Resilient Design for Low-Income Communities

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Resilience for All / Island Press

In her new book Resilience for All: Striving for Equity through Community-Driven Design, author Barbara Brown Wilson seeks to confront the failings of traditional planning and design practices in vulnerable low-income communities. While others have pursued landscape-based solutions to this issue — think community gardens — Brown suggests there is a larger role for landscape architecture and urban design in resilient, equitable community development.

The communities featured in Resilience for All struggle with many of the same afflictions: environmental injustice, neglect, and lack of resources. These are vulnerable communities that face high exposure to economic and environmental shocks and disinvestment. Landscape and urban design improvements are relatively cheap, widely-accessible method of addressing these issues. Green infrastructure and streetscape improvements figure prominently in the book’s many case studies.

Importantly, Brown believes there is a fundamental relationship between ecological and social systems that, when leveraged, benefit both communities and their environments.

Consider the case of Cully, a low-income, ethnically diverse neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, that suffers from flooding streets, a lack of sidewalks, and languishing parks. Gentrification is also making its inroads.

Ordinarily, progress on the infrastructure front might invite gentrification. But a neighborhood coalition of community members and non-profits has made a point of linking infrastructure goals with wealth-building and anti-displacement goals. This means new parks associated with new affordable housing, construction on these projects performed by community members, and training provided by community organizations. This holistic approach has led to notable successes by Cully’s residents.

As Brown writes, green infrastructure improvements provide economic and health benefits; it’s logical to ensure those benefits serve communities directly and in as many ways as possible. It’s what Brown calls “green infrastructure as antipoverty strategy.”

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Cully residents at work in the community garden / Barbara Brown Wilson

Resilience for All shows community development progress comes in phases, with one success usually priming the next.

In the neighborhood of Denby in Detroit, the local high school worked with non-profits to introduce urban planning and city improvements into the senior class curriculum. Students, concerned with local crime, initially set their sights on getting a nearby abandoned apartment building torn down. They aggregated resident organizations into the Denby Neighborhood Alliance and adopted a vision to target blight on a larger scale. They and thousands of volunteers combined efforts to board up vacant homes and reduce blight on more than 300 city blocks and used this cleanup effort to install wayfinding artwork and planter boxes to mark new safe routes to Skinner Playfield, their revitalized school playground.

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“Safe Routes to School” planter box at Skinner Playfield. / Barbara Brown Wilson

Landscape improvements did not come to these communities without considerable effort and without help from a network of friendly actors. And the projects often operate on a humble scale.

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Skinner Playfield network map. This diagram shows the variety of organizations Denby high school students worked with to achieve their desired outcomes. / Barbara Brown Wilson

Each case in Resilience for All represents innovation and progress for the communities and is fleshed out by a mix of empirical research and Brown’s own analysis to paint a picture of what worked, what didn’t, and how those lessons might be absorbed and applied elsewhere. Resilience for All is also bookended by two useful sections: a brief history of community-driven design and an encapsulation of the case studies’ lessons.

Resilience for All is a useful handbook for landscape architect’s wondering how their skill sets might apply to community-led planning and design. It demonstrates how landscape can be a powerful resource for vulnerable communities. And it also shows how communities can positively impact landscapes.

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

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Brazilian landscape architects and designers, from ArchDaily. Alex Hanazaki Paisagismo / copyright Demian Golovaty

Can We Integrate Natural Ecosystems in Urban Asian Spaces? GreenBiz, 9/4/18
“Emerging Asian economies are fast expanding, and an associated phenomenon has been that of rapid urbanization. However, due to rapid growth, urban spaces are giving way to real estate developments for residential and commercial purposes.”

Landscape Architects Can’t Rely on Architecture-centric Media Dezeen, 9/5/18
“Landscape architects need to fly the flag for their profession if they are to receive the recognition they rightly demand and deserve, says Charles A Birnbaum.”

Gathering Place Architect: the People of Tulsa Will Shape Park’s Future Tulsa World, 9/7/18
“First, we wanted to understand what he had in mind, what he was trying to accomplish,” explains Michael Van Valkenburgh, the well-known landscape architect responsible for designing Tulsa’s new Gathering Place. “Then we wanted to get to know Tulsa, try to get inside the soul of the city.”

17 Contemporary Brazilian Landscape Architects Arch Daily, 9/8/18
“Landscape architecture is responsible for the transformation and resignification of the landscape, either by enriching architecture or by bringing forth the history of the site. As with buildings, when we design with vegetation it allows us to work a series of stimuli, qualities, and functions.”

Changing China: Luxury Living Is Now About Being Green and Respecting the Planet The South China Morning Post, 9/9/18
“In 20 years working on projects in China, landscape architect Scott Slaney has noticed what he describes as ‘the arc of change.’”

