Soon We’ll Be Able to Swim in the Chicago River

Chicago River / Pinterest

Take a dip in the Chicago River? Those familiar with its history might think twice.

The Chicago River has a notoriously waste-filled past. Originally, the 150-mile-long waterway was used to fuel booming industry in the Midwest city. Little attention was paid to its environmental and civic value. By the turn of the century, it was contaminated with sewage and factory waste. When a storm cause the Chicago River to overflow, it would spill into Lake Michigan, the source of the city’s drinking water, posing such an acute risk to residents’ health that in 1900 the city turned it around, reverse-engineering its flow and diverting wastewater away from Lake Michigan and out of the region to the Mississippi. The reversal was crucial to protecting thousands of Chicagoans a year from waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera.

By 1930, after legal complaints from cities downstream, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Chicago to address the pollution problem. Since then, efforts have been ongoing to clean up the waterway. Recently, the city has stepped up those efforts again with hopes of increase activity along and in the river, including swimming.

In 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Metropolitan Planning Council announced the Great Rivers Chicago effort, a city-wide “visioning process” to develop a long-term plan to clean up and reintegrate into city life the three rivers of the Chicago system – the Chicago, Calumet, and Des Plaines Rivers.

The vision, released last year, lays out a series of goals that aim to make the river “inviting, productive and living” with benchmarks at 2020, 2030, and 2040. Ultimately, the city wants to draw more people to a river front that’s safer and more engaging with improve water quality.

And by 2030, they hope to make the river swimmable.

But despite reversing the Chicago River, the city’s combined sewage and stormwater system is still inundated during large storm events and can overflow into the rivers, canals, and Lake Michigan. According to The Chicago Tribune, 18.2 billion gallons of pollution entered the river last year. Chicago plans to eliminate the system’s overflows through green infrastructure and  completing the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, known as the Deep Tunnel project, which started in 1975 and the city hopes to complete by 2029.

For recreation purposes, the rivers need to achieve the “primary contact” water quality standards set for them by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, which would allow for safe swimming, paddling, and fishing.

Each year, 1.5 million Chicagoans and tourists flock to the popular Riverwalk, a 1.25 mile pedestrian walkway that runs from Lake Shore Drive to Lake Street on the south bank of the Chicago River in the city’s downtown. A new $108-million segment designed by the landscape architecture firm Sasaki, Ross Barney Architects, and Collins Engineers that just saw its official opening has generated even more interest in the river.

Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki
Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki
Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki

Paddling is already happening on the river. And a floating museum, or barge-turned moveable entertainment center, which launched this week, will travel along the Chicago River through August, eventually landing at Navy Pier.

New cleanup efforts are happening right alongside all the activity. Last month, the city tested a trash skimmer to collect garbage pooling along the Riverwalk. According to The Chicago Tribune, the floating dumpster is an $11,000 pilot program running through the fall that “sucks in the bacteria-laden water and uses a mesh screen to catch oil pollutants and floating garbage.”

Some residents are ready to take the plunge now, but getting much of the public past the initial “ew factor” of swimming in infamously-polluted waters may take time. Regardless, beyond swimmable urban waterways, this aspiring scheme could offer a unique way of looking at a role of a river can play in connecting a city.

Reasons to Be Optimistic About the Future of the Environment (Part 1)

Securing natural capital and expanding equity to rescale civilization, Nature. / Paul R. Ehrlich, Peter M. Kareiva & Gretchen C. Daily

“It’s easy to be cynical or pessimistic” about the the state of the global environment, said David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian, at the opening of the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C. “We’re not blind to the realities, but if organizations and individuals work together, obstacles can be overcome.” Over three days, an audience of 1,400 heard one inspiring environmental success story after another. While no one forgot that climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem degradation have created a global environmental emergency, there was a concerted effort to change the narrative — from one of relentless anger and despair to one of progress and a cautious optimism about the future. The goal was to highlight was is working today and figure out the ways to replicate and scale up successes.

Highlighted are a few of the success stories heard at the summit:

China Is Valuing Its Ecosystem Services: Gretchen Daly, professor of environmental science at Stanford University and founder of the Natural Capital Project, said more cities and countries are starting to put financial value on the many ecosystem services nature provides. Some success stories: New York realized that investing in the ecological functions of the watershed surrounding New York City was cheaper than building a massive filtration plant. Costa Rica has initiated a payment system for conserving nature.

And China has undertaken a massive planning effort to identify and value its critical ecological assets in an effort to become the “ecological civilization of the 21st century.” Some 4,000 officials in 31 provinces have been trained with Daly’s InVest software, which has helped Chinese policymakers identify “priority zones for carbon absorption, biodiversity, flood control, sandstorm control, and water purification.” Today, some 200 million Chinese are now getting paid to restore natural capital. Hainan has become the first “eco-province.” Daly said some 50 countries and cities are using the Natural Capital Project’s ecosystem service management system.

Truly inspiring, but it only happened after “China kissed disaster,” getting close to total environmental collapse. And China has decades of work ahead before its environment can be deemed healthy. Let’s hope the rest of the planet doesn’t have to get to the brink of catastrophe before it values increasingly-scarce resources.

In the U.S, Renewable Energy Is Where the Growth Is: In the U.S., all new power generation last year was renewable. Wind and solar power are the now the cheapest energy options, even when you remove the government subsidies. “This has been a huge change in the past decade,” said David Crane, Pegasus Capital Advisers. The model of financing solar panels in the U.S., which basically involving leasing someone’s roof space in return for giving them a discount on their home energy bills, made the solar revolution possible. That model has mobilized $1 trillion in capital and generated 250,000 megawatts of energy, explained Jigar Shah, with Generate Capital and SunEdison.

Renewable energy is no longer just a favorite cause of green Democrats either. Dale Ross, the mayor of deep-red Georgetown, Texas, a growing city of about 50,000, explained how he made a long-term agreement with wind and solar companies to power his city’s growth. Ross believes the U.S. will have 80 percent of its energy generated by wind and solar by 2025 if states are allowed to sell more power across borders. But Crane was less optimistic, pointing out that only 1.5 million homes now have solar panels, whereas there should be 50-55 million homes. “The power industry is a monopoly fighting rooftop solar. People need to stand up and pressure companies and regulators.”

