Laurie Olin Wins Vincent Scully Prize

Laurie Olin, FASLA / Planetizen

At the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C., Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of OLIN, became the first landscape architect to win this prestigious prize, joining Jane Jacobs, His Royal Highness Prince Charles, Phyllis Lambert, and Andres Duany in NBM’s pantheon of those deemed most influential in shaping our built environment.

In a brief tour of some of his greatest work — including the landscapes of the National Gallery of Art sculpture garden and National Monument, as well as the Getty and Barnes museums — Olin expressed his joy in creating democratic spaces for people. He was interviewed by landscape architect James Corner, ASLA, founder of Field Operations, a former student of his.

Some highlights from the wide-ranging lecture and conversation with Corner:

“I aim for creating a sense of calm resolve, a quiet seamlessness. The heavy lifting is hidden; I want to make it look effortless. This, however, can cause problems for me: people will see my projects and ask: ‘Why did it cost so much? What took so long?'”

National Monument grounds, Washington, D.C. / National Park Service

“Landscape architecture is not the sauce you pour over something; it’s part of the structure of an environment. When talking to people who don’t know what landscape architecture is, steer the conversation to another level. Landscape is a device for that.”

“Many things have changed since I started practicing in the 1970s. Many processes have changed for the better, thanks to new technologies. However, our faster world has caused impatience among clients. They say: ‘Why isn’t this done? We just emailed you yesterday.’ Digital technologies have made it harder to take time to slow down, stop, and think. Projects that take longer, that stall, are better because of the slowness. There is more time to consider. Landscape architecture is the slow food of design.”

“In the 1970s, most landscape architects were working in the suburbs; today, they are fully engaged in the city, because that’s where the people are. Then, just getting an urban mini-park built was seen as a major triumph; today, landscape architects are creating larger urban parks and even regional plans.”

On working with “starchitects” like Frank Gehry, Norman Forster, and Richard Meier: “Architects are control freaks. They have to be. It’s hard to get things done, or even done well, and especially hard to get something done brilliantly. So they become maniacs. It’s important to learn their ways of thinking, but then you have to push back.”

ASLA 2017 Landmark Award. J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles; building designed by Richard Meier and OLIN / OLIN, Sahar Coston-Hardy

“Some people will say they can see a project and know it’s my work. But I don’t have a style. They are looking more at the handwriting than the style.”

On the controversial new 150-acre Apple campus in Silicon Valley, a collaboration with architect Norman Forster: “Steve Job’s idea was a forest — a big park — for his campus for tens of thousands of employees. He believed in nature and the health benefits of the natural world. His favorite park was Hyde Park in London. He was also a fan of Frederick Law Olmsted and studied his work. His vision was a park that was also an everyday workplace, where employees could go have walks and meetings under a tree. I agreed with this vision.”

Apple campus rendering / Norman Foster + Partners, OLIN, Arup

On the role of new parks in gentrification: “We need a green public realm for the health of our populations. We need places where citizens can come together. We need to spend money and build things well.” The way to address gentrification is to “eliminate the inequalities” in access to great parks. “We need to bring great parks to places like North Philadelphia.”

“Fears about community, other people, or terrorism negatively affect our public spaces. I believe in an open society and open environment. We can bring optimism and resistance — we can push back with good design.”

On President Trump’s proposed wall along the southern border with Mexico: “I disapprove of that on ecological, environmental grounds alone. The climate, ecosystems, and geology — and the people — run north south. You can’t divide people. I totally disagree.”

Olin’s new book Be Seated examines the role of seating in the public realm and includes many of his original drawings and watercolors.

In other awards news: Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, became the first landscape architect to win the MacArthur “genius” grant for her work “designing adaptive and resilient urban habitats and encouraging residents to be active stewards of the ecological systems underlying our built environment.” Also, urban designer and planner Damon Rich, one of the leaders behind the equitable revitalization of the Newark post-industrial waterfront and creation of the Newark Riverfront Park, also won.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 1 – 15)

dirt
“Houston Bridges,” designed by SWA Group / Godofredo A. Vasquez, Houston Chronicle

The Next Trend in Luxury Apartments Is Having Personal Rooftop Farms for Residents Business Insider, 5/3/17
“The farm-to-table movement is taking hold at a luxury New York City condo complex.”

How the Obama Presidential Center Could Reshape Jackson Park Curbed Chicago, 5/3/17
“The Obama Foundation has finally taken the wraps off of the preliminary design for the upcoming Obama Presidential Center for Chicago’s Woodlawn community.”

The High Line Conundrum Slate, 5/9/17
“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A city in the throes of rapid demographic change, where rents are going through the roof, wants to convert an overgrown freight railway into a selfie-ready linear park.”

Making Houston Freeways a Little Less Ugly The Houston Chronicle, 5/9/17
“Billboards notwithstanding, nothing installed along the freeway can be too distracting, the Texas Department of Transportation mandates. It’s a safety issue.”

NYC’s Awards for Excellence in Design Winners Emphasize Resilience Post-Hurricane Sandy Curbed New York, 5/11/17
“The projects this year were lauded for their sustainable designs, for the attention they paid to enhancing the community, and their detail to preserving historic elements (where it mattered).”

