New Strategies for Preventing Green Gentrification

ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. The High Line, Section 1 New York City, NY. James Corner Field Operations (project lead) and Diller Scofidio + Renfro / Iwan Baan

“How do we ensure new parks don’t cause ‘green gentrification,’ which can lead to the exclusion and displacement of underserved communities? How can we ensure we don’t displace the communities that new parks are meant to serve?,” asked Dede Petri, CEO of the Olmsted Network (formerly the National Association of Olmsted Parks), during an Olmsted 200 event.

New parks are meant to be accessible to everyone, but in many urban areas, developer-driven parks mostly attract wealthier Americans. Cities benefit from increased development adjacent to these new parks, bringing in higher tax revenues, but that raises questions about whether these spaces can, in effect, lead to community displacement.

“If there really is green gentrification, what can we do about it?,” asked Ted Landsmark, a professor at Northeastern University, civic planner, and board member of Boston Planning and Development Agency, who moderated the panel discussion.

Robert Hammond, a co-founder of the High Line in Manhattan, and founder of the High Line Network, a knowledge sharing platform, said the High Line has had significant impacts, contributing to “cultural displacement and middle class displacement” in the Meatpacking District and Chelsea neighborhoods of lower Manhattan. “The High Line isn’t a failure, but a lot of mistakes were made.”

“The High Line was built for the city, taxpayers, and homeowners; it wasn’t built for the residents of nearby low-income housing.” While the city-owned low-income housing remains, most of the stores the residents relied on were driven out due to the higher rents brought on by the High Line. “We didn’t anticipate the impact on shops.”

ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. The High Line, Section 1 New York City, NY. James Corner Field Operations (project lead) and Diller Scofidio + Renfro / Iwan Baan

“And many of the residents of the housing developments didn’t like our programs,” Hammond said. As a result, early community perception was that the High Line was for wealthy New Yorkers and tourists.

Over the past dozen years since the first phase of the linear park opened, “we have been rethinking our programs, and visitors to the park have become more diverse.” But in retrospect, “the High Line should have formed more diverse community partnerships early on in the planning and design process” to “shape zoning opportunities with the city and state.”

The Atlanta Beltline, which is leveraging a 22-mile railroad network to create new parks, multi-use trails, and transit connections, has also faced criticism that it has contributed to gentrification and displacement.

Atlanta Beltline map / Atlanta Beltline

Clyde Higgs, CEO of the Atlanta Beltline, admitted that “ten years ago, when the project first started, we had not expected it to be a wild economic success. We didn’t secure nearby sites for future affordable housing.” With the leadership of a new Atlanta mayor that story has changed, Higgs says. “We have now exceeded affordability goals around the Beltline by 30 percent.”

The Beltline team is now returning to the vision of the park’s framers — they had “contemplated the dangers of developing green space in a vacuum.” With any new green space, “you have to be thinking about community engagement, which is the real measure of success at the end of a project. This involves affordable housing, living wage jobs, environmental clean-up, and the arts — it’s about creating whole communities.”

Atlanta Beltline, Atlanta, Georgia / istockphoto.com, BluIz60

The High Line and early phases of the Beltline offer cautionary tales and have led to the relatively new consensus that equitable community development is integral to park making.

An “anticipatory, proactive approach” to park planning is “now required by all landscape architects at this point,” argued Jessica Henson, ASLA, a partner at OLIN. “Setting aside parcels for affordable housing, protecting existing tenants, creating land banks — this should all happen before design.”

The 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C., which landscape architecture firm OLIN is co-designing with Dutch architecture firm OMA, is a “great example of how to get into a community ahead of time.” Building Bridges Across the River, the non-profit organization leading the development of the park, set up home buyer’s clubs, created robust property protections, and increased support for local businesses and artists, so more of the community will benefit from the new park, even before it’s built.

11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN
11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN

The 11th Street Bridge Park is rightfully considered a model, but its development has been more than a decade in the making. Landsmark argued that there will be intense political pressure on state and local governments to spend hundreds of billions from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, to act fast and initiate projects that can create lots of new jobs. How can the rapid distribution of these funds avoid having a gentrifying impact?

“Before dollars are assigned, it’s important to buy parcels for affordable housing ahead of time, near where you think new infrastructure is going to go. Coordinating with community-based organizations, which tend to be more nimble, is key,” Henson said.

“Through research, we have found that you also don’t need to blanket affordable housing everywhere. Prioritize the communities most at risk. Use tools to determine where the pressures are. We can target resources to protect the most vulnerable populations.”

As part of this, planners and landscape architects must also extend greater respect to local partners, paying community members and organizations for their time and ideas, whether it’s related to the new infrastructure funds or not. Communities are expected to show up to provide input that can improve projects, but for some community members there is a cost associated with that, multiple panelists noted.

There are already models for more equitable engagement out there. At the Atlanta Beltline, the “largest department is community engagement. It’s legislatively dictated that we must hold three deep community conversations annually, but we have up to 80 community meetings per year. There are many chances for people to have their say — it’s the people’s project,” Higgs said.

And with the High Line in New York City, one clear win is a program that responded to the needs of local residents: a summer jobs program for teenagers. “High Line Teens has been successful and is in its tenth year,” Hammond said. “We provided what people want — jobs. The question with these projects needs to be: what can we do for you, besides just creating a park?”

There are growing expectations that new parks will be jobs generators for local communities. The Atlanta Beltline has a goal of creating 30,000 permanent jobs along the circular park, prioritizing access to opportunities for those who live nearby. This involves discussions with a “range of organizations, not just industries focused on technology, healthcare, or hospitality. It’s about creating whole communities where residents near the Beltline can access work, church, restaurants, and medical care,” Higgs said.

And Henson noted that in their work on the Los Angeles River Masterplan with Gehry Partners, OLIN has focused on how to create more opportunities for local artists in the 51-mile river corridor revitalization. All panelists called for employing public artists of all kinds — dance, interactive, musical, sculptural, and visual — to create the cultural programs that can connect communities with each other and a new park.

