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.

Boston’s Evolving Urban Wilds

allandale
In the 1970s, landscape architect Elliot Rhodeside, FASLA, Rhodeside & Harwell, created a program with immense, lasting value for Boston: the 1,400-plus-acre urban wilds program. Not quite parks, urban wilds are in-between natural open spaces — wetlands, shorelines, hilltops, meadows, woodlands — saved from development. To this day, they have a “unique hybridity,” and are still not part of Boston’s official park system. In a session at the ASLA 2013 Annual Meeting in Boston, Harwell, the program creator; Paul Sutton, the current manager of the urban wilds at the Boston Parks and Recreation department; and Jill Desmini, a professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), discussed the challenges involved in both preserving and maintaining Boston’s wild urban places.

Protecting Wild Beauty in the City

As a young landscape architect, Rhodeside said Boston’s wild urban spaces had a “profound effect on me.” He felt that “developing these natural areas was the wrong way to go,” because only in Boston can “someone walk out of their house and come across a Puddingstone rock cropping right in the middle of their urban backyard.”

To make conservation a reality, Rhodeside, who was then chief landscape architect for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, had to get a plan in place. After winning a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) with some $50,000 in matching funds from the city, Rhodeside began reaching out to the local communities to connect them to the vision. “The idea wouldn’t work unless we could tie it to the neighborhoods.”

Rhodeside said he was inspired by San Francisco’s hilltop parks, with their unique micro-climates. “These places provide relief from the city.” Palo Alto has these wild wetland trails. He also looked to Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles Eliot, and Ian McHarg for models.

At first, the goal was pretty conservative: to simply identify 10 sites with natural value, some 100 acres in total. But his team soon set-up a database and recorded all known threatened sites. Using an aerial photographic analysis, they covered the entire city. They decided to focus on “scenic, vacant land next to park lands, undeveloped land, vacant land next to water bodies, and highly publicized areas.” Combing the whole city, they discovered more than 2,000 acres of land possessing “scenic beauty and natural value.” If all these ecologically-valuable lands were protected, they would expand Boston’s park system by 50 percent.

The next step was to create an implementable plan. For that, they had to find out who owned what. Through their investigation, they discovered that the city already owned 25 percent of the prospective urban wilds. “They were just sitting there unprotected.” Collaborating with community leaders and the Boston Conservation Commission, they began pushing the city to protect those.

One advocacy tool was a “beautiful report” that was both “poetic and comprehensive.” A companion education piece was put up in Boston’s subway showing people how they connected to existing natural areas. Then, Eugenie Beal, a local conservation advocate, came in and set up a $250,000 line of credit from the bank to buy up urban wilds and then hand them over to the city. She created the Boston Natural Areas Network (BNAN), “accomplishing an enormous amount.”

Rhodeside said their efforts succeeded in saving 2,000 acres in part because the timing was right. “We were in a recession, so we had a respite from the development era. It was the era of conservation.” He added that a burst of “renewed interest in the great landscape architects of the past helped,” as did the new federal programs that were created in the 70s like the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) and others.

Managing the Wilds Without a Budget

After BNAN was set up, it became “extremely active,” said Sutton. Through the 80s and 90s, the program became “adept at purchasing private property and transferring it to the parks department.” But while there were victories, with large parcels added to the network of wilds, the overall condition of these natural places declined, all the way through the 90s. This decline began with the economic downturn in the early 80s and statewide tax cuts. The result: “There was no maintenance, and lots of graffiti, litter, vandalism, drugs, and invasive plants.”

Still, one victory was purchasing Allandale Woods in West Roxbury, some 100 acres of forested wetlands near the Arnold Arboretum. Another was adding 25 acres of woodland near Hyde Park. To connect Boston’s MBTA transportation system with the Arnold Arboretum, the arboretum was given Bussey Brook Meadow, adding another 25 acres.

In the 90s, the city hired a urban wilds consultant who focused the parks department on creating a master plan for these places. Then, beginning in 2000s, there was a renewed effort to purchase and set aside ecologically-valuable land. The city got Belle Island Marsh, “one of the most ecologically-productive systems in the city,” a wetland that is being further restored.