Landscape Architecture Gets Its Rightful Due in Exhibit, Book The Chicago Tribune, 5/12/17
“Landscape architecture is all too often viewed as a stepchild of architecture — a mere adornment rather than an integral part of the environment that shapes how we live.

What Can We Learn from Copenhagen?

Copenhagen bicyclists / Citi.io
Copenhagen bicyclists / Citi.io

In Copenhagen, Denmark, nearly 50 percent of people commute by bicycle. No matter if it’s a beautiful summer day or a blustery winter one, Danes use their beloved bicycle network, because it’s the fastest, most convenient, healthiest, and cheapest way to get from point A to B. In a discussion organized by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Embassy of Denmark at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., we learned how Denmark made bicycling the most popular form of transportation, and how other cities can create a culture of bicycling.

Klaus Bondam, a jolly artist and former politician, now runs the Danish Cyclists’ Federation. He explained that in Copenhagen 17 percent of all trips are made by bicycle and some 50 percent of destinations can be reached by bike.

Danes learn to love biking early on. Parents bring their kids out into traffic in bike carts when they are toddlers, and their kids begin navigating traffic on their own bikes starting around age 5 or 6. This is all possible because of the investments the Danes have made to make their bike infrastructure safe for everyone.

Mom and child bicycling / UCI
Mom and child bicycling / UCI

Their infrastructure is mostly comprised of protected, segregated bike lanes. “Building proper, curbed lanes” is crucial, according to Bondam, as that enables women and kids to feel comfortable.

Copenhagen bike lane / NPR
Copenhagen bike lane / NPR

The Danes built their lanes as part of a comprehensive network, which “connects the inner city to the suburbs, radiating out 25 kilometers.”

Bicycle superhighways / Metrhispanic
Bicycle superhighways / Metrhispanic

Within this network, there are “bicycle super highways” that include the fantastic bicycle bridge that take riders through the urban core.

Bicycle skyway / Dissing + Weitling, Photographer: Rasmus Hjortshøj - COAST Studio
Bicycle skyway / Dissing + Weitling, Photographer: Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST Studio

To accomplish all of this, the Danish government created a national bicycle strategy and bicycle fund. As Bondam noted, if you spend the money and build it they will come. “There are 24 percent more cyclists where there is new infrastructure.”

Copenhagen took several generations to get to where it is now. Investments in the bicycle network started around the turn of the 20th century. It took more than 75 years for Copenhagen to get to nearly 50 percent.

A panel discussed how American cities can learn from Denmark’s example. Washington, D.C. has gone from 1 percent of people commuting by bicycle to 4 percent in just a few years. Leif Dormsjo, the head of D.C.’s department of transportation, said the city has made major investments in bike lanes and connective trails, and sees building complete streets — which work equally as well for pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars — as a primary strategy moving forward. Also, the D.C. government is investing in educating riders early on. A new program teaches every second grader in the city how to ride a bike.

While Bondam and Dormsjo noted the great progress in D.C. since he was last year in 2002, Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicycle Association (WABA), wants to see more bike lanes transformed into protected, segregated cycle tracks. “On a sunny day, the 15th street cycle track gets 3,000 riders, which is about 30 percent of total traffic.” With more separate lanes, bike number could go up throughout the city.

15th street cycle track / Dull men's club
15th street cycle track / Dull men’s club

Sam Adams, former Mayor of Portland, Oregon, and now US director at WRI, said Portland was long stuck at a plateau of around 4 percent commuting by bike. Getting to 8 percent, where they are now, took hard work. The city had to convince women, aged 18-40, to believe biking is safe. They targeted the top 25 most dangerous intersections. Adams found these intersections were almost always dangerous for more than one mode of transit. “Redesigning these intersections created multiple benefits.” Another key element was boosting the budget for bicycle infrastructure from $1 million to $17 million.

Safe bike box, Portland, Oregon / WBUR.org
A redesigned street with safe bike box, Portland, Oregon / WBUR.org

But everyone on the panel admitted that in an era of very tight budgets, increasing investments in bicycle infrastructure isn’t easy. As lanes for cars shrink and parking is removed, “some car advocates will argue their freedom is being taken away,” said Bondam. “But I feel my freedom, as a bicyclist, is taken away if I’m stuck in a car.” Adams said Portland’s increased spending on bicycle lanes, especially on the basic safety of lanes in communities further out from the inner-core, was “highly controversial.”

Moving bicycle infrastructure forward takes leadership. Dormsjo said it was important U.S. department of transportation secretary Anthony Foxx sees bike lanes as a priority in terms of federal investment. In D.C., the “sophisticated” city council has many bike riders, and Mayor Muriel Bower understands the issues, so there has been headway.

For Billing, the next step is to implement Vision Zero, which calls for zero traffic fatalities in the district. “We need to change the transportation system to prevent fatalities. Nobody should die trying to get somewhere.” Regionally, D.C. has had 450 deaths by cars in the past year, with pedestrian and bicyclist deaths at higher proportions than their share of street use. A new report from Smart Growth America — Dangerous by Design — outlines the latest data and steps that can be taken.

And more need to benefit from bicycling. Hon. Craig Iscoe, with Cycling without Aging, promoted the use of bicycle rickshaws to take seniors stuck at home, or, worse, old-age homes out for a ride.