New Orleans’ Equity-driven Reforestation Plan

Surface temperatures in New Orleans (2019-2021) / Spackman Mossop Michaels

New Orleans experiences the worst urban heat island effect in the country, with temperatures nearly 9 F° higher than nearby natural areas. The city also lost more than 200,000 trees from Hurricane Katrina, dropping its overall tree canopy to just 18.5 percent.

The non-profit organization Sustaining Our Urban Landscape (SOUL) partnered with landscape architects at Spackman Mossop Michaels (SMM) to create a highly accessible, equity-focused reforestation plan for the city that provides a roadmap for achieving a tree canopy of 24 percent by 2040.

But more importantly, the plan also seeks to equalize the canopy, so at least 10 percent of all 72 neighborhoods are covered in trees. Currently, more than half of neighborhoods are under the 10 percent goal.

Tree canopy coverage by neighborhood / Spackman Mossop Michaels

Wes Michaels, ASLA, a founding partner at SMM, explained that some communities in the city are almost entirely concrete and asphalt and have canopies as low as 1 percent, while others, like the famous Garden District, have nearly 30 percent.

This causes an inequitable distribution of heat risks. “With Hurricane Ida, the foremost cause of death wasn’t flooding but heat. The storm knocked out electricity, so people were in their homes without air conditioning,” explained Emily Bullock, ASLA, a principal with SMM.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, trees and plants really do have a significant cooling benefit. “Trees and vegetation lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade and through evapotranspiration. Shaded surfaces, for example, may be 20–45°F (11–25°C) cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials. Evapotranspiration, alone or in combination with shading, can help reduce peak summer temperatures by 2–9°F (1–5°C).”

The New Orleans Reforestation Plan offers a new, more equitable model for reducing dangerous extreme heat — the number one climate killer — and flooding, while also lowering energy use.

“Conventional urban reforestation plans are focused on achieving an overall canopy percentage, and there is often an equity component. But this plan centers equity so that it frames all goals,” Bullock said.

Planting Cypress trees as part of New Orleans Redevelopment Authority’s alternative strategies for vacant lots program / Spackman Mossop Michaels

“The plans we reviewed from other cities were all similar, kind of boilerplate. We needed a plan that recognizes the unique neighborhoods of New Orleans,” said Susannah Burley, executive director of SOUL. “We wanted to find a local firm that understood the context of our city.”

Restoration of a vacant lot as part of New Orleans Redevelopment Authority’s alternative strategies for vacant lots program / Spackman Mossop Michaels

Burley, who has a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Louisiana State University (LSU), spearheaded the complex reforestation planning effort over the past two years.

With Traci Birch, a LSU professor and planner, SOUL organized four round table discussions with local stakeholders from the public, private, and non-profit sectors, and seven community meetings.

“Spackman Mossop Michaels was a stakeholder in those early conversations. We knew they were already invested in the plan and understood the steps taken,” Burley said.

The firm was then hired to analyze the complex GIS data gathered by SOUL, facilitate more meetings across the city, and develop the plan.

“Landscape architects know the challenges and how to intersect with utilities. We helped facilitate concrete conversations with stakeholders. We examined city regulations and came up with recommendations so that these systems can work a little better. The goal is to make planting trees a smoother, easier process,” Bullock said.

The firm’s community engagement experience also helped SOUL frame the conversations.

“Not everyone in the community is 100 percent behind planting more trees. Landscape architects know that trees = good, but we can also meet communities where they are. We heard concerns like: ‘what if a tree falls on my house or leaves clog up my gutters? What if their roots break up my driveway?'”, Michaels said.

Research shows that trees increase property values. But SMM didn’t hear concerns that more trees could lead to gentrification or displacement. “The questions were more about: ‘who will maintain the trees in rights of way? Where will the maintenance funds come from?,'” said Bullock.

In the historic Garden District, tree roots can transform sidewalks into jagged small hills, making them inaccessible. And in other older parts of the city, sidewalks are very narrow, leaving little room for trees. How will the city fit in more?

“We didn’t get into these kinds of issues, which were beyond the scope. We want to make sure we don’t repeat the current issues, including with overhead and underground utilities. The goal is to create a unified tree policy with stakeholders, including the utilities providing power, water, sewage. The idea is to create a new policy together,” Michaels explained.

The plan outlines detailed steps SOUL, other organizations, and the city can take to build capacity and ramp up tree planting to achieve the 2040 goal. But before scaling up, the plan calls for a full-year of community engagement. “This will help educate communities about the benefits of trees and lay the groundwork for the planting programs to come,” Michaels said.

Prior to tree planting, 2014 / Spackman Mossop Michaels
After tree planting, 2022 / Spackman Mossop Michaels

In five diverse, underserved neighborhoods, pilot tree planting efforts will be rolled out over coming years. In some of these neighborhoods, planting more trees will be fairly straightforward given there are open green spaces available. In other more difficult neighborhoods, which already have lower tree canopies, additional funds and support will be needed to break up and remove concrete rights of way.

According to Burley, the biggest barrier to implementing the plan is lack of funding. “In New Orleans, the Department of Parks and Parkways is extremely underfunded. The plan is an advocacy tool — it shows what can be done with additional funds and how to make it happen.”

Prior to tree planting, 2014 / Spackman Mossop Michaels
After tree planting, 2022 / Spackman Mossop Michaels

And this is why the team focused on making the plan so easy-to-understand. “Most reforestation plans I saw were missing the human component. Our plan is meant to be highly accessible, so it can be picked-up by any city government official or neighborhood association.”

This plan also offers an approach other landscape architects can apply. “Reforestation plans are in landscape architects’ wheelhouse. These plans are at the intersection of ecology, culture, and public health. It’s not just about overall tree canopy numbers. But how to plant the most trees in places where they are needed, and in the shortest amount of time, with limited resources,” Michaels said.

