map along with additional data on which neighborhoods are more densely populated and are more vulnerable to high temperatures.”
Humanity has become totally out of synch with the planet’s biophysical systems — for proof, just look to climate change, COVID-19, environmental degradation, ocean acidification, and the accelerated extinction of species. As we now begin to understand, the planet is a single organism, a complex, inter-connected system that can either be healthy and in balance — or not. Furthermore, our health and well-being are intrinsically connected to the health and well-being of natural systems.
In Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves, a new book edited by Drs. Howard Frumkin and Samuel Myers, we are given a roadmap for how to undo the damage to the Earth and live in a way that is more respectful of the planet’s limited capacity. The authors convince us to take this path not just for nature’s sake but also for our own future health and well-being.
Dr. Howard Frumkin is former Dean of Public Health at the University of Washington and former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Samuel Myers is principal research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Together, they have put together a thought-provoking and rich 500-page overview of the emerging field of planetary health, which is increasingly used by UN organizations, governments, non-profits, and universities as a framework for understanding the relationship between human and environmental health.
Frumkin and Myers and their contributors build their case so methodically, with loads of persuasive data, that by the end of the book, it seems difficult to imagine a better framework for understanding Earth’s contemporary human-environmental dynamics. This book is a must-read for anyone passionate about creating better outcomes for more people, far into the future.
In their introduction, the editors explain how today is “the best of times and the worst of times.” On one hand, it has “never been a better time to be a human being.” In the past 65 years, the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty fell from 63 percent to 10 percent, despite the population tripling in size. Child mortality rates are the lowest in recorded history.
But on the other hand, human activity is “driving biophysical change at rates that are much steeper than have existed in the history of our species.” 40 percent of the planet is now dedicated to agriculture, at the expense of natural systems. Habitat destruction and the anticipated extinction of up to a million species threatens the underlying biodiversity that maintains the resilience of natural systems.
Some may see promise in the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch created by humans, and imagine a future planet optimized by direct human control. But in reality, the poor human management of the planet’s biophysical systems to date means that more of the status quo will lead to civilizational collapse.
According to Frumkin and Myers, we have disrupted the climate system; polluted air, water, and soils; caused rapid biodiversity loss; reconfigured biogeochemical cycles; made pervasive changes in land use; and depleted fresh water and arable land. These changes all have significant health implications for billions of people. A new approach rooted in planetary health is needed.
The book first provides a background on the intellectual history of the concept of planetary health, which only began as a systems-scale field of research in the 1990s. As Dr. Warwick Anderson explains in his essay, the field made a big leap in 2010, when The Lancet, a major research journal, and the Rockefeller Foundation partnered with other public health groups to promote a “new health discipline — public health 2.0.” In 2015, with the release of the seminal Lancet – Rockefeller Foundation commission report Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch, Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, deemed the new field of inquiry “planetary health,” which Anderson states, “rapidly gained currency.”
The book then lays out the scale and complexity of the problems and offer some positive models to addressing them:
A chapter by a team of esteemed researchers from organizations such as the Population Council, Population Reference Bureau, and Population Institute explore how the growth in human population and consumption are driving environmental change. They argue that “given the tight interconnectedness of the two drivers, it may be best to see them as coequal challenges.”
These contributors call for disincentivizing the excessive consumer consumption of the U.S. and western Europe, which would doom the planet if expanded to a global scale. They also point to the connected drivers that can further reduce population growth, including greater investment in the education of girls and women around the world, which helps to empower them to make their own decisions, and the expansion of access to contraceptives.
Their conclusion: a “multi-pronged strategy that integrates education, sound policies, and high-quality health services — all while guaranteeing the rights and respecting the dignity of all people — could dramatically accelerate the transition to truly sustainable levels of human population and consumption.”
A companion essay outlines the environmental impacts of the twinned growth in population and consumption. The authors argue: “We live on a different planet than the one our great-grandparents called home a century ago. It is a warmer planet, a more crowded planet, a planet with fewer species, a planet marked by widespread contamination and altered biogeochemical cycles.”
In this chapter, we learn about humans’ many impacts on the environment — ranging from the climate to the nitrogen cycle in agriculture, from land use and cover to water scarcity, biodiversity loss, and pollution.
Through a series of essays, Planetary Health delves into how those specific environmental changes — all driven by human behavior — are in turn jeopardizing human health and well-being by increasing risks in the area of nutrition, infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, population displacement and conflict, and mental health.
In the section on nutrition, Myers explains how rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels increase risks in the agricultural sector, impacting everything from the amount of time farm workers can stay in the heat to the nutritional yield of important mainstay plants. He also flags the lack of genetic diversity of the few plant species we rely on and the need to greater protect plant diversity.
A chapter on infectious diseases by Richard Ostfeld, with the Cary Institute of Ecological Studies, and Felicia Keesing, a biologist at Bard College, explains the growing risks of various infectious diseases. They write: “key environmental drivers, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, land use change, pollution, and alteration of biogeochemical cycles cause changes in the abundance, distribution, physiology, and behavior of important species involved in the transmission of both zoonotic and nonzoonotic pathogens to humans.” They analyze the relationships between land use, biodiversity, and diseases like malaria, lyme disease, and schistosomiasis, among others.
Non-communicable diseases, which include cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, and other conditions, account for 70 percent of global deaths each year. In this chapter, Frumkin and Andy Haines, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases, lay out the data on how climate change, urbanization, and air pollution increase non-communicable disease risk. Of particular interest for landscape architects and planners is a section on the dangers of automobile-dependent communities.
A team of researchers then connect the dots between environmental change, migration, conflict, and heath impacts, explaining how the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, is now understood as the first “modern climate change conflict,” and how we can expect more to come.
One of their arguments for investing in climate solutions is worth re-stating: “Adaptation to global environmental change is part of preventing migration. Adaptation can reduce vulnerability to both sudden shocks and long-term trends. Examples include switching farming practices to drought-tolerant crops and soil-conserving techniques, not building in floodplains, constructing levees and sea walls, restoring coastal barrier systems (mangroves, vegetated dunes, coral reefs, wetlands), and altering building codes to put key utilities on roof instead of in basements.”
Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster, provides a much-needed overview of the expected mental health impacts of climate and environmental change. She collects many useful studies in one place, providing a valuable reference.
One worrying conclusion: “Higher temperatures can provoke increased aggression. This manifests in many ways: from pitchers beaning batters during baseball games and drivers aggressively honking their horns, all the way to violent crime, particularly when combined with frustration over limited access to resources, such as fresh water or arable land.” One of her key solutions is expanding access to nature, particularly in cities. “Reconnecting with nature…offers a range of direct and indirect mental health benefits.”
