Reducing Wildfire Catastrophies Is About Common Responsibility, Not Mismanagement

A home destroyed by wildfires in Mill City, Oregon / AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus

By Rob Ribe, FASLA, PhD

I recently joined with landscape architecture faculty colleagues Bart Johnson, David Hulse, and Chris Enright, along with other scientists, in a study of wildfire risks in the southern Willamette Valley of Oregon. Our National Science Foundation project employed complexity science to simulate prospective landscape change and wildfire scenarios over fifty years. We simulated landscape change scenarios many times across an actual large area. The factors that influenced the simulations were different climate projections, consequent vegetation changes, likely behaviors landowners told us they would engage in, and fire behavior.

Very few of our numerous 50-year simulations suggested the likelihood of as many simultaneous, intense, and extensive wildfires as were seen in western Oregon in the first two weeks of September. This suggests the incidence of large and severe wildfires in the West is not linearly related to advancing climate change, as we and others have thought. With a warming climate, there may be more of an exponential, but still variable, growth in the incidence of large, and often simultaneous, very costly wildfires.

The extensive intensity of increasingly frequent wildfires promises to consume ever more forests, lives, and property in out-of-control ways, overpowering conventional wildfire prevention, amelioration, and suppression measures.

Outbreaks of multiple hazardous and simultaneous wildfires happen when several regional factors converge to produce “blowtorch” conditions. These can include extremely dry fuels (after months of drought), high temperatures, very low humidity, high winds, accumulated fuel loads, and forests stressed by advancing diseases and mortality. The resulting wildfires often exceed those of historically natural ones. Those natural wildfires tended to foster forest health because they often burned with less intensity, more variable intensity across landscapes, and less average overall acreage.

The only effective long-term solution is to reverse climate change, which will not slow down in the near term. But in the meantime, forests can be managed to be more resilient to fire.

Fuels reduction is the only known option to increase forests’ resilience. Prescribed portions of young or smaller trees, dead wood, and shrubs could be reduced in hundreds of millions of acres in the American West, and again, later on, in the forests of the eastern states. This is happening at a growing pace, but piecemeal, wherever funding and political support coalesce. It’s not enough to meet the larger challenge.

Sporadic projects tend to occur near suburban or exurban areas where risks are appreciated due to recent wildfires. In national parks, legal mandates promote the restoration of native, low-fuel ecosystems by prescribed fire, another method of fuels reduction. Badly burned forests must be replaced by more fire-adapted forests, but this is rare.

The implementation of an adequately extensive forest fuels reduction program is beset by ideological blame-shifting and politically prohibitive costs. There is also a shortage of well-trained professionals dedicated to this task, who can manage risks and build support for projects by sensitively and creatively engaging with local landowners and communities.

Conservatives deflect blame to scientific managers and conservationists by asserting that most forests have been “mismanaged” because they have not been freely and widely commercially thinned and harvested for wealth production at no cost to taxpayers. Ecologically-oriented environmentalists deflect blame to conservatives by asserting that most forests have been “mismanaged” because they have not been managed to emulate natural processes, like prescribed fire, as opposed to ecologically-destructive management geared only toward short-term profits. Everyone else is to blame in such incendiary partisan narratives: No one takes responsibility to fix the problems or bear the costs.

This broad, divisive notion of “mismanagement” is vexing. People dealing with real forests in real places can rarely identify a simple and obviously correct management approach. There are always questions of what, why, where, and when in decisions about budgets, biological systems, interacting and conflicting goals, alternative techniques, public and logger safety, wildlife, amenities, and the politics of local and regional stakeholders. Fuels reduction must be a major goal, but the best way to achieve this must be carefully tailored to each forest in its social and ecological context.

Learning about forest fuels in an Oregon forest / Rob Ribe
Learning about forest fuels in the Oregon forest / Rob Ribe

There will be forests where commercially profitable fuels reduction is appropriate, but there are many where this will be impossible, because costs exceed the value of marketable products.

There will be forests where prescribed fire is appropriate and efficient, but not everywhere. Numerous homes have been built within many forests. This makes prescribed fires more difficult to execute. Homeowners are often averse to perceived or actual risks, the intentional production of smoke, and changes to landscape amenities.

Climate change is also reducing the frequency and duration of weather conditions and fuel moisture levels required for safe prescribed fires. Prescribed fire is also difficult to safely control in increasing areas of forest with many weak or dead trees. If poorly planned, fuels reduction can impose risks to long-term forest health, net carbon sequestration, wildlife habitats, soils, biodiversity, and long-term sustainability of local timber or recreation economies; and it can’t be universally implemented.