Landscape Architects as Activists

ASLA 2020 Professional Analysis and Planning Award of Excellence. Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture (RICA). Bugesera, Rwanda, Africa / MASS Design Group

A growing number of landscape architects are running mission-driven practices meant to advance social, equity, and political goals through planning and design work. For landscape architects who take this approach, the questions often are: “How do we decide to take a position? What does that look like?,” said Gina Ford, FASLA, founder of Agency Landscape + Planning, at the Oberlander Prize Forum II on Landscape Activism, organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in Dallas, Texas.

For Sierra Bainbridge, ASLA, senior principal and managing director at MASS Design Group, making these kinds of decisions needs to be both rooted in “the head and the heart.” To get to the right position, “you have to ask the right questions, and you have to ask together with your client — what is the mission of this project?”

Bainbridge said MASS seeks out projects in Rwanda and elsewhere that can help shift policies and create structural change. “Our goal is to always hire locally, source regionally, invest in training, and uphold dignity.”

“Landscape is a way of seeing natural and cultural environments. Landscape architecture can be used to unlearn, disrupt assumptions, spark creativity, and catalyze innovations,” said Maura Rockcastle, principal and co-founder of Ten x Ten. “It’s an open-ended process.”

Too many communities have been impacted by the “slow violence of erasure, racism, injustices, fear, and intergenerational traumas.” Designers need take a compassionate approach, which requires more time, but it’s necessary to build trust in damaged communities.

ASLA 2021 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Indian Mounds Cultural Landscape Study and Messaging Plan. Saint Paul, Minnesota. Quinn Evans, Ten x Ten, Allies, Inc. / Quinn Evans

Landscapes that are described as free, inclusive, and accessible often aren’t in reality, said Chelina Odbert, ASLA, CEO and co-founder of the Kounkuey Design Collaborative (KDI), which won the Cooper Hewitt 2022 National Design Award for landscape architecture. “Landscapes are often intimidating, exclusionary, and inaccessible for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQIA+ communities.”

This is a significant issue, because communities that either can’t access public space or don’t feel comfortable doing so experience real health impacts. “Just look at Los Angeles: In Malibu, California, which has a healthy public realm, the average life expectancy is 90 years old; in Watts, it’s 75. That’s a difference of 15 years of life. We need to do long-range planning to ensure the future is inclusive.”

How do you know if your projects are advancing your goals, Ford then asked.

“You have to start small and then leverage well. In communities with a legacy of broken promises, there is success in getting a single project done. Then you can leverage individual projects to do more,” Odbert said.

ECV Shade Equity, Oasis, California / Kounkuey Design Collaborative

In a similar vein, Bainbridge argued that success is building long-term local capacity. In Rwanda, MASS Design Group has been planning and designing projects for more than a decade, and success has taken the form of local networks and organizations who can move the work forward.

For Rockcastle, success has been about “creating multiple conversations through a multiplicity of projects. We have started to get at the bigger conversations.”

Driving forward mission-based work can lead to burn-out. “How do you maintain your energy?,” Ford wondered.

“There is a joy in committing to things. There’s also a responsibility that comes with collaboration. I’m learning all the time,” Rockcastle said.

“You have to be comfortable with struggle. Dissension and discord is part of the process. But it can push you towards your goal,” Odbert said.

“We need to resist physical, structural, and cultural violence; it’s not a choice. Resistance is a fuel. We have to keep pushing — just for some people to live. If we don’t resist, we can’t move forward.”

The Oberlander Prize Forum II on Landscape Activism began with a powerful keynote from Jane Edmonds, a co-founder of Jane’s Way and former Massachusetts Secretary of Workforce Development and Chair of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

In her talk, Edmonds relayed how she was inspired by Mel King and the Tent City movement he led to protest gentrification and displacement in Boston’s South End in 1968. In what was a prime example of “landscape activism,” King demonstrated the “power of presence,” a tactic that would later be adopted by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

She called on all landscape architects to “cultivate an activist’s mind and perceive and acknowledge all the truths.”

Designing Greater Inclusion

Edward Lyons Pryce, FASLA / BlackLAN

The demographics of the U.S. are changing, leading to a majority minority country by 2045. “Who will be in this room in the future?” wondered Marc Miller, ASLA, president of the Black Landscape Architects Network (BlackLAN) at the Oberlander Prize Forum II on Landscape Activism organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas.

Miller, who is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Penn State, highlighted data from the 2021 ASLA Graduating Student Survey, which shows current Black landscape architecture students make up just 1 percent of the total student population, while white students account for 69 percent.

For Miller, this shows that “thirty years down the road, when these students are our leaders and will be presenting at events like this, the profession will still be predominantly white.” Diversification of the profession needs to significantly increase today, so landscape architects can better engage with more diverse communities in the future.

BlackLAN organized its first meeting of Black landscape architects in 2018 and incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization in 2020. “Our goal is to advance voices and create opportunities for others in the future.” Today, its 240 members worldwide focus on “education, community, and service” through symposia, events, online networking, and a new scholarship.

Their Edward Lyons Pryce Scholarship, which was inaugurated this year, honors the first Black fellow of ASLA. “At the ASLA Conference in San Francisco this year, we’ll have our 13th Black Fellow.” Pryce became a fellow in 1979 “because he stood out and went above and beyond as an activist and leader.”

The practice of landscape architecture also needs to expand to better accommodate neurodivergent communities and designers, argued Danielle Toronyi, research and development manager at OLIN. Neurodiverse or neurodivergent people may include those with autism or other sensory differences, who have a range of strengths and abilities.

With her colleague Alexa Vaughn, ASLA, a deaf landscape architect and accessibility designer now at MIG, Toronyi has focused on advancing a “social model of disability,” which focuses on “what a person can do and how the built environment limits us.”

A social model of disability “doesn’t seek to fix disabled people but instead puts disabled people and their experiences at the center.” Applying this approach, landscape architects need to increasingly “design out barriers and make social life more inclusive.”

Toronyi and Vaughn both shaped ASLA’s guide to universal design and have moved forward universal design in landscape architecture. OLIN Labs, a community of practice at her firm, includes a series of labs that coordinate project-based work, partner-led initiatives, fellowships, and areas of emerging research, including designing for neurodivergence.

