Cities and Biodiversity Hotspots on Collision Course

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The western hemisphere’s conflict zones / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

Nearly 400 cities around the world are currently on “a crash course” with irreplaceable ecosystems, according to new research from Richard Weller, ASLA, professor and chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, and researchers Claire Hoch and Chieh Huang. Weller shared his findings at the launch for the Atlas for the End of World, which maps these biologically-rich areas and the threats they face.

Agriculture and urbanization, fueled by population increase, pose the greatest threats to these ecosystems. Weller’s team discovered the coming conflict zones by overlaying cities’ 2030 growth projections with maps of threatened species’ habitats.

Some 142 nations preside over these biological “hotspots,” according to Weller. Under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, a multilateral treaty that sets guidelines for protecting biological assets, each signatory nation must set forth a strategy for protecting its biologically-rich areas. Using the Atlas, a country’s officials can determine where they should focus their conservation efforts.

Global conservation efforts have been underway for some time. Policies have been enacted to protect certain species and rehabilitate or fence off biologically-rich habitat. One of the Atlas’ maps visualizes all large-scale restoration projects, both planned and underway, globally. These efforts are “historically unprecedented and mark an evolutionary paradigm shift,” Weller said.

But, unfortunately, these conservation efforts are also fragmented and diminished in impact, as most occur outside of the world’s biological hotspots. Weller drove this point home with an image of what he termed a “global archipelago,” the Earth’s landmass minus its unprotected areas. The result of this subtraction is a system of small, isolated patches of conserved land. For conservation to have a meaningful impact, it must protect biologically-rich areas, and these areas must connect with one another. A new era of large-scale landscape planning is needed.

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What’s left of the world’s biodiversity in protected areas / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

Complicating the issue, Weller acknowledged, is the fact that many hotspots occur within countries struggling with poverty and corruption. The man who logs illegally for lack of other work won’t abide by policies that favor habitat over his family.

At the launch, Eugenie Birch, professor of urban research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, suggested the protection of biological hotspots was tied up not just with food production and development, but larger themes of inequality and conflict. Solving conflicts would help to solve the others.

Weller emphasized the Atlas’s goals are modest. To solve the complex issues facing these biological hotspots, planners and landscape architects must get on the ground and work with stakeholders to intelligently guide development. Now, at least, they have maps to point them in the right direction.

Read Weller’s summary of the research.

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.

Harnessing the Power of Nature to Improve Our Cities

Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design / Island Press
Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design / Island Press

People feel happier, healthier, and more social when they engage with nature. Their cognitive abilities go up and stress levels go down. So why is nature so often thought to be found only “out there” in the wilderness, or perhaps suburbia? For Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia, 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. In his latest excellent book, the Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, Beatley brings together all the established science, the important case studies, the innovative code and design practices from around the world in one place. Even if you think you already know a lot about how best to incorporate nature into cities, there will be some interesting new facets in this book for you to explore.

Some 54 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, some 4 billion people. That number is expected to reach 70 percent by 2050. As more of the world goes urban, we have a fundamental task ahead: to make the world’s cities ecologically-rich and emotionally satisfying. As Beatley puts it, we must use the “power of nature” to improve the experience of city life. As has been laid out elsewhere, increased amounts of urban nature and improved access to it can boost happiness, creativity, and cognitive abilities, reduce stress and crime, make communities wealthier and more social and resilient. Study after study demonstrate these benefits.

But Beatley unearths fascinating examples like the Mappiness Project in the UK. More than 60,000 Brits out and about in their daily lives were pinged by an iPhone app that asked them at random times to indicate how happy they were. Responses were then geo-coded to locations, with their relevant natural features. The study found “people are happiest when they are in nature. This is one of the main conclusions of the project.”

He also details the many ways cities can create room for nature. While creating connections to waterfronts and planting more trees are no-brainers, he calls for “an integrated, multi-scalar approach,” in which biophilic experiences are embedded at “interconnected scales and levels.” Biophilic encounters reinforce each other, and as they accumulate, the benefits increase. On a daily basis, people experience “doses” of urban nature in different ways — on their porch, walking down the street, on a park bench — and together these make up their overall “urban nature diet.” He recommends spending time a park or greenspace at least once a week, but the science is still out on what that ideal amount of time is. Beatley argues for direct contact in outdoor settings, like sitting under a tree, over indirect exposure to nature, like found in indoor environments or natural history museums.

