2016 Environmental Performance Rankings Show Progress and Failure

Deforestation in Brazil / Wired
Deforestation in Brazil / Wired

Yale University and Columbia University, together with the World Economic Forum, have released the 2016 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which tracks how well countries protect human health and ecosystems. According to their analysis, “nearly every country” has improved their “environmental performance” on 20 different indicators over the past decade, while land and marine ecosystems only continue to decline. Countries in Western Europe and North America, which already have fairly high scores, now focus on incremental improvements, but are still gaining, while even China and India have shown significant improvements from 2006. Still, the problems facing both people and ecosystems are massive. More than 3.5 billion people — half of the world’s population — live in countries with “unsafe” air quality, and around 8 percent of the global population still lacks access to clean water. On the ecosystems side: a third of all fisheries are “over-exploited” or have simply collapsed, while, in 2014 alone, an area the size of Peru, about 2.5 million square kilometers, was stripped of trees. Only 15.4 percent of terrestrial habitats and 8.4 percent of marine habitats are protected, far less than the amount Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has called for: 50 percent of the Earth’s surface.

The world’s progress on environmental performance is wildly uneven. For example, the EPI global scorecard shows improvements in access to drinking water. The number of people who lack access to clean water has been cut in half from 960 million in 2000 to 550 million today, even as the population has increased. However, the report also shows corresponding human health failures, namely increasing air pollution. As they argued in 2012, uneven progress is due to different stages of economic development. “As nations become wealthier, particularly in Asia, their governments invest in sanitation infrastructure and fewer people are exposed to unsafe water, leading to fewer deaths from waterborne illnesses. But as countries develop, increased industrial production, shipping, and automotive transportation foul the air, exposing human populations to dangerous airborne compounds.”

In India, which is rapidly developing, 75 percent of the population is exposed to dangerous air every day. And in China, which has quickly become the second biggest economy on Earth, one in five deaths is attributed to air pollution — about 4,000 people every day. While air pollution is a critical issue in China and India, it also impacts people far beyond those two developing countries — some 3.5 billion people, or half the world’s population — live in places where fine particulate matter exceeds World Health Organization (WHO) safe standards.

Wealthy Nordic countries continue to lead the rankings, with Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark at the very top, followed by European countries Slovenia, Spain, Portugal, Estonia, Malta, and France. Over the past decade, these countries show a 5-10 percent improvement in environmental performance, with model Finland improving just 3 percent over the decade, perhaps because it has already achieved such high levels of achievement. Finland, the report notes, recently passed a legally-binding resolution to receive 38 percent of their final energy from renewable sources by 2020; currently, the country already gets two-thirds of its electricity from renewable or nuclear power.

This year, the USA is in 26th place, a great improvement over 49th place in 2012 and 61st place in 2010, and a 10 percent improvement overall in performance over the past decade. President Obama’s administration has made major gains in improving air quality. Over the past decade, the administration has issued new regulations on heavy duty truck fuel efficiency and released new mercury air toxins standards, particulate matter rules, and fuel sulfur rules. President Obama has also stepped up conservation efforts, broadening the world’s largest protected marine preserve, the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument, into a zone that now covers 490,000 square miles. The U.S. has done poorly on protecting its forests though, according to the index. Canada is ranked at 25, just one spot above the US.

China, the world’s second biggest economy, is ranked 109, up from 116th place in 2012. Its performance has improved nearly 13 percent over the past decade — its air quality and sanitation and waste water treatment efforts have led to gains over the past decade. And, India, the world’s most populous country, is in 141st place, slipping from 125th place in 2012, but improving 20 percent over the past decade, largely because of its improvements in sanitation and waste water treatment.

The report identifies most-improved countries — which include Comoros (48 percent), Sao Tome and Principe (38 percent), Egypt (37 percent), Djibouti (36 percent), Timor-Leste (33 percent), Lesotho (32 percent), Tanzania (31 percent) — but all are below 100 in the rankings, so they start from relatively low points. Among middle-income countries, Ukraine, Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Jordan, Greece, and Croatia have also showed big gains.

One of the few criticisms of this heroic analytical effort is the report could better highlight some of the most destructive underlying trends — namely the unabated destruction of the world’s forests, ecosystems essential to all life on earth. A stunning set of statistics: the world has lost 18 million hectares of forest each year since 2000. “The rate of global forest loss has increased in the past 15 years, up 19 percent in the period 2012 to 2014, and 42 percent compared with 2001 to 2004.” Forests, as they explain, are threatened everywhere, but most in danger in Brazil, Indonesia, the Mekong Basin in Southeast Asia, and Congo Basin in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2014 alone, tropical forests lost 9.9 million acres of trees, an area the size of South Korea. Brazil has made strong pledges to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030 but deforestation rates rose 16 percent last year. In other parts of the world, there aren’t even pledges to slow the destruction, as palm oil plantations and livestock farms replace forest.

Towards the end of the 100-plus-page report that accompanies the index, the team from Yale and Columbia return to their core argument, which is humanity is dramatically undervaluing the planet’s ecosystem services, and, as a result, slowly destroying its ability to sustain itself. As the authors note, “a recent study estimates that the loss of ecosystem services due to land use changes worldwide was worth between $4.3 and $20.2 trillion a year. These services contribute twice as much to human well-being than the entire gross domestic product” of the world. The authors note that a number of policymakers “already consider global biodiversity loss to be a serious threat to economic growth.” These forward-thinking policymakers understand that without forests and essential ecosystems, there is no global economy.