Making public spaces more inclusive for LGBTQIA+ people is another area of focus for OLIN, with their “Pridescapes” community of practice, explained Max Dickson, a landscape designer there. “We are focusing on untold queer histories and new queer futures.”

Dickson said the identities of queer people have been historically linked to places, but this has often gone unrecognized. Many queer landscapes were in marginal areas. “These were marginal places for marginalized people.” With gentrification and new development, these places lost their queerness.

For decades, the pier landscapes of Hudson River Park on the west side of lower Manhattan were safe spaces for the community, but with new development were erased. And Belmont Rocks along the lake shore in Chicago, which was a gay mecca in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, lost its sense of place since a reconstruction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

At the same time, many queer landscape architects also went unrecognized, given they had to live closeted lives. Phil Winslow and Bruce Kelly, who were central to the restoration of Olmsted’s Central Park, both succumbed to AIDS. “They couldn’t be out in the workplace.”

“Queer spaces were once closed, dark spaces — discos, bathhouses, and clubs.” But the protest movements from the late 60s through to the 90s made these spaces public. In 1969, gay people at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City rose up, protesting decades of harassment by the police, sparking the modern gay rights movement. In 2016, these historic protest spaces became the first significant LGBTQIA+ place protected in perpetuity as a National Monument.

Stonewall National Monument, Greenwich Village, NYC / Rhododendrites, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

Today, Black transgender people are among the most vulnerable among the broad LGBTQIA+ community. In 2021, 50 Black trans people were killed in the U.S., and 33 percent of these crimes happened in public spaces. “We need to ensure all people can experience safe, accessible places. We need to protect queer existence in public space.”

April De Simone, principal at the architecture firm Trahan Architects and co-founder of its Designing with Democracy initiative, argued that designers of all disciplines need to “reshape practice in order to reshape consciousness.”

Growing up in the Tremont neighborhood of the Bronx, New York City, De Simone experienced the impacts of redlining and urban renewal driven by racism. The legacy of these “spatialized inequities” continues. “Systemic, structural inequities stay very rooted in.” And redlining is alive and well. “I still can’t get a loan today.”

South Bronx, New York, June 27, 1977 / AP Photo/Eddie Adams

In New York City and other cities, the New Deal programs created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt further institutionalized redlining, creating a “geographic footprint of hierarchy and home values based on race. It codified the value of humans in the built environment.”

To combat these legacies and create a more democratic built environment, Victor F. “Trey” Trahan III, FAIA, and De Simone founded Designing for Democracy, an independent non-profit research and design group, last year. “We believe people in communities have agency as well. Harnessing that agency leads to equity.”

By empowering communities’ sense of agency and in turn equity, landscapes and communities can be “radically reshaped so that communities can share the full potential of democracy. There is a collective humanity in this cause,” De Simone argued.

New Green Spaces Don’t Have to Lead to Gentrification

Dequindre Cut, Detroit / The High Line Network, SmithGroup

Decades of redlining and urban renewal, rooted in racist planning and design policies, created the conditions for gentrification to occur in American cities. But the primary concern with gentrification today is displacement, which primarily impacts marginalized communities shaped by a history of being denied access to mortgages. At the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, Matthew Williams, ASLA, with the City of Detroit’s planning department, said in his city there are concerns that new green spaces will increase the market value of homes and “price out marginalized communities.” But investment in green space doesn’t necessarily need to lead to displacement. If these projects are led by marginalized communties, they can be embraced.

For example, efforts to enhance the Dequindre Cut in Detroit by transforming it into a 2-mile-long greenway were rooted in community needs and therefore have been supported. While the planning and design work by SmithGroup on the greenway corridor has led to positive economic impact, including growing nearby entrepreneurship and visitor engagement, it also expanded open space, expanded community development, and lifted up local graffiti artists. “We allowed the graffiti to stay and created canvases for more to come. It’s an avant-garde form of historic preservation, and a way to activate a latent, forgotten place.”

Dequindre Cut, Detroit / SmithGroup
Dequindre Cut, Detroit / SmithGroup

Another project is Ella Fitzgerald Park, in the Fitzgerald community, one of 10 key neighborhoods where the planning department has focused housing, park, and economic development investment. Given the neighborhood is experiencing high levels of bankruptcies and foreclosures, many remaining homeowners in the neighborhood can’t sell their homes. Instead of seeing a new community park and greenway designed by landscape architecture firm Spackman, Mossop, and Michaels and built by the city as a gentrifying force, it was welcomed as a safe place for children to play. “It was a needed change,” Williams said.

Ella Fitzgerald Park, Detroit / Earthscapeplay.com
Ella Fitzgerald Park and Greenway / Spackman, Mossop, and Michaels

The Joe Louis Greenway, named after the famous athlete, spans 27.5-miles from downtown Detroit to Dearborn, once a segregated Black city. A “vision of inclusive design, the project is a form of green reparation,” Williams argued. The city has overlaid where redlining had the most destructive impact in Detroit and surrounding communities and has used green amenities to undo part of the damage. “We can focus on those red areas on the redlining maps, transforming them into productive, innovative, and ecological areas.” Planning and design efforts with SmithGroup included significant community engagement. Strategic green spaces, rooted in community desires, are one of “our best tools to address the mistakes of the past.”

Joe Louis Greenway, Detroit / SmithGroup
Joe Louis Greenway community planning meeting, Detroit / SmithGroup

Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, director and professor of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington and current fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, received a 2020 research prize from the SOM Foundation for her work, Reclaiming Black Settlements: A Design Playbook for Historic Communities in the Shadow of Sprawl. Her research has involved mapping Black Freedmen’s communities across Texas and included seven research projects in the Dallas / Ft. Worth area. Along the Trinity River, Allen has been immersing herself in “the bottom lands, the industrial lands” where many Black communities made their home. Despite the long-term environmental justice issues, these communities are still facing displacement pressures. “Riverfronts are hot right now, the place to be,” she said.

