Biophilic Cities Lead the Way to Urban Sustainability

“We need density but we also need connections to nature,” said University of Virginia professor Timothy Beatley, at an event at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) to celebrate D.C.’s successful inclusion in the Biophilic Cities Network, a group of leading cities pushing for rich, nature-filled experiences in daily urban life.

Beatley launched the network only a few years ago, but it already seems to have taken off. Building on the impact of his important books, Green Urbanism, Biophilic Cities, and Blue Urbanism, the network is designed to improve knowledge-sharing among cities who seek to merge the built and natural environments. Leading environmental cities — such as Singapore; Portland; San Francisco; Wellington, New Zealand; and now, Washington, D.C. — have joined, and another 20-30 cities are now exploring signing on.

Beatley explained how biophilic cities forge deeper, more meaningful connections to nature, which in turn increases social connections and community resilience. He then highlighted some biophilic urban innovations:

Singapore (see video at top) is now putting “nature at the heart of its planning and design process.” Singapore’s official tagline used to be “garden city,” but now it’s “the city in a garden.” The idea, Beatley explained, is “not to visit a garden but to live in it; not to visit a park, but to live in it.” To realize this concept, Singapore has issued a landscape replacement policy that ensures any greenery removed through the process of developing a lot be replaced on the building eventually found there. In reality, though, developers, architects, and landscape architects have doubled or tripled the amount of original green footprint in buildings’ structures through the use of sky gardens. “There is now a competition among developers to see who can add more green.” The city has also built nearly 300 kilometers of park connectors to create deeper connections between parks and neighborhoods.

Parkroyal on Pickering by WOHA and Tierra Design / Dezeen
Parkroyal on Pickering by WOHA / Dezeen

Melbourne, Australia, has pledged to double its tree canopy by 2040. “They are re-imagining the idea of the city in a forest. It’s a multi-scale investment in nature — from the rooftop to the bio-region and everywhere in between.” Individual trees are now being registered and made accessible via GIS maps. To further boost engagement, locals can also email love notes to a tree and the trees will write a note back.

The City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy. Image by Anton Malishev / ArchitectureAU
The City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy. Image by Anton Malishev / ArchitectureAU

A number of cities are forging deeper connections to urban wildlife, too. In Bangalore, there’s the Slender Loris project that engages citizen scientists in noctural journeys through the city to meet these shy creatures. Austin, Texas has gone completely batty, in a good way. Underneath Congress Bridge, millions of bat fly out at dusk during the warmer months to feed. Above and below the bridge, people gather to watch the amazing exoduses and sometime-murmurations. “There are now bat-watching dinner cruises.”

In St. Louis, there’s Milkweeds for Monarchs, which has resulted in 250 new butterfly gardens. San Francisco will soon mandate the use of bird-friendly building facades. And in Wellington, city officials are investing in predator-proof fencing in many areas with the goal of “bringing birdsong back.”

“Biophilic experiences are multi-sensory. Animal sounds can re-animate our cities. People want more nature; they want to hear birdsong in their neigborhoods,” said Beatley.

Stella Tarnay, co-founder of Biophilic DC, wants D.C. to become even more nature-filled. Her group will monitor new city projects to ensure they actually integrate greenery and boost biodiversity. For example, in Adams Morgan, plans are underway to remake the Marie Reed Learning Center with a set of green roofs and gardens, but it will be important to guarantee none of those great landscape plans get cut at the last minute for budgetary reasons.

Also in the works: building more support for the city’s wildlife action plan through expanded environmental education programs. As Maribeth DeLorenzo, deputy director of D.C.’s urban sustainability administration, explained, “there are now 270 species of birds in the district, 70 species of fish, 32 species of mammals, and hundreds of species of invertebrates.” But greater awareness is needed of these species — along with the biodiversity benefits of a clean and ecologically-healthy Anacostia River and the district goal of achieving a 40 percent tree canopy by 2032.

E.O. Wilson Calls for Preserving Half of the Earth

Half Earth / Liveright
Half Earth / Liveright

In his latest book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, famed biologist and author E.O. Wilson makes the case for both preserving and restoring half of the Earth, which he believes is possible if we set aside some of the richest places of biodiversity on land and in the oceans. These arks can protect up to 85 percent of all current life as the planet’s human population continues to grow from the current 7 billion to an expected maximum of 11 billion in coming decades. He believes humans have a moral obligation to be stewards of the millions of species that also call the planet home. And if we do not undertake such an ambitious conservation effort now, there could be potentially massive negative impacts for us, too. He reminds us that human survival is dependent on the survival of millions of other species, some of which are very tiny and not well understood.

Wilson is highly critical of our current approach to the environment. “We are still too greedy, shortsighted, and divided into warring tribes to make wise, long-term decisions. Much of the time we behave like a troop of apes quarreling over a fruit tree. As one consequence, we are changing the atmosphere and climate away from conditions best for our bodies and minds, making things a lot more difficult for our descendants.”

He seems shocked by humans’ collective thoughtlessness, which has severely affected other life forms as well. “We are unnecessarily destroying a large part of the rest of life. Imagine! Hundreds of millions of years in making, and we’re extinguishing Earth’s biodiversity as though species of the world are no better than weeds and kitchen vermin. Do we have no shame?”

Wilson concurs with other leading scientists that the planet is now facing its sixth great wave of extinction, largely thanks to us. While the conservation movement has essentially kept the patient — in this case, the world’s most critical ecosystems — on life support, the “heroic efforts” of both public and private-funded organizations haven’t been enough. Extinction rates are about 1,000 times higher than normal. Furthermore, according to a 2010 survey of two hundred experts on vertebrate land animals that analyzed the status of 25,000 known species, a fifth of these species are threatened with extinction and only a fifth have been stabilized due to conservation efforts. Wilson writes, “We might be inclined to say to the conservationists, ‘Congratulations. You have extended life, but not by much.'”