The EPI argues the only way forward is to decouple economic growth from the destruction of ecosystems. Natural accounting, which measures and includes the value of ecosystem services, must become the norm among governments and the private sector. Without the incorporation of the real economic value of the environment, it will be impossible for policymakers to make decisions about sustainable natural resource use. Natural accounting can be used to make the case for conservation and also restoration — what’s needed if we are to have a sustainable future.

Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest Protected from Logging

Great Bear Rainforest / The Huffington Post Canada via MyLoupe/UIG/ Getty Images
Great Bear Rainforest / The Huffington Post Canada

In a landmark deal that took 20 years to reach, Canada will protect over 7.7 million acres of one of the world’s last intact temperate rainforests in coastal British Columbia. The deal protects 85 percent of the rainforest, an area about half the size of Ireland, while leaving 15 percent open to loggers who must comply with the highest sustainable forestry standards. The rainforest is home to the Spirit Bear, a rare cream-colored black bear, wolves, salmon, orcas, and miles of old-growth forest. The deal was made with 26 First Nations, which are Canadian native tribal groups, environmentalists, forest product companies, and the British Columbia government, which all called it a model of sustainable forest management. The agreement is seen as a win for the First Nation groups, who will now get a greater share of the proceeds from timber than in the past.

The deal sets new rules for timber harvesting: some 2.5 million cubic meters of forest in designated logging zones can be harvested each year. Of that amount, only 750,000 cubic meters can be cut from old growth trees. This amount may sound like a lot, but it will be 40 percent less than in the past.

In The Globe and Mail, Rick Jeffery, president and CEO of Coast Forest Products Association, called the agreement a success because it creates more certainty for the wood and paper industries. “We know what the rules are, we know what areas are going to be set aside for protection, and what areas we are going to be operating in. Knowing we have that, people can start to invest in their mills, training, and capacity. That’s the first level of certainty. The second part is that First Nations have more tenure and we are in a better position to build on those partnerships.”

Mongabay outlines the long history of conflict leading up to the agreement. In the mid-1990s, “amid growing industrial logging operations in rainforests around the world, First Nations communities in B.C. were becoming increasingly concerned about the fate of the forests in their traditional territories, to which they often had no legal title. Those First Nations groups were joined by environmentalists in a fierce battle against the forestry industry and the B.C. government until 2000, when all parties came together to call a ceasefire and allow an independent scientific analysis of the rainforest. That process culminated in the 2006 Great Bear Rainforest Agreements, a vision for ecosystem-based management of the rare temperate rainforest ecosystems found in British Columbia.”

With the just-announced agreement, the rights of First Nation communities are further bolstered, two years after a Canadian Supreme Court decision recognized their rights to stop logging in their forests. British Columbia signed 26 separate agreements with the tribes living in the forest, guaranteeing them a greater share of the proceeds from the timber harvest. These groups will now get to keep the funds from 17 percent of the annual allowable cut, up from 7 percent today.

Marilyn Slett, chief councillor of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council and president of the Coastal First Nations, told The Globe and Mail that both environmental and economic sustainability are core values of First Nation leaders and elders. “We know we must respect and care for the land and the water so they can support our communities.”

And Dallas Smith, president of the Nanwakolas Council, which speaks for eight Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations, applauded the deal, but said, alone, it won’t guarantee the long-term economic sustainability of the tribes. He told the The Vancouver Sun his people are looking beyond the agreement, looking at new ways to sustainably generate income, like “clean energy projects,” eco-tourism, and selling carbon credits for protected trees. Millions of tons of carbon are stored in those old-growth forests.

The new deal will also end the commercial hunt of Grizzly Bears within the First Nation territories of the Great Bear Rainforest, which account for about half of the total forest, but not in areas owned by the government. Ecologists have highlighted how critical Grizzly Bears and Spirit Bears are to the ecological functioning of the rainforest. BBC News explains how bears catch salmon from the rivers as the fish return home to spawn. The bears then take the salmon into the forests to eat, leaving the carcasses. When the carcasses decompose into the soil, they release much-needed nitrogen crucial to plant growth. Some 80 percent of the forest’s nitrogen comes from decomposing salmon.

Spirit Bear on Griddell Island, Great Bear Rainforest / Nature Conservancy
Spirit Bear on Gribbell Island, Great Bear Rainforest / Nature Conservancy

There are still some critics who think the conservation agreement could have gone much further. Ian McAllister, with environmental group Pacific Wild, told The Vancouver Sun that the annual destruction of 2.5 million cubic meters of forest every year can’t be considered a win for the environment. “We simply have to find a faster transition towards the full protection of our remaining ancient forest.” A group of scientists also wanted the 20,000-hectare Gribbell Island, which is essential Spirit Bear habitat, completely protected, but it was left out of the deal.

