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 Lindsey, a senior lecture 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.

Virginia_PowerPlant
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.

Sea-Ice
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.”

MIT Researchers Seek Optimal Form of Urban Stormwater Wetlands

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Diagrammatic plan / Jonah Susskind, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands

Cities are sitting on a largely underused public resource: urban stormwater wetlands. If properly designed, these landscapes can reduce flooding, support urban wildlife, and serve as public space. A new report Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands authored by an interdisciplinary group of researchers and students at the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism led by Celina Balderas Guzmán, Heidi Nepf, and Alan Berger — advocates for the positive role wetlands can play in cities and outlines research that provides insights for landscape architects, engineers, and planners.

The authors make a case for the potential of urban wetlands, especially in a time of changing climate and deteriorating urban infrastructure. “Wetlands, the world’s most valuable terrestrial ecosystem, provide a multitude of ecosystem services: water treatment, flood protection, carbon storage, habitat, recreation, and aesthetic value,” they write.

And yet, in many cities, existing wetlands have been filled, paved, developed, or channelized, eliminating the benefits they provide. In this context, the authors see opportunity. “Just as urbanization has obliterated wetlands, urbanization can build them new,” they write. “While constructed wetlands are not in all aspects comparable to natural wetlands, they can partially restore some lost ecosystem services.”

However, urban wetlands present challenges for the prospective designer, not the least of which is understanding hydraulic dynamics well enough to create a design that is both beautiful and functional. This is where the team’s research steps in.

At MIT’s Nepf Environmental Fluid Mechanic Lab, the researchers tested dozens of different wetland landform configurations to better understand how “island size, shape, and placement affect hydraulic flow and provide ecological habitat.”

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Topography variations / Tyler Swingle, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands

Researchers fabricated models of different topographies from high-density foam using a CNC milling machine. The models were then inserted into a flume (essentially a long, plexiglass tank that circulates water) for testing. The researchers used dye to track how different landform configurations impact the speed and direction of water flowing over the model.

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Model test / Celina Balderas Guzmán, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands

In analyzing the results of these tests, the authors made some findings. First, topography matters. Topography describes the physical features of a landform. Results varied widely for the different landforms, meaning that certain design approaches are more or less appropriate depending on the goals of the design.

According to the authors, “wetland engineers and designers must make carefully considered design decisions based on hydraulic goals, balanced with ecological and urban goals as well.”

Second, in attempting to slow down water and filter pollutants, smaller interventions may be more effective. “Adding topography subtracts volume from a wetland’s potential water storage capacity,” they write, which means that “water will exit sooner simply because there is less water volume, leading to less pollution treatment.”

In their tests, the researchers found that models were most effective when the total volume of topography equaled approximately 10 percent of the total volume of the basin, although they caution this number may shift in real-world applications.

Of the thirty-four topographies tested, the team found two that provided the best balance of hydraulic performance and pollutant filtering capacity. They conclude the report by applying these topographies to two case study sites: Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas, and Taylor Yard, on the Los Angeles River in Los Angeles, California.

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Site Organization Diagram for Taylor Yards, Los Angeles, CA / Waishan Qiu, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands
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Rendering of Los Angeles River Case Study / Jonah Susskind, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands

The case studies are intriguing, but may be frustrating to those hoping for a more detailed explanation of how to apply the team’s findings. However, the authors note that the studies are “urban design frameworks” and meant to be conceptual. Those seeking to transfer the team’s research to real world projects will likely find their topographic models to be helpful starting points, but will still need to develop unique design solutions that respond to site and program requirements.

Ultimately, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands aims to “inform decision makers, planning agencies, consulting engineers, landscape architects, and urban designers about the efficacy of using ecologically-designed constructed wetlands and ponds to manage stormwater while creating new public realms.”

However, the authors do not present any hard and fast rules for designing urban wetlands. Instead, the report makes a compelling case for why constructed stormwater wetlands are an important and underused resource in urban areas, and provides information that may prove valuable to designers and public officials looking for ways to extract more public benefit from stormwater infrastructure.

“We hope this work gives practitioners and designers a new set of adaptable forms to work with and elaborate upon either in implementation or in future research,” says co-author Celina Balderas Guzmán, describing the study as “a crucial first step to explore forms and validate designs quickly and easily with scientifically rigorous metrics.”

In this respect, the report is a success, presenting imaginative possibilities for new urban spaces supported by hard research. As a resource for designers, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands may not have all the answers, but it does have important ones.

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.