On the positive side: GM, a fairly traditional company, just announced it will be 100 percent powered by renewable energy by 2040. And Walmart aims for 50 percent renewable energy sources by 2025. Architect William McDonough believes these companies will help “wage peace through commerce.” The leaders of the firms decided to “do the right thing and set positive goals.” These goals would have seemed impossible a decade ago.

Food Waste Is Now on Our Radar: There is a growing momentum across the developed world to end the egregious waste from the industrial agriculture and food retail industries. Food production is by far the biggest environmental impact humans have on the Earth, with agriculture covering a third of the surface. With the global population expected to hit 9-10 billion by 2050, many argue that food production will need to increase 50-70 percent. But Tristram Stuart, founder of Feedback and Toast Ale, argues that we actually already grow enough food to feed 12 billion people. Food overproduction is really the issue. As a result, we are creating not only huge amounts of waste but also producing obese populations. Globally, some one-third of food is wasted. In the U.S. and Europe, people are eating 1.5 to 2 times what they need.

Stuart said there are positive trends though, because “governments are starting to act and create measurable change.” In the UK, food waste has been reduced 27 percent since 2007. Taking on some of the “blatantly stupid waste of resources” perpetuated through the supply chains of supermarkets, his organization has used campaigns to show how waste can be reduced. For example, he convinced some UK supermarket chains to stop selling cut green beans, imported from Kenya, in favor of full beans that will not only stay fresh longer but reduce the amount of bean wasted in the process. His other company, Toast Ale, uses left-over ends of bread to craft beer. “You can get wasted on waste.”

Communities Are Organizing to Save Coastal Ecosystems: Ayana Johnson, founder of Ocean Collectiv, said there is now a greater understanding of coastal ecosystems and how they sequester far more carbon than terrestrial forests. As such, more coastal communities are making it much harder for corporations to privatize or over-develop coasts. There is a new awareness of the importance of preserving and restoring mangroves, even though some efforts to actually restore mangroves have not succeeded. Furthermore, “oyster restoration is gaining steam,” as communities realize they play an important role in buffering wave forces and filtering water.

In the Caribbean, where Johnson focuses her coastal community development work, there is a growing awareness that conserving ocean resources is a “social justice issue.” When marine reserves are established, “fish populations bounce back.” On the negative side, only 2-3 percent of the ocean is now protected, and scientists think it needs to be around 30 percent.

Not to sugarcoat: the future challenges facing our coastal communities are daunting. With warming waters, many fisheries are expected to migrate towards the poles, threatening millions of livelihoods. It’s not clear what shifting fisheries mean for the “half of the world who depend on seafood for their protein.”

Cities Are Rebuilding Connections to Nature: The old model in which cities were totally cut off from their waterfronts — either by highways or industrial facilities — seems to be ending in the developed world at least. Damon Rich, head of Hector Urban Design, walked us through one prime example of how communities are reconnecting to their waterfront in Newark, New Jersey, which transformed some of the edges of the Passaic River from “toxic nastiness” into the site of the 20-acre, $35 million Newark Riverfront Park that uses a “symbolic system” of bright orange to “reflect this is an anti-racist space.” To accomplish something like this, Rich said you need to “bring together the conservation, organizing, and design communities together and invite them to the same party.”

Newark Riverfront Park / Smartgrowth.org

And then there are individuals who aren’t waiting around for the government to do something, but are starting their own new companies, schools, and movements. David Auerbach launched a company in the Mukuru slum of Kenya called Sanergy, which offers more sanitary restrooms than the standard pit latrine through a novel franchising model and significantly reduces urban water pollution. Users pay a small fee to the Sanergy restroom franchisee to use the restroom. Franchisees then safely collect the waste, which Sanergy picks up and turns into safe, organic fertilizer. Sanergy offers a promising solution to a “crappy problem”: 1 billion live in urban slums and 2 billion will by 2030. 4 billion live in communities where “waste is never treated.” There are 1 million deaths caused by poor sanitation each year.

At the age of 27, Murray Fisher started the public New York Harbor School, which teaches students in New York City maritime trades. Years later, the school moved to a new campus on Governor’s Island and now has 475 high school students, where they can receive credentials in aquaculture, vessel operations, marine biology, and more. After starting a new foundation, Fisher began the Billion Oyster Project, which aims to bring back that many oysters to New York City’s waters. The school engages the students in measuring the oysters the 20 million oysters they’ve planted, welding the reefs, and monitoring water quality. His goal is to “insert the local ecosystem back into the educational system” and eventually export his novel environmental education curricula to other communities who have eager students and significant unmet conservation and restoration needs. “Why can’t young people work on restoring ecosystems in school?”

Billion oyster project and NY Harbor School students / Energy Factor

And, lastly, Afroz Shah, a lawyer who lives in Mumbai, India, and was one of the most inspiring speakers at the summit, explained how he went from picking up trash by himself on the beloved beach where he used to play as a child to leading a movement of thousands who are cleaning up miles of urban Indian beaches. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) calls Shah’s effort the “world’s biggest beach clean-up,” with more than five million pieces of trash, mostly plastic bags, picked up.

Afroz Shah at a beach clean up / The Logical Indian

He wants everyone to ask themselves: “What are you doing to rectify things?” You can “complain on social media or sign a petition and wait for someone else to do something,” or get out there yourself and do something to make things better. “We have a fundamental duty to our oceans.”

And Some Species Have Even Found Opportunities in Suburbs and Cities: Animals are also seizing space in our cities, without waiting for an invitation. Roland Kays, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, explained how predatory fishers, which are like large weasels, are making a comeback in the suburbs of Albany, after being brought to the brink of extinction. Coyotes, which are hunted in rural areas, have discovered they are safer in suburbs and cities where residents are not allowed to fire a gun or run traps. Coyotes are now killing pets — “they really don’t like chihuahuas” — but they are helping to limit some pests, like geese. Wolves are now found in the Great Lakes region, mountain lions in Colorado and California, and leopards in urban India. “They are adapting to survive. If we give species a chance, they can survive.”

Reasons to Be Optimistic About the Future of the Environment (Part 2)

“It’s easy to be cynical or pessimistic” about the the state of the global environment, said David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian, at the opening of the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C. “We’re not blind to the realities, but if organizations and individuals work together, obstacles can be overcome.” Over three days, an audience of 1,400 heard one inspiring environmental success story after another. While no one forgot that climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem degradation have created a global environmental emergency, there was a concerted effort to change the narrative — from one of relentless anger and to one of progress and a cautious optimism about the future. The goal was to highlight was is working today and figure out the ways to replicate and scale up successes.

