Photographers have taken to the air en masse. With drones loaded with high-resolution cameras, aerial photographers are capturing surprising and beautiful scenes from both nature and cities, giving us a fresh perspective on the planet’s complexity. After receiving submissions from 126 countries, the Siena Awards Festival selected their latest Drone Photography Awards. The grand prize winner took home €500,000 (US$586,000) of aerial photography equipment.
Photograph of the year went to Love Heart of Nature by Australian photographer Jim Picôt (see above), who captured an amazing scene in which a shark chases a fish within a heart-shaped school of salmon.
In the urban category, aerial photographer Tomasz Kowalski describes the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as an alien landscape.
Dmitrii Viliunov, the winner of the wildlife category, explains that “many think herons make nests in reeds or in a swamp. In fact, they nest in the tops of huge trees.” With a drone, it’s possible to get a sense of their home life.
In the sports category, photographer Roberto Corinaldesi captures swimmers “taking refuge between the blue carpet and the white foam of the waves.”
And in a wonderful photograph by Joseph Cheires, winner of the nature category, we see a gray whale who seems to enjoy interacting with whale watchers. Cheires writes: “at the end of the gray whale season, I was told about a whale that for the last three years played with the boats, pushing them gently. So we went back the year after, and incredibly the gray whale appeared.”
Lastly, in the abstract category, we get a glimpse of the incredible resilience of nature. Aerial photographer Paul Hoelen captures the results of the transformation of a toxic industrial mining site at Lake Owens in California into a shorebird reserve. Hoelen writes: “after a destructive past and the creation of the most toxic dust bowl in America, migratory birds are returning, and life is beginning anew.”
The photographs are now on display in an exhibition entitled “Above Us Only Sky” in Siena, Italy, through the end of November.
It is especially gratifying to be recognized on the 120th anniversary of the birth of the man who established landscape architecture as “the mother of all arts”—Sir Jellicoe himself.
My Roots in the Village
I’d like to begin by talking a bit about my childhood, which ultimately had a profound influence on the way I’ve come to approach my work. I was born to a peasant family in Dong Yu village in southeast China’s Zhejiang Province. The village is located where White Sand Creek and the Wujiang River meet.
I swam in the creek during the summer and caught big fish when the monsoon season came. When I was small, I took care of a water buffalo, which grazed along the waterways and between the paddy fields. There were seven ponds, a patch of sacred forest and two big camphor trees in front of the village, under which many legendary stories about my ancestors were told.
The land was extremely productive. We planted three crops throughout the year, including canola, wheat, buckwheat, rice, sugar cane, peanut, sweet potato, corn, soybeans, carrot, turnip, radish and lotus.
The land and water were precious, but the weather could be unpredictable, so we had to design and manage our farm fields wisely, following nature’s cycle and wasting nothing, and adapting in order to make a living.
We worshipped the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, the legendary king who knew how to manage water and plan the land. We also worshipped our ancestors, who had the wisdom of adapting to nature and cultivating the land.
In all likelihood, I would have followed in the footsteps of my father, who taught me how to cultivate the land, manage water, and be a productive farmer.
But it was a difficult time. Although we were a peasant family, we had also been landowners. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, my family was labeled as members of the “landlord class.” Our land was seized and redistributed to communes, after which we collectively farmed it. More significantly for me, children from the landlord class were prohibited from attending school.
But in 1978, an army veteran who came to teach in my village, Mr. Zhou Zhangchao, caught up with me one day while I was riding my water buffalo home. He told me that Deng Xiaoping had reversed the policies that barred the children of the landlord class from going to school. I immediately enrolled in school and began studying hard to catch up.
In 1980, after 17 years working on the commune, I passed the national university entrance examination. I was the sole lucky university entrant out of 300-plus students in our rural high school.
On the Shoulders of Giants
By chance, I was chosen to enroll in Beijing Forestry University as one of 30 students in the entire nation to study gardening, which had been cancelled for ten years during the Cultural Revolution. I was fortunate to have some of the best landscape gardening professors in the nation as my mentors, including Wang Juyuan, the founder of the Landscape Gardening Program at the Beijing Forestry University; Chen Youming, my Master’s thesis advisor; and Sun Xiaoxiang and Chen Junyu.
In a certain sense, leaving the dusty countryside to make beautiful gardens in the city was a dream for me and my parents.
But when I finished college and was starting my career of teaching and making beautiful gardens for the city, I returned home to find that my village had been destroyed. The sacred forest and the camphor trees had been cut and sold off. The creek itself had become a gravel quarry, and the fish disappeared.
I began to ask myself: Was there something more I should be doing? What about my village and my fellow villagers? What about the land beyond the garden walls and beyond the city walls—where, at the time, almost three-quarters of a billion Chinese lived?
At this same time, I began looking abroad to learn more. In 1992, I was accepted at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. I spent the next four years working with Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, along with landscape ecologist Richard Forman and GIS and computing expert Stephen Ervin. I would often encounter Ian McHarg, Michael Van Vulkenburgh, FASLA, Peter Rowe, and others in the hallways.
For me, it was a tremendously exciting time. It was a chance to meld the village-level concepts of the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, from my childhood, with the ideas of the great Chinese “gardening” masters—and some of the best minds in the West.
The concepts of landscape and urban ecology, people-oriented urbanism, landscape perception and revolutionary anthropology, landscape and architectural phenomenology, etc., enlightened the left side of my brain. Design works by contemporary masters including Peter Walker, FASLA, Laurie Olin, FASLA, Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Richard Haag, FASLA, Maya Lin, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Peter Latz, Bernard Tschumi, and so on, inspired the right side of my brain.
It happened to be a time of great debate within academia, and I found myself fascinated by the tensions between design as political procedure versus design with nature, and art versus ecology.
I was captivated by two questions, which have subsequently driven my entire career:
Conservation vs. Development: Spatial planning based on the idea of balance –when land and space are limited, how can we balance ecological protection with development?