Planetary Health then turns to building the case for systemic changes in our societies and economies, including a shift away from using gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of growth and instead using gross national happiness and other metrics that better account for human health, well-being, and environmental health. Central arguments include: “happiness and human health are intertwined; natural environments make people happy; and happiness production is not resource-intensive.” In other words, more experiences in nature create happiness, not the latest purchases.
After wading through the problems, we then get to the solutions — healthier models for various sectors: energy, chemicals, cities, economic development, and private sector growth. The chapter on urban places and planetary health is particularly worth reading as it makes the health argument for “integrated green urbanism,” transit-oriented development, bicycle infrastructure, and urban food systems. Iryna Dronova, a professor of landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, contributes to this discussion. The chapter on chemicals outlines how to reduce the risk of endocrine disruptors and create new green chemicals.
This significant new book also proposes how to create a set of planetary health ethics that can guide current and future action — a mutual promise to do no further harm in our era of climate and environmental change. Here, the contributors call for a “social movement, a scientific framework, an attitude towards life, and a philosophy of living that fosters resilience and adaptation.”
The core message: If we truly commit to maximizing human and environmental health in all communities, and undertaking all that entails, we will get on a pathway to saving the planet.
It is especially gratifying to be recognized on the 120th anniversary of the birth of the man who established landscape architecture as “the mother of all arts”—Sir Jellicoe himself.
My Roots in the Village
I’d like to begin by talking a bit about my childhood, which ultimately had a profound influence on the way I’ve come to approach my work. I was born to a peasant family in Dong Yu village in southeast China’s Zhejiang Province. The village is located where White Sand Creek and the Wujiang River meet.
I swam in the creek during the summer and caught big fish when the monsoon season came. When I was small, I took care of a water buffalo, which grazed along the waterways and between the paddy fields. There were seven ponds, a patch of sacred forest and two big camphor trees in front of the village, under which many legendary stories about my ancestors were told.
The land was extremely productive. We planted three crops throughout the year, including canola, wheat, buckwheat, rice, sugar cane, peanut, sweet potato, corn, soybeans, carrot, turnip, radish and lotus.
The land and water were precious, but the weather could be unpredictable, so we had to design and manage our farm fields wisely, following nature’s cycle and wasting nothing, and adapting in order to make a living.
We worshipped the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, the legendary king who knew how to manage water and plan the land. We also worshipped our ancestors, who had the wisdom of adapting to nature and cultivating the land.
In all likelihood, I would have followed in the footsteps of my father, who taught me how to cultivate the land, manage water, and be a productive farmer.
But it was a difficult time. Although we were a peasant family, we had also been landowners. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, my family was labeled as members of the “landlord class.” Our land was seized and redistributed to communes, after which we collectively farmed it. More significantly for me, children from the landlord class were prohibited from attending school.
But in 1978, an army veteran who came to teach in my village, Mr. Zhou Zhangchao, caught up with me one day while I was riding my water buffalo home. He told me that Deng Xiaoping had reversed the policies that barred the children of the landlord class from going to school. I immediately enrolled in school and began studying hard to catch up.
In 1980, after 17 years working on the commune, I passed the national university entrance examination. I was the sole lucky university entrant out of 300-plus students in our rural high school.
On the Shoulders of Giants
By chance, I was chosen to enroll in Beijing Forestry University as one of 30 students in the entire nation to study gardening, which had been cancelled for ten years during the Cultural Revolution. I was fortunate to have some of the best landscape gardening professors in the nation as my mentors, including Wang Juyuan, the founder of the Landscape Gardening Program at the Beijing Forestry University; Chen Youming, my Master’s thesis advisor; and Sun Xiaoxiang and Chen Junyu.
In a certain sense, leaving the dusty countryside to make beautiful gardens in the city was a dream for me and my parents.
But when I finished college and was starting my career of teaching and making beautiful gardens for the city, I returned home to find that my village had been destroyed. The sacred forest and the camphor trees had been cut and sold off. The creek itself had become a gravel quarry, and the fish disappeared.
I began to ask myself: Was there something more I should be doing? What about my village and my fellow villagers? What about the land beyond the garden walls and beyond the city walls—where, at the time, almost three-quarters of a billion Chinese lived?
At this same time, I began looking abroad to learn more. In 1992, I was accepted at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. I spent the next four years working with Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, along with landscape ecologist Richard Forman and GIS and computing expert Stephen Ervin. I would often encounter Ian McHarg, Michael Van Vulkenburgh, FASLA, Peter Rowe, and others in the hallways.
For me, it was a tremendously exciting time. It was a chance to meld the village-level concepts of the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, from my childhood, with the ideas of the great Chinese “gardening” masters—and some of the best minds in the West.
The concepts of landscape and urban ecology, people-oriented urbanism, landscape perception and revolutionary anthropology, landscape and architectural phenomenology, etc., enlightened the left side of my brain. Design works by contemporary masters including Peter Walker, FASLA, Laurie Olin, FASLA, Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Richard Haag, FASLA, Maya Lin, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Peter Latz, Bernard Tschumi, and so on, inspired the right side of my brain.
It happened to be a time of great debate within academia, and I found myself fascinated by the tensions between design as political procedure versus design with nature, and art versus ecology.
I was captivated by two questions, which have subsequently driven my entire career:
Conservation vs. Development: Spatial planning based on the idea of balance –when land and space are limited, how can we balance ecological protection with development?
Sustainability vs. Beauty: The creation of Deep Form — what is the relationship between sustainability and beauty, how can we unite ecology and art?
After graduating, I was recruited by SWA in Laguna Beach, California. There, I was able to work with Richard Law, FASLA, on luxury properties, new urban development, and projects in the booming Asian market. Life on the beach was pretty good.
But while I was happily designing luxury properties and imagining the grandeur of new cities, I found that the land at home was under assault. Old buildings were torn down; hills were leveled; lakes and wetlands filled and polluted; rivers channelized and dammed; and public squares and boulevards were built at gargantuan size. It was the opposite of everything I had learned about how to create livable cities and landscapes.
And it turned out to be a national-scale challenge. Over 80 percent of Chinese cities suffer air pollution, which kills 1.2 million people each year. Flooding causes some US$ 100 billion in damage. Four hundred of 662 cities suffer water shortages. Seventy-five percent of the nation’s surface water is polluted, and 64 percent of cities’ groundwater is polluted. 50 percent of wetlands have disappeared in past 50 years, resulting in tremendous losses of wildlife habitat.
