Trolls live in caves, rocks, or mountains. They live long lives, are very strong, but are known to be slow and somewhat dim-witted. They aren’t fond of humans and have even been known to eat a few.
In Morton Arboretum in northern Illinois, six wooden trolls have taken over, thanks to the inventive Danish artist Thomas Dambo. Each is about 30-feet-tall, except for a reclining one that is 60-feet long, and made of recycled wood. These installations are part of Troll Hunt, an inspired exhibition that will take families on nature walks in search of these dangerous creatures.
Visitors can take a hike along a 6-7 mile route through the 1,700-acre arboretum to find all six trolls, drive or bike to them, or take a “troll tram ride.” There’s a fun troll hunt map that only adds to the sense of adventure.
Chip Sullivan, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, has called for bringing mythology back to our landscapes, to imbue them with deeper meaning that can connect us to stories from the past.
Through thousands of years of Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore, trolls have been seen as powerful supernatural beings who are capable of great mischief.
They have been stirring our imagination for centuries — and in Morton Arboretum the myth is so much fun.
In the not too distant past, you could park a car in the midst of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) at California’s Yosemite National Park. That is no longer possible thanks to a recently-completed $40 million restoration by the National Park Service (NPS) in partnership with the Yosemite Conservancy and Seattle-based multidisciplinary design firm Mithun.
Now, visitors park at a newly constructed, 300-vehicle-capacity terminal two miles away and take a shuttle bus to a main entry plaza at the lower grove.
“Before, it used to be a pass-through area. People didn’t even really notice it,” says Mithun senior associate Christian Runge, ASLA, about the restored lower grove. “They saw a couple of big trees, but it wasn’t a place. Now, it’s the centerpiece of the whole project.”
This transformation didn’t happen for its own sake. Years of heavy visitor traffic and poor planning took their toll on the storied trees, raising alarm about their future health.
The giant sequoia, which grows to approximately 300-feet high and can live for thousands of years, is an endangered species. This tree occupies a narrow ecological niche only 260-miles-wide on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains and requires specific environmental conditions to thrive. The Mariposa Grove is one of the few places on earth where the sequoia is able to reseed on its own.
“The Sequoias exist on the western slopes of the Sierras at a certain elevation, which is essentially at the rain-snow transitional zone,” says Runge. “If you go much lower, it’s all rain; if you go much higher, it’s all snow. That feeds the hydrology of these mountain wetland stream systems, which the sequoias tend to cluster closely around.”
“So, restoring hydrology and improving the natural hydrologic flow in the grove was really an important piece of the restoration puzzle.”
To achieve this, the design team removed the existing network of asphalt roads and paths, which were interfering with the grove’s natural drainage patterns.
One road that connected the lower and upper groves crossed streams and wetlands approximately 30 times, says Runge. “Those culverts were anywhere between 50-60 years old, and a lot of them weren’t even functioning anymore.”
In the place of asphalt and culverts, Mithun designed a series of elevated boardwalks and trails that allow for a variety of visitor experiences and do not interfere with the delicate hydrology needed to sustain the sequoias.
“If we keep those streams running and hope for the best with snowmelt, then we can imagine those populations will continue to be stable and hopefully grow into mature trees,” Runge says.
However, that outcome is not guaranteed. Giant sequoias are threatened by the effects of climate change, which could reduce the amount of groundwater available to the trees and make it more difficult for seedlings to survive.
Runge acknowledges that in the face of such forces, there is only so much that the project can accomplish.
“The best thing we can really do is improve and maintain the processes that keep the sequoias as healthy as possible in order to provide as much resilience as possible,” says Runge. “Improving those processes was really the focus of the restoration.”
Ensuring the survival of the Mariposa grove also required changes to the visitor experience. In addition to restoring groundwater hydrology, the elevated boardwalks also keep visitors at a distance from the trees in the grove’s most heavily trafficked areas.
“People want to get up close to them. It’s just a human, intuitive thing that you want to be able to do,” Runge says. But, “if everyone did that, there would be too much damage to the tree.”
Instead, Mithun created a series of loops that become progressively less contained as they lead further from the main entry plaza. “Each loop takes you further out and is closer to a wilderness experience. If you want to go up into the upper grove, that’s something that can only really be hiked into.”
In addition to the new trails, enhancements to the visitor experience include a new visitor center and comfort stations designed by Mithun architects Brendan Connolly and Susan Olmsted, ASLA.
While the design language and material choices were in some way constrained by the need to work within the rustic National Park aesthetic of stone and timber, Runge says the design team found room for creativity in the details.