Sustainability vs. Beauty: The creation of Deep Form — what is the relationship between sustainability and beauty, how can we unite ecology and art?
After graduating, I was recruited by SWA in Laguna Beach, California. There, I was able to work with Richard Law, FASLA, on luxury properties, new urban development, and projects in the booming Asian market. Life on the beach was pretty good.
But while I was happily designing luxury properties and imagining the grandeur of new cities, I found that the land at home was under assault. Old buildings were torn down; hills were leveled; lakes and wetlands filled and polluted; rivers channelized and dammed; and public squares and boulevards were built at gargantuan size. It was the opposite of everything I had learned about how to create livable cities and landscapes.
And it turned out to be a national-scale challenge. Over 80 percent of Chinese cities suffer air pollution, which kills 1.2 million people each year. Flooding causes some US$ 100 billion in damage. Four hundred of 662 cities suffer water shortages. Seventy-five percent of the nation’s surface water is polluted, and 64 percent of cities’ groundwater is polluted. 50 percent of wetlands have disappeared in past 50 years, resulting in tremendous losses of wildlife habitat.
Meeting the challenges
(1) Start with Education and a New Identity
I landed at Peking University as a professor in 1997 and was immediately joined by my lifelong friend Li Dihu. Together we started the landscape architecture program in the Department of Geography. We hoped to help an important new profession establish a foothold across a vast landscape. But we had humble beginnings: We started with a grand total of 3 students. (Today, we have 200 students enrolled, with more than 600 graduates.)
But people still tended to see me simply as “a gardener,” with no relation to urban development, land and water management, flood control, or ecological restoration.
In China, there’s a legend about “The Land of Peach Blossoms,” a magical realm of peace, a sort of Shangri-La. To a certain extent, I have always thought of Dong Yu village, where I grew up—with the two big camphor trees under which I heard the stories of my ancestors and the sacred forest where they rest–as the Land of Peach Blossoms. And landscape architecture, to me, seemed a way to recover the lost Land of Peach Blossoms.
So I felt compelled to reclaim the importance of landscape architecture itself and began describing it as “The Art of Survival.” In doing this, I was inspired by Ian McHarg’s pugnacious call to arms: “Don’t ask us about your garden. Don’t ask us about your bloody flowers …. We’re going to talk to you about survival.”
We launched a new magazine, Landscape Architecture Frontiers, to promote our new approach. We brought in top thinkers in the field to lecture and held over 15 landscape architecture conferences to educate a young generation and begin creating a consensus.
(2) Trying to reverse the damage and inspire policy change
We felt that immediate action had to be taken to reverse the damage, so we launched the concept of “Inverse Planning” (反规划 fǎn guīhuà), which emphasizes the protection of existing natural functions and prioritizes what is not built—what should be protected instead.
I also realized that the only way to reverse the damage caused by conventional planning procedure was to convince decision makers to change the policies. So I kept writing and talking and lecturing to decision makers, from top authorities to township leaders. I delivered over 300 lectures to municipal decision makers and ministers.
In 2006, I made a proposal to then-Premier Wen Jiabao that, to my surprise and gratification, initiated the process of national security pattern planning and ecological red line regulation.
These two concepts help identify and protect critical landscapes to safeguard natural, biological, cultural and recreational values and functions, thus securing this wide range of ecosystems services essential for sustaining human society. The State Council has since issued four state regulations to safeguard national ecological security.
(3) The “Big Foot” Revolution
I also realized that bad decisions were being made simply because of a misguided mentality about civilization and misguided aesthetic sensibilities. For thousands of years, the “civilized” urban elite worldwide has insisted on the privilege of defining civilization, beauty, and good taste. Bound feet, deformed heads, and twisted bodies are only a few such expressions of cultural practices that, in trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural bumpkins, have rejected nature’s inherent principles of health, survival, and productivity.
In China, for more than a thousand years, young girls were forced to bind their feet in order to be able to be considered beautiful enough to marry urban elites. Natural, “big” feet were considered rustic and rural. The obsession with “little feet” sacrificed function and dignity for ornamental value.
Today, landscaping and city building, by far, are the most visible and extensive manifestations of the folly of civilization and aesthetic standards defined from above—what I think of as “little foot” urbanism and the “little foot” aesthetic.
On one hand, the “manicured little foot” grey infrastructure simply lacks resilience and is a waste of energy and materials. On the other hand, urban elites with “little foot” aesthetics trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural peasants have rejected nature’s inherent goals of health and productivity.
These kinds of “little foot” grey infrastructure and aesthetics are not only expensive, but also wasteful and unsustainable. China’s carbon emissions in 2017 accounted for 28 percent of the world total. And according to 2018 figures from the World Economic Forum, China consumes 59 percent of the world’s cement and 50 percent of its steel and coal.
So I began advocating for what I call a Big Foot Revolution. This movement begins with questioning some of the basic values I have mentioned above, and my hope is that it will mirror an earlier revolution in the way Chinese thought about their own bodies and culture.
In the early 20th century, The New Cultural Movement was launched by teachers and students at Peking University, and ultimately led to the rejection of foot binding and a re-embracing of the natural beauty of the human form.
I believe the Big Foot Revolution will happen at three levels of action:
Planning the Big Feet (planning ecological infrastructure across scales)
Creating Working Big Feet (creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom)
Making Big Feet Beautiful (new aesthetics to create deep forms).
“Planning the Big Feet” or planning ecological infrastructure across scales, is critical for securing ecosystems services, and weaving green infrastructure together with grey infrastructure. Inspired by the ancient concept of sacred landscape—and by modern game theory¬—I developed the concept of the Landscape Security Pattern, which focuses on protecting the critical landscape patterns needed to ensure that natural processes can continue.
“Creating working Big Feet” means creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom, particularly from agriculture. We have developed replicable modules based on traditional farming techniques of terracing, ponding, diking, and islanding to address climate change and related problems at a massive scale in a cost-effective manner.
