If it weren’t for us, bison and beavers might still roam Chicago, Illinois, the location of the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting and Expo. The absence of these keystone species, which once provided important roles in the continental water cycle, represents a marked shift in ecosystem functioning. However, landscape architects and engineers from Andropogon Associates and Biohabitats are thinking about how to bring back the ecosystem services these species once provided in order to more sustainably manage water.
“We’re not bringing bison back to the edge of Chicago where they would have been, but looking at their functionality, the lessons that can be learned from them,” said Keith Bowers, FASLA, president of Biohabitats. “We need to ask ourselves how we can turn it around and be these species.”
One way to start this process is by “thinking like a watershed,” Bowers said. “How different would our water management systems be if our states were configured around our watersheds?,” he asked. While humans have made political boundaries irrespective of these watersheds, ecosystems – and their associated wildlife – simply don’t follow suit. The divide between human perception and ecological realities is ubiquitous. Just as an example, 73 percent of people polled in Baltimore, Maryland, do not believe they live in a watershed. This misconception is even more present in other parts of the country.
Thinking like beavers or bison in their native watersheds could provide solutions. Bison, for example, create holes, or “wallows,” in the ground that are perfect for collecting rainwater. Beavers also play a critical ecological role by building dams, which increase riparian habitat and can help store millions of gallons of water underground, among other benefits. Perhaps one way for California to adjust to drought would be to think more like these creative animals, “with their small, highly-distributed water management systems” that are more aligned with the functionality of a watershed. Their smart approach is the “the exact opposite of water engineering that happens in California,” said Erin English, a senior engineer at Biohabitats.
Thinking about how nature functions on the molecular level can also offer solutions said Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon Associates. It’s at the molecular level “where life starts and where the future of the life on this planet will reside.”
Both Andropogon and Biohabitats have been leading the charge in designing landscapes that think like watersheds. The new U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington D.C. designed by Andropogon Associates and HOK was highlighted. This constructed landscape uses gravity and a set of planted terraces to move and cleanse water.
Mimicking nature’s functionality creates opportunities for more sustainable urban water management. Bowers said “we have to make that a priority.”
The natural habitats of pollinators are increasingly fragmented. The overwhelming majority of American agricultural landscapes use chemical pesticides and fertilizers. These factors contribute to the declining health of bees. At the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago, Heather Holm, Holm Design and Consulting; Danielle Bilot, Associate ASLA, Kudela & Weinheimer; Laurie Davies, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership; and James Schmelzer, building operations and management, General Services Administration (GSA) showed how landscape architects and designers can better design for bees. As Holm explained, 81 percent of plants are pollinated by insects, birds, or mammals. Of those plants, 33 percent are food crops.
Most people’s idea of a pollinator is the honeybee, a domesticated insect integral to modern U.S. agriculture. Hives of these bees are shipped throughout the country, following the blooms of food crops. The plight of the honeybee has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. We have learned how we should support them through the thoughtful planting of bee-friendly plants, but less has been written about native bees, let alone the other pollinators.
We must not forget about other pollinators like native bees. North America boasts upwards of 4,000 native bee species, with 200-500 individual species per state. These native species are proven to be more efficient pollinators than the honeybee. As Bilot explained, 200 native bees have the efficiency of 10,000 honeybees. The difference is one of range: the larger the bee, the further they can travel to forage. The honeybee is able to travel a few miles from its hive to foraging opportunities, while the smaller native bee is only able to travel slightly under 1,000 feet. So this means native bees can accomplish more intensive pollination in a small area.
Designing for the smallest specialist bee to the larger generalist bee requires a thoughtful approach. Recognizing that “every urban center has at least 10 percent of its land use area dedicated to parking,” Bilot proposed a plan to connect rural and suburban foraging habitats of the native bees through urban parking lots. This would provide even the smallest bee with foraging opportunities through habitat corridors.