Highlighted are a few more of the success stories heard at the summit (see part 1 for the first set):

Nature Is Being Preemptively Preserved: National Geographic Explorer Enric Sala, founder of Pristine Seas, stated that marine preserves where no fishing is allowed have five times the amount of biomass as unprotected parts of the ocean. These marine reserves are like “savings accounts that everyone can enjoy.” His goal is to preemptively turn the few remaining wild areas in the world’s oceans into reserves before exploitation can happen. In marine reserves, eco-tourism increases, creating lots of high-paying local jobs. In the Great Barrier Reef, off Australia’s eastern coast, “tourism revenue is 40 times that from fishing.” Today, 3.5 percent of our oceans are protected, but less than 2 percent fully-protected. The United Nation’s goal is 10 percent by 2020, and marine biologists say 30 percent by 2030 is really what’s needed.

On land, reserves are equally as critical to maintaining terrestrial biodiversity. Sean Gerrity, former president of the American Prairie Reserve, explained his organization’s efforts to create the largest nature reserve in America, some 3.5 million acres of prairie in an east-west swath of land 250 miles wide in northeast Montana. When they have finally purchased all the land they need, the reserve will be one million acres larger than Yellowstone National Park. The reserve, which will eventually be larger than the state of Connecticut, will have no fences. Cattle ranches at the edges will be tapped to maintain biodiversity by becoming “Wild Sky certified.” Like the Sustainable SITES Initiative™, Wild Sky requires strict adherence to a set of biodiversity protocols. When cattle ranchers spy rare species on camera traps on their properties, they receive “hundreds of dollars in return.” Gerrity thinks conservation must include a profit motive for the approach to work long-term. “Why can’t we have for-profit nature reserves? We can make money, bring jobs back, and protect wildlife.”

American Prairie Reserve / American Prairie Reserve

Madagascar, the 10th poorest nation on Earth, has cut down about 90 percent of its forests, which means some 94 percent of lemurs — who are only found on the island — are now endangered. While there are immense challenges, Stony Brook professor and MacArthur fellow Patricia Wright, professed herself to be an optimist. Working in Madagascar since the 1980s, she has seen the country create 18 national parks and a national park service that guards these lovable creatures from logging. She was the driving force behind the creation of the 105,000-acre Ramonafana National Park, a World Heritage Site in the southeastern part of the country, which now attracts 30,000 eco-tourists a year and has saved multiple rare lemur species from extinction.

People Are Making Room for Nature to Travel:  Transportation infrastructure, deforestation, fuel and mineral extraction, and development makes life difficult for many species. But using an ecological approach rooted in science, people can reduce or even reverse the negative impacts and give species a chance to survive and even flourish.

Joel Berger, Wildlife Conservation Society (WSC), described how WSC has helped create room for the Pronghorn, which migrates nearly 200 miles from the Grand Teton National Park in northwest Wyoming to the Green River Valley in southwest Wyoming and back again, year after year. Working with county commissioners, chambers of commerce, local non-profits, and newspapers, WSC helped carve out a permanent, protected path for this antelope-like mammal, which is actually a relative of the giraffe and okapi. In 2008, the path became “the first federally-protected wildlife corridor, and a bright spot” in conservation.

In Peru, exploratory oil pipelines are spreading through the Amazon rainforest. When paths are cut through the rainforest for trucks and pipelines, monkeys and other arboreal mammals find their pathways cut off, explained Tremaine Gregory, a scientist with the Smithsonian. Crossing on the ground is very dangerous, as they could more easily become the prey of jaguar. She wondered if companies left some tree crossings to connect the canopy on either side of the disturbances would be used by the monkeys? Analyzing camera traps set up on 13 canopy bridges she found that 25 species of arboreal mammals used the bridges, while just 6 would leave the trees and cross the ground. Out of 3,160 crossings by more than 150 distinct animals, just 16 were on the ground. Gregory is now in discussions with the Peruvian government and extraction companies about working canopy bridges into the regulations. “They are interested in the results; I’m optimistic.”

Forests Are Being Designed for Productivity:
In Madagascar, Wright has also focused her efforts on reforesting agricultural wastelands. “When a forest is regrown, the animals come back. We didn’t know that 25 years ago.” While there can be challenges in replanting with native plant seedlings on a massive scale, the secret was they only planted seeds “pooped out by lemurs.” Wastelands can be returned to forests. Under their canopies, high-value crops can be grown, such as vanilla, cinnamon, chocolate. “Making these forests productive again triples their value.”

Peter Marra, a scientist with the Smithsonian National Zoo, came up with a vision for how selective agroforesty can help save the world’s remaining forests. The demand for coffee is expected to grow by 25 percent by 2020 due to increasing demand from China and Latin America. If demand is met with more of the same — monocultural plantations, which require lots of water and chemicals — many forests will go under the bulldozer. Today, coffee is the second most-traded commodity in the world, after oil. The economic players involved earn $173 billion a year and take up 10.5 million acres of land. Each year, some 900 billion cups are consumed worldwide. If this morning essential is grown in the rich soils of forests, it can be less destructive and even be organic.

Coffee agroforestry / Rainforest Alliance

And Jefferson Hall, with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Agua Salud project in Panama, told the story of how Panamanian policymakers realized the forested park around the Panama Canal is critical to controlling flooding during storms. A national plan to reforest one million acres of degraded forest land around the canal led to a new strategy to reintroduce native hardwood species, like the rare Cocobolo, which could then be harvested in a sustainable manner. A plus: Cocobolo, which sells for $10,000 per cubic meter, grows well in the acidic soils.

The Best Communicators Are Creating “Conservation Pride”: Instead of creating more and more refined “obituaries” for the planet’s species and ecosystems, more scientists realize they must tell more positive stories to motivate action. This is because “one-fourth to one-third of all children today think the world will come to an end before they die,” said Nancy Knowlton, a scientist at the Smithsonian, and one of the co-chairs of the summit. Brett Jenks, the CEO of Rare, said more conservationists are using marketing and human behavior change best practices to create a more conservationist ethic among the general public.

He pointed to Paul Butler, who created a movement in St. Lucia in the 1970s to save the near-extinct St. Lucia parrot, which featured a catchy song and a mascot dressed as “Jacquot,” which is the local name for the parrot. Scientists thought Butler would have no chance to save the parrot from extinction, but today there are more than 500 in the wild. Jenks said there are now some 350 conservation pride campaigns worldwide in 50 countries.