Meeting the challenges
(1) Start with Education and a New Identity
I landed at Peking University as a professor in 1997 and was immediately joined by my lifelong friend Li Dihu. Together we started the landscape architecture program in the Department of Geography. We hoped to help an important new profession establish a foothold across a vast landscape. But we had humble beginnings: We started with a grand total of 3 students. (Today, we have 200 students enrolled, with more than 600 graduates.)
But people still tended to see me simply as “a gardener,” with no relation to urban development, land and water management, flood control, or ecological restoration.
In China, there’s a legend about “The Land of Peach Blossoms,” a magical realm of peace, a sort of Shangri-La. To a certain extent, I have always thought of Dong Yu village, where I grew up—with the two big camphor trees under which I heard the stories of my ancestors and the sacred forest where they rest–as the Land of Peach Blossoms. And landscape architecture, to me, seemed a way to recover the lost Land of Peach Blossoms.
So I felt compelled to reclaim the importance of landscape architecture itself and began describing it as “The Art of Survival.” In doing this, I was inspired by Ian McHarg’s pugnacious call to arms: “Don’t ask us about your garden. Don’t ask us about your bloody flowers …. We’re going to talk to you about survival.”
We launched a new magazine, Landscape Architecture Frontiers, to promote our new approach. We brought in top thinkers in the field to lecture and held over 15 landscape architecture conferences to educate a young generation and begin creating a consensus.
(2) Trying to reverse the damage and inspire policy change
We felt that immediate action had to be taken to reverse the damage, so we launched the concept of “Inverse Planning” (反规划 fǎn guīhuà), which emphasizes the protection of existing natural functions and prioritizes what is not built—what should be protected instead.
I also realized that the only way to reverse the damage caused by conventional planning procedure was to convince decision makers to change the policies. So I kept writing and talking and lecturing to decision makers, from top authorities to township leaders. I delivered over 300 lectures to municipal decision makers and ministers.
In 2006, I made a proposal to then-Premier Wen Jiabao that, to my surprise and gratification, initiated the process of national security pattern planning and ecological red line regulation.
These two concepts help identify and protect critical landscapes to safeguard natural, biological, cultural and recreational values and functions, thus securing this wide range of ecosystems services essential for sustaining human society. The State Council has since issued four state regulations to safeguard national ecological security.
(3) The “Big Foot” Revolution
I also realized that bad decisions were being made simply because of a misguided mentality about civilization and misguided aesthetic sensibilities. For thousands of years, the “civilized” urban elite worldwide has insisted on the privilege of defining civilization, beauty, and good taste. Bound feet, deformed heads, and twisted bodies are only a few such expressions of cultural practices that, in trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural bumpkins, have rejected nature’s inherent principles of health, survival, and productivity.
In China, for more than a thousand years, young girls were forced to bind their feet in order to be able to be considered beautiful enough to marry urban elites. Natural, “big” feet were considered rustic and rural. The obsession with “little feet” sacrificed function and dignity for ornamental value.
Today, landscaping and city building, by far, are the most visible and extensive manifestations of the folly of civilization and aesthetic standards defined from above—what I think of as “little foot” urbanism and the “little foot” aesthetic.
On one hand, the “manicured little foot” grey infrastructure simply lacks resilience and is a waste of energy and materials. On the other hand, urban elites with “little foot” aesthetics trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural peasants have rejected nature’s inherent goals of health and productivity.
These kinds of “little foot” grey infrastructure and aesthetics are not only expensive, but also wasteful and unsustainable. China’s carbon emissions in 2017 accounted for 28 percent of the world total. And according to 2018 figures from the World Economic Forum, China consumes 59 percent of the world’s cement and 50 percent of its steel and coal.
So I began advocating for what I call a Big Foot Revolution. This movement begins with questioning some of the basic values I have mentioned above, and my hope is that it will mirror an earlier revolution in the way Chinese thought about their own bodies and culture.
In the early 20th century, The New Cultural Movement was launched by teachers and students at Peking University, and ultimately led to the rejection of foot binding and a re-embracing of the natural beauty of the human form.
I believe the Big Foot Revolution will happen at three levels of action:
Planning the Big Feet (planning ecological infrastructure across scales)
Creating Working Big Feet (creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom)
Making Big Feet Beautiful (new aesthetics to create deep forms).
“Planning the Big Feet” or planning ecological infrastructure across scales, is critical for securing ecosystems services, and weaving green infrastructure together with grey infrastructure. Inspired by the ancient concept of sacred landscape—and by modern game theory¬—I developed the concept of the Landscape Security Pattern, which focuses on protecting the critical landscape patterns needed to ensure that natural processes can continue.
“Creating working Big Feet” means creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom, particularly from agriculture. We have developed replicable modules based on traditional farming techniques of terracing, ponding, diking, and islanding to address climate change and related problems at a massive scale in a cost-effective manner.
In China, all rivers are dammed and channelized with concrete flood walls. China has more than half of the world’s dams greater than 15 meters in height. More than US $20 billion is invested to control flooding each year, but US $100 billion is lost and 10 million people are affected every year. We need to accept and embrace flooding as a natural phenomenon, and turn grey infrastructure into green to help temper the damage of inevitable floods.
Due to the monsoon climate, over 62 percent of Chinese cities suffer from urban flooding. How much more flooding could be managed better if nature-based solutions were implemented nationwide? Using sponge city concepts would greatly increase water resilience.
In China, 75 percent of surface water is contaminated. Globally, 85 percent of sewage goes untreated. But the landscape can be a living system to clean water. Terraced, constructed wetland can be used to remove nutrients through biological processes.
We have already incorporated many of these ideas at several parks throughout China. In Zhejiang Province’s Taizhou City, we redesigned the Yongning Park as a “floating garden” with ecological embankments that can reduce peak flood flow by more than half, and create a seasonally flooded natural matrix of wetland and natural vegetation that sustains natural processes. This park demonstrates an ecological approach to flood control and stormwater management, while also educating people about new and forgotten solutions to flood control beyond engineering.
In Zhejiang’s Jinhua City, water-resilient terrain and planted vegetation were designed to adapt to monsoon floods. A resilient bridge and path system was designed to adapt to the dynamic flows of water and people. The river currents, the flow of people, and the gravity of objects are all woven together to form a dynamic concord. This is achieved through meandering vegetated terraces, curvilinear paths, a serpentine bridge, circular bioswales, planted beds, and curved benches.
In Harbin, in the far north, we turned the Qunli Stormwater Park into a “green sponge” that filters and stores urban stormwater while providing other ecosystem services, including the protection of native habitats, aquifer recharge, recreational use and aesthetic experience, which together help foster sustainable urban development.
At Dong’an Wetland Park on Hainan Island, off the coast of southern China, creating a green sponge in the center of the urban environment was an essential adaptation strategy for increasing resilience to climate change, particularly in an area where tropical storms can easily overwhelm conventional drainage systems.
