Suburban Sprawl Increases the Risk of Future Pandemics

Suburban expansion into remnant habitat / La Citta Vita, Flickr

By Michael Grove, ASLA

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.

Biodiversity hotspot map of the Indo-Burma ecoregion / Atlas for the End of the World

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.

Increase of infected tick populations in fragmented forests / National Science Foundation, Nicolle Rager Fuller

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.

Suburban development approaching agricultural land and remnant forest in Portland, Oregon / Google Earth

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.

Common bird species in urban and suburban Brisbane, Australia / Paula Peeters

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.

Figure-ground diagram of Helsinki’s green fingers / Schwarz Plan

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.

Are We Ready to Restore the Planet?

Ancient Norse farms in southwest Greenland / David Moreno-Mateos

The United Nations has declared the next 10 years the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. This builds on the European Union’s recent commitments to biodiversity protection, including the restoration of 15 percent of its ecosystems. The New York Declaration on Forests — which is a result of the United Nation’s 2014 Climate Action Summit and has been endorsed by 200 governments and other groups — aims to restore 350 million hectares of forests by 2030. Another initiative is the 30 by 30 forests, food, and land challenge, which calls for reforestation on a global scale, also by 2030.

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.

David Moreno-Mateos samples soils in Greenland / David Moreno-Mateos

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.

Adaptation modules / David Moreno-Mateos

“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.”

Listen to the Ecosystem; Design with Sound

There are three primary types of sound in our environments. There is geophony, which is the sound made by geophysical forces like rain, snow, rivers, ice, and cobble stones; biophony, which is the “sound of life,” including birds, frogs, and other animals; and anthropony, which is the “sound we make” through air conditioners, trains, and cars that creates a “low hum, like the base drum of the world.” In every soundscape, one component of sound dominates: NYC is clearly defined by its anthropony, while the Brazilian rainforest is one of the purest expressions of biophony. Soundscapes are the acoustic representations of a place and can be conserved, enhanced, or actively managed.

According to Chris Streb, an ecological engineer with Biohabitats, who presented at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego, sound is also a “powerful component of placemaking.” Soundscapes can be analyzed, planned, and then designed.

“Our sense of hearing is often overlooked, but sound is critical. It’s our first sense in our mothers’ wombs — the sound of our mother’s voice.”

Humans can hear farther than they can see. Nature, in fact, privileges sound. “All higher vertebrate animals have hearing but not all have sight.” Without sound, many species, like birds, which rely on song to attract mates, wouldn’t be able to reproduce. Other species, like whales, even create “pop songs” that can go viral, spreading through their oceanic communities. “We think they create songs to impress their mates.” Predators rely on sound to capture prey, and prey use the same sense to evade being eaten.

In a world filled with Anthropogenic noise, “we are forgetting how to listen,” which is a shame because we can learn a great deal from hearing to the natural world. For example, if you listen carefully, you can tell the temperatures from the frequency of the chirps of the Snowy Tree Cricket (Oecanthus fultoni).

Through the noise we make, we are not only “interfering with our own experience of nature” but also nature’s ability to communicate. Frogs, for example, stop their chorus for up to 45 minutes after being disturbed by a “big noise.” Being silent for that long makes them more vulnerable to predators and also stops them from mating.

The health of an ecosystem can in part be determined by the sound it makes. The traditional method of analyzing the vitality of an ecosystem is to use jars and nets to capture fish, butterflies, birds, bats, and other critters. Another common approach is a Bioblitz in which a group of citizen scientists scour a given territory and count all species in a given time frame. The problem is these kinds of surveying are “very labor intensive, take lots of people, and also stressful on the animals themselves.”

Instead, a soundscape analysis conducted many times a day can be “worth a thousand pictures.” The depth and variety of sounds in an ecosystem can provide a metric for species density and diversity.

Streb showed a slide of an expanse of woods that had been recorded both before and after it was thinned out through logging. A base level was created to capture the sound of the stream and bird chatter, and then after the logging, recorded again. “The soundscape was totally different,” with a noticeable reduction in the amount of sound.

According to Lauren Mandel, ASLA, an associate and researcher at landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates, “soundscape mapping” can help landscape architects maximize geophonic and biophonic sounds humans and animals naturally gravitate to and minimize the anthropogenic sounds that create a negative physiological response.

Working with Michael Mandel, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, who brought deep expertise in how to apply digital tools to measure the quantity and quality of sounds, Andropogon mapped the sounds of the 6,800-acre Shield Ranch in Austin, Texas, as part of a master plan that determined areas of development and preservation. One goal was to protect the the most vital ecological soundscapes while allowing anthropogenic noise in areas that are already impacted by human sounds. Areas in red on the map had the largest amount of anthroponic noise.

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Honor Award. From Pixels to Stewardship: Advancing Conservation Through Digital Innovation. Andropogon, Austin, Texas / Andropogon

Michael Mandel said measuring the sound along the river and amid canyons of the ranch was challenging, as “sound travels in waves and ripples through the air, and when sound waves encounter a solid object, they bounce off, echo.” On a mountain top, for example, the case is “if you can see something, you can hear it.” But in other areas where echoes happen, “there are things you can hear but can’t see.”

And at the 2,500-acre Avalon Park & Preserve in Stony Brook, Long Island, which includes a diverse range of landscapes such as forests and tidal marshes, Andropogon also created a soundscape map that not only helped plan and design a new 7-acre park within the landscape, but also schedule public events and educational programs.