Learning the Subtle Language of Nature

The Weather Detective / Dutton

The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature’s Secret Signs is the new book from forester Peter Wohlleben, who wrote the international bestseller and modern natural history classic The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate–Discoveries from a Secret World. Meandering from the forest to the garden, Wohlleben asks us to pay closer attention to our environment — to “recognize and understand the signs of nature.” With climate change, a deeper understanding of nature has only become more critical — it’s only then that “we will appreciate what we stand to lose.”

For Wohlleben, closely concentrating on what’s going around you outside is a source of pleasure but also discovery. In the first sections of the book, he plays detective — deducing temperature, time, and atmospheric conditions from how plants, animals, and insects behave.

A few tidbits:

Plants can tell you if it’s going to rain: If we closely watch water lilies, we can discover they are a “reliable indicator of a coming change in weather. The flowers close when they sense rain, often hours before it comes.”

Birds and plants can tell you what time it is: If all birds were singing all the time, they wouldn’t be able to hear each other. Somehow they have reached agreement to sing at different times, so as to better communicate with potential mates or rivals. According to Wohlleben, each bird species tends to “observe its relative time slot, day by day, with astonishing accuracy.”

Flowers also open their blooms at particular times of the day with “impressive reliability.” Carl Linnaeus, a great Swedish natural scientist and father of modern taxonomy, planted a “very special flower bed in Uppsala Botanical Garden,” arranging the plants into the shape of a clock face, with twelve sections. “In each section, the flowers opened at the appointed hour, enabling passersby to tell the time.”

If you see bumblebees out, it’s at least 54 degrees Fahrenheit. This precise temperature seems to be the “magic threshhold” for a number of species, including grasshoppers and crickets. Wohlleben notes that to make a decent sound, the air temperature must at least be 54 degrees. And this may explain why that temperature is so significant for some insects — it’s when insects that communicate through rapid vibrations of their legs and wings can start to hear each other.

But as the book progresses, it somewhat awkwardly transitions into discussion about the seasons, climate change, and then, surprisingly, hands-on guidance for gardeners, with some broader insights about nature thrown in. While the structure is disjointed, the book is still enjoyable because it’s interesting to perceive nature as Wohlleben does.

In dealing with climate change, Wohlleben has some advice for gardeners: “Some experts recommend choosing plants that are better equipped for a warmer climate in the face of rising temperatures. I think this is very unhelpful advice. Rising average temperatures mean that dry hot summers and damp winters without snow will become more frequent. But even in the future, winter will still bring hard frosts, only much less frequently than nowadays.”

For him, the best strategy is the most natural: “The closer your garden management style resembles natural conditions, the less impact there will be. Nature is well prepared for climate change.”

He then argues the longer the lifespan of a native tree species, the more tolerant to climatic change they will be. For example, a beech tree, which can live up to 400 years, has seen many different climatic conditions over its lifespan and can tolerate those changes. It’s not about adaptation, but tolerance of a “broad spectrum of temperature and precipitation levels.” Still, trees and other plants have a better chance of survival if they are living in their “climatic comfort zone.”

The end of the book is a dive into practical gardening tips, with detailed guidance on how to measure the temperature of your garden, assess soil types and quality, incorporate native plants, and deal with invasive ones. A final chapter on how the territories of wildlife overlap suburban gardens is fascinating. Who knew that squirrels occupy a territory of 10 acres, foxes 50 acres, and black storks, 25,000 acres?

New Mariposa Grove Protects Fragile Giant Sequoia Ecosystem

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Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias / Mithun

In the not too distant past, you could park a car in the midst of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) at California’s Yosemite National Park. That is no longer possible thanks to a recently-completed $40 million restoration by the National Park Service (NPS) in partnership with the Yosemite Conservancy and Seattle-based multidisciplinary design firm Mithun.

Now, visitors park at a newly constructed, 300-vehicle-capacity terminal two miles away and take a shuttle bus to a main entry plaza at the lower grove.

“Before, it used to be a pass-through area. People didn’t even really notice it,” says Mithun senior associate Christian Runge, ASLA, about the restored lower grove. “They saw a couple of big trees, but it wasn’t a place. Now, it’s the centerpiece of the whole project.”

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Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias / Susan Olmsted

This transformation didn’t happen for its own sake. Years of heavy visitor traffic and poor planning took their toll on the storied trees, raising alarm about their future health.

The giant sequoia, which grows to approximately 300-feet high and can live for thousands of years, is an endangered species. This tree occupies a narrow ecological niche only 260-miles-wide on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains and requires specific environmental conditions to thrive. The Mariposa Grove is one of the few places on earth where the sequoia is able to reseed on its own.

“The Sequoias exist on the western slopes of the Sierras at a certain elevation, which is essentially at the rain-snow transitional zone,” says Runge. “If you go much lower, it’s all rain; if you go much higher, it’s all snow. That feeds the hydrology of these mountain wetland stream systems, which the sequoias tend to cluster closely around.”