In this case, a heavily polluted 68-hectare site was filled with non-permitted buildings and illegally dumped urban debris. Inspired by the ancient pond-and-dike systems and islanding techniques in the Pearl River Delta, and using simple cut-and-fill methods, a necklace of ponds and dikes was created along the periphery of the park that catches and filters urban runoff from the surrounding communities.
In the central part of the park, dirt and fill were used to create islands that are planted with banyan trees to create a forested wetland. Both ponding and islanding will dramatically increase the water-retention capacity of the park and increase the eco-tones between water and land to speed up the removal of nutrients. The constructed wetland can accommodate 830,000 cubic meters of storm water, dramatically reducing the risk of urban inundation.
Along the Huangpu River in Shanghai, we designed Houtan Park as a regenerative living landscape on a former industrial brownfield. The park’s constructed wetland, ecological flood control, reclaimed industrial structures and materials, and urban agriculture are integral components of an overall restorative design strategy to treat polluted river water and recover the degraded waterfront in an aesthetically pleasing way. The 10-hectare park, which is 1,700 meters long, filters phosphorous and other nutrients from 2,400 cubic meters of water per day, which is enough water for 5,000 people.
The Meshe River in Haikou has suffered flooding due to the monsoon climate and water pollution caused by sewage and non-point source pollution from urban and suburban runoff. The river had been channelized with concrete for the sole objective of flood control, which destroyed its ecological resilience.
We used nature-based solutions to create resilient green infrastructure that has revived the river. The concrete flood walls have been removed and the river was reconnected to the ocean so that tides could once again enter the city. Wetlands and shallow river margins were reconstructed so that mangroves could be restored. A terraced mosaic of wetlands along the banks of the river was designed as natural water-treatment facilities that catch and cleanse nutrient-laden runoff, and a significant amount of wildlife habitat has been recovered in the dense city center.
The Mangrove Park in Sanya City, on the island of Hainan, is another example of nature-based climate resilience. To mitigate urban flood risk caused by climate change, it was critical to restore mangrove along the waterways and coastal shorelines. One of the key challenges was finding an efficient and inexpensive method to reestablish the mangrove habitat that had been extensively destroyed due to rapid urban development. To that end, fill composed of urban construction debris and concrete from the demolition of the flood wall was recycled on site.
Cut-and-fill techniques were subsequently used to create a gradient of different riparian eco-tones for diverse fauna and flora, particularly different species of mangroves. An interlocking-finger design was used to lead ocean tides into the waterways, while also attenuating the impact of both tropical storm surge and flash floods originating in the urban and upland area upstream, both of which can harm establishment of mangroves. This also maximized habitat diversity and edge effects, which increase the interface between plants and water; this, in turn, enhances ecological processes such as nutrient removal from the water.
The dynamic aquatic environment that follows the rise and fall of tides and provides several aquatic species with the daily water-level fluctuation they need for survival. Terraces between city streets and the river have been augmented with bioswales to catch and filter urban stormwater runoff. In just three years, an area of lifeless land fill within a concrete flood wall in the center of the city was transformed into a lush mangrove park. This type of mangrove rehabilitation can be implemented at a large scale efficiently.
In China, 60 percent of urban soil is contaminated, and conventional remediation is usually very expensive. In Tianjin’s Qiaoyuan Park, I wanted to show how we can let nature do the work, by using nature-based soil remediation techniques. Through regenerative design and by sculpting land forms and collecting rainwater, the natural process of plant adaptation and community evolution was introduced to transform a former shooting-range-turned-garbage-dump into a low maintenance urban park. The park provides diverse nature-based services for the city, including retaining and purifying storm water to regulate pH, providing opportunities for environmental education and creating a cherished aesthetic experience.
Making Big Feet Beautiful means promoting the new aesthetics to create deep forms. In this, I was inspired by Anne Whiston Spirn’s New Aesthetics that “encompasses both nature and culture, that embodies function, sensory perception, and symbolic meaning, and that embraces both the making of things and places and the sensing, using, and contemplating of them.”
The timeless interdependence of culture and nature is most visible in the bond between peasants and their farmlands, and practices such as cut and fill, irrigate and fertilize, frame and access, grow and harvest, recycle and save — all of which embody some of the principles of new aesthetics that inspired my design.
In Qinhuangdao, I put a ribbon on the river to frame and transform the messy nature into an ordered urban park. Winding through a background of natural terrain and vegetation, the “red ribbon” spans five hundred meters and integrates lighting, seating, environmental interpretation and orientation. This project demonstrates how a minimal design solution can dramatically improve the landscape, while preserving as much of the natural river corridor as possible during the process of urbanization.
China has 20 percent of the world’s population, but only 8 percent of the world’s arable land—10 percent of which has been lost in the past 30 years due to urban development. Our project on the Shenyang Jianzhu University Campus uses rice paddies to simultaneously define the structure of the landscape design and introduce a productive landscape into the urban environment. It is a demonstration of a method to resolve the tension between urban development and food production in today’s developing world.
In Quzhou’s Luming Park, we embraced the concept of agricultural urbanism. On a site surrounded by dense new urban development, we created a dynamic urban park by incorporating the agricultural strategy of crop rotation and a low-maintenance meadow. An elevated floating network of pedestrian paths, platforms and pavilions creates a visual frame for this cultivated swath and the natural features of the terrain and water. Using these strategies, a deserted, mismanaged landscape was dramatically transformed into a productive and beautiful setting for urban living, while preserving the natural and cultural patterns and processes of the site.
I have also tried to show the possibilities of reusing and recycling. While China has been on an incredible building boom, it has also demolished large parts of its cities. In 2003, for instance, some 325 million square meters of new buildings were constructed, while 156 million square meters was demolished. Thousands of villages and factories were wiped out.
The Zhongshan Shipyard Park near Guangzhou, inaugurated in 2002, was an effort to show that existing building and other structures can be incorporated into new development. The park reflects the remarkable 70-year history of socialist China and has been lauded as a breakthrough in Chinese landscape architecture. The original vegetation and natural habitats were preserved and only native plants were added. Machines, docks, and other industrial structures were retained not only for functional purposes, but also to educate and because of their aesthetic appeal. The park demonstrates how landscape architects can create environmentally-friendly public places full of cultural and historical meaning on sites not previously designated for attention and preservation. Its design supports use by the common people, as well as the environmental ethic that “weeds are beautiful.”
For over 20 years, we have tested and built over 500 projects in 200-plus cities and showcased numerous replicable models for healing and transforming our land at various scales.
