Kongjian Yu Defends His Sponge City Campaign

An example of a true sponge city project. Sanya Dong’an Wetland Park, Sanya, Hainan Province, China / Turenscape

Two recent articles in the American media — one from The New York Times and another from The Christian Science Monitor — raised questions about the efficacy of China’s sponge city concept in the face of climate change. As storms become more powerful and release more water faster, the flood control mechanisms of Chinese cities are being overrun. News stories have focused on recent dangerous flooding in Zhengzhou, a city of 12 million on the banks of the Yellow River, which killed more than 300 people and trapped others in tunnels and subways. The articles questioned whether nature-based solutions, rooted in the sponge city approach, can handle the increasing amounts of stormwater inundating Chinese cities on rivers and coasts.

In a Zoom interview, Kongjian Yu, FASLA — founder of Turenscape, one of China’s largest landscape architecture firms, and creator of the sponge city concept — said, “first of all, Zhengzhou is not a true sponge city. There has still been way too much development and grey infrastructure.” And many Chinese cities have been using the term “sponge city as a political slogan” and a way to attract central government funding, given the deep support for the approach from Chinese president Xi Jinping.

He believes the benefits of the sponge city approach, which involves designing and constructing city-wide systems of ponds, wetlands, and parks that retain stormwater, have been proven. “Since ancient times, Chinese cities along the Yellow River with monsoon climates have used ponds to manage flooding and stormwater. So we know these approaches worked for over 2,000 years because these cities survived.”

ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. Tianjin Qiaoyuan Park: The Adaptation Palettes. Tianjin City, China / Turenscape
ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. Tianjin Qiaoyuan Park: The Adaptation Palettes. Tianjin City, China / Turenscape
ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. Tianjin Qiaoyuan Park: The Adaptation Palettes. Tianjin City, China / Turenscape

Chinese cities today are required to maintain 30 percent of the city as green space. Another 30 percent is dedicated to community space. For Yu, this means there is more enough space to create more ponds and water-absorbing parks that can capture vast amounts of water. “In 60 percent of the land in cities, we can use nature to retain water so it doesn’t drain away. In China, we have a saying — ‘water is precious, don’t let it go.’ There is plenty of space to be used to retain water.”

ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. A Green Sponge for a Water-Resilient City: Qunli Stormwater Park. Haerbin City, Heilongjiang Province, China / Turenscape

Yu outlined the key components of the sponge city approach. Stormwater should be captured using green infrastructure at its source, where it falls. Sponges should be evenly distributed and permeable so they can absorb water instead of shifting it somewhere else. “If properly designed, it’s a democratic water management system” made up of very local solutions.

Yu claims that with the story of Zhengzhou, the “media is seeking conflict and targeting something that isn’t a sponge city. Sponge cities can only solve the problem. We need more sponges, not less.”

Despite a recent video of a talk he gave, which he says has been viewed by more than 100 million Chinese citizens, there still needs to be more public education about the benefits of sponge cities. “Some of the public still doesn’t understand the sponge city concept, and some may find it a waste of money. Furthermore, some civil and hydrological engineers in China have been attacking the sponge city, nature-based approach because it takes away their jobs.”

If a sponge city is working as it should, “there would be no flooding. People forget when they don’t have disasters.”

When asked about NYC’s new approach to handling sea level rise-induced flooding in lower Manhattan, which will involve constructing a sea wall along with large-scale cisterns to store water, he said: “cisterns are unsustainable.” The concrete cisterns “have to be huge and therefore expensive and high maintenance.” Furthermore, this approach wastes water, which is a “living resources and when combined with plants and soils creates more natural resources.”

Yu calls for greater capacity building among the landscape architecture and civil engineering professions in China and elsewhere in the sponge city concept. “The issue in China is that some designers and engineers are building parks but not building in the stormwater management capacity needed.” In China, stormwater is still the responsibility of civil and hydrological engineers.

To address issues with the design and implementation of sponge cities, Yu will be hosting a summit with the leadership of the civil and hydrological engineers at his research and educational campus. “We will have a high-level discussion aimed to bridge the gaps.”

Furthermore, Yu’s team is publishing a new book in Mandarin — Performance Study of Designed Ecologies — that includes real data about sponge city projects. In addition to his videos, he has also produced a textbook for China’s thousands of mayors, who he said are on board with the approach.

“Flooding in the era of climate change presents an opportunity for landscape architects. We have an opportunity to build up our approach. Landscape architects can solve these problems — not with concrete pipes and cisterns — but with nature.”

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Deep Form of Designed Nature: Sanya Mangrove Park, Sanya City, Hainan Province, China. Turenscape

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (July 16-31)

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Deep Form of Designed Nature: Sanya Mangrove Park, Sanya City, Hainan Province, China. Turenscape

To Curb Urban Flooding, China Is Building ‘Sponge Cities.’ Do They Work? — 07/29/21, The Christian Science Monitor
“Yu Kongjian, a professor of landscape architecture at Peking University, is credited as the main architect of the sponge city concept. In a 2019 video for the World Economic Forum, he described the previous approach to flood prevention as ‘totally wrong.'”

National ‘Vision Zero’ Resolution Introduced — 07/28/21, Streetsblog
“After months of intense campaigning from advocates, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) introduced a bi-cameral resolution Tuesday expressing the desire of the legislature to ‘reduce traffic fatalities to zero by 2050.'”

As China Boomed, It Didn’t Take Climate Change Into Account. Now It Must. — 07/26/21, The New York Times
“Yu Kongjian, the dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at Peking University, is credited with popularizing the idea in China. He said in a telephone interview that in its rapid development since the 1980s, China had turned to designs from the West that were ill-suited for the extremes that the country’s climate was already experiencing. Cities were covered in cement, ‘colonized,’ as he put it, by ‘gray infrastructure.'”

The Architectural League Celebrates 2021 President’s Medal Recipient Walter Hood — 07/22/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“As noted by the League, Hood, as an artist and designer dedicated to ‘creating beauty in everyday environments, revealing hidden histories, renewing connections, guiding the way to co-existence in all our multiplicity and difference,’ was a ‘fitting person to honor at the moment of our re-engagement of public life.'”

How to Give a Modernist Icon a Makeover — 07/22/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Hiroshi Sugimoto’s renovation of the Hirshhorn Museum’s sculpture garden will bring the Japanese designer’s touch to a space long acclaimed as a modernist landmark.”

In Order to Achieve Tree Equity, the U.S. Must Plant 522 Million Trees in Urban Areas — 07/20/22, The Urbanist
“In order to make up for discrepancies between levels of tree coverage in neighborhoods lacking resources and more affluent, often White majority neighborhoods, the United States must commit to planting 522 million trees in urban areas.”

Emerging Landscape Architecture Leaders Tackle “Disorienting Dilemmas” (Part 1)

Rio Piedras watershed / Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s most recent class of innovation and leadership fellows spent the past year “unearthing assumptions and trying to find a path forward” through the “disorienting dilemmas” facing the world, explained Cindy Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in the kick-off off LAF’s now annual symposium. Each fellow seeks to generate “ethically-motivated societal change,” which in the process required “personal transformation.” Over two days, this year’s six fellows delved into the results of their independent research and leadership building efforts, which were each supported by a $25,000 grant from LAF.

Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo: Taking on the Army Corps of Engineers in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is an island of 3.2 million Americans. An unincorporated U.S. territory, it has a population larger than 20 U.S. states. The San Juan Estuary faces many challenges, including flooding, explained Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo, Principal, ECo. Efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to channelize the Rio Piedras, which spreads south from San Juan into the heart of the island, have brought up a complex set of issues related to “politics, economics, and flood conveyance.” Along its course, the river is both “polluted and biodiverse, near and inaccessible, beautiful and dangerous.” As a response to extreme flooding from Hurricane Maria, the Army Corps has allocated $1.5 billion to transform 9.5 miles of a “soft, natural river into a concrete, high-velocity channel” and insert five new bridges into the river landscape. “This shows a total disregard for climate change and environmental science” and also for the Army Corps own new nature-based engineering approach, Colón Izquierdo argued.