“So, restoring hydrology and improving the natural hydrologic flow in the grove was really an important piece of the restoration puzzle.”

To achieve this, the design team removed the existing network of asphalt roads and paths, which were interfering with the grove’s natural drainage patterns.

One road that connected the lower and upper groves crossed streams and wetlands approximately 30 times, says Runge. “Those culverts were anywhere between 50-60 years old, and a lot of them weren’t even functioning anymore.”

In the place of asphalt and culverts, Mithun designed a series of elevated boardwalks and trails that allow for a variety of visitor experiences and do not interfere with the delicate hydrology needed to sustain the sequoias.

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New paths and boardwalks have replaced asphalt roads in the lower grove / Susan Olmsted

“If we keep those streams running and hope for the best with snowmelt, then we can imagine those populations will continue to be stable and hopefully grow into mature trees,” Runge says.

However, that outcome is not guaranteed. Giant sequoias are threatened by the effects of climate change, which could reduce the amount of groundwater available to the trees and make it more difficult for seedlings to survive.

Runge acknowledges that in the face of such forces, there is only so much that the project can accomplish.

“The best thing we can really do is improve and maintain the processes that keep the sequoias as healthy as possible in order to provide as much resilience as possible,” says Runge. “Improving those processes was really the focus of the restoration.”

Ensuring the survival of the Mariposa grove also required changes to the visitor experience. In addition to restoring groundwater hydrology, the elevated boardwalks also keep visitors at a distance from the trees in the grove’s most heavily trafficked areas.

“People want to get up close to them. It’s just a human, intuitive thing that you want to be able to do,” Runge says. But, “if everyone did that, there would be too much damage to the tree.”

Instead, Mithun created a series of loops that become progressively less contained as they lead further from the main entry plaza. “Each loop takes you further out and is closer to a wilderness experience. If you want to go up into the upper grove, that’s something that can only really be hiked into.”

In addition to the new trails, enhancements to the visitor experience include a new visitor center and comfort stations designed by Mithun architects Brendan Connolly and Susan Olmsted, ASLA.

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Rendering of the new shuttle bus terminal / Mithun

While the design language and material choices were in some way constrained by the need to work within the rustic National Park aesthetic of stone and timber, Runge says the design team found room for creativity in the details.

“We didn’t argue about modern versus historic, but we did push for quality detailing and structural systems, thinking through stonework, and trying to understand what the Works Progress Administration (WPA)-era standards were in reality versus just giving the impression of something being historic. Making something that is durable, long-lasting, and in some sense beautiful was the key goal for us both in terms of the architectural elements and site elements, like the boardwalk.”

For Runge, striking this balance between ecology and the visitor experience defined Mithun’s approach to the project. “Ultimately, I feel like we got there,” he says. “It feels like a transformed place.”

Intriguing Findings from the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA)

The Solar Settlement in Schlierberg, Freiburg, Germany / Wikipedia

In Oklahoma City, a unique mix of landscape architects and designers, educators, and technologists revealed the results of their explorations into the world of environmental design. Drawing attendees from around the globe, the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) offered thought-provoking, sometimes challenging takes on the human and environmental forces shaping our communities.

A brief recap of short lectures, highlighting interesting research:

“What makes homeowners adopt sustainable practices? How do we reach the mainstream homeowner?,” asked Marina Murarolli, a professor of languages at the University of Missouri. Studying the psychological traits of 209 homeowners across the U.S., which she said constitutes a national sample, she found early adopters of green residential practices — like adding solar panels and buying energy-efficient appliances — were largely driven by “altruistic and biospheric motivations.” An altruistic mindset will cause someone to take action for “the sake of doing good.” Someone motivated by biospheric concerns is guided by a sense of interconnection of living things, the ecology of the planet. “It’s a hippie, granola way of thinking.”

Despite the reputation of Americans as being highly egocentric, that motivation didn’t register in her findings. Green homeowners aren’t buying Energy Star dish washers and hybrid cars to save money or show off to their neighbors.

And this conclusion may be frustrating to marketers everywhere: “We can’t profile green homeowner early adopters, other to say they are wealthier than the general population. There are inconsistent demographic results.”

Still, Murarolli thinks “any American could become an adopter.” And the research tells her potential adopters are more motivated by altruism and the planet’s health than looking cool.

Science museums with LEED-accredited facilities get millions of visitors each year, but not all teach the public about sustainability. The culture and political ecosystem of the museum influences how much or how little they address the topic, said Georgia Lindsay, a senior instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Laura Cole, assistant professor at the University of Missouri.

Lindsey said science institutions in the Midwest must be finely attuned to the politics of climate change and sustainability. “Science museums are publicly funded so they can’t grand stand.” Instead, they use less inflammatory language to tell their story or avoid that aspect all together.