Looking back, I have a better understanding of how my village-level landscape experiences, melded with modern concepts of landscape and urbanism, sustainability and aesthetics, which were developed by my many teachers and mentors, have helped me to address some of the common challenges that our profession is facing today.
I find myself thinking often of my roots in Dong Yu village. I think of King Yu the Great, who had the vision of healing the earth and living with nature. I think of the peasants who transform the landscape in which they live with their own hands. And I want to think like a king, but act like a peasant.
This is an incredibly sobering time to contemplate the relationship between humans and the natural world. The global pandemic is a powerful reminder that any belief in the conquest of nature is pure folly. We are all living in a new era of humility.
Yet I also believe that the pandemic—together with climate change—is also highlighting how important it is to create landscapes that can not only heal bodies and minds, but also the planet itself.
It is such a great honor to be in the company of the many great and thoughtful landscape architects who come together under the banner of IFLA. As former IFLA president Martha Fajardo said in 2005: “Landscape architect is the profession of the future.”
Thank you, and I wish everyone the best in collectively keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.
In rare situations, some landscape architects and designers may specify Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified tropical hardwoods for outdoor spaces because there may be no good alternatives. But imagine if instead of just placing a hardwood order and hoping the wood was actually sustainably harvested, designers partnered with conservationists and scientists to preserve the forest from which the wood is cut.
The multi-discplinary team behind Brooklyn Bridge Forest beat 200 competitors from 37 countries to win top prize. The team was led by Pilot Projects Design Collective, which includes landscape architect Christine Facella; along with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Cities4Forests, The Nature Conservancy, Grimshaw Architects, and Silman, a structural engineering firm.
According to the team, one of the best experiences in NYC is to stroll the upper wood deck of the Brooklyn Bridge, which is why more than a million people do it each year. The genius of John Roebling, the bridge’s designer, was to “contrast iconic stone towers and graceful steel cables with the warmth and softness of a wooden boardwalk to create the ultimate setting for the pedestrian,” the team states.
Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and its partners propose making Brooklyn Bridge an even better walking and bicycling experience by expanding the upper wood deck of the bridge and creating new biodiverse green spaces at either end of the bridge and areas for pop-up markets.
The bridge’s existing Greenheart (Ocotea rodiaei or Chlorocardium rodiei) wood promenade is a mile long and comprises 11,000 planks that are approximately 4-feet wide by 16-feet long. Tropical hardwoods like Greenheart used for boardwalks and promenades typically lasts around 30 years.
The team explored replacing the hardwood with plastic lumber, but found the planks to be too carbon intensive. They also looked at domestic hardwood, like Black Locust, which is always preferable to tropical hardwoods, but found that the lumber doesn’t come in sizes that are long enough. The team also looked at concrete and wood composites but found using those materials would require structural updates to the bridge. So they proposed replacing the existing planks, sourced from an unknown forest in South America 30 years ago, with sustainably harvested Manchiche (Lonchocarpus castilloi) from the Uaxactú Community Rainforest.
Instead of the city spending $2 million for the new wood, the public would sponsor individual wood planks at a cost ranging from $400 to $5,000 and in turn have their name laser- or fire-etched into a plank. With the funds raised, the community forest, which is found in the larger 6 million-acre Maya Biosphere Reserve, would be protected and generate wood for the promenade in perpetuity.
The communities of Uaxactún have reached an agreement with the Guatemalan government: If resources are harvested sustainably, their land management rights are respected. Through a “community concession” system, the people of the forest can “harvest fruit, medicinal, and ornamental plants, chicle (a natural chewing gum), and a limited amount of timber,” said the Brooklyn Bridge Forest team. The communities coordinate with the Guatemalan government, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and FSC.
Under the terms of the land management plan, tropical hardwood trees can be harvested at the rate of 1 tree per 40 acres using small-scale equipment. After a large tropical hardwood tree has been removed, smaller trees would be planted in the area that has been disturbed.
The scientists with the conservation organizations involved argued that “the communities’ low-impact timber harvesting provides jobs as well as resources for health and education. These opportunities in turn have given the communities a long-term stake in protecting the forest. Community-patrols defend the forest from the numerous threats in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, including wildfires, illegal logging and hunting, and in recent years, cattle ranching operations linked to international drug traffickers.” (Learn more).
Furthermore, the scientists believe that the low-impact logging practices undertaken in Uaxactún would have “very little effect on wildlife populations.” And funds from the sponsorship of planks would go to important research on the ecological impacts of controlled logging in these environments.
One of their central arguments: “Most timber harvesting in the tropics is not carried out with the level of care practiced in Uaxactún. In these other places there is often very little regulation, no long-term plan, and no research to assess impacts. Only a fully transparent model with ample opportunity for participation and investigation can guarantee that we are procuring wood in a way that supports forest protection.”
The team thinks this intentional approach could be used for other sustainable hardwood harvesting projects. They point to a few historic models: Every 20 years, the Ise Shrine in Kyoto, Japan, is rebuilt with the exact same dimensions using 10,000 cedar logs. The shrine, which has been rebuilt in this way for the past 1,300 years, has set aside a forest that will be harvested in 200 years for the ritual reconstruction. And in Sweden, in the 1800s, some 300,000 trees were planted to create wood for the Swedish navy. When they were ready to harvest in 1975, Sweden no longer built ships out of wood, but the 900-acre forest of oaks remains preserved.
The winning submission in the young adult category may have found a solution that avoids the tropical hardwood issue altogether. Do Look Down, a proposal created by Shannon Hui, Kwans Kim, and Yujin Kim, from Hong Kong, NYC, and Berkeley, California, aims to incorporate glass instead of wood for the promenade. There would be thrills galore while looking down, at least for those not afraid of heights.
The export of American culture is one of the most influential forces in our interconnected world. From Dakar to Delhi, American pop music, movies, and artery-clogging cuisine is ubiquitous. However, one of the most damaging exports is the American suburb. When the 20th century model for housing the swelling populations of Long Island and Los Angeles translates to 21st century Kinshasa and Kuala Lumpur, the American way of life may very well be our downfall.
In our pre-pandemic ignorance, most urbanists pointed to climate change as the most dangerous impact of our cherished suburban lifestyle. To be sure, the higher greenhouse gas emissions and rise in chronic health problems associated with living in subdivisions aren’t going away, but COVID-19 has exposed another threat we’ve chosen to ignore. The next pandemic may very well result from our addiction to—and exportation of—sprawl.
Vilifying Density and Disregarding Equity
The increasing traction of the anti-density movement in the wake of the current outbreak is alarming. Headlines proclaiming how sprawl may save us and that living in cities puts citizens at higher risk for contracting the novel coronavirus are deceptive.