Rio Piedras / Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo

To better advocate for a nature-based approach that can make Puerto Rico more resilient to flooding, Colón Izquierdo has joined with scientists, advocates, and scholars who created Alianza Por La Cuenca del Rio Piedras, guided by the message “el rio esta vivo,” or “the river is alive.” While taking on the Army Corps, a complex bureaucracy, is analogous to “David attempting to defeat Goliath,” Colón Izquierdo believes the effort is critical because the design is “many decades behind in its conception.” In fact, the design is from 1992 and environmental impact statement from 1993; the project was resuscitated after Hurricane Maria decimated the island and exposed the vulnerability of so many living in Puerto Rico’s floodplains. By organizing design charettes and educating the public about nature-based options to improving the safety and health of the river, Colón Izquierdo seeks to build capacity, find leverage, and “get a seat at the table” — and perhaps save other rivers in Puerto Rico from the same fate.

Rio Piedras design charrette / Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo

Andrea Johnson: Imagining New Forms of Community-owned Renewable Energy

Sunset Park, Brooklyn / Andrea Johnson

Bounded at one side by the Bronx-Queens Expressway, the neighborhood of Sunset Park in Brooklyn includes a jail, mechanic shops, warehouses, and vacant land, explained Andrea Johnson, a visiting assistant professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. A maritime hub, the community is home to the Brooklyn Terminal, a massive industrial and commercial building that is now covered in a solar array cooperatively managed. This array got Johnson thinking about the hidden energy systems that comprise the community that can be re-imagined to provide “collective social value.”

When electricity demand in NYC increases, gas-driven peakers in Sunset Park start up, which contributes to the noxious air quality in the neighborhood, which includes mostly people of color. UPROSE, a community group, and other local organizations, have been trying to get the New York Power Authority to permanently close the peakers in favor of renewable energy, but the authority has only put them on stand by. Johnson said “decommissioning the peakers and replacing with publicly-owned renewable energy would lead to a more just and equitable energy system.” If decarbonization occurs through community-run renewable energy, then people in Sunset Park could benefit from electricity surges.

“There is a role for landscape architects here that needs to be seized. We can get ahead of the policy and innovate from how energy is perceived, stored, and used.” She analyzed and discovered 75 megawatts of energy could be generated on public rooftops in the community. “Back-up storage sources could then be spread across the public sphere.” Johnson and her students at CUNY have been imagining other new solutions that involve wind turbines, micro-grids, utility-scale batteries, a “gravity park” in which heavy blocks are raised to create kinetic energy that can be stored, and other systems that can both generate and store energy and serve as cleaner, more just forms of peakers.

Sunset Park renewable energy and storage concept / Andrea Johnson
Gravity Park concept / Andrea Johnson

Diego Bermúdez: A Comprehensive Plan for Protecting Bogotá’s Cultural Landscapes

The savanna of Bogotá / Diego Bermúdez

Bogotá, Colombia, is a city of 9 million people and continues to expand rapidly at its periphery. This sprawl threatens the historic Bogotá savanna, an important high-altitude wetland landscape. Diego Bermúdez, principal and partner, Bermúdez Arquitectos, in Bogotá, explained that 2,500 years ago, the area formed the vast floodplains of the Bogotá River and its many tributaries. Pre-Hispanic settlers, the indigenous Muisca people, who lived in small villages, built canals and berms to create flood-proof zones for growing food. “They lived amid 100,000 acres of wetlands and were amphibious people.”

When the Spanish arrived in the 17th century, they removed the Muisca and subdivided the land to scale up industrial food production. Farms were organized into grids, with protective canals, to increase yields. By the 1920s, the government created a water management district that was meant to preserve the irrigation systems. Those layers of water management history are now threatened by rampant sprawl and development into the savanna region. Bermúdez said the city’s population is expected to increase to 10.5 million in 2035 and reach upwards of 14 million by 2050.

Expected urban expansion into agricultural areas of Bogotá / Diego Bermúdez

To protect the savanna landscape, which grows 40 percent of the city’s food, Bermúdez proposes a strategy that first protects the historic canals, which are also hubs for biodiversity, including 200 species of birds. “Water management can be a tool for reimagining the future.” As he spent a year traveling to these agricultural communities and also meeting the developers who are urbanizing the area, he found “new hope,” because “people want to protect the water management system for flooding, biodiversity, and recreation.” Bermúdez has been working to connect the disparate players and layers of plans into a regional plan that can guide development away from the savanna, create protective zones for the historic agricultural landscapes, and further densify the core of Bogotá.

A new layered regional plan for Bogotá / Diego Bermúdez

Read part two on this year’s LAF fellows.

Barbara Wilks’ Dynamic Geographies

Dynamic Geographies / Barbara Wilks, ORO Editions

By Grace Mitchell Tada

Static. According to Barbara Wilks, FASLA, landscapes are too often designed with that operating assumption.

Even though humans have been around for the past 200,000 years, we still have a proclivity to design landscapes to remain the same for 20 to 50 years.

Wilks argues this is a problem that needs to change. Given the projected growth of cities and the challenges of a rapidly shifting climate, she asserts that dynamic landscapes are required for resilient, healthy urban communities.

She strives to create these landscapes at her firm, W Architecture & Landscape Architecture. Her ideas about landscapes emerge from decades of professional experience. In a new book, Dynamic Geographies, Wilks demonstrates how she centers natural processes through her designs. As most of her projects unfold in cities, this necessarily includes altering how humans perceive the landscapes around them.

Wilks defines dynamic geographies as complex systems that use non-anthropogenic forces for adaptation. For landscape architects to integrate these systems into projects, they must consider other species, the interconnectivity of various forms of life, and time as a landscape element. Landscape architects must design to larger and multiple time scales. They must gauge “what could be as opposed to what we want changed now.”

A key aspect to designing at various time scales involves transforming how we manage landscapes—and that includes the management of W’s projects. At present, they require humans to maintain. A truly sustainable landscape, Wilks asserts, can exist without humans, allowing “different flows and rates of change for different species.” As a result, W designs landscapes that welcome these processes: it’s these forms of maintenance that in the long run can yield diverse and sustaining landscapes.

The book divides W’s projects into three categories: “(In)visible Geographies,” “Layered Geographies,” and “Unleashing Geographies.” Each section builds on the other, and projects across these sections seek to illuminate landscapes’ dynamism and situate geographies within extended time scales. While Wilks doesn’t claim success in all her projects—“this book is a critical look back at our success and failures at W”—one can glean effective strategies to instill dynamism throughout projects.

In the first section, projects attempt to reveal aspects of sites often hidden, “making them manifest, so that urban dwellers have the opportunity to situate themselves in larger systems that transcend their immediate realities,” writes Alison Hirsch in the book’s introduction. Wilks is not nostalgic for us to return to previous time or to lost landscapes. “We can’t return to the past,” she writes, but “we can construct new relationships that bind us into the fabric of a place’s ongoing evolution.”

Through these new relationships, Wilks hopes communities can understand they are embedded in and not separate from nature. W’s projects facilitate this understanding in various ways. In Baltimore, a waterfront soap factory simultaneously reflects its location in the greater Chesapeake Bay region and in an industrial harbor. In Brooklyn, the off-kilter angles of the piers at the Edge project echo the turbulence of the East River into which they extend.

At West Harlem Piers Park in Manhattan, newly designed piers adopt the patterns of the Hudson River instead of the city grid. The site’s forms resemble sand dunes and the benches recall driftwood. The project, though, didn’t emerge solely of the designer’s ideas. In fact, the community spurned W’s initial conception of the project involving a “missing pier”—a field of piles in the Hudson—as too evocative of a ruin. In its place, New York City’s first reef ball structure was developed, which today serves as habitat to a diversity of aquatic life.

West Harlem Piers, New York, NY / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

The book’s second section, “Layered Geographies,” doubles down on integrating the social and ecological systems comprising urban spaces. The projects here demonstrate the relationships between communities and the place in which they’re embedded. Several projects were designed for communities in places destroyed by urban renewal or disregarded by infrastructure projects, including in St. Louis and Detroit.