After a BioBlitz that identified the number of species at Avalon, Andropogon and their team set up audio recording devices to measure the type and decibel levels of natural and human sounds throughout the site. With sound meters purchased on Amazon.com, they conducted three readings a day in different locations. Andropogon also brought in local middle school and elementary school students to help with sound measurements. Older kids used a checklist while younger ones had a “visually-oriented form with images instead of words,” said Lauren Mandel.

While capturing decibels is useful, “getting measurements of sound quality is much more valuable.” Breaking the site into zones, Andropogon discovered the most pleasant sounding spaces were near meadows and forests, while the least pleasant next to a road crossing. The analysis led them to put a large sculpture, which was initially planned for a space in the woods, an area with a very high sound quality, in a place with a low sound quality. Visiting the sculpture is an anthropogenic experience anyway and bringing high numbers of visitors into the woods would only degrade the sound quality there. Thoughtful efforts like these helped increase the biodiversity in Avalon by 35 percent.

Avalon Park & Preserve / Andropogon, Landscape Performance Series

Sound guided the program schedule for spaces, too. To avoid “sonic conflicts,” they didn’t organize yoga at the same time as lawn mowing or mechanical pruning. And they also scheduled programs for kids when birds were their at their noisiest. “We shifted the program based on sound.”

Mandel explained how urban soundscapes can also be managed. Designers can use buildings, walls, and trees to dampen sounds. Reducing urban noise in green spaces increases their habitat value. And audio recordings of birdsong can be added to spaces to help reduce the negative impacts of anthropogenic noise.

Soundscape mapping can be done at the very large scale as well. Artificial intelligence is being programmed to listen to thousands of hours of recordings of Caribou and migrating birds made across millions of square kilometers of Alaska in order to analyze the ecosystem impacts of climate change or oil and gas exploration. The same systems can also be used to measure the effectiveness of ecological restoration efforts, explained Michael Mandel.

Artificial intelligence is already helping sound become a more mainstream species identification tool. Birdnet uses machine learning to help users identify what bird they have heard.

Landscape Architects Must Become Planners

Sasaki.jpg
Songzhuang Arts and Agriculture City / Sasaki

Landscape architects need to become urban planners and work “upstream” in policy and regulatory processes to ensure public space leads urban placemaking efforts. That is the argument Michael Grove, ASLA, chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki; Brian Jeneck, ASLA, director of planning at HOK; and Michael Johnson, ASLA, principal at SmithGroup made at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C.

Grove linked the current misalignment between public space and private development to the long history of “decoupling policy making and placemaking.” Urban planners have led in the policy and regulatory-making realm while landscape architects have proven expertise in placemaking.

Landscape architects can instead lead and participate in urban policy-making through “upstream urbanism” while prioritizing public spaces as the dominant placemaking strategy in cities.

To illustrate the importance of this approach, Jeneck discussed the typical block structure of San Francisco, which is 360 feet by 360 feet, as it relates to floor area ration (FAR), or the amount of building area in relation to the size of a lot.

A four-story building occupying 50 percent of the site would have a floor area ratio of 2, which Jeneck notes is on the low end for urban development. Assuming the lot is the entire block, the dimensions of this building would be 180 feet by 360 feet, a footprint with an impractical amount of interior space.

This undesirable set of dimensions for a building can result in design teams creating assemblages of towers, which to achieve the same FAR could take up 70 percent of the site, greatly limiting public space. Developments like this happen because policy makers haven’t accounted for public space corridors and connections from the beginning.

The speakers set out five scales in which urban design takes place: regional plans, city general plans, city area plans, city-specific plans, and project plans.

Landscape architects are intimately familiar with the project scale, but need to shift up in scale towards the regional plan, affecting policy that begins to shape the form of the city.

HOK
Point of the Mountain Master Plan / HOK, Draper Site Design

Scaling up gives landscape architects a larger role in designing the broader framework in which smaller urban, area, and project plans must exist, a crucial role the profession is currently lacking.

According to Johnson, landscape architects’ ability to work with complex systems makes them a natural choice for managing the goals that must be met at each scale.

He gives the example of a set of scalar jumps, 1, 10, and 100. 1 is the site scale, the place landscape architects are currently most comfortable, 10 is the city scale, and 100 is governance and public policy.

All presenters looked at lessons from past planning movements in order to inform what a future landscape architect-led planning framework could look like.

They traced the history of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City and the influence of Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham on the City Beautiful Movement. While the Garden City and the City Beautiful movements were highly influential, they were also ensnared in class politics, giving them a green veneer without truly being equitable.

Cities account for 3 percent of our land area, but 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Getting the next generation of urban planning and design right is imperative.

Beth Meyer: Natural Beauty Has a Ripple Effect

Beth Meyer / National Building Museum

Beth Meyer, FASLA, the Merrill D. Peterson professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, is this year’s recipient of the Vincent Scully Prize, which is bestowed by the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C.

Just the second landscape architect to receive the prize, after Laurie Olin, FASLA, in 2017, Meyer is widely viewed as one of the most influential landscape architecture professors teaching today. Scully Prize jury chair Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk said: “she has left an indelible mark on theories of aesthetics, sustainability, culture, and social impact.”

In a wide-ranging, dynamic conversation at the NBM with her friend Thaïsa Way, the resident program director for garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Meyer demonstrated her ability to enlighten and create a sense of wonder. She helped the audience better understand the deep impact beauty has on us, particularly natural beauty in the public realm.