In China, all rivers are dammed and channelized with concrete flood walls. China has more than half of the world’s dams greater than 15 meters in height. More than US $20 billion is invested to control flooding each year, but US $100 billion is lost and 10 million people are affected every year. We need to accept and embrace flooding as a natural phenomenon, and turn grey infrastructure into green to help temper the damage of inevitable floods.
Due to the monsoon climate, over 62 percent of Chinese cities suffer from urban flooding. How much more flooding could be managed better if nature-based solutions were implemented nationwide? Using sponge city concepts would greatly increase water resilience.
In China, 75 percent of surface water is contaminated. Globally, 85 percent of sewage goes untreated. But the landscape can be a living system to clean water. Terraced, constructed wetland can be used to remove nutrients through biological processes.
We have already incorporated many of these ideas at several parks throughout China. In Zhejiang Province’s Taizhou City, we redesigned the Yongning Park as a “floating garden” with ecological embankments that can reduce peak flood flow by more than half, and create a seasonally flooded natural matrix of wetland and natural vegetation that sustains natural processes. This park demonstrates an ecological approach to flood control and stormwater management, while also educating people about new and forgotten solutions to flood control beyond engineering.
In Zhejiang’s Jinhua City, water-resilient terrain and planted vegetation were designed to adapt to monsoon floods. A resilient bridge and path system was designed to adapt to the dynamic flows of water and people. The river currents, the flow of people, and the gravity of objects are all woven together to form a dynamic concord. This is achieved through meandering vegetated terraces, curvilinear paths, a serpentine bridge, circular bioswales, planted beds, and curved benches.
In Harbin, in the far north, we turned the Qunli Stormwater Park into a “green sponge” that filters and stores urban stormwater while providing other ecosystem services, including the protection of native habitats, aquifer recharge, recreational use and aesthetic experience, which together help foster sustainable urban development.
At Dong’an Wetland Park on Hainan Island, off the coast of southern China, creating a green sponge in the center of the urban environment was an essential adaptation strategy for increasing resilience to climate change, particularly in an area where tropical storms can easily overwhelm conventional drainage systems.
In this case, a heavily polluted 68-hectare site was filled with non-permitted buildings and illegally dumped urban debris. Inspired by the ancient pond-and-dike systems and islanding techniques in the Pearl River Delta, and using simple cut-and-fill methods, a necklace of ponds and dikes was created along the periphery of the park that catches and filters urban runoff from the surrounding communities.
In the central part of the park, dirt and fill were used to create islands that are planted with banyan trees to create a forested wetland. Both ponding and islanding will dramatically increase the water-retention capacity of the park and increase the eco-tones between water and land to speed up the removal of nutrients. The constructed wetland can accommodate 830,000 cubic meters of storm water, dramatically reducing the risk of urban inundation.
Along the Huangpu River in Shanghai, we designed Houtan Park as a regenerative living landscape on a former industrial brownfield. The park’s constructed wetland, ecological flood control, reclaimed industrial structures and materials, and urban agriculture are integral components of an overall restorative design strategy to treat polluted river water and recover the degraded waterfront in an aesthetically pleasing way. The 10-hectare park, which is 1,700 meters long, filters phosphorous and other nutrients from 2,400 cubic meters of water per day, which is enough water for 5,000 people.
The Meshe River in Haikou has suffered flooding due to the monsoon climate and water pollution caused by sewage and non-point source pollution from urban and suburban runoff. The river had been channelized with concrete for the sole objective of flood control, which destroyed its ecological resilience.
We used nature-based solutions to create resilient green infrastructure that has revived the river. The concrete flood walls have been removed and the river was reconnected to the ocean so that tides could once again enter the city. Wetlands and shallow river margins were reconstructed so that mangroves could be restored. A terraced mosaic of wetlands along the banks of the river was designed as natural water-treatment facilities that catch and cleanse nutrient-laden runoff, and a significant amount of wildlife habitat has been recovered in the dense city center.
The Mangrove Park in Sanya City, on the island of Hainan, is another example of nature-based climate resilience. To mitigate urban flood risk caused by climate change, it was critical to restore mangrove along the waterways and coastal shorelines. One of the key challenges was finding an efficient and inexpensive method to reestablish the mangrove habitat that had been extensively destroyed due to rapid urban development. To that end, fill composed of urban construction debris and concrete from the demolition of the flood wall was recycled on site.
Cut-and-fill techniques were subsequently used to create a gradient of different riparian eco-tones for diverse fauna and flora, particularly different species of mangroves. An interlocking-finger design was used to lead ocean tides into the waterways, while also attenuating the impact of both tropical storm surge and flash floods originating in the urban and upland area upstream, both of which can harm establishment of mangroves. This also maximized habitat diversity and edge effects, which increase the interface between plants and water; this, in turn, enhances ecological processes such as nutrient removal from the water.
The dynamic aquatic environment that follows the rise and fall of tides and provides several aquatic species with the daily water-level fluctuation they need for survival. Terraces between city streets and the river have been augmented with bioswales to catch and filter urban stormwater runoff. In just three years, an area of lifeless land fill within a concrete flood wall in the center of the city was transformed into a lush mangrove park. This type of mangrove rehabilitation can be implemented at a large scale efficiently.
In China, 60 percent of urban soil is contaminated, and conventional remediation is usually very expensive. In Tianjin’s Qiaoyuan Park, I wanted to show how we can let nature do the work, by using nature-based soil remediation techniques. Through regenerative design and by sculpting land forms and collecting rainwater, the natural process of plant adaptation and community evolution was introduced to transform a former shooting-range-turned-garbage-dump into a low maintenance urban park. The park provides diverse nature-based services for the city, including retaining and purifying storm water to regulate pH, providing opportunities for environmental education and creating a cherished aesthetic experience.