Nira Rock was renovated. “It’s a success story.” The urban wilds program “piggy-backed of a nearby playground restoration,” leveraging the activist neighborhood. There has also been a “subtle, hidden restoration of larger sites,” multi-year initiatives that involve a real “hodge-podge” of local groups. Volunteers now deal with invasive plant removal and trail improvements throughout the system of urban wilds.

Sutton said the urban wilds program is “still a stepchild. We can’t use the park system logo.” There’s no budget, given most of the parks department’s finances go to active recreation areas and historic parks. “We have to market ourselves to the city.” But he said realtors are starting to see the value of the restored areas. And universities and non-profits are getting involved.

Within an increasingly revitalized system, the big challenge remains how to deal with sites spread all over the city and “getting new stewardship groups formed.” For the future, he wants these urban wilds to be “fun, inviting, and accessible,” but he also worries about how the city is going to “market these spaces to the next generation” so they remain valued.

Redefining These Places as Novel Ecosystems

Desmini, who teaches landscape architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), said there were 143 urban wilds covering some 2,000 acres in 1976. In 2010, there were  just 105 wilds covering 1,414 acres. Of that, 785 acres are permanently protected.

She said in the Allston / Brighton areas of Boston, “lots of urban wilds were lost.” In East Boston, segments near the airport are also gone. Other sites have been “dramatically transformed” over the past 40 years. Many places now have a “unique hybridity.”

Desmini said the definition of an urban wild has also changed over the years as these places have evolved. “Urban wilds are not parks or wilderness,” but something in between. Urban wilds are “unorganized scraps of nature,” celebrated for their “indigenous qualities.”

Urban wilds are “places of natural beauty and reflect a history that predates the American revolution.” They are a living story of “urban ecology and abandonment.” These are spaces “where nature instead of man shapes the space,” yet humans’ influence is still felt. They can be defined as novel ecosystems.

As with any novel ecosystem, they will not be pure, but they can still be celebrated. They have an “openness,” so they can be viewed as either “orphans or opportunity-filled.” They are rich with “vegetative succession and continuously evolving.” They can also have different hybrid uses. As an example, she pointed to an urban wild in Berlin where the local authorities actually allow graffiti spraying during certain hours.

Today, preserving an urban wild is about “conserving spontaneously-vegetated sites.” She said the future will be about “innovative maintenance” that takes into account the unique qualities of these spaces.

She said it’s also important the city starts treating the urban wilds as a comprehensive system of novel ecosystems. “The city can amp up the hybrid qualities.” Otherwise, they will “continue to struggle with fragmentation.”

Image credit: Allandale Woods / Boston Exotic Flowers

Tree Gardens: The Largest Living Architectural Structures

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Tree Gardens: Architecture and the Forest
by Gina Crandell, a landscape architect and professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, is a fascinating exploration of what she calls the “largest living architectural structures” – masses of trees that form expressive spaces. Crandell provides an in-depth study of several iconic landscapes and the role of tree planting within the design of these world-famous spaces. Tree Gardens combines rich historical research with careful design analysis to illustrate an array of living structures, many of which offer defining concepts central to landscape design.

Case studies from the Renaissance era to the modern-day reveal the goals of the original designers and how the projects have since been maintained. The legacy of each project is discussed in detail, as the removal and replacement of trees within these influential and often beloved landscapes is inevitably costly and controversial. These discussions provide an excellent framework for the book’s primary focus: the spatial strength of tree forms and their crucial relationship to the definition, connection, and continuity of spaces.

The case studies cover the historical era (Lucca and Boboli Garden, Italy and Versailles), the era from 1860 to 1960 (Central Park, Gateway Memorial Park, and the Christian Science Plaza), and more recent projects spanning 1995-present (Tate Modern, Reimer Park, Novartis Headquarters, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the 9/11 Memorial Forest). In the case studies, historical background, views on art and gardens, and the significance of the design concepts set the tree structures in a rich context.

The reader gains an understanding of the significance of various landscapes in the evolution of design. For example, we learn how Versailles challenged the traditional boundary of garden and regional landscape with its unprecedented scale and ambition.

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We learn how the naturalized forms of Central Park reflected not only impressions of Olmsted’s trips to Europe and England, but the idea that forms free of rigid geometries represented a new found freedom.