Oceanic ecosystems, which are still little understood, are even worse off, because vast swathes of the open seas aren’t managed by any one country. The result is a primary example of the “tragedy of the commons” in which “blue water, belonging to no one, is subject to no regulations whatsoever, save that established by international negotiation,” and, as a result, is plundered by all. “For generations, all marine waters, variously protected to some degree or not at all, have suffered over-harvesting of edible species. The downward spiral has been hastened by habitat destruction, spread of invasive species, pollution with toxins, and eutrophication from excess nutrient runoff.”

In Half-Earth, Wilson finally responds to those who see some glimmer of potential in the new Anthropocene, our current planetary epoch shaped by man. Their vision is of a planet made up of “novel ecosystems,” successfully managed to serve humans and perhaps some beneficial “nature,” but now degraded to its base functioning as “ecosystem services.” Their approach is a response to the failures of the conservation movement. It’s also rooted in their belief that “pristine nature no longer exists, and true wildernesses survive only as a figment of the imagination.”

Wilson says some practical ideas have come out of this “new conservation movement,” like managing nature parks and reserves in a way that helps meet the needs of people, too. However, he is scathing in his critique of the clique of writers, restoration ecologists, conservation biologists, and designers promoting this vision, accusing them of great ignorance of how ecosystems actually function. “It is been my impression that those most uncaring and prone to be dismissive of the wild lands and the magnificent biodiversity these lands still shelter are quite often the same people who had the least personal experience with either. I think it relevant to quote the great explorer-naturalist Alexander von Humboldt on this subject, as true in his time as it is in ours: ‘the most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.'”

To save biodiversity, scientists, policymakers, planners, landscape architects and designers, and the general public must “understand how species interact with one another to form ecosystems.” Yet, Wilson says our current state of knowledge about ecology is “so poor as to limit this effort.”

In light of this general ignorance about ecology, he instead calls for protecting the “best places in the biosphere,” polling 18 international conservation experts to select those areas that can act as the few protected arks of life on earth. He writes that if these places can be protected and restored, “a great deal of Earth’s biodiversity can be saved.” In the U.S., these places include the redwood forests of California; the Longleaf pine savanna of the American South; and the Madrean pine-oak woodlands.

Furthermore, Wilson calls for the world’s scientists to accelerate efforts to map and make more easily accessible the Earth’s biodiversity. Some efforts are already underway. For example, multiple universities and research institutes have come together to create the Biodiversity Heritage Library, which will eventually hold more than 500 million records. There’s also the Encyclopedia of Life, a web site that describes some 1.4 million species, or more than 50 percent of known species. Other projects include the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, Map of Life, USA National Phenology Network, AntWiki, FishBase, and GenBank, which catalogues DNA sequences. Wilson sees a future where snippets of DNA sequences of mitochondrial genes can be typed into a search engine and the results would spit out likely species. To collect all this natural data, Wilson also calls for greater respect and support for the world’s naturalists — the professional or amateur collectors of specimens out in the wild.

Wilson concludes the book with his call to action: greater respect for the almost unfathomable complexity of our ecosystems, which he argues are even more complicated than the human brain. “If the approximately one billion years of evolution it took for the single-celled bacteria and archaea on our planet to evolve into more complex life forms were added, it is possible to sense how delicate our birthplace is, how complicated those parts of the ecosystem that shelter each species are, and how intricate and intertwined are the nonlinear interactions of the species.” Destroying this complexity in favor of short-term economic gains is a recipe for “self-inflicted disaster.”

Maximum diversity equals maximum level of stability. This is in fact the essence of resilience, Wilson reminds us. An Anthropecene in which a much more circumscribed designed nature is managed to deliver humans various ecosystem services is a “large and dangerous gamble.” Only restoration to natural ecosystems will bring back that complexity, even if baselines are hard to establish.

In today’s world of novel ecosystems, re-establishing baselines will be hard but also deeply rewarding work. The process involves “dealing with fascinating challenges deserving combined research in biodiversity, paleontology, and ecology. This will be one of the challenges met as parks and reserves are made centers of research and education around the world.”

Coupled with protecting and restoring half of the Earth, Wilson calls for higher-intensity and more sustainable development, which he believes is increasingly possible. Given our current constraints and the expected population boom, “the pathway of economic evolution will be set by growth that is increasingly intensive and less extensive.” And what will be the root of this new pattern of sustainable growth? Wilson believes it will be “contained in the linkages between biology, nanotechnology, and robotics.” Our planet’s rich biodiversity together with ever-advancing human technology will be the foundations of future growth and prosperity.

Has Landscape Architecture Failed?

Welcome to the Anthropocene / The Topograph

“A sense of crisis has brought us together. What is merely offensive or disturbing today threatens life itself tomorrow. We are concerned over misuse of the environment and development which has lost all contact with the basic processes of nature… A key to solving the environmental crisis comes from the field of landscape architecture, a profession dealing with the interdependence of environmental processes” — I. McHarg, C. Miller, G. Clay, C. Hammond, G. Patton, and J. Simonds. 1966. A Declaration of Concern.

In 1966, Campbell Miller, Grady Clay, Ian McHarg, Charles Hammond, George Patton, and John Simonds marched to the steps of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and declared that an age of environmental crisis was upon us and that the profession of landscape architecture was a key to solving it. Their Declaration of Concern launched, and to this day underpins the workings of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), now headquartered in Washington. To mark its 50th anniversary, the LAF will hold a summit at the University of Pennsylvania involving over 60 leading landscape architects from around the world. Delegates are being asked to deliver new declarations (manifestos if you will) about the profession’s future. Drawing upon these statements, the LAF Board will then redraft the original 1966 Declaration of Concern so that it serves to guide the profession into the 21st century.