Cycling without aging / syklingutenalder.com
Cycling without aging / syklingutenalder.com

And Billing argued bike lanes need to be better spread throughout poorer parts of the city. As part of this, an education campaign is needed to change the perception of bike lanes and bike share as an “agent of gentrification,” said Tommy Wells, director of D.C. department of energy and environment.

Bondam quoted President John F. Kennedy, who said “nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.” Focusing on safety, communities can use a mix of investment and education to spread that joy to everyone.

Ending “Code Talk” about Gentrification

Brooklyn anti-gentrification activists / Kirra magazine
Brooklyn anti-gentrification network activists / Kirra magazine

“When we talk about gentrification, there is a lot of ‘code talk’ that is often very subtle,” said Timothy Cassidy, ASLA, a landscape architect with Bernardon, at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. That code talk is a way to hide the racial nature of a process in which a group of mostly-white newcomers move into a neighborhood predominantly made up of people of color, renovate buildings, increase property values, change the character of the place, and then, eventually, displace the existing community.

Cassidy said gentrification is often described as an incremental process, with code words like “renovation, renewal, and revival.” The problem with these seemingly-positive words is they convey the “idea of improvement,” but it’s not clear who these improvements benefit. In many cases, developers, which are “external forces,” jump in and reap the benefits with new high-rise luxury developments, particularly with adaptive reuse projects. Existing communities that may have made incremental improvements over the decades and inadvertently laid the foundation for gentrification lose out and then eventually lose their neighborhood, too.

The problem is most pronounced in the communities nearest the central business districts. This is because of some larger shifts. “The suburbs are now dead. Nobody wants to move into a single family home anymore.” Instead, companies have moved back into downtown cores. And their surrounding neighborhoods, with a range of entertainment options, are now the place to “live, work, and play.” With inner-city neighborhoods now in higher demand, increased competition means neighborhoods once cheap and undesirable are now more valuable. For Cassidy, the ultimate question is: “Can you tell people where to live?”

Unfortunately, existing studies of gentrification may not tell the full extent of the story. James Brasuell, managing editor at Planetizen, went through study after study, pointing out their limitations. For example, an often-cited 2015 report on the state of the housing marked in New York City from the Furman Center at New York University said gentrification was occurring in 15 out of NYC’s 55 neighborhoods. But the researchers made these conclusions looking at only one measure: rents. Furthermore, the report was largely financed by banks who may have an interest in downplaying any of the negative effects of gentrification.

Another study by Governing magazine, also widely cited, showed that gentrification is up 20 percent in 50 cities since 2000, in comparison to only 9 percent over the 1990s. However, he said the study only relied on “inflation adjusted home values and the percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees.” And a footnote in the study showed that for a city to be eligible for gentrification it had to be in the bottom 40 percent of household income numbers. “Right off the bat, the study tilts the table.”

Brasuell researched and found all the possible measures used to studies to analyze gentrification. These include average rent, median home values, median incomes, percentage who are renters, population density, housing types, proximity of transit, parks, and schools — which he thought all failed to measure the complex experience of being gentrified. One scholarly study even used fried chicken restaurants and coffee shops as indicators, which he found absurd.

He identified some of the policies that are pro-development, that spur on gentrification. These include: upzoning, which is about expanding the envelope of development options in a neighborhood; regulations that reduce parking; increased redevelopment powers; loan policy reforms; and bonuses developers receive for increasing density.

There are also a set of policies cities can use to mitigate the worst impacts of gentrification, that are anti-development. These include: downzoning, which involves reducing the types of development that can occur; building moratoriums; improved tenants rights; rent control programs; inclusionary zoning that promotes an intermix of affordable housing in development projects; condo conversion protections; tax abatements; community land trusts; limited equity coop housing; and others.

He cautioned that given the complexity of these topics, planning and design media should not simply use terms like investment, revitalization, and redevelopment in their stories. “These empty euphemisms really create more of a problem.”

And that flowed into Cassidy’s broader critique of the prevailing analyses on gentrification. “We need to look at the impact on neighborhood composition and character rooted in community identity. When change occurs, it triggers an emotional response that’s beyond empirical measure. It’s an existential change in which neighborhood familiarity is gone. Your community literally disappears before your eyes, which is emotionally draining.”

Kelly Majewski, Affiliate ASLA, an urban designer at Superjacent in Los Angeles, delved into the ethical responsibility of landscape architects and designers in gentrifying cities. She wondered if the “spirit of a place can guide ethical building.” She said community “authenticity, distinctiveness, and narrative” are worth preserving, even if “change has become a constant.”

If a landscape architect sees gentrification happening in a community, then “it’s too late; policy and planning have already made an impact.” But she also argued that efforts to slow gentrification with projects that try to undertake the “just green enough” approach won’t work. These kinds of park and other public space projects call for making improvements that may please locals, but are not so grand as to attract outsiders. Majewski said “these projects don’t make a ton of sense; they are both inclusionary and exclusionary at the same time.” And, furthermore, how does a landscape architect decide where to stop: will that one extra tree make it too nice?

Designers can ensure they don’t inadvertently contribute to gentrification by working with communities in developing their own visions. “If communities can plan out their vision before a rezoning process, they can get ahead.” She pointed to a planning initiative started by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as a model: the Planning for Livability, Affordability, Community, Economic Opportunity and Sustainability (PLACES) program, which creates a larger role for communities in planning processes. For example, the Bridging Gowanus process and the East Harlem neighborhood plan were empowering and helped ensure that “growth advances community goals.”