Adams urged all landscape architects and designers to incorporate pollinator-friendly designs “into everything you do.” The Pollinator Partnership has info for everyone from clients to designers, and all resources are free. As Adams said, there’s “a lot of good information out there. You don’t have to invent it, you just have to access it.”
Learning about the different pollinators in your community is the first step. Then, bring passion and commitment to creating a space for pollinators. Even small spaces can go a long way in bolstering declining populations of bees and butterflies, while helping to create healthy, sustainable, and beautiful communities for us, too.
As our landscapes become increasingly fragmented and degraded, landscape architects and designers are grappling with how to deal with invasive and non-native plants that form “novel ecosystems.” Given each one of these systems is different, there are complicated issues that require a thoughtful and strategic approach. Ecologist Stephen Murphy from the University of Waterloo joined Travis Beck, ASLA, director of horticulture at the Mt. Cuba Center, and Larry Weaner, Affiliate ASLA, Larry Weaner Landscape Associates, to discuss strategies for designers at the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago.
A novel ecosystem, as Murphy defined, is as an ecosystem that has “crossed an ecological or socio-economic threshold so it’s no longer possible, or at least feasible, to restore the system to some kind of historical range of variation.” For example, Chicago’s original ecosystem has far passed this threshold: It’s simply unfeasible to tear down the entire city to restore the prairie. Each novel ecosystem is fragmented to a different degree. And the more edges these systems have, the more opportunity for invasives to take hold.
An invasive plant is a “highly competitive plant or animal species” that is able to rapidly colonize because it doesn’t have any competition and is therefore able to become the dominant species. The reality is that a novel ecosystem may never be free of invasive plants, but there are ways to manage them.
Most designers already work in novel ecosystems, so the issue isn’t necessarily whether they are good or bad. Instead the question is how to design within these systems. As Beck, author of Principles of Ecological Landscape Design pointed out, one need only look at the ASLA 2015 professional award winners to see numerous examples of “naturalistic plantings with high ecological value that blend seamlessly with the surrounding landscape.” Here’s an example of a naturalistic planting in a wetland park in China.
Weaner sees novel ecosystems as an opportunity to “preserve the propagules,” seeds or cuttings of plants. Many native plants are found in these mixed human-created and natural ecosystems and their seeds can be collected.
Beck offered some useful tips. Reduce novel landscape fragmentation by identifying and prioritizing land to restore. If given the opportunity to start from scratch, begin again with a clean seed bed — in other words, fresh soil without embedded seeds from other places. If not, clean up the edges of novel landscapes by removing invasive plants while leaving desirable seedlings. Only small shifts in species composition may be possible at first. A simplified, but well-considered plant palette is important for ease of maintenance.
Working with these concepts is tricky. All of the speakers caution that there is no right answer. Each site requires a different approach.
Conservationists are becoming enemies of nature, according to a new book The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation by environmental journalist Fred Pearce. Drawing primarily on examples from the United Kingdom and remote islands across the world, the book challenges the long-held belief that keeping out non-native species and returning ecosystems to a pre-human state are the only ways to save nature as we know it. Calling this line of thinking unproductive at best, Pearce states that seeking only to conserve and protect endangered and weak species becomes a brake on evolution, a douser of adaptation. “If we want to assist nature to regenerate, we need to promote change, rather than hold it back,” he writes.
Though his criticism of traditional conservation perspectives that advocate for restoring ecosystems may appear controversial, Pearce isn’t pushing for an “anything goes” mentality, nor does he believe people should stop trying to save endangered species. Rather, he says it’s important to separate our emotional needs from the needs of the environment. “We have a legitimate need to curb excesses and a legitimate desire to protect what we like best. But we should be clear that when we do this, it is for ourselves and not for nature, whose needs are rather different.” With few, if any, pristine ecosystems left on earth, Pearce ultimately concludes we need to begin embracing a “new wild” that will be different from our old visions of the wild. This new kind of nature may include species that are foreign and unfamiliar, but it will be more resilient than ever before.
