Any residential landscape can be designed to both conserve water in times of water scarcity and reduce flooding during storms. Homeowners can use green infrastructure approaches, like bioswales and bioretention ponds; rain gardens; rain water harvesting; water recycling; and drip irrigation to more sustainably manage water.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates flooding has caused some $260 billion in damages from 1980 to 2013. And in the past decade, flood insurance claims now total $1.6 billion annually, putting further pressure on the already deeply-indebted flood insurance system. Sustainable landscape architecture practices — including green infrastructure — can significantly reduce the impacts of flooding on residences.
Homeowners also waste water by irrigating their lawns with water that should be reserved for human consumption. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nearly 9 billion gallons of water is used for residential outdoor water use, mainly for landscape irrigation, some 30 percent of total residential water use.
Sustainable residential landscape architecture—if part of an integrated site design, a comprehensive approach to sustainable building and site design—can dramatically reduce water usage while creating a healthy residential environment.
Homeowners can promote the infiltration, storing, and recycling of water, and limit the use of valuable potable water for landscapes. Bioswales / bioretention ponds, rainwater gardens, and local sustainable water recycling and drip irrigation systems can all be used to efficiently manage water. Homeowners can recycle and reuse greywater (and even blackwater) for landscape maintenance, car washing, and toilet flushing.
It’s important to note that degraded and compacted soil will reduce water and air infiltration into the ground. Homeowners can maximize the benefits of natural stormwater systems by improving the quality of soil on their property though remediation techniques.
Homes that include natural green infrastructure not only better manage stormwater runoff, but also reduce the massive energy costs associated with running complex water management systems. Water and waste utilities are heavy users of energy and major producers of greenhouse gas emissions.
The NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide should first be commended for the sheer amount of information it compresses into a succinct guide that touches upon nearly every consideration in the planning and design of green streets. I can only imagine the amount of coordination that took place to assemble the different national green street case studies, as well as the nearly impossible task of reigning in different perspectives on streetscape design from various planning and design disciplines.
While past NACTO guidebooks have successfully focused solely on street, bikeway, or transit design, the Urban Street Stormwater Guide delivers one of the most comprehensive guides on how to combine complete street design and green infrastructure stormwater management. Having a volume like this on one’s shelf is extremely helpful to anyone who is engaged in even general streetscape planning and design, as it points out the importance of having green infrastructure integrated into the right-of-way.
Design guidebooks are always a unique snapshot in time. They highlight our current understanding of design application and what, at the moment, can be implemented. This is an important consideration for the Urban Street Stormwater Guide — it reflects our design comprehension of green infrastructure at the current moment. This too will, and must, evolve over time.
Early sections of the guide provide a powerful argument for why “Streets are Ecosystems.” Stormwater runoff is no longer treated as a waste but as a valuable resource that should be managed in the right-of-way using a green infrastructure approach. The design community, I believe, comprehends and embraces this basic premise, but there is still a lack of understanding, which is reflected in this guidebook and reverberates in today’s built green street projects.
While stormwater runoff is now not considered a waste, it is still mistakenly labeled as a source of the problem of urban stormwater management. Runoff is not the source, but a symptom and result of the larger problem that urbanization has dramatically removed natural landscape systems and replaced them with impervious area.
We now focus on treating the symptom of “too much stormwater runoff” by designing small-footprint, deep-profile “landscapes” that force water back into the ground to prevent urban flooding, reduce the burden on grey stormwater infrastructure systems, or comply with state and federal regulations.
While reducing flooding and infrastructure capacity issues are important, these approaches create a water-centric approach very much reflected in this guidebook, which dilutes the focus and urgency to address the real problem of landscape loss. The only way to address this issue is to dramatically spread the footprint of vegetation and perviousness in our built environments. Only when we advocate and create a greater balance of green space and perviousness in our cities can we then accurately label our streets as “ecosystems.”
The Urban Street Stormwater Guide provides a series of “stormwater streets” as hypothetical scenarios of different urban conditions, such as a green transitway, ultra-urban green street, boulevard, neighborhood main street, and a host of other urban contexts. These are valuable glimpses of the possibilities of introducing vegetated swales, stormwater planters, pervious paving, rain gardens, and other green infrastructure and complete street elements into urban conditions.
However, the models shown have a definite tilt towards very urban conditions with the huge rights-of-way commonly found in larger American cities. The hypothetical boulevards, transit streets, and even the neighborhood main streets green street examples in the guidebook look nothing like those that I have worked on in smaller cities. Where are the examples outside of the big city? How about strip mall or big-box arterial streets, small-town main streets with tight sidewalks and packed with on-street parking, and the ultra-wide suburban residential streets that have covered mass landscapes in this country?
I raise this question, because these latter streets are just as impervious and incomplete. They produce massive amounts of stormwater runoff, just like our big city downtown streets, but are completely forgotten in the Urban Street Stormwater Guide vernacular.
From a stormwater management perspective, I define an urban street as any street that has a curb, gutter, and sidewalk that produces excessive stormwater runoff. It appears that the Urban Street Stormwater Guide defines an urban street similarly, but focuses largely in ultra-urban downtown conditions. Perhaps there is an opportunity to follow up this guide with a “less-urban” street stormwater companion guide.