A few highlights from the conversation:

On how she formed her ideas: “I grew up in Virginia Beach as a Navy brat. I spent endless hours on beaches and boardwalks, walking the promenades and public spaces. There was every body shape and size imaginable.”

“I came to landscape architecture sideways. Visiting Norfolk, Virginia, in the mid-60s, I saw urban renewal projects demolish buildings and communities, and what was created as a replacement was not great stuff. I became interested in design really through demolition. I wanted to make cities better. I later discovered cities involve dynamic processes that result from political and social factors.”

“I found a niche between historian and designer. In landscape history, there had been an over-emphasis on ecology. I wanted to focus on cultural and social aspects and human agency.”

“I left my suburban life to study, work, and live in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Boston. Suburbia is so segregated, but I discovered that urban parks are outdoor living rooms where you encounter people who are not like you. By recognizing the humanity of a stranger different from you in public spaces, you develop empathy and tolerance, which is the basis of community and democracy.”

“Sitting outside alone is also an act of self care. There is an intimacy to being alone in public, which allows you to quiet the usual busyness and see each other. That intimacy creates conviviality and moments of connection, which is an act of self care.”

On how to understand the social, cultural, and political aspects of landscapes: “In Southern cities and towns, there is a racialized topography. Wealthy and white live up on the ridges; poor and black live in the bottoms, the bowls, which leads to temperature, health, economic, and social disparities. Analyzing power and race topographically provides a lens for understanding public space. Landscape is a text for reading issues of power and privilege.”

“I think a lot about who has the right to the city? Who has the right to linger in public spaces? How do you define lingering versus loitering? What if a park is the only place someone has to go to during the day?”

“I’m not into the theory of landscape urbanism. It doesn’t engage with the social and political. Landscapes are a framework.”

On the importance of natural beauty: “There is a real pleasure and joy in the experience of — and interaction with — plants that are changing. Places with plants can cause people to become distracted, to pause and wonder. Princeton University professor Elaine Scarry calls this ‘wonder in the face of beauty.’ It arrests time and causes us to care. When something beautiful happens, when the mist rises, there is a ripple effect on others.”

On why we need to design with nature: “Public spaces are more than human when we recognize the agency of soil, microbes, plants, and critters. There is this constellation of life in it together. We co-construct public space with other species. Interacting with the biophysical world also alters our mood and sensibility — and our ethos and ethics.”

On climate change: “To combat the threat, landscape architects can care for materials and small things; people’s need for public space and the ability to self care; and beauty. Design matters because it alters the ethos of people who use the spaces.”

“It’s not only humans that are feeling the threat of climate change. I saw a Dogwood tree outside of Dumbarton Oaks the other day that was blooming with browning leaves.”

On how positive change can happen: “I understand now that the aggregated experience of natural beauty among many people can change our collective mood and create a cultural shift.”

Now more than ever then, natural beauty is needed in our public spaces.

ASLA Announces 2019 Professional & Student Awards

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Heritage Flume. Sandwich, MA. Stimson / Ngoc Doan

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) announced the 2019 Professional and Student Award winners.

Chosen from 544 submissions, this year’s 36 Professional Award winners represent the best of landscape architecture in the General Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, and Research categories. In addition, a single Landmark Award is presented each year.

A full list of this year’s Professional Award winners can be found at www.asla.org/2019awards

ASLA 2019 Student General Design Award of Excellence. “Y” Shape Jetty System: A Sustainable Solution for Coastal Ecosystem Protection, Population Retreat, and Global Tourism Development, Yi Song, Student ASLA, University of Texas at Austin.

Chosen from 368 submissions, this year’s 26 Student Award winners represent the bright future of the landscape architecture profession in the General Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Research, Communications, Student Collaboration and Student Community Service categories.

A full list of this year’s Student Award winners can be found at: www.asla.org/2019studentawards

“ASLA’s Professional and Student Awards programs are the oldest and most prestigious in the profession. This extraordinary and diverse array of winners represent both the best of landscape architecture today and the brightest hope for our future,” said ASLA President Shawn T. Kelly, FASLA.

“This year’s awards reflect the global nature of landscape architecture and demonstrate to professionals and the public alike how our profession addresses some of the world’s most pressing problems, including climate change and resilience, livability, and the creation of healthy and equitable environments.”

All Professional and Student Award recipients, their clients, and advisors will be honored at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture on Monday, November 18, in San Diego, California. There are still complimentary press passes available.

Background on the ASLA Awards Programs

Each year, the ASLA Professional Awards honor the best in landscape architecture from around the globe. Winners of these prestigious awards are chosen by a jury that represents the breadth of the profession, including private, public, institutional, and academic practice, and exemplify diversity in professional experience, geography, gender, and ethnicity. Submissions are judged blind.

Professional Awards are presented in six categories: General Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, and the Landmark Award. In each of the first five categories, the Jury may select one Award of Excellence and any number of Honor Awards. It is not guaranteed that an Award of Excellence will be selected each year, as it is up to the jury’s discretion. Only one Landmark Award is presented each year.

This year’s Professional Jury included: Andrea Cochran, FASLA (Chair); Henri Bava; Kofi Boone, ASLA; Gina Ford, FASLA; Deb Guenther, FASLA; John King, Honorary ASLA; Pam Linn, FASLA; John Vinci; and Keith Wagner, FASLA. Joining the Professional Jury for the selection of the Research Category were representatives on behalf of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA): Stephanie A. Rolley, FASLA and Galen Newman, ASLA.

