Serenbe’s New Wellness District Features a Food Forest

Deep in the woods southwest of Atlanta, Serenbe is a unique designed community — a mixed-use development, with clusters of villages comprised of townhouses and apartments fueled by solar panels and heated and cooled by geothermal systems, and vast open spaces with organic farms, natural waste water treatment systems, and preserved forests. A leader in the “agrihood” movement, which calls for agriculture-centric community development, Serenbe is now moving into wellness with its new development called Mado.

On a tour of the new town, which will add 480 homes, including some assisted living cottages, to the 1,400 that already house some 3,500 people, Serenbe founder Steven Nygren explained how his vision of wellness was inspired by the sustainable Swedish city of Malmö. He and his wife Marie traveled there, and they brought back lots of photographs, which they then gave to their planners, architects, and landscape architects.

The community now under construction is organized around common spaces set in gardens. Nygren fears a scenario in which you have two older residents out on their porches, but both are waiting for the other to invite them over. In Mado, the ground-level shared patios may create more opportunities for interaction.

Also, Nygren reached an interesting conclusion from his trip to Malmö: “They always connect streets into nature.” He decided to recreate that relationship in Mado, organizing the housing and common spaces along a central axis with ends that extend into nature trails.

Mado development plan / Rhinehart Pulliam & Company, LLC

Once this central organizational structure was decided upon, they brought in landscape architect and University of Georgia professor Alfred Vick, ASLA, who then created an innovative “food forest” to realize the concept of wellness in landscape form (see the bottom portion of the image above). It will function as an accessible outdoor living room, given throughout the space the gradient is less than 5 percent. It’s also a place where people can gather and also learn how to forage in the wider Serenbe landscape (see a close-up of its design below).

Mado food forest / Solidago Design Solution, Inc.

Vick said his vision was of a “edible ecosystem, an intentional system for human food production.” Using the natural Piedmont ecosystem as the base, Vick is creating a designer ecosystem of edible or medicinal plants, with a ground layer, understory, and canopy that also incorporates plants with cultural meaning and a legacy of use by indigenous American Indian tribes.

He imagines visitors to the forest foraging for berries, fruits, and nuts, including serviceberries, blueberries, mulberries, and chickasaw plums, as well as acorn and hickory nuts, which can be processed and turned into foods. Mado residents and chefs can harvest the young, tender leaves of cutleaf coneflowers, which are related to black-eyed susans. Or reach up to an arbor, which will be covered in Muscadine grape vines and passion flowers. Or take some Jerusalem artichokes, which were used by Cherokee Indians and today cooked as a potato substitute. Or pluck rosemary or mint from an herb circle. Vick left out peach and apple trees because they require fungicides.

“The primary goal is to engage residents,” Vick explained. There will be interpretive guides to explain how plants can be consumed, which will also “help encourage wider foraging when they are out in the Serenbe landscape.” Nygren wants everyone in the community connected to the productive cycle of nature and to know when the serviceberries, blueberries, figs are ready to be picked.

And the landscape is also designed to both provide a safe boundary — so grandparents can let kids roam — but also provide a natural extension into the rest of the landscape. While the Mado designs are still being developed, we hope that universal design principles, which call for fully-accessible seating and nearby restrooms, will be incorporated to ensure an 80-year old as well as an 8-year old can comfortably access and enjoy the landscape.

Learn more about Serenbe in this interview conducted with Nygren in 2015.

The Biophilic Design Movement Takes Shape (Part 1)

Buffalo Bayou Park playground, Houston, Texas / Mommy Nearest

While green infrastructure is needed to manage stormwater and cool the air in our cities, these systems, as currently designed, aren’t enough. In the future, they must also boost biodiversity and help forge richer connections between humans and nature, argued a set of policymakers, academics, planners, and landscape architects, who are part of the nascent biophilic design movement. At the Biophilic Leadership Summit, which was hosted at Serenbe, an agricultural community outside of Atlanta, and organized by the Biophilic Institute, the Biophilic Cities Project, and Serenbe founder Steven Nygren, the main themes of biophilic urban planning and design were explored in an effort to achieve greater definition. Much work, however, still needs to be done to codify, measure, and popularize the strategies discussed.

As Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia and one of the central leaders of the movement has explained in his recent book, The Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, nature should be found everywhere, but especially in cities. Cities must remain dense and walkable, but they can be unique, memorable places only when they merge with nature. If well planned and designed, a city’s forests, waterfronts, parks, gardens, and streets can make out-sized contributions to the health and well-being of everyone who lives there.

The three-day summit mostly focused on the human side of the human-nature interactions fostered through biophilic design principles. What was missing was a discussion by ecologists and scientists on how biophilic planning and design actually benefits species, how to best measure a city’s biodiversity and human exposure to it, and therefore determine if a city is making real progress in their path to become more biophilic. Still, there were some valuable conversations.

One panel delved into strategies for improving connections to nature among children. Nygren said it has been nearly a decade since Richard Louv’s now-famous book, The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, was published. What has happened since then and where do we need to go?

“There has been a huge amount of progress in the last 15 years. But on the negative side, the growth of children with health issues has been enormous,” argued Robin Moore, director of the Natural Learning Initiative. Indeed, today, one of out three children in America is overweight or obese because of poor diets and a lack of exercise. Children now spend seven hours in front of some sort of screen per day, and just 10 minutes in “unstructured outdoor play.”

Mikaela Randolph, director of cities and nature at the Children & Nature Network, was less positive to start, stating that not all children, or adults, enjoy nature to the same degree in their communities. In many underrepresented communities of color, there are fewer trees, playgrounds, and parks. “That’s an issue of life and death. Is that segment of the city going to live as long?” Studies have correlated tree cover and mortality rates, and the conclusions for those without daily access to nature in their communities are grim.

Moore said we must get serious about coming up with a strategy for incorporating nature into the places where children spend most of their day: schools, child care centers, and playgrounds. He called for targeting municipal, county, and state decision makers. “Changing the laws and codes is the next step.”

Furthermore, homeowners associations, which often just drop in standards created by a national organization, need to change their model, so communities can becomes “more nature and children focused,” argued Hayden Brooks, co-founder, Children in Nature Collaborative. Nygren agreed and said “developers know every rule for cars but don’t know the rules for pedestrians and kids. What if developers had to demonstrate a connection to nature?”

Randolph and Hayden explained how their organizations help local non-profits in a set of cities come together to maximize their impact. The Children & Nature Network, which partners with the National League of Cities, removes obstacles to “green school yards, early childhood education, out of school time, youth leadership, and park activation.” The Children in Nature Collaborative enables local planning processes. One successful result of their efforts is the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, which was just passed by the city council of Austin, Texas.

Their efforts also yielded one of the best ideas discussed at the conference: “green school parks,” which are about first involving communities in redeveloping and greening school yards and then making them accessible to the community outside school hours. “These places are then co-owned by the communities. They have access too.”

Lastly, Moore cautioned that while green infrastructure is great, “there needs to be places for kids in it.” He pointed to Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas, which was designed by landscape architects SWA Group, as a positive example of what to do. The entire park and flood mitigation system makes room for a nature playground. It’s on a steep site and periodically floods, but “it’s where we want it to be — embedded in the urban environment.”

Read part 2.

The Biophilic Design Movement Takes Shape (Part 2)

San Francisco sidewalk garden created by Argonne School / Richmond District Blog

The hard work ahead involves integrating biophilic planning and design into codes, “which are dry but critical,” argued Tim Beatley, professor at the University of Virginia and author of The Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, at the Biophilic Leadership Summit, which was hosted at Serenbe, an agricultural community outside of Atlanta. Beatley said the good news is more cities are “moving from experimenting with biophilic design practices to codifying them.”

James Brown, director of biophilic codes at the Biophilic Cities Project, pointed to a few examples of biophilic codes: Toronto’s green roof bylaw, which requires green roofs on all new development; Arizona’s dark skies policies, which protect wildlife and humans from unnecessary nighttime light pollution; Denver’s view plane ordinance, which guarantees views of the Rocky mountains; San Francisco’s sidewalk landscape permits, which enable any resident to plant a sidewalk garden; and Boston’s coming stringent protections for trees.

The Biophilic Cities Project is now putting together a database of codes that can serve as inspiration for communities. He said there are many areas to cover in the built environment, but “the urban forest has the oldest set of biophilic codes — every city limits what you can or can’t do with trees.”

And we heard about efforts to enshrine biophilic planning and design in a few major cities. Stephanie Stuckey, chief resilience officer for Atlanta, is partnering with the Nature Conservancy to create a map that identifies “which trees need to be protected strategically to maintain biodiversity.”