On one level, redrafting the declaration is relatively straightforward: it would simply need to stress the twinned global phenomena of climate change and global urbanization — issues which were less well understood in 1966. On another level however, the redrafting of the declaration is profoundly complicated, because if it is to be taken seriously then a prerequisite to doing so is to ask why, after 50 years of asserting landscape architecture as “a key” to “solving the environmental crisis” does that crisis continue largely unabated? Seen in this light the declaration can be read as an admission of failure. Consequently, we must ask if McHarg and his colleagues were justified in placing such a tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of landscape architects why we have we failed so spectacularly to live up to their challenge?

The immediate response is to discredit the question; for surely the so-called environmental crisis is too general and enormous for any single profession to “solve” and then be measured against. The environmental crisis is the by-product of the ways in which the industrial revolution (modernity) has spread globally, beginning with the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century and continuing on as capitalism exploits resources for profit and growing populations work to free themselves from poverty. This, arguably, is completely out of landscape architecture’s — or for that matter any other profession’s — control.

Be that as it may, many landscape architects subscribe to McHarg’s assertion — made repeatedly in his manifesto Design with Nature which soon followed the Declaration — that landscape architects are “stewards of the earth.” If that is so then they have a prima-facie responsibility to answer for the continued denudation of the planet since 1966. Even if we reign in the question of failure to something more tangible than the entire environment — say just land-use in North America — then landscape architecture still appears to have largely failed in mitigating the most basic elements and causal forces of environmental degradation. In fact, it is hard to think of any environmental topic which landscape architecture could claim to have substantively improved over the last 50 years.

In our defense, we might argue that landscape architecture is a very young and very small profession and an even smaller academy. We can also protest, as many do, that other, more established disciplines — such as engineering and architecture — have restrained our rise to environmental leadership. We can argue that the status quo of political decision-making makes it impossible for us to meaningfully scale up our operations and work in the territory where our services are needed most. These justifications (or excuses) all contain aspects of the truth but here, by way of self-reflection on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the original Declaration of Concern, we inquire more fundamentally into the evolution of the profession’s theoretical basis over its life time. Via this route we will return critically to the original declaration and argue that landscape architecture over the last 50 years is less a story of abject failure and more one of a discipline taking the time that has been needed to prepare for a more significant role in this, the twenty-first century.

The proliferation of theory and practice that emerged in response to McHarg’s ecological method in the latter half of the twentieth century can be organized through the archetypal paradigms of knowledge production; that is, through the competing epistemologies of positivism and constructivism. Positivism — the notion that objectivity is possible, that knowledge is constructed through empirical deduction, and that such deduction could lead to generalizable Truths – constitutes the knowledge paradigm within which McHarg’s ecological method evolved. For landscape architects, this meant that “there was a design for the earth, which made it for every form of life that has existed, does now exist, and all imaginable forms in the future” and that an intervention was “right when it [tended] to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.” This form of landscape positivism evolved into the contemporary forms of thought and action known as landscape performance, in which the ecological function of landscapes is measured, optimized, and even monetized; urban metabolism, in which broader urban systems are conceived as systems of stocks and flows to be measured and stream-lined; green infrastructure, in which landscapes large and small are designed to deliver a suite of ecosystem services; and to a lesser degree urban ecology, in which the relationship between social and natural systems form a more descriptive than prescriptive field of study. Put another way, landscape positivists argue that the solution is “out there” — finding it is simply a matter of empirical study and that relative equilibrium between natural and cultural systems is the aim.

Alternatively, Constructivism — the philosophy premised upon the notion that objectivity is a mirage, that knowledge is socially and inductively constructed, and that such inductions have little relevance outside of a very specific context — constitutes the knowledge paradigm within which reactions to McHarg’s positivism emerged. By the 1980’s in the “deconstructionist” phase of post-modernity, designers began to question McHarg’s prescriptive method, asking: Design with which nature exactly and according to whose values? Simultaneously, in practice the profession became predominantly involved in the design production of public, urban space; denatured places where McHargian land suitability analysis has only limited, if any applicability. In such places, phenomenological theories such as genius loci as well as attention to human behavior, aesthetics, and innovative construction techniques were found to be more inspiring and more useful. During the 1980’s the sublime art work which emanated from a generation of so called land artists was also brought to landscape architecture’s attention, reminding us of the historical depth and poetic potential of our medium.

In this vein in 1997, James Corner, ASLA, launched a critique that the “continual emphasis upon rational prowess — often at the exclusion of phenomenological wonderment, doubt, and humility — fails to recognize the very minor degree to which the combined landscape architectural constructions around the world have affected the global environment.” He argued that landscape architectural theory ought “…to find its basis less in prescriptive methodology and formulaic technique than in the realm of perception, phenomenology, and the cultural imagination.” This is to say that the staggering complexity of social-ecological systems and the inherent subjectivity of creative perception rendered McHarg’s notion of design as evolutionary fitness moot; positioning the designer as more of an artful interpreter than a landscape scientist.

Corner’s remarks echoed statements made a few years earlier by McHarg’s nominal antithesis, the consummate landscape architect Peter Walker, FASLA. Responding to allegations of environmental disinterest in his work, in 1995 Walker expressed regret that “… we’ve been held up by our fellows as being somehow culpable, but actually we’re a very small part of this whole problem.” He pointed out that with their “parks” landscape architects only impact about 0.02 per cent of the earth’s surface. Walker seems however to have missed the point: for whereas he used the profession’s puny territorial impact to absolve it of any significant environmental responsibility, from the perspective of the LAF’s founding fathers he just provided the statistical confirmation of its abnegation. Indeed, landscape architecture can not ignore the fact that in the same time that it has produced designs for Walker’s 0.02 per cent of the world’s surface, the global conservation community under the auspices of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has by now legally secured an extraordinary 15.3 per cent of the planet as protected areas.