Student Awards are presented in seven categories: General Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Research, Communications, Student Collaboration and Student Community Service. Like the Professional Awards, the jury may select one Award of Excellence and any number of Honor Awards. It is not guaranteed that an Award of Excellence will be selected each year, as it is up to the jury’s discretion.

This year’s Student Jury included: Linda Jewell, FASLA (Chair); Diana Fernandez, ASLA; David Gouverneur; Robert Gray, ASLA; Damian Holmes; Kendra Hyson, ASLA; Maki Kawaguchi; Signe Nielsen, FASLA; and Daniel Tal, ASLA.

New Video Series: Constructing Landscape

Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director for landscape architecture at the General Services Administration (GSA), has produced a series of five educational short videos, featuring conversations with 18 notable landscape architects on topics such as how to design with nature and time.

According to Gabriel, “the primary aim of the conversations with this informal industry advisory group was to educate the agency’s design and construction staff, thus enabling the agency to deliver higher-achieving projects,” which the “GSA plans, designs, builds, and manages on behalf of the American public.”

Material and Perspective explores the “world view” of landscape architects (see video above).

Designing with Time addresses the “unique temporal issues” that come with using trees and plants that change over seasons and as they grow.

Ecological Infrastructures explores how landscape architects design with natural systems to improve human and natural health and support biodiversity.

Site as Security shows how landscape architects can meet tough security requirements while also creating accessible, beautiful places.

Preservation and Design Evolution shows how historic places can be rehabilitated and re-purposed to fit contemporary needs.

Videos include interviews with:

  • Jose Alminana, FASLA
  • Diana Balmori, FASLA
  • Julie Bargmann
  • Charles Birnbaum, FASLA
  • Shane Coen, FASLA
  • David Fletcher, ASLA
  • Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA
  • Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA
  • Mikyoung Kim, FASLA
  • Tom Leader, FASLA
  • Patricia O’ Donnell, FASLA
  • Laurie Olin, FASLA
  • Marion Pressley, FASLA
  • Chris Reed, FASLA
  • Ken Smith, FASLA
  • Christy Ten Eyck, FASLA
  • Jerry Van Eyck, ASLA
  • Thomas Woltz, FASLA

And projects such as Brooklyn Bridge Park, the High Line, Columbus Circle, and Hunters Point South Waterfront in New York City; Rose Kennedy Greenway and Harvard University Plaza in Boston; Yards Park, the United States Coast Guard Headquarters, and the Washington Monument grounds in Washington, D.C.

ASLA Supports Coalition to Save the Amazon Rainforest

SOS Amazonia / Lucas Peries

The Amazon rainforest is one of the world’s most precious ecosystems. It provides 6 percent of the oxygen produced on the planet. It stores an estimated 100 billion tons of carbon – about 17 percent of the world’s carbon – in its trees and plants.

This year alone, about 80,000 fires have raged across the forest, more than an 80 percent increase over 2018. Through July 2019, over 7,200 square miles of the Brazilian rainforest were burned, an aggregated area roughly the size of New Jersey. We can and must do more to protect the Amazon and avoid catastrophic consequences.

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) supports our global sister organizations, led by Iniciativa Latinoamericana del Pasisaje (Latin American Landscape Initiative, LALI) and the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), as they work to quell the flames, prevent further deforestation, and protect the Amazon rainforest.

To see what you can do to help, visit:

The Amazon Conservation Team

The Amazon Conservation Association

SOS Amazȏnia

We Are Designing the Earth, Whether You Like It or Not

“The Monk by the Sea” by Caspar David Friedrich (1808) / Wikimedia

This purpose of this article is to reflect on the Design with Nature Now exhibition that ran over this past summer at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. The exhibition marked the 50th anniversary of Ian McHarg’s 1969 tome Design with Nature and was curated by Fritz Steiner, FASLA, Karen M’Closkey, Billy Fleming, ASLA, Bill Whitaker, ASLA, and myself.

As curators we worked for well over a year to select the 25 works in the exhibition. We began by asking colleagues around the world for project recommendations. We stipulated in some detail that projects had to be “McHargian” in scale and scope. From well over a hundred nominations, we reached the short list of 25 and organized them into five categories: Big Wilds, Urban Futures, Toxic Lands, Fresh Waters and Rising Waters, which can be explored online.

Big Wilds

• Great Green Wall, Africa
• Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, USA and Canada
• National Ecological Security Pattern Plan, China
• Malpai Borderlands, Arizona and New Mexico, USA
• Samboja Lestari, East Kalimantan, Indonesia
• Landscape Regeneration of Western Waiheke Island, New Zealand

Urban Futures

• Willamette River Basin Oregon, USA
• Qianhai Water City Shenzhen, China
• Envision Utah Salt Lake City Region, USA
• Medellin, Colombia
• Barcelona Metropolitan Region Plan, Spain

Toxic Lands

• Emscher Landscape Park, Ruhr Valley, Germany
• Stapleton, Denver Colorado, USA
• Freshkills Park, New York, USA
• Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London, England

Rising Waters

• The BIG U, New York, USA
• A New Urban Ground New York, New York, USA
• Fingers of High Ground Norfolk, Virginia, USA
• Zandmotor Ter Heijde, The Netherlands
• 2050—An Energetic Odyssey North Sea, The Netherlands

Fresh Waters

• Healthy Port Futures Great Lakes Region, USA
• Room for the River The Netherlands Rijkswaterstaat
• Los Angeles River Master Plan California, USA
• Weishan Wetland Park Jining, China
• GreenPlan Philadelphia Pennsylvania, USA

It’s important to note the final list of projects doesn’t mean we completely endorse the work, nor is the exhibition a collection of the “best of.” This is not an awards forum; it is a representative selection of work that we think does a pretty good job of scoping, extending, and in some cases questioning McHarg’s legacy into the 21st century.