A national program of extensive, well-planned forest fuels reduction and increased carbon sequestration would be very costly. Forest landowners are already shouldering growing insurance costs. It would require bipartisan, constructive, sustained, and large investments in public forest capital.

A complete, valid, and public GIS database of forest conditions in all western states must be rapidly created and maintained.

A private-public partnership with a clear mandate to foster forest health and resilience would need to award funds and coordinate and enable work across states, localities, landowners, and agencies. New, well-crafted rules would need to set fuels reduction and carbon sequestration goals with strong performance standards. These must clarify how projects must not be cheap and quick, but locally-appropriate to produce long-term forest health and beautiful, diverse forests.

Professional local planning, public participation, honest environmental reviews, and carefully proficient implementation would all be imperative.

Rob Ribe, FASLA, is professor and director of the master’s of landscape architecture program in the department of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon. He holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture and a PhD in land resources. Ribe was a lead scientist in studying the social acceptability of timber harvests and forest planning in the Pacific Northwest following the spotted owl controversy. He has also studied private landowners’ forest management choices.

Interactive Maps Track Western Wildfires

Map of active fires / ESRI

California, Oregon, and Washington, along with nine other states in the West are now experiencing record-breaking wildfires. According to experts, there are a number of reasons: climate change is creating the underlying conditions for more extreme weather events. Heat waves over the summer dried out much of Western forests, which were already impacted by years of drought and bark beetles. Unusually high winds have spread embers. And human activity in the wildland-urban interface keeps creating new sparks: downed electrical lines have set many blazes, while, infamously, a gender reveal party with a “pyrotechnic device” created a massive conflagration.

Amid the continuing devastation, an interactive map from ESRI, which creates geographic information system software, enables users to track active fires by name or location in near real time and sort by timeline and magnitude. The map indicates each fire’s estimated start date and its current level of containment. Another layer provides a smoke forecast for any given location.

Smoke forecast / ESRI

According to ESRI, the sources of fire data in the map are the Integrated Reporting of Wildland-Fire Information (IRWIN) and the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) — both of which are updated every 15 minutes. Smoke forecasts are incorporated from the National Weather Service and show 48-hour forecasts updated every hour. ESRI adds that when zoomed-in, users can see additional fire data from NOAA/NASA satellites, which detect the locations of recent “thermal activity” that indicates fire direction. (ESRI also has a map with local disaster response data).

Western states offer maps with near real-time data as well. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) is tracking containment efforts for all wildfires and providing updates on evacuation orders. The Oregon Department of Forestry is following large active fires, as is the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Washington State.

The National Interagency Fire Center finds that in the western U.S. more than 5 million acres have burned during this year’s fire season, which runs from May through September.

In California alone, more than than 2.5 million acres have gone up in flames. According to The New York Times, that is 20 times more than what was burned last year and a modern record. In Oregon, 900,000 acres have caught fire, causing half a million people to evacuate, which is more than 10 percent of the state’s population. And in Washington state, an unprecedented 480,000 acres have burned just in one week. There are currently 100 large active fires across the West.

Beyond the incredible loss of life and property, breathing in wildfire smoke can cause serious health issues. Blazes that consume homes and garages filled with household cleaners like Drano release other dangerous particles into the atmosphere.

According to researchers at Stanford University, the risks of toxic wildfire smoke are especially high for children, the elderly, and those with asthma. Studies have shown that after five days of major wildfires, the number of hospital visits for asthma attacks increased by 400 percent, and the number of visits for strokes by 42 percent.

For those out West, please take every precaution by closing windows and doors, running air purifiers, and regularly checking the latest evacuation orders.

In a useful primer, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions outlines the many connections between climate change and wildfires. The organization states: “climate change causes forest fuels (the organic matter that burns and spreads wildfire) to be more dry and has doubled the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the western U.S.”

Planners with Cal Fire see wildfires primarily as a land-use problem. Many communities in western states are at high-risk of wildfires because they were developed in the wildland-urban interface, which the U.S. Forest Service describes as places where “humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel.” State and local governments can discourage development in fire-prone areas. This can reduce the risk of human-caused sparks and also prevent property and lives from being destroyed by fires that spread increasingly rapidly through these vulnerable areas.

Other solutions identified by communities out West are early warning systems coupled with remote sensing technologies, defensible space landscape design for homes and communities, and prescribed burns that can help clear out dead trees and accumulated biomass before they become a dangerous source of fuel for fires.