Chouteau Greenway, St. Louis, MO / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

One such project is Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter in Tampa, Florida. The park was previously an African American neighborhood, which was demolished with the construction of a highway. A park was established in its place, from which the displaced community understandably felt estranged. W was brought in to work with them to develop a park that reflected what they wanted. Not only does the new park embody the community’s desires, but it weaves into the surrounding urban social fabric and allows the river ecology to flourish. Like many of W’s projects, this landscape necessitated considerations of many time scales — from the daily to the generational to the geological.

Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter, Tampa, FL / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO
Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter, Tampa, FL / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO
St. Patrick’s Island, Calgary, Alberta / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

The final section, “Unleashing Geographies,” further elevates nonhuman systems and their agency in shaping landscapes, especially over extended time scales. Wilks is interested in how their landscapes will evolve and how they can support all varieties of biophysical systems through this evolution. They are about humans letting go.

This objective is exemplified by W’s design at St. Patrick’s Island in Calgary, Alberta. W accentuated the shifting nature of the island, removing static water-protective barriers around the edge and welcoming water flows through the island. The design fosters the emergence of streams and wetlands, which will move over time while designating certain “fixed” areas for human activity. According to Wilks, perhaps expressing her ideal of a designed landscape, “it is a living landscape with smaller human-managed areas set within it.”

St. Patrick’s Island, Calgary, Alberta / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

Through their deference to natural systems, projects like St. Patrick’s Island achieve lasting change. These projects, Wilks insists, must enable new growth and development of adaptable systems—not just preservation of existing ones. As she points out, even small projects in this vein show how they can succeed on other sites, encouraging more such efforts to proliferate. Here, especially, the book may prove useful to other landscape architects and designers, who can glean inspiration from W’s projects.

As our climate shifts in increasingly surprising ways, the landscape architect’s challenge is to predict how and at what rate our world will change and to create designs that will adapt accordingly. Perhaps, like Wilks argues, allowing for nature’s agency is the key to effective adaptation.

Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, is with Hood Design Studio and PGAdesign and co-editor of the book Black Landscapes Matter.

Utility-Scale Solar Energy Could Need Land the Size of Connecticut

Combining solar and ecological restoration at Purdue University, Indiana / Great Plains Institute

The U.S. is headed towards a renewable energy future. Over the coming decades, some mix of mostly wind and solar power will spread across the landscape. With the growing cost competitiveness of utility-scale solar power plants, we can expect 583 gigawatts to be in production by 2050. That’s ten times the current amount. At approximately 7 acres per megawatt, that means an area larger than the state of Connecticut could be used for solar energy production.

Through thoughtful planning and design, these future solar power plants can be well-integrated into communities and provide many co-benefits — water quality improvements, ecological restoration, and pollinator habitat, among many others. Renewable energy creates enormous opportunities for landscape architects and planners working in rural, suburban, and urban areas.

At the American Planning Association (APA)’s virtual national conference, Megan Day, a senior energy planner with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado, said that utility-scale power plants, which are very large-scale solar facilities, are needed to achieve our climate and energy goals.

Utility-scale solar now accounts for 60-70 percent of all solar energy in the U.S. This is because the cost of energy from utility-scale solar is approximately “one third to one-fourth the cost of residential solar.” The market is further heading in the direction of big solar power facilities.

Daly said “these numbers don’t speak fully to value though.” Utility-scale solar creates far fewer green jobs than rooftop solar. 1 megawatt of clean energy could be generated through a single utility-scale power plant or approximately 100 rooftops. While the capital costs of the utility approach would be about $1 million less, there would also be much fewer local green jobs created. “This is because you need a lot more people to install 100 rooftop systems.” (Not to mention utilities offer fewer resilience benefits: Any centralized power plant can go down in a hurricane, storm, or wildfire).

Day said the vast majority of new solar power facilities use tracking systems that rotate photovoltaic (PV) panels to face the sun over the course of each day. While these tracking systems increase the amount of solar energy that can be captured, it also means these power plants require more space so as to avoid over-shadowing other tilting panels. “These panels cast shadows east west, so they need more land.” Combined with ecological site design that avoids existing wetlands, rivers, streams, and forests, these kinds of renewable energy power plants aren’t the most compact. “In fact, compact isn’t the best.”

The trend is for solar power facilities to go bigger and bigger. In 2010, she said, a large solar power plant had a 15 megawatt capacity. Today, there are 75-250 megawatt systems and even larger. “With more land, you can achieve greater economies of scale.”

Showing interactive models NREL can create through its fantastic State and Local Planning for Energy (SLOPE) tool, Day indicated where in the continental U.S. solar energy could be developed. If all land suitable for solar development was used, the country would have 59,000 times more energy than it consumes on an annual basis. “That gives you a sense of the incredible potential.” In contrast, if all suitable roofs in the U.S. were covered with PV panels, they would only meet 45 percent of energy needs.

While California and Texas are currently leaders in renewable power generation because they have invested in transmission capacity, many other states across the country can easily expand their solar energy capacity.

According to Sarah Davis, a planner who founded her own firm, “large-scale solar is coming” to every community. As the U.S. de-carbonizes its energy systems, there an opportunity for “authentic and meaningful community participation” in planning and designing a clean energy future.

Planning new utility-scale solar facilities involves typical development activities — incorporating developments into long-range comprehensive plans, creating enabling regulations, and permitting actual projects. These projects include utilities, developers, landowners, federal and state regulators, residents, and the end-users of the energy generated.

Using NREL’s SLOPE tool, Davis helps communities identify, at a county level, what areas would be ripe for solar development; what areas should be avoided because of existing cultural, scenic, or environmental resources; and where solar developments could provide the most co-benefits.

She outlined a few examples: In Butte county, California, Davis worked with stakeholders to create a vision statement that outlines a set of guiding principles and design and development guidelines. In Stearns, Minnesota, an agricultural community integrated renewable energy into the agricultural section of their comprehensive plan. “PVs need land and can use grazing areas.” But the new policies also required beneficial ground cover amid the solar facilities and enabled laying new transmission cables. And renewable energy planning can even be done in small rural communities. In Gold Hill, Colorado, she worked with an isolated community of 200-300 residents to devise a plan for a micro-grid and distributed household solar systems.

Another theme running through the session was the importance of maximizing the co-benefits of solar energy. Brian Ross, a vice president at the Great Plains Institute in Minnesota, made the case: “if sited and designed appropriately, large-scale solar can provide local benefits to communities. If you can restore watershed functions, diversify agriculture, or protect wildlife habitat and drinking water supplies, does it matter if it’s a solar farm?”

“Solar development is also development, and development means jobs, rents, and tax revenue,” Ross argued. The benefits of utility-scale solar development projects are increased local property tax incomes, increased local power generation, and reduced environmental and climate risks.

Communities should first figure out where to site their large-scale solar power facilities, then determine how the facility should function as a land use. “When planning and designing these projects, it’s important to look for synergies.” If there are valuable natural areas, watersheds, or scenic areas, “don’t put the solar developments in those places.” Instead, use solar farms as a way to fix existing environmental issues.

For example, in one Indiana agricultural community, nitrate run-off from farms was negatively impacting water quality, including groundwater recharge areas and the drinking water supply. The community decided to transform a 33-hectare area of contaminated farmland into land just used for solar power generation.

The new solar facility enabled the farmers to still earn income from the land while also reducing water quality impacts. This is a prime example of the co-benefits of utility-scale solar: “co-locating solar power plants with agriculture is a way to diversify farmers’ incomes and provide buffers for watersheds, including groundwater and surface water,” Ross said.

Solar power plants can not only just serve as buffers that reduce other impacts downstream, they can also be ecologically beneficial themselves. Acres of PV panels can be arranged amid native grassland restoration projects that can yield a three-fold increase in pollinators and a two-third increase in carbon sequestration through the landscape. Furthermore, these native grassland projects can increase sediment retention by 95 percent and water retention by 15 percent.