Without being too coy about it, we generally think these projects indicate important directions for the future of the profession. A criticism we accept and have worried over is the collection is geographically and culturally quite limited, itself a reflection of landscape architecture’s current professional reach.

So what do we mean by extending McHarg’s legacy? Simply, the works we’ve chosen tend to be “plannerly,” that is, they are big in terms of site and timescale and tend to involve complex socio-political and ecological processes with multiple authors and agencies. In short, there are no gardens, plazas, or streetscapes (to name but a few types) in this collection. This is not to say these are unimportant, they just don’t fit the raison d’etre, or the occasion of this exhibition.

Turning to the question of designing a planet: the functionalist definition of design is to make a tool that will do something more effectively than prior to the tool’s existence. But what’s most important about this—at least what largely seems to distinguish us to some degree from many other species—is that the invention of the tool, or the desire for the invention of the tool, takes place in our minds before it takes place in the world.

Without wanting to at all elevate humans above other species, we do have an exceptional propensity for imagining causality. In a word, we have foresight.

In Greek mythology foresight was the special gift of Prometheus – the father of humanity. We, the “Anthropos” (meaning not only humans, but also “the lower ones”), received our ability for foresight from Prometheus. Under instruction from Zeus, who wanted some pets to alleviate his boredom, Prometheus made the Anthropos out of clay taken from somewhere between the Tigris and Euphrates, and with the admixture of Athena’s breath, here we are!

As the story goes, Zeus told Prometheus to give the Anthropos some degree of free will so as to make them more entertaining, but he stressed not to give them so much that they might then compete with the Gods themselves. Of course, by giving us not only a modicum of foresight, but also fire, Prometheus gave us everything we needed to do exactly what Zeus feared we would. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Suomi NPP launch by NASA/Bill Ingalls, public domain via NASA.gov

From the origin of the Anthropos we can trace an arc to the 1960s when, just before McHarg released his manifesto, Stewart Brand, the man responsible for persuading NASA to release the original earth image, pronounced: “We are now as Gods and should get good at it.” This is a hugely significant thing to say, but what’s more is that Brand recently updated his statement to “we are as Gods and MUST get good at it.”

In other words, not only have the Gods abandoned us, but we are now so deeply implicated in the workings of the Earth system that we really have no choice but to try and design it. In so far as we know, for the first time in evolutionary history, there is now a form of networked planetary intelligence registering its own environmental predicament. If so, then humanity is the first species in evolutionary history to attempt to design a planet, a fact as preposterous as it is, according to Brand, a necessity.

The poster child for the historical drama in which we now cast ourselves as both the villain and the hero is the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who popularized the term Anthropocene. As Crutzen explains, the Anthropocene is an act in three parts: first, the industrial revolution; second, the great acceleration (consumer-driven capitalism since 1950); and now he says we should move into a third phase in which we begin to, and I quote, “steward the earth.”

This of course is exactly what McHarg said 50 years ago. Now you might say that we have already designed the planet. Certainly, humanity has colonized and impacted every square inch of the earth’s surface, but we haven’t really done this with foresight. Until recently, we haven’t done it in a way that is self-conscious in regard to the problem of the tragedy of the commons. The question now is not whether we should design the planet, but how. Ironically then: If it’s true that species naturally over consume their environments to their own detriment, then since we have no major predator, we now need to learn to become unnatural. And in a further semantic twist, according to McHarg and his disciples, we can only do this by designing with nature.

However, the problem is this assumes we know what nature is. Truth be told, we do not. Accepting that fact is important because it protects us against anyone ever using nature as justification for authoritarian politics or any number of other oppressive ideas. Accepting then the partiality of knowledge, all we can do is develop approximations of how nature works and try different ways of productively coexisting with it as such.

We write in the introduction to the exhibition’s eponymous book that by asserting the sum-total of what we mean by design (human foresight) could be based on a singular—and in McHarg’s case, a scientific idea of nature—McHarg created a significant intellectual problem for himself and the profession. This problem is brought to light by Ursula Heise during a keynote at the Design with Nature Now conference, which was held at Penn alongside the exhibition in June, 2019.

Heise explains “the basic goal of cultural studies for the last twenty years has been to analyze and in most cases, to dismantle appeals to ‘the natural’ or ‘biological’ by showing their groundedness in cultural practices rather than facts of nature. The thrust of this work, therefore, invariably leads to skepticism about the possibility of returning to nature as such or of the possibility of places defined in terms of their natural characteristics that humans should relate to.”

Design with Nature Now / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2019

Correct though she may well be, the problem with this postmodern skepticism is that if nature is not one thing, it’s everything. And if its everything, its nothing, and if it’s nothing, it can’t very well guide our designs, let alone an entire civilization as McHarg intended.

How then are we to respond to the conditions of ecological crisis? Well, you don’t have to agree with McHarg’s teleology of humanity fitting into a certain idea of nature to accept and use the sheer practicality of his method. Inversely, you also don’t need to be debilitated by the recognition that post-modern nature is a cultural construct. On the contrary, recognizing the design of nature as a cultural construct can be completely consistent with an ecological world view, just not a tyrannical one.