The conservation of the Great Bear Rainforest is largely a win for the environment, but many more countries need to also engage all stakeholders in creating ecosystem-based management plans for their remaining forests. According to Yale University’s 2016 Environmental Performance Index, the world has lost 18 million hectares (44.5 million acres) of forest annually since 2000. That’s five Great Bear Rainforests every year. So many countries continue to destroy their forests unabated — with Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa at the top of the list. As these forests are destroyed, unknown numbers of rare, niche species, perhaps less charismatic than the Spirit Bear but still incredibly valuable, face extinction.

U.S. Invests $1 Billion to Boost Resilience

Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana / Lacamo.org
Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana / Lacamo.org

Five cities, both large and small, and eight states were winners of the first-ever National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC), which was organized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Rockefeller Foundation. Communities impacted by major disasters in the past few years will receive $1 billion to develop “resilient infrastructure and housing projects.” While many projects boost resilience for coastal or river communities, there are also inland projects that aim to protect communities against fire and flooding. A majority of the projects include multi-use green infrastructure — systems that both provide flood prevention and control and public green spaces. Winning projects also focus on transit, housing, and jobs. Some 40 communities submitted proposals.

In a conference call, HUD Secretary Julian Castro said this investment in resilience will help communities become “safer, stronger, and richer” as they adapt to climate change, which is the “great challenge of the 21st century.” The past few years, he said, have seen “extreme and devastating drought, wildfires, flooding, and tornadoes.” And with 2015 now just confirmed as the hottest year on record, extreme climate events will only get worse.

Here’s a brief overview of the state and city winners, organized by the amounts they won:

States:

Virginia: $120,549,000 for the Ohio Creek Watershed and Coastal Resilience Laboratory and Accelerator Center, which will develop “distributed green infrastructure projects, such as rain barrels and gardens, and combine them with coastal shoreline development to address flooding due to storm surge and torrential rains.”

Iowa: $96,887,177 for the Iowa Watershed Approach, an innovative program, which seeks to create local “watershed management authorities” that will assess hydrological and watershed conditions and create management plans for a more sustainable agricultural system.

Louisiana: $92,629,249 for its Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments Program, which aims to protect coastal wetlands, retrofit communities threatened by flooding, and reshape high-ground areas. The funds will also help a tribal community on Isle de Jean Charles–whose land has submerged by an amazing 98 percent since 1955–move to a new location.

California: $70,359,459 to pilot its Community and Watershed Resilience program in Tuolumne county, which was hit by wildfires in 2013. The program aims to create a environmentally and economically sustainable model for forest and watershed health that can be rolled out across the state.

Connecticut: $54,277,359 for a pilot program in the city of Bridgeport to test the state’s broader Connecticut Connections Coastal Resilience Plan, which seeks to connect “economically-isolated” coastal communities through a mix of green and gray infrastructure.

Tennessee: $44,502,374 for the state’s Rural by Nature, a federal, state, and local initiative to create resilient rural communities along the Mississippi River, which will restore two miles of degraded floodplain.

New York: $35,800,000 for public housing resiliency pilot projects throughout the state, which will test efforts to build resilience into low-income multi-family housing.

New Jersey: $15,000,000 for a regional resilience planning grant program, which will help local communities create their own plans to address their vulnerability to flooding.

Cities:

New York City: $176,000,000 for coastal resilience in Lower Manhattan and efforts to protect public housing projects.

New Orleans: $141,260,569 for the city’s first-ever Resilience District in Gentilly, which will include coastal restoration, new parks and green streets, and workforce development initiatives.

Minot, North Dakota: $74,340,770 for an integrated approach to manage climate change and flooding.

Shelby County, Tennessee: $60,445,163 for its Greenprint for Resilience program, which will build a connective set of green infrastructure projects to increase protection against future flooding while creating trails and recreation areas.

Springfield, Massachusetts: $17,056,880 for an Urban Watershed Resilience Zone, which will focus on jobs, restoring affordable housing, and the creation of a new distributed heat and power plant in the event of a grid failure.

Green infrastructure, which involves using designed natural systems to provide a range of ecosystem services, is a primary area of investment, said Harriet Tregoning, who leads resilience efforts at HUD. “Lots of the projects feature green infrastructure. But we used a benefit-cost analysis to ensure that green infrastructure offers more than one benefit–not just stormwater management.” As Tregoning explained, HUD encouraged the project teams to come up with ways that “green infrastructure for stormwater managment or flood control could double as a park or greenway, bicycle or walking path.” The goal is to “capture all the social co-benefits.”

Christian Gabriel, ASLA national design director for landscape architecture at the General Services Administration (GSA) and one of the evaluators of the proposals, argued that the process also encouraged new approaches to deal with these complex, multi-faceted problems: “Great planning and design necessarily cross political and geographic jurisdictions. When multi-purpose projects are conceived from inception as trans-disciplinary, they more effectively act as force multipliers in communities.”

He added that the “competition asked proposers to not only provide compelling physical solutions but also propose new working relationships and create resilient models for collaborative work between governments and civil society.”

While the $1 billion is a drop in the bucket in terms of what’s needed, NDRC is an important expansion of the Rebuild by Design competition, which dedicated $920 million to improve the resilience of the communities hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy, as it may show this competitive financing model can work nationally as well. The NDRC involved some 25 federal agencies, including 100 experts, and it took 16 months to review the proposals and select the winners. What’s needed in the future is a scaled-up annual process, which is something we hope the next administration will take up.