In the Q&A, Charles Cross, ASLA, an African American landscape architect with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, stood up and said the “landscape architecture profession must diversify” if it wants to play a greater role in fighting gentrification. In a recent survey of graduating landscape architecture students, African Americans are still at only 3 percent of the student body. Much more work needs to be done to ensure landscape architects look like the communities they are helping.

Jane Jacobs: The Case for Diversity

Jane Jacobs / The Jane Jacobs Estate
Jane Jacobs / The Jane Jacobs Estate

“There is no way of overcoming the visual boredom of big plans. It is built right into them because of the fact that big plans are the product of too few minds. If those minds are artful and caring, they can mitigate the visual boredom a bit; but at the best, only a bit. Genuine, rich diversity of the built environment is always the product of many, many different minds, and at its richest is also the product of different periods of time with their different aims and fashions. Diversity is a small scale phenomenon. It requires the collection of little plans” — Jane Jacobs, Can Big Plans Solve the Problem of Urban Renewal, 1981.

In Vital Little Plans, a new collection of the short writings and speeches of Jane Jacobs, one of the most influential thinkers on the built environment, editors Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring have done readers a great service. They’ve brought together the best of this brilliant autodidact’s compelling arguments for why planners and designers must never forget the importance of small-scale diversity given it results in interesting cities created, first and foremost, for people.

In essays and speeches that range from the 1940s — years before she became famous for The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 — to 2004, just two years before her death, we learn how her thinking evolved and grew more ambitious, but was always rooted in what she learned from watching people interacting on the streets.

In 1958, a few years before she published Death and Life, she writes a thoughtful piece for Fortune magazine, contrasting her experience walking through the liveliest parts of cities with the deadening urban renewal projects to come, the projects she saw as killing organic, small-scale diversity through a homogenized, imported model. Early on, she identified the faults of those vast Modernist urban design projects: “They will be spacious, park-like, and uncrowded. They will feature long green vistas. They will be stable and symmetrical and monumental. They will have all the attributes of a well-kept, dignified cemetery. And each project will very much look like the next one.”

To fight these projects, she then called for urban citizens to empower themselves by thinking critically about cities and then making their thoughts heard and influence felt. “Planners and architects have a vital contribution to make, but the citizen has a more vital one. It is his city after all.” Citizens must go out and really study their city. “What is needed is an observant eye, curiosity about people, and a willingness to walk.”

For Jacobs, walking, and later biking, were central to experiencing that attractive diversity of city life. As such, any transportation plans that undermined walkability, that downgraded the status of the pedestrian on the street in favor of cars, were anathema to her, as we would later see in her committed advocacy to stop New York City planner Robert Moses’ effort to put an expressway through her beloved Greenwich Village. Her writings in the 60s also made the case for architectural preservation, which she viewed as central to the aesthetic diversity that makes cities a visual adventure. For Jacobs, diversity in the built environment was not only an indicator of a vibrant, social place, but also economic vitality.

After leading the assault against urban renewal for multiple decades, beginning in the 1980s, she began to write more ambitious, theoretical essays that explore the “ecology of cities.” For her, this was less about urban ecosystems, but the intricate dance of systems that drive innovation, that make cities the place to be not only for social and cultural life, but also make them critical economic drivers. “A natural ecosystem is defined as ‘composed of physical-chemical-biological processes active within a space-time unit of any magnitude.’ A city ecosystem is composed of physical-economic-ethnic processes active at a given time within a city and its close dependencies.” She again relates the importance of diversity: “Both types of ecosystems — assuming they are not barren — require much diversity to sustain themselves. In both cases, the diversity develops organically over time, and the varied components are interdependent in complex ways. The more niches for diversity of life and livelihood in either kind of ecosystems, the greater its capacity for life.”

Her speech in 1984 on the need to enhance diversity through specific policies that support multiculturalism, which in turn supports innovation, is just as important today. Analyzing her adopted city — Toronto, Ontario, which she moved to in the early 70s — she says: “The Canadian ideal is expressed metaphorically as the mosaic, the idea being that each piece of the mosaic helps compose the overall picture, but each piece nevertheless has an identity of its own. As a city, Toronto, has worked hard and ingeniously to give substance to this concept.”

In the last years of her life, she became increasingly concerned about the future of urban development, about whether diversity, enabled by the many, many “vital small plans,” would win out or be trampled by the forces of gentrification, homogenization, and governmental centralization. In the Vincent Scully Prize lecture at the National Building Museum in 2000, she identified future threats to that diversity. For example, she saw that immigrant communities could no longer afford to take root in downtowns, thereby enriching cities from within, but often landed farther out in sprawled-out suburbs that limit their positive cultural and economic impacts.

She was also fearful of the World Bank and other international development agencies, along with national and metropolitan governments, that intervene in the intricate economic life of developing world cities by investing in major infrastructure projects that can wipe out diversity on the ground. She seems to equate the “comprehensive planning efforts” of the World Bank with Robert Moses. In a talk at the World Bank in 2002, she tells their leadership that it’s best to do no harm — and not invest at all — rather than inadvertently upset the dynamics of a balanced urban ecology. “The minute you begin to prescribe for cities’ infrastructure or programs comprehensively, you try to make one size fit all.”