The first section of the book begins with stories of places where human-introduced species have thrived, often doing the ecosystem jobs that native species could not accomplish. One such place is Ascension Island in the tropical South Atlantic, which has an entirely synthetic cloud forest ecosystem that includes a mix of species shipped in by the British navy during the early- to mid-nineteenth century. The island, which is home to Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, is now home to around three hundred introduced species of plants that “have bucked the standard theory that complexity emerges only through co-evolution.”
Pearce then addresses the myths we have about conservation and alien species. He states that many conservationist’s attempts to “fix” nature have been almost comically unsuccessful. Billions of dollars have been spent trying to eliminate alien species, yet the failure rate for these project has been alarming. Of the 43 projects aimed at eradicating or controlling alien species in the Galapagos Islands – often considered the mecca for conservation research – only nine have been successful. Now the head of restoration at the Charles Darwin Research Station, Mark Gardener, has raised the white flag on eradicating aliens. “As scientists and conservationists, we need to recognize that we’ve failed. Galapagos will never be pristine,” he told Science magazine in 2011. If Galapagos, with its rich history of native species preservation, is moving in this direction, it is only a matter of time before other regions follow suit.
The last section of The New Wild is a call to action, presenting opportunities for remediating environmental damage caused by humans. The most compelling chapter of the book is the core of this section, in which Pearce discusses industrial sites as potential hot spots for biodiversity. Though few conservationists protest when industrial sites are built over, they often fail to recognize that these sites often support more scarce wild species than farmed land. According to Pearce, nature persists, even flourishes, in the most unlikely, most damaged, and apparently least natural environments. And experts throughout the book agree. “Brownfield sites are as important for biodiversity as ancient woodlands, yet we are encouraging people to build on them,” Matt Shardlow of the United Kingdom conservation organization Buglife says in the book. “It’s the combination of habitats that is so rare. There are very bare areas, basking places, short grasses … and bits of wetland. Trail-biking youths and illicit bonfires ensure that trees never take over. Feral urban Britain turns out to be a wildlife paradise.”
This knowledge that environments we perceive as the most unnatural and the most developed are actually some of the most ecologically-rich has the potential to completely turn our picture of nature on its head. We may have to rethink landscapes we may have previously considered nature, such as “pesticide-soaked” agricultural fields.
Though parts of the book are reminiscent of American journalist Emma Marris’ groundbreaking book the Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, The New Wild benefits from Pearce’s unique voice and his extensive experience as an environmental journalist. Pearce presents each of his arguments in such a persuasive way that it often becomes hard to imagine conclusions more logical than those he has come to. Though equally as readable and controversial as the Rambunctious Garden, The New Wild takes Marris’ arguments about creating hybrid ecosystems that combine wild nature and human management a step forward, offering concrete ways conservationists, restoration ecologists, and landscape architects can help the natural world adapt.
Humanity is placing inordinate demands on nature, and it just keeps getting worse. In 2000, humanity had exceeded its “ecological budget” by October. This year, “Earth Overshoot Day” was August 13, according to the Global Footprint Network, a California-based environmental think tank. Earth Overshoot Day marks the moment “when humanity’s annual demands on nature exceed what Earth can regenerate that year.” This is yet another wake-up call that sustainable global development hasn’t taken root despite two decades of effort. Humanity currently needs 1.6 Earths to cover what we take from nature each year.
Global Footprint Network doesn’t quantify how the accumulated deficits have impacted the long-term ecological health of the planet, but they say they are a cause for alarm. “It is not clear whether a sustained level of overuse is possible without significantly damaging long-term biocapacity, with consequent impacts on consumption and population growth.” In other words, damaging Earth’s long-term capacity to provide ecosystem services could result in lower levels of overall services, and that means fewer crops, fish, trees, and less fresh water.