Paul Butler and St. Lucia parrot / Rare

These behavior change campaigns “make behaviors observable, establish a conservation norm, make the norm clear to all, and make behavior explicit.” The idea is to change the focus of conservationists too: “they must focus on people and become human behavior change agents.” And Randy Olson, author of Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs a Story, further emphasized that conservationists can only inspire positive action if they create a narrative that grabs the public. Given there are so many competing narratives, “if you don’t tell your story, someone else will.”

And We’ve Learned Everyone Can Make an Important Contribution: Whether at home or school, everyone can take action to improve the environment. Where the West and Rhode rivers meet in an estuary on the west coast of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, Riverkeeper Jeff Holland is convincing homeowners to play a role in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Homeowners with docks within designated oyster sanctuaries are growing baby oysters or providing space for new reefs. “About 1,500 people are growing 3-4 cages, so it’s not a huge boost but it helps. Things are trending in the right direction.” Year and year, as each oyster filters a bathtub worth of water each day, the water gets clearer.

And across the Bay on the eastern shore, consultant Joanna Ogburn is linking up private homeowners for “large-scale landscape results” to tackle water quality problem areas in the Choptank and Nanticoke watersheds. Whether the homeowners she works with have an environmental ethic or not, she finds a way to motivate them to preserve parts of their estates through conservation easements. For some, it’s just about “keeping the rural character” and preventing out-of-town buyers from coming in and overdeveloping. For some, it’s about creating and connecting wildlife habitats.

Anyone with some outdoor space can boost local biodiversity. Phyllis Stiles, founder of Bee City USA and a self-proclaimed “buzzaholic,” is one of the leaders in the movement to fight colony collapse disorder among honeybees. But beyond honeybees, she said some 40 percent of all pollinator species — including numerous species of beetles, flies, native bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, moths, and bats — are at risk. Some 90 percent of wild plant species and 52 percent of our produce, covering approximately one-third of our food, depend on them. “It’s easy to point fingers at the big companies, but you can do something about it: plant natives, use less pesticides, remove exotic and invasive plants, and support local native plant nurseries.” Stiles now has 44 cities and 24 academic campuses on board to help pollinators.

And University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy, well-known for his book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, re-iterated the importance of getting rid of lawn and exotic plants in favor of native trees and plants that play important roles in sustaining ecosystems. “Use plants that are pretty and support life. Conservation can the goal of our landscapes.” Native plants are the base of the food chain. Without them, there are no insects, which means no birds, bats, frogs, lizards, rodents, or mammals. But instead of trying to create change with “sticks” — through taxing lawns, which happens in dry lands out West — Tallamy wants to see local governments offer “carrots”: tax breaks if endangered species are found on your property.

Finally, an inspiring D.C. high school student Teddy Ammon, who found a grant to build indoor hydroponic farms in his school, cautioned that even with all the positive action and optimism, we shouldn’t be complacent for a moment or expect the next generation to improve on our efforts. “There are some 40-42 million 10-19 year olds. Some 46 percent of them don’t believe in climate change. And 57 percent aren’t concerned about it.” That’s a wake-up call to re-double our efforts.

The Atlas for the End of the World

What’s left of the world’s biodiversity in protected areas / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

Seen from 28,000 miles away, the earth is beautiful. But its beauty is deceptive. We don’t see the 5 billion tons of surplus carbon we pump into the atmosphere every year, our toxic waterways or our sprawling megacities and the vast fossil fueled monocultures of cattle and corn that feed them. Most importantly, we don’t see the global archipelago of protected areas into which the world’s genetic biodiversity is now huddled. On this Earth Day, 2017 we are launching a new atlas dedicated to examining this archipelago in detail. It’s called the Atlas for the End of the World.

The first atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (The Theater of the World) was published in 1570 by the famous book collector and engraver from Antwerp, Abraham Ortelius. With his maps Ortelius laid bare a world of healthy – we can now say “Holocene” – eco-regions ripe for colonization and exploitation. Lauded for its accuracy, the Theatrum quickly became a best seller.

Frontispiece of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World) – the world’s first Atlas by Abraham Ortelius. / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

Despite its apocalyptic title, our new Atlas is not about the end of the world per se; it is about the end of Ortelius’ world, the end of the world as a God-given and unlimited resource for human exploitation and its concomitant myths of progress. On this, even the Catholic Church is now clear: “we have no such right” says Pope Francis.

At face value, atlases are just books of maps. The maps in the Atlas for the End of the World are however, quite specific. They specifically show the difference between the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity targets for achieving 17 percent (global terrestrial) protected area by 2020 and what is actually today protected in the 398 eco-regions, which comprise the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots.

The so-called hotspots are regions agreed upon by the scientific and conservation communities as the most important and the most threatened biological places on earth. They are also places of exceptional linguistic diversity, much of which is also predicted to disappear by century’s end — suggesting perhaps, that the fate of nature and the fate of culture is one and the same. Many of the hotspots are also bedeviled by poverty, violence and corruption.

The world’s biodiversity hotspots. The green areas have met United Nation’s targets of protecting 17 percent of their total area the orange areas have not. / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

When my research assistants and I began this mapping project in 2013, the world’s terrestrial protected area total was hovering at 13.5 percent. Recent figures (2015 data) suggest a total of 15.4 percent. That’s 20.6 million square kilometers of land distributed across more than 209,000 sites in 235 different countries. So, with 15.4 percent already secured, only an additional 1.6 percent protected area is needed to satisfy the Convention’s 2020 target. This amount might seem paltry, but 1.6 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is 2.3 million square kilometers, the equivalent of nearly 700,000 Central Parks. That’s a Central Park stretching 70 times around the world! The research question we asked was where exactly should this additional protected land be?

To meet UN protected area targets over 700,000 Central Parks need to be added to the world’s protected area estate. / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

According to the Convention, we can’t just fence off 1.6 percent of Siberia, or some other place, and then say we’re done! The crucial words in the small print of the Convention are that the global protected estate must be “representative” and “connected.” In theory, this means 17 percent of each of the world’s 867 eco-regions should be protected and connected.

The Atlantic Forests hotspot serves as an example. Currently it has only 8 percent of its territory under protection. Furthermore, when we break the hotspot down into its 15 constituent eco-regions, we find that 9 fall short of reaching 17 percent representation.