To the end, she stayed true to what she knew: successful, vibrant, happy cities arise out of the visions of many, not the powerful few.

Detroit Halts Its Decline

 

Detroit's Revival / The Bell Towers
Detroit’s Revival / The Bell Towers

In Detroit, Michigan, there has been 50 years of continuous population decline. But that decline finally stopped this year, said Detroit mayor Michael Duggan, to rousing applause, at the Congress for New Urbanism, which met this year in this resurgent rust-belt city. In the 1950s, the city topped 1.8 million people. Last year, it slid to a new low of 677,000 but is now holding steady. A model of the car-centric city, Detroit tops 142 square miles; it can fit San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan within its boundaries. Some 400,000 single family homes had been built within the city limits, because “every car factory worker could afford one.” Now thousands of vacant buildings and lots litter neighborhoods.

The decline of manufacturing coupled with “racist policies” eventually inflicted their toll. Banks red-lined whole swaths of the city, going as far as even building a four-foot wall in one community at 8 Mile and Wyoming to ensure “African Americans would not be allowed to buy homes past there.” After years of injustice, what followed were destructive riots that tore the city apart and further accelerated white flight to the suburbs. By the end of the 60s, “us versus them politics had taken over.”

Today, Mayor Duggan, the first white man elected mayor of the majority-African American city since the mid-70s, with 90 percent of the vote, said the city is “open to everyone, black or white, gay or straight.” The city is moving beyond the divisions of the past with a new agenda that focuses on improving services for everyone and concentrating development in order to create an “authentic Detroit” urban experience.

Duggan said one of the first things he fixed was all the streetlights. Instead of burnt out bulbs, all of Detroit’s streets are now lit at night. He also ensured that ambulances, which used to arrive up to an hour after a resident called 911, now make it in 8 minutes, which is less than the required average time.

Given the wealthy suburbs of Detroit still offer a great draw, “we can’t compete with them.”  Instead, Detroit must offer a new urban experience by leveraging “the tight urban grids” and building in more density. “We want to create more 20-minute neighborhoods” using light-rail, transit-oriented development, and the riverfront. Duggan recruited Maurice Cox, who was planning director for New Orleans and Alexandria, Virginia, to lead these efforts. With Cox, Duggan wants to create an “authentic Detroit experience” that can pull people in from the suburbs and elsewhere.

Duggan also wants to spread the benefits beyond downtown. “We have an enormous responsibility to make sure every neighborhood has a future.”

Carol Coletta, senior fellow at the Kresge Foundation, which has been committed to supporting the city’s resurgence for years, said that as Detroit rebounds, there are already concerns about gentrification. But she argued that “there are a lot of people in Detroit who wouldn’t mind a little gentrification if it results in new houses and shops.”

Coletta pointed to a number of studies, arguing that communities actually must gentrify, given the alternative is often a “slow, often-unnoticed deterioration.” Once that decline sets in, it’s nearly impossible for the community to rebound. “Only 105 communities out of the 1,100 deemed high poverty in 1970 have rebounded over the past 40 years.” And today, there are now 3,000 high-poverty communities, and the number of poor have grown from 2 million to 4 million. “Over the past 40 years, we’ve tripled the number of poor communities and doubled the number of poor, which is an abysmal record.”

To ensure “more poor communities don’t displace poor people with their lack of opportunities,” we need to use “government incentives, foundation funds, and market forces” to increase investment without displacement. “Mixed-income communities are the goal because they increase life outcomes.”

However, moving the poor to wealthier communities in order to create mixed-income places is “slow and expensive.” Instead, she called for a special effort to “ensure low-income neighborhoods benefit new people coming in and to create incentives to get the wealthy to move to poor areas.” With equitable gentrification, “we can accelerate the benefits and share them.” Coletta also called for dramatically increasing the supply of affordable housing in these gentrifying neighborhoods, beyond what Portland, Oregon, and New York City, have accomplished, and called an end to the “just green enough” movement, which calls for adding new parks and other amenities to poor areas, but not any that are so nice they will raise property values.

“The ‘just green enough’ idea is craziness born of real frustration. We need more quality neighborhoods, not less. We need new parks, libraries, trails, gardens, and re-imagined community infrastructure in places that offer good options at all price points. Equity is not about being opposed to thriving, appealing cities. That’s actually central to equity.”

A Vision for Equitable Community Development

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Mural, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

In the 1960s, amid rampant gang violence, drug crime, and white flight, Arthur Hall, a dancer and choreographer, created the Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center in the poor and mostly African American community of Fairchild-Hartranft in north Philadelphia. The center successfully taught black culture, art, dance, and music in a safe space for decades. Then, in the 1980s, Lily Yeh, an art professor at the Philadelphia School of Fine Arts, got involved and grew the center into a neighborhood arts and cultural hub, the internationally-renowned Village of Arts & Humanities, which now teaches over 400 local students art, advocacy, and leadership after school every day.

Aviva Kapust, the current executive director of the Village, gave a tour of the project during the Trust for Public Land’s recent conference called the Nature of Communities. As we spent the morning walking through the network of 15 parks and plazas, which total some 15,000 square feet across multiple city blocks, Kapust explained that the Village’s public spaces have become “designated safe zones in the neighborhood.” While there is still high levels of crime in this part of Germantown, “it doesn’t happen here.” And while nearby painted houses are often “tagged” by local artists, who leave their unique signature, the murals that oversee the public spaces never are.