Many more communities need help with resilience, or there will soon be more Isle de Jean Charles, more looking for a new home.

New Case Studies on Sustainable Landscape Design

Sherbourne Commons /
Sherbourne Commons / ASLA 2013 General Design Honor Award. Sherbourne Common / Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg

A newly expanded and now mobile-friendly version of ASLA’s Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes online exhibition highlights real-world examples of sustainable landscape design and its positive effects on the environment and quality of life. These spaces use natural systems to provide ecosystem services, transform untapped assets into vital community spaces, and create new economic opportunities — they ultimately provide significant environmental, social, and economic value.

Ten new case studies that range from a coastal ecological restoration project to a volunteer-run urban farm illustrate just what sustainable landscapes are and how they provide important benefits on a variety of scales. In the process, the case studies, written in clear, understandable language, also introduce users to what exactly landscape architects do.

The new case studies were carefully selected to show a diversity of landscape types and scales and reflect geographical diversity. There are now a total of 40 case studies.

New case studies include:

Burbank Water & Power Eco-campus, Burbank, California, a sustainable landscape for employees and visitors in the midst of a working power plant.

Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson Apartments, San Francisco, California, a safe and welcoming apartment complex, with beautiful design elements, for the chronically homeless.

Lafayette Greens, Detroit, Michigan, a volunteer-run urban farm in downtown Detroit where 800 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables are grown every year.

Living Breakwaters, New York, New York, an innovative coastal ecological restoration project that won $60 million in the Rebuild by Design competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse Sustainable Landscape Renovation, Albuquerque, New Mexico, an underused plaza that has become a model of sustainable landscape design in the desert.

Quarry Garden, Shanghai, China, a derelict, polluted quarry that was transformed into a garden visited by more than 3 million people in its first year.

Sherbourne Common, Toronto, Cananda, a multi-functional park and wastewater treatment plant that includes an underground Ultraviolet (UV) water purification system.

The Steel Yard, Providence, Rhode Island, an abandoned steel manufacturing facility that has become a beloved community arts space.

Sunnylands Center and Gardens, Rancho Mirage, California, an extension to the Annenberg Estate that captures every drop of stormwater, with some collected in underground cisterns for later use.

Woodland Discovery Playground, Memphis, Tennessee, an immersion in nature play for children that features surfaces made of recycled athletic shoes.

The Web site also 30 other case studies; 10 animations created by Daniel Tal, ASLA, using Google Sketchup; and companion sustainability education resources that enable users to explore sustainable design concepts in greater depth.

Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes was originally made possible with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Best Books of 2015

30:30 Landscape Architecture / Phaidon Press
30:30 Landscape Architecture / Phaidon Press

Looking for the perfect present? Or taking time off during the holidays to delve into the latest thinking on design, cities, and the environment? Well, The Dirt’s picks for the top ten books of 2015 are worth exploring:

30:30 Landscape Architecture (Phaidon Press, 2015)
Landscape architecture gets the Phaidon treatment in this appealing and innovative coffee table book by Meaghan Kombol. 30 of the world’s leading landscape architects and designers are paired with 30 up-and-coming ones. Well-known landscape architects featured include Kate Orff, ASLA, Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Kongjian Yu, FASLA, and many others. 30:30‘s scope is truly international, with designers from over 20 countries.

The Age of Sustainable Development (Columbia University Press, 2015)
Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, one of the world’s foremost experts on global development, makes complex, inter-connected issues understandable in this book that explores the future of the planet. E.O. Wilson writes: “Inspirational, encyclopedic in coverage, moving smoothly from discipline to discipline as though composed by multiple experts, the book explains why humanity must maintain sustainability as its highest priority — and outlines the best ways to do it.”

Artful Rainwater Design: Creative Ways to Manage Stormwater (Island Press, 2015)
As our climate becomes more unpredictable, finding better ways to manage stormwater is crucial to reducing floods. However, traditional stormwater management strategies can be unforgettable at best and unsightly at worst. In their new book, Pennsylvania State University professors Stuart Echols, ASLA, and Eliza Pennypacker, ASLA, prove that this doesn’t always have to be the case — it’s possible to effectively manage runoff without sacrificing aesthetics. Read the full review in The Dirt.

The Authentic Garden: Naturalistic and Contemporary Landscape Design (Monacelli Press, 2015)
Richard Hartlage, Affiliate ASLA, and Sandy Fischer, ASLA, founders of Land Morphology in Seattle, have put together a book of visual inspirations, showcasing 60 contemporary designs that feature “beauty for beauty’s sake.” Over 250 full-color photographs highlight the work of Andrea Cochran, FASLA, Raymond Jungles, FASLA, Christine Ten Eyck, FASLA, Michael Vergason, FASLA, and many others.

Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (Verso)
Yale architecture professor and author Keller Easterling has written a fascinating book on infrastructure, and its role in setting the “hidden rules that structure the spaces around us.” Her book looks at the “emergent new powers controlling this space and show how they extend beyond the reach of government.” After reading Extrastatecraft, you aren’t likely to think the same way again about free trade zones, suburbs, or, really, any other standardized spatial form.

Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks (The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted) (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015)
Charles Eliot Beveridge, PhD, Hon. ASLA, Lauren Meier, and Irene Mills bring together Olmsted’s plans and designs for seventy public parks, including Central Park, Prospect Park, the Buffalo Park and Parkway System, Washington Park and Jackson Park in Chicago, Boston’s “Emerald Necklace,” and Mount Royal in Montreal, Quebec. “It is a perfect gift for Olmsted aficionados.”

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Knopf, 2015)
Author Andrea Wulf delves into the life of German scientist and adventurer Alexander von Humboldt, the “Einstein of the 19th century,” who discovered climate and vegetation zones, among many other natural phenomena. Humboldt also predicted climate change. “Arresting. . . . readable, thoughtful, and widely researched,” writes The New York Times Book Review.

The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design (University of Washington Press, 2015)
Thaïsa Way, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, places Haag’s nearly five decade-long career as a landscape architect, activist, and teacher in the context of “changes in the practice of landscape architecture.” Even at 90, Haag still continues to practice in Seattle. Though his work is not entirely finished, his legacy is well established. Read the full review in The Dirt.

Phyto: Principles and Resources for Site Remediation and Landscape Design (Routledge, 2015)
Harvard Graduate School of Design landscape architecture professor Niall Kirkwood, FASLA, and landscape architect Kate Kennen, ASLA, have created a smart and practical guide on how to incorporate phytoremediation, which involves using plants to absorb, remove, or mitigate pollutants, into the actual landscape design process. Kirkwood and Kennen show how to apply helpful plants in sites that are already toxic, but also how to “create projective planting designs with preventative phytotechnology abilities.” The thoughtful book layout and design enables learning, too.

Planting in a Post-Wild World (Timber Press, 2015)
Landscape architect Thomas Rainer, ASLA, and Claudia West, International ASLA, have written an accessible and creative guide to resilient planting design. Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, said: “Rainer and West describe how to translate natural plant relationships and ecological patterns into aesthetically pleasing yet functional landscapes. With their advice we can change gardening from an adversarial relationship with nature to a collaborative one. Expertly researched, and rife with witty advice, this is the universal how-to guide to sustainable landscaping we have all been waiting for. A masterful accomplishment!”

Also, worth knowing: buying these books through The Dirt or ASLA’s bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs.

SITES Certification Now Available Worldwide

Center for Sustainable Landscapes, Phipps Conservancy, SITES 4-stars / Phipps Conservancy
Center for Sustainable Landscapes, Phipps Conservancy, SITES 4-stars / Phipps Conservancy

At the GreenBuild 2015 conference in Washington, D.C., Jamie Statter, vice president of strategic partnerships for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Green Business Certification Inc (GBCI), its credentialing arm, announced that Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) certification is now available for landscape projects worldwide. Also, some form of SITES credential, a “SITES AP,” will become available at some point in the future. Speaking to landscape architects and designers, she said “you will be able to differentiate yourself as a SITES professional in the marketplace.”

SITES was developed over 10 years by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and U.S. Botanic Garden. In the past few years, hundreds of projects sought certification under the SITES pilot program; 46 projects achieved some level of certification. In 2015, GBCI announced that it would acquire SITES and now certify projects under SITES v2. Already more than 15 projects, including two iconic international projects, have registered for certification under SITES, and many more are expected in coming months.

Statter said that “parks and green spaces are now more important than ever,” and they can only be improved through the use of SITES in their design, construction, and operations. She also thinks that SITES will be beneficial with mixed-use developments with a landscape component and parking lots.

SITES has a number of key goals: it will “help create regenerative systems and foster resiliency; mitigate climate change and increase future resource supply; transform the marketplace for landscape-related products and services; and improve human health and well-being.” Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon Associates and a leader in the development of the SITES rating system, concurred, saying that SITES is a useful tool for helping clients and designers “stitch together systems to improve a landscape’s ability to absorb change.”

SITES is based on a different logic than LEED, GBCI’s rating system for buildings: its approach is based in living systems. He said once a building, which is a static system, has been created it begins to deteriorate. But once a landscape, an ever-evolving living system, has been installed, it only begins to take off. “Landscapes can be regenerative.”

Given landscape architects and designers must not only design for people but also all sorts of other wildlife, a system-based approach is critical. “There are forms of life that have co-developed together. With landscapes, it’s not a set of individual elements. You can’t have plants without soils.”

SITES can also have broader impacts on the design process and marketplace. Statter said “projects will now need integrated design teams from the get-go. SITES is a tool for involving landscape architects and designers much earlier on in the design process.”

Alminana added that SITES will only increase the “transactional power” of landscape architects and designers. With SITES, they will now know the “carbon impact of all the materials they source. They can then demand that things are done in a low-carbon way.”

And once the U.S. and other countries move to a regulatory environment that taxes carbon, “landscapes will become invaluable.” When carbon becomes money, “it will be critical to actually monitor the systems in our landscapes.”

U.S. and international landscape architects and designers are encouraged to seek certification for their projects. SITES v2 uses LEED’s four-level certification system: certified, silver, gold, platinum. The rating system is free and the reference guide is available for a fee. Alminana said the “reference guide took over 10 years to develop. Everyone should get one and have fun with it.”