An example of one of 35 of the world’s hotspots: The Atlantic Forests / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

In total 21 of 35 hotspots currently fall short of reaching the 17 percent protected area target. More specifically, 201 of their 391 eco-regions fall short. With the new Atlas, any nation can know how much land needs to be protected and where if it wants to meet its obligations under the Convention. This is not to say that blanket targets are always appropriate on the ground, but, it’s a start.

In addition to identifying these protected area shortfalls, the critical nexus this research addresses is the global tension between food production, urbanization and biodiversity. On the world map (below) are three squares. The first and smallest is the world’s current crop land. The second, in the middle, is current crop land plus current grazing land, plus what is thought to be the world’s further potential supply of arable land – a total of 50 percent of the earth’s ice-free surface area. These leave 50 percent of the planet’s land for other uses, exactly what E.O. Wilson has called for in his book, Half Earth. 50 percent seems like a lot, but remember that 33 percent of this land is desert – land which by definition is not suited to either biodiversity or agriculture. Subtracting the world’s deserts leaves 17 percent for biodiversity – precisely the amount demanded by the Convention.

The world existing and possible future foodbowl for 10 billion people / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

The bigger cause for concern is however the large square: the land area necessary to feed 10 billion people. The UN is now forecasting anywhere between 9.5 and 13.3 billion by 2100, so 10 is a conservative estimate. But these projected 10 billion consumers are not “average” global citizens; let us suppose they are people like us; who shop in supermarkets and eat more or less whatever they want, whenever they want. They are average Americans; people with a food footprint of 1.4 hectares each. 10 billion people consuming at this level would require a whopping 93 percent of the earth’s ice-free terrestrial surface. In this scenario, not only would all the world’s arable land be used for agriculture, but so too would the world’s deserts, plus some. After we’ve finished our burgers, a mere 7 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface would be left for biodiversity – for all practical purposes a mountainous zoo in the midst of a global monoculture of corn and cattle, hooked up to desalination plants.

These proportions of land-use will likely change when global population drops, as it probably will in the 22nd century due to socio-economic influences associated with urbanization. The other mitigating factor would be if the bulk of food production shifted to the oceans, and/or if meat could be produced independently of ruminants entirely. Then, ecological restoration could take place on a scale commensurate with that which is needed to partially correct the earth system’s current imbalances.

The challenge will be to get through this century’s incredibly tight ecological bottlenecks and come out the other end with some ecosystems, preferably the hotspots, partially intact.

The second major area of this research concerns 422 cities in the world’s hotspots. We zoomed into each city of 300,000 people or more and superimposed their 2030 growth trajectory (as per Karen Seto’s work at Yale ). We then plotted remnant habitat and threatened (mammal) species from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List. What emerges are the flashpoints between future urban growth and biodiversity.

In the circular images of the cities in the Atlantic Forests hotspot, orange indicates zones of imminent conflict between urban growth and biodiversity. Alarmingly, 383 of the 422 cities in the world’s hotspots are on a collision course with unique and irreplaceable biodiversity.

Examples of some cities of more than 300,000 in the Atlantic Forest Hotspot (bright yellow and purple indicates immanent conflict with biodiversity). / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

And we are not just talking about a little bit of sprawl. If an extra 3 billion people move into cities by 2100, as is entirely likely, it means we need to build 357 New York Cities in the next 84 years, i.e., 4.25 New Yorks per year. Much of that growth will occur as both formal and informal sprawl in Africa, India and South and Central America, much of it up against biodiversity and much of it unregulated.

As documented in the Atlas, our analysis suggests that most of these 383 cities that are encroaching on valuable habitat don’t have any semblance of as whole-of-city urban planning. This lack of planning at the city scale is also evident at the national scale: almost all the nations in whose jurisdiction the world’s hotspots lie don’t – in so far as we can tell – have national land-use plans incorporating biodiversity.

Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, each nation must develop a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. In practice, these tend to be platitudinous reports and most don’t take into account the 17 percent target for protected area. Most of the nations who are signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity are also signatories to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which demands that they prepare national climate change plans.

The Atlas for the End of the World lays the ground work for the 142 nations who preside over the world’s biodiversity hotspots to now view climate change, biodiversity, and urbanization as interrelated phenomena and plan for the future. To do so would be a new beginning.

This guest post is by Richard Weller, ASLA, Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylania School of Design. Claire Hoch and Chieh Huang collaborated with Weller on the Atlas as research assistants.

The Factory as Forest

Georgia forest / Wikipedia
Georgia forest / Wikipedia

“Our goal is to achieve zero negative environmental impacts by 2020,” said Erin Meezan, vice president at Interface, an innovative producer of carpets and textiles, at Greenbuild in Los Angeles. But as the firm nears its goal, it’s now pursuing an even more ambitious vision — the “factory as forest,” in which their manufacturing facilities become positive contributors to the environment, providing as much ecosystem service benefits as their surrounding landscape.

This astonishing vision comes from Interface’s deceased founder Ray Anderson and Janine Benyus, whose firm, Biomimicry 3.8, is advising them. Benyus’ guiding idea: “When the forest and the city are functionally indistinguishable, then we know we’ve embedded sustainability.” To achieve this, she calls for using biomimetic design strategies that “consciously emulate nature’s designs.” This is because nature, with 3.8 billion years of evolution, has “already solved most challenges.”

Interface plans to move past their current model, which includes “reducing negative impacts to zero; using recycled, closed-loop materials; producing low-carbon products; and creating a sustainable supply chain” — goals akmost any firm would view as almost unreachable accomplishments.

Under their new model post-2020, they intend to go beyond simply doing no-harm and become a positive contributor to the environment and society through their manufacturing.

For example, they have reached out to fishing communities in Philippines to set up centers were used, torn nylon fishing nets can be collected. Interface will then recycle and incorporate these into their products. “Communities negatively impacted by ghost nets will be paid to collect nets for us,” creating rippling benefits beyond the product.

Nicole Miller, managing director at Biomimicry 3.8, further explained how her firm will help Interface redesign their facilities to be restorative entities that mimic nearby ecosystems. She said there are three primary ways to integrate this novel approach: first, by “changing the company’s mindset and setting an ambitious north star”; second, using the surrounding ecosystems as a reference to set performance goals; and, third, by developing design concepts rooted in specific site details. “The ecological habitats next door become the guidance benchmarks.”