Engie solar, Vermont / courtesy of Fresh Energy, Rob Davis
Denison University, Ohio / courtesy of Fresh Energy, Rob Davis
Perdue solar headquarters / courtesy of Fresh Energy, Rob Davis

In Indiana, Purdue University’s extension programs worked with conservation, agriculture, and energy stakeholders to create state-wide standards for ground cover in solar power plants. This approach has been included in a model solar ordinance created by Indiana University and codified in an innovative ordinance that requires beneficial ground cover over the lifespan of a solar facility, which is 25 to 30 years. The ordinance ensures that solar energy developers just don’t plant once and then forget to maintain the landscape. Some solar power facilities are even in layering in sheep grazing, vegetable farming, and bee hives. Solar power plants can become multi-functional green infrastructure.

ASLA Testifies Before Congress on Green Infrastructure

Kevin Robert Perry, FASLA, Senior Landscape Architect, Toole Design, and Principal, Urban Rain Design, testified on behalf of ASLA to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

His full testimony below:

Thank you Chair Napolitano, Ranking Member Rouzer, and Members of the subcommittee for the opportunity to testify on the valuable work being done by landscape architects in the water and stormwater management space.

My name is Kevin Robert Perry and I am a licensed landscape architect and an internationally recognized leader in successfully integrating stormwater management with high-quality urban design.

I work as a Senior Landscape Architect at Toole Design Group with a specific expertise in intertwining green infrastructure with innovative multimodal streetscape design. I am also the founder of Urban Rain Design, a small design studio based in both California and Oregon that specializes in using Tactical Green Infrastructure to rapidly implement simple, cost-effective, and beautiful public space stormwater projects.

I am here today on behalf of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), where I have been a Fellow since 2017.

ASLA believes that water quality is essential to our economy, communities, and environment. By working to protect it, our membership of landscape architects plays a critical role in community sustainability and public health.

Landscape architects address water quality through ecologically-based practices that help reduce or remove pollutants in urban, rural, and conservation areas. To help protect water quality and conserve valuable water resources, ASLA encourages planning, design management, and policies that are science-based, collaborative, creative, and equitable.

The Value of Green Infrastructure

Ample clean water supplies are necessary to help preserve health, sustain quality of life, support economic stability, and maintain environmental quality.

Unsustainable development practices, poorly designed infrastructure, population growth, and other factors continue to threaten water quality and emphasize the need for the wiser and more creative use of resources. Urban sprawl and the expansion of paved surfaces increases volume and speed of storm flows, carries pollutants into streams, prevents groundwater recharge, and drastically reduces the landscape’s ability to respond to everyday storm events, much less the current and future challenges of climate change.

In much of the country, especially in older cities and towns, stormwater is funneled into our wastewater systems. During intense rain events, these systems can become overwhelmed resulting in stormwater overflow being released into nearby waters — along with all of the untreated sewage, debris, pesticides, and anything else caught in the underground pipe system.

While the United States has generally had success in protecting water quality, EPA research has found that nonpoint source pollution, the type of water pollution I just described, remains the leading cause of water quality problems.

This is where landscape architects are stepping up and playing a key role. We are at the forefront of developing innovative design strategies that promote sustainability, resiliency, and a balanced vibrancy between our built and natural environment. By incorporating cost-effective and innovative green infrastructure methods into our projects, we plan and design landscaped-based systems that reduce the impacts of flooding, contain the movement of pollutants and other debris, help infiltrate stormwater on-site, increase biodiversity, and integrate these nature-based solutions seamlessly into our cities and towns.

SW Montgomery Green Street, Portland, Oregon / Kevin Robert Perry

In areas where drought and inadequate water supply is of top concern, green infrastructure may also be a viable solution, helping to replenish local groundwater reserves and recharging aquifers. We also promote and incorporate the use of sustainably-designed greywater systems and other water capture measures to help reduce the need for external water sources.

In general, the landscape architect’s multi-functional, multi-purpose design solutions allows for a less destructive human relationship with the natural environment.

Landscape architecture practices also provide a key equity and environmental justice solution. One such practice is performing meaningful community engagement during the design and planning process. Often, the communities that stand to benefit the most from our work are the low-income and racially diverse communities that have been damaged by years of underinvestment and disinvestment. This includes communities located in small towns, large cities, and all areas in between. ASLA and its members are committed to utilizing our trade to directly improve lives in underserved communities; and community engagement and green infrastructure can be important tools to aid in this effort.

Planned Green Street Improvements in Colma, California / Kevin Robert Perry

Green infrastructure also leads to job creation. According to Green For All, a national organization working to build an inclusive green economy, a $188.4 billion investment in stormwater management would generate $265.6 billion in economic activity and create close to 1.9 million jobs. Furthermore, green infrastructure is good for small businesses, as many landscape architects work for or run their own small firms, as I have for nearly a decade.

Green Infrastructure Across Scales

One of the greatest benefits of using green infrastructure is that it can be implemented across a wide range of scale and community contexts. Resilient coastlines/riverfronts, regional parks, and interconnected green transportation corridors can be realized at the large citywide-scale; while rain gardens, pervious paving, and a robust use of street trees can grace nearly any neighborhood-scale space.

With thousands of our schools, roads, parks, and other civic space infrastructure either breaking down or inefficiently designed, there is an incredible opportunity to boldly retrofit our built environment with long-lasting green infrastructure strategies.

Washington D.C. Green Street / Kevin Robert Perry

Tactical Green Infrastructure

One avenue of green infrastructure that is starting to take root on the West Coast is the concept of Tactical Green Infrastructure. While many infrastructure projects can take years to be fully implemented, Tactical Green Infrastructure is a specialized design-build methodology that allows professional design practitioners, students, and/or volunteers to work together to identify, design, and construct expedited green infrastructure projects at public schools, parks, and even some street locations. These small-scale projects convert either existing paved or underutilized green space into highly functional rain garden landscapes within a couple of months – and directly involve the local community through the process. This kind of low-cost, effective, and quickly built Green Infrastructure can be a simple national model but with near-term and tangible results realized at the neighborhood level. While conceived in both Oregon and California, we believe a coordinated Tactical Green Infrastructure approach, led by landscape architects, has immense potential to expand throughout the United States.

Tactical Green Infrastructure groundbreaking, led by landscape architects / Kevin Robert Perry

The Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2021

ASLA and its members appreciate the committee’s support for legislation promoting green infrastructure, including H.R. 1915 – the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2021, which would help states and local communities fund green infrastructure projects that protect water.

We are also appreciative of the committee’s support for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, and specifically the Green Project Reserve, which mandates that at least 10% of funds are used by states for green infrastructure projects. Since states and localities typically do not have their own funding mechanisms to keep their water infrastructure safe, up to date, and within the requirements of the Clean Water Act, many landscape architecture projects would not be possible without the help of this program.

For these reasons, ASLA is supportive of increased funding to the Clean Water SRF, as well as making the Green Project Reserve permanent and increasing its minimum percentage. To make projects even more sustainable and resilient, the Clean Water SRF should also be adjusted to allow for the funding of long-term maintenance projects as well.

Conclusion

With that, I thank the committee for inviting me to testify today. ASLA looks forward to working with you and your colleagues to ensure that Congress leverages the field of landscape architecture when striving for its climate adaptation and sustainability goals.

Earth Day Interview: Jennifer Toole Makes the Case for Better Bike Networks

Jennifer Toole, ASLA / Toole Design

Jennifer Toole, ASLA, is the founder and President of Toole Design and has over 30 years of experience planning and designing multimodal transportation systems. A certified planner with a degree in landscape architecture, Toole has a strong background in urban design. She has been involved in numerous projects of national significance for the Federal Highway Administration, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

In Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, bike infrastructure is identified as one of the top 80 solutions for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. The book finds that in 2014, 5.5 percent of urban trips worldwide were by bicycle. If that number grew to 7.5 percent by 2050, displacing some 2.2 trillion passenger miles completed by vehicles, some 2.2 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions could be avoided, realizing approximately $400 billion savings over the next 30 years. What are the most important steps cities and communities can take to rapidly grow bike use?