This raises the crucial question of landscape architecture’s professional identity and its scope: for if we follow Walker’s delineation that landscape architecture is in reality a profession more or less limited to the production of small, rarefied sites such as gardens, parks, and plazas then landscape architecture is – as its name suggests – most akin to the high design discipline of architecture, not planning or environmental science. For Walker landscape architecture is a public art and as such the environmental crisis is not its yardstick. As such we have not failed at all. On the contrary, over the last 50 years we can see that landscape architecture’s contribution to the subject of designing public space and creating ‘a sense of place’ in the wake of modernism has been a story of great success. In much of the the post-industrial, developed world, the transformation of the public realm into attractive, inclusive, and multifunctional places by landscape architects has been perhaps the most salient feature of post-modern urbanism. The problem remains however that this work is materially insignificant when compared to the reality of the “crisis” identified in the LAF’s original Declaration of Concern.

To try and broach this troubling discrepancy, what McHarg and later the landscape urbanists realized was that if post-modern landscape architecture was ever to transcend its history and be more than the design of gardens, parks, and plazas in locations predetermined by others, then the profession needed to “jump the garden fence” and somehow take on the city as a whole. In the case of McHarg, following in the lineage of Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford, this meant zooming out and placing the city in its regional context. This in turn inspired his methodological veneration of large-scale landscape systems as the ideal determinants of urban form.

Recoiling from McHarg’s positivism and New Urbanism’s reactionary, neotraditional aesthetics, in the early twenty first century landscape urbanists began to reconceive of previously stable notions of the city, nature, and landscape. Firstly, that thing called “the city” as a bastion of culture opposed to nature was conceptualized reinterpreted as a ubiquitous and hybridized combination of both; a new condition Neil Brenner labelled as “planetary urbanism.” Secondly, landscape urbanists found themselves mainly working in brownfield situations where “the environment” or “nature” had to be re-invented, not simply protected. Thirdly, landscape urbanists, along with everyone else were enveloped by neo-liberal economic restructuring, against which state sponsored large-scale (master) planning, at least in North America, was increasingly ineffectual.

So, whereas McHarg had zoomed out so as to control and direct the city in terms of its bioregion, landscape urbanists, for better or worse, realized they had to “get inside” the logistics of both shrinking and sprawling cities if ever they were to harness and redirect those forces toward more ecologically and socially just ends. Put simply, if they were to do more than just design post industrial parks and the usual repertoire of small public commissions, landscape urbanists had to also become urban designers and urban planners. It is no mistake then that Waldheim has, for the last decade or so, set about constructing a lineage of landscape architecture (via Olmsted, Wright, Hilberseimer, Branzi, Frampton and Koolhaas), which champions landscape architects as “the urbanists of our age.”

Substantiating this big claim has however proven difficult for the landscape urbanists: for not only have other disciplines not so easily given over the keys to the city, but landscape urbanism’s own adherents have been largely unable to substantiate the movement’s urban design aspirations with built work. To date, landscape urbanism has not been convincingly applied to at least three major forms of contemporary urbanization; mega-regional decentralization, suburban and peri-urban sprawl, and exploding informal settlement patterns in the developing world. This is not to say that the theory is flawed, on the contrary landscape urbanism is well suited to these challenges, but it seems hard to sustain the argument that  landscape architects are the urbanists of the age when they have so little to do with its major twenty first century characteristics.

In any event, hypothetically the question becomes what sort of city would landscape urbanists create if they could and in what way will it fulfill the environmental mandate of the original Declaration of Concern? The predictable answer is of course that they will create a green and “sustainable” city. Indeed, for much of the life of the Declaration of Concern, and especially since the Brundtland Report of 1987 “sustainability” has been a cure-all expression for everything the environmental crisis entails. In this sense, sustainability operates as a form of contemporary utopianism, literally a utopos meaning a good place, which is no place. Along these lines we argue that the sustainable city is an impossibility. Why? Because it is predicated on a stable-state view of the world.

The world view that idealizes equilibrium, harmony, and stability has roots in early twentieth century models of ecosystems, where it was thought that if left to their own devices natural systems tend inexorably toward stable climax states via the process of succession. During the era in which McHarg and the LAF envisioned such a harmonious relationship between humans and nature, mainstream ecological thought believed that systems could and should be stable if only we could remove human disturbance. But the science of ecology in the last 50 years has evolved away from the notion of stability and towards one of indeterminacy and resilience. Now, all of the ecological and physical sciences tell us that nature is chaotic, something we can only partially predict. If this is true, then how could humanity ever expect to achieve a McHargian balance with nature? Understood as a perfect end-state, sustainability is what systems theorists such as Donella Meadows describe as the “seventh archetype of systemic failure”: seeking the wrong goal. In other words, it is not that landscape architecture has failed to bring about sustainability — it is that sustainability is the wrong model!

In the wake of sudden chaotic events such as stock-market crashes, earthquakes, and 100-year storm events resilience theory has emerged as a more realistic theory of environmental and cultural change. Unlike the teleology of sustainability, resilience theory stresses adaptation to constant change and the ability to cope within a certain range, with that change. One of the most attractive attributes of resiliency as a new design paradigm is that it also operates in full-recognition of its short-comings. It is also organized around the idea of coping capacity — or the ability of cities, people, and ecosystems to cope, persist, and co-evolve with change and disturbance. Rather than working deductively — as sustainable development principles might — to superimpose an image of “good” upon a place and then work to reshape that place in a preferred image, resilience theory works from the local asset base outwards. For some this could be construed as sustainability without hope, a dystopia where the best we can do is calculate risk, but in its incipient stages as a theory of urbanism we prefer to think of it as design now getting closer to the way the world really works.