Beatley has long held up a few cities as model biophilic cities, but he goes into more detail about what they offer. He explores Singapore’s sky-bridges that course through forests and vertical gardens set in skyscrapers, and Wellington’s comprehensive efforts to bring back bird song by restoring habitat and its pioneering launch of the world’s first marine bioblitz.

Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore / Travelog
Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore / Travelog

But he also includes lesser-known success stories, like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where 3,000 vacant parcels are being re-imagined as gardens and urban farms, and San Francisco’s Please Touch community garden, designed so the blind and visually impaired so can also have a multi-sensory nature experience.

Please touch community garden / Ekevara Kitpowsong, for S.F. Examiner
Please touch community garden / Ekevara Kitpowsong, for S.F. Examiner

We then get to the nitty-gritty of how to make biophilic cities happen — through smart policies, thoughtful urban planning regulations, and breakthrough designs. There are 80 pages of interesting examples, with many works of landscape architecture, including Paley Park in New York City, designed by landscape architect Robert L. Zion, which he rightfully identifies as a unique multi-sensory experience that demonstrates the “power of water.” With its 20-foot-tall fountain, this tiny park, at just one-tenth of an acre, demonstrates the incredible potential of small, left-over urban spaces.

Paley Park / Pinterest
Paley Park / Pinterest

So many other projects are worth reading about — like the Aqua in Chicago, which is a bird-friendly skyscraper; the Philadelphia Orchard Project, which plants fruit trees in poor communities; Milkweeds for Monarchs in St. Louis, which incentivized citizens to plant hundreds of gardens for threatened Monarch butterflies; the Healthy Harbor Initiative in Baltimore, which is taking steps to achieve a swimmable, fishable harbor by 2020; the Vertical Forest, a residential tower in Milan, Italy, which extends trees upwards through 27 stories; and the 54-acre Qiaoyuan Park in Tianjin, China, which repairs a damaged ecosystem while storing stormwater and creating wildlife habitat.

Beatley concludes with a few thoughts that resonated with me about how the whole biophilic cities movement needs to evolve. As we green cities, we must aim to achieve a “just biophilia” in which everyone benefits. Given study after study demonstrate that access to nature can improve and even lengthen lives, it’s deeply unfair that not every community gets to have the healing benefits of nature. Plus, we must also must figure out how to reach an increasingly technology-fixated public, who are often interacting with nature through their phone’s camera. He promotes Sue Thomas’ book Technobiophilia, which argues we can better foster connections to nature through cyber-parks — real parks that leverage the Internet. 

Brazilians Use Olympics to Deliver Climate Message

2016 Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony / NBC
2016 Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony / NBC

The estimated 3.3 billion people who watched the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, saw a beautiful and compelling case for fighting climate change. Brazil, which is to critical to global efforts, given its stewardship of the Amazon rainforest, decided to use its big moment on the stage to make the message clear: climate change will impact us all, and we must all do something, even if it’s simply planting a tree.

In the beginning of the ceremony, the Amazon was depicted as the great web of life, a multi-layered network, which is really how a forest functions, according to biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus (see image at top). We then see dancers from the indigenous tribes of Brazil symbolically managing the forest resources in sustainable ways.

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But later, we see the forest come apart, as its colonized by the Portuguese, as their ships slice through the sea of greenery. In the ceremony, dancers dramatized the conflict between the native forest dwellers and the Portuguese, between the stewards of ecology and the forces of extraction and trade.

Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony / Olympics
Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony / Olympics

We then see dancers representing the millions of slaves brought over from Africa. Then we see how the forest was further broken down, turned into farms, and, finally, urbanized.

As the ceremony progressed, dancers moved off stage and the Brazilian Olympics organizers shifted the focus to educating the world about what the climate models predict, displaying this data showing global temperature increase.