The ecological crisis and the misuse of land that McHarg directly confronted is not just a postmodern cultural construct – it is an appalling reality and McHarg’s importance is that he proposed a simple, replicable, and practical method for addressing it.

McHarg represents then the beginning of modern culture taking responsibility for the land with modern technology. Other societies throughout history have done this in different ways, but a modern method suited to the abstraction of modern development processes had to be created. People like Geddes, Mumford, Leopold, Carson and others provided the narrative and McHarg the method. And that he did this is enough. We don’t need to make him into anything more or less than that.

Designing with Nature Now means designing with the new nature of the Anthropocene. And to understand the Anthropocene we need to turn to both the sciences and the arts. The scientific bible for the landscape of the Anthropocene is, I think, the book Global Change and the Earth System, published in 2005. It is to the Anthropocene what the encyclopedia was to the Enlightenment.

Global Change and the Earth System / Springer

To quote directly from its introduction, the book’s purpose is “to describe and understand the interactive physical, chemical, and biological processes that regulate the total earth system, the unique environment it provides for life, the changes that are occurring in that system and the manner in which these changes are influenced by human actions.” This last expression “…the manner in which these changes are influenced by human actions” is critical because this is not the study of nature as something separate to culture; this is now the study of nature as culture.

Global Change and the Earth System is the work of literally thousands of scientists, all bringing their various models of different phenomena together in an attempt to form a complete, holistic model of the Earth System. The idea being that if we can at least better understand how the Earth system functions then we can make more informed decisions about our actions within that system.

One can imagine the ecological revolution in design, which McHarg catalyzed in regard to settlement patterns and which we are still in the early historical phases of, now means that everything we design will increasingly be conceived, tested, and valued as to how it performs within the larger material flows of the Earth system as a whole. Hyper-McHarg, if you will.

Now, while the scientists are working on their empirical models, the question in the arts is not so much how the Anthropogenic Earth works but what the Anthropogenic Earth means. To wit, just look at the plethora of recent books that use the word Anthropocene in their titles. Notably, almost all are dramatic and apocalyptic. Indeed, thoughout the humanities, there is evidently outright panic about the advent of the Anthropocene. And rightly so, because the old idea of nature as something stable and inviolable, history’s backdrop, has literally just evaporated into the carbon-saturated atmosphere of our own making.

To help make some sense of this panic, I’ve added some keywords to a sample of books on the topic of the Anthropocene (see larger version of the image below). These keywords establish polarizations that demarcate spectrums of current thought, at least as I read it. The first polarization concerns the question of whether or not we should even be calling this the Anthropocene. For its critics, the term naturalizes climate change and casts a new colonizing term over the entirety of the human race, many of whom have had very little to do with the industrial modernity that created the problem in the first place. Instead, they argue this should be called the Capitolocene, which is to say climate change must be apprehended as a cultural matter, and the blame for its advent placed squarely at the feet of first-world capitalism, and presumably communism, since it too has had an appalling environmental record.

Montage of book covers and keywords related to the Anthropocene / Richard Weller

First, with regard to the politics of the environmental movement I would place Eco-socialists at one end of the spectrum and Eco-modernists at the other. For the Eco-socialists, technology (unless its green) is a problem before it is a solution, and it is only through a return to communitarian, small scale, low-population, stable-state economies that true sustainability can be achieved. For the Eco-socialists, only the worst of climate change can now be avoided, whereas for the Eco-modernists, modernity is an incomplete project, and through technological rationality the best is yet to come, or at least, the worst can be avoided.

For Eco-socialists climate change warrants socio-political and theological revolution, something Clive Hamilton, the author of Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, for example, calls a “rupture” with history. On the other hand, for the Eco-modernists, history since the agricultural revolution is a continuing saga of environmental modification at the hands of technology. In this sense, even though there is now more at stake, for the Eco-modernists we are just doing now what we’ve always done. This latter position is effectively that taken by the other keynote speaker at the Design with Nature Now conference, the geographer Erle Ellis.

Second, to translate this spectrum of environmental thought into design discourse, I use the terms mitigation and adaptation respectively. Taken seriously, mitigation means taking on the causes of climate change, not only the fossil fuel industry, but also the economics of capitalism and the the philosophy of liberal humanism. Adaptation, on the other hand, means adjusting to the conditions of a changed climate but not necessarily changing its causation and certainly not changing the fundamentally-modern belief in techno scientific rationality to solve our environmental and socio-economic problems.

Per McHarg, adaptation means fitting ourselves benignly into the landscape. But this now seems way too pastoral for a planet of 8 billion people in the throes of rapid climate change. More likely and more frightening is that adaptation will become the rationale for climate engineering: regulating the albedo of the atmosphere and the chemistry of the oceans, and planning vast landscapes so they not only feed us, but also help stabilize the carbon and nitrogen cycles.

Both adaptation and mitigation point towards what is now routinely referred to as resilience. Even though in the illustrative diagram I am situating resilience equidistant between adaptation and mitigation, I think resilience theory and practice tends more towards adaptation than it does mitigation.

The reason for this is that the utopia of sustainability, which is what mitigation implies, has by now proven itself to be something of an impossibility. Accordingly, resilience has been criticized as sustainability without hope. In other words, for its critics, resilience is seen as abandoning any possibility of mitigating the environmental and social crises of modernity. Instead, we, and in particular the poor, must now learn to live with the symptoms. In this sense resilience is palliative, conservative, and at worst complicit in preserving the very systems that created the risk in the first place.