Mary Lynn Wilhere, with the district department of the environment and energy in Washington, D.C., said “putting biophilia into the codes is the next step.”

D.C. is already doing a lot — it’s implementing a wildlife action plan, which aims to restore and create wildlife habitats, and developing a GIS map of the city’s 1,000 small parks to figure out the best way “to link them up into pollinator pathways, where people can have more biophilic experiences.”

The city recently created a green area ratio (GAR) modeled after Singapore’s, which requires developers to replace the green space they have built over on the ground in their building’s roof and facade. “We want to figure out how to use the GAR to advance biophilia.” Policymakers, planners, and “developers will want clear language on biophilia requirements,” based in the latest scientific data. Another plus to the new approach: D.C’s new stormwater runoff and GAR fees are expected to “pay for a lot of biophilic projects.”

Later, Bill Browning, a founder of Terrapin Bright Green and author of the widely-cited 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, described how WOHA, the architects of Singapore’s Parkroyal on Pickering Hotel, also known as the “jungle hotel,” took great advantage of Singapore’s GAR to maximize green space and biodiversity. “In Singapore, architects now compete to see how much greenery they can add, even going for a 5:1 ratio.”

Parkroyal on Pickering by WOHA / Dezeen

And then Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of the urban design program at Georgia Tech school of architecture and co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia, gave everyone a reality check, arguing biophilic planners and designers must look beyond cities to suburbia, which is where 67 percent or 80 percent of Americans live (depending on how you calculate).

Of the 1,400 case studies she has collected on efforts to make suburbia more walkable and sustainable, she found that, sadly, only 2 percent of projects featured “regreening.” One example in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Guthrie Green Urban Park, a geothermal and solar-powered park by SWA Group, took root over a truck loading facility. Beyond catalytic projects or code changes, Dunham-Jones floated some other ideas for how to “incentivize re-greening,” including green infrastructure banks and bonds, or a biophilia revolving trust.

Guthrie Green Urban Park / SWA Group

Dunham-Jones concluded that “regreening is not happening enough.” And if it does happen, “it’s not justified in terms of biophilia.” At least half of all suburban retrofits need to be transformed into green spaces that can boost biodiversity. “But we are nowhere near close.”

Read part 1.

New Poll Finds Widespread Support for Reforming National Flood Insurance

Residential flooding in Wisconsin / FEMA Photo, Walt Jennings

In a national survey of likely voters, there was widespread support for reforming the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which some 22,000 communities, covering more than 5 million homes, rely on for basic flood insurance. Of those polled by the Pew Charitable Trusts, some 53 percent said they had been impacted by flooding — either their home or a family member’s, or their place of work, or their community’s infrastructure had been damaged.

In a briefing, Laura Lightbody, project director for flood prepared communities at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said flooding is the “most common and costly natural disaster.” She explained how since 1980, the number of major flood events per year has only increased, and more now cause $1 billion in damages. In total since 1980, flooding has caused more than $260 billion in damages to homes and infrastructure.

Furthermore, according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, “the risks from future floods are significant, given expanded development in coastal areas and floodplains, unabated urbanization, land-use changes, and human-induced climate change.”

In return for agreeing to regulate land-use in a flood-prone community, NFIP cover the homeowners in that community up to $250,000 for property and $100,000 for personal possessions. Private flood protection is often used to supplement this basic insurance, which is subsidized and costs far less than would comparable baseline private insurance.

After Hurricane Katrina and then later Sandy, NFIP fell into $25 billion in debt. NFIP, which is run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is up for re-authorization on Capitol Hill. There are new calls to reform the program, as flooding damages will only increase with climate change.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) considers NFIP a “high-risk program” because it’s essentially financially unsustainable. While Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Act in 2011 to “help strengthen the financial solvency of the program, including phasing out almost all discounted insurance premiums (for example, subsidized premiums),” just three years later, it enacted the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014 (HFIAA), which reinstated “certain premium subsidies and slowed down certain premium rate increases that had been included in the Biggert-Waters Act.”

The GAO writes: “Aspects of HFIAA were intended to address affordability concerns for certain property owners, but may also increase NFIP’s long-term financial burden on taxpayers.” As NFIP subsidizes communities at high risk of flooding and, in turn, incurs losses, it then borrows from the U.S. Treasury, passing the costs elsewhere.