Most people just don’t feel safe bicycling, which is the greatest disincentive. We spent nearly a century in this country building a transportation system that essentially only caters to people who are driving motor vehicles. We have a system that fundamentally doesn’t support bicycling.

The best thing cities can do to incentivize bicycling is make it feel safer for people. This can be accomplished through interconnected networks of bike facilities separated from traffic that don’t end at major barriers.

Safe separated bike lane in Denver, Colorado / Trung Vo

That’s a big problem right now: we have a lot of bikeways that might get you part of the way to where you want to go, but then you get to a big intersection or an interchange with a highway and the bikeway ends.

We also need need to reduce motor vehicle speeds across the board, so that when bicyclists and motorists cross paths, it’s in a safe and controlled way. And we need to provide high-quality and secure places to park your bike once you get to where you’re going.

None of this is rocket science. If you look at countries that have successfully increased the percentage of people bicycling by even a few percentage points, it’s because they invested in infrastructure to make bicyclists feel safe — and, in fact, bicyclists are now safer in those places.

Drawdown also identifies e-bikes as a critical climate solution. While many bike-riders feel comfortable biking a few miles on flat surfaces, half of all trips are estimated to be 6.2 miles, which may be too far in the heat or if the route is hilly. E-bikes also better support riders who may be older or less able. What are some other ways cities and communities can incentivize e-bike use?

I am really excited about e-bikes because they eliminate another major disincentive to bicycling: hilly areas, with long, difficult uphill climbs. I live at the top of a really steep hill. Many times I have done that calculus in my head. Am I going to ride my bike? If I ride my bike, when I come home, I am going to have to come back up that hill.

When you look at a normal bike trip, it’s usually someplace between one to three miles in length. An e-bike trip is typically a little bit longer than a normal bike trip, because you don’t have to expend as much energy to make that trip.

The keys to incentivizing e-bike use are the exact same as they are for regular bikes. You’ve got to provide spaces where people feel safe riding their bike. E-bikes are a little bit faster than regular bikes, so that makes it even more evident that sidewalks are not the right place for them. E-bikes really need their own space. They need separated bike lanes. They need shared-use paths and bike boulevards. You have to feel like you have safe places to ride.

E-bike riders in Seattle, Washington / Kenneth Loen

Cities are also providing e-bikes through their bike share services, which gives people a way to check them out and realize how much fun they are to ride. It’s one of the reasons why e-bike sales are just soaring all around the country.

According to the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), researchers in the U.K. found that biking to work is associated with 45 percent lower risk of developing cancer and a 46 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, compared to commuting by car or public transit. UNEP also states: “daily exercise prolongs life expectancy by approximately 3.4 years. Regular cycling boosts physical health as an efficient way to prevent obesity.” How can we better promote the health benefits of biking to communities?

Those are some pretty incredible statistics I think that most people are not aware of.

It’s more about providing ways for people to introduce exercise into their normal, everyday life without even thinking about it. There are a lot of studies that show people are more active and healthy in places where walking and biking for everyday trips is common, so making sure that destinations in shopping areas and workplaces are in close proximity to home is really an important part of making sure that people take those everyday trips on foot and by bicycle.

We need to make bicycling the logical choice — the no-brainer choice — for a certain segment of short trips we make. When you go to The Netherlands and ask people why they are riding bikes, they almost never talk about the exercise or the environment. They are riding a bike, because it’s the most efficient way to get where they want to go.

Countries like The Netherlands have a lot of folks who bike well into their 70s and 80s, because they have provided places that feel safe for riding a bike. I have no doubt it contributes to a much longer lifespan.

Data also shows that the pandemic has resulted in a bike boom in many cities and communities. According to a report from Strava, a fitness tracking company, bike use in car-centric cities like Houston increased by 138 percent and in Los Angeles by 93 percent. The Rails to Trails Conservancy found that trail use increased threefold in March 2020 over 2019. Do you think bike use will continue to remain at high levels after we have all been vaccinated? What role do you think “slow streets” have played? And if the bike boom continues, will it result in greater investment in permanent bike infrastructure?

I think it will. Bike use will continue to remain at higher levels, because our travel patterns have been disrupted in ways that we’re only now just beginning to realize. There’s a whole segment of workers who will probably never go back to working in an office from 9:00 to 5:00 five days a week. The flexibility of being able to work from home will mean that our rush hour is going to look different in the future.

Why drag yourself out of bed to go and sit in the car for an hour longer than you really need to just to get to work at a certain time? A certain segment of workers are going to make that calculus and say, “I don’t need to go into the office to work. I can do it right here,” because they’ve been doing it for over a year, and it worked fine. Working from home is going to become much more accepted and prevalent and, with that change, people are going to continue to look for ways to use a bicycle for trips that originate from their homes.

Slow streets have really been great, because they gave people places to ride that feels safe. I’ve heard so many stories of slow street projects that had opposition in the beginning and now people are getting upset when cities remove their slow-street designation. From what we’re seeing, cities are looking for ways to have more permanent, connected networks of bike facilities, and that was starting well before COVID-19. It’s not something that was new; I just think COVID brought it home how much we needed more infrastructure.

Research also finds that low-income communities bike to work more often than other groups. The Chicago Tribune reports that the biggest group of Americans who bike to work are from households that earn less than $10,000. But a report from the League of American Bicyclists also found that Hispanic bike-riders had a bike fatality rate 23 percent higher, and Black riders had a fatality rate 30 percent higher than white riders. How can cities and communities make bike infrastructure more equitable and improve safety for historic marginalized and underserved communities?

We need to do a better job at providing better infrastructure in underserved areas of our cities. Often these are the same neighborhoods that have been impacted by highway construction, where we have widened roads so that suburban commuters can get to their jobs and downtown. It’s not a surprise those are the same places that have higher rates of crashes for Hispanic and Black riders. They need more attention than we’re giving them in terms of providing safer facilities.

Bicyclists in Columbus, Ohio / Catherine Girves

A lot of the work we do for cities is about adjusting that balance and giving more attention to neighborhoods that have been neglected when it comes to providing good places to not only to bike but also to walk. Among other things, we aim to reduce traffic speeds on those streets, which is not an easy thing because they were built for higher speeds.

Many of the projects we work on are focused on equity. For example, we are working on an expansion of the trail network in Fresno, California. We analyzed all the proposed trails the city has planned to build in the next 20 years using a tool that prioritizes equity factors. The city then selected four connecting trails segments in a community facing environmental injustices. It relied on a tool used in California that helps identify communities most affected by pollution and where people are often especially vulnerable to pollution.

The Biden administration just released a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which could result in much greater investment in complete streets, bicycle networks, trails. If you were somehow in charge of all the billions, how would you allocate it on bicycle infrastructure?

In many communities, they have already tackled their easier projects, the ones that weren’t difficult to build — streets that were overbuilt for the amount of traffic they’re carrying and required a road diet to reconfigure space.

The next phase of work is much harder. It’s closing the gaps between facilities. Imagine a trail that ends at a major intersection. It’s hard to get across that intersection in order to connect one part of town to another part of town where you have bike networks. You really need an overpass across the highway built for bike and pedestrian traffic. If I were in charge of that infrastructure investment, I would make it available for major infrastructure projects that close gaps in bike and pedestrian networks.

In South Bend, Indiana, your staff partnered with the administration of then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is now U.S. transportation secretary, to create an open space and smart streets plan to revitalize South Bend’s downtown. The plan resulted in the transformation of St. Joseph’s Boulevard to a green complete street. Secretary Buttigieg said the streetscape improvements led to $90 million in private investment by downtown businesses along the corridor. Can you tell us more about Secretary Buttigieg and his understanding of the connections between streetscape improvements and revitalization?

The most basic answer for how that revitalization led to all the private investment is that the design prioritizes the movement of people over cars. It was a very controversial approach to their downtown revitalization, and there were a lot of people who were worried that it wouldn’t work. To Secretary Buttigieg’s credit, he had a vision for making their downtown be a place where people felt comfortable walking everywhere.

