Amid Divisive Politics, Keeping a Laser Focus on Climate Change

From top: ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. The Big U, New York, NY. BIG and Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners. ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. Perez Art Museum Miami: Resiliency by Design, Miami, Florida. ArquitectonicaGEO / copyright Robin Hill. Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NY. SCAPE Landscape Architecture. ASLA 2016 Professional Communications Honor Award. Sea Change: Boston, Boston, MA. Sasaki Associates.

Later this spring, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) will release a set of policy recommendations on climate change and resilience designed to better arm advocates pursuing changes in laws, regulations, and codes at the federal, state, and local levels. Introducing a panel at the group’s spring meeting in Washington, D.C., ASLA CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, explained that the recommendations will cover both natural systems and the built environment, and their goal will be to spur the use of financial incentives to encourage positive change.

Natural system recommendations will include measures designed to expand the use of green infrastructure; protect tree canopies, green bio-corridors, and open spaces; support biodiversity, especially among pollinators; and assist diverse plants and animal species migrate and adapt. Example recommendations include: create dedicated funding streams for green infrastructure; incentivize the planting of native and regionally-appropriate plants, protection of habitats, and the increase of biodiversity; and encourage the inclusion of climate change assessments in green space planning, including at the regional level.

Built environment recommendations focus on how to further encourage more resilient and sustainable growth patterns through the use of compact development, sustainable land development and zoning, and transit. Example recommendations include: restructure insurance to encourage resilient re-building; set up community investment trusts for green infrastructure and resilient design projects; and evaluate new transit projects through an equity lens.

A panel discussion then covered how allied organizations are maintaining a focus on climate change in today’s divisive political climate. ASLA President Greg Miller, FASLA, led Jeff Soule, director of outreach at the American Planning Association (APA); Mark Golden, CEO of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE); Tom Smith, CEO of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE); and Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, immediate past-president of ASLA, through a discussion.

To varying degrees, all organizations actively call for sustainable and resilient planning, design, and engineering that will help communities better protect themselves and adapt.

A key message, which was relevant for all organizations, came from Golden: “health, safety, and welfare (HSW) comes above all other considerations.” Following where the climate science leads, these organizations promote sustainable and resilient practices because they will help ensure health, safety, and welfare in an era of temperature and weather extremes.

According to Golden, more resilient buildings and landscapes are less costly to build if they are created in advance of a destructive natural event. A recent National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) report found that for every $1 spent on hazard mitigation saves $6 after a disaster. Sadly, though, most communities “continue to be reactive instead of pro-active” in preparing for climate change-driven natural disasters.

Rinner explained ASLA is now purposefully talking more directly about climate change. “The words we use matter. We take a strong position on climate change, sustainability, resilience, and adaptation.” She added that nearly a third of sessions at last year’s Annual Meeting & EXPO in Los Angeles were focused on climate change and resilience.

In the next year or two, Congress will be taking up a new transportation bill. The sentiment seemed to be advocating for a more sustainable transportation system at the federal level will be an uphill battle. According to APA director Soule, “we are actually regressing at the federal level and just trying to keep what we’ve accomplished.” Leadership on green and complete streets and other forward-thinking transportation systems now comes from states and cities. Most of the funds for transportation will be spent at those levels, too, so it makes sense to focus advocacy there.

ASCE CEO Smith said it’s increasingly important to leverage skills and resources from the local level. He sees the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which is training chief resilience officers around the world, as a success story.

Rinner agreed, explaining that the bottom-up We’re Still In coalition — a group of American communities adhering to the U.S. commitments to the Paris climate accord — has signed up 2,700 cities and towns, and the numbers keep growing. “Local action can have a cumulative impact.”

States and cities can also experiment and create new models where the federal government cannot. For example, California has taken the lead in developing a new carbon trading system. “The rest of the world is watching to see if it works — and if it does, California’s model will become something more can follow.”

Smith brought up how the dearth of maintenance budgets hurts efforts to achieve greater sustainability and resilience. According to a report card ASCE releases every four years, the U.S.’s infrastructure now has a sad D+ rating. “Maintenance is the number-one issue.” To deal with this problem, ASCE is developing new guidelines to reduce infrastructure life cycle costs by 50 percent. “We’ve got to think differently in the future.” Smith sees some public-private partnerships as leading the way on the leaner, smarter infrastructure of the future.

In a reality check, APA director Soule cautioned there is still a major gap between high-level policy discussions on sustainability and resilience and the situation on the ground. For example: As New Orleans rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, local officials and planners tried to stave off rebuilding in areas that had been deemed especially at risk of flooding, with the goal of saving those areas for permanent stormwater management. But the “political reality” demanded homeowners be allowed to build back where they had lived before.