We Can Mimic Nature to Better Manage Water

Bison in Yellowstone National Park / Yellowstone National Park
Bison in Yellowstone National Park / Yellowstone National Park

If it weren’t for us, bison and beavers might still roam Chicago, Illinois, the location of the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting and Expo. The absence of these keystone species, which once provided important roles in the continental water cycle, represents a marked shift in ecosystem functioning. However, landscape architects and engineers from Andropogon Associates and Biohabitats are thinking about how to bring back the ecosystem services these species once provided in order to more sustainably manage water.

“We’re not bringing bison back to the edge of Chicago where they would have been, but looking at their functionality, the lessons that can be learned from them,” said Keith Bowers, FASLA, president of Biohabitats. “We need to ask ourselves how we can turn it around and be these species.”

One way to start this process is by “thinking like a watershed,” Bowers said. “How different would our water management systems be if our states were configured around our watersheds?,” he asked. While humans have made political boundaries irrespective of these watersheds, ecosystems – and their associated wildlife – simply don’t follow suit. The divide between human perception and ecological realities is ubiquitous. Just as an example, 73 percent of people polled in Baltimore, Maryland, do not believe they live in a watershed. This misconception is even more present in other parts of the country.

Thinking like beavers or bison in their native watersheds could provide solutions. Bison, for example, create holes, or “wallows,” in the ground that are perfect for collecting rainwater. Beavers also play a critical ecological role by building dams, which increase riparian habitat and can help store millions of gallons of water underground, among other benefits. Perhaps one way for California to adjust to drought would be to think more like these creative animals, “with their small, highly-distributed water management systems” that are more aligned with the functionality of a watershed. Their smart approach is the “the exact opposite of water engineering that happens in California,” said Erin English, a senior engineer at Biohabitats.

A beaver dam in Sonoma, California / Cheryl Reynolds
A beaver dam in Sonoma, California / Cheryl Reynolds

Thinking about how nature functions on the molecular level can also offer solutions said Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon Associates. It’s at the molecular level “where life starts and where the future of the life on this planet will reside.”

Both Andropogon and Biohabitats have been leading the charge in designing landscapes that think like watersheds. The new U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington D.C. designed by Andropogon Associates and HOK was highlighted. This constructed landscape uses gravity and a set of planted terraces to move and cleanse water.

U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters / Taylor Lednum/GSA
U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters / Taylor Lednum/GSA

Mimicking nature’s functionality creates opportunities for more sustainable urban water management. Bowers said “we have to make that a priority.”

In the Era of Drought, It’s Humans vs. Wildlife

Freshwater Mussels / FWS
Freshwater mussels under consideration in Texas / FWS

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is further complicating water management in the many states struck by drought. State water management bodies are increasingly coming into conflict with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as these organizations add more species to the endangered species list. In a panel at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, Robert Gulley, Texas Office of the Comptroller Public Accounts; David Sunding, University of California at Berkeley; and Kathy Robb, Hunter & Williams, LLP, waded into the issues. The general consensus seemed to be: we need to take care of diverse species but a balance is needed. Also, underlying problems with federal and state water management laws and regulations make things all that much harder.

Texas: Freshwater Mussels and Long-term Water Planning

Texas is just now recovering from years of drought, but if “El Nino doesn’t come through, we’ll be right back to where we were,” said Gulley. In its last session, the Texas state legislature agreed to put $2 billion into a fund to finance long-term water banking projects, which run the full gamut of efforts to enhance the water supply. All sorts of new technologies and private public partnership models will be tested. The goal is to dramatically increase the amount of water stored by aquifers, boosting reserves for when times are dry. But as Gulley explained, the “Endangered Species Act can be an obstacle to long-range water planning.” He added that not all endangered species are found in surface water. It can get even more complicated because “new species can also impact groundwater resources.”

Between now and 2017, the FWS will decide on whether 57 species should be added to the endangered species list, which gives them all sorts of protections. “Upcoming, there are decisions alone on 11 types of freshwater mussels found in every watershed in the state.” Water use in the state is seasonal. “When we need to use it in the drought season is just the time when the mussels will need it. This is a significant threat to water availability.”

And while the FWS investigates whether to give a local jurisdiction a permit to use water, water treatment or use can be put on hold. As FWS consultation processes can go on for years, “the ongoing consequences can be severe.” As an example, Gulley pointed to the city of Abilene, Texas, whose water supply was “almost cut off” due to the drought. The city is in ongoing consultations with the FWS on the possible impact of pouring brine, which is an output of their treatment process for reusing brackish water, into the community’s rivers. They can’t do it yet because the brine could possibly impact two endangered species. “The process is still ongoing.” In the meantime, the city’s ability to reuse water and plan for back-up reuse systems is hamstrung.

California: A Water Management Crisis

For Sunding, an economist who consults with states on water resources, water conflicts around ESA are real and ongoing. California has just initiated a statewide 25 percent reduction in water use, with exemptions for farmers. While the measures will reduce wasteful water use for lawns, California, he argued, is having a “water management crisis, not a scarcity crisis.”

While the drought is “causing a massive dislocation for other species,” the state’s faulty water management system is causing “conflicts between humans and other species to come to the foreground.”