Brooklyn Bridge Competition: New Model for Sourcing Sustainable Hardwoods

Brooklyn Bridge Forest / Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and team

In rare situations, some landscape architects and designers may specify Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified tropical hardwoods for outdoor spaces because there may be no good alternatives. But imagine if instead of just placing a hardwood order and hoping the wood was actually sustainably harvested, designers partnered with conservationists and scientists to preserve the forest from which the wood is cut.

Brooklyn Bridge Forest, the winner of the Re-imagining Brooklyn Bridge design competition organized by the Van Alen Institute and New York City Council, proposes sourcing Manchiche hardwood for new promenade planks on the bridge from the Uaxactú Community Rainforest in Guatemala. At the same time, they would preserve 200,000 acres of the nature preserve.

The multi-discplinary team behind Brooklyn Bridge Forest beat 200 competitors from 37 countries to win top prize. The team was led by Pilot Projects Design Collective, which includes landscape architect Christine Facella; along with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Cities4Forests, The Nature Conservancy, Grimshaw Architects, and Silman, a structural engineering firm.

According to the team, one of the best experiences in NYC is to stroll the upper wood deck of the Brooklyn Bridge, which is why more than a million people do it each year. The genius of John Roebling, the bridge’s designer, was to “contrast iconic stone towers and graceful steel cables with the warmth and softness of a wooden boardwalk to create the ultimate setting for the pedestrian,” the team states.

Brooklyn Bridge Forest / Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and team

Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and its partners propose making Brooklyn Bridge an even better walking and bicycling experience by expanding the upper wood deck of the bridge and creating new biodiverse green spaces at either end of the bridge and areas for pop-up markets.

Brooklyn Bridge Forest / Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and team
Brooklyn Bridge Forest / Pilot Projects Design Collaborative and team

The bridge’s existing Greenheart (Ocotea rodiaei or Chlorocardium rodiei) wood promenade is a mile long and comprises 11,000 planks that are approximately 4-feet wide by 16-feet long. Tropical hardwoods like Greenheart used for boardwalks and promenades typically lasts around 30 years.

The team explored replacing the hardwood with plastic lumber, but found the planks to be too carbon intensive. They also looked at domestic hardwood, like Black Locust, which is always preferable to tropical hardwoods, but found that the lumber doesn’t come in sizes that are long enough. The team also looked at concrete and wood composites but found using those materials would require structural updates to the bridge. So they proposed replacing the existing planks, sourced from an unknown forest in South America 30 years ago, with sustainably harvested Manchiche (Lonchocarpus castilloi) from the Uaxactú Community Rainforest.

Instead of the city spending $2 million for the new wood, the public would sponsor individual wood planks at a cost ranging from $400 to $5,000 and in turn have their name laser- or fire-etched into a plank. With the funds raised, the community forest, which is found in the larger 6 million-acre Maya Biosphere Reserve, would be protected and generate wood for the promenade in perpetuity.

The communities of Uaxactún have reached an agreement with the Guatemalan government: If resources are harvested sustainably, their land management rights are respected. Through a “community concession” system, the people of the forest can “harvest fruit, medicinal, and ornamental plants, chicle (a natural chewing gum), and a limited amount of timber,” said the Brooklyn Bridge Forest team. The communities coordinate with the Guatemalan government, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and FSC.

Under the terms of the land management plan, tropical hardwood trees can be harvested at the rate of 1 tree per 40 acres using small-scale equipment. After a large tropical hardwood tree has been removed, smaller trees would be planted in the area that has been disturbed.

The scientists with the conservation organizations involved argued that “the communities’ low-impact timber harvesting provides jobs as well as resources for health and education. These opportunities in turn have given the communities a long-term stake in protecting the forest. Community-patrols defend the forest from the numerous threats in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, including wildfires, illegal logging and hunting, and in recent years, cattle ranching operations linked to international drug traffickers.” (Learn more).

Furthermore, the scientists believe that the low-impact logging practices undertaken in Uaxactún would have “very little effect on wildlife populations.” And funds from the sponsorship of planks would go to important research on the ecological impacts of controlled logging in these environments.

One of their central arguments: “Most timber harvesting in the tropics is not carried out with the level of care practiced in Uaxactún. In these other places there is often very little regulation, no long-term plan, and no research to assess impacts. Only a fully transparent model with ample opportunity for participation and investigation can guarantee that we are procuring wood in a way that supports forest protection.”