The truth is no one wants to be told they can’t go back home and rebuild. As a changing climate impacts more communities, reconciling health, safety, and welfare considerations with people’s emotional attachment to a place will become an even greater challenge.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Now Twice the Size of Texas

Great Pacific Garbage Patch / Scientific Reports

For years, scientists thought stray plastic bags or cups dumped on our beaches or tossed overboard were the primary cause of the massive “great Pacific garbage patch,” which was discovered in 1997 by a yachtsman off the coast of California. But according to a new study published in Scientific Reports, around half of the 79,000 tons of plastic floating in the 1.6 million square-kilometer patch — an area twice the size of Texas — is made up of degrading synthetic-fiber fishing nets. And a majority of the rest of the trash is cast-off plastic fishing gear: fragments of ropes, traps, baskets, and crates. More sad news: the patch is much larger than scientists expected and only seems to be growing.

Laurent Lebreton, an oceanographer with the Ocean Cleanup Foundation and lead researcher of the study, and his team argue that around 60 percent of plastic is less dense than seawater, so it is carried by surface currents and wind to these central patches, where it slowly degrades into micro-plastics (smaller than 10 millimeters).

To give scale to this problem: Some 320 million tons of plastic are produced each year. Only a small percentage is recycled or incinerated; the vast majority is dumped into landfills or becomes litter — and about 8 tons of that enters our oceans every year. While the great Pacific patch is a “major oceanic pollution hot spot,” plastic trash is found throughout our oceans and seas.

If micro-plastics don’t kill the fish, they eventually work their way up the food chain. (Micro-beads found in cosmetics were a particularly toxic form of micro-plastics banned by President Barack Obama in 2015). But even taking a bite of a larger piece of plastic — say, a bottle cap or the remnants of a net, which could be easily mistaken for a jellyfish — can kill a sea turtle or larger fish.

And in their afterlife, remnant plastic fishing nets found in the patch, cast-offs from the shipping, fishing, or aquacultural industries, are still trapping ocean life. National Geographic writes: “Ghost nets, a term coined to describe purposely discarded or accidentally lost netting, drift through the ocean, entangling whales, seals, and turtles. An estimated 100,000 marine animals are strangled, suffocated, or injured by plastics every year.”

Lebreton’s organization — the Ocean Cleanup Foundation — is determined to get rid of this floating menace. The foundation’s founder, Boyan Slat, was just a teenager when he proposed his brilliant idea: a 1.2-mile-wide, U-shaped collector that would passively use wave currents to move an underwater screen and gather and concentrate garbage for boat pick-up.

Now 23, Slat has received millions in grants from the Gates Foundation and other sources. His organization is prototyping the device, which they believe will remove 50 percent of the trash in the Pacific patch in just five years, and then clean up the other gyres by 2040.

They are launching off the coast of California not a moment too soon: Another new study — Foresight Future of the Seas from the British Government — found the garbage-laden gyres could triple by 2050 without more determined action.

What we can do on land: In addition to coastal clean up efforts, like the inspiring one underway on India’s beaches, every beach and coastal destination should have ample and well-maintained garbage and recycling bins.

Communities can ban plastic bags, and consumers can decide to stop purchasing non-biodegradable disposable products. Environmental groups are already working with seafood industry players and local fishing communities alike to collect and recycle abandoned fishing nets, but that effort needs to be scaled up. We need more products made out of old fishing nets.

And to ensure more people care about these efforts for the long run, cities and communities should take up the biophilic approaches of Blue Urbanism, a book written by professor Timothy Beatley. For him, the over-arching goal must be a “complementary, mutually sustainable relationship between city and ocean,” forged out of a deep connection to the blue world.

Amid the Climate Crisis, Glimpses of a Sustainable Future

The world’s largest solar power plant in Kamuthi, Tamil Nadu, India / Financial Express

Amid the constant stream of dire news about the climate, shrinking groundwater supply, increasing air pollution, and the virulent anti-environment policies coming out of Washington, D.C., there are snippets of positive news that offer glimpses of a more sustainable future. Widespread concern about the climate is leading to a new environmental consciousness. National policymakers and companies are taking action because communities and consumers demand progress.

Here are just a few examples of that progress:

1) Renewable energy is where the growth is. The International Energy Agency (IEA) states renewable energy sources are expected to account for nearly 26 percent of global electricity production by 2020. According to BP, over the course of 2016, renewable power generation grew 14 percent, accounting for 8 percent of global electricity generation, but represented 40 percent of the total growth in power generation and a majority of the new infrastructure.