The existing community isn’t reacting negatively to Harold Simmons Park, a park planned on the Trinity River by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates because it would create “healthy social spaces along the river.” To ensure housing prices in Black communities near the park don’t go up, a development corporation linked with a local church is “getting ahead of the curve and stabilizing and renovating homes.”

Harold Simmons Park, Dallas, Texas / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Harold Simmons Park, Dallas, Texas / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Another community down river, the Garden of Eden, founded by a Black family in 1881, has been impacted by concrete companies that dug industrial gravel pits along the river. Once leases on the land ended, the companies were supposed to fill in those gravel pits but never did. So the community is “reclaiming those pits through green infrastructure, creating recreational spaces.”

And at the last of the seven sites studied along the river, Joppa, a historic Freedmen’s town, there is the Joppee Lakes project, the site of a railroad and concrete plant which is being re-imagined as a stormwater solution for downtown Dallas. The Army Corps of Engineers turned the site over to the City of Dallas, which is in turn working with Black community there to revamp the Honey Springs Branch Park surrounding the lake as a community hub with green infrastructure that can handle both sewage treatment and provide recreation.

To avoid green gentrification, Allen said it’s key to “understand the history of each place. Design has to be grounded, and history is really powerful.” Black Freedmen’s communities along the Trinity River have created a community roundtable and are “envisioning the future together.” They are sharing “funding and grant sources, and talking about the issues.” Freedmen’s town groups are also “linking green spaces, creating a trail that will connect them all.” They are “very smart about the politics and policy and the air quality issues around transportation and cement plants.” Landscape architects can work with communities like these to help them “articulate the issues” and “promote and enhance connections with each other.”

Joppee Lakes, Texas / DesignJones LLC

Boston has invested $5 million to re-imagine Frederick Law Olmsted’s Franklin Park in Boston’s Dorchester, Jamaica Plains, and Roxbury neighborhoods. A team led by landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand is spearheading the action plan effort and includes MASS Design Group, which is focusing on the “city edge’s and neighborhood connections,” and Agency Landscape + Planning, which is focusing on public engagement, planning, and programming. According to Sierra Bainbridge, ASLA, a landscape architect and senior principal with MASS Design Group, her organization is seeking to answer questions like: “Can we connect present and future generations to the park? Can the surrounding neighborhoods benefit from the procurement process for a redesigned park?”

Franklin Park Action Plan / Agency
Franklin Park Action Plan / MASS Design Group

Bainbridge argued that park’s ill-conceived boundaries are keeping many people out. The edges, which are “prohibiting access,” include 3-4 lane streets with no lighting for crosswalks. There are also no local businesses along the park, so if food trucks aren’t there, visitors need to bring in their own food and drink. “There is a huge opportunity to increase connections between the park and local community, particularly through large events.”

Franklin Park Action Plan, Boston, Massachusetts / Agency, MASS Design Group, Reed Hilderbrand

While planning and zoning changes need to happen to grow local business presence around the park, Bainbridge said procurement is also a powerful tool for increasing community engagement with the revamped Olmsted park. Looking to MASS Design Group’s work in Rwanda as a model, she said training and hiring local artists, masons, and workers was key to creating a sense of ownership around the organization’s community healthcare projects. “The question for many was ‘who is this project for?; we showed them that it is for them.” As a result, community members who worked on the project began to trust in the mission and started going to the care center and hospitals.

In the same vein, Franklin Park can create opportunities for local artists and workers. There is some flexibility in Boston’s procurement procedures if the amounts are under $10,000. “There is potentially a way to also phase larger projects in smaller amounts” to give more local businesses and artists chances to bid. As part of the project, the team is also training small minority- and women-owned businesses to take advantage of these opportunities. “Training costs less than 10 percent of the project, but the impact is multiplied throughout the community. Training is embedded in the plan.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (September 1-15)

Los Angeles, Wildfires, and Adaptive Design / Greg Kochanowski, GGA

Los Angeles, Wildfires and Adaptive Design: Greg Kochanowski on Creating New Futures — 09/15/21, ArchDaily
“At UCLA, I additionally became interested in landscape, particularly through an interest in a more holistic way of thinking about the built environment. This has subsequently become a passion of mine to, the point of becoming a licensed landscape architect, and has significantly shaped my personal ideology and methodology of working. I see the world holistically as a complex series of relationships between cultural and organic systems – from cities to climate, buildings to landscapes, racial inequality to ecosystems.”

SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters Project Begins In-water Construction Off of Staten Island — 09/14/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Earlier this week, the New York State Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) announced that Living Breakwaters, the $107 million coastal resiliency-slash-marine biodiversity project was now taking shape off the South Shore area of Staten Island; an area pummeled by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.”

Wildfire Destroyed His Kids’ School. So This Dad Designed a Fireproofed Replacement — 09/14/21, Fast Co. Design
“Landscape architect Pamela Burton designed the grounds of the school, creating large buffers between the campus and the surrounding natural hillsides, and using large boulders and wide patios to break up the space.”

Report: To Close the Park Access Gap, Open up Schoolyards — 09/13/21, Grist
“The nonprofit environmental advocacy group The Trust for Public Land, or TPL, estimates that 100 million people in America, including 28 million kids, don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of their home. Race plays a major role in the divide: The group estimates that, in the 100 largest U.S. cities, communities of color have access to an average of 44 percent less park space than predominantly white neighborhoods.”

Lessons from the Rise and Fall of the Pedestrian Mall — 09/09/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Car-free shopping streets swept many U.S. cities in the 1960s and ’70s, but few examples survived. Those that did could be models for today’s ‘open streets.'”

What We Talk About When We Talk About Gentrification — 09/05/21, Vox
“Our focus on gentrification might lead people to believe that it is the dominant form of inequality in American cities (our outsized focus on the phenomenon may be due in part to the fact that gentrification scholars, journalists, and consumers of digital media tend to live in gentrifying neighborhoods themselves). But the core rot in American cities is not the gentrifying neighborhoods: It is exclusion, segregation, and concentrated poverty.”