Yeh and the surrounding community slowly transformed vacant lots into public parks and plazas. Kapust said Yeh had no idea how to create a park, so she engaged the neighborhood kids, who then brought in their families. “Together, they undertook a process of co-creation,” learning as they went how to plant trees, mold cement benches, set sidewalks, create mosaics — building community all the while.

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village Heart, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Kapust believes the space works so well because it “imports symbols from other cultures and projects then back out again.”

But the imagery Yeh selected also purposefully “signals guardianship.” Angels oversee pathways; spirit animals watch over the public spaces. “There is an intentional mesh of spiritual messages into something universal.”

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Mural, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Yeh just started building these spaces without city government permission, but now they actually own the parks and plazas, which brings its own set of challenges, including financial liability. And simply maintaining the spaces — not developing them — costs some $70,000 per year.

Meditation Park, which was created in the early 90s, is something Gaudi would have loved. A river is formed through mosaic tiles. Colors reflect the Islamic and West African cultures found in the neighborhood. James “Big Man” Maxton, a former drug addict, became the village’s long-time operations director and mosaic artist. The result of his work and many other volunteers is a “beautiful plaza, like something you would happen upon in Barcelona.”

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

A few doors down, Magical Garden is in the process of being revamped as a “natural habitat for urban wildlife.” Annuals are being replaced with perennials, and there will be natural stormwater management systems. Next door is a quarter-acre urban farm with permaculture plots, a solar-powered aquaponic system, and outdoor pizza oven, where culinary education and demonstrations are held.

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Magical Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Memorial Park, once a vacant lot, honors those who have died in the neighborhood to drug violence or addiction or lost their lives in the Vietnam War. The now-shuttered neighborhood high school had the highest number of alumni to die in Vietnam than any other school — some 64 students. Dream totems, made with a West African artist, invite visitors to remember.

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Memorial Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Interestingly, not all the parks have been successful. Some of the ones farthest away from the village center are underused. Lion’s Park, for example, may be divested as it has become an “overgrown hazard,” said Kapust.

Lion's Park, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Lion’s Park, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

As gentrification creeps north, can there be a positive future for this unique arts and cultural neighborhood? Kapust says the Village is looking 25-30 years ahead and trying to figure out whether they should use “arts and culture to generate community economic development, or aim for community economic development, using arts as a tool; they are two separate things.” She added that whatever plays out, “we want to keep the needs of the people in this neighborhood at the forefront.”

Kapust wants to reach out to equitable developers as well, taking them a vision and plan for maintaining the character of the community. “The theory is 100 families is a manageable group. We could support those 100 families with jobs and their own homes for 100 years.” Those 100 families, who would take up about 5 blocks, can then maintain the neighborhood culture, support local shops, and create leverage. “It’s basically socialism,” Kapust laughed, or at least an expanded neighborhood cooperative. To make this happen, a workable financing model needs to be connected to the right non-profit developer.

D.C. Plans for Preservation Amid Population Explosion

O Street Market, before redevelopment / Wikipedia
O Street Market, before / Wikipedia
O Street Market, rendering of post-redevelopment / City Market at O
O Street Market, after / City Market at O

How does a historic, monumental city with a defined border and building-height limit accommodate the influx of another 150,000 people over the next two decades? For District Mayor Muriel Bowser and planning director Erik Shaw, who spoke at an event at the Howard Theater, a major part of the answer is adaptive reuse, which involves transforming a building or site into some new use it wasn’t originally designed for. This approach enables cities to preserve some of the original character and feel of a place while updating it for contemporary realities.

Washington, D.C. has gained in population since 2000, when it hit a low-point of 572,000. The city now has 658,000 residents. Since 2000, there has been 150 million square feet of new development, much of it in the city’s 46 historic districts, to accommodate all the new residents, up to 1,000 people per month. Shaw said city planners have largely “maintained the integrity of the place, but it has been a balancing act.” And this balancing act will only get more difficult as the population is expected to increase a further 20 percent.

Mayor Bowser said D.C. needs to plan decades ahead for the expected population explosion. She admitted there will be big changes — “nothing stays the same.” Increased development may mean more “pressure,” particularly for low-density areas now being retrofitted to become higher density. Higher density development and less parking means greater strain on already over-taxed public transportation systems. But to create a new balance, Bowser’s administration is undertaking a comprehensive plan that will build on “examples from the past that were respectful of our values.”

One example from today, which was highlighted by a panel that followed Bowser and Shaw, is the new O Street Market, an adaptive reuse project in the Shaw neighborhood of D.C. O Street Market, a charismatic Victorian building, opened in 1881, with ample light, ventilation, and easy-to-clean sanitary surfaces. In 1968, the market closed amid the riots that roiled the city after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the early 1970s, it was restored and reopened as a market for vendors, with a Giant supermarket coming in next door. In 1993, the market was added to the National Register of Historic Places, but by then, it had already become a symbol of the city’s “urban decay and dysfunction,” as eight people were shot in and around the building in one particularly bloody incident, writes The Washington Post. Vendors fled the marketplace amid rampant drug violence.