Some critics of the current subsidized approach argues it encourages development in vulnerable areas. Others argue homes affected by continuous flooding are more often those of the poor and elderly, so raising federal insurance rates too high could mean forcing out whole swaths of communities. And still others argue FEMA, which designates the flood maps that NFIP bases its rates on, has re-mapped higher-risk areas as low-risk to avoid community backlash, but has in turn created more risk because people think they are living in a low-risk area.

Pew Charitable Trusts commissioned Bill McInturff and Lori Weigel with Public Opinion Strategies to poll a representative sample of some 1,000 voters, and found support for the following reforms:

81 percent of likely voters support a “single, national standard to ensure that potential home buyers are aware of whether or not a property has flooded repeatedly, which could mean being required to purchase flood insurance.” Currently, there is no such national standard. But Weigel indicated there is precedent for one: homeowners are now required to let potential home buyers know about higher risks of lead paint in older homes.

82 percent are for requiring the federal government to only build resilient infrastructure in flood-prone areas. Any new or rebuilt infrastructure located in a flood zone should be constructed to better withstand damage. Some 86 percent of those in coastal communities “supported building to a higher, more resilient standard,” said Weigel. Overall, there is widespread support for “flood-ready infrastructure,” which “makes sense to people.”

75 percent would like to relocate homeowners in homes that continuously flood from high-risk areas in order to restore those areas as natural buffers, such as wildlife preserves, beaches, or recreation areas. FEMA would offer these homeowners in those high-risk areas the value of their home at pre-flood rates, so they could purchase a new home in a safer area. FEMA then would work with states and localities to play a role in designating areas for green infrastructure.

64 percent back the idea of requiring communities with more than 50 homes that have continuously flooded to “improve drainage, protect wetlands,” or otherwise prevent flood damage. If they don’t make these improvements, the amount the whole community would pay for insurance would go up. This proposal seems to support using landscape-based solutions to reduce the impacts of persistent flooding, where possible.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s budget blueprint calls for reducing funds for FEMA, which oversees NFIP, by 11 percent. The New York Times reports: “At FEMA, potential cuts would target for reduction an array of grants to state and local governments that have helped fund the development of emergency preparedness and response plans for natural disasters and terrorism-related events.” No word in the blueprint for resilient design funds distributed by the department of housing and urban development (HUD).

ASLA Statement on President Trump’s Budget

Uptown Normal transit-oriented development’s traffic circle, financed in part by a 2010 TIGER grant, Uptown Normal, Illinois / Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) released this statement in response to President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal:

“We are disappointed with President Trump’s budget blueprint, which calls for dramatic cuts to many of the federal programs and resources that strengthen our nation’s infrastructure and economic development.”

President Trump’s recommendation to completely eliminate two critical community development programs, the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program and the Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants program, is short-sighted. TIGER has been one of the most successful and popular programs with lawmakers, communities and transportation planners like landscape architects – the number of applications far exceeding the amount of available funding.

ASLA is also extremely concerned that President Trump’s proposal would drastically reduce funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by a staggering 31 percent, thereby severely crippling key air and water quality programs and critical climate change research and resources. The budget recommendation purports to increase funding for EPA’s Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds by $4 million.

However, the budget also eliminates $498 million from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Water and Wastewater loan and grant program and instead recommends that rural communities access EPA’s State Revolving Funds, thus leaving State Revolving Funds with a $494 million reduction in funding.

The Society recently released recommendations for updating and strengthening all forms of infrastructure, including enhancing the TIGER grants program, expanding State Revolving Funds, increasing funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and others. Together, these recommendations will help provide communities with the much-needed infrastructure upgrades to become more livable and resilient places to live, work and recreate. Unfortunately, if enacted, this Trump budget proposal would leave many communities vulnerable.

We understand that this proposal is the start of a long legislative process. The Society will continue to work with legislators to ensure that funding is available for sound infrastructure solutions that American communities are demanding.

An Ice Circle, a Rare Natural Phenomenon, Captured on Film

Photojournalist Kaylyn Messer discovered on Facebook that there was a rare, naturally-occurring ice circle on the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River near North Bend, Washington, which is close to her house. She decided to check it out, and all nature lovers are glad she did.  Her videos offer a glimpse of a phenomenon most will never see in person.