Denmark now gets almost two-thirds of its power from renewables, while a number of European countries, like Germany, Spain, Italy, and the UK, already get around a quarter of their power from wind, solar, and hydropower. After stops and starts, the U.S. has hit a major milestone — 10 percent of its electricity from renewables. And Texas now gets 37 percent of its power from wind and solar.

2) Fossil fuel divestment is nearing a tipping point, at least in the West. Religious groups are now nearly united in divesting from oil, coal, and gas investment. In addition to the Church of England and Islamic Society of North America, more than 40 Catholic organizations with billions in funds recently announced they will divest. TreeHugger argues this is a sign big oil, coal, and gas companies have lost the “moral authority to operate.”

Governments are also making major commitments: Ireland and Norway‘s public funds have divested from fossil fuels, and New York City recently became the largest city in the U.S. to take the same step. In addition, universities, with hundreds of billions in endowments, are divesting in record number.

3) Countries are creating massive terrestrial preserves to protect against development and resource extraction. The New York Times reports that philanthropists spent $345 million to purchase one million acres of pristine land in Patagonia, Chile. They then told the Chilean government they would donate it if the government added more territory and preserved the land as a park. In a huge win for conservation, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet ended up contributing nine million acres and creating five new national parks and expanding three.

National park system in Patagonia, Chile / Conservation Action Trust

Colombia just expanded its largest national park by 1.5 million hectares, so that it now totals 4.3 million hectares, an area the size of Denmark, and added $525 million to its conservation budget.

And, last year, Papua New Guinea created its largest conservation area: the Managalas Conservation Area, which covers some 1,390 square miles in the southeast corner of the country. According to Mongabay, conservation groups and local communities had been working towards this goal for 32 years.

4) New marine preserves are protecting fish from over-harvesting. Blue Planet II, which some critics argue is the greatest nature film ever made, makes a convincing case that we are over-harvesting many fish species, threatening their long-term sustainability, the biodiversity of our oceans, and the livelihoods of millions who live along the coasts. Fish need protected spaces where they are safe from the fleets of fishing boats in order to regain their numbers. A number of countries recognize this and are thinking long-term:

  • According to Mongabay, Niue, a small island country in the South Pacific, which is home to only 1,600 people, created a protected 49,000-square-mile marine zone that covers 40 percent of the island’s economic zone.
  • Chile announced a 285,700-square-mile marine reserve around Easter Island, which is now facing erosion caused by rising sea levels, and two new preserves — a 54,170-square-mile one off of Diego Ramírez Islands and a 186,870-square-mile preserve around the Juan Fernández Islands in the southern Pacific.
  • Mexico created the 57,900-square-mile Revillagigedo marine park to “protect sharks, rays, whales, turtles and other important marine species.”
  • And, finally, the Seychelles just created two new massive marine preserves, covering 15 percent of the island country’s ocean, in exchange for debt relief, using an innovative new financing model that is expected to improve upon the nature-for-debt swaps of the past.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states that almost 15 percent of the Earth’s land and 10 percent of its waters are now protected as national parks or preserves. The amount of water bodies that are protected has jumped 300 percent in the last decade. The target set by Convention on Biological Diversity is 17 percent of the globe by 2020, and we may reach that yet.

5) China is undertaking an ambitious reforestation campaign. In addition to rolling out a nationwide system for valuing and protecting vital ecosystem services, China is actively trying to restore damaged forests and plant new ones. China Daily and Reuters report China will plant some 6 million hectares of trees in 2018 alone, covering an area equal to Ireland. The goal is to have 23 percent of China covered in trees by 2020 and 26 percent by 2030, up from 21.7 percent today and just 19 percent in 2000. Some 33.8 million hectares of forest had been planted over the past five years at a total cost of $82 billion.

Moving forward, though, Chinese foresters must plant more diverse tree species. New, monocultural forests have succeeded in reducing flooding and erosion, but they are also reducing biodiversity.

Reuters writes that the Chinese central government is also promoting an “‘ecological red line’ program which will force provinces and regions to restrict ‘irrational development’ and curb construction near rivers, forests, and national parks.”

6) Veganism and vegetarianism are on the rise. In his latest book Drawdown, Paul Hawken ranks the top 100 solutions for reducing carbon emissions. Number four in terms of possible positive impact is switching to a plant-based diet. Ruminants such as cows and sheep, which number in the billions, produce huge amounts of methane — about 1/5 of global greenhouse gas emissions. Producing meat also requires vast amounts of grain, land, and water. Meat consumption is then closely connected with the expansion of agricultural land at the expense of forests.