In 2001, a few developers made a bet the neighborhood would come back and decided to make an investment in the then-decrepit building. Roadside Development, along with Madison Retail Group, purchased the building, but, just a few years later, the old market’s roof collapsed in a snow storm. Richard Lake, Roadside Development, said the setbacks didn’t stop them, as the “community had a clear vision of what they wanted.” However, it still took more than 7 years before the D.C. Zoning Commission, Historic Preservation Review Board, and planning department approved the $325 million expansion of the market into the City Market at O, a multi-use development.

What was once a empty building with a collapsed roof was reopened as the largest Giant supermarket in the district in 2013. According to Keith Sellars, president, Washington DC Economic Partnership, this is a major success story. “10-15 years ago, we had to beg Giant to come to the core of D.C. But now they want a historic, authentic building for their 78,000-square foot flagship.”

Within City Market at O, there’s a 90-unit senior housing building that was filled up within weeks of opening and already has a multi-year wait list, along with a 555-unit market price apartment complex, with 550-square-foot one-bedrooms that go for a whopping $2,700. There’s a 182-unit hotel run by Cambria Suites. And another affordable housing building is in the works, with an additional 142 units opening in 2017. Just last year, the entire development won the Urban Land Institute’s global award for excellence competition.

Architect Shalom Baranes, who created 50-60 different architectural models of the revitalized O Street Market over the years before it was approved, said the developers and architects “brought their best game to a culturally-rich neighborhood.” The new Giant in the shell of the Victorian building well “juxtaposes modern and traditional.”

Meanwhile, housing prices just keep going up in gentrifying Shaw, which was 25 percent white in 2000 and is now more than half white. Mayor Bowser’s vision is of a “world-class, inclusive city,” and, in Shaw, she told The Washington Post, “it’s not too late for this to be a neighborhood where low-income and expensive housing exist side-by-side over the long term.” Her administration is investing $100 million in an expanded affordable housing trust fund, which helps tenants purchase their older, rent-stabilized apartments before they are sold and redeveloped. But as can be seen in the multi-year waiting list for the 99-unit senior housing built at City Market at O and so many other subsidized housing services, demand far exceeds supply. For a share of the city’s population, inclusion only happens with more affordable housing. Without inclusion, there will be no rich cultural heritage to preserve alongside the adapted old buildings.

New Ways to Promote Smart Growth

Smart growth in California data / Calthorpe Associates
Data on smart growth in California / Calthorpe Associates

“Climate change is the one thing that clearly unifies the planet — every city in the world has to cope with these issues,” said Peter Calthorpe, principal of Calthorpe Associates, in his keynote address at the Louisiana Smart Growth Summit. At the two-day conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, climate change was a hot issue for many of the speakers, who discussed strategies for combating it with smart growth policies, not just in Louisiana, but across the country.

Calthorpe identified several new avenues for promoting smart growth, which concentrates urban development in walkable downtowns and connects regions:

Use Data to Show Smart Growth Is Low Cost

We need to talk about smart growth in terms of its cost-saving benefits. Policymakers, planners, and the public all increasingly desire quantifiable data on environmentally-sound policies. It’s not enough to harp on the health or environmental benefits of walkable downtowns — if the cost-saving benefits are not highlighted, smart growth policies will not be implemented.

As Calthrope said, “smart growth is fiscally the most responsible thing to do if you get the data on the table. A lot of conservative Republicans who don’t believe in smart growth or climate change were at least on board for the least-cost scenario.”

One way to help policymakers and the public understand the cost-saving benefits of smart growth is by presenting them with the costs of various scenarios. “People will say we can’t afford $94 billion for high speed rail in California but the reality is, if we don’t build it and we still have those same trips taking place, we’d have to expand airports and highways to accommodate them and that would cost $180 billion dollars.”

lead_large
Plan for the California high-speed rail system when completed / UC Davis and Esri

Though it might seem “geek-ish” to make a hard sell for design based on so much data, according to Calthorpe, presenting policymakers and the public with cost-benefit scenarios can can help them clear their minds of the rhetoric that “we should do nothing because we can’t afford anything.”

Christopher Leinberger, president of LOCUS, made a similar point in his presentation about the importance of selling the least-cost scenario.

“Why would you ever invest your limited capital dollars into roads and sewers when, if you put them into walkable urban development, you can bring in 6-12 times the revenue for the same cost per mile,” he said. Not everyone cares about the environment. Not everyone acknowledges climate change. But presenting thoughtful, environmentally-sensitive projects through an economic lens can provide a backdoor for implementation.

Use Autonomous Vehicles to Better Connect Regions

While Calthorpe argued that technology is not a “silver bullet” for creating better cities, he acknowledged that new technologies may help us change some of the behaviors that have contributed to sprawl. Innovation will come out of a transportation revolution centered on autonomous public transportation.

Google-Autonomous-Car.png
Google’s prototype for a driver-less car / Google

While autonomous private vehicles companies like Google are prototyping have the potential to perpetuate the negative environmental impacts of regular vehicles — by encouraging sprawling development — there is a compelling case for autonomous public buses, Calthorpe said.

“If you take that same technology companies like Google are thinking about and apply it in place of large buses in dedicated right of ways, you’ll be able to create a transit system that is equitable and affordable without drivers,” he said. “Connecting communities at a regional scale is also crucial.”