To redesign Interface’s factory in LaGrange, Georgia, they must understand the surrounding reference ecosystem they will measure performance against — the Southern Outer Piedmont ecosystem. Miller said Biomimicry 3.8 will carefully examine all aspects of how this ecosystem functions in order to set measurable goals. They will look at the amounts of carbon sequestered, water stored and purified, sediment retained, pollination supported, pollution detoxified, biodiversity supported, and soil fertility enhanced by the system.

“Ecological services are the entry point.” But Miller’s team will then further dig into the metrics to inform the design. For example, should a manufacturing facility really mimic the carbon functions of a forest, which releases carbon in some months and sequesters more in other months?

In the future, Interface want to bring this ecosystem-driven approach to design into the product themselves too: they seek to create products that sequester carbon, that require them to pull carbon out of the atmosphere to produce the material.

Also in this session: James Connelly, director of the living product challenge at the International Living Future Institute announced some of the first few products that have been certified as having restorative social and environmental effects, such as office furniture by HumanScale, which has no toxic chemicals and was created through 100 percent renewable energy, as well as new skateboards and sunglasses by Bureo, which are made of plastics harvested from the ocean. His group is now working with Patagonia to create a “restorative supply chain.”

How to Measure the Benefits of a Landscape

Uptown Normal Circle and Streetscape / Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects
Uptown Normal Circle and Streetscape / Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects

“We can’t achieve sustainability without considering the landscape. Performance happens there,” argued Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, president of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) at GreenBuild in Los Angeles. By performance, Deutsch means just that — achieving concrete, measurable goals through sustainable and resilient landscape design: capturing stormwater, raising property prices, reducing the urban heat island effect, or improving biodiversity.

Deutsch complained that too many landscape architects still offer a laundry list of sustainable features when they discuss their work instead of focusing on real benefits. “We need to move to talk of benefits. For example, we can say a landscape captures this percent of stormwater, sequesters these many pounds of carbon, or saved thousands in energy use.”

To achieve performance and then collect these kinds of numbers, more landscape architects need to “integrate measurable performance metrics into the front end of the design process.”

To promote this approach, the LAF has built up the robust Landscape Performance Series, which includes a fast fact library, with data pulled from various credible journals; a set of benefits calculators; and, lastly, an inventory of over 100 case studies, which offer comparative before and after images, benefits data, and, to be transparent, information on how that data was collected and measured. “We also include information on lessons learned — what didn’t work.”

Deutsch and her team spend upwards of six months with landscape architecture firms and clients to put together a case study. Developing metrics and collecting and synthesizing data is a time-consuming process. “Choosing the right metric is important.” Deutsch called for using “defensible metrics, not necessarily peer-reviewed or published.”

The case studies offer a range of environmental, social, and often economic benefits. For example, the client and design team for Uptown Normal’s Circle and Streetscape in Normal, Illinois, a highly successful new town square and traffic circle, found that “104 new trees planted on site sequester 10,790 pounds of carbon.” And also, they found that the new landscape “increased property values in the Uptown tax increment financing district by $1.5 million (or 9%) from 2009 to 2010, a 31 percent increase from 2004.”

In another case study, the client and design team for the General Service Administration (GSA)’s new Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. found the landscape’s set of terraced green roofs “retains up to 424,000 gallons of rainwater, which is equal to the 95th percentile storm event.” The site’s new social spaces are being used: “336 distinct individuals observed using the courtyard over a 6-hour period.”

But she admitted some of the data is preliminary at best. And it’s easy to conflate causation with correlation. For example, one could say that a new park reduced neighborhood crime by 50 percent if one looked at crime logs before the park was created and then after the park launched and found crime went down 50 percent. But that’s leaving out many other potential causal factors that perhaps weren’t well studied. The park could have come with additional security guards, or the police could have increased their patrols in the area during the construction process, or the buildings around the park could have been redeveloped as pricey condos. Deutsch said “misusing data is possible. But we have to start somewhere. And it’s important to always cite the specific context of the data,” rather than generalizing it.

In the coming decades, Deutsch thinks even better data will come. She sees every landscape architecture degree program teaching landscape performance as part of an integrated design process, and performance calculations included in licensing exams. “I see this approach integrated into practice and the standard procedure.”

To make the case study development process easier, LAF will release a guidebook in 2017.

How to Restore Neighborhood Streams

Restoring Neighborhood Streams / Island Press
Restoring Neighborhood Streams / Island Press

Over the last 30 years, urban stream restoration has evolved from neighborhood and non-profit-led volunteer projects to full-scale public works projects. Dr. Ann Riley, executive director of the Waterways Restoration Institute, explained this evolution of stream restoration in her 1998 book, Restoring Streams in Cities: A Guide for Policymakers, Planners, and Citizens. Eighteen years later, she documents the path of six important projects in the San Francisco Bay area in her new book, Restoring Neighborhood Steams: Planning, Design and Construction.

Restoring Neighborhood Streams dives deep into the details. However, all of us that are involved in restoring urban habitats — from streams, creeks, to shorelines — will benefit from reviewing how communities started these projects, analyzed opportunities, and applied lessons learned. She tells stories about the projects, but also delves into engineering technologies. Anyone involved in stream restoration can apply the ideas and results presented in the book to their urban green infrastructure projects.

The book begins and also ends with discussion on what “restoration” means. We view restoration through many lenses: engineering analyses, stormwater metrics, and urban aesthetics. She explains there are different degrees of restoration as well: we can enhance streams’ function or ecology, or preserve their history to certain levels.

In striving towards historic recreation, six case studies take the reader through the decision-making process needed to determine appropriate interventions. Case studies demonstrate the success of bio-engineering and imply the failure of traditional planting plans.

More pointedly, Riley argues for using a phased approach to stream restoration work, layering plant material while stabilizing channels at the same time. Riley stresses that successful work depends on a collaborative, multi-disciplinary team of landscape architects, engineers, scientists, communications specialists, and maintenance workers.

While stream restoration projects are now largely led by city public works departments, it’s  clear the key to successful projects is participation by the community. The book uses neighborhood streams as a focal point to discuss the many issues that affect communities — wildlife habitat, water quality, public safety, homelessness, education, environmental legislation, and green jobs.

If you are doing urban restoration or green stormwater infrastructure projects, reading this book should trigger many ideas. Reading through Riley’s deconstruction of these six projects should help guide you to success.