Making Big Feet Beautiful means promoting the new aesthetics to create deep forms. In this, I was inspired by Anne Whiston Spirn’s New Aesthetics that “encompasses both nature and culture, that embodies function, sensory perception, and symbolic meaning, and that embraces both the making of things and places and the sensing, using, and contemplating of them.”
The timeless interdependence of culture and nature is most visible in the bond between peasants and their farmlands, and practices such as cut and fill, irrigate and fertilize, frame and access, grow and harvest, recycle and save — all of which embody some of the principles of new aesthetics that inspired my design.
In Qinhuangdao, I put a ribbon on the river to frame and transform the messy nature into an ordered urban park. Winding through a background of natural terrain and vegetation, the “red ribbon” spans five hundred meters and integrates lighting, seating, environmental interpretation and orientation. This project demonstrates how a minimal design solution can dramatically improve the landscape, while preserving as much of the natural river corridor as possible during the process of urbanization.
China has 20 percent of the world’s population, but only 8 percent of the world’s arable land—10 percent of which has been lost in the past 30 years due to urban development. Our project on the Shenyang Jianzhu University Campus uses rice paddies to simultaneously define the structure of the landscape design and introduce a productive landscape into the urban environment. It is a demonstration of a method to resolve the tension between urban development and food production in today’s developing world.
In Quzhou’s Luming Park, we embraced the concept of agricultural urbanism. On a site surrounded by dense new urban development, we created a dynamic urban park by incorporating the agricultural strategy of crop rotation and a low-maintenance meadow. An elevated floating network of pedestrian paths, platforms and pavilions creates a visual frame for this cultivated swath and the natural features of the terrain and water. Using these strategies, a deserted, mismanaged landscape was dramatically transformed into a productive and beautiful setting for urban living, while preserving the natural and cultural patterns and processes of the site.
I have also tried to show the possibilities of reusing and recycling. While China has been on an incredible building boom, it has also demolished large parts of its cities. In 2003, for instance, some 325 million square meters of new buildings were constructed, while 156 million square meters was demolished. Thousands of villages and factories were wiped out.
The Zhongshan Shipyard Park near Guangzhou, inaugurated in 2002, was an effort to show that existing building and other structures can be incorporated into new development. The park reflects the remarkable 70-year history of socialist China and has been lauded as a breakthrough in Chinese landscape architecture. The original vegetation and natural habitats were preserved and only native plants were added. Machines, docks, and other industrial structures were retained not only for functional purposes, but also to educate and because of their aesthetic appeal. The park demonstrates how landscape architects can create environmentally-friendly public places full of cultural and historical meaning on sites not previously designated for attention and preservation. Its design supports use by the common people, as well as the environmental ethic that “weeds are beautiful.”
For over 20 years, we have tested and built over 500 projects in 200-plus cities and showcased numerous replicable models for healing and transforming our land at various scales.
Looking back, I have a better understanding of how my village-level landscape experiences, melded with modern concepts of landscape and urbanism, sustainability and aesthetics, which were developed by my many teachers and mentors, have helped me to address some of the common challenges that our profession is facing today.
I find myself thinking often of my roots in Dong Yu village. I think of King Yu the Great, who had the vision of healing the earth and living with nature. I think of the peasants who transform the landscape in which they live with their own hands. And I want to think like a king, but act like a peasant.
This is an incredibly sobering time to contemplate the relationship between humans and the natural world. The global pandemic is a powerful reminder that any belief in the conquest of nature is pure folly. We are all living in a new era of humility.
Yet I also believe that the pandemic—together with climate change—is also highlighting how important it is to create landscapes that can not only heal bodies and minds, but also the planet itself.
It is such a great honor to be in the company of the many great and thoughtful landscape architects who come together under the banner of IFLA. As former IFLA president Martha Fajardo said in 2005: “Landscape architect is the profession of the future.”
Thank you, and I wish everyone the best in collectively keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.
I recently joined with landscape architecture faculty colleagues Bart Johnson, David Hulse, and Chris Enright, along with other scientists, in a study of wildfire risks in the southern Willamette Valley of Oregon. Our National Science Foundation project employed complexity science to simulate prospective landscape change and wildfire scenarios over fifty years. We simulated landscape change scenarios many times across an actual large area. The factors that influenced the simulations were different climate projections, consequent vegetation changes, likely behaviors landowners told us they would engage in, and fire behavior.
Very few of our numerous 50-year simulations suggested the likelihood of as many simultaneous, intense, and extensive wildfires as were seen in western Oregon in the first two weeks of September. This suggests the incidence of large and severe wildfires in the West is not linearly related to advancing climate change, as we and others have thought. With a warming climate, there may be more of an exponential, but still variable, growth in the incidence of large, and often simultaneous, very costly wildfires.
The extensive intensity of increasingly frequent wildfires promises to consume ever more forests, lives, and property in out-of-control ways, overpowering conventional wildfire prevention, amelioration, and suppression measures.
Outbreaks of multiple hazardous and simultaneous wildfires happen when several regional factors converge to produce “blowtorch” conditions. These can include extremely dry fuels (after months of drought), high temperatures, very low humidity, high winds, accumulated fuel loads, and forests stressed by advancing diseases and mortality. The resulting wildfires often exceed those of historically natural ones. Those natural wildfires tended to foster forest health because they often burned with less intensity, more variable intensity across landscapes, and less average overall acreage.
The only effective long-term solution is to reverse climate change, which will not slow down in the near term. But in the meantime, forests can be managed to be more resilient to fire.
Fuels reduction is the only known option to increase forests’ resilience. Prescribed portions of young or smaller trees, dead wood, and shrubs could be reduced in hundreds of millions of acres in the American West, and again, later on, in the forests of the eastern states. This is happening at a growing pace, but piecemeal, wherever funding and political support coalesce. It’s not enough to meet the larger challenge.