Considering our historical moment one is reminded of the incredible optimism with which the moderns announced theirs. In 1920 the great architect Le Corbusier launched his journal L’esprit nouvea with the declaration: “There is a new spirit: it is a spirit of construction and synthesis guided by a clear conception … A great epoch has begun.” A mere 46 years later a small group of landscape architects would declare that epoch as one of environmental crisis. And now, precisely 50 years later as we acknowledge their original Declaration of Concern the International Commission on Stratigraphy is expected to formally announce the dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch: a new geological period defined by the fact that the earth’s systems are now fundamentally and irreversibly altered by human activity.

The philosophical and practical consequences couldn’t be greater: in short, Nature, as Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, noted, is no longer that ever-providing thing “out there,” it is, for better or worse, the world we have created and the world we are creating. The landscape of the Anthropocene is one of permanent ecological crisis. As such the Anthropocene is overwhelming, but since it is by definition a human creation, the Anthropocene is some thing we must take responsibility for, something we can design. This doesn’t automatically sanction the hyper modernity of geoengineering planetary systems but it does return us, humbly and critically to McHarg’s concept of stewardship.

As sketched in this essay, from the last 50 years of landscape architecture we have two dominant epistemological paradigms; positivism and constructivism; and three models of professional identity and scope; the landscape architect as artist (Walker), the landscape architect as regional planner (McHarg), and the landscape architect as urbanist (Waldheim). Rather than see these as competing models cancelling each other out, perhaps what we have really learned from the last 50 years is that each is somewhat incomplete without the other. If however we make a concerted effort to combine these various paradigms and models, we begin to give credence to the notion of landscape architecture as a uniquely holistic discipline, one especially well-suited to engage with the contemporary landscape of planetary urbanization and climate change.

So has landscape architecture failed? Yes and no! The small discipline of landscape architecture may not yet have impacted vast territories but it should be acknowledged for its lofty ethical concerns and for ranging so far and so wide in its pursuit of a relevant professional identity. And if in that pursuit it has been stretched too thin too far then rather that admonish it for failure, we see the last 50 years as a necessary process of preparation for this historical moment. For this is now landscape architecture’s century — all the major issues of the times are at root about how we relate to land — and if by the end of it we are still small, weak and ineffectual, and if the world is a worse place than it is now, then we will only have ourselves to blame.

This guest post is by Richard Weller, ASLA, Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania (PennDesign) and an LAF Board member, and Billy Fleming, a doctoral candidate in the Department of City Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is conducting case study research on the use of natural features in climate change adaptation within cities along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. Read a full version of the paper with footnotes.

The Psychology of Color

Tiffany's blue / Tiffany's
Tiffany’s blue / Tiffany’s

“Color is like a mind-altering drug. It has the power to make us feel good, change perceptions, and create new connections,” said Laurie Pressman, who is in charge of Pantone’s Color Institute, at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. She urged designers to apply “color thinking to improve design.” But to do this, designers must first understand the brand they are designing for and the target audiences they hope to reach. Before going for the Pantone color book, they must answer the questions: “What does the brand stand for? What message does it want to convey?” Furthermore, to succeed in their quest to find the perfect color, designers must “throw away all the old color rules and use unique colors. Be bold and resonate with your audience and the broader culture.”

“Color defines our world. It makes up some 80 percent of the visual experience. The colors we see have both a psychological and physiological effect on us.” Brand colors are experienced in a largely intuitive sense — “just 5 percent of our reaction is rational.” So for any brand, selecting a color is one of the most important decisions they will make. “With infinite choices, brands really have about 3 seconds to grab attention.” Some firms have had incredible success with unique colors. Among luxury brands, Hermes’ orange color has become as recognizable as its logo. Tiffany’s robins-egg blue (seen above) is so recognizable that “you don’t even need to need to see the brand to know it’s them.”

While the psychology of color is always changing and people create new associations with both new and old colors, colors still have some essential qualities:

Blue is the dominant color and most universally accepted. It’s associated with respite and peacefulness, tranquility and constancy, dependability and trust. Many corporations use blue because it says “integrity and competence.” Blue is also about connecting, which is why a lot of information and communication technology firms, like Facebook, Twitter, Safari, and Skype, use it. Darker blues relay solidness and authority. Baby blues are sleep related, which is why Ritz Carlton’s recent brand revamp features this color. Electric blues are fresh and modern, with high-energy intensity. These colors appeal to young people because they read as “tech-savvy and forward thinking. It’s a signal color for the younger generation.”

Ritz Carlton's new brand / Under Consideration
Ritz Carlton’s new color palette / Under Consideration

The human eye can distinguish between 8-10 million greens because our earliest ancestors had to be able to easily see predators in the forest and savannah. But green relaxes and soothes us. Green’s refreshing and restorative and connotes youth and growth. Many skincare firms use green packaging to relay a sense of youth, regardless of whether their products actually make you look younger. Some firms use green to try to appeal healthier. In the European Union, McDonalds has rolled out a green logo to try to appear more healthy and sustainable, which are important to European consumers. Deeper greens are trustworthy and traditional, while teals are tasteful and confident, and light greens represent sanctuary.

McDonalds in Greece / DLG Studio
McDonalds in Greece / DLG Studio

Purple is associated with wealth and royalty. According to Wikipedia, “purple was the color worn by Roman magistrates; it became the imperial color worn by the rulers of the Byzantine Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, and later by Roman Catholic bishops. Similarly in Japan, the color is traditionally associated with the Emperor and aristocracy.” Purple, Pressman said, is an “artful balancing act between red and blue and can convey many messages.” In the 196os, the counter culture used purple. Think Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. David Bowie used purple to subvert authority, changing the color’s meaning for Glam Rock. Prince took a similar course with Purple Rain. Purple is a great “seamless” color that allows designers to meld into other shades. “It’s dependable, authoritative, but capable of transformation.” The BBC now uses purple for its logo.