The biggest cause of the overshoot is, of course, skyrocketing carbon emissions, which demand that nature sequester carbon at far higher rates than is possible. The group says that carbon sequestration make up more than half of the total demand on nature. Other demands take the form of energy, fishing, timber and paper production, food and fiber, and settlements.
Global Footprint Network includes settlements because they believe once land has been developed, its basic ecological functions have essentially been made “non-productive.” While sustainable design practices can help make even developed land restore some its original ecological productivity, the group is largely correct because these practices are still not widespread. Estimates put the total share of green buildings worldwide at just a few percentage points, if that, and there is no data on worldwide sustainable designed landscapes.
The costs of “ecological overspending” are also clear. As carbon dioxide levels exceed the Earth’s absorptive capabilities, the excess enters the atmosphere, warming it. On the ground, the ongoing struggle between the expansion of human settlements and expanding agricultural production results in deforestation, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and reductions in fresh water availability. Cropland, grazing land, and developed land all tax nature’s ecological carrying capacity as they reduce its regenerative abilities. “All these demands compete for space. As more is being demanded for food and timber products, fewer productive areas are available to absorb carbon from fossil fuel.”
According to these charts, the biocapacity of the U.S. has been falling while the ecological footprint, with periodic jumps up and down, has largely held steady. But this really means that the deficit between the available biocapacity and the U.S.’s ecological footprint is only growing. China’s biocapacity has largely held steady, while it’s ecological footprint has exploded beginning around 2000, only expanding the gap. Japan now requires 5.5 Japans to support one actual Japan each year: Its biocapacity continues to shrink while its ecological footprint has only increased. But, interestingly, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s biocapacity has actually grown dramatically — one of the few positive environment outcomes from that oil and gas exporter — while its ecological footprint shrank but is now creeping up again.
As part of the interactive map, the organization lists all the countries that are a “biocapacity reserve,” meaning they produce materials and consume resources far below the levels that tax nature’s abilities. These are mostly developing countries in Africa, South America, and the Middle East, along with developing countries with huge environmental bounties like Brazil.
And then, also the countries that have biocapacity deficits, meaning they consume and produce far more than their natural environments can sustain. These countries are wealthy, urbanized countries like Singapore, Japan, and Israel.
These compelling tools demonstrate what many environmentalist believe — that the Earth’s ledger is out of balance. As the famed biologist E.O. Wilson wrote in The Future of Life, one of his best books, “the constraints of the biosphere are fixed.” This means that either the earth’s biocapacity needs to be increased, or human consumption and production need to be decreased to reach a sustainable balance.
Already, the Earth has 7 billion people, with the numbers just growing each year. E.O. Wilson and other scientists have pointed to the number 10 billion as the ultimate maximum capacity. While techno-utopians believe there will be a new green revolution that will only increase the productivity of agriculture, what about the never-ending growth of grazing animals? They are not ecological assets. Wilson argues that “if everyone agreed to become vegetarian, leaving little or nothing for livestock, the present 1.4 billion hectares of arable land (3.5 billion acres) would support about 10 billion people.”
And what about forests? What new approaches can increase forests’ capacity beyond a commitment to protecting them and planting more trees? A new special report in Science argues that the world’s major forest biomes are struggling despite the best efforts of dedicated forestry officials around the world.
Global Footprint Network experts see the rise of renewable energy sources like wind and solar as one of the most positive steps in helping to keep every country in its ecological budget.
Frank Gehry Agreed to Make Over the L.A. River — With One Big Condition– The Los Angeles Times, 8/9/15
“Frank Gehry and the Los Angeles River: It’s a combination that makes zero sense (if you’re looking strictly at Gehry’s resume) and follows a natural logic (if you think about the interest the architect’s work has long shown in L.A.’s linear infrastructure and its overlooked, harder-to-love corners).”