The team thinks this intentional approach could be used for other sustainable hardwood harvesting projects. They point to a few historic models: Every 20 years, the Ise Shrine in Kyoto, Japan, is rebuilt with the exact same dimensions using 10,000 cedar logs. The shrine, which has been rebuilt in this way for the past 1,300 years, has set aside a forest that will be harvested in 200 years for the ritual reconstruction. And in Sweden, in the 1800s, some 300,000 trees were planted to create wood for the Swedish navy. When they were ready to harvest in 1975, Sweden no longer built ships out of wood, but the 900-acre forest of oaks remains preserved.

NYC government is rightfully trying to eliminate the use of tropical hardwoods in its boardwalks, as the vast majority of these woods are illegally harvested, causing great damage to fragile rainforest ecosystems. So it’s unclear whether the Brooklyn Bridge Forest concept will move forward. But also worth noting: recent efforts to replace the tropical hardwood boardwalk in Coney Island with more resilient concrete mixed with recycled plastic resulted in some irate New Yorkers.

The winning submission in the young adult category may have found a solution that avoids the tropical hardwood issue altogether. Do Look Down, a proposal created by Shannon Hui, Kwans Kim, and Yujin Kim, from Hong Kong, NYC, and Berkeley, California, aims to incorporate glass instead of wood for the promenade. There would be thrills galore while looking down, at least for those not afraid of heights.

Do Look Down / Shannon Hui, Kwans Kim, and Yujin Kim

Videos: Glimpses of Life Amid Empty Streets

The empty streets of our cities are a cause of anxiety but also wonder. With our ability to travel now limited, we can get a sense of the strange, melancholy state of the world’s urban centers from the constant stream of video uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo.

The New Yorker captures life during quarantine in New York City — the largely uninhabited streets, parks, and landmarks. One scene pans New Yorkers lined up down the block to get into a Whole Foods supermarket. Another features overflowing Amazon boxes sorted by delivery workers on a make-shift tarp on a street. One store’s sign reads: “Temporarily closed. Focus on the positive.”

The smooth, robotic pace of a drone adds to the otherworldly feel of San Francisco’s barren streets. Citing the Grateful Dead’s song, Touch of Grey, one store’s sign reads: “We Will Get By. We Will Survive.” Another shot pans a building-sized mural of climate activist Greta Thunberg. With a lack of people, birds become a focal point in many of the vistas.

Meanwhile in Amsterdam, a video by cinematographer and film maker Jean Counet, has gotten attention for capturing the strangeness and beauty of the Dutch city without street life. (Watch video). Street trams weave their way through the old city, but without passengers. A lone kayaker makes their way down a canal.

Meanwhile in Amsterdam / Jean Counet

Counet told art blog This Is Colossal, “we walked through the old city center of Amsterdam between 8:30 (and) 13:30, which is normally teemed by walking people and bicycles. What we witnessed felt like a dream. Sometimes beautiful and mesmerizing, sometimes scary and worrying.”

As people stay home and noise and pollution have abated, wildlife have expanded their boundaries and started exploring the built environment with confidence. In this amazing compilation, sheep explore a Welsh town, a coyote strolls through San Francisco, deer use the crosswalks in Japan, and Nubian Ibexes walk down a promenade in Israel.

With the absence of people and maritime activity, shoals of fish can be seen in Venice’s canals and dolphins have reclaimed a port in Sardinia.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 16 – 30)

Anaheim,California,USA._-_panoramio_(1)
View down Main Street USA at Disneyland / Photo Credit: Roman Eugeniusz [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Walter Hood Digs DeepArchitectural Digest, 11/18/19
“The Oakland, California–based landscape designer, fresh off a string of prestigious design prize wins, has an approach that embraces the eccentricities of people and place.”

Podcast: Culture and Race Within Landscape ArchitectureAuthentic F&F, 11/18/19
“Listen to Ujijji discuss how she aims to promote change through landscape architecture, urban design, and an awareness of African American history across landscapes.”

10 Questions: Napa Landscape Architect Makes The Outside Look Sharp – Napa Valley Register, 11/19/19
“Susan Heiken said one of the best things about being a landscape architect is that “you are always learning something new.”

New Renderings Show 72,600-square-foot Public Park Coming to Brooklyn’s Pacific Park Development – 6sqft, 11/19/19
“Developer TF Cornerstone this week released new renderings for two sites within Brooklyn’s long-delayed Pacific Park development that have yet to break ground: 615 and 595 Dean Street.”