Maybe so, but this is all a little too black and white. I would also add that resilience is realistic, whereas mitigation is hopelessly idealistic. Resilience brings sustainability closer to the indeterminate way that both the natural and cultural worlds actually work. Whereas sustainability was based on an idealized ecology of equilibrium, resilience is based on an interpretation of nature as a state of disequilibrium. I think McHarg hoped ultimately for a world of equilibrium between the natural and the cultural but seems now that this is just not the way the world works.

Turning briefly now to the projects in the Design with Nature Now exhibition, there are two particular aspects of McHarg’s legacy that I want to channel. The first is his aspiration for large-scale impact and the second is his anticipation and use of digital technology. The first is what I call Big Plans and the second is Digital Natures.

Let’s start with Big Plans. On the map below, Global Landscape Connectivity Projects, you see most of the major conservation projects planned or under construction in the world today. This is an extraordinary image because it shows humans now, for the first time in (modern) history, actively and intentionally reconstructing ecosystems at a planetary scale – so yes, effectively designing a planet, or at least treating it as a garden instead of a mine. (See larger map).

Global Landscape Connectivity Projects / Richard Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang

McHarg would love this map and it should give us all hope. And yet from a professional perspective much of this restorative activity doesn’t currently involve landscape architects. That we think it should is why we’ve included projects such as the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative in the United States and the Great Green Wall across sub-Saharan Africa in the exhibition.

Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative / Y2Y.net
Great Green Wall / United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

For example, the Y2Y is a remarkable ongoing story of collaboration (and tension) between land owners over some 2,000 miles of territory in order to create landscape connectivity for species migration. The Great Green Wall is also a remarkable story of what began as a top-down initiative to resist the southward encroachment of the Saharan desert but has since evolved in to a mosaic of bottom-up initiatives to boost local agrarian economies across the 14 impoverished nations it comprises. When completed, if ever that day comes, the Great Green Wall will be the largest living thing ever created by humanity.

A third Big Plan, I’d like to single out that is versed in McHargian methods is the 2008 National Ecological Security Patterns for the whole of China by landscape architecture firm Turenscape, which was founded by Kongjian Yu, FASLA, and the Peking University Graduate School of Landscape Architecture. The plan shows where the ecological security of land in China should be prioritized.

Framework for national security ecological patterns / Turenscape
Ecological security pattern for biodiversity conservation / Turenscape

This research coincides with President Xi Jinping’s 2013 declaration that China should transition from a Gross Domestic Product (GDP)-focused civilization to an ecological civilization. And in this regard, while the study represents a powerful breakthrough for landscape architects, it is also something of a Faustian bargain. It raises the question of whether plans done in the name of national ecological health for totalitarian governments could come to overrule local culture in the same way development projects previously did in the name of the national interest. Imagine mass evictions not for hydroelectric dams, but now for biodiversity corridors.

Regarding the second aspect of McHarg’s legacy, the theme of Digital Natures relates to how landscape architects today are increasingly able to simulate environmental conditions in order to guide design decisions. There are two aspects to this. The first is the ability to create one’s own data instead of just passively receiving it from an authority, and the second is the increasing capacity to model complex, chaotic systems such as hydrology, and perhaps eventually entire ecosystems, cities, and ultimately the Earth system itself, as we see in the case of the book Global Change and the Earth System.

The key here is being able to model systems in the fourth, not just the third, dimension. That is, we are moving into an era where the old problem of a map being redundant the moment it is drawn can finally be overcome. It is early days in the emergence of the genre of Digital Natures, but the work of academic practitioners such as Keith Van Der Sys, Karen M’Closkey, Bradley Cantrell, ASLA, Justine Holzman, Sean Burkholder and Brian Davis — all of whom are variously modelling fluvial landscapes — is promising.

For example, the Healthy Port Futures project in the Design with Nature Now exhibition by Burkholder and Davis foregrounds digital modelling to predict sediment flows in the world’s largest inland water body, the Great Lakes of the USA and Canada. The project centers on creating simulations to show how instead of being treated as a useless waste product, sediment can be redirected so as to create new landscapes of ecological and social value. Stemming out of the academic Dredgefest initiative, Burkholder and Davis’ work is significant for its methods and also because with it they are muscling their way into territory otherwise dominated by engineers.

Contextually calibrated alternatives for passive sediment management for Lorain, Ohio / Sean Burkholder and Brian Davis: Healthy Port Futures

Which leads to what is for me the most extraordinary and perhaps the most compelling work in the exhibition: the so called Sand Motor (Zandmotor) constructed in 2011 off the coast of the Netherlands. The Sand Motor is a novel approach to coastline protection in which sand is mined offshore and added to the beach at a strategic location so that the littoral drift steadily redistributes the material further along the coast, thus reinforcing Holland’s coast against the sea. This could only be done through predictive modelling of the coastal system. Absent recent advancements in computing power, such analysis would have been previously prohibitive. Now, not only could the Sand Motor’s behavior be accurately predicted before it was built, it is also continually monitored, establishing a feedback loop between the digital and the real.

Zandmotor by Rijkswaterstaat

The Sand Motor marks a new technological and predictive level of human engagement with the environment, one that will expand at both macro and micro scales this century. In addition to designing gardens, parks, and plazas as we always will, the kind of systems design the Sand Motor suggests it is as foreboding as it is promising.

