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