Sporadic projects tend to occur near suburban or exurban areas where risks are appreciated due to recent wildfires. In national parks, legal mandates promote the restoration of native, low-fuel ecosystems by prescribed fire, another method of fuels reduction. Badly burned forests must be replaced by more fire-adapted forests, but this is rare.
The implementation of an adequately extensive forest fuels reduction program is beset by ideological blame-shifting and politically prohibitive costs. There is also a shortage of well-trained professionals dedicated to this task, who can manage risks and build support for projects by sensitively and creatively engaging with local landowners and communities.
Conservatives deflect blame to scientific managers and conservationists by asserting that most forests have been “mismanaged” because they have not been freely and widely commercially thinned and harvested for wealth production at no cost to taxpayers. Ecologically-oriented environmentalists deflect blame to conservatives by asserting that most forests have been “mismanaged” because they have not been managed to emulate natural processes, like prescribed fire, as opposed to ecologically-destructive management geared only toward short-term profits. Everyone else is to blame in such incendiary partisan narratives: No one takes responsibility to fix the problems or bear the costs.
This broad, divisive notion of “mismanagement” is vexing. People dealing with real forests in real places can rarely identify a simple and obviously correct management approach. There are always questions of what, why, where, and when in decisions about budgets, biological systems, interacting and conflicting goals, alternative techniques, public and logger safety, wildlife, amenities, and the politics of local and regional stakeholders. Fuels reduction must be a major goal, but the best way to achieve this must be carefully tailored to each forest in its social and ecological context.
There will be forests where commercially profitable fuels reduction is appropriate, but there are many where this will be impossible, because costs exceed the value of marketable products.
There will be forests where prescribed fire is appropriate and efficient, but not everywhere. Numerous homes have been built within many forests. This makes prescribed fires more difficult to execute. Homeowners are often averse to perceived or actual risks, the intentional production of smoke, and changes to landscape amenities.
Climate change is also reducing the frequency and duration of weather conditions and fuel moisture levels required for safe prescribed fires. Prescribed fire is also difficult to safely control in increasing areas of forest with many weak or dead trees. If poorly planned, fuels reduction can impose risks to long-term forest health, net carbon sequestration, wildlife habitats, soils, biodiversity, and long-term sustainability of local timber or recreation economies; and it can’t be universally implemented.
A national program of extensive, well-planned forest fuels reduction and increased carbon sequestration would be very costly. Forest landowners are already shouldering growing insurance costs. It would require bipartisan, constructive, sustained, and large investments in public forest capital.
A complete, valid, and public GIS database of forest conditions in all western states must be rapidly created and maintained.
A private-public partnership with a clear mandate to foster forest health and resilience would need to award funds and coordinate and enable work across states, localities, landowners, and agencies. New, well-crafted rules would need to set fuels reduction and carbon sequestration goals with strong performance standards. These must clarify how projects must not be cheap and quick, but locally-appropriate to produce long-term forest health and beautiful, diverse forests.
Professional local planning, public participation, honest environmental reviews, and carefully proficient implementation would all be imperative.
Rob Ribe, FASLA, is professor and director of the master’s of landscape architecture program in the department of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon. He holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture and a PhD in land resources. Ribe was a lead scientist in studying the social acceptability of timber harvests and forest planning in the Pacific Northwest following the spotted owl controversy. He has also studied private landowners’ forest management choices.
California, Oregon, and Washington, along with nine other states in the West are now experiencing record-breaking wildfires. According to experts, there are a number of reasons: climate change is creating the underlying conditions for more extreme weather events. Heat waves over the summer dried out much of Western forests, which were already impacted by years of drought and bark beetles. Unusually high winds have spread embers. And human activity in the wildland-urban interface keeps creating new sparks: downed electrical lines have set many blazes, while, infamously, a gender reveal party with a “pyrotechnic device” created a massive conflagration.
Amid the continuing devastation, an interactive map from ESRI, which creates geographic information system software, enables users to track active fires by name or location in near real time and sort by timeline and magnitude. The map indicates each fire’s estimated start date and its current level of containment. Another layer provides a smoke forecast for any given location.
According to ESRI, the sources of fire data in the map are the Integrated Reporting of Wildland-Fire Information (IRWIN) and the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) — both of which are updated every 15 minutes. Smoke forecasts are incorporated from the National Weather Service and show 48-hour forecasts updated every hour. ESRI adds that when zoomed-in, users can see additional fire data from NOAA/NASA satellites, which detect the locations of recent “thermal activity” that indicates fire direction. (ESRI also has a map with local disaster response data).
In California alone, more than than 2.5 million acres have gone up in flames. According to The New York Times, that is 20 times more than what was burned last year and a modern record. In Oregon, 900,000 acres have caught fire, causing half a million people to evacuate, which is more than 10 percent of the state’s population. And in Washington state, an unprecedented 480,000 acres have burned just in one week. There are currently 100 large active fires across the West.
Beyond the incredible loss of life and property, breathing in wildfire smoke can cause serious health issues. Blazes that consume homes and garages filled with household cleaners like Drano release other dangerous particles into the atmosphere.
According to researchers at Stanford University, the risks of toxic wildfire smoke are especially high for children, the elderly, and those with asthma. Studies have shown that after five days of major wildfires, the number of hospital visits for asthma attacks increased by 400 percent, and the number of visits for strokes by 42 percent.
For those out West, please take every precaution by closing windows and doors, running air purifiers, and regularly checking the latest evacuation orders.
In a useful primer, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions outlines the many connections between climate change and wildfires. The organization states: “climate change causes forest fuels (the organic matter that burns and spreads wildfire) to be more dry and has doubled the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the western U.S.”
Planners with Cal Fire see wildfires primarily as a land-use problem. Many communities in western states are at high-risk of wildfires because they were developed in the wildland-urban interface, which the U.S. Forest Service describes as places where “humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel.” State and local governments can discourage development in fire-prone areas. This can reduce the risk of human-caused sparks and also prevent property and lives from being destroyed by fires that spread increasingly rapidly through these vulnerable areas.