At the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, Kansas, which focuses on educating the public about the prairie ecosystem, there was a concerted effort to teach Kansans about sustainability — but in terms they can relate to. Roof gardens, a native plant walk, and biomimetic design, and natural features help integrate the building with its landscape. But the museum uses the language of “cowboy sustainability — the words ‘natural resources’ and ‘conservation’ instead of sustainability.” Conservatives respond better to neutral terms like conservation and stewardship.

Flint Hills Discovery Center / VernonJohnson

The St. Louis Science Center offers “no bad news, nothing on climate change. They have to tread carefully as they have a mixed audience.” They don’t use their green building in their pedagogy. The sentiment is: “that is not our mission.”

Health impact assessments (HIAs) have been conducted in Europe and New Zealand for more than 30 years. Relatively recently, they have taken off in the U.S., explained Debarati “Mimi” Majumdar Narayan, with the Health Impact Project, a partnership of the Pew Charitable Trust and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. To date, there have been some 400 HIAs conducted; 100 by the Health Impact Project alone.

An HIA is a tool, a research method for examining whether a plan or project will adversely impact the health of a community. In contemporary America, where communities once red-lined now suffer from extreme health disparities, and zip codes can determine life spans, HIAs can help reduce further inequalities by exposing potential health impacts before they have a chance to do damage.

For example, an HIA conducted on a proposed Baltimore-Washington Rail Intermodal facility in the low-income communities of Morrell Park and Violettville in Baltimore found already “high rates of morbidity and disease” would be exacerbated by the “increased light exposure, high particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, traffic congestion, noise, and reduced property values” that would result from the facility. The project would have “created an inequity” for the people who had to live near it. “That facility didn’t move forward; the community used the HIA to advocate and organize themselves.”

HIAs can be used to explore a range of social and mental health issues, too. Planners of the Englewood Line Trail in Chicago used an HIA to discover the proposed route, which could bring much-needed green space and access to food gardens to an underserved African American community, could also “create a lack of social cohesion.” And they discovered the city had not investigated potential mental health outcomes — positive or negative — of the trail.

Englewood Line Trail / Streetsblog

Lastly, Sahera Bleibleh, a professor at United Arab Emirates University, said Palestinians strive to preserve memories associated with home in the Jenin refugee camp in West Bank, Palestine Authority. In Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, the Israeli army invaded the camp to fight terrorists, killing more than 50 Palestinians, and occupying it for 10 days, leaving 2,500 families homeless. Entire neighborhoods of the 70-year-old, UN-designed camp, which housed 13,000 Palestinians, were destroyed. In the aftermath, a $27 million donation to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) financed a camp improvement program that created new neighborhoods but didn’t restore the structure and feel of the original, dense, intimate neighborhoods, which the Palestinians had built over the years. Israelis said those old neighborhoods, with their network of alleys, more-easily allowed terrorist to find safe shelter.

UNRWA worked with a committee organized by the camp leadership to create an urban design that resulted in “totally new single-family households,” much different from the multi-family households of the old camp. “The widths of roads were increased so it would be easier for Israelis to re-invade. And the camp was re-invaded multiple times during reconstruction.” But Bleibleh said streets were also widened to make the camp more accessible to residents with cars. “Before, you walked in the camp; now everyone has a car.” Bleibleh admitted “some like the new plan — that you can drive in.”

Jenin refugee camp / © 2015 UNRWA Photo by Dominiek Benoot

Given the more sprawling, car-friendly urban design, not all of the 2,500 displaced families could return to their original camp neighborhood. They were displaced once again. “In the new camp, there are no memories. Displacement is a struggle of feelings. The goal is to make people feel weaker — kill them, kill their houses.” While the intention of the design was to create “no social spaces,” the community fashioned a memorial and built a monument — a horse made of pieces of metal from destroyed cars.

New Short Film: Pollinators Under Pressure

A new short film narrated by award-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio seeks to raise public awareness about pollinators, which includes bees, bats, butterflies, birds, and other mammals; the important ecological and economic roles they play; and the threats they face. The film was produced by Tree Media and directed by Matthew Schmid.

Pollinator health is the rare issue that spans the political spectrum. ASLA has worked with the non-profit Pollinator Partnership to turn this bipartisan goodwill into government policy.

In 2015, ASLA successfully lobbied for inclusion of pollinator-friendly management practices in the 2015 FAST Act. The law instructs the U.S. department of transportation to implement integrated vegetation management, reduced mowing schedules, and planting of native, pollinator-friendly species on highway roadsides. In 2016, the Federal Highway Administration issued guidance to state departments of transportation on how to implement pollinator-friendly habitats on the 17 million acres of roadsides across the country.

Despite the bipartisan consensus, the plight of pollinators remains a relatively obscure issue among the wider population. The producers of Pollinators Under Pressure hope to change that, and have made the film available for free online, making it a valuable tool for those seeking to educate others about the issue.