Recent studies have debunked these myths, finding little correlation between population density in cities and rates of COVID-19, instead attributing the spread of the virus to overcrowding due to inequity and delays in governmental responsiveness.
Mounting evidence suggests that COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through close contact in enclosed spaces. Internal population density within buildings and, more specifically, within shared rooms inside buildings is what drives this, not the compact urban form of the city. In New York, for example, COVID-19 cases are concentrated in the outer boroughs, and suburban Westchester and Rockland counties have reported nearly triple the rate per capita than those of Manhattan.
The real issue is the systemic economic inequity that forces lower income people to live in overcrowded conditions, regardless of location. Innovative approaches to urban planning, equitable housing policies, and a reversal of over a century of environmental discrimination in our cities are absolutely necessary. Vilifying the city is counterproductive.
Moving out of dense cities into the open space and social distancing afforded by the suburbs is exactly the type of knee-jerk reaction that we must avoid. Cities are not at fault.
Habitat Fragmentation and Biodiversity Loss
In fact, cities are the answer if we plan them carefully. Among the many human activities that cause habitat loss, urban development produces some of the greatest local extinction rates and has a more permanent impact. For example, habitat lost due to farming and logging can be restored, whereas urbanized areas not only persist but continue to expand.
The Atlas for the End of the World, conceived by Richard Weller, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the best sources for documenting our collective risk. Mapping 391 of the planet’s terrestrial eco-regions, this research identified 423 cities with a population of over 300,000 inhabitants situated within 36 biodiversity hotspots. Using data modelling from the Seto Lab at Yale University, the Atlas predicts that 383 of these cities—about 90 percent —will likely continue to expand into previously undisturbed habitats.
When we assault the wild places that harbor so much biodiversity in the pursuit of development, we disregard a significant aspect of this biodiversity—the unseen domain of undocumented viruses and pathogens.
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, meaning that they are transmitted to us through contact with animals. The initial emergence of many of these zoonotic diseases have been tracked to the parts of the world with the greatest biodiversity, both in the traditional and man-made sense. Traditional locations include tropical rainforests where biodiversity naturally occurs. Human-influenced conditions include places like bushmeat markets in Africa or the wet markets of Asia, where we are mixing trapped exotic animals with humans, often in astonishingly unsanitary conditions.
However, degraded habitats of any kind can create conditions for viruses to cross over, whether in Accra or Austin. The disruption of habitat to support our suburban lifestyle is bringing us closer to species with which we have rarely had contact. By infringing on these ecosystems, we reduce the natural barriers between humans and host species, creating ideal conditions for diseases to spread. These microbes are not naturally human pathogens. They become human pathogens because we offer them that opportunity.
This is already evident in the fragmented forests of many American suburbs where development patterns have altered the natural cycle of the pathogen that causes Lyme disease. When humans live in close proximity to these disrupted ecosystems, they are more likely to get bitten by a tick carrying the Lyme bacteria. When biodiversity is reduced, these diluted systems allow for species like rodents and bats—some of the most likely to promote the transmission of pathogens—to thrive.
This essentially means that the more habitats we disturb, the more danger we are in by tapping into various virus reservoirs. COVID-19 is not the first disease to cross over from animal to human populations, but it is likely a harbinger of more mass pandemics and further disruptions to the global economy. The more densely we build, the more land we can conserve for nature to thrive, potentially reducing our risk of another pandemic from a novel virus.
Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary
In the United States, over 50 percent of the population lives in suburbs, covering more land than the combined total of national and state parks. Our urbanization is ubiquitous and endangers more species than any other human activity.
In 1979, Portland, Oregon offered a pioneering solution with the creation of an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). Devised by a 3-county, 24-city regional planning authority, the intent was to protect agricultural lands, encourage urban density, and limit unchecked sprawl.
Forty years into this experiment, Portland’s experience is a mixed bag of successes and missed opportunities. Investment in public transit and urban parks has certainly bolstered the city’s reputation as a leader in urban innovation, sustainability, and livability, with statistics to support its efforts.
On the other hand, two of Oregon’s fastest growing cities are situated just beyond the boundary’s jurisdiction, underscoring the limitations of the strategy. Again, inequity rears its ugly head, with higher prices within the UGB caused, in part, by an inability to deregulate Portland’s low density neighborhoods. This has driven much of the regional population further afield to find affordable housing in the form of suburban sprawl beyond the UGB’s dominion and into even more remote areas.
Another consideration that was overlooked when the original plan was established was the adequate protection of remnant habitat within the UGB. This lack of a regional plan for biodiversity protection has underscored the need for a more ecologically-focused, science-based approach to inform planning decisions.
Brisbane’s Bird Population
Unfortunately, anticipating outcomes of urbanization on species diversity is not as pervasive in urban planning agencies around the world as it should be. A lack of detailed modeling specific to individual regions and cities with clear recommendations for how to minimize ecological devastation is absent from planning policy around the world.
However, researchers in Brisbane, Australia have attempted to quantify which development style—concentrated urban intensity or suburban sprawl—has a greater ecological consequences. By measuring species distribution, the study predicted the effect on bird populations when adding nearly 85,000 new dwelling units in the city. Their results demonstrated that urban growth of any type reduces bird distributions overall, but compact development substantially slows these reductions.
Sensitive species particularly benefited from compact development because remnant habitats remained intact, with predominantly non-native species thriving in sprawling development conditions. These results suggest that cities with denser footprints—even if their suburbs offer abundant open space—would experience a steep decline in biodiversity.
This is a common outcome found in similar studies around the world that exhibit a comparable decline in the species richness of multiple taxa along the rural-urban gradient. Although biodiversity is lowest within the urban core, the trade-off of preserving as much remnant natural habitat as possible almost always results in greater regional biodiversity.
Helsinki’s Biodiversity Database
One of Europe’s fasted growing cities, Helsinki faces similar pressures for new housing and traffic connections as many other major metropolises. However, in Helsinki, geotechnical and topographic constraints, coupled with its 20th century expansion along two railway lines rather than a web of highways, created the base for its finger-like urban and landscape structure. Today, one-third of Helsinki’s land area is open space, 63 percent of which is contiguous urban forest.
In 2001, Finland established an open source National Biodiversity Database that compiles multiple data sets ranging from detailed environmental studies to observations of citizen scientists. This extraordinary access to information has allowed the city to measure numerous data points within various conservation area boundaries, including statistics related to the protection of individual sites and species.
Measured by several taxonomies, including vascular plants, birds, fungi, and pollinators, Helsinki has an unusually high biodiversity when compared to neighboring municipalities or to other temperate European cities and towns. Vascular plant species, for example, average over 350 species per square kilometer, as compared to Berlin and Vienna’s average of about 200 species. By embracing biodiversity within the structure of the city, not only is the importance of regional biodiversity codified into the general master plan, it is also embedded into the civic discourse of its citizens.