Dreaming Up Disneyland – The New York Times, 11/25/19
“Those who knew Walt Disney often described him as an uncomplicated man of conventional 20th-century sensibilities: a lover of model trains, farm animals, lunch-wagon food, hard work, evening belts of scotch and endless Chesterfield cigarettes. One of his rituals upon coming home from his movie studio was feeding his poodle, Duchess, a cold frankfurter, or “wienie,” by leading her from room to room while throwing pieces on the floor.”

Prospect Park Tackles Toxic Algae Blooms With Nature-Based Technology – Gothamist, 11/26/19
“For years people have walked by NYC’s urban lakes and ponds without knowing what the green stuff in the water really is. But dog owners in Prospect Park may know all too well: It’s toxic algae bloom.”

From Geometric to Fractal: Bauhaus and the Landscape

Cover
The ABC’s of Triangle Square Circle / Princeton Architectural Press

2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus’s founding in the city of Weimar, Germany by architect Walter Gropius. The legacy of the Bauhaus has been felt throughout nearly every design discipline, in part because of the towering stature of its faculty and their many game-changing works of architecture, design, and art, but perhaps more deeply because of the body of theory produced, practiced, refined, and extolled at the school.

The ABC’s of Triangle Square Circle is a new edition of the 1991 collection of essays edited by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller that uses text, images, and experimental graphic compositions to explain Bauhaus art and design theory. “Triangle Square Circle” is derived from a theory that artist Wassily Kandinsky put forth about the intrinsic properties of the three shapes and their association with a primary color. As Lupton and Miller state in the introduction: “This is a book about theory. A theory is a principle that attempts to explain diverse phenomena, a concise concept capable of shedding light on countless situations.”

Bauhaus theorists saw simple geometric forms as the essence of natural, organic shapes. The bookend essays, Elementary School by J. Abbott Miller gives insight into how Bauhaus theorists reduced landscape and natural forms to simple geometric ones, and Beyond Triangle Square Circle: Fractal Geometry by theoretical physicist Alan Wolf explains how Bauhaus thinkers tried but ultimately failed to acknowledge nature’s complexity in their theories on geometry.

In 1925, Gropius designed a new complex for the Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany, moving the campus from Weimar. The architecture designed in the international style became the emblem of Bauhaus architecture and thought, despite architecture not being taught at the school until 1927. The building is the centerpiece, a sculpture among a sea of rectilinear patches of grass, with ankle-high fencing to prevent people from walking on the green spaces. The landscape of the Bauhaus campus is a formal exercise, a decoration of the plinth the building sits on.

Bauhaus-aerial
Bauhaus Campus in Dessau, Germany / Wikipedia, M_H.DE , CC BY-SA 3.0

In Elementary School, J. Abbott Miller focuses on the development of the core principles of the Bauhaus through the creation of Friedrich Frobel’s kindergarten (or child garden).

As Miller explains, the name was “metaphorical as well as literal: early in his career as a teacher, Froebel discovered the importance of play in education and made gardening a central part of his pedagogy.” While gardening was lost in the Bauhaus school, playing with shapes and composition was fundamental to Bauhaus teachings.

The focus of Frobel’s teaching were a series of “Gifts and Occupations” comprised of geometric blocks (gifts) and basic craft activities (occupations). The gifts increased in complexity as the child progressed through the educational system, culminating in enough complexity to construct representations of their world with the blocks. The children began to see the world as a construction of basic elements, a theme continued and propagated by Bauhaus teachings.

Distilling the complexities of the world to their intrinsic properties became a central tenet of the Bauhaus. For Kandinsky, these often resulted in complex representations comprised of basic shapes and lines.

Orange
Orange by Wassily Kandinsky in 1923 / Wassily Kandisnky.net

The practice of geometric simplification began in early education and continued through the university for those studying at the Bauhaus.

It is no wonder then that the complexities of natural forms were represented by rectilinear green shapes in the landscape of the Bauhaus campus in Dessau. They didn’t have the geometric language to represent the complexities of natural forms; fractal geometry wasn’t discovered by Benoit Mandelbrot until 1975.

In Beyond Triangle Square Circle: Fractal Geometry, Alan Wolf explains the mathematical principles of fractals as an abstraction of natural geometries that cannot be expressed through an intrinsic or simple geometry, only through an increasingly complex internal relationship between its parts.

Fractal_Broccoli.jpg
Romanesco broccoli approximates natural fractals / Wikipedia, Jon Sullivan, Public Domain

Bauhaus’ attempts to distill all natural elements to their essences doesn’t work in a chaotic world. Today, complexity is central to our contemporary understanding of how natural and cultural systems work. For example, landscape and ecological processes, rather than formal qualities, guide projects like Fresh Kills Park by landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations.