There are practices any home gardener can adopt: plant pollinator-friendly gardens, eliminate the use of pesticides, provide clean water, and leave dead tree trunks.

Learn more about Pollinators Under Pressure.

ASLA Recommendations: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate / ASLA

Climate change is intensifying the negative impacts of standard development practices and is putting people and communities across the United Sates at risk. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) convened an interdisciplinary Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience in September 2017, and this week ASLA released a blueprint for helping secure a sustainable and resilient future that summarizes the panel’s work and recommendations.

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate: The Report and Recommendations of the ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience found that the U.S. needs a new paradigm for communities that works in tandem with natural systems. It recommends that public policies should:

  • Be incentive based
  • Promote holistic planning and provide multiple benefits
  • Take into account environmental justice, racial and social equity
  • Reflect meaningful community engagement
  • Regularly evaluated and reviewed for unintended consequences
  • Address broader regional issues as well as local and site-specific concerns.

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate also found that:

  • Designing and planning in concert with natural systems promotes resilience, capitalizes on the benefits of natural systems and provides greater long-term return on investment.
  • Key strategies include use of green infrastructure, native plants, urban and suburban tree planting plans, and healthy soil management practices.
  • Compact, walkable, and transit-oriented “smart growth” communities reduce energy use and are climate smart.
  • Special attention must be paid to vulnerable communities in coastal and inland flood plains and underserved and low-income communities.
  • Transportation should be considered critically as not only a connection point between home to work/services, but also as a source of greenhouse gas emissions, and a contributor or detractor to a community’s appearance and function in light of a weather event.
  • Agricultural systems must be addressed because they are being stressed by unsustainable farming practices and farmland is being lost to expanding development and sprawl.

“Our nation, states, counties, and cities are looking for solutions to mitigate the risks from the changing climate and extreme weather events,” said Nancy C. Somerville, Hon. ASLA, ASLA executive vice president and CEO. “With this report, landscape architects and their design and planning colleagues forward public policy recommendations that can make communities safer while taking climate change and existing natural systems into account.”

ASLA released the report at an evening reception and candid discussion yesterday with Somerville, and ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel members Adam Ortiz, director for the Department of the Environment for Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Diane Jones Allen, program director for Landscape Architecture, the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington and principal landscape architect with DesignJones LLC.

We have provided a platform for landscape architects, public officials, and other design and planning professionals to share their views on how to help communities adapt to climate change through smart design policies. Go to https://climate.asla.org.

The Blue Ribbon Panelists included a diverse range of practitioners, experts and stakeholders with different levels of experience working in different aspects of geographic and technical design. They are:

  • Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, SITES AP, ASLA Immediate Past President, Chair;
  • Armando Carbonell, FAICP, Senior Fellow and Chair, Department of Planning and Urban Form, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy;
  • Mark Dawson, FASLA, Managing Principal, Sasaki Associates Inc.;
  • Tim Duggan, ASLA, Founder, Phronesis;
  • Ying-yu Hung, ASLA, Managing Principal, Principal, SWA, Los Angeles Studio;
  • Dr. Dwane Jones, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Sustainable Development + Resilience at the University of the District of Columbia;
  • Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, Program Director for Landscape Architecture, the College of Architecture Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington and principal landscape architect with DesignJones LLC;
  • Adam Ortiz, Director for the Department of the Environment for Prince George’s County, Maryland;
  • Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, SITES AP, Executive Vice President and CEO, ASLA; and;
  • Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, Ph.D., Senior Program Officer, Environment, The Kresge Foundation.

Some quotes from panelists on the importance of adopting effective public policies and landscape architecture design solutions:

“The plans we’re going to have in the future to deal with living with water have to be more realistic. We have to live with the acknowledgement that there will be hurricanes and areas that naturally want to flood. How do we build differently as opposed to thinking we can keep water out?”

Diane Jones Allen, ASLA
Program Director for Landscape Architecture, the College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington

“We have a number of antiquated policies within governmental structures. Reevaluating them every five years or so would help us to reflect what is currently happening and to better project how we should design communities to be able to proactively respond to such changes and challenges.”

Dr. Dwane Jones, Ph.D.
Director of the Center for Sustainable Development + Resilience at the University of the District of Columbia

“All public projects really have to be interdisciplinary. They have to incorporate the local culture, the local economy, forward-thinking design concepts, as well as good engineering. All that together, in a very thoughtful way that respects the complexity of our society, is a way to make a sustainable project that people enjoy and love.”

Adam Ortiz
Director for the Department of the Environment for Prince George’s County, Maryland

“One of the things we need to be doing is do a lot more experimentation. Sometimes you just need to be able to try things and see if that solution can take you forward. If it’s not a good solution, let’s try something else. That kind of creativity and ideas is really what innovation is all about.”