As the narrator states — “the heat is melting the ice cap; it’s disappearing very quickly — an animation displays, showing what a melting North Pole will mean for the world’s waterfront cities, including Amsterdam, Dubai, Lagos, Shanghai, Miami, and, finally, the home of the 2016 Olympics.

After the doom and gloom, a child then walks through to the middle of the stage and sits down next to a sapling, which itself glows, spreading the web of life once again. The answer to climate change, according to the Brazilians, is to protect and renew our forests. 

Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony / Olympics.org
Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony / Olympics.org

The ceremony is a reminder that much of the world is very worried about climate change and has moved way beyond any controversies around the science. According to the Pew Research Center, majorities in 40 leading countries say climate change is a “serious concern,” and 54 percent say it’s a “very serious concern.”

While the ceremony may help educate the world, its message may also be directed at some key local audiences. Environmental officials in Brazil have been fighting a tough battle against cattle ranchers, loggers, and farmers who continue to engage in illegal burning and clearing of the rainforest and must have powerful political backers who protect and enable this. And the message may also be aimed at international donors who can bolster Brazil’s fight to save the forest; it’s a plea to ask them to do more to help this developing country.

Deforestation in the Amazon just hit the highest levels in 8 years, with 240,000 acres destroyed in June 2016 alone. About 19 percent of the total Amazon rainforest is gone. It’s clearly time to geo-engineer the planet in a sustainable way: let’s regrow the lost forest and then plant billions more trees. 

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.

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.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (October 16 – 31)

The Xixi Wetland Estate in Hangzhou is the latest housing project by David Chipperfield in China / Simon Menges, Wallpaper.com
The Xixi Wetland Estate in Hangzhou is the latest housing project by David Chipperfield in China / Simon Menges, Wallpaper.com

The Spiritual and Spectacular Meet at an Ultramodern Community Center in Connecticut The New York Times, 10/16/15
“A group of friends and neighbors thought that this area could use a new community center with a spiritual underpinning. So they built one. But Grace Farms, as the project is called, will never be mistaken for a modest Amish barn-raising. In this corner of Connecticut, budgets are less tight than elsewhere.”

Wild Gardens That Grew Out From WashingtonThe Washington Post, 10/19/15
“Washington doesn’t export a lot of aesthetic ideas, and the exceptions only prove the rule. Yes, the city can lay claim to the Washington Color School, more than a half-century ago, but that always feels a bit like the region’s claim to culinary fame, the crab cake: predictable, ubiquitous and uninspiring.”

Putting the Wilderness Back in Houston Arboretum The Houston Chronicle, 10/26/15
“The incessant hum of Loop 610 traffic permeates the western edge of the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, like waves crashing on a beach. Just 75 feet from the state’s busiest freeway, rabbits scamper through the underbrush, purple beautyberries cling to the drooping canes of bright green plants and a dry, woodsy scent hangs in the air.”

Verdant Village: David Chipperfield Completes the Xixi Wetland Estate Wallpaper, 10/26/15
“For two thousand years, Hangzhou has been celebrated for its incomparable tableau of unruffled lakes at the foot of green hills, and ancient waterways lined with gardens, temples, and graceful buildings designed by a succession of dynasties enamored with the landscape.”

Landscape OperationsThe Architect’s Newspaper, 10/27/15
“An ongoing debate resurfaced at the Chicago Architecture Biennial. One critic in particular, Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects, criticized the curators, saying that it seems that “contemporary architecture [has] ceased to exist, the discipline’s guilt and bad conscience has sapped its vitality, and driven it to self-annihilation.”

America’s Green Giant The New York Review of Books, 11/15
“The nearly universal acclaim that greeted the High Line—the linear greenway built between 2006 and 2014 atop an abandoned elevated railway trestle on Manhattan’s lower west side—reconfirmed the transformative effect parks can have on the quality of urban life.”

The Beauty of the Rainforest

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Le radeau des cimes / Krapo arboricole

After a weekend spent drawing trees with the students and faculty of the landscape architecture department at the University of Virginia, French botanist Francis Hallé gave a talk on the ecology of tropical rainforests. He has studied tropical plant life in 45 countries for 55 years and was the first person to land on top of the rainforest canopy using a raft suspended from a dirigible.