Purple Rain / Loud and Clear UK
Purple Rain / Loud and Clear UK

Red is connected with blood and life itself. “It’s riveting and dramatic. It has an immediate effect and muscles out all other colors, so you have to be careful using it.” Red can be associated with evil and danger but also passion and romance. “It’s the most accepted bright color and crosses cultural barriers.” Red is high energy; we respond to it with our adrenal glands. “Just looking at red speeds our metabolism by 15 percent.” Red and black together send a strong psychological message of vitality and virility. Deeper reds are rich and refined and signify luxury.

Pink is playful, bold, and youthful, while light pink is sweet and innocent. “Interestingly, pink used to be the color for boys.” After World War II, pink came into its own as a color for the newly empowered female consumer. “Pink was imposed on women by our culture.” Think of the pink Cadillac for “the lady of the house.” Pink is now the color of breast cancer awareness. But neon pink is a bit tougher, used now used by womens rights protesters. And Pressman thinks this tougher pink is slowly becoming more male again. Firms like T Mobile, AirBNB, and Taco Bell are now using shades of dark pink.

Example of "protest pink" in Chicago / Red alert politics
Example of “protest pink” in Chicago / Red alert politics

Yellow has sparkle, heat, and vitality. It is connected with intellectual curiosity, and quick, clear decisions. It’s also frequently used in brands meant to appeal to kids. Pressman explained how Pantone worked closely with the producers of the film Minions to find the exact shade of yellow that kids would like the most. “We sifted through all these yellows with them.” She also said it was no surprise that Pharrell chose yellow for his song Happy, as it’s a “hopeful, optimistic color.” Beyond being kid-friendly though, yellow is also the most reflective color and attention grabbing. Yellow and black together are the single most visible color combinations.

Minions / Universal Pictures
Minions / Universal Pictures

Brown means stability, reliability, longevity. When UPS moved to a brown color palette, it quickly became the number-one package delivery service provider. “Brown is about returning to basics.” Pressman said shades that would have been seen as too dry and earthy 20 years ago are now luxurious. See Gucci brown.

Gucci packaging / Precious packaging UK
Gucci packaging / Precious packaging UK

White connotes innocence, purity, simplicity, and silence. It can be used to create a sense of pristine cleanliness and freshness. Many firms use white for cleaning products. Apple has used it to great effect to create a sense that their products are easy to use.

Black is empowering, and relates to both authority and submission. Black and gold is the most opulent color combination. Black and italics together especially connote luxury.

Orange is a symbol of fruitfulness but, like red, must be used sparingly, as it can easily overwhelm. It’s associated with vibrancy and promotes socialization and communication. Deeper orange relate to strength and authority, while corals grab attention. For many decades, orange was associated with fast food chains or Halloween, but now it’s globally accepted. Oranges, said Mikel Circus, who leads conceptual design and flavors for Firmenich, are also closely connected with flavor. So many Pantone oranges are named after citruses, for good reason. “We see orange and it’s a visual cue for a taste and smell.”

Circus and Pressman walked us through their predictive tools for anticipating future colors. Colors that we see today are actually about four years in the making. Circus explained that colors most often start with “inventors” in the world of technology, high design, and street fashion, then are picked up by “translators,” and then “transmitters” like Pantone that forecast the new colors. These new colors are then picked up by “early adopters,” like automobile companies, perfumiers, and fashion designers. Only then do they make it into advertisements in fashion magazines and are proclaimed as the hot new color by these magazines’ editors. These colors are then produced by all kinds of manufacturers, who spread these colors to the mainstream. “The street is a major source of innovation.”

Trend spotters like Circus and Pressman showed how a particular shade of orange — Flame Orange, PMS 1655 — spread from the streets to the mainstream in about four years. By 2012, it had become “Tangerine Tango,” a shade that is friendly, uplifting, playful, and vital. Focus groups reflected on the color and thought it was high in terms of “health, authenticity, and simplicity.” Understanding the values associated with the color among certain target audiences, Circus and Pressman can then help firms use the color to create products these consumers will buy. “We package a dream, but rely on consumers” to tell us what that dream is.

1655 / Pantone
1655 / Pantone

Circus and Pressman told designers to apply some key principles when working with color: “dig in new lands; think like an outsider; and define emotional touch points.” But they reiterated that designers must “understand the psychology of color first before applying it to a brand.” The end-goal should really be a “consumer-designed product.”

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

Buffalo Bayou Park, Houston / Jon Shapley, The Houston Chronicle

Saving Water Is So Hot Right Now in Landscape DesignWired, 3/4/16
“The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) asks hundreds of landscape architects around the U.S. to forecast the trends in outdoor design for the coming year. The point of the survey is to look beyond industry insider buzz and figure out what designers’ clients are actually asking for. This year’s results are in, and they show people are overwhelmingly concerned with water conservation.”

The Great Wall of Japan Divides a Country Still Reeling from 2011’s EarthquakeLakes Mail, 3/5/16
“Within months, plans to build super seawalls of up to 17m in height along more than 400km of the coastline of the worst-hit Fukishima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures at a cost of $US10 billion were approved. The eventual aim is to stretch Japan’s seashore fortifications from a pre-existing 9,500km to cover 14,000km of its entire 35,000km coastline.”