Messner told This Is Colossal, “The ice circle was pretty captivating. You can hear the sound of the river flowing continuously. Sounds from the ice periodically interjected with very small sharp cracks and groans. Overall, it was a quiet experience to stand along the river watching the ice circle rotate.”

An ice circle is thought to happen in river bends or eddies. They occur in colder climates, like Scandinavia or North America, but have been seen in England and Wales. Some of the largest recorded discs were some 50 feet in diameter.

According to an article in a journal of the American Physics Society, the ice circles spin because they are melting. IFLScience writes that as the circle melts, “the water beneath the ice spirals slightly horizontally as it plumes downwards, much like when water drains down a sinkhole and sweeps around in a spiraling rotation.”

As the warmer water spins the chunk of ice, it bumps into surrounding ice and is slowly shaved into a circle.

Smaller ice circles are called ice pans, which are typically about a foot in diameter. In the River Llugwy at Betws-y-coed, North Wales, a set of them were seen in 2008.

Book Review: Nature and Cities

Nature and Cities / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
Nature and Cities / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

It’s been 20 years since the publication of Ecological Design and Planning, the collection of essays that established ecological design as the defining innovation of 20th century landscape architecture. Not only has this mode of design informed all thinking about landscape since Ian McHarg first championed it, but designs eschewing this approach have risked irrelevance.

The ensuing two decades since Ecological Design and Planning’s publication have seen two major global changes. First, climate change has emerged as a force that will shape our future. Second, cities have grown to such an extent that their populations account for half of the Earth’s total. The world has not stood still, but, as Nature and Cities: The Ecological Imperative of Urban Planning demonstrates, neither has landscape architecture.

Nature and Cities, edited by Frederick Steiner, FASLA, George Thompson, and Armando Carbonell, was intended to be Ecological Design and Planning’s successor, Steiner said. It follows a similar formula: A collection of essays from both well-established and up-and-coming landscape architects with big ideas and projects that showcase them.

Steiner believes Nature and Cities can entice readers outside the fields of landscape and planning, despite its niche topic. The book is handsome and visually rich, and the essays are warmer than they are academic. They vary in subject matter. Richard Weller, ASLA, examines urban forms and formation; Kate Orff, ASLA, and Kongjian Yu, FASLA, explore aqueous landscape design. Several of the most thought-provoking essays make valiant attempts at applying to design our growing understanding of systems, resilience, and the myth of ecological equilibrium.

If these issues don’t interest you, you can use the book to check in on the state of the “landscape architecture: science or art” debate. Nature and Cities offers several worthy contributions to it. Of course, it’s not a question of either or, but as James Corner, ASLA, writes in his essay, there’s a tendency to allow science to govern our designs to the exclusion of the subjective and aesthetic. In our current design atmosphere, improvisation and beauty strain under the yoke of performance metrics. Corner argues that more honest applications of biophilic design would incorporate the errant, much as real ecosystems do, as a means of enrichment.

The Mill River Park and Greenway, ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. An example of the successful introduction of nature into a city's fabric / Nature and Cities, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
The Mill River Park and Greenway, ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. An example of the successful introduction of nature into a city’s fabric / Nature and Cities, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

Let’s not forget metrics are good for business, Laurie Olin, FASLA, points out in his essay. And if you can put an exclamation point on those metrics with a beautiful design, all the better. His firm accomplished this with a designed marsh on Yale’s campus. Students enjoyed it so much they added fish, leading to a richer ecosystem and indirectly saving the purchase of an additional 1.8 million liters of water per year. Social buy-in can occur when sustainable design is made evident.

“The more I understand the dynamics associated with global climate change and urbanization, the more I want to make sense of it all with other human beings,” writes Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, in her essay. It’s for this reason, Hill argues, that designers should create aesthetic experiences that address this rapid and destabilizing change. Rising sea levels and water scarcity can be frightening, but new aesthetic experiences can help us better understand those threats.

Part of Nature and Cities’ purpose, Steiner said, is to showcase the contributions that landscape architects have made to our cities and environment. “When Susannah Drake, ASLA, and her colleagues want to clean up the Gowanus Canal, that’s heroic,” Steiner said, referring to her essay. “And that they’ve made as much progress as they have is quite remarkable.”

gowanus-sponge-park
Gowanus Canal Sponge Park / DLANDstudio

Sizable ambition certainly shines through the successes touted in the book, but reading about them, one wonders if these efforts are adequate in scope to the environmental challenges we face. Adequate or not, isn’t it great that landscape architecture has something to say about it all?