Frank Gehry, Not a Landscape Architect, Will Help Re-Work L.A. River. Why?– The Los Angeles Times, 8/11/15
“While Frank Gehry, who will draft the master plan for the redevelopment of the Los Angeles River, is certainly one of the most talented and revolutionary architects of our time, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s comparison of him to the greatest landscape architect in North America — and yes, this is a separate credentialed profession — is nearsighted.”
Into the Current–The Architect’s Newspaper, 8/12/15
“News that Gehry Partners is at work on a new master plan of the Los Angeles River took Angelenos by surprise late last week. While some had heard rumors for weeks, others were caught off guard by the somewhat strange combination.”
In my first year studying for a landscape architecture degree, our textbook for a course on environmental resources was thick, heavy, and weighed down in page upon page of extraneous jargon that obscured the portions that were legitimately interesting and useful. It’s too bad Conservation for Cities: How to Plan & Build Natural Infrastructure, by Robert McDonald, wasn’t around. Even at a quarter the length, it provides exponentially more value – not only for professionals and students in landscape architecture, engineering, planning, and the like, but also city officials, community leaders, and anyone interested in the benefits of integrating natural infrastructure into our cities.
“The twenty-first century will be the fastest period of urban growth in human history,” says McDonald, who is also senior scientist for sustainable land use at the Nature Conservancy. Will this lead to a dystopian end of nature, as predicted by some conservationists? Or will we build cities that exist in co-harmony with nature? “If the city’s plans [to integrate natural infrastructure] are conducted, what is the cumulative effect? What will the city look like? What will it feel like to live in this greener, more resilient city?”
While these are some questions we can only fully answer in the future, McDonald gives us a practical manual for getting there. McDonald’s approach – using conservation for cities – is the product of a framework rooted in the concept of ecosystem services, the many benefits nature can provide us. This is in contrast to conservation in cities, which refers to protecting biodiversity in areas or urban growth; and conservation by cities, the act of making cities more efficient in resource-use and expenditure. Conservation for cities “aims to figure out how to use nature to make the lives of those in cities better. Rather than focusing on how to protect nature from cities, this book is about how to protect nature for cities.”
City leaders make decisions based on qualitative and quantitative assessments and then implement strategies, which then must be tracked for success or failure. McDonald spends the core of the book going over mapping, valuation, assessment, implementation, and monitoring methods for ten key areas of ecosystem benefits, each with its own chapter: drinking water protection; stormwater; floodwater; coastal protection; shade; air purification; aesthetic value; recreation value and physical health; parks and mental health; and the value of biodiversity in cities.
When possible, McDonald refers to specific formulas, models, software, and other tools that have proven the most successful. For the more casual reader, these technical details are easy to skim. For the professional looking for practical approaches, these details will likely be useful. It’s also worth noting here that the graphics in this pre-publication proof are somewhat sparse, and tend towards the schematic. Additional footnotes, photographs, and illustrations may be included in the finished book.
Despite the proficient use of market valuation processes, economic indicators, and the like for assessing ecosystem services, McDonald also understands that the value of nature is simply beyond human measures. While professionals and advocates for natural infrastructure are also likely to appreciate the inherent value of nature, that value is difficult to use as an argument against grey infrastructure approaches. Value is calculated in fairly strict black and white economic terms these days.
McDonald uses the “dry and academic” term ecosystem services “because it is standard in the field now, and it makes clear the economic value of nature’s benefits. But [he hopes that] the reader haven’t lost sight of the fact that always behind ecosystem services are people’s lives.”
It’s McDonald’s hope that “rather than completely bending nature to our will, we could bend our will to match nature’s pathways, at least a little bit. The science of ecosystem services gives us some of the crucial tools to follow these other pathways, if we have the love to follow them.”
For those who feel the love, Conservation for Cities offers a compelling trail head to these pathways of the future. I kept thinking I might use that old environmental resources textbook as a resource one day. This year, I finally donated it to make room on the shelf for other books. Conservation for Cities, however, is likely to stay there for quite some time.
Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is the founder of Mitsui Design and director of the Jewish outdoor, food, and environmental education fellowship at Hazon, the country’s leading Jewish environmental organization.