Hallé said the tropical rainforest canopy is the most complicated place to study botany for two reasons: one, the rainforest is the most biologically-diverse ecosystem in the world; and two, the canopy — because of its lack of humidity and access to sunlight — is even more diverse than the tropical forest undergrowth.

Hallé often uses metaphors to describe the life of the rainforest. “Can you imagine a lovely building of ten floors inhabited by smart and interesting people? Why should we visit only the basement, the parking, the terminal of rubbish and plumbing, the garbage cans, with cockroaches and mice? So we have to find a way to go up. I regret that at the time of Darwin it was not possible to climb the canopy and get up there.”

Compared to the lightness of the canopy, with its scents and butterflies, the undergrowth is dark, musty, and humid. “You can hear the animals, but you cannot see them. Undergrowth animals are big, dark, slow, and extremely shy. There are big cockroaches, spiders, millipedes, toads, and snails, but they are very shy. They turn around the tree trunk to avoid being seen by you.”

In 1975, Hallé and his colleague, Dany Cleyet-Marrel, a pilot and expert ballooner, attempted to fly in a hot air balloon over the rainforest in French Guyana. The trade winds were too strong to collect specimens, as Hallé planned. They needed to build an airfield in order to land on the canopy, and they also needed more financial backing.

Hallé consulted his friend and colleague, an architect from the Versailles School of Architecture, Gilles Ebersolt, to design a canopy raft. Finally in 1989, after the funding was acquired, and the equipment built, Hallé landed for the first time on the tropical canopy. The suspended raft and the materials were light enough that the crowns of three trees could support the entire weight. The 600-square-meter raft can hold 600 kilograms, approximately six scientists and their gear. He has brought entomologists, zoologists, and local botanists. In 1989, Hallé visited French Guyana, and, subsequently, Cameroon, Madagascar, Panama, Vanuatu, and Laos, where he hopes to return in 2015.

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Le radeau des cimes / Forêts Tropicales Humides Le Film

“You cannot image how beautiful the night is up there. You have a clear sky, the Milky Way, insects creating light. You have the music of the fauna: the frogs inhabiting the branches, the birds of the night, and monkeys. You have the perfume of flowers. I try not to sleep when I am on top of the canopy.”

After witnessing the deforestation of tropical rain forests his whole life, Hallé seeks to bring attention to the beauty and life of the rainforest canopy. Last year, he completed his first film with filmmaker Luc Jacquet, Il Etait une Forêt, to celebrate the rainforest as it exists today and to help people understand the value of tropical rainforests.

He concluded his lecture with another analogy: the tropical canopy is a large table set for an elegant and delicious dinner. There is exquisite food, abundant flowers, and fine wines. The moment the guests are ready to sit down, an idiot arrives with a chainsaw and says, “Wow, your table has wooden legs. I am interested in the wood.” Without a glance, he takes his chainsaw and he cuts the four legs. The dinner – the canopy – is destroyed and everything is lost.

This guest post is by Lucy Mcfadden, a Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Virginia.

Tracking Global Deforestation (and Reforestation)

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Global Forest Watch

Global Forest Watch, a new $25 million dollar, web-based tool — which was created through a partnership of the World Resources Institute (WRI), ESRI, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Google, and a slew of other environmental groups — aims to provide a “near-real time” view of deforestation (and reforestation) around the world. According to data from Google and the University of Maryland, the world has lost 2.3 million square kilometers of trees from 2000 to 2012 from logging, diseases, and storms. BBC News tells us this is the equivalent to 50 football fields of trees being lost “every minute of every day over the past 12 years.” But during the same time frame, about 800,000 square kilometers of new forest were also planted. Still, this means the world has lost forest cover equal to the size of Mongolia in little more than a decade. The world can’t keep going at this rate given only about 15 percent of the planet’s original forest cover now remains.