Hawken writes: “According to a 2016 study, business-as-usual emissions could be reduced by as much as 70 percent through adopting a vegan diet and 63 percent for a vegetarian diet, which includes cheese, milk, and eggs. $1 trillion in annual health-care costs and lost productivity would be saved.”

A recent video from The Economist states that some 5 percent of the world is now vegan or vegetarian. In 2014, just one percent of Americans said they were vegan; today, that number is 6 percent. And 44 percent of Germans now eat a low-meat diet, up from 26 percent in 2014. Just Eats, a food company with 20 million customers worldwide, said demand for vegan and vegetarian foods increased nearly 1,000 percent in 2017 alone.

While these success stories show that much more progress is possible, there are still causes for alarm. The last four years were among the planet’s hottest. After multiple years of flat greenhouse gas emissions, they are rising again. Furthermore, water shortages will increasingly be a cause of worry. According to the World Water Development Report just released by UN Water, some 5 billion people will face water shortages by 2050, because of climate change, pollution, and increased demand. Nature-based solutions — or green infrastructure — is seen as a key solution for increasing water quantity and improving quality, so landscape architects and designers have an important role to play yet.

Infinite Suburbia

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Infinite Suburbia / Princeton Architectural Press

Until recently, our city’s margins were neglected by researchers. Precisely how much neglect seems to have corresponded with the margin’s distance from its urban core, the city’s beating heart and a real draw for analytical minds. But Infinite Suburbia, a mammoth collection of 52 essays edited by MIT landscape architecture professor Alan Berger, geographer Joel Kotkin, and environmental urbanist Celina Balderas Guzman, seeks to elevate the discourse on our suburbs. The compendium is the result of a yearlong study at MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism, and, like suburbia itself, is sprawling, often beautiful, and a bit relentless.

We have, over the last decade, heard repeatedly that the 21st century is the age of the city. But Infinite Suburbia’s editors rightly recognize the vast majority of people who have moved to cities do not populate the cores but rather the edges. In the United States, for example, 69 percent of the population lives in suburbs. Our edges are rapidly shifting and expanding, demanding meaningful evaluation.

Still, the term suburbia isn’t specific; it has a vagueness with which many of the essays engage. Historian Jon Teaford writes about the myth of the homogeneous suburb, noting that industrial suburbs differ from those pocketed with shopping malls or others that serve primarily as wealthy enclaves. The variety of activity present in suburbs today is as rich as the variety present in urban cores.

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Infinite Suburbia shows the potential of the suburbs to be both beautiful and ecologically less-impactful / Matthew Niederhauser and John Fitzgerald

Espen Aukrust Hauglin and Janike Kampevold Larsen, professors of urbanism and landscape at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, write about how in Norway, suburbia springs up in the pockets of limited spaces between geographical features. One clear example is the Grorud Valley. The valley’s history and geomorphology create a fabric of land use that contrasts with more traditional ideas of suburbia. In the valley, farmland, residential communities, and old mining infrastructure are adjacent to one another. Nature and recreation were large influences on the design of Norway’s satellite towns, so the path systems that gird these towns create a transition between the city and surrounding environment that enables recreation. Recent developments suggest that inner-city parks are gaining prominence in the valley, though.

Dr. Margaret Grose, landscape professor at the University of Melbourne, asks in her essay the pertinent question, “how can we design ecologically-richer suburbs?” It turns out biodiversity is not high on many planners lists of goals, if it’s considered at all. Grose suggests inverting the planning process so that ecological goals come first. Designing backwards through the planning stages and analysis can help give ecology its due in suburban design.

The expansion of cities outwards in the last few decades and the resultant land use change has been both rapid and irreversible. As both editor and author of Infinite Suburbia, Berger investigates how planners in the past sought to “belt” suburbia with agrarian and recreational landscapes.

But with the clustering of cities into polycentric city-regions, greenbelts are being ask to function in new and peculiar ways. Rather than serving as a container for development, greenbelts can connect regions. Berger warns that they must be employed intelligently and compatibly with demands for growth, or they risk being ineffectual. For some examples of greenbelting done right, Berger recommends the Brussels capital region of Belgium as well as Hamburg, Germany.

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One domestic example of a city-region attempting to belt its city is Atlanta’s BeltLine trail. / Beltline.org

Despite the potential ecological benefits of greenbelts or prioritizing biodiversity, experts still consider suburbia the most ecologically-destructive form of development. Consider the growth of the east coast megalopolis, a region defined decades ago by French geographer Jean Gottman, running from Washington, D.C. north to Boston. What habitat it hasn’t destroyed it has badly fragmented.