Vaughn B. Rinner, FASLA, SITES AP
Immediate Past President, American Society of Landscape Architects

“Our standard development practices are not sustainable, but when we understand and work with natural systems, we can build safer and healthier communities.”

Nancy C. Somerville, Hon. ASLA. SITES AP
Executive Vice President and CEO, American Society of Landscape Architects

“My hope is that we embed true kinds of community engagement, justice, and equity into our focus on climate change and resilience. We need to really do that in a way where it’s not so scientific. The social engineering matters as well. It’s what you’re doing in your profession that impacts people and makes those impacts equitable.”

Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, Ph.D.
Senior Program Officer, Environment
The Kresge Foundation

Human Activity Is Making Oceans Louder, Putting Wildlife at Risk

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Right whales breaching / NOAA

Jacques Costeau famously called the planet’s oceans “The Silent World.”

“Unfortunately, that was not really an accurate description,” says Dr. Jason Gedamke. “To the animals that live in the ocean, it is an incredibly noisy and loud place.”

Gedamke should know – he is the director of the Ocean Acoustics Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

What’s more, Gedamke says that the world’s oceans are getting noisier still thanks to human activity. At a recent round-table discussion hosted by the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation, Gedamke discussed his team’s research on this significant but overlooked impact of human activity on the not-so-silent world.

Water, it turns out, is an excellent conductor of acoustic energy.  “Sound travels incredibly efficiently underwater,” said Gedamke. He pointed to the 1991 Heard Island Feasibility Test, in which sounds emitted from underwater speakers off the coast of Australia were heard by researchers on the other side of the planet.

Whales and dolphins have adapted to exploit this property of water to communicate over large distances, but these adaptations also make them vulnerable to adverse effects from human sounds.

For example, there is evidence to suggest that beaching behavior – when a whale or dolphin becomes stranded on the ocean shore – may be related to acute ocean noise events such as loud pings from underwater sonar equipment.

Gedamke’s team, however, is most interested in the chronic effects of years’ worth of sound pollution on marine mammal life. “We’re trying to shift our focus from the acute – the immediate, loud sound that causes an animal to change its behavior – to the broader effects of all this introduced sound changing their habitat.”

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A young monk seal / NOAA

Part of the challenge Gedamke and his team face in their research is a lack of consistent data. The historic record of ocean noise levels is piecemeal, meaning it is difficult to make direct comparisons over time. The researchers are trying to address this with a new system of recorders that were deployed in 2014. These will allow for more accurate assessments of how the ocean’s sonic landscape is changing over time.

Gedamke’s team is also using GIS to map areas of high-noise intensity. When those are overlaid with maps showing areas of wildlife population, they could help identify areas and populations most at risk from harmful noise pollution.

There are many risks of a noisier habitat for marine life. Ambient noise could mask sounds that allow certain species to detect their predators, or vice versa, which could lead to food chain disruptions and ecological imbalance. It could also make it more difficult for individual animals to communicate with members of their own species, interfering with behaviors like hunting and mating. Proximity to loud sources of sound could lead to injury or hearing loss.

Oil and gas exploration and maritime shipping are primary contributors to our increasingly noisy oceans. Gedamke said that the Gulf of Mexico, the source of 17 percent of total U.S. crude oil production, is “an incredibly loud environment, one of the most heavily impacted on Earth.”

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An oil rig at the mouth of the Mobile Bay / Andrew Wright

In January of this year, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed opening all US coastal areas to offshore oil exploration, sparking widespread pushback from many coastal states and environmental groups. Recent reports suggest that industry demand for such a move is tepid, however.

Conventional industrial activity is not the only contributor, however. The installation of offshore wind turbines also contributes to ocean noise.

According to Project Drawdown, offshore wind turbines are an important tool for reversing global warming, with the potential to reduce atmospheric CO2 by 14.1 gigatons by 2050.

Wind turbines, both on and offshore, have also drawn criticism from environmental groups in the past for their potential impacts on wildlife, especially birds.

The risk of rising ocean noise fits into a larger pattern of disregard for the impact of human activity on marine habitat. From warming water temperatures to toxic chemical spills to swirling islands of plastic garbage, the world’s oceans are bearing the brunt of some of the most harmful industrial practices of the 20th and early 21st century.

The recent BBC nature documentary series Blue Planet II illustrated the scope of these impacts in its final episode, “Our Blue Planet.” In the episode, narrator David Attenborough warns that “the health of our oceans is under threat now as never before in human history.”

Among the harmful impacts of human behavior are overfishing, plastic entering the food chain, and yes, noise. “Man-made noise is now everywhere in the ocean, and it has an effect on marine creatures of all kinds,” says Attenborough.

The Blue Planet team follows marine biologist Steve Simpson, who researches how fish use sound to communicate, as well as how man-made sound interferes with that ability.