Read the book.

A Dashboard for the Earth

Deep learning neural net technologies / ExtremeTech
Deep learning neural net technologies / ExtremeTech

If we want our planet to be able to house 10 billion people and also want to preserve biodiversity in the future, then we need to leverage the new technologies associated with “big data” and artificial intelligence. Using these sets of new technologies, we can create a dashboard for the planet, with up-to-the minute data on ecosystem functions continuously feeding in. We can create a unified system that “interrogates the environmental condition of the Earth,” said Microsoft scientist Lucas Joppa at a conference organized by the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation (RNRF) in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, today we are nowhere near this “Bloomberg terminal” for the planet.

Discussions throughout the conference were a strange mix of extreme optimism about the capacity of technology to solve our problems and deep concern for the state of the global environment.

While Joppa seemed pessimistic about the climate and health of our ecosystems, he lauded the potential of new technologies to be applied to ecological conservation and restoration.

Apps leveraging “deep learning neural net” technologies can enable people to quickly identify and classify plants. A site called Wild.me borrows the face recognition technology of Facebook to identify individual animal species. Through this technology, a whale shark specimen could be identified by its particular markings and characteristics. Caption bots, which are used to auto-generate captions for images, can also be tapped to label plant and animal species.

Citizen science efforts, which involve the public in conservation efforts, can scale up with the Web and big data. With Zooniverse, people participate in assessing all this biodiversity data, explained Ruth Duerr, with the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship.

And at the planetary scale, new satellite technologies, like the small, distributed network of satellites offered by Planet Labs, promise to make it easier to get a clearer understanding of the state of the environmental in real-time, said Duerr, creating even greater sets of more precise data.

But all that environmental data needs to be more closely connected with social and economic data if we want to get closer to that whole Earth dashboard, argued Robert Chen, a scientist with the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He pointed to his team’s efforts to map settlement patterns, including urban growth. And another project maps the connections between cycles of investment in real estate and vulnerability in flood-prone areas.

Integrating multiple layers of data is the next step, as is using the data to create predictions about possible outcomes. “Big data can help jumpstart the use of well-integrated, usable data and information for managing people and natural resources. We can use data to show how real-world issues interact.”

What’s holding this dream back for now is the variable quality of map-related data and the lack of legal and system interoperability between data sets. To push that forward, he called for more work on creating international open data standards, and more lawyers to get involved to ensure “everyone who needs to has the right to use data — that’s critical.”

Brad Garner with the U.S. Geological Survey pointed to the major gaps in water data in the U.S. Surface water is somewhat well-sampled, but each state uses a different measurement system, so integrating the data into a national view is basically impossible. For groundwater, there is a lack of even basic data. “We have no national sense of water use. How can we not know how much water we are using?” He was not optimistic in the near term, but said the open water data initiative held promise.

And Mathew Hansen, professor of geological sciences at the University of Maryland, and a member of the NASA Modis team, explained how crucial Landsat data is to understanding climate and ecological change, and land use, urbanization, and deforestation trends around the world. NASA has purposefully made all its land map data freely accessible, so anyone can download and analyze. Many countries facing deforestation crises use the data to track illegal deforestation, and map analyses have even been used to pursue court cases against loggers.

Bringing together disparate sets of data into a unified whole planet view is a noble goal and can lead to more responsible human management of our fragile ecosystems in our era of the Anthropocene. The “bad news, however, is we’re not focused enough to integrate these systems,” said Joppa.

He thinks the U.S. national ecosystem assessment, which was promoted by President Obama’s administration, could perhaps help kickstart the effort, at least in the U.S. He’s hoping a huge data collection and analytical effort for our nation’s ecosystems will continue into the next administration, given time is short to stop the worst environmental damage.

In coming years, advanced artificial intelligence can then be used to find trends and predict scenarios through big data. “We need artificial intelligence to save us from ourselves. My worry is A.I. won’t come soon enough.”