Alex Wall, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, asks in his essay what a counter-figure to this megalopolis might look like. While his essay doesn’t quite describe such a figure, it does make a strong argument for analyzing development at the regional scale in order to better understand the true ecological scope.

Book Review: Cityscapes of New Orleans

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LSU Press

Set Tulane University professor Richard Campanella down at any intersection in New Orleans, and he can likely deduce what economic, political, or environmental forces determined that street’s spatial qualities. This knowledge and much else has been inscribed in Campanella’s latest book, Cityscapes of New Orleans.

Cityscapes is a compendium of essays that examines New Orleans’ landscape through the lenses of design, planning, and history. It is more than a rote demonstration of knowledge, though. The book is an energetic engagement with Campanella’s two great passions: New Orleans and geography.

Geography, though it has taken a backseat in the landscape discourse, has the unsettling ability to illuminate the larger patterns and systems in which we’re embedded. Consider the work of Allen Gathman, a biology professor at SE Missouri State University. After the 2008 presidential election, Gathman took interest in a string of counties, arcing across the southeast United States, that Barack Obama had won. These blue counties, surrounded by a sea of red, coincided with the cotton belt of the antebellum south, and thus had a primarily black populace. And why was the soil in those counties so well-suited for cotton production? It is a loamy, alluvial soil, deposited by a cretaceous-era ocean, the coastline of which would roughly align with those same blue counties. Past, as they say, is prologue.

That is one example of the insight that geography affords; Cityscapes offers many such insights. Like Gathman, Campanella is interested in the “why behind the where.” Take Campanella’s investigation of New Orleans’ “accidental forest,” for instance. How did a 27-acre patch of remnant forest in the heart of Gentilly survive this long without being developed? A series of near-misses and happenstance, it turns out. But it’s a part of the tapestry of curiosities that add to the city’s character.

cityscapes graphic
Accidental forest

New Orleans’ larger geographic context is perhaps as interesting as the city itself, and Campanella devotes a section of the book to exploring aspects of New Orlean’s regional relationships. This includes a portrait of the “Ozone Belt,” a pinewood landscape upland of Lake Pontchartrain that city residents previously visited like a health retreat. Certain that the swamplands of Lake Pontchartrain were the source of miasmas and sickness in the city, New Orleans residents who could afford to would stay at therapeutic inns in the Ozone Belt and enjoy what they believed to be the curative properties of the pine’s effervescence.

Staying on the subject of swamps, Campanella also devotes several essays to how their presence and eventual draining impacted the city’s entire terrain. City-wide drainage began in the 1890s with the development of a sophisticated runoff system that funneled water into surrounding water bodies. The effect was “nothing short of revolutionary,” according to Campanella.

The result was the withdrawal of the swamplands and the migration of inhabitants into these areas. The unforeseen effect was soil subsidence, which triggered the collapse of certain built structures. Continued draining in the following century led to the subversion of in-ground infrastructure. “Topography matters,” Campanella writes.

Best Books of 2017

Drawdown / Penguin Press

Whether you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or just one for yourself to delve into, we have some options. Here’s THE DIRT‘s top 10 books of 2017, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape:

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (Penguin Press, 2017)
Author and environmental activist Paul Hawken assembled hundreds of experts around the world to rank the potential positive impacts of 100 substantive climate solutions. One of the most accessible and informative books on climate change, Drawdown makes clear the vital role of landscape architecture, architecture, and urban planning in finding a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Hawken and his coalition consider complete streets and bicycle infrastructure, walkable cities, green roofs, composting systems, and net-zero buildings as critically important. Other top solutions — like educating girls in developing countries and silvopasture — will cause you to think more about the relationships between population, agriculture, and sustainability.

Be Seated (Applied Research and Design Publishing, 2017)
In his new book, Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of the landscape architecture firm OLIN and this year’s Vincent Scully Prize winner, brings to life his deep interest in outdoor seating. As he describes: “My interest in public outdoor seating in parks and plazas revolves around two poles: one is related to the fascination that Emerson and other philosophers have shown regarding aspects of the quotidian in our lives and experience, its pressures and benefits; the other is the utility of public seating in guiding our conduct as citizens.” Scattered throughout are evocative sketches and water-colors and well-curated images. If you enjoy trying to figure out what makes a public space great, you’ll love this book.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Liveright, 2017)
Richard Rothstein, an authority on housing policy, “explodes the myth that America’s cities came to be racially divided through de facto segregation―that is, through individual prejudices, income differences, or the actions of private institutions like banks and real estate agencies. Rather, The Color of Law incontrovertibly makes clear that it was de jure segregation―the laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments―that actually promoted the discriminatory patterns that continue to this day.” As American cities continue to address the legacy of segregation while also dealing with widespread gentrification, this new look at urban history is invaluable.

Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017)
Ashley Dawson, a professor of English at the City University of New York, argues that mega-cities, which are most often found on coasts, are “ground zero for climate change,” given they are home to our largest populations, highly vulnerable, and also contribute the most to greenhouse gas emissions. Reviewing Extreme Cities, author McKenzie Wark writes: “Dawson shows how social movements have combined action on disaster relief with forms of equitable common life to produce models for radical adaptation from which we can all learn. This is a brilliant summation of what we know and what we can do to build a new kind of city in the ruins of the old.”

Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design (Island Press, 2017)
University of Virginia professor Tim Beatley’s new book presents everything he has discovered on what he calls “biophilic urban planning and design” — strategies that both boost biodiversity and foster deeper human connections with nature in cities. He brings together the established science, the important case studies, and innovative code and design practices from around the world in one place. Even if you think you already know a lot about how best to incorporate nature into cities, there will be some interesting new facets in this book for you to explore. (Read the full review).

Movement and Meaning: The Landscapes of Hoerr Schaudt (The Monacelli Press, 2017)
This book highlights the depth of work created by landscape architects Doug Hoerr, FASLA, and the late Peter Schaudt, FASLA. From private gardens to lush civic spaces, Movement and Meaning chronicles the major works by the Chicago-based studio, from inception to final installation. The sheer variety of images, drawings, and photography make this book an absorbing overview. (Read the full review).

The New Landscape Declaration: A Call to Action for the Twenty-First Century (Rare Bird Books, 2017)
Last year, on the eve of its 50th anniversary, the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) brought together 700 landscape architects, designers, and planners in a symposium in Philadelphia to forge a New Landscape Declaration. LAF now offers in handy book form 33 speeches that “reflect on the last half-century and present bold ideas for the what the discipline should achieve in the future.” Those ideas are meant to “underscore the need to diversify, innovate, and create a bold culture of leadership, advocacy, and activism.” (Read more about the declaration and symposium).

Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State (University of California Press, 2017)
This new book by Gareth Doherty, ASLA, director of the masters in landscape architecture program at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, is a successful hybrid of landscape writing and ethnography focused on the island nation of Bahrain. It presents a portrait of Bahrainis’ rich and evolving relationship with their landscape as well as a model for future studies. (Read the full review).

Transmaterial Next: A Catalog of Materials That Define Our Future (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017)
While we have all experienced the effects of the information technology revolution now underway, we may be less aware of the impact of the new “materials revolution,” argues University of Minnesota professor Blaine Brownell in his new book. Building materials are being transformed to respond to our planetary environmental crisis, lower costs and boost efficiency, and provide new media for creative expression. Given the serious problems facing the Earth, the scale of the ambition is heartening. (Read the full review).

Wise Trees (Harry N. Abrams, 2017)
Landscape photographers Diane Cook and Len Jenshel offer gorgeous full-page photographs of 50-plus wise, old trees, which are accompanied by a brief story about the spiritual and cultural life inspired by each of these natural wonders. With the help of grants from the Expedition Council of the National Geographic Society, the photographers spent two years traveling across five continents to capture these historic specimens.

Also, worth knowing: buying these books through THE DIRT or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs. And if you are based near Washington, D.C. we also recommend checking out the National Building Museum’s fantastic book store.

Book Review: Paradoxes of Green

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Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State, a new book by Gareth Doherty, ASLA, director of the masters in landscape architecture program at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, is a successful hybrid of landscape writing and ethnography focused on the island nation of Bahrain. It presents a portrait of Bahrainis’ rich and evolving relationship with their landscape as well as a model for future studies.

“Landscape, when perceived through color, reveals aspects of relationships previously hidden,” Doherty writes in his book’s introduction. Paradoxes’ main inquiry is into Bahrain’s relationship with the color green. Why green? Because it’s associated with greenery, and greenery “is at the heart of the political struggles over the land,” Doherty tells us. Why Bahrain? “Bahrain is small.” Good enough.

While Doherty’s approach may seem like a gimmick, the results are truly novel. Situated in the milieu of ethnography, Doherty spends a year in Bahrain speaking with laborers, real estate developers, farmers, and government officials, constructing a forensic composite of green. The book satisfyingly explores green’s tendencies, as well as the social and built infrastructures that support it.