Even if unintentionally, the sand motor is also, I think, a highly aesthetic work. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is one of the great artworks of the early Anthropocene, something land artist Robert Smithson pointed to 50 years ago. I imagine a scene where Professor Marcel Stive, the lead engineer of the Sand Motor, now replaces Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea, not to contemplate God’s awesome creation, but rather ours.

And that brings me full circle to where I began with origin of the Anthropos. For if we have now become Gods then, for all their complexity and contradiction, I do think the projects in the exhibition show that we can be good at it.

This post is by Richard Weller, ASLA, the Martin and Margy Meyerson chair of urbanism, professor and chair of landscape architecture, and co-director of the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Turns to Nature

Cover
Engineering with Nature: An Atlas / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

“We rely on natural processes and landscapes to sustain human life and well-being. Our energy, water, infrastructure, and agricultural systems use these processes and landscapes to satisfy our most basic human needs. One motivation, therefore, for protecting the environment is to sustain the ecosystem goods and services upon which we depend. As we emerge from the sixth decade of modern environmentalism, there is a growing international awareness of opportunities to efficiently and effectively integrate natural and engineered systems to create even more value.”

One might understandably think this was written by a landscape architect, or excerpted from somewhere on the ASLA website. In fact, it comes from the forward of Engineering with Nature: An Atlas, a new book by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Engineering with Nature (EWN) team, led by environmental scientist Dr. Todd Bridges. 

Over the last eight years, Bridges has quietly built the EWN initiative out of the Army Corps’ Vicksburg, Mississippi headquarters, working with a team of engineers, environmental scientists, and ecologists to develop pilot projects that prove the viability of engineering large-scale infrastructure in partnership with natural systems. 

Now, after successfully completing dozens of projects across the U.S., Bridges is pushing to take EWN to new heights. The initiative’s 2018-2023 strategic plan envisions an expanded portfolio of engineering strategies and project types, deeper interdisciplinary and community engagement, and heightened public awareness of EWN goals, activities, and success stories.

To that end, Engineering With Nature: An Atlas documents more than 50 engineering projects completed in recent decades that exemplify the EWN approach. The projects are grouped according to typology, including chapters on beaches, wetlands, islands, reefs, and rivers. Reflecting the collaborative approach of the EWN initiative, only half of the case studies profiled were carried out by the Army Corps. The remainder were executed by partner NGOs in the US and government agencies in England, The Netherlands, and New Zealand, countries which have made substantial investments of their own in innovative coastal and water-based engineering.

Sand_motor
The Sand Motor, The Netherlands / Zandmotor Flickr

A key theme of the book is the beneficial re-use of dredged material. While conventionally viewed as a waste product, the EWN initiative seeks to find and develop beneficial uses for the material, such as in wetland restoration, habitat creation, and beach nourishment. And because the Corps is required to maintain the navigability of all federal waterways, the EWN team has a ready supply of dredged material to work with.

One example of this strategy can be seen in Texas’ Galveston Bay, where the Corps partnered with Houston Audubon to create the 6-acre Evia Island, which today is populated with herons, egrets, terns, and brown pelicans. 

Evia_island
Evia Island / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Other projects take advantage of erosion and sediment flux to catalyze beneficial outcomes. In Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River, the Corps placed dredged material in strategic upriver locations to create a 35-hectare island that is “self-designed” by the river’s flow. And at Sears Point, in the northern San Francisco Bay, the Sonomoa Land Trust and Ducks Unlimited restored 1,000 acres of tidal marsh by puncturing a levee, allowing water from the Tolay Creek to flow into a field of constructed sediment mounds. The mounds slowed the water’s rate of flow, stimulating land growth within the project area.

dredge
Dredging in the Atchafalaya River / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

These approaches have considerable overlap with recent research in the field of landscape architecture, particularly the work of the Dredge Research Collaborative, which advocates for ecological and watershed-scale approaches to the management of sediment and dredged material and has collaborated with the EWN initiative in recent years.

An Atlas also includes projects that retrofit conventional infrastructure to provide ecological benefits, such as creating nesting habitat for terns on top of breakwaters in Lake Erie, or efforts in the Netherlands to redesign coastal reinforcements to serve as habitat for marine plants and animals. Reminiscent of SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters project off the southern coast of Staten Island, these projects demonstrate an increasing interest in designing infrastructure that provides multiple benefits.

tern_nest
Decoy terns at the Ashtabula Harbor Breakwater Tern Nesting Habitat / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Despite its title, At Atlas does not contain any maps or diagrams to orient the reader–an unfortunate omission that makes it difficult to grasp the scale of the presented projects. Instead, the projects are depicted using solely perspective and aerial photos.

While these photos are informative, the book would have greatly benefited from the development of a graphic language to more clearly and visually communicate the impacts of the presented projects and the issues they seek to address.

Despite these omissions, the breadth and scope of projects presented in Engineering with Nature: An Atlas makes a considerable impression, presenting a range of strategies for designing infrastructure with ecological, social, and cultural benefits at multiple scales.

Perhaps most significantly, An Atlas suggests there is great potential for meaningful interdisciplinary collaboration between the Corps and landscape architects. As landscape architects increasingly seek to broaden the field’s scope to include the planning and design of large-scale systems and ecologies, this collaboration may prove vital. Engineering with Nature: An Atlas begins to paint a picture of what such a collaborative practice may look like.

Learn more about the Engineering with Nature initiative and download Engineering With Nature: An Atlas.