“We didn’t argue about modern versus historic, but we did push for quality detailing and structural systems, thinking through stonework, and trying to understand what the Works Progress Administration (WPA)-era standards were in reality versus just giving the impression of something being historic. Making something that is durable, long-lasting, and in some sense beautiful was the key goal for us both in terms of the architectural elements and site elements, like the boardwalk.”
For Runge, striking this balance between ecology and the visitor experience defined Mithun’s approach to the project. “Ultimately, I feel like we got there,” he says. “It feels like a transformed place.”
Companies and organizations are buying and selling billions of dollars of carbon credits every year worldwide. Carbon credits are a financial instrument that packages one metric ton of carbon dioxide into a commodity that can be traded. For example, if a company participates in a required, or even voluntary, cap-and-trade system and has exceeded the annual quota for their carbon dioxide emissions, they can purchase a credit from another organization that has excess credits. Credits sometimes come from carbon offset projects, which are explicitly designed to sequester or reduce greenhouse emissions in a verifiable amount.
Carbon credits and offsets are verified by 3rd party organizations, who root their evaluation in standards and protocols. Registries verify the amounts of carbon bought and sold, as well as the projects actively sequestering or reducing greenhouse gases, and help package the credits or offsets. Exchanges are marketplaces where credits and offsets are traded. Typically, credits and offsets feature renewable energy, energy-efficiency programs, the capture of methane or other pollution, or the expansion or protection of forests.
But now, a few start-up organizations are trying to figure out to how to make it easier for cities across the country to turn the carbon stored in urban forests into credits and offsets. If well-designed, implemented, and monitored, these new models have the potential to provide new revenue streams for strapped urban parks systems, protect existing green spaces from development, and bring more greenery to our cities and suburbs.
City Forest Credits, based in Seattle, is a registry that has developed a “unique bundled credit” — that goes beyond just packaging carbon. Each credit includes “a metric ton of CO2; stormwater runoff reduction in cubic meters; air quality for O3, NOx, PM10, and Net VOCs; and energy savings in kWh/yr and kBtu/yr.”
City Forest Projects makes the case for their approach: projects are “implemented locally, with visible and quantified ecosystem benefits.” Furthermore, individuals, companies, and organizations can purchase credits in their own communities, keeping benefits local.
They’ve developed their own protocols for measuring the benefits of their credits. And on their website, they claim they have solid leads with a number of cities, including Austin, Texas, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to turn urban forests into credits that can be traded.
For example, “we are beginning to work with urban forest stakeholders in Austin to assess larger-scale urban forest carbon projects that could generate significant volumes of CO₂ storage.” And in Pittsburgh, “a group of conservancy organizations has been working for over four years to preserve from development a large, 660-acre parcel of forested land in the City of Pittsburgh. We have had detailed discussions with the groups as they work to preserve not just the land, but the trees as well. A preservation carbon project could help preserve the trees, generate revenues for maintenance, demonstrate stewardship, and keep the many benefits of trees for the residents of the city.”
While City Forest Projects still seems to be formulating their approach and finding a market for the credits, Urban Offsets, another organization, appears to be farther ahead.
Their model is a bit different from City Forest Project’s. They package already-existing “high quality carbon offsets,” which have already been verified by registries, further evaluate the credits according to more than 50 criteria, and then bundle these offsets with “community tree programs.”
Urban Offsets makes the case for their approach: “Our unique offering involves the bundling of purchased third-party verified carbon offsets with tree plantings in local communities. This methodology presents a one-two punch against the traditional methods of offsets. Our model gives you the best of everything: local trees with proven ROI and positive impact that truly reduce carbon emissions.”
Urban Offsets is now partnering with urban tree planting organizations in New York City, Atlanta, Phoenix, Tempe, Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, St. Louis, and Fayetteville. In New York City, they are working with Bette Midler’s well-regarded organization, the New York Restoration Project, and in Charlotte, with TreesCharlotte. They state these organizations are ensuring the trees are well-maintained.
It’s important that the trees underlining these urban forestry-based financial mechanisms are in good health. Given the high mortality rates for urban street trees, maintenance needs to be guaranteed to ensure the credibility of urban forests as long-term financial assets.
Much of Urban Offsets’ efforts seems driven by demand from Duke University, and their carbon offsets initiative. The Ivy of the South seeks to be carbon neutral by 2024. To meet that goal, Duke University will need to “offset approximately 185,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent-emissions per year.” Urban Offsets is the “exclusive” provider of urban forestry offsets for Duke.
Boosting both the supply and demand for urban forestry credits and offsets is then critical to creating the market — and ultimately benefiting the tree planting non-profits, conservancies, and park systems that could really use the extra revenue.