Other solutions identified by communities out West are early warning systems coupled with remote sensing technologies, defensible space landscape design for homes and communities, and prescribed burns that can help clear out dead trees and accumulated biomass before they become a dangerous source of fuel for fires.
In rare situations, some landscape architects and designers may specify Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified tropical hardwoods for outdoor spaces because there may be no good alternatives. But imagine if instead of just placing a hardwood order and hoping the wood was actually sustainably harvested, designers partnered with conservationists and scientists to preserve the forest from which the wood is cut.
The multi-discplinary team behind Brooklyn Bridge Forest beat 200 competitors from 37 countries to win top prize. The team was led by Pilot Projects Design Collective, which includes landscape architect Christine Facella; along with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Cities4Forests, The Nature Conservancy, Grimshaw Architects, and Silman, a structural engineering firm.
According to the team, one of the best experiences in NYC is to stroll the upper wood deck of the Brooklyn Bridge, which is why more than a million people do it each year. The genius of John Roebling, the bridge’s designer, was to “contrast iconic stone towers and graceful steel cables with the warmth and softness of a wooden boardwalk to create the ultimate setting for the pedestrian,” the team states.
Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and its partners propose making Brooklyn Bridge an even better walking and bicycling experience by expanding the upper wood deck of the bridge and creating new biodiverse green spaces at either end of the bridge and areas for pop-up markets.
The bridge’s existing Greenheart (Ocotea rodiaei or Chlorocardium rodiei) wood promenade is a mile long and comprises 11,000 planks that are approximately 4-feet wide by 16-feet long. Tropical hardwoods like Greenheart used for boardwalks and promenades typically lasts around 30 years.
The team explored replacing the hardwood with plastic lumber, but found the planks to be too carbon intensive. They also looked at domestic hardwood, like Black Locust, which is always preferable to tropical hardwoods, but found that the lumber doesn’t come in sizes that are long enough. The team also looked at concrete and wood composites but found using those materials would require structural updates to the bridge. So they proposed replacing the existing planks, sourced from an unknown forest in South America 30 years ago, with sustainably harvested Manchiche (Lonchocarpus castilloi) from the Uaxactú Community Rainforest.
Instead of the city spending $2 million for the new wood, the public would sponsor individual wood planks at a cost ranging from $400 to $5,000 and in turn have their name laser- or fire-etched into a plank. With the funds raised, the community forest, which is found in the larger 6 million-acre Maya Biosphere Reserve, would be protected and generate wood for the promenade in perpetuity.
The communities of Uaxactún have reached an agreement with the Guatemalan government: If resources are harvested sustainably, their land management rights are respected. Through a “community concession” system, the people of the forest can “harvest fruit, medicinal, and ornamental plants, chicle (a natural chewing gum), and a limited amount of timber,” said the Brooklyn Bridge Forest team. The communities coordinate with the Guatemalan government, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and FSC.
Under the terms of the land management plan, tropical hardwood trees can be harvested at the rate of 1 tree per 40 acres using small-scale equipment. After a large tropical hardwood tree has been removed, smaller trees would be planted in the area that has been disturbed.
The scientists with the conservation organizations involved argued that “the communities’ low-impact timber harvesting provides jobs as well as resources for health and education. These opportunities in turn have given the communities a long-term stake in protecting the forest. Community-patrols defend the forest from the numerous threats in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, including wildfires, illegal logging and hunting, and in recent years, cattle ranching operations linked to international drug traffickers.” (Learn more).
Furthermore, the scientists believe that the low-impact logging practices undertaken in Uaxactún would have “very little effect on wildlife populations.” And funds from the sponsorship of planks would go to important research on the ecological impacts of controlled logging in these environments.
One of their central arguments: “Most timber harvesting in the tropics is not carried out with the level of care practiced in Uaxactún. In these other places there is often very little regulation, no long-term plan, and no research to assess impacts. Only a fully transparent model with ample opportunity for participation and investigation can guarantee that we are procuring wood in a way that supports forest protection.”
The team thinks this intentional approach could be used for other sustainable hardwood harvesting projects. They point to a few historic models: Every 20 years, the Ise Shrine in Kyoto, Japan, is rebuilt with the exact same dimensions using 10,000 cedar logs. The shrine, which has been rebuilt in this way for the past 1,300 years, has set aside a forest that will be harvested in 200 years for the ritual reconstruction. And in Sweden, in the 1800s, some 300,000 trees were planted to create wood for the Swedish navy. When they were ready to harvest in 1975, Sweden no longer built ships out of wood, but the 900-acre forest of oaks remains preserved.
The winning submission in the young adult category may have found a solution that avoids the tropical hardwood issue altogether. Do Look Down, a proposal created by Shannon Hui, Kwans Kim, and Yujin Kim, from Hong Kong, NYC, and Berkeley, California, aims to incorporate glass instead of wood for the promenade. There would be thrills galore while looking down, at least for those not afraid of heights.
The empty streets of our cities are a cause of anxiety but also wonder. With our ability to travel now limited, we can get a sense of the strange, melancholy state of the world’s urban centers from the constant stream of video uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo.
The New Yorker captures life during quarantine in New York City — the largely uninhabited streets, parks, and landmarks. One scene pans New Yorkers lined up down the block to get into a Whole Foods supermarket. Another features overflowing Amazon boxes sorted by delivery workers on a make-shift tarp on a street. One store’s sign reads: “Temporarily closed. Focus on the positive.”
The smooth, robotic pace of a drone adds to the otherworldly feel of San Francisco’s barren streets. Citing the Grateful Dead’s song, Touch of Grey, one store’s sign reads: “We Will Get By. We Will Survive.” Another shot pans a building-sized mural of climate activist Greta Thunberg. With a lack of people, birds become a focal point in many of the vistas.