When it comes to where the next virus might emerge, Wuhan isn’t really that different from Washington, D.C. If the American model of over-indulgent suburban sprawl is the benchmark for individual success, we all lose.
Now is the moment to put the health of the planet before American values of heaven on a half-acre. Land use policies in the United States have just as profound an impact on the rest of the world as any movie out of Hollywood.
If we shift American values toward embracing denser, cleaner, and more efficient cities that drive ecological conservation—instead of promoting sprawl as a panacea for our current predicament—that may very well be our greatest export to humanity.
Michael Grove, ASLA, is the chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki, a global design firm with offices in Boston and Shanghai.
In a Zoom lecture sponsored by Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), David Moreno-Mateos, a restoration ecologist and an assistant professor of landscape architecture at GSD, asked: “Are we ready to restore the planet?”
The trends on global biodiversity aren’t good. As humans degrade or destroy an increasingly large share of the Earth’s ecosystems, extinction rates have tripled in the past 100 years. “Vertebrate populations have declined 58 percent in the last 40 years,” Moreno-Mateos explained. Furthermore, local species richness has declined by 40 percent in most developed countries over the past 150 years.
Moreno-Mateos believes nature itself is a thing of great value. Nature provides an estimated $125 trillion of benefits in the form of food, water, medicine, and other resources through its ecosystems. Biodiversity is critical to ensuring the function and resilience of these ecosystems. To connect the dots: biodiversity is then central to clean air and water and the preservation of our food sources through seed banks, pollinators, and fisheries.
The challenge is that “ecosystem restoration is a long-term process.” In a review of scientific studies on some 3,000 restored ecosystems, research has shown that after 150 years, restored ecosystems are 70 percent less diverse and 40 percent less functional than undisturbed ecosystems.
Land-based ecosystems are made up of a diversity of animal, insect, fungi, and plant species, with specific carbon, soil, and water characteristics. There are specific levels of nutrients, including phosphorous, organic matter, and nitrogen. These elements all interact in particular ways. Given all the complexity, “ecosystem restoration has limited effectiveness.”
So this was perhaps the key message of Moreno-Mateos’ talk: the best approach is to not degrade incredibly complex ecosystems. There is still too much about their functions we don’t understand, and it’s nearly impossible to recreate their dense networks of interactions.
But if an ecosystem has been disturbed, Moreno-Mateos sought to find out: what happens over the long-term? What can be done?
Species diversity results in community composites. Think of a meadow, a community of plants that thrives together. There are interaction networks within those communities and between communities. A resilient meadow has a greater abundance of network interactions, with a higher number of “strong links” — “that is species that interact more strongly.” The same is true below ground. Amid soil communities, “the higher the complexity, the higher the functionality, and, likely, the resilience.”
For his own research, Moreno-Mateos started with the assumption that ecosystem degradation reduces genetic diversity. In southwest Greenland, Norse farmers settled two sites some 650 years ago. Archeologists discovered each village had about 100 people who farmed hay for cattle. To Moreno-Mateos, this seemed to be the perfect place to study the long-term impacts of ecological disturbance.
Examining an undisturbed site and a disturbed, former agricultural site, and looking at their above ground plant communities and below ground soil communities, Moreno-Mateos found “both sites had a similar amount of plant communities (35 species in the disturbed site and 34 in the reference site), but the compositions were totally different. In the disturbed site, one plant community dominated.” Moreno-Mateos also discovered the former agricultural sites had more nutrients because the Norse would add manure to the hay fields, which meant more nitrogen and phosphorous.
There was another key finding: the original, undisturbed site had more “mutualistic interactions.” The degraded site had more “pathogenic interactions.” This fit his hypothesis: “loss of biodiversity means more pathogens” and loss of function and resilience.
This was proven through the very different network interactions between plants and fungi in the soils in each site. In the formerly agricultural landscape, there were 15 plant species and just 37 fungi species, creating 62 links. In contrast, in the ecologically-healthy, undisturbed site, there were 12 plants and 76 fungi that created 148 links. This means networks in disturbed sites are more vulnerable to change.
Moreno-Mateos’ research could have implications for global ecosystem restoration. He believes restoration ecologists must “first understand how the complexity of ecosystems re-assembles over hundreds of years, and then find species that play critical structural and functional roles in the assembly process and use them in the restoration process.”
To increase the resilience of restored ecosystems at a more rapid rate, Moreno-Mateos called for sequencing whole genomes of species in recovering populations to understand their adaptation potential. This process would help identify populations of target species whose genomes have the best chance to adapt to ongoing global change.
The idea is to select species with critical ecological roles that come from populations with the highest adaptation potential and strategically insert them into recovering ecosystems. This process would involve finding populations of species in a landscape with high-functioning genomes and using those seeds to help restore ecological balance elsewhere.
Moreno-Mateos envisioned designing assemblages of high-performing plant communities and targeting them for tough environments in cities or for recovering forests or other ecosystems at a landscape scale.
“We need to imagine what landscapes will look like in 400 years.” Our future ecosystems must be “resilient to climate change, biodiverse, self-sustaining, provide ecological services, and last forever.”
Kate Orff, RLA, FASLA, is the founder and principal of SCAPE and also director of the Urban Design Program and Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). In 2017, Orff was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and, in 2019, SCAPE received the National Design Award in landscape architecture from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum.
On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans, which at that time was some 10 percent of the population, took to the streets during the first Earth Day, demanding greater protections for the environment and decisive action to improve human health and well-being. 50 years later, the movement is now global, with an estimated one billion participating each year. What role does collective action play in solving today’s climate and ecological crises? What role do landscape architects play?
Earth Day is a chance to pause, take stock of the planet that sustains us, and think and act beyond ourselves to reach the scale of the globe and all its inhabitants. Landscape architects are largely concerned with the “middle scale,” but Earth Day forces us to conceive of the planetary landscape, and what our role is in retrieving the Earth from its climate emergency status.
Our book Toward an Urban Ecology describes the potential of collective action at a landscape scale and gives many examples of digging in, showing up, ripping out, and gardening with your neighbors. At the same time, it’s important to keep focus on the more radical, insidious challenges in our carbon-intensive economy mapped out at a national scale in Petrochemical America, which depicts the American landscape as a machine for consuming oil and petrochemicals with profound impacts on ecosystems and communities.