This guest post is by Peg Staeheli, FASLA, MIG | SvR

ASLA Launches Guide to Resilient Design

Resilient design / ASLA
Resilient design / ASLA

A new online guide launched today by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) explains how communities can better protect themselves from natural disasters through resilient landscape planning and design.

According to the guide, the goal of resilient landscape planning and design is to retrofit communities to recover more quickly from extreme events, now and in the future. In an era when disasters can cause traditional, built systems to fail, adaptive, multilayered systems can maintain their vital functions and are often the more cost-effective and practical solutions.

The guide is organized around disruptive events that communities now experience: drought, extreme heat, fire, flooding, and landslides. Biodiversity loss is an underlying threat also explored.

The guide includes hundreds of case studies and resources demonstrating multi-benefit systems as well as small-scale solutions. It also explains landscape architects’ role in the planning and design teams helping to make communities more resilient.

Resilient design involves working with nature—instead of in opposition to it. It provides value to communities, including:

Risk reduction: As events become more frequent and intense due to climate change, communities must adapt and redevelop to reduce potential risks and improve ecological and human health. It’s also time to stop putting communities and infrastructure in high-risk places. And communities must reduce sprawl, which further exacerbates the risks.

Scalability and Diversity: Resilient landscape planning and design offers a multi-layered system of protection, with diverse, scalable elements, any one of which can fail safely in the event of a catastrophe.

Multiple Co-Benefits: Resilient landscape design solutions offers multiple benefits at once. For example, designed coastal buffers can also provide wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities; urban forests made up of diverse species clean the air while reducing the urban heat island effect; and green infrastructure designed to control flooding also provides needed community space and creates jobs.

Regeneration: Disruptive natural events that are now occurring more frequently worldwide harm people and property. Resilient design helps communities come back stronger after these events. Long-term resilience is about continuously bouncing back and regenerating. It’s about learning how to cope with the ever-changing “new normal.”

In an era when disasters can cause traditional, built systems to fail, adaptive, multi-layered systems can maintain their vital functions and are often more cost-effective and practical solutions. In an age of rising waters and temperatures and diminishing budgets, the best defenses are adaptive, like nature.

The guide to resilient design has been strengthened through the expert guidance of Alexander Felson, ASLA, assistant professor, School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale School of Architecture; Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, associate professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning and urban design, University of California at Berkeley; Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, graduate program director and associate professor, Ryerson University School of Urban and Regional Planning; Nate Wooten, Associate ASLA, landscape designer, OLIN; and Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder and dean, Peking University College of Architecture and Landscape and Turenscape.

Explore the guide.

Highways Can Help Pollinators Return to Health

Compos
Compost-spreading tactics to encourage native plants that both control erosion and attract pollinators / Caltrans

In the face of rapidly-declining honeybee populations, farms across the country are under threat. In California, officials are now pioneering new methods to boost the health of the honeybees and butterflies, according to a recent Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. To reiterate the importance of these efforts, Congressman Jeff Denham, who is also an almond farmer, said at the briefing: “making sure we have healthy pollinators is critical to a state like California.”

There to discuss these pioneering methods was Keith Robinson, ASLA, principal of the landscape architecture program at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). The purview of Robinson and the 240 landscape architects he leads is roadsides. Their primary job is to control erosion. But Robinson and his team have seized on that mandate to boost the health of pollinators along California’s 250,000 acres of highway roadside.

Robinson said it all starts with the soil. “We are prioritizing the improvement of soil quality on every single project. We want to make sure that soil sustains native plants and creates favorable conditions that encourage pollinator plants to not only to grow but thrive.”

Robinson’s team began this effort by performing studies on the optimal amount of compost that can be included in the soil. Compost “gets things moving along, and then the natural process takes over.” The right amount of compost allows native species to out-compete non-natives, foregoing the need for many herbicides that might negatively impact pollinators. Robinson’s team realized they could use Caltrans’ often-idle snow blowers to spread compost.

Another innovative step taken by Robinson’s team was the development of native grass sod, or pre-packaged grass carpet. “With native grass, the thinking was you can’t cut the roots and expect the plant to grow. But we’ve proved that it works.” Native grasses not only help erosion control, they encourage pollinators. “If you compare this solution to what we used to do, which was put straw down on top of compacted soil and hope for the best, you can see we’re moving down a path towards natural solutions,” Robinson said.

In addition to these steps, Caltrans ramped up planting pollinator-friendly plant species along highways. TransPLANT, an online tool, helps landscape architects choose sustainable, pollinator-friendly plants for their own projects.

Whether these effort can benefit pollinators fast enough is unknown. Robinson noted no studies have been performed on pollinator habitat health in state highway rights-of-way. And a recent study done by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation found that monarch butterfly populations in California have declined 74 percent in the past two decades.

Monarch butterfly /
Monarch butterfly / Public Domain Pictures.net

Another speaker, Eric Silva, American Honey Producers Association, expressed resignation that reversing the trend on bee populations was a losing battle. “We’re losing half the bees over the course of the year.” The environmental culprits are relatively well-known: pesticides and chemicals, habitat loss, and pests.

Robinson offered hope for the future. His team has developed an online roadside management toolbox that helps other transportation departments learn from Caltrans’ methods. The site has tens of thousands of visitors in the U.S., but has also gotten healthy traffic from countries such as India and Canada.

And regarding the future of roadside planting, Robinson envisions hyper-local roadside ecosystems that include native as well as non-native, well-adapted species. “The pollinator and native plant advocates have voiced their appreciation for our efforts,” Robinson added. “I don’t think the public is as aware of what we are doing yet.”

The New Landscape Declaration: Perspective and Critique (Part 1)

LandscapeDeclarationLogo
New Landscape Declaration / LAF

After hearing 23 declarations on the first day of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s New Landscape Declaration: Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future, panels of landscape architects on day two critiqued the declarations, delved into some of the important facets of landscape architecture — aesthetics, ecology, society, and innovation — and offered visions for what needs to be achieved over the next 50 years.

Aesthetics: Connect Through Creativity

The panel, which was led by Adam Greenspan, ASLA, a member of the LAF board of directors, essentially worried that the importance of “physical design, which engages culture and nature,” may be lost in the total quest for sustainability and restoring ecosystems. Their response was designed landscapes must be beautiful if we expect communities to love them and take care of them far into the future.