A New Future Post-Chargers? The San Diego Union-Tribune, 3/6/16
“Ever since the stadium opened in 1967, urban planners, politicians, Mission Valley residents and developers have eyed the site as an opportunity waiting to happen — to turn a centrally located, underutilized plot of city-owned land into something more than just an 18,500-space parking lot and occasionally used stadium.

Are We Greening Our Cities, or Just Greenwashing Them? – The Los Angeles Times, 3/6/16
“Architecture and urban design are in the throes of a green fever dream: Everywhere you look there are plans for ‘sustainable’ buildings, futuristic eco-cities, even vertical aquaponic farms in the sky, each promising to redeem the ecologically sinful modern city and bring its inhabitants back into harmony with nature.”

Houston Stakes a Claim as The Nation’s Emerald City The Houston Chronicle, 3/9/16
“At a time when many cities are turning once-blighted infrastructure into iconic public spaces, Houston has emerged as a surprisingly fertile pasture – such a model green city that more than 1,300 landscape planners from across America will visit for a closer look this weekend.”

How Urban Parks Are Bringing Nature Close to Home National Geographic, April Issue
“Reclaimed wastelands, centuries-old green spaces, and creative waterways offer quick escapes.”

Can the U.S. Achieve Its Climate Goals?

Electricity transmission / Institute for Energy Research
Electricity transmission / Institute for Energy Research

With the U.S. Supreme Court stay of President Obama’s clean power plan, there are concerns the U.S. will miss its stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 26-28 percent by 2025. The U.S. made this commitment in advance of the UN Climate Summit in Paris last year. The commitment was viewed as critical to getting China and the rest of the world on board with significant GHGs cuts. In early February, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to halt the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.)’s new rules that will force states to come up with a plan to reduce GHGs from electric power plants by 2020 until it can hear from the 29 states and multiple corporations that sued to stop the rules. Some 18 states, mostly led by Democrats, have decided to move forward, regardless of how the Supreme Court decides.

In an event organized by New America and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Washington, D.C., John Larsen, director at the Rhodium Group, explained that even if the Supreme Court upholds the EPA’s rules, it’s still not certain as to whether the U.S. can meet its targets. To date, the U.S. is projected to be off its goal by as much as 10-23 percent, depending on whether the clean power plan moves forward, the economy picks up again, Western forests recover, and Congress renews renewable energy credits and approves new energy efficiency incentives.

From 1990, U.S. GHGs were on an upward trajectory, Larsen explained, until 2008, when they began to fall, ultimately 14 percent below Energy Information Administration (E.I.A.) projections through 2015. About 40 percent of the decline in GHGs is due to the economic recession; 45 percent is due to a reduction in carbon and energy intensity; and 15 percent is due to improved energy efficiency in buildings.

Today, the U.S. has about a 5.5 billion-ton GHG economy, with the power sector accounting for 1.7 billion tons, transportation 1.6 billion tons, industry 1.25 billion tons, and the rest from methane and buildings. Carbon dioxide emissions account for about 80 percent of total emissions, with methane and hydroflurocarbons (HFCs), which are far more potent than carbon in the destructive warming effects, comprising the rest. Methane emissions may be further reduced by improved regulations on oil and gas production and landfills and reductions in meat and dairy consumption, while HFCs, which are released by refrigerators, may be included in a Montreal Protocol amendment, which could reduce their emissions by 150 million metric tons.

The experts on the panel pointed to other ways the U.S. can cut GHGs. More advanced distributed, renewable energy systems, as well as improved public transit and smart growth could reduce emissions, said Larsen. Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center at Georgetown Law, pointed to the new alliance of 8 states and 5 countries that calls for no gas-powered vehicles by 2050. California, which has the 7th largest economy in the world, has signed on to this. Arroyo also said a number of states and cities are setting ambitious targets for moving to renewable energy and starting their own cap and trade systems.

And Scott Fulton, president of the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), added that sustainable materials management, using a life-cycle approach, could cut emissions from product manufacturing. With that approach, “we can realize more benefits from waste, like landfill methane capture.” He also said regardless of governmental action, much of the private sector is moving forward with cutting emissions. This is because, “for investors, carbon intensity is now a big red flag.”

But emissions are only one side of the equation — there is also sequestration, particularly for carbon. And with this, forests and soils are what’s critical. Larsen said this is the tricky part of his national estimates, as the “annual variables are substantial, given drought and wild fires, increased demand for forest-related products, and land use changes, such as sprawl,” which all reduce tree cover. Just last year, California lost 50 percent of its trees due to drought and wild fires.

According to a report by the Society of American Foresters, U.S. forests, which account for 8 percent of the world’s forests, store about 200 million tons of carbon each year — an amount equal to about 10 percent of annual emissions. American forests have essentially remain unchanged in total acreage over the past century. Soils also store millions of tons of carbon, but it’s hard to create a precise figure. (Scientists estimate that soils could potentially store 3.5-11 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide). While the U.S. clearly has a GHG emissions target, there doesn’t seem to be one for sequestration. Why not? Why not invest in a goal of doubling America’s natural sequestration of carbon by 2050? Imagine the positive co-benefits on public health and biodiversity.

For Ellen Williams, director of the advanced research projects agency-energy (ARPA-E), which is investing millions in cutting-edge clean energy technologies, boosting the capacity of soils to store carbon could be a real solution. She believes “innovation can change the boundaries of what is possible.” Some of the teams ARPA-E are financing will use “robotics and big data to see how we can create more sustainable plants that put more carbon in the soil through root growth.” ARPA-E is particularly interested in the “root properties of biofuel plants.”