This year, the Pacific Northwest saw an extraordinary fire season, with approximately 35 fires raging in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California by mid-September. While there is an immediate knee-jerk reaction to fires as entirely negative, wildfires are in fact a very natural part of the life cycle of forests. In addition to removing undergrowth so sunlight can reach the forest floor and new plants can grow, some plants, such as the lodgepole pine, even require fire to germinate and sprout.
What is so unusual about this year’s season is how long it has lasted: a full seven months. An unusually dry summer in a region known for rain, combined with a strong ridge high pressure that settled over the Pacific Northwest heating air and blocking storms from entering, resulted in dried-out plants and created the perfect environment for fires. In 2017, we have already spent more in national funds to combat the fires than in any other year on record, and the year isn’t yet over.
Similar to the hurricanes battering the East Coast this season, these events would be considered normal individually, if it were not for the acceleration of their natural cycles, creating increased numbers that are larger in scope. Looking at the total picture, the acceleration of these cycles is where we can see the inevitable consequences of climate change at work.
Living in Seattle, I have seen the effects of these fires firsthand. Getting up one morning this summer after having left the window open overnight, I went into my dining room and discovered that the wind had covered it entirely with ashes. Despite not being exposed to an active fire, the visible effects continued to blanket our city. And it’s not just the visible effects. Ash and smoke particulates in the air can cause breathing problems, especially for sensitive populations including those with heart and lung diseases such as asthma. Though fires may not be blazing downtown, they are have impacted the lives of everyone living in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Even if you don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, the fires are affecting you too, though you may not know it. The ash and smoke from the fires are not just settling on our cities, but also being lofted into the atmosphere and spreading around the globe. In this map created by NASA, you can see the ash and smoke from the Pacific Northwest fires drifting across the earth, reaching as far as Europe and Northern Africa. And due to their carbon gas emissions, the wildfires themselves contribute to accelerated climate change worldwide. While climate incidents like these can be “out of sight, out of mind” for those not actively experiencing them, the earth is a closed system: climate incidents that impact some of us, impact all of us.
So with climate change here to stay, how can we mitigate its impact to make our cities and dwellings safer? Landscape architecture can provide solutions to some of the problems posed by climate change. For example, better urban design can help reduce the sprawl at the intersection of urban and natural space, which is now in the most in danger of devastation from wildfires. For those already living at these intersections, landscape management of individual properties can help mitigate those hazards.
One such solution is to create a “defensible space” around homes at these intersections. These spaces create a barrier to impede wildfires from reaching homes, room for firefighters to maneuver if needed, and prevent fires in the home from spreading into the wild. Defensible space tactics can include reducing plant fuels around the home, incorporating fuel breaks such as gravel, and ensuring that all trees are cleared to 6-10 feet off the ground.
Careful selection of plants, too, can have an impact at these intersections. Plants that shed minimal amounts of leaves and needles provide less fuel for fires. Trees with low resin and sap content are also considered less likely to burn. Finally, native plants may be more fire-resistant or fire-adapted than non-native species. Over the last 30-40 years, we have gained an increased understanding of the environmental importance of using native plants in landscapes. But with climate change, we must also plan for a “different kind of native,” selecting plants with an eye towards the future, as current native species may not thrive in the environment as it changes.
This is where research and forward-thinking are most critical. Greater focus and funds towards researching the anticipated effects of climate change on an area allows us to plan for “new native” species that will thrive in their changing environment.
We must call on national agencies managing resources to do so with an eye towards the future, conducting research and careful planning to ensure that our natural resources and our built environments are protected. While the effects of climate change are inevitable, what matters now is finding ways to adapt to these new circumstances. You can see great work being done by the National Park Service in this area, preparing our natural treasures to survive and thrive in a world of accelerated natural cycles.
Tackling the problems posed by climate change can be overwhelming, but humans are highly adaptable species, and there are measures we can and should take to protect our future. That’s why the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has convened a blue ribbon panel of multidisciplinary experts to create innovative solutions that will make our cities and inhabited spaces climate resilient. The report will provide comprehensive public-policy recommendations for using resilient design to combat climate change. Learn more about how we’re developing policy recommendations to safeguard our cities and natural resources for the future.
This post is by Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, immediate past president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and a landscape architect with 40 years of experience.
While high-profile urban tree planting campaigns like New York City’s get a lot of attention, most U.S. cities have experienced a decline in their urban forests, with a loss of about 4 million trees each year, or about “1.3 percent of the total tree stock.” The Nature Conservancy builds the case for recommitting to expanding our urban canopies for health reasons, instead of just letting them slowly diminish.