The majority of ESA conflicts in California occur when agricultural water users divert traditional sources of water because the one source they rely on has gone dry. Conflicts can also arise when new water infrastructure takes water out of existing water bodies in a way that affects water-based wildlife.

For example, the new multi-billion water infrastructure system being planned and created in Northern California will most likely lead the state to create alternative water supplies, which will then trigger FWS consultations. Northern California desperately needs to move forward with infrastructure planning to create new sources of water but ESA considerations will lengthen the process.

Obstacles Preventing Progress 

California, Texas, and other western and southwestern states’ struggle to balance the needs of humans and wildlife will only get worse as species migrate to find new sources of water. Gulley said states will need some flexibility to deal with this, “and need to be recognized by the FWS for developing voluntary action programs.” But underlying issues in water management also need to be addressed if a balance is going to be struck long term.

For example, Sunding said the problem with the water management system in Texas is the state doesn’t recognize “conjunctive management,” meaning that it regulates surface water and groundwater in the same place differently. “They need to be able to manage both resources together to create better outcomes.” In too many states, “arcane water rules don’t match up with the reality.”

In California, the question is “can we manage scarcity with smarter policies?” When water users pay the water bill, they are paying for water treatment and the pressurized flow of water from the plant to their tap. “They are not paying for the water itself. That’s a problem because we’re not thinking of its value to other people or species. Too much water is locked up in bad uses. Livestock, cotton, hay, and rice water use are all low value uses of water.”

And Kathy Robb argued that the entire 43-year-old Clean Water Act regulatory system is outdated, and a 2014 decision by the Supreme Court to clarify the meaning of “traditional, navigable waters” in the act to now include tributaries with seasonal or intermittent flow has led to a total upheaval of the American water management system. This decision meant that power plants, waste water treatment facilities, oil and gas companies, and other industrial water users will all need to get permits to access the thousands of streams and creeks once deemed private and now labeled official “waters of the U.S.A.” In Kansas alone, there are 32,000 such tributaries. And, already, a single power plant could wait nearly 3 years and spend $270,000 in fees to get a permit.

Robb said “water lawyers are suing everyone now,” with 14 jurisdictional district court cases pending. As of now, 27 states are moving forward with the new definition of navigable waters, while 13 states have refused. She added, “this is not a sustainable way of creating water policy in the U.S. We can do better.”

Nature: The Savior of Cities?

Conservation for Cities: How to Plan & Build Natural Infrastructure by Robert McDonald / Island Press
Conservation for Cities: How to Plan & Build Natural Infrastructure by Robert McDonald / Island Press

In my first year studying for a landscape architecture degree, our textbook for a course on environmental resources was thick, heavy, and weighed down in page upon page of extraneous jargon that obscured the portions that were legitimately interesting and useful. It’s too bad Conservation for Cities: How to Plan & Build Natural Infrastructure, by Robert McDonald, wasn’t around. Even at a quarter the length, it provides exponentially more value – not only for professionals and students in landscape architecture, engineering, planning, and the like, but also city officials, community leaders, and anyone interested in the benefits of integrating natural infrastructure into our cities.

“The twenty-first century will be the fastest period of urban growth in human history,” says McDonald, who is also senior scientist for sustainable land use at the Nature Conservancy. Will this lead to a dystopian end of nature, as predicted by some conservationists? Or will we build cities that exist in co-harmony with nature? “If the city’s plans [to integrate natural infrastructure] are conducted, what is the cumulative effect? What will the city look like? What will it feel like to live in this greener, more resilient city?”

While these are some questions we can only fully answer in the future, McDonald gives us a practical manual for getting there. McDonald’s approach – using conservation for cities – is the product of a framework rooted in the concept of ecosystem services, the many benefits nature can provide us. This is in contrast to conservation in cities, which refers to protecting biodiversity in areas or urban growth; and conservation by cities, the act of making cities more efficient in resource-use and expenditure. Conservation for cities “aims to figure out how to use nature to make the lives of those in cities better. Rather than focusing on how to protect nature from cities, this book is about how to protect nature for cities.”

Approaches to conservation - in, by, and for cities / Island Press
Approaches to conservation – in, by, and for cities / Island Press

City leaders make decisions based on qualitative and quantitative assessments and then implement strategies, which then must be tracked for success or failure. McDonald spends the core of the book going over mapping, valuation, assessment, implementation, and monitoring methods for ten key areas of ecosystem benefits, each with its own chapter: drinking water protection; stormwater; floodwater; coastal protection; shade; air purification; aesthetic value; recreation value and physical health; parks and mental health; and the value of biodiversity in cities.

When possible, McDonald refers to specific formulas, models, software, and other tools that have proven the most successful. For the more casual reader, these technical details are easy to skim. For the professional looking for practical approaches, these details will likely be useful. It’s also worth noting here that the graphics in this pre-publication proof are somewhat sparse, and tend towards the schematic. Additional footnotes, photographs, and illustrations may be included in the finished book.