It’s Time to Take Phytoremediation Seriously

Phyto / Routledge
Phyto / Routledge

Any new studio reference book needs be beautifully illustrated. In this respect, Harvard University landscape architecture professor Niall Kirkwood, FASLA, and landscape architect Kate Kennen, ASLA, don’t disappoint with Phyto: Principles and Resources for Site Remediation and Landscape Design. But while we all like to look at beautifully-crafted, well-curated imagery, that’s not the point. This book is illuminating, a careful and coherent, critical and constructive analysis of the Phytoremediation movement, which calls for using plants to remove toxic chemicals, metals, and other contaminants from the environment.

The book begins by acknowledging an accomplished group of contributors, who bring credibility to a subject critically important but too often dismissed in the “real world.” Early on, the book provides a thoughtful sequence that explains the rationale for the book’s structure and answers the question: why are we dedicating another book to this subject?

Well, the answer is clear: because no other book has provided the thoughtful and accessible bridge long needed between theory and practice. While providing justification for the book could come off as a bit self-conscious, instead it reads as an honest depiction of an emerging field. (I also feel that if more authors were forced to go through this process of self examination, we would have both far-fewer volumes, but many-more excellent books like Phyto from which to choose).

The first two chapters cover the history and fundamentals of phytoremediation. After clearly articulating the knowledge gaps that exist in the field, the book contextualizes the movement’s early failures. Phyto then provides an expansive re-branding of the discipline, empowering potential users of these plant-based technologies to think more strategically about opportunities at hand.

Contaminant organizational chart from Phyto / Offshoots Productive Landscapes
Contaminant organizational chart from Phyto / Offshoots Productive Landscapes
Examples of phyto benefits of trees / Offshoots Productive Landscapes
Examples of phyto benefits of trees / Offshoots Productive Landscapes

The text provides a clear and comprehensive vocabulary for landscape architects and designers to use in practice. From there, the book shows how to apply these technologies in real-world situations. The book delves into common contaminants of concern and how they can be targeted with precision; a summary of planting assemblages that can be deployed in concert representing best in field technologies; and typical examples of spatial designs that produce common contaminant profiles and likely site characteristics. Variation of type and scale creates flexibility, showing landscape architects and designers how to find just the right application of phytoremediation technologies.

Railyard scenario from Phyto / Offshoots Productive Landscapes
Railyard scenario from Phyto / Offshoots Productive Landscapes
Railyard scenario from Phyto / Offshoots Productive Landscapes
Railyard scenario from Phyto / Offshoots Productive Landscapes

As knowledge-based considerations continue to find their way into public landscape design and management, inventive designers and enlightened clients interested in looking at all the alternatives would do themselves a favor by adding this book to their library and its knowledge to their practice.

This guest post is by Christian Gabriel, ASLA, National Design Director of Landscape Architecture, General Services Administration (GSA).

2016 Environmental Performance Rankings Show Progress and Failure

Deforestation in Brazil / Wired
Deforestation in Brazil / Wired

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Make Our Parks More Inclusive

North Cascades National Park / Evergreenscapes
North Cascades National Park / Evergreenscapes

Go to a national park and you may see brown bears, blue herons, or Redwood trees. But you’re less likely to see any people of color. According to a survey conducted by the National Park Service in 2011, approximately 80 percent of park visitors are white as are park staff, even as projections show whites will be in the minority in the U.S. in 30 years. As the National Park Service counts down to its centennial, I struggle with the lack of diversity in national parks, particularly our urban sanctuaries.

As the son of Chinese immigrants growing up in a predominantly African-American Chicago neighborhood in the late 1960s, my interests were never focused on the outdoors. Even with a strict Chinese upbringing — think Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother — I drifted into illegal behaviors, establishing street “cred” that made folks avoid me.

I was barely still in high school when a teacher recommended volunteering with the Student Conservation Association (SCA). I was just 15 and still had a lot of thug in me. But what I learned while building trails at North Cascades National Park that summer was there were white kids who didn’t care about my color or my past, as long as I pulled my weight. I also learned that talking smack wasn’t keeping me warm.

Kicked out of Chicago public school and placed in a Quaker boarding school, I started to study in earnest. Today, I’m a landscape architect running an award-winning firm. My discipline offers a rare chance to meld my urban experiences with a love of the outdoors.

But the fact is that 90 percent of urban kids will never see a national park. There’s no opportunity, no incentive, and certainly no money to choose a national park over LeBron James. So I design parks and nature play spaces in marginal neighborhoods to expose kids to something else besides a gun. I also sit on the board of directors of SCA, the same organization that first introduced me to the great outdoors and has since pioneered urban conservation programs for disenfranchised youth.

Ping Tom Memorial Park, Chicago / site design ltd
Ping Tom Memorial Park, Chicago / site design group ltd

When given the opportunity to make something special in their neighborhoods, these kids work long hours, carry heavy loads, and learn about building trails, restoring habitats, and repairing playgrounds. They take responsibility, develop confidence, and gain new skills. The US Conference of Mayors has named SCA’s urban conservation initiative one of America’s top green jobs programs for youth.

Student Conservation Association program participants / Student Conservation Association
Student Conservation Association program participants / Student Conservation Association
Student Conservation Association program participants / Student Conservation Association
Student Conservation Association program participants / Student Conservation Association

And at the college level, SCA and the National Park Service engage students from all communities in the joint SCA-NPS Academy, an apprenticeship program that provides participants with hands-on training in a wide range of fields in national parks across the country. The program is designed to build entry-level job candidates and a more inclusive workforce for the National Park Service as it enters its second century.

By expanding opportunities to improve their own communities, we can guide more under-served youth into new fields and potential professional pathways and better ensure the stewardship of our increasingly fragile environment. I didn’t pass up the prospect and now I spend my time encouraging urban youth to feel the same sense of responsibility.

Ernest C. Wong, FASLA, is the principal and president of Chicago-based site design group, ltd, which has won numerous national and international design awards. Wong is also on the board of directors of the Student Conservation Association. 

Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest Protected from Logging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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