Downtown South Bend, Indiana before image / City of South Bend
Downtown South Bend, Indiana after image / City of South Bend

The downtown businesses saw that it was going to be a place that was really special, which is what led to the investment. And it hasn’t stopped with downtown. The work we’re doing now in South Bend is going out like tendrils into the community. The city is systematically tackling their street network and prioritizing pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Secretary Buttigieg’s vision has continued to transform the city’s approach to transportation and it has clearly benefited the community.

Your firm is leading an interdisciplinary team working with the city of Atlanta’s Department of City Planning to re-imagine Peachtree Street as a shared space that blurs the lines between public space and streets. What are the benefits of these environments? How do you overcome safety or accessibility concerns?

Peachtree Street has long been Atlanta’s main street. The street receives a lot of traffic and is dominated by cars. The city is looking to change that dynamic and make it a destination for people. The benefit of making Peachtree Street a flush street — so all one level, no curbs — is that it really promotes that feeling that it’s a street where pedestrians are the highest priority. They don’t have to go to an intersection in order to cross the street. They can move freely across the street. It’s modeled on the types of streets that have been built really all over Europe, where there’s just one street surface.

Re-imagining Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia / Toole Design

Another benefit is that it slows everybody down. Cars can still travel down the street and park, but drivers don’t feel comfortable going fast down a flush street. Often there are fewer traffic signals or signs to direct traffic. This is due to a concept in traffic engineering: when you introduce an element of uncertainty, everyone slows down. It’s fundamentally about making sure motor vehicle traffic goes slower.

Also, a flush street is inherently more accessible. You can imagine people on wheelchairs don’t have to go to the corners to find a place to cross. People pushing baby strollers can easily move about. But you do need special accommodations for people who are blind or have low vision, because they need to know how to navigate down that street. They often use a curb line as a guide.

Fortunately, there are new ways to help people who are blind to navigate. A different type of pavement treatment with raised grooves can help guide a person with a cane down a street. These have been used in train stations and other places where there is a need to navigate through plazas and other open areas.

Landscape architects integrate safe, accessible pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure with green infrastructure. In St. Paul, Minnesota, your firm designed the Jackson Street Reconstruction Project, which transformed an outdated avenue into a truly multi-modal corridor that features two-way protected bike lanes, wider pedestrian walkways protected by green buffers that manage storm water. How is this project a model? How do you make the case that communities should spend the extra money for the green infrastructure?

Jackson Street is just such a great example of the way we should be designing streets in this country.

It’s important to think about what the street looked like before to understand the opportunity it represents for many other streets in this country. Jackson Street was as wide as six lanes, a classic example of an overbuilt street. Somebody at some point in the past decided that the road needed to have four lanes. The street didn’t have the traffic volume to support those lanes.

We were able to take up to two travel lanes off the road, which gave us 20-plus more feet of space to work with to provide a wider sidewalk, a two-way separated bike lane, and generous rain gardens between the bikeway and the road. We were able to use the green infrastructure to provide that much needed separation between the bikeway and the street. The bikeway itself is built from pervious pavement. The runoff from Jackson Street is directed into those rain gardens.

Jackson Street Reconstruction Project, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design
Jackson Street Reconstruction Project, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design

St. Paul is a city concerned about water pollution, runoff, and flooding. It’s on the banks of the Mississippi, so this type of street design is logical. There are so many cities around the country that are increasingly concerned about flooding and need to find ways to let stormwater seep into the ground instead of run off into nearby waterways. Cities are feeling the impact of major flood events and the financial cost of those events, which is why they are looking at these streetscape projects as an opportunity to rethink the way that water flows in their city.

There are generations of work for landscape architects to fix all these streets and make them greener by providing vegetation in the streetscape on a scale that we’ve never done before. We were sort of stuck in the past with these tiny tree boxes. That was the conventional way of providing green in the landscape. This new way of designing streets is going to give us so much more room to work with different types of plants and soils. It’s a really exciting time to be a landscape architect.

The Case for the Rural-to-Urban Transect

Transect Urbanism: Readings in Human Ecology / ORO Editions

By Grace Mitchell Tada

Imagine a tool that banishes the social and environmental ills of modern urban planning and its suburban sprawl, instead constructing an approach that reconciles urbanism and environmentalism. Meanwhile, the tool also enables choice and equity in how and where individuals live.

Architect, urban designer, and DPZ CoDesign principal Andrés Duany insists such a tool exists. It’s the Rural-to-Urban Transect, at once a tool and a theory, and it’s a balm to the recklessly sprawling modern life now ubiquitous across the U.S., which takes the form of socio-economic uniformity, automobile dependence, and conspicuous land consumption.

The book Transect Urbanism: Readings in Human Ecology, edited by Duany and Brian Falk, who is director of the Center for Applied Transect Studies, presents a collection of essays and descriptive graphics that examine the Rural-to-Urban Transect and explains its potential to create both a better quality of life within communities and better environmental practices across all scales.

This transect identifies and allocates elements of urbanism and their suitability to varying environments. It’s a theory of human settlement: an “ordering system” that harnesses a geographic gradient to organize natural habitats, including human habitats. Every human activity, and its resulting element in the urban fabric, can be pegged to a locus somewhere along that gradient. These elements comprise an “interrelated continuum of natural and human habitats—natural, rural-sub-urban, and urban—with different settlement densities and opportunities for social encounter and human activity,” the authors write.

Though the concept of a transect was not defined as such until the 18th century, Duany describes it as a pattern of human settlement both timeless and cross-cultural: the rural-to-urban spectrum can be traced to settlements from ancient Pompeii to ancient China.

In the late 18th century, Alexander von Humboldt first articulated the transect in the modern sense. Joseph Meyer illustrated the concept, drawing Humboldt’s voyage to South America to include the natural habitat and conditions above and below the ground’s surface.

“Tableau Physique,” Alexander von Humboldt / Center for Applied Transect Studies

In the 19th century, Sir Patrick Geddes’ illustrated “Valley Section” incorporated human presence in varying habitat zones. The humans, per the times, always exploited their environment.

“Valley Section,” Sir Patrick Geddes / Center for Applied Transect Studies

In 1969, Ian McHarg posited the next seminal transect. Duany finds it incomplete: it failed to include, or even suggest, human habitat. Moreover, this absence perpetuated the dualism between human and nature that underpins environmental thinking — “nature is sacred, and the city profane.” This dualism ultimately produced the chasm between environmentalism and urbanism.

In practice, McHarg-inspired planning has yielded countless communities that prioritize preserved “environmental” areas at the expense of higher density. For example, South Carolina’s Hilton Head and California’s Sea Ranch sanction only single-use zoning. “The developed areas of these projects remain, in their socioeconomic and environmental performance, indistinguishable from sprawl: everyone drives everywhere for everything,” Duany and Falk write.

Ian McHarg’s Natural Transect / Center for Applied Transect Studies

In 1994, the transect was revitalized as an ordering system at the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), when the group — proponents of “density, connectivity, and contiguity” — sought a theory establishing connections between elements of urbanism. The Rural-to-Urban Transect did so by defining six recognizable transect zones and their interrelationships: Natural (T1), Rural (T2), Sub-urban (T3), General Urban (T4), Urban Center (T5), and Urban Core (T6).

The Rural-to-Urban Transect / Center for Applied Transect Studies

Duany asserts that the Rural-to-Urban Transect extends “the environmental protocol of McHarg into the city,” thus including people. It becomes a tool with which to design, correlating elements along a rural-to-urban continuum, enabling “the basis for a system of zoning that creates complex, contextually appropriate human environments.” Adapted from landscape ecology, each of the six transect zones contain elements that engender and amplify a place’s character.

This transect’s extension of the McHargian protocol yields arguably two of its greatest boons: its potential to unite environmentalism and urbanism and its capacity to support diverse, equitable communities. The divide between humans and nature is not new — Duany traces this chasm back to the Old Testament — and it manifests in the 20th century as environmentalism’s defensive stance toward urbanism.