Claude Cormier, ASLA, principal of Claude Cormier + Associates, said aesthetics has always played a central role in landscape architecture. Frederick Law Olmsted was “focused on nature as an aesthetic experience.” For Mikyoung Kim, FASLA, Mikyoung Kim Design, it’s less about aesthetics, a term she dislikes, and more about the “process of creativity, which is methodical and conscious, and about tapping intuition, which occurs on a subconscious level.” But she cautioned that if landscape architects were “too creative, they risk missing the pressing global issues.”

In the context of the overall summit, this seemed like a shocking statement: “We can’t save the world, but we can address some major issues through design in contemporary ways,” argued Chris Reed, FASLA, founder of Stoss. “Design can move people’s hearts to create action.” Ken Smith, FASLA, principal of Ken Smith Workshop, largely concurred, arguing that “aesthetics matter. The qualitative aspects — the spaces, programs, forms — provide meaning to humans. Landscapes can delight, confound, confuse, excite us.” He pointed to the art world, where the “new is often ugly,” arguing that perhaps landscape architects also need to be pushing the boundaries on concepts of beauty. Meanwhile, Maria Goula, associate professor at Cornell University, asked: “do we need new aesthetics or perhaps multiple aesthetics?”

East River Waterfront Dog Run, NYC / Ken Smith Workshop
East River Waterfront Dog Run, NYC / Ken Smith Workshop

Ecology: Make Ecological Design Mainstream

“People will look at us and this time and say we just didn’t get it,” said Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, professor at University of California, Berkeley, referring to the many dangers facing our ecosystems and planet. Hill, who moderated the ecology panel, relayed how San Francisco’s city government momentarily fell into crisis when a senior official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stated they expected a 6-9 feet sea level rise by 2050. While it was just one official’s personal opinion, San Francisco’s panicked response showed that “stronger sense of urgency is needed” in the push to adapt our ecosystems to the coming environmental changes. “Unprecedented instability is coming. The role of landscape architects is to think out the options and try not to panic.”

Ellen Neises, ASLA, an adjunct professor at University of Pennsylvania, said in this age of crisis, we need to move away from “sustainability propaganda in which ‘optimism sells.'” Instead, “designers need to provoke more.” Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon Associates and major force behind the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), rued that ecology is “still not mainstream in our profession.” He called for landscape architecture educators to “embed scientific rigor in the educational process,” and landscape architects to do the same in their design process. “Beauty and performance aren’t mutually exclusive. All forms of life matter.”

Shoemaker Green, University of Pennsylvania campus by Andropogon Associates / Tillet Lighting Design
Shoemaker Green, University of Pennsylvania campus by Andropogon Associates / Tillet Lighting Design

Brett Milligan, ASLA, University of California, Davis, argued that “if we do things to the landscape, they sometimes respond in some ways we dislike. We need a new, relational way to interact with the landscape.” Julie Bargmann, founding principal, D.I.R.T. Studio, urged caution against becoming too all-knowing about nature, arguing that “ecological models are slippery.” And Antje Stokman, International ASLA, professor at the University of Stuttgart, called for creating methods to encourage “direct community engagement with the environment,” particularly in environments characterized by heavy migration among both human and other species.

Society: Diversify and Co-design with Communities 

Deb Guenther, FASLA, partner at Mithun, led a discussion that focused on the twinned goals of increasing diversity in the landscape architecture profession and better reaching under-served communities. Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, principal at DesignJones, pointed to ASLA’s ongoing efforts to increase diversity through its annual diversity summit, which brings together emerging African American and Latino landscape architects, but also called it like she saw it: “if we truly want diversity, we need to focus less on statistics and instead recognize and praise diversity and lift it up.” She pointed to the range of African American landscape architects doing important work, often under the radar. Jeffrey Hou, ASLA, professor at University of Washington, added that “landscape architects need to diversify their ranks or risk becoming a profession of colonialists,” coming in as white experts into communities of color.

Diane Jones Allen, ASLA / Landscape Architecture Magazine
Diane Jones Allen, ASLA / Landscape Architecture Magazine

“Landscape architecture can diversify in the next decade or two,” because just look at the huge gains that have been made to bring in more women over the past 50 years, argued Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, a professor at MIT. She explained her multiple decades of experience helping African American communities in Philadelphia unearth their own landscapes, explaining how “long-term commitments are needed to build trust.” She wondered whether landscape architecture programs, with their semester-long field projects, can truly engage and learn from communities in which they dip for a short time. Jones Allen concurred, arguing that “we have to be careful how we get students into these communities, but it’s important to get them out of their comfort zone of the studio and face real people with real issues. Students are learning.” Allison Hirsch, ASLA, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, was less positive, arguing that “landscape architects tend to avoid issues of inclusion; there are few community-oriented design practices.”

For Spirn and others, the solution is more equitable design processes rooted in co-design and a participatory process with stakeholders. The goal should be capacity building among communities. “Make the design process transparent, not opaque,” argued Spirn.

Innovation: Move Beyond the Discipline

Adrian McGregor, Internatonal ASLA, a founder of McGregor Coxall in Australia, envisions a “new economy that trades in carbon, which will raise underlying values of ecosystems,” eventually resulting in a new “NASDAQ for the environment.” The growing importance of sequestering carbon in the environment will “put landscape architects at the table.”

Andrea Hansen, founder of Fluxscape, wants landscape architects to “move beyond the discipline, embrace holistic thinking,” and embrace open data. But she added that increasing innovation doesn’t necessarily mean “increasing complexity; we must keep it simple when we communicate to expand our reach.” To realize this reach beyond the discipline, Marcel Wilson, ASLA, founder of Bionic, called for more experimentation and risks, even if they result in failures. “We must incentivize innovation; landscape architects have become too reactive.”

Liat Margolis, ASLA, director of the Green Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab), University of Toronto, appears to be doing what Wilson called and Hansen have called for, as she works to create the next generation of green roof technologies. “We need to discover different material composites, bridge performance gaps, and exceed current green design benchmarks through experimental design.”

Green Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab) / Sandy Nicholson, University of Toronto Magazine
Green Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab) / Sandy Nicholson, University of Toronto Magazine

And Karen M’Closley, ASLA, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, similarly called for a “new set of sustainable design indicators, set-up pre-occupancy and post-occupancy surveys, and capture results in real-time.” Margolis finally asked: “where is the landscape architecture field’s think tank?”