Freshkills Park master plan / Freshkills Park, James Corner Field Operations

The Bauhaus’ use of geometry to represent the world still holds, but the geometry we use to represent it has evolved alongside our updated conception of nature as an interwoven set of systems interacting in increasingly complex ways.

As Alan Wolf writes: “since the discovery of fractal geometry in 1975, it is no longer possible to represent nature with a starter Lego set limited to such simple forms as triangle, square, and circle. Now we know that we need an advanced set of building blocks, which includes fractal forms of various types.”

Global Reforestation Could Drawdown Carbon but Also Jeopardize Water Supplies

2880px-Eucalyptus_plantation_in_final_stages
Eucalyptus Plantation in Arimalam, India / Wikimedia Commons

In the global scramble to reduce carbon emissions, planting more trees is always near the top of the list of solutions. Pegged as a low-cost, natural, and scalable approach, projects like the Great Green Wall in North Africa, Pakistan’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami, and New York City’s Million Tree Program raise the bar for this climate change mitigation strategy. While a new scientific study found there is untapped potential for carbon sequestration through planetary reforestation, other researchers are concerned about how growing new forests could reduce the focus on preserving existing old growth forests or negatively impact the water supply in developing countries.

The recent study published in Science, led by Thomas W. Crowther at ETH-Zürich, posits that an increase in 0.9 billion hectares (2.2 billion acres) of new forests, an amount that would cover about 14 percent of habitable land, could sequester 205 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere. This means a forest roughly the size of the United States or China could sequester more than five times the annual carbon output of the planet.

Under current climate conditions, the Earth could support a maximum of 4.4 billion hectares (10.9 billion acres) of forests. Approximately 2.8 billion hectares (6.9 billion acres) are currently forested. This leaves 1.6 billion hectares (4 billion acres) were additional forest could be planted. The research team removed land used for crop-based agriculture or cities,”which are necessary for supporting an ever-growing human population,” leaving 0.9 billion hectares (2.2 billion acres) available for forest restoration.

Across the lifetime of these proposed new forests, the trees would sequester 205 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere. For reference, we have released 1,510 gigatons of carbon to date (as of 2015), and some 55 percent of that has been sequestered by oceans and plants.

A sequestration strategy of this magnitude would make a sizable dent in the total carbon released into the atmosphere, but needs to be matched with reductions in fossil fuel use and other major forms of greenhouse gas emissions. The World Resources Institute (WRI) reports that 37.1 gigatons of carbon were released in 2018 alone. At this rate, more carbon will be released than can be captured by the new forests during the 50-100 years it will take for the trees to mature.

Reforestation
A 15-year old reforestation project, U.S. / Wikimedia Commons

The research team is correct in asserting that global tree restoration is “our most effective climate change solution to date,” but some researchers fear that addressing one warning light may turn on others.

For example, focusing on planting new forests instead of preserving old growth trees can have negative impacts. Large, old trees, which support greater biodiversity and sequester more carbon than younger trees, are “declining in forests of all latitudes,” according to a 2012 study. Old growth forests are able to sequester more carbon than their younger counterparts because they are still rapidly growing and increasing their carbon storage capacity. Preserving older forests while implementing massive reforestation efforts would yield the greatest potential for carbon capture and forest ecosystem health.

Protecting large old trees is an important part of the climate mitigation effort, and something that landscape architects working at a variety of scales can support. Every reforestation effort, even in an urban park, should take into account existing trees and the role they play in ecosystems.

General_Sherman_Tree
General Sherman Tree, the largest living tree by volume / Neal Parish, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.0

Trees need water to thrive. The renewed call for mass reforestation across the globe has some researchers worried about the effect this will have on local water supplies.

In a recent study published in Nature, Jaivime Evaristo and Jeffery J. McDonnell examine the impact of forest management practices, such as deforestation, conversion into agricultural land, regrowth, and afforestation (growing new forests), on the availability of water in watersheds. The study develops a vegetation-to-bedrock model, which considers the geology of a given region in relation to its capacity to store water.

The researchers found that deforestation and conversion of forests into agricultural land increases the volume of water present in almost all watersheds, while regrowth of forests and afforestation reduced the volume of water. “The vast majority of the water loss in afforested and reforested areas is from evapotranspiration, which is a combination of evaporation from soil and other surfaces and transpiration from plants.”

Afforestation and deforestation have the largest impacts on streamflow in watersheds. Deforestation can cause flash floods, but reforestation can lead to droughts.