Meanwhile in Amsterdam, a video by cinematographer and film maker Jean Counet, has gotten attention for capturing the strangeness and beauty of the Dutch city without street life. (Watch video). Street trams weave their way through the old city, but without passengers. A lone kayaker makes their way down a canal.
Counet told art blog This Is Colossal, “we walked through the old city center of Amsterdam between 8:30 (and) 13:30, which is normally teemed by walking people and bicycles. What we witnessed felt like a dream. Sometimes beautiful and mesmerizing, sometimes scary and worrying.”
As people stay home and noise and pollution have abated, wildlife have expanded their boundaries and started exploring the built environment with confidence. In this amazing compilation, sheep explore a Welsh town, a coyote strolls through San Francisco, deer use the crosswalks in Japan, and Nubian Ibexes walk down a promenade in Israel.
With the absence of people and maritime activity, shoals of fish can be seen in Venice’s canals and dolphins have reclaimed a port in Sardinia.
Walter Hood Digs Deep – Architectural Digest, 11/18/19 “The Oakland, California–based landscape designer, fresh off a string of prestigious design prize wins, has an approach that embraces the eccentricities of people and place.”
Dreaming Up Disneyland – The New York Times, 11/25/19 “Those who knew Walt Disney often described him as an uncomplicated man of conventional 20th-century sensibilities: a lover of model trains, farm animals, lunch-wagon food, hard work, evening belts of scotch and endless Chesterfield cigarettes. One of his rituals upon coming home from his movie studio was feeding his poodle, Duchess, a cold frankfurter, or “wienie,” by leading her from room to room while throwing pieces on the floor.”
2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus’s founding in the city of Weimar, Germany by architect Walter Gropius. The legacy of the Bauhaus has been felt throughout nearly every design discipline, in part because of the towering stature of its faculty and their many game-changing works of architecture, design, and art, but perhaps more deeply because of the body of theory produced, practiced, refined, and extolled at the school.
The ABC’s of Triangle Square Circle is a new edition of the 1991 collection of essays edited by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller that uses text, images, and experimental graphic compositions to explain Bauhaus art and design theory. “Triangle Square Circle” is derived from a theory that artist Wassily Kandinsky put forth about the intrinsic properties of the three shapes and their association with a primary color. As Lupton and Miller state in the introduction: “This is a book about theory. A theory is a principle that attempts to explain diverse phenomena, a concise concept capable of shedding light on countless situations.”
Bauhaus theorists saw simple geometric forms as the essence of natural, organic shapes. The bookend essays, Elementary School by J. Abbott Miller gives insight into how Bauhaus theorists reduced landscape and natural forms to simple geometric ones, and Beyond Triangle Square Circle: Fractal Geometry by theoretical physicist Alan Wolf explains how Bauhaus thinkers tried but ultimately failed to acknowledge nature’s complexity in their theories on geometry.
In 1925, Gropius designed a new complex for the Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany, moving the campus from Weimar. The architecture designed in the international style became the emblem of Bauhaus architecture and thought, despite architecture not being taught at the school until 1927. The building is the centerpiece, a sculpture among a sea of rectilinear patches of grass, with ankle-high fencing to prevent people from walking on the green spaces. The landscape of the Bauhaus campus is a formal exercise, a decoration of the plinth the building sits on.
In Elementary School, J. Abbott Miller focuses on the development of the core principles of the Bauhaus through the creation of Friedrich Frobel’s kindergarten (or child garden).
As Miller explains, the name was “metaphorical as well as literal: early in his career as a teacher, Froebel discovered the importance of play in education and made gardening a central part of his pedagogy.” While gardening was lost in the Bauhaus school, playing with shapes and composition was fundamental to Bauhaus teachings.
The focus of Frobel’s teaching were a series of “Gifts and Occupations” comprised of geometric blocks (gifts) and basic craft activities (occupations). The gifts increased in complexity as the child progressed through the educational system, culminating in enough complexity to construct representations of their world with the blocks. The children began to see the world as a construction of basic elements, a theme continued and propagated by Bauhaus teachings.
Distilling the complexities of the world to their intrinsic properties became a central tenet of the Bauhaus. For Kandinsky, these often resulted in complex representations comprised of basic shapes and lines.
The practice of geometric simplification began in early education and continued through the university for those studying at the Bauhaus.
It is no wonder then that the complexities of natural forms were represented by rectilinear green shapes in the landscape of the Bauhaus campus in Dessau. They didn’t have the geometric language to represent the complexities of natural forms; fractal geometry wasn’t discovered by Benoit Mandelbrot until 1975.
In Beyond Triangle Square Circle: Fractal Geometry, Alan Wolf explains the mathematical principles of fractals as an abstraction of natural geometries that cannot be expressed through an intrinsic or simple geometry, only through an increasingly complex internal relationship between its parts.
Bauhaus’ attempts to distill all natural elements to their essences doesn’t work in a chaotic world. Today, complexity is central to our contemporary understanding of how natural and cultural systems work. For example, landscape and ecological processes, rather than formal qualities, guide projects like Fresh Kills Park by landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations.
The Bauhaus’ use of geometry to represent the world still holds, but the geometry we use to represent it has evolved alongside our updated conception of nature as an interwoven set of systems interacting in increasingly complex ways.
As Alan Wolf writes: “since the discovery of fractal geometry in 1975, it is no longer possible to represent nature with a starter Lego set limited to such simple forms as triangle, square, and circle. Now we know that we need an advanced set of building blocks, which includes fractal forms of various types.”
In the global scramble to reduce carbon emissions, planting more trees is always near the top of the list of solutions. Pegged as a low-cost, natural, and scalable approach, projects like the Great Green Wall in North Africa, Pakistan’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami, and New York City’s Million Tree Program raise the bar for this climate change mitigation strategy. While a new scientific study found there is untapped potential for carbon sequestration through planetary reforestation, other researchers are concerned about how growing new forests could reduce the focus on preserving existing old growth forests or negatively impact the water supply in developing countries.