Last month, Pope Francis released Care for Our Common Home, a powerful encyclical designed to build the moral case for improving the environment and fighting climate change. He calls the climate a “common good” and decries the “abuse” of the environment that supports all of humanity. The Vatican published the encyclical in advance of Pope Francis’ just-concluded tour of South America, his September tour of the U.S., and the critical UN climate change summit in Paris in December. At each stop in his South American tour, he made the case for environmentally and socially-responsible development, arguing that it’s the only way to save both the environment and help the poor. For example, in Ecuador, he said: “The goods of the Earth are meant for everyone, and however much someone may parade his property, it has a social mortgage.” Pope Francis join hands with the environmental movement, rallying the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to pressure global leaders to act.
Pope Francis isn’t the first pope to weigh in on environmental issues. As he writes in the encyclical, Saint John Paul II “warned that human beings frequently seem ‘to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.'” And his immediate predecessor Benedict XVI also proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth that have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment,” essentially calling for a new, sustainable approach to development.
However, Pope Francis goes further than his predecessors. He writes: “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” He backs the scientific consensus that humans have caused climate change. He blames over-consumption and rampant capitalism for our predicament. “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production, and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”
Pope Francis doesn’t just focus on climate change; he also addresses the health problems associated with pollution, the growth of non-biodegradable waste, the lack of fresh drinking water, the loss of biodiversity, and, finally, the “decline of human life and the breakdown in society” caused by environmental degradation.
He blames the lack of global action on the environment on money-driven self-interest and campaigns of disinformation led by special interests. “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.”
To create a sustainable long-term solution, Pope Francis calls for a new relationship between humanity and nature. As Naomi Klein writes in The New Yorker, it may be one of the most radical policy changes by a major religion ever.
Klein writes: “Challenging anthropocentrism is ho-hum stuff for ecologists, but it’s something else for the pinnacle of the Catholic Church. You don’t get much more human-centered than the persistent Judeo-Christian interpretation that God created the entire world specifically to serve Adam’s every need. As for the idea that we are part of a family with all other living beings, with the earth as our life-giving mother, that too is familiar to eco-ears. But from the Church? Replacing a maternal Earth with a Father God, and draining the natural world of its sacred power, were what stamping out paganism and animism were all about.”
She adds: “By asserting that nature has a value in and of itself, Francis is overturning centuries of theological interpretation that regarded the natural world with outright hostility—as a misery to be transcended and an ‘allurement’ to be resisted.”
Beyond the new understanding of nature as an ecological system is a renewed focus on the world’s poor. Pope Francis believes the rich have an obligation to aid the world’s poor, who will be most negatively impacted by climate change. This is the crux of the moral argument for action.
He writes: “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.”
To be Catholic now is to be an ecologist and activist. This can only be a step in the right direction.
But Pope Francis will face tough critics in the U.S., particularly in the U.S. Congress, where he has been invited to speak in September. Already Republican Presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have dismissed his efforts, inviting him to “stay out of politics.”
It’s too soon to tell the impact of the encyclical and the Vatican’s broader efforts on climate change, but Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, says in The Guardian that “you should never underestimate the soft power of moral arguments.”
During the early and mid-twentieth century, New York City constructed a massive transportation system, layering elevated highways, subway tracks, and rail lines to create the complicated web we are familiar with today. While this network has undoubtedly contributed to NYC’s physical and economic growth, it has also provided an untapped public asset: 700 miles of unused space (nearly four times the size of Central Park) beneath the city’s elevated transportation infrastructure.
In a comprehensive new report resulting from a two-year-long study, the Design Trust for Public Space and NYC Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) highlight sustainable ways to rethink these residual spaces. Addressing complex problems such as noise, safety, and lighting, the new study builds off of the success of the Design Trust’s 2002 study, Reclaiming the High Line (“the study that catalyzed efforts to save and reprogram the decommissioned rail line”). The result is a comprehensive document intended to inspire public and private investment in some of the city’s most neglected public spaces.