Leinberger argued that new autonomous vehicle technologies, without a concurrent change in our lives or our cities, are not going to solve anything. But tailoring technology to inspire behavioral changes can provide a great tool for changing the underlying chemistry of broken systems.

Use Mixed-Income Developments to Build Resilience

Discussing the inevitable trade-offs involved in promoting smart growth, Calthorpe called gentrification “good news for the U.S,” because of the environmental and social benefits associated with its driving forces. For example, gentrification often occurs in mixed-use areas that are designed to be the most resilient to climate change.

“They call it gentrification, but I call it mixed income,” he said. “I believe many communities would love to have a broader mix of incomes, more services, better schools. Displacement is not nearly as draconian as it is portrayed to be.”

Policy makers, planners, and designers in every city are going to have decide the right balance of walkable mixed-use development given environmental and social constraints. Sometimes building walkable, healthy downtowns will lead to gentrification, but, as Calthorpe said, “there are trade-offs in everything.”

How to Create a Culture of Health: Remake the Built Environment

East Lake Meadows public housing (pre-revitalization) / Atlanta Housing Authority
East Lake Meadows public housing (pre-revitalization) / Atlanta Housing Authority
East Lake (post-revitalization) / Atlanta Housing Authority
East Lake (post-revitalization) / Atlanta Housing Authority

“How can we create a culture of health?,” asked Dr. Donald Schwartz, a director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, at GreenBuild 2015 in Washington, D.C. In the U.S., there isn’t a culture of health, Schwartz argued, just increasing investments in healthcare, which isn’t the same thing. Health is “socially and environmentally-derived,” while healthcare relates to hospitals, therapies, technologies, and costs. Our expensive healthcare-centric approach is no longer working. “In life expectancy rankings for developed Western countries, we rank 15th out of 17 countries.” It’s clear that further investments in healthcare aren’t going to solve the problem. Instead, what’s needed is a transformation of the built environment, so everyone can benefit from walkable neighborhoods and live in healthy, sustainable homes. A new culture of health can only come out of a healthy built environment.

Up until age 75, Americans actually have among the worst life expectancy among the developed world. “The other 16 developed Western countries offer far more opportunities to have a better life.” But if we make it to age 95, “we have the best life expectancy.” This is because “50 percent of our healthcare budget last year went to the last year of life.” By investing in hospitals and technologies for the very old, we created a high-cost healthcare system that benefits a “slim slice of life.”

The U.S. spends much more than other developed Western countries on healthcare, topping out at 17 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) or about $3 trillion per year. “The disparity with other countries is huge.” And with our expensive, inefficient system, we are getting poor results as well. One-third of children are overweight or obese. 75 percent of young adults aren’t eligible for military service due to lack of education or health problems. One-half of all deaths are linked to chronic diseases, which is much higher than in other developed countries.

Higher and higher healthcare costs can’t be the only way forward. “We have to redefine health as more than hospitals and ambulances.” Echoing the U.S. Surgeon General, who called for every community to be walkable, Schwartz said the way to build a new culture of health is to ensure every neighborhood encourages activity and health. A new approach to the built environment is critical, because, otherwise, “our children could end up living shorter lives than us.”

To improve health, Americans need to “change the context.” Schwartz pointed to a study in which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) randomly moved 4,600 families in public housing, asking some to stay where they were in poor neighborhoods, and some to move to new neighborhoods without poverty. They found that after 3 years, the “mental health for those who moved improved, and, after 10-15 years, they had lower levels of obesity and diabetes.” The study showed that “people got healthier when they were moved out of poor neighborhoods, even though they didn’t get wealthier.” Following up 20 years later, the researchers found that the low-income “children who had been moved and grew up in areas without poverty had higher lifetime earnings. Just being in a good environment at an early age resulted in higher incomes later on.”

Schwartz cited a few other studies that show how place is fundamental to health. But the question then becomes: what is it about a place that’s healthy or not? Schwartz said higher level of educational attainment in a given neighborhood is an important determinant of health. The structure of neighborhoods has a major impact: Communities with mixed-use developments that encourage walking, access to transit, proximity to places for employment, places to buy healthy foods are healthier. And housing is key. Research shows that “healthier housing improves the health of children.”

To further test this, the foundation is financing an experiment in inner-city Baltimore with local health care providers to retrofit homes for children with asthma. The idea is to test whether improvements in housing reduce asthma rates and lower healthcare costs. But Schwartz believes this experiment will just confirm what we already know. The relationship between better homes and health been already been made clear in the East Lake Meadows public housing project in Atlanta, Georgia. There, decrepit public housing was torn down and replaced with sustainable, healthy homes. No one was displaced — tenants came back after the renovation. The result was that “crime went down and student performance and employment went up.” All of this happened with an investment less than $200 million. “The only thing that changed was the housing.”

But Schwartz also argued that while these one-off projects are great, what’s really needed is a deeper planning approach. For example, the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut Regional Plan, which is a highly influential regional planning framework, now has a health chapter, in part due to the foundation’s work. This can lead to more widespread efforts to reshape the built environment in the region to make it more walkable, with more healthy homes. And RWJF is now funding Urban Land Institute’s Health Corridors program, which aims to retrofit the unhealthiest thoroughfares filled with big-box stores that offer no opportunities for walking and biking, and make them healthier for the people who live near them. “It’s about finding a real estate redevelopment strategy.”