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Green carpet of house in Gafool, Manama. Photo by Gareth Doherty / University of California Press

If green is the book’s central character, then the central conflict revolves around water and its accompanying politics. Bahrain is seeking to maximize its green space and improve its sustainability metrics — these are admirable but directly conflicting goals. As it is, almost half of Bahrain’s freshwater goes towards watering lawns and washing cars in the hot, dusty city-state. Doherty figures that parks and roadside planting strips need 18 liters of water per day per square meter. Would Bahrain’s leaders be open to using grey water or native desert vegetation to conserve precious freshwater? That’s a step too far, at least for now. But as water’s strategic relevance overtakes oil’s in the Gulf, attitudes will change.

Before oil and the unsustainable pursuit of beautification in the form of lawns and noodle-shaped beaches, Bahrain’s green was most prominent in the form of date palm groves. The groves have diminished over the last century, but Doherty finds them still incredibly impactful. Their grey-green fronds stand in stark contrast to the surrounding environment, and their presence creates a micro-climate in the desert. In the past, the groves supported a culture that saw farmers name their trees as they would children. Their decline has coincided with the rise of residential compounds, some with green-painted roofs. Needless to say, Doherty is skeptical if this paint represents fair compensation for what’s been lost.

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Water channel, 1963, from Glob and the Garden of Eden. Torkil Funder, Moesgaard Museum / University of California Press

Doherty insists on walking to get where he’s going in Bahrain. He meticulously catalogs his encounters with green, and walking allows him to encounter very many. This penchant recalls similar tendencies in the writers Bruce Chatwin and Rory Stewart. Both are known for their travel writing (and, to greater and lesser extents, their interest in the Middle East).

Intentionally or not, there’s an element of the travelogue in Paradoxes. It’s no Road to Oxiana, nor does it aspire to be. It’s undeniable the book has benefited from its glimpses into Bahraini culture and life. Future writings on landscape would benefit from an ethnographic, travelogue approach.

Buckminster Fuller’s Influence Continues to Grow

“To make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.” This is the ethos that drove the work of Buckminster Fuller, an influential 20th century designer, engineer, and inventor. Every year since 2008, the Buckminster Fuller Insititute has awarded a $100,000 prize to an especially-promising organization or individual embodying Fuller’s systems thinking and “comprehensive, anticipatory design science.” So far, the award has provided ten projects — including landscape architect Kate Orff’s Living Breakwaters — with the extra push in both publicity and funds to advance in scale, complexity, and ambition.

Past winners were prompted by moderators such as Andrew Revkin, senior reporter at ProPublica, and Susan Szenazy, publisher and editor-in-chief of Metropolis magazine, to reflect on the evolution of their winning projects and discussed systemic approaches to the challenges of our time.

The 2107 winner is Bhungroo, from the Gujarat state of India (see video above). Bhungroo, which means “straw” or “hollow pipe” in Gujarati, is a simple, inexpensive system that enables farmers to capture and store water during peak monsoon season and then retrieve the water during the dry season. The invention allows female farmers below the poverty line to be self-sufficient year round, breaking free from cycles of debt and repression.

The organization also fosters a model of collective ownership over the stored water among the farmers. The co-founder Biplab Ketan Paul described the selflessness and “golden hearts” of the women farmers he works with as what inspires and sustains the project. When asked about the experience of winning the prize, he beamed and said, “We’re still in a dream.”

The idea for ecological design pioneer John Todd’s project, which won in 2008, came from close contact with ecological and economic crisis. He had been hired by a foundation to study ecological impacts of mountaintop removal and valley-fill mining in Appalachia, but, he said, “my colleagues and I became so horribly depressed at the scale of the devastation that we actually couldn’t function.” He changed course to find a regenerative, solutions-oriented approach, and his winning project — The Challenge of Appalachia — was born.

Todd’s solution — which aims to help Appalachian communities, boost the economy, and support the ecosystem — is a model for long-range biodiversity and socio-economic stability tailored to the region. When asked what an urban application of the same principles might look like, Todd said the surfaces of buildings have enormous potential as substrate for “all kinds of living systems that purify air, treat sewage, and generate foods.”

The Challenge of Appalachia / Buckminster Fuller Institute

The 2013 winner, Ecovative, a bio-materials company, manifests the Fuller maxim, “to change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Ecovative’s goal is to end the use of plastic and styrofoam packaging materials made from fossil fuels, replacing them with materials made from fungus that are fire retardant, self-healing, and decompose after use. Ecovative grows these materials in their facilities in New York state. The mycelia lifecycle depends on a local supply chain — the materials are derived from metabolizing agricultural waste such as cornstalks or straw, which would have otherwise been discarded.