The data also shows the percentage change in tree cover is correlated to the socio-economic status of a country. Developing and least developed countries lose the most tree cover while developed and emerging countries lose the least. The researchers think this correlation between tree-cover change and economic status “suggests that countries that have infrastructure in place for capturing and storing water may be least vulnerable to possible water supply shortages associated with planting schemes.”

Furthermore, the research team concludes the magnitude of a forest management technique is correlated with the water-yield response. Reforesting nearly 14 percent of the landmass is a massive change, one that would surely have consequences for local communities and ecosystems.

The researchers recognize their streamflow analysis could be used most prudently “for re-calibrating the cost-benefit matrix of climate change mitigation schemes (for example, planting and removal) in different geo-climate regions around the world.”

Snøhetta’s Viewing Platforms Embrace the Panorama

Perspektivenweg, Path of Perspectives / © Christian Flatscher, Snøhetta

High above Innsbruck, Austria, the experience of walking a two-mile-long trail has been greatly enriched, thanks to a set of 10 viewing platforms designed by Norwegian multidisciplinary firm Snøhetta. Made of simple materials — Corten steel and Larch wood — the platforms either cantilever out into the air, creating exhilarating moments, or more subtly slip into the landscape, providing a place to sit and take in the vast expanses. Called Perspektivenweg, or the Path of Perspectives, Snøhetta has enhanced the experience of the valley without marring the beauty of the natural landscape.

According to ArchDaily, the Path of Perspectives is found in the Nordkette, a mountain chain of the Karwendel, the largest mountain range of the Northern Limestone Alps, just north of Innsbruck. Two cable car lines bring visitors from the city center to the Seegrube cable car station, found some 1,905 meters above sea level, where they can embark on the path. The station, and three others along the Hungerburg funicular, were designed by architect Zaha Hadid.

With the exception of the cantilevered platform found at the end of the trail, Snøhetta mostly went for “small gestures” that appear to “grow out of the landscape,” explained Patrick Lüth, managing director of Snøhetta’s Innsbruck office, in Dezeen. These include simple timber-lined viewing platforms and benches.

Perspektivenweg, Path of Perspectives / © Christian Flatscher, Snøhetta
Perspektivenweg, Path of Perspectives / © Christian Flatscher, Snøhetta
Perspektivenweg, Path of Perspectives / © Christian Flatscher, Snøhetta

The structures themselves are adapted out of methods used to create avalanche barriers, which are also made of Corten (and seen on the hillside in the image below).

Perspektivenweg, Path of Perspectives / © Christian Flatscher, Snøhetta
Perspektivenweg, Path of Perspectives / © Christian Flatscher, Snøhetta

But Snøhetta added another layer to this material, inscribing them with quotes of the writings of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The firm explains that “the words invite visitors to take a moment and reflect, both inwardly and out over the landscape.”

Perspektivenweg, Path of Perspectives / © Christian Flatscher, Snøhetta

Fast Company reports that Snøhetta worked with Innsbruck-based Professor Allan Janik to identify quotes such as:

The concept of ‘seeing’ makes a tangled impression. Now that’s the way it is. I look into the landscape; my glance wanders, I see all sorts of clear and unclear movement; this leaves its mark on me clearly, that only fully blurred. What we see can seem to be completely torn to bits.

Snøhetta founding partner Craig Dykers said the goal with the project was to create a dialogue with the surrounding environment. “Some people mischaracterize our work as always trying to merge with the landscape or trying to set ourselves aside from the landscape. We’re just interested in having a dialogue.”

Book Review: The Architecture of Trees

The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press

The Architecture of Trees was first published by Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi, two versatile Italian furniture, landscape, and architectural designers, in 1982. This “scientific tome” and “original ‘labor of love and obsession'” has been re-issued by Princeton Architectural Press in all its arboreal glory.

The book features 212 trees species depicted through 550 intricate quill-pen illustrations, each drawn to 1:100 scale. A handy paper ruler is included to help readers better understand the full breadth of these beauties. Each tree is depicted with and without foilage, showing summer and winter forms. The shape of each tree’s shadows and the hues of their seasonal color are also vividly conveyed.

According to an introduction to the new edition by Andrea Cavani and Guilio Orsini, curators of the Cesare Leonardi archive, Leonardi studied at the University of Florence, which encouraged a “liberal interpretation of the discipline of architecture, an interpretation that abandoned schematic rationalism and instead was open to visual art, design, landscape, graphic design, communications, philosophy, and sociology.”