The recent study published in Science, led by Thomas W. Crowther at ETH-Zürich, posits that an increase in 0.9 billion hectares (2.2 billion acres) of new forests, an amount that would cover about 14 percent of habitable land, could sequester 205 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere. This means a forest roughly the size of the United States or China could sequester more than five times the annual carbon output of the planet.
Under current climate conditions, the Earth could support a maximum of 4.4 billion hectares (10.9 billion acres) of forests. Approximately 2.8 billion hectares (6.9 billion acres) are currently forested. This leaves 1.6 billion hectares (4 billion acres) were additional forest could be planted. The research team removed land used for crop-based agriculture or cities,”which are necessary for supporting an ever-growing human population,” leaving 0.9 billion hectares (2.2 billion acres) available for forest restoration.
Across the lifetime of these proposed new forests, the trees would sequester 205 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere. For reference, we have released 1,510 gigatons of carbon to date (as of 2015), and some 55 percent of that has been sequestered by oceans and plants.
A sequestration strategy of this magnitude would make a sizable dent in the total carbon released into the atmosphere, but needs to be matched with reductions in fossil fuel use and other major forms of greenhouse gas emissions. The World Resources Institute (WRI) reports that 37.1 gigatons of carbon were released in 2018 alone. At this rate, more carbon will be released than can be captured by the new forests during the 50-100 years it will take for the trees to mature.
The research team is correct in asserting that global tree restoration is “our most effective climate change solution to date,” but some researchers fear that addressing one warning light may turn on others.
For example, focusing on planting new forests instead of preserving old growth trees can have negative impacts. Large, old trees, which support greater biodiversity and sequester more carbon than younger trees, are “declining in forests of all latitudes,” according to a 2012 study. Old growth forests are able to sequester more carbon than their younger counterparts because they are still rapidly growing and increasing their carbon storage capacity. Preserving older forests while implementing massive reforestation efforts would yield the greatest potential for carbon capture and forest ecosystem health.
Protecting large old trees is an important part of the climate mitigation effort, and something that landscape architects working at a variety of scales can support. Every reforestation effort, even in an urban park, should take into account existing trees and the role they play in ecosystems.
Trees need water to thrive. The renewed call for mass reforestation across the globe has some researchers worried about the effect this will have on local water supplies.
In a recent study published in Nature, Jaivime Evaristo and Jeffery J. McDonnell examine the impact of forest management practices, such as deforestation, conversion into agricultural land, regrowth, and afforestation (growing new forests), on the availability of water in watersheds. The study develops a vegetation-to-bedrock model, which considers the geology of a given region in relation to its capacity to store water.
The researchers found that deforestation and conversion of forests into agricultural land increases the volume of water present in almost all watersheds, while regrowth of forests and afforestation reduced the volume of water. “The vast majority of the water loss in afforested and reforested areas is from evapotranspiration, which is a combination of evaporation from soil and other surfaces and transpiration from plants.”
Afforestation and deforestation have the largest impacts on streamflow in watersheds. Deforestation can cause flash floods, but reforestation can lead to droughts.
The data also shows the percentage change in tree cover is correlated to the socio-economic status of a country. Developing and least developed countries lose the most tree cover while developed and emerging countries lose the least. The researchers think this correlation between tree-cover change and economic status “suggests that countries that have infrastructure in place for capturing and storing water may be least vulnerable to possible water supply shortages associated with planting schemes.”
Furthermore, the research team concludes the magnitude of a forest management technique is correlated with the water-yield response. Reforesting nearly 14 percent of the landmass is a massive change, one that would surely have consequences for local communities and ecosystems.
The researchers recognize their streamflow analysis could be used most prudently “for re-calibrating the cost-benefit matrix of climate change mitigation schemes (for example, planting and removal) in different geo-climate regions around the world.”
High above Innsbruck, Austria, the experience of walking a two-mile-long trail has been greatly enriched, thanks to a set of 10 viewing platforms designed by Norwegian multidisciplinary firm Snøhetta. Made of simple materials — Corten steel and Larch wood — the platforms either cantilever out into the air, creating exhilarating moments, or more subtly slip into the landscape, providing a place to sit and take in the vast expanses. Called Perspektivenweg, or the Path of Perspectives, Snøhetta has enhanced the experience of the valley without marring the beauty of the natural landscape.
According to ArchDaily, the Path of Perspectives is found in the Nordkette, a mountain chain of the Karwendel, the largest mountain range of the Northern Limestone Alps, just north of Innsbruck. Two cable car lines bring visitors from the city center to the Seegrube cable car station, found some 1,905 meters above sea level, where they can embark on the path. The station, and three others along the Hungerburg funicular, were designed by architect Zaha Hadid.
With the exception of the cantilevered platform found at the end of the trail, Snøhetta mostly went for “small gestures” that appear to “grow out of the landscape,” explained Patrick Lüth, managing director of Snøhetta’s Innsbruck office, in Dezeen. These include simple timber-lined viewing platforms and benches.
The structures themselves are adapted out of methods used to create avalanche barriers, which are also made of Corten (and seen on the hillside in the image below).
But Snøhetta added another layer to this material, inscribing them with quotes of the writings of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The firm explains that “the words invite visitors to take a moment and reflect, both inwardly and out over the landscape.”
Fast Company reports that Snøhetta worked with Innsbruck-based Professor Allan Janik to identify quotes such as:
The concept of ‘seeing’ makes a tangled impression. Now that’s the way it is. I look into the landscape; my glance wanders, I see all sorts of clear and unclear movement; this leaves its mark on me clearly, that only fully blurred. What we see can seem to be completely torn to bits.
Snøhetta founding partner Craig Dykers said the goal with the project was to create a dialogue with the surrounding environment. “Some people mischaracterize our work as always trying to merge with the landscape or trying to set ourselves aside from the landscape. We’re just interested in having a dialogue.”