In an introductory essay that discusses New York’s elevated railways (or “els”), Thomas Campanella, an associate professor in Cornell University’s city and regional planning department, frames the importance of the study, stating: “The demesne of the elevated— I’ll call it “el-space” here— is neither tranquil nor serene, but it’s not without poetry. The root of its allure is the close juxtaposition of human life and heavy industrial infrastructure.”
In many ways, the elevated railroad is a relic of an age before zoning when people, especially the poor, were forced to live in hazardously close proximity to the factories where they worked. And while the els remains popular today — particularly in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx — Campanella claims that the fact that el-space “is almost universally described as dark and oppressive is an inaccurate cliché.” The quality of light beneath elevated tracks can be “exquisite” and the sense of enclosure created by the columns “yields an effect reminiscent of an avenue of mature trees … a kind of sturdy steampunk Elm Street.” Such sentiments are the first inklings of design inspiration the study provides.
Focusing in on elevated train lines rather than elevated highways, which are more relevant in other U.S. cities, the Design Trust for Public Space first assessed the inventory of existing el-space to identity opportunities and constraints. Surprisingly, these opportunities and constraints have largely remained unchanged since the 1960s when Jane Jacobs called attention to them in her seminal book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities. These physical structures divide low-incomes neighborhoods and produce noise, darkness, and dirt; on the other hand, the els have also brought people, commerce and cultural vibrancy to these areas. The call is the same now as it was then: Reconnect communities divided and affected by elevated infrastructure and turn these el-spaces into a positive resource.
So, in 2014, 146 year after the construction of the first el, is NYC any closer to reclaiming these spaces? The study explores the potential uses of el-spaces from site strategies to their associated policies, relying heavily on research and case studies from across the country to inspire designers, planners, and policymakers to action. The good news is that many of these spaces are already being reclaimed for a variety of public uses. Potential uses highlighted in the study include:
In Flushing, Queens, the Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) System, invented by DLANDstudio, uses a low-cost, flexible, plant-based system to collect and filter stormwater from drainpipes on the elevated highways that run through Flushing Meadows Corona Park. This system absorbs and filters pollutants such as oil, heavy metals, and grease out of the water that drain off of the elevated highways, leading to cleaner runoff entering the city’s waterways. The system’s ability to retain water during heavy rain events also helps reduce flooding.
In 2002, the redesign of Queens Plaza was one of the first comprehensive el-space improvement projects in New York City. A group of designers and engineers was selected to transform Queens Plaza into Dutch Kills Green, a new park with well-lit green pathways in the heart of the Long Island City commercial district. In an article for Urban Omnibus, the project’s landscape architect, Margie Ruddick, ASLA, says that “rather than using a harsh, urban language, we tried to find a language through which lushness and beauty could coexist with the hard edge of infrastructure. The linear landscape of medians and streetscape meet in Dutch Kills Green, and this convergence, for me, challenges the notion of an urban park because its surroundings are so inhospitable. This juxtaposition would have seemed inappropriate several years ago. But these days it’s becoming more prevalent.”
In 2011, the New York City Economic Development Council (NYCEDC) and the City Council combined forces to modernize underutilized market space, add new retail space, and construct a kitchen incubator underneath the Park Avenue elevated train station between 115th and 116th Streets in El Barrio. Despite significant public investment in the area, “the new La Marqueta has struggled to attract visitors and retain retailers.” Yet just a block north of La Marqueta at 116th Street, salsa dancers have congregated under the tracks every Saturday evening in the summer months for years. In an attempt to revive the informal spirit the market once had, City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito launched La Marqueta Reto (La Marqueta Reblooms) in 2014, an initiative to bring street vendors, a farmers market, and other community events back into the space.