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We learn how artistic representations of gardens influenced people’s perception of nature, and the Musical Garden by Sorensen, inspired by the Danish agricultural landscape, pushed the boundaries of geometric and spatial ordering.

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We also learn how Dan Kiley’s revolutionary emphasis on proportion and the critical nature of tree spacing would make him the father of the modern bosque.

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The book then provides a cross-section of the cultural, social, and political factors that influenced not only the garden designs but the prevailing public perceptions of the time. Particularly enriching is the dialogue on the “garden as art and forest as architecture” and the evolving perception of man’s relationship to nature.

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This captivating analysis provides a great reference. Throughout, Crandell analyzes all sorts of tree structures: allees, bosques, palisades, groves, quincunx, plantations, thickets, and their ability to transform space over time. The guiding principles and design theories behind these iconic landscapes offer a wealth of information for designers to consider in future projects.

Read the book.

This guest post is by James Royce, ASLA, LEED AP, Principal, Studio2112 Landscape Architecture.

Image credits: (1) Princeton Architectural Press, (2) Historic Photo of Central Park, (3) Musical Garden, (4) Versailles, France, (5) Rendering by Dan Kiley, (6) Orchard, Nursery, Garden. (2-6) Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press.

Permaculture = Permanent Agriculture


That’s at least one definition of this innovative practice, explained Jillian Hovey, the Toronto-based head of Sustainable Living Network at the 2012 Greenbuild in San Francisco. Another possible definition: “a holistic design methodology to access the intelligence of natural ecosystems.” Really, the goal of the ever-growing tribe of permaculturists is to “co-create with nature.” Permacultural projects include organic food, edible landscaping, forest farming, and other small forms of urban agriculture.

Hovey said one of the central tenets of permaculture is regenerative design. While sustainable design involves simply mitigating the negative impacts of humans on the planet, regenerative design goes beyond and seeks to create a “positive role for people on earth.” Practitioners of permaculture seek to merge landscape, people, and technology to create “food, shelter, and energy.” Hovey said it’s a “philosphical approach to land use” in which “intricately conducted ecosystems, consciously designed” are put to work. (Still, she said some critics argue that, in these permacultural systems, humans are at the center of the regenerative effort, so the approach is still too human-centric, and doesn’t truly benefit “life in all forms,” as permaculturalists say they do).

Bill Mollison, the Australian founder of the movement, wrote Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, back in the 1980s. Early permaculturalists  in Australia wondered whether it could actually be replicated in other places, but they decided that other temperate climates could make the systems work. So a slew of Australian books came out, followed by American and European guides. Recent how-to literature includes Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscapes Naturally and Edible Forest Gardens.

Standing on Greenbuild’s oddest “dog-bone”-shaped center stage, Hovey walked in circles showing off photographs of permaculture projects being designed and built. One practitioner she showed, Austrian outlier Sepp Holzer, is well-known for his “crater gardens,” stepped, terraced landscapes, which involve moving earth to dig out gardens, creating more surface area for agriculture and microclimates for different plants.

Holzer was recently brought in by Hovey’s group to help build a stepped crater garden at a school in Detroit. With the use of a translator, Holzer communicated to the bulldozer operator to create a set of steep walls out of the earth, adding in wood joints made of out sticks to “increase the productive edges.” Wood was also put in so that it decomposed and made richer soils. Once the area was seeded, straw was put on top. As Hovey described, “nature hates bare soil. Weeds happen when soil is left bare.”

The project, and others like it, demonstrate how “nature can be used as a model.” Hovey said permaculturalists use a design process wherein “everything is connected, every function should be supported by multiple elements, and every element should serve multiple functions.” This type of design process “builds in redundancy and resiliency.”

Permacultural design also enables feedback to be incorporated throughout the process. “This is a cyclical, iterative, spiral approach.” This kind of approach allows permaculturalists to “eliminate pollution.” While waste is abundant in nature — because it produces so much — pollution is not. Pollution is the “concentration of waste to such a degree that nature can’t handle it.” Interestingly, Hovey said lawns are a form of pollution because they “suppress existing ecosystems.”