Revisiting the Miasma Theory

Cholera “tramples the victors & the vanquished both.” Robert Seymour. 1831. U.S. National Library of Medicine / Wikipedia, Public Domain.

19th century sanitation engineer George E. Waring, Jr. was a miasmaist. He believed in the miasma theory, which holds that toxic vapors emanated from damp soil, rotted vegetation, and pools of standing water. These toxic vapors were understood to be created by the Earth and interact with the atmosphere and cause disease in American cities.

According to Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the Bernard & Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, Waring was a “marginal figure,” but he had interesting ideas about how to “modify the climate to improve health.” In a virtual lecture hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Seavitt Nordenson said Waring was incorrect about the mechanisms for spreading disease — he didn’t understand the concept of vectors, like mosquitoes — but his drainage and sanitation solutions were “surprisingly successful.” A year into the coronavirus pandemic, it’s worth revisiting Waring’s ideas about the connections between the Earth, atmosphere, disease — and the maintenance of public spaces.

Colonel George E. Waring, Jr., full-length seated portrait, New York, NY, 1897. Photo by Hollinger & Rockey. / Library of Congress

Waring wrote numerous books, created the drainage plan for Central Park, and later became an influential sanitation commissioner of New York City. Born in Pound Ridge, New York, in 1833, he studied agricultural chemistry. In his early 20s, he wrote a book on scientific farming that explored “atmospheric and molecular matter, the interchange of Earth and air,” Seavitt Nordenson explained. He called for “mechanical cultivation to reduce water in soil” through the use of “thorough under draining, deep disturbance of the soil, and trenches.”

Because of this book, he was later hired by former U.S. presidential candidate Horace Greeley to create a drainage system for his farm in Chappaqua, New York. At his estate, Waring created an elaborate herringbone-patterned drainage system that directed water to streams, with the goal of improving the marshy soil for farming, but he would soon also use for eradicating imagined wet soil-borne disease.

Later, in 1857, Waring apprenticed as a drainage engineer with Egbert L. Viele, who had previously created a comprehensive survey and study of Manhattan, examining the marsh, meadow, and constructed lands of the island. The study included the land that would make up the future Central Park, a land that had been home to the freed Black community of Seneca Village, which was later cleared by the city government to make way for the park. Waring’s early drainage studies of Manhattan informed the many entries submitted as part of a design competition for the new Central Park.

In 1858, Waring was promoted to drainage engineer by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux, who won the design competition for Central Park. Waring created an elaborate drainage system for the park landscape, which included low-lying wetlands. Waring had found favor with Olmsted. “Olmsted too was a miasmaist. Draining the park was framed as disease suppression.”

Men Standing on Willowdale Arch, Central Park, New York, NY, 1862. Waring is second from left. Photo by Victor Prevost. / New York Public Library

Considered the largest drainage project of his time, Waring designed a comprehensive system that directed water to constructed lakes and reservoirs. By 1859, the lower part of the park had been drained through a series of ceramic tubes buried deep into the soil that piped water directly to streams and ponds. “There was a mechanical movement to the low points,” where water would flow to.

George E. Waring, Jr., Map of Drainage System on Lower Part of the Central Park, New York, NY, 1859. / New York Historical Society.

With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Olmsted left his position at Central Park and became executive secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, where he was charged with reducing the death rate from disease for 8,000 sick and wounded soldiers. Olmsted created field hospitals in places he thought free of dangerous miasmas. Meanwhile, Waring resigned from Central Park work to become a major and lead cavalry in the Civil War.

After the Civil War and the publication of his book Drainage for Profit, Drainage for Health, Waring took up a post in Memphis, Tennessee, a city that had suffered severe epidemics of cholera and yellow fever, killing some 5,000 people in 1878 alone. While Waring didn’t understand the mosquito was a key disease vector, his plan for attacking standing water in building basements and streets had a positive effect on reducing disease. His comprehensive plan to separate the conveyance of stormwater and sewage, which was eventually implemented by the city, ended the health crisis.

Upon returning to New York City as sanitation commissioner, Waring applied his miasma theory to cleaning up the streets of the city. At the time, horses were leaving millions of pounds of manure and urine on the streets each day. Horse corpses were also left to rot. Garbage piles ran feet-deep and were cleared by ad hoc groups of unemployed.

Seavitt Nordenson thinks Waring elevated street cleaning and maintenance into a “performance,” targeting garbage as contributing to disease and declining morals. Taking a “militaristic approach,” he hired an army of sanitation workers that he dressed in all white. Nicknamed the “white wings,” they were given hand carts and brooms and also took on snow removal.

“White wings” sanitation workers, during Waring’s era / The Bowery Boys, NYC History

Waring would lead parades on horseback, with thousands of sanitation workers in army formation marching down the street. “It was a triumph of sanitation.”

Sanitation workers on parade, 1896. Organized by George Waring / Discovering NYC Twitter

After leaving the sanitation department of New York, Waring was dispatched to Havana, Cuba, by President McKinley to help solve their yellow fever epidemic. Until 1902, the U.S. had a colonial presence in Cuba, and American soldiers were dying of disease. While establishing Havana’s department of street cleaning, Waring contracted yellow fever from a mosquito. A day after his return to New York, he died, his remains quarantined on an island in New York Harbor.

Seavitt Nordenson said the legacy of miasmaists like Waring and Olmsted is the public health focus on the air — the intermixing of atmosphere and Earth. While Waring was a “brilliant failure” in terms of his scientific theories, a “great mind but incorrect,” Seavitt Nordenson also wondered: was he right?

During the pandemic, everyone has become a miasmaist to a degree, imagining the invisible droplets we know are floating in the air.

Seavitt Nordenson is currently completing a book on this topic with the University of Texas Press, with support from the Graham Foundation and the Foundation for Landscape Studies.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 1-15)

Westhampton Park topographical map / Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, via The Roanoke Times

How a University of Richmond Researcher Uncovered the Campus’ Forgotten Connection to Slavery — 12/14/20, The Roanoke Times
“Driskill was sick with the flu, searching for images of Westhampton Park, when she found a significant piece to the puzzle — a 1901 topographical map drawn by the Olmsted firm. To the east of the lake were written the words ‘grave yard.'”