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Schematic illustrations demonstrate evapotranspiration with and without natural infrastucture / Island Press
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 Beach profiles for sandy shores in a temperate climates versus coastal mangroves in tropical habitats, and the effect on tides and storm surge  / Island Press

Despite the proficient use of market valuation processes, economic indicators, and the like for assessing ecosystem services, McDonald also understands that the value of nature is simply beyond human measures. While professionals and advocates for natural infrastructure are also likely to appreciate the inherent value of nature, that value is difficult to use as an argument against grey infrastructure approaches. Value is calculated in fairly strict black and white economic terms these days.

McDonald uses the “dry and academic” term ecosystem services “because it is standard in the field now, and it makes clear the economic value of nature’s benefits. But [he hopes that] the reader haven’t lost sight of the fact that always behind ecosystem services are people’s lives.”

It’s McDonald’s hope that “rather than completely bending nature to our will, we could bend our will to match nature’s pathways, at least a little bit. The science of ecosystem services gives us some of the crucial tools to follow these other pathways, if we have the love to follow them.”

For those who feel the love, Conservation for Cities offers a compelling trail head to these pathways of the future. I kept thinking I might use that old environmental resources textbook as a resource one day. This year, I finally donated it to make room on the shelf for other books. Conservation for Cities, however, is likely to stay there for quite some time.

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is the founder of Mitsui Design and director of the Jewish outdoor, food, and environmental education fellowship at Hazon, the country’s leading Jewish environmental organization. 

Leading with Landscape (Part 1)

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The ravines of Toronto / The Toronto Region and Conservation Authority

The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s (TCLF) Leading with Landscape symposium offered a deep examination of the landscape of Toronto, which was described as a complex ecological system. The presence of Toronto mayor John Tory at the conference showed the importance local policymakers place on the landscape architecture community in shaping the future of this city, the fourth largest in North America. Mayor Tory spoke of balancing growth with social and environmental responsibilities, and the integral role landscape architects play in creating a sustainable city.

The first of TCLF’s Modernism symposiums in Chicago sought to define contemporary landscape architecture by looking at its historical context. The second conference at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City championed landscape architectural practices that challenge rigid Modernist idioms through systems-based approaches, which cities increasingly need to deal with today’s complex environmental and social challenges. And the third installment, Leading with Landscape, called for responsive urban design based in a “landscape first” approach.

The day-long conference focused the conversation on how cities — with Toronto serving as the host city and model — are created and sustained through landscape. The term landscape here refers to interconnected natural systems (geologic, hydrologic, botanical and zoological); the many interventions and manipulations of land by humans — from indigenous people to contemporary landscape architects, planners, and engineers; and the resulting street grid and consequent structures.

Landscape architects explored aspects of Toronto’s history before delving into specific contemporary projects. Here, landscape architects explain the forces that have shaped the landscape of Toronto, the cultural and ecological context:

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder of TCLF and organizer of the conference, presented a chronological overview of the cultural landscape of Toronto, with specific examples from Allan Gardens to the post-Modernism of Yorkville Park. Birnbaum made a passionate argument for growing Toronto from its historic fabric. He spoke of the importance of context and narrative in the creation of authentic, resilient places, which can then generate the cultural and financial investments needed for a vital urban environment.

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Yorkville park, Toronto / Landscape Voice

Landscape architect Janet Rosenberg, FASLA, founding principal, Janet Rosenberg & Studio, and Michael McClellan, principal at ERA Architects, introduced some motifs that recurred throughout the conference: the idea of a multi-verse Toronto with many socio-economic layers that exist side by side, like the suburban high-rises next to the waterfront reality; and the major role of the city’s ravines, which structure the city’s hydrology.

The ecological and cultural contexts that have shaped Toronto were further related by Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, associate professor, school of urban + regional planning, Ryerson University. Lister showed the transformation of the city’s landscape by geologic, hydrologic and human forces, and how the expansion and the demand for economic productivity eroded critical ecological services. In 1954, Hurricane Hazel led to devastating flooding in the city, which began a movement towards a hybrid-design approach that engages development alongside a deeper consideration of natural systems.

Brendan Stewart, ASLA, landscape architect and urban designer, ERA Architects, used early city maps to show the lot plans – Toronto’s original organizing grid — and the many subsequent layers and sub-divisions that occurred over two hundred years, which all eschewed the complexities of the existing ecosystem.

Stewart also explained the role of landscape architects in the development of the city — André Parmentier’s geometries at Queen’s Park and the University Avenue landscape being enduring examples. Like Lister, Stewart noted the increased awareness of Toronto’s natural systems following Hurricane Hazel, and the subsequent shift in the goals of the parks and recreation department. Today, the department is not only focused on providing spaces for recreation for residents, but also designing a park system that can provide a hydrologic structure to protect the city.

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Queen’s Park, Toronto / Chuck Man Toronto Nostalgia Blog

Concluding the discussion of Toronto’s ecological and cultural context, Jane Wolff, associate professor, University of Toronto, presented a short history of coupled built and natural systems in Toronto, equal parts accident and intention. An example of this interplay is the bluff condition of the city that has “fed” the archipelago just off the shore of the city; the islands that formed are now an integral part of the cultural and ecologic fabric of Toronto. Another example, the Tommy Thompson Park – a spit created by the engineered redirection of the Don River – has become a flourishing ecosystem that now provides a stop for birds along their yearly migration.

Read part 2.

This guest post is by Tim Popa, Communications Director, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architecture.