While it seems to be a complicated issue, for Simpson, the way forward is clear: “We can choose where we make the noise, we can choose when we make the noise. We can directly control the amount of noise that we make, and we can start doing that today.”

Learn more about NOAA’s research on ocean noise: Cetacean & Sound Mapping.

In an Era of Roll-Back and Repeal, the Case for Environmental Regulation

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) / New America

“Let’s talk about toasters!” Thus began Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) keynote remarks at last week’s symposium, The War on Regulation, organized by the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards and hosted by Georgetown Law School. Sen. Warren went on to share a personal anecdote about flame-engulfed bread to explain how the lowly toaster has become a safer consumer product, which was in large part thanks to good federal regulations.

“Back in the 1970s, our toaster oven had an on-off switch and that was it,” said Warren. “And on meant on, which meant it was possible to leave toast under that little broiler all day and all night until the food burned, the wiring melted, and the whole thing burst into flames.”

Around the same time, Ohio’s heavily polluted Cuyahoga River was also famously prone to ignite. When it did so in 1969, it captured the nation’s attention. Dramatic photos published in TIME helped galvanize the environmental movement, leading to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, landmark laws that established the environmental regulatory framework under which the country operates today.

Fire on the Cuyahoga River, 1956 / Pinterest

According to Sen. Warren, this regulatory framework is under attack by corporate interests, a Republican-controlled congress, and the Trump administration. “In agency after agency in the federal government, powerful corporations and their Republican allies are working overtime to roll back basic rules that protect the rest of us,” aiming “to insulate big corporations from accountability and responsibility.”

Sen. Warren reserved her heaviest criticism for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, saying “corruption oozes out of his office,” and the costs of his proposed regulatory repeals will be “measured in hospital admissions and funeral bills.”

In a later panel, 30-year EPA veteran Betsy Southerland provided context for Sen. Warren’s comments. “Right now, Scott Pruitt has in place sixty-six public health and safety repeals,” which were made “without any input from the EPA scientists, engineers, or economists who in most cases worked eight to ten years” to create them and “without any evidence that those rules have any technical or procedural flaws.”

Southerland said that these repeals will have three major impacts. First, they “abandon the polluter-pays principle which underlies every environmental statute, transferring the costs of dealing with pollutants to the downwind, downstream public.”

“This makes absolutely no economic sense,” because “the costs of treating pollution at the source are always orders of magnitude less than treating those pollutants once they’ve been dispersed into the environment.”

Second, Southerland said that environmental repeals will “ensure our communities are going to be exposed to ongoing pollution that would have been prevented back in 2015 or 2016,” warning that “there’s a much higher chance today of an environmental crisis with serious public health implications because so many of these rules are under repeal.”

And third, Southerland said the repeals have eliminated regulatory certainty. “It actually penalizes the environmentally responsible companies that moved out quickly to come into compliance with these rules. And it rewards the recalcitrant companies who used their resources to either argue for exemptions or to litigate those promulgated rules.”

Ironically, it is this last point – regulatory certainty – that Pruitt has repeatedly used to justify his agenda at the EPA.

“The purpose of the regulatory reform effort is to provide certainty to those that we regulate,” Pruitt said in a recent interview with Fox News’ Ed Henry. “What we’ve seen in the last several years among several sectors of our economy is tremendous uncertainty,” he claimed, “and almost a weaponization of the agency against certain sectors of our economy, which has caused low growth.”

This oft-repeated talking point – that regulation stifles growth – was repeatedly and emphatically rejected at the symposium. Sen. Warren argued instead that regulations “provide the framework for commerce to flourish” and create a level playing field for economic competition.

Southerland pointed out that a recent report published by the Office of Management and Budget found for regulations promulgated from 2006 to 2016, “the benefits far exceed the costs.”

“Furthermore,” she said, “there was no discernable effect on jobs or economic growth.”

Heidi Shierholz, policy director of the Economic Policy Institute and former chief economist at the Department of Labor, quantified the argument, saying federal regulations promulgated under the Obama administration contributed a net benefit of $100 billion per year to the economy. Other studies have come to similar conclusions, she added.

“The backdrop of this conversation is heated rhetoric saying that regulations are incredibly costly, they’re destroying the economy, they’re destroying jobs – and it is such a surreal backdrop, because it is so at odds with the evidence.”

Georgetown Law professor Lisa Heinzerling said focusing on costs alone ignores legislative intent. After all, “if Congress cared solely about regulatory costs, it wouldn’t pass regulatory statutes.”

Heinzerling’s point raises questions about the legal standing of the Trump administration’s actions in pursuit of deregulation thus far. Heinzerling claimed the administration, in its rush to deregulate, is now brazenly violating the Administrative Procedure Act, the law that governs the regulatory rule-making process. Such violations could expose the administration to legal challenge.