Hovey went into great detail on the benefits of compost (if done right, it shouldn’t smell), along with the application of permaculture in parks, small urban plots, and even windowsills. 

Closing with a thoughtful take on regenerative design, Hovey argued that if these systems are designed to be self-sustaining, “the agricultural output is theoretically unlimited.” And if designers understand “ecological succession,” these landscapes can be “self-maintaining and even replicating.” Hence, permaculture as a state of permanent agriculture.

Check out Sepp Holzer’s book on permaculture at the small-scale.

Image credit: Powell Street Promenade, San Francisco / Hood Design / image copyright Marion Brenner and Beth Amann

Measuring the Benefits of Urban Forests


At a Casey Trees‘ conference on urban forestry, David Nowak, Ph.D, research forester at the U.S. Forest service, one of the world’s foremost experts on urban forests, and a member of the team that won the Nobel Prize at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said out of the 20 biggest cities in the U.S., 17 have declining urban forests. “Tree cover is going down.” For example, researchers have found that D.C.’s urban forestry cover decreased by 1 percent in the last 20 years, while impervious cover (hard concrete) grew by 20 percent. Now and in the future, the key to boosting urban forests may be to make better use of innovative Web applications like iTree, which “estimate value and benefits” of the tree canopy.

Nowak said to really understand urban forests you have to look at their extent or structure. You have to know “how many trees you have and where they are.” The structure of an urban forest also impacts the benefits. For example, where trees are placed impacts who receives the environmental, psychological, and social benefits.

Forests can be measured in either a “bottom-up” or “top-down” manner. Bottom-up approaches involve counting species on the ground and looking at species, tree health, and the various health risks. Nowak and his team at the Forest Service participated in developing iTree, a bottom-up tool that helps manage forests. Top-down efforts are usually satellite-driven and involve high-resolution imagery and photo interpretation.

In an examination of urban forests, Nowak found that some 30 percent of vegetation is planted, while the other two-thirds is “naturally regenerating.” There are also varying levels of natural vegetation within key spaces in cities. In residential areas, the share of naturally-regenerating nature is relatively low because people plant or mow, while in parks and open spaces, it’s higher.

Invasive plants are also on the rise across the country. In D.C., invasive plants may even be shifting the composition of the forests. “Frontier plants are changing things.”

To track all this change, Nowak said it’s important to use tools like iTree, which can help local urban policymakers, planners, and landscape architects “better understand the canopy and the true value of ecosystem services.” Nowak said anytime you’ve heard a number about the dollar value of an urban forest, it was probably based in an iTree estimate. Using “local variables such as energy, air, water quality, and climate,” iTree can put a value on an area’s trees and help local policymakers optimize the performance of the forest.

While landscape architects and others understand the inherent value of trees, local programs to protect trees from pests and fungus are expensive and budgets are tight, so “we need to build the financial case.” Without “data and tools, it’s hard.”

With 20 years of data available, there are a number of applications where you can run and test models. iTree Canopy uses Google Maps to create statistically-valid estimate of tree cover, while iTree Species helps users identify the specific ecosystem service benefits of one tree over another. The system has about 5,000 trees in its database. iTree Hydro looks at tree canopy and stormwater, while iTree Design, which Nowak called the Sim City of landscape design, helps landscape architects and designers figure out the benefits of certain tree sizes and types in a landscape design. In the same way, the tool could be used to figure out the amount of financial benefits that are lost when a tree dies.

iTree 5.0 will include some new features like Google Maps, web-based data collection using mobile devices, the inclusion of data on the volatile organic compound (VOC) output of trees, and “benefit forecasting.” There will also be more data on “the risks each tree type faces from insects and diseases” as well as risks from a given forest structure. For example, too many species in one place means that part of the forest could be simply wiped out with an infestation, creating a vulnerability in the overall structure.

On the value of having a tool like iTree itself, Nowak said: “This is really about urban forestry technology transfer” through a “credible, USDA-approved, public domain software.”

For more on the benefits of urban forests, see ASLA’s animation: Urban Forests = Cleaner, Cooler Air. Nowak was an expert advisor on the animation.

Image credit: Aerial View of Logan Circle, Washington, D.C. / Wikipedia