The many benefits of trees are well-documented: they clean and cool the air, combat the urban heat island effect, capture stormwater, mitigate the risk of floods, boost water quality, and, importantly, improve our mental and physical health and well-being.
According to the report, the U.S. Forest Service and University of California, Davis found that “for every $1 spent in Californian cities on tree planting and maintenance, there were $5.82 in benefits.” Another study found that for every $1, benefits ranged from $1.37 to $3.09.
In particular, urban forests can help catch harmful particulate matter in their leaves and reduce “ground-level ozone concentrations by directly absorbing ozone and decreasing ozone formation.” High levels of particulate matter and ozone can trigger asthma and cause other respiratory problems. Planting trees to deal with these issues in New York City alone could result in $60 million in health benefits annually.
Researchers are more closely examining how trees fight air pollution. In Louisville, Kentucky, Green for Good is now testing a “vegetative buffer” at the St. Margaret Mary Elementary School designed to filter the particulate air pollution coming off a nearby heavily-trafficked roadway. Initial results show that “under certain conditions, level of particulate matter were 60 percent lower behind the buffer than in the open side of the front yard. Among the health study participants, immune system function increased and inflammation levels decreased after planting.”
A Harvard Nurses Study found a 12 percent reduction in all-cause mortality for those who lived within 250 meters of a high level of greenness. And an exciting study now underway will look at 4 million Kaiser Permanente members in Northern California with the goal of determining if there is a relationship between healthcare use and the proximity and amount of nearby tree canopy.
Despite all the great research, the news still hasn’t reached the general public or even arborists. This is reflected in the fact that average U.S. municipal spending on urban forestry has fallen by more than 25 percent since 1980, to around $5.83 per urbanite today.
If the 27 largest American cities instead reinvested in their urban forests, “planting in the sites with the greatest health benefits (the top 20 percent of all potentially plantable sites in a city)” the cost would be around $200 million a year. Maintenance funds would also need to increase. The total gap between current realities and this needed reinvestment in our communities’ health is only $8 per person — so in a city of one million residents, $8 million.
Trees just get a tiny share of municipal budgets. But with these arguments backed by numbers, the hope is a relatively cheap investment in trees for public health — which would also result in so many gains in livability and property values — can win greater support.
The health benefits of nature have been well-established. From improved well-being to a reduction in respiratory illnesses, access to green space is crucial to improving public health in urban areas. The problem, according to Dr. Cecil Konijnendijk van den Bosch, is that “nature is still not an integral part of our healthcare system.”
Konijnendijk van den Bosch, along with his wife, Matilda van den Bosch, are professors at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Their research focuses on trees, green spaces, and public health in urban environments.
Studies published in prestigious journals like the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), BMC Public Health, and Nature affirm the health benefits of nature. Summarizing the research, Konijnendijk van den Bosch said tree canopies and green space can reduce the health gap caused by socioeconomic inequality; and lower rates of ADHD, cardiovascular and respiratory illness, depression, and overall mortality while boosting cognition and happiness.
“There’s so much potential in these benefits,” but they are not being widely translated into our healthcare systems, despite all of the credible research.
“Things are happening here and there. Step by step,” he said. “It’s not a major campaign. It’s not a movement of integrating green space and trees into our healthcare systems.”
So far, urban foresters have failed to promote the public health benefits of their work. Konijnendijk van den Bosch gives a number of reasons for this: cognitive bias; barriers between research and practice; unbalanced messaging on issues like outdoor safety for children and the risks posed by nature; and competing interests for already cash-strapped city budgets.
So what can urban foresters, landscape architects and designers, and advocates do to inject nature into the discourse on healthcare?
“We have to change people’s mindset,” he said.
First, Konijnendijk van den Bosch argued, medical professionals and urban foresters need to build alliances. “If you want to get this message across, if you really want to be successful, you need to the doctors. You need them to tell the story,” he said, citing the credibility that comes with having a medical degree. While a number of pioneering doctors are already prescribing time in a park, the medical education system does not yet teach the preventative healthcare benefits of green spaces.
Second, urban foresters need to build strategic partnerships with organizations like the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), American Planning Association (APA), American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and American Institute of Architects (AIA) to create a cross-disciplinary approach.
Lastly, more public outreach can raise awareness of nature’s health benefits. But we need to be creative about fostering deeper emotional connections with nature. Take Amsterdam, for example. The city lost many of its Elm trees to Dutch Elm disease. Now there’s a perfume that bottles that now-nostalgic scent. It’s a marketing tactic that’s “tapping into something. It’s tapping into people’s emotions,” he said.