Remembering Carol R. Johnson — 12/14/20, The Cultural Landscape Foundation
“Carol R. Johnson, founder of what became one of the largest woman-owned landscape architecture practices in the United States, died December 11, 2020, in Boothbay Harbor, ME; she was 91. She began her career with small residential commissions, then public housing projects and college campuses, followed by civic and corporate work in the U.S. and abroad.”

MoMa Urged to Drop Philip Johnson’s Name over Architect’s Fascist Past — 12/13/20, The Guardian
“New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is under growing pressure to remove Philip Johnson’s name from its galleries and titles after Harvard addressed the late architect’s legacy at the university, saying his history of racism, fascism and white supremacy had ‘absolutely no place in design.'”

Ultra-Modern Addition Updates a Craftsman-Style House in St. Paul — 12/11/20, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Ji, a landscape architect with Coen + Partners, did take some design cues from her home’s original character.”

‘Arts Organizations Are Back in Business’: NYC Performances Prep for Spring 2021 — 12/08/20, NY Daily News
“Starting March 1, beleaguered artists will be able to stage ticketed concerts, plays, sketches and more on city streets and other open spaces, thanks to a bill set to be passed in the City Council on Thursday.”

Back at It — 12/08/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“James Corner talks second chances, holistic design, and ‘lifting people up’ through planning.”

Best Books of 2020

Black Landscapes Matter / University of Virginia Press

During this unforgettable year, a number of new books were published that renew our hope for racial justice, human and environmental health, and climate action. For those spending time at home over the holidays, now is a great time to explore bold new ideas through books. Whether you are looking for the perfect gift or a meaningful read for yourself, explore THE DIRT’s best books of 2020:

Black Landscapes Matter
University of Virginia Press, 2020

Landscape designer and artist Walter Hood, ASLA, and writer and educator Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, have co-edited a very personal volume of contributions from Black landscape architecture thought leaders, such as Kofi Boone, FASLA, Austin Allen, ASLA, Louise A. Mozingo, and urban planner Maurice Cox. Rich visual essays of photographs and design renderings are interspersed amid the contributions, which explore the deep yet often unrecognized history of Black American landscapes and make a powerful case for researching, honoring, and preserving these places. Through greater understanding, landscape architects and designers can create landscapes that are more honest about American history, more respectful of diversity and difference, and encourage greater inclusion. As Hood explains, “Black landscape matter because they are renewable. We can uncover, exhume, validate, and celebrate these landscapes through new narratives and stories that choose to return us to origins.” Read an interview with Hood.

The Art of Earth Architecture / Princeton Architectural Press

The Art of Earth Architecture: Past, Present, and Future
Princeton Architectural Press, 2020

This gorgeous 500-page door stopper of a book, which is more than a foot tall, makes the case for using raw earth — not baked or fired earth — to build our homes and communities. Used for thousands of years, across many cultures, raw earth is one of the most sustainable building materials invented. Earth architecture is clearly a passion of former Centre Pompidou curator Jean Dethier, who ably mixes in diverse contributions and finds fascinating cases that span the millennia and continents. Raw earth building isn’t just for ancient kingdoms; a whole chapter on “contemporary creativity” shows the potential of the building technology as a critical climate change solution today. The book is part National Geographic-style photographic odyssey; part architectural call to action.

Alex MacLean Impact / Birkhäuser

Impact: The Effect of Climate Change on Coastlines
Birkhäuser, 2020

Aerial photographer Alex MacLean’s latest book captures our Atlantic and Gulf coastal communities at their most vulnerable. Even in a media environment inundated with images of climate change, MacLean’s photos have the ability to shock. Read the full review.

The Invention of Public Space: Designing for Inclusion in Lindsay’s New York / University of Minnesota Press

The Invention of Public Space: Designing for Inclusion in Lindsay’s New York
University of Minnesota Press, 2020

Mariana Mogilevich, a historian of architecture and urbanism and editor-in-chief of Urban Omnibus, the online publication of The Architectural League of New York, has written about a moment in history in New York City, during the administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay in the mid-1960s through the early 70s, “when designers, government administrators, and residents sought to remake the city in the image of a diverse, free, and democratic society.” Through extensive archival research, site work, interviews, and the analysis of film and photographs, Mogilevich delves into how theories of psychology and inclusion influenced the work of landscape architects Paul Friedberg, FASLA, and Lawrence Halprin, FASLA, as well as the architects of New York City’s Urban Design Group.

Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems / Island Press

Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems
Island Press, 2020

Written for professionals working in sustainability and environmental security, the new book by authors R. Bruce Hull, David P. Robertson, and Michael Mortimer provides a roadmap of the challenges and opportunities of the Anthropocene, a leadership toolbox, and a storybook of “wicked leadership” in practice. This practical guide provides clear leadership strategies that support emerging and seasoned planning and design professionals alike. Read the full review.

Lo–TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism / Taschen

Lo―TEK. Design by Radical Indigenism
Taschen, 2020

Lo–TEK catalogues indigenous technologies from across the globe, positing that scaling and hybridizing them with conventional technologies can provide a new vocabulary of sustainable innovations in the built environment. Watson, an Australia-born and New York–based architect, activist, academic, and founder of both Julia Watson and A Future Studio, researched and wrote Lo–TEK over six years. While exploring 18 countries, Watson pinpointed the inherent advantage of Lo–TEK design: it is “both an everyday response for human survival and an extraordinary response to environmental extremes, such as famine, flood, frost, drought, and disease.” Read the full review.