In Florence, Leonardi interacted with trees he didn’t recognize. “Their sizes and shapes impressed him, and he felt ‘more drawn to them than to architectural forms.'” While creating a landscape design for a new city park in Modena, he realized that “it would be impossible to design a park without a deep understanding of its elements, meaning trees.”

The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press

But he found that just reading about trees wouldn’t cut it; he needed to more deeply understand them. In the areas surrounding Florence and Modena, he “studied specimens, photographed them, and took note of their names and dimensions; and, then, with an eye to using them in his plans, he drew the trees in India ink on transparent film, using photographs for guidance and working on a scale of 1:100.”

Tree specimen from The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press
Tree specimen from The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press

Drawing, Cavani and Orsini argue, enabled Leonardi to isolate the tree from its surroundings, focus on its architectural elements, and clearly depict the features that make a species unique. Over time, Leonardi found that climate, exposure, and soil conditions impacted the growth rate and character of specimens, so he accommodated for those differences, too.

Cavani and Orsini note that The Architecture of Trees wasn’t just a result of tree appreciation, but used to support a series of landscape projects in Italy, including Parco della Resistenza in Modena, swimming pool complexes created in Vignola and Mirandola, and a study for the expansion of the Modena cemetery.

The tree studies were also brought to the design of Parco Amendola in Modena, which opened in 1982. Leonardi and Stagi chose trees based on their “size, shape, shadow, and their changing colors over the course of the year.” A 40-meter (131-foot)-tall sundial tower was designed to “illuminate the center of the park at night with a multiple rotating projector that completed one full turn every hour, creating shadows that morphed continuously.”

Those shade studies are included in the beginning of the book, followed by a color analysis, and the drawings of the trees themselves, which are organized by botanical families, genera, and species. At the end, detailed drawings of tree elements — branches and leaves — are included with relevant notes about how the trees change over their lifespan, their fruit, their smells, and planting notes.

Color analysis from The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press

While the publisher honors the original edition’s organization, moving back and forth between the color analysis, drawings, and detailed drawing notes simply using plate numbers and trees’ Latin names can be a chore. It takes some digging to find the English or common names as well.

In the forward, Laura Conti writes that trees are increasingly critical to making cities more humane and resilient to climate change. And urban leaders need to adopt policies and regulations to enhance the quality of green spaces.

But to actually design and build beautiful and functional urban green spaces, landscape architects and designers must first understand the form and nature of trees, which are inherently malleable. “If man is going to ask trees to help him survive in this prison he has constructed, he cannot simply rely on that plasticity, but must acquire information about the characteristics that each tree inherently assumes in an area’s climate.”

“Competent” landscape architects then naturally take into account “a tree’s size and shape, the pattern of branch growth, the look of leaves in different seasons, and the amount of shade it offers.”

These timeless botanical drawings help us see the aesthetic value of trees themselves — complex, living objects that define the quality and character of any designed landscape.

EPA Offers $14 Million in Grants for Great Lakes Restoration

Great Lakes region / Wikipedia. Public Domain. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The Great Lakes, the largest fresh bodies of water in the world, face dire environmental problems. Nitrogen and phosphorous run-off from farms has led to destructive algae blooms that kill off lake life. Stormwater runoff from nearby communities has polluted the lakes with the chemicals that slick streets. And invasive species, like the Asian carp and zebra mussels, have wrecked havoc on native Great Lakes ecosystems. The governors of the states that border the lakes called for greater federal action, particularly in highly-contaminated “areas of concern.” The result has been the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which brings together some 16 federal agencies and has spent $2.4 billion on 4,700 projects designed to restore the lakes to environmental health.

As part of this effort, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is accepting applications for Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) grants until July 12. EPA anticipates awarding approximately $14 million for about 30 projects addressing excess nutrients and stormwater runoff.

Some $12.5 million is available for projects in these categories:

• Riparian restoration to reduce runoff to the Maumee River
• Green infrastructure to reduce stormwater runoff
• Manure management to reduce nutrient runoff from farms
• Accelerating adoption of nutrient management through farmer-led outreach and education

EPA Region 5 Administrator/Great Lakes National Program Manager Cathy Stepp said: “Reducing stormwater and nutrient runoff is a critical part of restoring the Great Lakes.”

And the EPA has made some $1.5 million available for four innovative water quality trading projects that promote “cost-effective and market-based approaches” to reduce excess nutrients and stormwater runoff hitting the lakes.

According to the EPA, “non-federal governmental entities, including state agencies; interstate agencies; federally recognized Indian tribes and tribal organizations, local governments, institutions of higher learning (i.e., colleges and universities); and non-profit organizations” can apply. Learn more.