Climbing trees isn’t just for able-bodied children and adults. Dr. John Gathright believes it can be an inclusive form of therapy with the power to foster positive emotions in people of all physical and mental abilities.
Gathright is the founder of Tree Climbing Japan, an organization that uses tree climbing as rehabilitation for physically-challenged people to overcome pain while improving well-being, mobility, and strength.
The inspiration for his new therapeutic approach for people with disabilities came from a 57-year-old woman named Hikosaka Toshiko. Gathright met her before he was involved in field of tree climbing at a signing event for a book he wrote about achieving your dreams. She is physically challenged and uses a wheelchair. She told him her dream was to climb the world’s tallest tree and asked for his help. Gathright agreed and, in 2000, after three years of preparation, Toshiko was ready to take on a 250-foot tall giant sequoia. It took her over an hour to get a quarter of the way up.
“She had the goal of reaching the top of the tree, and it took her three and a half hours to get half way,” he said, recalling her reaction when, after over five hours, she made it to the top. “She said, ‘I’m here. I’m not a cripple. I’m a challenger. Thank you, tree. Thank you, everybody.’”
Gathright wanted to then empower others with physical and mental disabilities. Through his work with Toshiko, Gathright developed TreeHab, a set of adaptive, therapeutic tree-climbing techniques.
“People said climbing had physiological and social benefits, that when they climbed trees they didn’t feel pain. The people who were depressed and had anxiety changed in our programs,” Gathright said, relaying testimonials from people who climbed.
But there was a lack of research on the subject, so Gathright went back to school to get his PhD at Nagoya University to prove the science behind the program. He conducted a study monitoring subjects’ brain waves and stress hormones as they climbed a live tree compared to when they climbed a concrete tower in the same forest.
“We wanted to know how people’s bodies changed with the trees,” he said. “We discovered climbing a tree and a concrete tower in the same forest produced very different and measurable physical and physiological results.”
He found that tree climbing had a masking effect on internal pain, and that positive emotions were enhanced while negative emotions were decreased in subjects climbing live trees, but not when climbing the concrete tower.
His program has helped children to cope with mental and physical trauma by creating a connection to nature and allowing trees to tell their story when they cannot. Gathright also uses the program to educate climbers about tree health and forests and turn them into advocates for forests.
Beyond Japan, Gathright believes there’s great opportunity for this form of therapy worldwide.
“I think it will be huge,” he said. “Look at the demographics: in America alone, 57 million people have a disability. Anxiety disorders — another forty million adults.”
Moving through the pristine vastness of the Great Hall at the Kreeger Museum in Washington, D.C. is like being inside a monument on the National Mall. But the museum’s new installation and permanent foray into the woods offers a different experience.
Just beyond the structured lines of the architect Phillip Johnson’s Modernist residence-turned-museum are “the woods.” Far from wild, this curated, yet un-manicured portion of the sculpture garden is found in the forested back area of Kreeger’s 5.5-acre property in the residential Foxhall neighborhood north of Georgetown.
Here are a series of mirrored columns clustered among the oak, maple, tulip poplar, and beech trees, and scattered along a wood chip path. These are the Portals.
Artist Sandra Muss designed the piece specifically for the Kreeger as it expanded its sculpture garden into the woods. Muss’ piece is a series of seven ten-foot mirrored steel rectangular columns, wound with rusted wire and vines.
Despite the size, the columns are unassuming and easy to gaze over, reading as green foliage when viewed from the concrete walkway that wraps around the museum.
But once down in the woods, the scale of the column becomes more palpable, and what appears from above to be a carefully-curated placement of columns becomes a more compelling maze of reflections. Moving through the mirrors distorts the carefully-orchestrated sculpture garden experience — reflecting, and at times framing, bending, and pulling images of the museum and other sculptures down into the woods.
The woods are a welcome juxtaposition to the hushed, untouchable quality of the building above and offer a more organic component to the museum’s sculpture garden.
“In general, the planting is pretty simple, because it’s the art that wants to be the focus,” said Julie Patronick, landscape designer with McHale, who designed the forested sculpture garden expansion and worked with Muss to incorporate vines on the columns from the surrounding area.
Ultimately, she said, as new pieces are added to the forest, the intention will be to let the art decide its surroundings — be it exposed with only ground cover underneath, or more hidden, and seamless like Portals.
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 biological hotspots. 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 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.
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 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 other issues.
Weller emphasized the Atlas’s goals are modest. To solve the complex issues facing these 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.
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.
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).
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.