New Horizons: Eight Perspectives on Chinese Landscape Architecture Today / Birkhäuser

New Horizons: Eight Perspectives on Chinese Landscape Architecture Today
Birkhäuser, 2020

In a compelling survey of eight contemporary Chinese landscape architecture practices, Jutta Kehrer, director at LAC in Hong Kong and former design director at AECOM, shows the incredible breath of creativity across China. The emerging firms are creating striking and sustainable contemporary places rooted in traditional and vernacular styles. In an essay, Jeffrey Hou, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, writes that “these firms put design in service of community building, local economic development, and reinvestment in place, people, and processes.” And Ron Henderson, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, notes that “there is a revived confidence explicit in the work.”

Parks and Recreation System Planning: A New Approach for Creating Sustainable, Resilient Communities / Island Press

Parks and Recreation System Planning: A New Approach for Creating Sustainable, Resilient Communities
Island Press, 2020

Landscape architect David Barth, ASLA, argues that “the majority of parks and recreation system plans address traditional parks and recreation improvements, rather than community-wide issues.” Barth provides a much-needed contemporary approach, calling for park and recreation systems to address racial and social inequities and climate change and become more interconnected. He also outlines how parks and recreational sites can become “high-performing public spaces.” Together, these approaches can help public parks and recreation departments transcend their silos and better partner with other government agencies and private park conservancies and developers to create park and recreation systems that work better for the entire community.

Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves / Island Press

Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves
Island Press, 2020

Dr. Howard Frumkin is the former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Samuel Myers is principal research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Together, they have put together a thought-provoking and rich 500-page overview of the emerging field of planetary health. We are given a roadmap for how to undo the damage to the Earth and live in a way that is more respectful of the planet’s limited capacity. The authors convince us to take this path not just for nature’s sake but also for our own future health and well-being. Read the full review.

Transforming Landscapes: Michel Desvigne Paysagiste

Transforming Landscapes: Michel Desvigne Paysagiste
Birkhäuser, 2020

The French landscape architect Michel Desvigne isn’t well-known in the U.S. but a new monograph of his firm’s work from the publisher Birkhäuser should help change that. Transforming Landscapes beautifully conveys Desvigne’s simple yet striking parks, plazas, and master plans. There is a sense of clarity in his work that emerges as you look through the book’s many rich color photographs. The book is entirely focused on Desvigne’s public projects, which is where his passion lies. Read the full review.

Buying these books through THE DIRT or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs.

Landscape Architects Can Reduce the Pain of Climate Migration

Isle de Jean Charles
Satellite view of Isle de Jean Charles, / Google Earth

Climate change-driven migrations will occur more frequently. That was the message in a first-of-its kind session at reVISION ASLA 2020. Haley Blakeman, FASLA, a professor at Louisiana State University, said landscape architects can facilitate more successful migrations by acting as a conduit between scientists, planners, and the communities forced to migrate.

Blakeman explained her team’s efforts in helping to move the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribal community of Isle de Jean Charles, a small and increasingly submerged island in Terrebonne Parish, along the coast of Louisiana. The island has lost 98 percent of its landmass over the past 60 years.

“[Climate migration] is going to be happening in more and more places,” Blakeman said. Sea level rise is Isle de Jean Charles’ particular affliction. Elsewhere, drought, wildfires, and food insecurity will force movement.

Can landscape architects help lead these migration efforts? “Yes,” Blakeman said, but only by accepting their limitations and collaborating with migrating communities and a collective of multidisciplinary planning and design professionals.

In Blakeman’s case, this collective included geographer and resilience policy analyst Jessica Simms and sociologist Pamela Jenkins. Their expertise and knowledge of the Isle de Jean Charles community helped build a trusting relationship that has served the project well.

“It’s tricky business moving people from their home to another place,” Jenkins told attendees. “It is not an infrastructure project with a social component, but the other way around.”

Isle de Jean Charles is representative of many low-lying areas in Louisiana. The state thrives commercially on its proximity to the water. But between the oil and gas industry choking coastal wetlands and the incursion of the sea, Louisiana has lost over 1,900 square miles of coastal land in the last 90 years. Isle de Jean Charles has outpaced that trend, putting pressure on the islanders to secure their community’s future elsewhere.

sea level louisiana
Upwards of 7.8 million people in the Gulf may be affected by sea level rise / Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Dan Swenson

The tribe worked with the State of Louisiana to secure federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the move. The project is the United States’ first community-scale climate change-driven resettlement. 38 of 42 households on Isle de Jean Charles are participating, and 34 of those are moving together to a 500-acre site called “The New Isle,” according to Simms.

Simms and her team vetted about 20 potential locations in Terrebonne for re-establishing the islanders, only examining sites that were safely above sea level. 20 sites were narrowed to three, with five configurations. Site preference surveys made rounds in the community as members visited the sites.

Eventually, the community settled on a site favored by approximately 80 percent of its members, an hour’s drive from Isle de Jean Charles. Blakeman, Jenkins, and Simms liaised between the islanders and design team in order to tailor The New Isle to the community’s needs.

idjc rendering
A rendering of The New Isle community. / Waggonner & Ball, courtesy of The State of Louisiana.

While this suggests a tidy process, Simms reminded the audience that forced migration is inherently traumatic. “Their identities are wrapped up in the island that is going away,” Simms said.

Most tribal members were born and raised on the island and are well attuned to the place. In a departure from previous policies, which barred those migrating from retaining ownership of their existing land, the islanders were allowed to maintain ownership and access to their land and homes, though not allowed to live there. This policy change was critical to achieving community buy-in.

This buy-in is critical to the success of any forced migration effort, Jenkins explained. She quoted a figure from Anthony Oliver-Smith, an academic in the field of disasters and their social impacts, saying 90 percent of such migrations fail. Existing social fault lines, poor communications between the community and the professionals involved, and a lack of available funds often doom climate migrations.

community design session
Jenkins and Blakeman (far left) meet with community members to discuss issues related to their future home. / Haley Blakeman

And while the Isle de Jean Charles migration is heading towards success, all of the speakers emphasized that it does not represent a model. There are lessons to be learned from the effort, but each future migration undertaking must be community- and context-specific.

Construction on the homes of The New Isle began in May and will finish in 2021, according to Simms. The new community will sit 12 feet above sea level.