Symbols and Systems: The Work of Barbara Grygutis

dawns-silver-lining_001
Part of Barbara Grygutis’ acclaimed sculpture, Dawn’s Silver Lining. / Oro Editions

When reductionist artwork, like a Jackson Pollock or Piet Mondrian painting, succeeds, it succeeds in part because of the role it affords us, the viewer. Faced with a vacuum of meaning, we impart our own identities on the work, gratifying ourselves in highly-personal ways. Artist Barbara Grygutis, whose sculptures are featured in the new book, Public Art / Public Space: The Sculptural Environments of Barbara Grygutis, practices a different reductionism. It’s not us, but the sculpture’s setting that completes the composition.

The book’s subtitle tells us a bit about how Grygutis sees herself, not just as a composer of materials, but a composer of environments. Many of her sculptures cast intricately woven shadows, filter and disperse light, or consolidate it into beacons. The resultant spaces are elevated by the sculptural work and reconstituted environmental qualities. Bronx River View is one such example. This collection of sculptures transform the walls of an above-ground subway station into windows and seating. The view works both ways, and the light cast inward onto the train platform illuminate the sculptures and the passage of time.

Bronx River View / Barbara Grygutis
Bronx River View / Barbara Grygutis

“If you look back at civilizations, we learn about them through their art,” Grygutis says in an interview at the outset of her book. That’s an edifying thought if we consider Dawn’s Silver Lining, a sculpture that epitomizes Grygutis’ most successful work (see image at top). Set in Salina, Kansas, the surrounding rural landscape is flattened into a silhouette of trees and vegetation and pressed onto perforated aluminum: the reduction process. The silhouettes are then re-extruded by the light, the quality of which is constantly changing.

It’s not always enough to simply reduce. There must be a re-introduction of substance into the artwork. Without this — or with too uncritical a reduction — the piece can suffer from a poverty of meaning. Grygutis’ Drop in Prewitt Park is a 35-foot steel and glass sculpture of a water drop. Set centrally to rippling landforms, the sculpture is intended to read as the moment of congruence between water and earth. Instead, because of the drop’s very recognizable and very flat form, it reads as a corporate logo, a symbol rather than a system.

Drop in Prewitt Park / Barbara Grygutis
Drop in Prewitt Park / Barbara Grygutis

This logo-ization of complex system holds back a few of Grygutis’ sculptures that seem to have powerful ideas behind them. Weather, an oblique steel and glass structure located in North Richland Hills, Texas, is meant to evoke the meteorological systems that our landscape is subject to. But the pattern emblazoned in the glass says less about our weather systems than a barometer. Grygutis’ sculpture Signs and Symbols, Symbols and Signs, is quite literally a giant symbol, π, comprised of several other symbols borrowed from keyboards and calculators. There’s literalness in this and other Grygutis sculptures may put an expiration date on them.

Signs and Symbols, Symbols and Signs / Barbara Grygutis
Signs and Symbols, Symbols and Signs / Barbara Grygutis

Other projects, like Flaming Arroyo in Las Vegas and Frequencies, a project slated for completion in 2017 in Palo Alto, feel timeless. The latter, which is comprised of five perforated aluminum sculptures and set on a tech campus, indexes electromagnetic frequencies that are ordinarily invisible to us.

flaming-arroyo
Visitors gather under the sculpture Flaming Arroyo / Oro Editions
Frequencies / Barbara Grygutis
Frequencies / Barbara Grygutis

This is Grygutis at her most impactful, manifesting the unseen or ignored forces of our environment with sculptural interventions that beg people to slow down and take notice.

Environmentalism of the Rich

Environmentalism of the Rich / MIT Press
Environmentalism of the Rich / MIT Press

Peter Dauvergne, a professor at the University of British Columbia, has coined an interesting phrase for the incremental approach taken by environmental regulators, self-professed sustainable multi-national companies, and many mainstream environmental non-profits in the West: the environmentalism of the rich. His issue with this now-widespread shade of green: it may not be working.

In his new book Environmentalism of the Rich, Dauvergne paints a portrait of consumers in wealthy Western countries complacently purchasing their way to sustainability by swapping out old, inefficient products for new, smarter “eco” ones, or taking small steps to reduce energy and water consumption and carbon pollution. The idea promoted by many companies and non-profits is that consumers can continue to buy away if the products are “green.” They can feel as if they are making a difference by making small, not-too-painful adjustments, which will together create larger global impacts one day. 