Since the late 1990s, WRI has led the development of the forest watch service, which “unites satellite technology, open data, and crowdsourcing to guarantee access to timely and reliable information about forests.” The program uses more than half a billion high-res images from NASA’s Landsat program, which are organized with new algorithms created by the University of Maryland, and then made available for easy online access thanks to the cloud computing power of Google’s Earth and Maps engines. BBC News writes that high-res images of global tree loss and gain are updated annually while data on tropical forests is updated monthly.

The program’s ability to crowdsource information is particularly interesting. Campaigners and local communities can also submit data, pictures, and video on the ground. This picks up on an existing trend: “In Brazil, the Paiter Surui people are already using smart phones and GPS software to monitor illegal logging.”

The watch service will visualize protected areas, as well as concessions for logging, mining, and palm oil. For example, any user can look up whether a given area is protected or whether a company has the right to take down the trees there. Policymakers and regulators can now point to the map to see if laws are being followed on logging in vulnerable areas. Multinational companies like Nestle say it will enable them to better track where they supply palm oil and other ingredients. And sustainable forestry companies can better prove their products are coming from sanctioned places. Dr. Andrew Steer at WRI said: “Global Forest Watch is a near-real time monitoring platform that will fundamentally change the way people and businesses manage forests. From now on, the bad guys cannot hide and the good guys will be recognized for their stewardship.”

The world no longer has to rely on guesstimates. As Rebecca Moore, engineering manager with Google Earth, explained to Reuters: “With the exception of Brazil, none of the tropical forest countries have been able to report the state of their forests. Now it will be possible to have near real-time updates of the state of the world’s forests, open to anyone to use.”

The trick will be getting out some final kinks, writes The Christian Science Monitor. Critics of the program say it currently can’t distinguish between forests and industrial plantations, a major problem given rows of palm trees shouldn’t really be counted as a forest, given these mono-cultures provide very few ecosystem services.

Also worth reading is “Networking Nature: How Technology Is Transforming Conservation,” a phenomenal article in the past issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. Conservation scientist Jon Hoekstra gives us many reasons to be optimistic about the power of new technologies. “Conservation is for the first time beginning to operate at the pace and on the scale necessary to keep up with, and even get ahead of, the planet’s most intractable environmental challenges. New technologies have given conservationists abilities that would have seemed like super powers just a few years ago.”

Video: The Impact of Climate Change on Philadelphia’s Forest

Climate change will have an impact on our urban forests. The change in temperature and precipitation will shift the suitable habitat for virtually all tree species. Using West Philadelphia as a lens to examine these changes, this video not only explores the impacts of climate change but also how we can adapt the urban forest to the coming challenges.

During my three years studying landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, hardly anyone was interested in discussing climate change. Most people tuned out when I brought it up. I think it’s the issue of our time. In fact, it’s a big part of the reason I decided to study landscape architecture after the bottom fell out of professional photography market in 2008.

Someone I talked to recently compared being a landscape architect now to being an engineer at NASA in the ’60’s. And I agree, it’s the chance to work to solve one of the great challenges of our time. There is an unprecedented opportunity to have a real impact on cities of the 21st century and beyond.

Hurricane Sandy, sadly, changed the game. I lived in NYC for eight years before graduate school and when I told acquaintances that I was going to study landscape architecture, no one cared. I stopped in New York after the ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston last November and when I mentioned that my degree was in landscape architecture, everyone was all of sudden interested. Literally, some of the same people three years before who couldn’t be bothered, visibly showed interest and asked questions. Hurricane Sandy shattered New Yorkers’ comprehension of reality.

Unfortunately, most landscape architects have failed to realize the sheer potential of the situation. But that does not excuse us from being leaders and bringing our talents and skill sets to bear on the problem. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away, as much as I have wanted that at different points in my life.

One of my goals for this video was to bring climate change action down to a much more localized and manageable level. Part of the problem is the issues are so large and beyond human comprehension that it’s almost impossible to think about how one person can do anything. I intentionally avoid grand solutions and instead proffer ideas, like planting adapted trees today. These are things any concerned citizen can do.

We need to start connecting the ideas and possible solutions of climate change from the stratosphere to the ground of everyday existence.

This guest post op-ed is by Barrett Doherty, a recent Master’s of landscape architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania, and professional photographer.