I guess the lesson here is that on an individual level, we have to consume less. At a neighborhood level, we can work together to repair the landscapes in our immediate environs through community oyster gardening or invasive species removal in a patch of forest. And at a global scale, we have to radically and equitably decarbonize our economy and rebuild the wetland and intertidal landscapes disappearing before our eyes. Our installation at the Venice Biennale called Ecological Citizens bridges these scales of thought and action. Plenty to do!
What connections do you see between the COVID-19 pandemic and our climate and ecological problems? How are environmental and human health connected?
COVID 19 shines a spotlight on our health care system and existing social inequity. The pandemic is truly playing out as a human tragedy on so many levels. It also reveals the incredible and irreversible harm we are inflicting upon non-human species and our extreme interdependence on each other and the natural world.
Whether the virus was transmitted through a bat or pangolin, it’s a parable about the exploitation of “the other” that must stop. This April, 25 tons of pangolin scales were seized in Singapore, taken from nearly 40,000 of these endangered creatures. An estimated 2.7 million are poached every year. It boggles the mind.
On a positive note, one can imagine our “stay at home” behavior, which is intended to curb the pandemic, has the unintended consequences of lowering our personal carbon footprints; and leading us to care for each other more, make time to mend the landscapes in which we live, and prioritize the basics of happiness and survival — food, shelter, clean water, clean air, neighbors, family, and the core of what matters to you.
You founded SCAPE in 2007. Your office’s stated mission is to “enable positive change in communities through the creation of regenerative living infrastructure and public landscapes.” What is regenerative living infrastructure and why do communities need it?
Today’s society faces compounding risks: a climate emergency, increasing social and income stratification, and a biological apocalypse termed “the sixth extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert in her 2014 book of the same name. Together, these forces are rapidly tearing at the fabric of our entangled social and natural worlds. In every SCAPE project, we identify the capacity of design to repair that fabric and regenerate connections over time.
The aim is to not just deliver built work, but envision a program that begins to generate new ties between communities working in, living in, understanding, and loving the landscapes that sustain them. This could take the form of unlocking sediment trapped upstream to nourish protective bay landscapes and cushion the impacts of extreme weather and sea level rise.
For decades, infrastructure has been constructed as “single-purpose,” often designed by engineers to isolate one element of a system and solve for one problem. For example, on Staten Island, during Superstorm Sandy, a levee designed to keep water out was overtopped, resulting in a “bathtub effect” of trapping water inside a neighborhood rather than keeping it out. People perished because of this catastrophic failure. In many places, metal bulkhead walls are being raised in anticipation of sea-level rise only to block drainage during major rain events, flooding adjacent blocks.
Regenerative landscape infrastructure helps to maintain the structure and function of ecosystems embedded in the built environment, accounting for complex systems. This has been the organizing mission of SCAPE: to bring holistic, landscape-driven, and time-based thinking into the places we inhabit.
Through Living Breakwaters in Tottenville, on Staten Island in New York, SCAPE created a layered approach to ecological and social resilience, including oyster habitat restoration on a series of near-shore breakwaters. Working with communities in Boston, SCAPE has developed visions for a more resilient Boston Harbor and Dorchester neighborhoods. What are the benefits of these resilient landscape approaches?
The resilience benefits of these projects are clear. We can’t just look at one facet of the future: We have to synthesize how climate shocks and stressors compound each other. Extreme heat will increase drought and poverty. Extreme hurricanes will increase long-term rainfall projections used as a base for design efforts. How will these shocks and stressors combine to impact people and shape our future?
Robust, intact landscapes can’t do everything, but they can absorb a range of intersectional challenges and create immense protective value. Part of SCAPE’s approach is to begin to address the “sixth extinction” in the intertidal zone, restoring landscapes and habitats for marine critters that could be a lifeline to the future. We not only envisioned the Living Breakwaters project. Over many years, we navigated a federal, state, and local regulatory and budget environment to make it happen. We have a unique perspective on how to advance these kinds of projects despite many roadblocks and challenges.
Our team just completed a long-term vision for the rapidly eroding Barataria Basin in Louisiana with an array of collaborators. This project combines marsh creation with bottomland reforestation, sediment diversions, and related landscape restoration and job creation strategies. A healthy and bountiful landscape means better economic opportunities for a wider range of people, rebounding shellfish and fisheries, and a coastal landscape that can absorb and adapt to a range of climate risks on the immediate horizon.
The Chattahoochee RiverLands is a vision to reconnect Metro Atlanta to its seminal river, building on a decades-long legacy of community planning in collaboration with the Trust for Public Land, Atlanta Regional Commission, Cobb County, and the City of Atlanta. It’s a radical effort to stitch together a historically fragmented public realm along a primary conduit – 125 miles of trail winding along the Chattahoochee that showcase the river’s ecology, history, and link into ongoing restoration and education efforts.
Rivers have such power to bring people together, link up disjointed places, and bring life and mobility into cities. For this project, we cut through red tape, charting a path of access through a mosaic of public and private lands. The overall vision was grounded in over 80 stakeholder and community sessions and events like “river rambles,” educational outings for focus groups to provide hands-on learning experiences.
Beyond its physical footprint, the goal of the RiverLands is to raise public awareness, improve connections and access, address a long legacy of environmental racism, expand mobility for underserved communities, and build on a strong regional legacy of water resource conservation and protection.
This effort is a testament to open and inclusive design processes structured to empower residents and to shift from conceiving design as a “master” plan to a method of workshopping and co-creating with constituents. Advanced floodplain warning systems and sensors can be integrated into these linear landscapes to ensure public safety.
Lastly, you are also a Professor at Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP), where you are director of the Urban Design program. What have you learned from your students – the next generation of leaders – about how to solve our challenges? What new ideas have really astounded you?
Over the past five years, I’ve done a series of studios focused on Water Urbanism – global studios to uncover how water, climate, and migration patterns combine to shape the future of cities. I’ve learned so much from this endeavor and working alongside my incredible co-teachers Geeta Mehta, Dilip Da Cunha, Thaddeus Pawlowski, Julia Watson, and others. We’ve traveled to Amman and Aqaba, Jordan; Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil; Can Tho, Vietnam; and four cities in India: Kolkata, Madurai, Varanasi and Pune, among others.
From our collaborators and students, I’ve learned that excellence emerges in the space between people – in open dialogue, hard work, and collaboration among people with diverse and international backgrounds with a shared purpose.
A few years back, I hosted “Water and Social Life in India,” a panel at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture with Geeta, Dilip, and Alpa Nawre. This session captured some of the big lessons for me. Over the years, we have learned water is not an abstract “issue” to be solved. To embrace a water-resilient future, we have to learn from past practices and small communities managing and communicating with each other. Designing with water is not just about adapting to changing conditions – it is also crucially about fostering forms of social life, maintenance, and care.