The dominant ecological disposition “privileges a pristine nature and regards the presence of humans as a disturbance” to a system understood according to its pre-human condition. “A good human community can be ‘green’ only by being invisible,” Duany and Falk argue. Urbanism has thus been viewed as “a negative condition, never as an organization of positive choices for the improvement of human communities.” And as a result, environmentalism is expressed in technical and regulatory systems that promote suburbanization — from pervasive landscaping to mandated on-site stormwater treatment.

This paradigm fails communities when prioritizing nature means seeing “social space as blight.” “Whole communities of humans have been pushed aside for highway construction, but certain fish and fowl have caused even the most single-minded transportation department officials to reconsider their designs,” Duany and Falk contend. But only certain communities get pushed aside. Favoring nature also usually translates to favoring certain social and racial groups at the expense of others.

According to the authors, their Rural-to-Urban Transect can mitigate these insidious tendencies. Rather than holding economy and culture as beyond nature, this transect accommodates all elements, rooted in the belief that humans are essential to environmental discourse, in all their various lifestyles along the rural-to-urban spectrum.

Most importantly, Duany and the other authors include everyone in their conception and explicitly those who historically have had little choice in how they live. Systems based in the Rural-to-Urban Transect encourage a plurality of viewpoints and human habitats. They promote equity.

Echternach, Luxembourg, by Léon Krier (left), and Annapolis, Maryland, by Charles Barrett (right) / Center for Applied Transect Studies

Key to the Rural-to-Urban Transect is its basis in form. Many planning initiatives are based in use and therefore manifest as prohibitions and separation. Cities filter community-making through a sieve of engineering standards, zoning ordinances, and other regulatory mechanisms long before designers enter the scene. Duany asserts that this existing framework, however, can be re-imagined by their transect: zoning based in form can yield certain physical outcomes and settlement patterns. Rather than zones that simplify and separate, transect code ensures fruitful relationships and adjacencies, from the local to regional scale. Transect-inspired zones preserve character and diversity according to place.

Essays in Transect Urbanism explain how these successes of the transect can be achieved: one details how to analyze an urban transect, one discusses governance along the transect, another discusses retail models within it. Duany includes a chapter describing the transect-based SmartCode that he has developed and implemented across various cities. Another chapter gives hope that existing sprawl can be repaired into a paradigm more resilient. Other essays consider the Rural-to-Urban Transect ontologically: the reason for six zones, and whether it qualifies as natural law, as certain people — Duany included — claim. The range of essays, from the practical to the theoretical, and the extensive illustrations make it a book suited for the student and the professional, for the planner, the landscape architect, and others thinking critically about the built environment.

As of 2019, the Form-Based Codes Institute identified 439 transect-based codes that had been adopted worldwide. Clearly, more communities do not embrace such thinking than do, and our society has much work to accomplish before divorcing itself from suburban sprawl. Duany in part blames the theory of landscape urbanism, which he claims perpetuates sprawl through the guise of aesthetics. He argues: “human biophilia is such that an image of anything with leaves will tilt the selection in its favor.”

Certainly, though, criticisms of the Rural-to Urban Transect arise: it is too simplified; its mere six zones are insufficient to account for all settlement and natural area types; the intentional rules of its zones are undesirably prescriptive; or it lacks consideration of urban ecology and biodiversity.

Yet, as made by the case presented in Transect Urbanism, the Rural-to-Urban Transect can serve as a noble tool in the reformation of our urban fabric. In one of his essays, written in 2005, Duany warns that a failure to square environmental ethos and social equity concerns with free market choice as perpetuated by the status-quo sprawl may only be solved by “a long economic emergency…that none of us should wish upon the nation.”

As millions of Americans grapple with job and home losses, among many other kinds of loss, we’re in the midst of an emergency. Released into a pandemic climate that has made us skeptical of dense urbanism, this book arrives with special urgency.

Now is as ripe a time as ever to give a different paradigm a chance, even if doing so will also require specific and convincing accommodations to the moment.

Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, is with Hood Design Studio and co-editor of the new book Black Landscapes Matter.

10 New Projects in Online Exhibition Demonstrate Value of Landscape Architecture as a Climate Solution

NatureScape homeowner in Orange County, California / Jodie Cook Design, Inc.

ASLA’s Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Online Exhibition demonstrates how landscape architects are designing smart solutions to climate impacts, such as flooding, extreme heat, drought, and sea level rise. 10 new projects added to the exhibition exemplify best practice approaches to landscape architecture in the era of climate change.

The projects include a mix of landscape-based and often nature-based solutions across the U.S., which range in scale from residential and school landscapes to master plans for entire cities and counties. There is also a focus on projects that address climate injustices and meet the needs of historically-marginalized and underserved communities.

The John W. Cook Academy Space to Grow Schoolyard / site design group, ltd. (site)

“The projects clearly show how landscape architects can help all kinds of communities reduce their risk to increasingly severe climate impacts. Landscape architects design with nature, which leads to more resilient solutions that also improve community health, safety, and well-being over the long-term,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO

With the new projects, which were selected with ASLA’s Climate Action Committee, there are now a total of 30 projects featured in the online exhibition. Each project was selected to illustrate policy recommendations outlined in the 2017 report produced by ASLA’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change & Resilience.

Explore all the new projects:

Cuyahoga Greenways Framework Plan
Cuyahoga County, Ohio | SmithGroup

Being solely dependent on cars increases communities’ risks to climate impacts. Through the 815-mile Cuyahoga Greenways Framework Plan created by landscape architects and planners at SmithGroup, some 59 communities will have healthier and more resilient transportation connections to downtown Cleveland, Lake Erie, and each other.

Green Schoolyards
Vancouver, Washington | nature+play designs

Too few schools offer educational green spaces that can spark children’s appreciation for nature, which is critical to helping them become future Earth stewards. Jane Tesner Kleiner, ASLA, with nature+play designs partnered with school leaders, students, and volunteers to design native plant gardens, meadows, and tree groves that create environmental education opportunities; support pollinators, such as butterflies, bees, and birds; and also manage stormwater.

Houston Arboretum and Nature Center
Houston, Texas | Design Workshop and Reed Hilderbrand

By 2012, more than 50 percent of the tree canopy of the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center had been lost due to drought and hurricanes made more severe by climate change. By removing trees and restoring the original prairie, savannah, and woodland ecosystems found at the Arboretum, landscape architects with Design Workshop and Reed Hilderbrand designed a landscape naturally resilient to future climate shocks.

The John W. Cook Academy Space to Grow Schoolyard
Chicago, Illinois | site design group, ltd (site)

Historically marginalized and underserved communities, like those found in the South Side of Chicago, are disproportionally affected by climate impacts such as flooding. Through the Space to Grow program, a flooded asphalt schoolyard at the John W. Cook Academy, an elementary school on the South Side, was redesigned by landscape architects at site design group, ltd (site) to become a green learning and play space that captures stormwater.

The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design
Atlanta, Georgia | Andropogon

Through their research capabilities and campus infrastructure, universities and schools can also help solve the climate crisis. For the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, landscape architects with Andropogon integrated an innovative water management system that captures and reuses 100 percent of stormwater runoff from the building and also cleanses and reuses building greywater in the ecological landscape.

NatureScape
Orange County, California | Jodie Cook Design, Inc.

Climate change has severely reduced the availability of fresh water in arid Western states. Turf lawns require vast amounts of water to maintain and also provide no habitat for native plant and animal species. Through NatureScape, an innovative program in Orange County, California, Jodie Cook, ASLA, helped homeowners transform their turf front yards into water-saving native plant gardens that can sustain a range of native bird, bee, and butterfly species.

Rain Check 2.0
Buffalo, New York | Buffalo Sewer Authority

Climate change is making communities’ struggles with aging combined sewer systems, which carry both sewage from buildings and stormwater from streets, even worse. With more frequent extreme weather events, these systems now more often overflow, causing untreated sewage to enter water bodies. Rain Check 2.0, an innovative program in Buffalo, New York, led by landscape architect Kevin Meindl, ASLA, offers grants to private landowners to capture stormwater through trees, rain gardens, green roofs and streets.