These approaches are rooted in the perhaps-erroneous belief that “innovative policies, scientific ingenuity, and technology will allow for continuous economic growth.” Furthermore, “trust is put in soft regulation, soft regulation, eco-certification, fair trade, and corporate self-regulation, while great promise is seen in corporate responsibility and individual goodwill.”

The problem is these collective approaches are “not adding up to anything approaching global sustainability.” Throughout the book, Dauvergne peppers depressing environmental indicators showing how trends worldwide are going in the wrong direction. Ecosystems are collapsing, biodiversity loss is increasing, carbon dioxide emissions keep going up, water is becoming more scarce. 

These negative trends are only getting worse because the underlying issue is the rampant growth of all forms consumption worldwide, as Americans, Canadians, and Europeans continue to shop till they drop, and growing middle classes in developing countries aspire to reach the materialism of these countries. In coming decades, Dauvergne argues, if there are 10 billion American-style consumers on the planet, it won’t matter if consumption is eco or not. Humans will have over-tapped the carrying capacity of the Earth; in fact, they may have already.

Dauvergne’s critique is a harsh one but one worth considering. He states: “sustainability policies of governments and corporations may pay lip service to principles of ecology, but the underlying reason is almost always ahistorical, fragmentary, and linear, rarely integrating holistic or dynamic understandings of resilience, feedback loops, tipping points, and complex systems.”

For example, some sustainability-minded multi-national companies, which he names, fund the efforts of big environmental non-profits to undo ecological damage in developing countries — and they always do so in a way that maximizes public perception of their brand — but, at the same time, ramp up their efforts to expand markets, reach more consumers, and increase consumption and growth overall, all of which exacerbate underlying ecological issues somewhere else. Consumption and growth, in their abstracted models, are most often divorced from any real-world ecological impacts. 

This disconnect between growth and ecology continues because many developing-world companies and multi-nationals don’t have to reconcile these competing demands. They can follow the same pattern established by colonial powers in the past: look for the cheapest and easiest-to-extract resources in developing countries where there is little accountability and maximize their extraction. If a regulatory hurdle appears, move to the next country. 

Dauvergne uses a few chapters to go deep into these examples: the terrible legacy of phosphate mining in Nauru, the ongoing destruction of the rainforest due to palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia, along with a brief discussion of ranchers and soy farmers clearing the Amazon rainforest. He also explains how being an “environmentalist of the poor” — an advocate in a developing country fighting environmental degradation — is one of the most dangerous jobs one can have. Thousands of environmental activists have been murdered or disappeared over the past few decades.

Recent corporate and non-profit efforts to self-regulate natural resource extraction, like the Forest Stewardship Council, which covers around 10 percent of traded timber, and the Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies around 10 percent of seafood consumed, are having some positive impact. But he questions whether these efforts can scale up to cover the global marketplace, and whether these voluntary regimes can actually limit resource plunder when the rubber hits the road in coming decades amid exploding population growth. 

He admits the environmentalism of the rich, which originated out of an American movement to conserve wild nature, has led to some gains: its “improving the administration of nature parks and the management of cities, as well as averting some known and immediate harms.” He cites clean air and water in the developed world and many developing world cities, the spread of energy efficient green buildings, and the growth of recycling and power from waste as major wins. Corporations are now setting ambitious goals like “water neutrality, zero waste, zero deforestation, carbon neutrality, 100 percent sustainable sourcing, and 100 percent renewable energy, among others.”

The problem for Dauvergne is that these well-meaning but perhaps superficial efforts don’t get at the underlying issue: “much of today’s wealth is a product of the globalization of the unsustainable world economy of ever-higher extraction, growth, and consumption, where violence, extreme inequality, and ecological risk-taking are the norms.”

He wants a new deep green global movement that limits consumption and aims to change the fundamental human preference for growth. He calls for transforming the anti-establishment, anti-consumption movement — which seeks to replace the annual shopping bonanza Black Friday with the protest gesture Buy Nothing Day — into a more mainstream platform everyone can get behind. He’s hoping some clever messaging and advertising will make reduced consumption more palatable.

Perhaps not buying things in the first place can become a moral good, just as throwing away unloved things has become one in Marie Kondo’s best-selling ode to minimalism, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. One reporter in London actually didn’t buy anything she didn’t absolutely need for a year and survived. Dauvergne wants everyone to take responsibility for their own consumption and reduce their ecological footprints to a “fair Earth share.” For those in rich Western countries, it means setting a new example before it’s too late.