The event concluded with a panel of citizens whose lives had been directly affected by weak regulations and now advocate for regulatory reform. Penny Dryden of Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice said her neighborhood was less than a mile from forty-eight brownfield sites and four Superfund sites, plus ongoing pollution from the nearby Delaware Memorial Bridge, Port of Wilmington, and other nearby industrial facilities.

“Deregulation makes it even harder for our communities to get the protection we need from polluters and industry bad actors,” she said. “The events that are taking place here in Washington, D.C. in the Environmental Protection Agency are outright unjust.”

One Year Later, Climate Leaders Are Forging Ahead — Without the Trump Administration

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President Trump’s climate speech at the White House in 2017 / Mashable

One year ago, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, raising uncertainty about the future of the landmark agreement. Last week, the World Resources Institute (WRI) convened a panel of climate policy leaders to ask the question: Has the world moved on since President Trump’s announcement?

In a panel moderated by WRI senior fellow Andrew Light, Paula Caballero, global director of climate for WRI, gave the room reasons for both optimism and caution. “Trump can announce what he will, but the reality in the US and around the world is that efforts to tackle climate continue.”

States and businesses are doing what they can to fill the void left by federal inaction, which is reflected in bipartisan initiatives, such as the U.S. Climate Alliance and America’s Pledge. “States, cities, and businesses representing more than half of the United States population have adopted GHG targets,” said Caballero, adding that “if they were a country, these US states and cities alone would be the third largest economy in the world.” Still, Caballero cautioned that “if we’re really honest, we need a lot more ambition.”

For Todd Stern, former U.S. special envoy for climate change, the global response to President Trump’s announcement has been a “mixed bag.” On one hand, other countries have remained in the agreement, something that “wasn’t a foregone conclusion.” On the other hand, “it’s really damaging for the United States to be on the way out.”

Stern said the absence of the US could lead some countries to pull back on their commitments and undermine the development of “global norms and expectations” around carbon dioxide emissions.

Selwin Hart, Ambassador of Barbados to the US, said “the coalition that delivered the Paris agreement remains strong,” but “it is absolutely imperative to have the US at the table,” adding that “were it not for the leadership of the United States, we would not have had the Paris agreement.” Still, “countries are not going to wait” for the US to take action.

WRI’s David Waskow echoed this point, citing international determination in response to the US withdrawal, including the India-led International Solar Alliance and the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative, which are examples of “a change, globally, in the types of leadership that we have,” with “many more actors in the mix and driving forward action.”

This new kind of leadership can also be found at the state, business, and non-governmental organization (NGO) levels. Valerie Smith, global head of corporate sustainability at Citigroup, pointed to her firm’s financing of climate solutions as an example of both good global citizenship and good business.

Maryland secretary of the environment Ben Grumbles noted he was sent to the recent COP23 in Bonn, Germany by Republican governor Larry Hogan, suggesting the climate need not be a partisan issue.

Virginia deputy secretary of commerce and trade Angela Navarro stated that, prior to the Paris Agreement, “a lot of the climate action in the United States was happening at the state level,” but “the importance of the work states are doing has only been amplified since the announcement from President Trump a year ago.” An example of this state-level work can be found in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a coalition of Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic States founded in 2009 to price CO2 emissions from the energy sector.

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Power Plant in Halifax County, Virginia / Flickr user David Hoffman

Secretary Grumbles (also chair of the RGGI Board of Directors) touted RGGI’s track record, saying that it had slashed emissions while raising $2.9 billion for member states to invest in climate solutions.

Virginia is working to join RGGI, which would make it the first southeastern state to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. New Jersey, formerly a member state, is also eager to re-join the coalition. “With these eleven states,” said Grumbles, “we’ll have somewhere between the fourth and the fifth-largest economy in the world.”

The lingering question, however, is whether these state and market efforts will be enough for the US to meet its Paris goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025 in the absence of leadership from the U.S. federal government.

While new leadership may be emerging to fill that void, the environment is already sending dangerous warning signals. This last winter, the maximum extent of arctic sea ice hit a near-record low.

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Aerial photo of melting arctic sea ice / NASA

Meanwhile, arctic permafrost is beginning to melt, releasing frozen carbon and methane gas stored in the soil into the atmosphere and raising fears of initiating a dangerous warming feedback loop that has been called “a ticking time bomb.”

Scientists have found that rainfall from Hurricane Harvey was made worse because of climate change, foreshadowing what could be a more frequent phenomenon in the future. And in Puerto Rico, researchers now estimate that more than 4,600 Americans died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, making that storm more than twice as deadly as Hurricane Katrina.

With this in mind, the call to action sounded by Caballero at the beginning of the panel rang the loudest at its end: “Whether we do act today — or whether we don’t act today — is going to determine what the world will look like for centuries to come.”