With the funds from the prize, the company focused on democratizing the technology with grow-it-yourself kits. Gavin McIntyre, co-founder and chief scientist, quickly learned the company must appeal to more than just a customer’s ethical impulses. “I really wish people would buy things just because they are green and good for the planet, but, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. We must be able to provide additional cost savings and value.” Their pursuit seems to be going well, as, in just one year, the company was able to displace 1.6 million pounds of plastic from the supply chain.

Ecovative packaging materials / Greener Package

Paying homage to Fuller’s emphasis on holistic approaches, the final panel of the day looked at the social implications of the work the winners do.

“Global inequality was not an accident, it was created by design.” said Greg Watson, director of policy and systems design at the Schumacher Center for New Economics. “We have been trained to think this is the real world. But the real world is what we create.”

The winners are a “beacon of hope and powerful counterpoint to the intellectual bankruptcy that threatens humanity’s continuous voyage aboard spaceship Earth. Gaia will survive our insults, and it’s really up to us to ensure that we continue to ride.”

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, landscape designer at SWA/Balsley in New York City.

Using Film to Tell the Story of a Sustainable Future

Solar landscape / Huffington Post

“Principles of sustainability have to be at the center, not at the margins of design,” according filmmaker and eco-activist Shalini Kantayya, particularly in our era of dramatic population growth and resource scarcity. “Sustainability can no longer be a thing of the privilege, but something that is accessible to all sectors of society and the masses.”

She spoke at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles about her films, which explore efforts to bring clean water to all and the global transition to clean energy. 

Her films demonstrate the power of storytelling in inciting positive change. “The stories we tell as a culture have the power to shape the future,” Kantayya said.

She began with a clip from, A Drop of Life, her film about two women, on opposite sides of the world, and their access to water.

Kantayya used the film to underscore the fact that global potable water scarcity is an increasingly dire situation. Today, more than 2 billion people lack access to clean and safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization.

“80 percent of illnesses in the developing world are due to water-related illnesses,” she said. “There are just no borders on this crisis.”

Kantayya pointed to the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico where millions of American citizens are still without electricity, healthcare, and clean water a month after Hurricane Maria hit the island.

“This is a failure of a story. That somehow we have failed to frame this story as an American crisis, that this is happening to our fellow citizens,” she said.

In light of the lack of environmental leadership at the federal level, states, cities and communities can act to advance a more sustainable future. 

Her film Catching the Sun is about the global transition to a clean energy economy. She tells stories of people working in the solar industry to illustrate the economic, social, and environmental impact of the movement.

Globally, the transition is moving rapidly ahead. China is the leader in solar with over 43 gigawatts of solar capacity, compared to the United States capacity of just over 27 gigawatts. 

“You have seen China, in the last ten years, move from the factory of the world to the clean tech laboratory of the world,” she said, adding that the United States needs to better capitalize on this movement.

“What we need is smart policy, decisive leadership, and visionary landscape architecture that bring sustainable solutions into public spaces and to scale,” Kantayya said.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (October 1 – 15)

To get to Civita, one must take a long, winding footbridge from the neighboring town of Bagnoregio / Sylvia Poggioli, NPR

Planned WWI Memorial Will Have a Ceremonial Groundbreaking on November 9Curbed, 10/2/17
“Originally, the plan was for a brand new WWI Memorial in Washington, D.C. to complete by November 2018, during the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, but due to a final design approval yet to be had, that won’t happen. Even so, there are still plans for a ceremonial groundbreaking on November 9.”

How Modern Architecture Is Being Influenced by Video Games The Week, 10/7/17
“Fletcher’s preference for designing in a game engine, as the software is called, was cultivated two years ago when he worked on ‘The Witness,’ an “open world” role-playing video game.”

In Italy, A Medieval Town Confronts a Double Threat — Erosion and Too Many Tourists NPR, 10/8/17
“Tourism is booming in Italy, which welcomed close to 50 million visitors over the summer. That has helped some places that have been struggling to survive. But for one destination, it might be too much of a good thing.”

What Harvey Did to Buffalo Bayou Park Is Only a Marker for What We Could Suffer Dallas Observer, 10/11/17
“Everything awful that happened to Houston was known beforehand. The same things are known here, too. It just hasn’t happened here. Yet.”

Landscape Architect Kate Orff and Urbanist Damon Rich Awarded 2017 MacArthur “Genius” Grants Arch Daily, 10/11/17
“The MacArthur Foundation has announced the 24 recipients of their 2017 MacArthur Fellowships Grants (sometimes referred to as ‘Genius’ Grants), and for the first time since 2011, the list includes individuals from architectural fields: urban planner and designer Damon Rich and landscape architect Kate Orff.”