Before New Lots Triangle Plaza in East New York, Brooklyn, was completed in 2011, subway riders exited from the train onto a narrow sidewalk with minimal protection from oncoming traffic. NYC Department of Transportation worked with the New Lots Avenue Triangle Merchants Association to join an 800-foot traffic triangle with nearby sidewalks and the exit of the three elevated train lines to create a 3,800-square-foot public space that is protected from traffic by decorative planters. According to the NYC DOT, the plaza has made the area safer for pedestrians and created “an immediate impact on business by encouraging pedestrians to linger longer in the area and visit businesses, boosting the local economy.”
In a dense city like New York, residual spaces under elevated transportation infrastructure can no longer be an afterthought — and these spaces in NYC are only a small piece of the more than 7,000 miles available for reclamation in cities across the country. The Design Trust for Public Space report further emphasizes the need for adaptive reuse of these spaces, looking at the infrastructure that gets us from point a to point b and creating a much-needed public space as point c.
Several years ago ASLA created an animation to introduce people to the concept of reusing transportation infrastructure as public spaces, including underpass parks. The video, which is a part of Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes, a project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), can be viewed below:
We work in a small, but timely profession. Our potential to impact the neighborhoods, communities, and cities where we work is huge. Though landscape architecture professionals make up just a small fraction of the design field, ours is the work that is the first to be seen. Ours is the work that brings function and beauty to parks, plazas, campuses, institutions, and transportation corridors. Ours is a profession that blends the power of design with ecological principals and environmental justice. And because we are few and far between, we have to advocate for what we know.
The responsibility is on us to make our voices heard, not for our own betterment, but for the sake of our communities.
Public awareness is growing around a range of big issues, from humanity’s need for nature to improve our health, to watersheds, drought, and climate change. And yet, those in our profession most able to speak intelligently on these issues, to guide our communities towards thoughtful solutions, remain silent too often.
Those who fill the void may be knowledgeable in some respects, but often they simply have a good sound bite. The media won’t know to ask a landscape architect for a solution, suggestion, or comment if they don’t know what landscape architects can do. And most of them don’t.
We need to educate our media, politicians, and the public on the issues we care most about. In addition to keeping each other informed about lessons learned from the field, landscape architects need to write letters to the editor, speak at city council meetings and land-use committee meetings, and join non-profit boards and advisory groups. We need to present ideas to civic groups, garden clubs, and parent groups. And we’re not talking about advocating for the profession: we’re talking about advocating for our quality of life.
We urge you to:
Advocate for regionally and micro climate-appropriate design that minimizes resource use while maximizing benefits;
Speak out to conserve existing habitat and create new parks, wildlife habitats, and greenway corridors;
Call for nature playgrounds and natural systems in our schools, parks, and institutions to increase human access to nature and its physical, mental, and educational benefits;
Ask for more flexible policies to support rainwater capture, graywater reuse, and recycled water use and reduce unnecessary use of potable water;
Fight to ban plastic materials, such as bags, bottles, furnishings, and grass, to stop the incessant addition of toxins into our oceans and food chain;
Advocate for more transit and pedestrian and bicycle options and mixing land uses to cut our need for automobiles;
Specify local, non-toxic, reclaimed, and reclaimable natural materials;
Educate the public about the need to design with plants that provide food for pollinators and people.
Our firm is widely known in Los Angeles, and beyond, for being vocal. We go to public meetings about water conservation, school sites, citizen science, agriculture, forests, and the Los Angeles River. We go to lectures about climate change, drought, food deserts, park poverty, water quality, and environmental justice. We listen, form opinions, speak and write. We get our voices heard.
We might annoy you. And that’s okay. Because we believe we can make a difference in where we live and how we live to make a better future for all of us. And we hope you do, too.
This guest op-ed is by Mia Lehrer + Associates, an internationally-known, award-winning firm made up of landscape architects, urban designers, environmental planners, and a team of multidisciplinary designers based in Los Angeles. Read their recent op-ed in The Los Angeles Times.