Randall’s Island Connector
The Bronx, New York | Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA)

Historically marginalized and underserved communities, like those in the South Bronx in New York City, experience higher than average heat risks because they typically have fewer parks and recreational spaces. The lack of safe and convenient pedestrian and bicycle access to nearby green spaces exacerbates the problem. Working with two community groups and the New York City government, landscape architects with MNLA designed the Randall’s Island Connector, a ¼-mile-long multi-modal path underneath an Amtrak freight line.

Sapwi Trails Community Park
Thousand Oaks, California | Conejo Recreation & Park District and RRM Design Group (consulting landscape architects)

In drought-stricken Western states, climate change has added stress to increasingly fragile ecosystems. Instead of moving forward with an earlier plan that could have damaged the Lang Creek ecosystem, planners and landscape architects at the Conejo Recreation & Park District and RRM Design Group designed the Sapwi Trails Community Park to be a model for how to preserve ecological systems while improving access and dramatically reducing water use.

Thornton Creek Water Quality Channel
Seattle, Washington | MIG

Climate change and environmentally-insensitive development in the Pacific Northwest are exacerbating negative impacts on salmon. Grassroots environmental organizations sought to daylight the piped Thornton Creek. A new water quality channel was designed by landscape architects at MIG to clean stormwater runoff from 680 surrounding acres before the water flows into the South Fork of the salmon-bearing Thornton Creek.

Background:

New projects were submitted by ASLA members through an open call ASLA released in 2019. In partnership with the ASLA Climate Action Committee, projects were selected to represent a range of U.S. regions, scales (from residential to county-wide master plans), and firm types.

In 2017, ASLA convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change & Resilience, which resulted in a report: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate and a series of lectures and educational sessions at built environment conferences. In 2019, an exhibition outlining 20 cases that exemplify the policy goals outlined in the report opened at the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C., and a companion website was launched.

The exhibition was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Miami’s Underline Re-imagines Space Below a Metrorail Line

The Underline / © Miami-Dade County

Highways and elevated train and subway lines that cut through cities can be seen as barriers. But through innovative landscape design, the spaces beneath these transportation systems are becoming new linear parks that help bring communities back together. Offering built-in shelter for rain and snow and shade during warmer months, elevated infrastructure provides communities and landscape architects an opportunity to create new forms of public space.

After more than six years of planning, design, and construction, the first half-mile-long segment of The Underline, Miami’s 10-mile-long linear park, has opened below the city’s Metrorail system. Designed by a multidisciplinary team led by James Corner Field Operations (JCFO), a landscape architecture and urban design firm, The Underline is a model for how to separate pedestrian and bicycle networks and incorporate exercise facilities and outdoor spaces — all while leveraging existing infrastructure.

When The Friends of the Underline, a non-profit organization, and JCFO complete the project, the new park will span from the Miami River in Brickell to the Dadeland South Metrorail station and create more than 120 acres of multi-use public space. Restored natural habitats will mix with public spaces of all kinds along with pedestrian and bicycle paths that link directly to the Metrorail’s stations.

The Underline / © Miami-Dade County

The first segment is already a far cry from what was once there. Isabel Castilla, ASLA, design principal-in-charge for The Underline at JCFO, said: “I still remember one of our first site visits when we had to strategically run between oncoming traffic to cross the street because there was no safe way to cross the SW 7th or SW 8th Street intersections!”

Through outreach sessions, Castilla’s team discovered that improving pedestrian and bicycle access below the Metrorail lines was a priority for the community. “We learned there was a strong desire to create separate paths as some cyclists wanted to travel fast while using The Underline for commuting while others desired a space for strolling,” she said.

To reduce conflicts between pedestrians and bicyclists, JCFO implemented a few strategies: “First and foremost, we added traffic lights, pedestrian signals, and crosswalks. Second, the path geometry is always straight and perpendicular to intersection crossings in order to ensure cyclists have proper visibility.”

Two way bike lane graphics at The Underline / Ana Ruiz

Furthermore, “all intersections feature designated crosswalks for pedestrians and cyclists in order to give room to everyone and minimize conflicts. Lastly, we implemented bold pavement graphics — not only at intersections to make drivers aware of those crossing on bike or by foot, but also along the bike path to alert cyclists of an upcoming intersection so they can reduce speeds,” Castilla explained.

The Underline trail graphics / Sam Perzan

For Alejandro Vazquez, ASLA, design project manager for The Underline at JCFO, the project’s transportation safety benefits are personal: “My grandparents lived in Little Havana and their street didn’t even have a sidewalk to walk on. I remember my grandfather being one of the few people riding a bike in Miami in the 80’s and 90’s, and we were always worried that he would get hit by a car. In a county that has the highest number of pedestrian and bicycle crashes in the state of Florida, the simple act of creating connections through Miami with The Underline’s safe bike trail and pedestrian paths is quite revolutionary. The Underline and its connections to the Metrorail, Metromover, bus transport system, and projected trails—including the future Ludlam trail and the Miami Riverwalk extension—will contribute to a robust network of sustainable mobility corridors.”

The Underline has also become part of the greater East Coast Greenway, which runs 2,900 miles from Maine to Florida. Phase one of The Underline links with the Miami River Greenway, and the completed linear park will connect to six major trails in Miami-Dade county.

Beyond the street-level transportation network, JCFO incorporated a range of public spaces, all designed with a bold green brand identity and way-finding system designed by Hamish Smyth of Order Design. Brickell Backyard, the first phase of The Underline, found at the northernmost portion, is organized into a “procession of rooms” — the River Room, Gym, Promenade, and Oolite Room. Many of these spaces will also eventually be populated by public art, selected in collaboration with Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places.

The River Room offers views of the Miami River, native and South Florida-friendly plants, and space for residents and their dogs.

The River Room at The Underline / © Robin Hill, courtesy of The Underline
The River Room at The Underline / © Robin Hill, courtesy of The Underline

The Gym is designed for fitness, with a flexible court for basketball and soccer surrounded by exercise spaces that have strength training equipment, stretch and balance areas, and a running track.

The Gym at The Underline / © Miami-Dade County
The Gym at The Underline / © Miami-Dade County

The Promenade area, which includes the multi-modal Brickell Metrorail station, features wide sidewalks for bus and trolley commuters, a pedestrian path, and a separate bike path between the Metrorail columns that increases safety, JCFO notes.

Social spaces in the Promenade include a Station Grove, which offers moveable tables and chairs and bicycle parking for commuters; a game area with tables for chess and dominoes; a 50-foot-long communal dining table; and a plaza and stage that hosts activities organized by the Friends of the Underline.

The Promenade at The Underline / © Robin Hill, courtesy of The Underline

The Oolite Room, named after the Oolite sedimentary limestone of Miami that naturally compresses into ooid forms, frames native plant gardens designed to attract butterflies.

The Oolite Room at The Underline / © Robin Hill, courtesy of The Underline
The Oolite Room at The Underline / © Robin Hill, courtesy of The Underline
The Oolite Room at The Underline / © Field Operations, courtesy of The Underline

Castilla explained that The Underline is found in the monarch butterfly migration corridor. “The park has already seen a resurgence of butterflies that include the Atala butterfly, an endangered endemic South Florida species that thrives with plants such as Coontie and Lantana involucrate,” she said.

Butterfly at The Underline / © Robin Hill, courtesy of The Underline

As Miami faces climate impacts such as extreme heat, sea level rise, and increased ground-up flooding through its limestone landscape, the entire project was also designed to be climate resilient.

To reduce heat gain, Castilla tells us “the project is carefully designed around existing mature trees to preserve them while also carving out sizable new planting areas, minimizing hard surfaces, and, in turn, minimizing heat gain. All hardscapes use light-colored materials. In particular, the bike path asphalt paving was coated with a light-colored finish.”

The landscape architects also made sure the project did its part to reduce flooding from stormwater. “The Underline corridor sits on the Miami Rock Ridge, benefiting from some of the highest elevations in Miami. As such, it is not as prone to flooding or sea level rise as other parts of Miami. That said, we have carefully graded the site to direct all surface water to planting beds in order to minimize direct runoff to the city’s sewers.”