I think that this omission is largely due, again, to the “snapshot in time” effect and focuses more on examples where green streets are currently being implemented: in big cities that are trying to comply with stormwater consent decrees and/or dealing with infrastructure capacity issues. The truth is that we need green streets in all urban contexts, and those should be better represented in this guide.
As I mentioned before, the Urban Street Stormwater Guide packs in an incredible amount of information in a finite number of pages. It feels almost too dense, where some graphics and photos are reduced to a miniscule scale, and text flows as if one is simply reading a series of bullet points (albeit good bullet points). In fact, some of the very important cross-sections of types of stormwater facilities are so cryptic, with minimal or no text call-outs or dimensions, that they remind me of the pictures illustrated when one is trying to follow an IKEA shelve assembly instructions manual. When dealing with urban stormwater, cross-sections illustrating very specific horizontal and vertical layout are critical.
Lastly, I worry that many of the cross-sections, and even the built project photo examples, suggest too much hardscape in the form of vertical walls to contain landscape and soil. Excessively-engineered green street facilities go against the very principles of green infrastructure to keep things simple, shallow, cost-effective, and beautiful.
One of the most successful elements in the Urban Street Stormwater Guide is the numerous design, planning, and policy case study examples shown throughout the United States. Each case study describes the project’s goals, project overview, design details, keys to success, lessons learned, and qualitative and quantitative outcomes. There are excellent pictures of projects shown in action.
Some case projects are clearly more successful than others, but it is extremely valuable for everyone to understand what has been built and how the project is performing, regardless of its real or perceived level of success.
Another very successful piece of the guide is Section 5: Partnerships and Performance, which highlights successful green street programs and policies from around the United States, details the need for inter-agency and private-public partnerships, and outlines operation and maintenance roles and responsibilities. The discussion of operations and maintenance should take a more formative role earlier in the guide, as maintenance often defines what can be built, to what extent, and how it will perform in the long-term.
In conclusion, the Urban Street Stormwater Guide is an valuable resource to those planning and designing green street projects. It makes a very strong argument that green streets and complete streets can live symbiotically and details different examples on how to combine these design strategies.
This guide is a wonderful snapshot in time of what has been built, but the guide also shows that we still have much to learn and that green infrastructure strategies are still evolving. I again really commend the amount of information provided in the guide and the level of coordination that was needed to complete it. I look forward to the next edition of the Urban Street Stormwater Guide.
The health benefits of nature have been well-established. From improved well-being to a reduction in respiratory illnesses, access to green space is crucial to improving public health in urban areas. The problem, according to Dr. Cecil Konijnendijk van den Bosch, is that “nature is still not an integral part of our healthcare system.”
Konijnendijk van den Bosch, along with his wife, Matilda van den Bosch, are professors at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Their research focuses on trees, green spaces, and public health in urban environments.
Studies published in prestigious journals like the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), BMC Public Health, and Nature affirm the health benefits of nature. Summarizing the research, Konijnendijk van den Bosch said tree canopies and green space can reduce the health gap caused by socioeconomic inequality; and lower rates of ADHD, cardiovascular and respiratory illness, depression, and overall mortality while boosting cognition and happiness.
“There’s so much potential in these benefits,” but they are not being widely translated into our healthcare systems, despite all of the credible research.
“Things are happening here and there. Step by step,” he said. “It’s not a major campaign. It’s not a movement of integrating green space and trees into our healthcare systems.”
So far, urban foresters have failed to promote the public health benefits of their work. Konijnendijk van den Bosch gives a number of reasons for this: cognitive bias; barriers between research and practice; unbalanced messaging on issues like outdoor safety for children and the risks posed by nature; and competing interests for already cash-strapped city budgets.
So what can urban foresters, landscape architects and designers, and advocates do to inject nature into the discourse on healthcare?
“We have to change people’s mindset,” he said.
First, Konijnendijk van den Bosch argued, medical professionals and urban foresters need to build alliances. “If you want to get this message across, if you really want to be successful, you need to the doctors. You need them to tell the story,” he said, citing the credibility that comes with having a medical degree. While a number of pioneering doctors are already prescribing time in a park, the medical education system does not yet teach the preventative healthcare benefits of green spaces.
Second, urban foresters need to build strategic partnerships with organizations like the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), American Planning Association (APA), American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and American Institute of Architects (AIA) to create a cross-disciplinary approach.
Lastly, more public outreach can raise awareness of nature’s health benefits. But we need to be creative about fostering deeper emotional connections with nature. Take Amsterdam, for example. The city lost many of its Elm trees to Dutch Elm disease. Now there’s a perfume that bottles that now-nostalgic scent. It’s a marketing tactic that’s “tapping into something. It’s tapping into people’s emotions,” he said.
Save Cork City, a volunteer association in Cork, Ireland, has launched a design competition calling for an innovative approach to renewing the historic city’s quayside landscape on Morrison’s Island. The international competition is co-organized with the Cork Architectural Association, with the support of the National Sculpture Factory and the Architectural Association of Ireland.
Save Cork City, a bottom-up citizens’ group that has won the support of local businesses, celebrities, designers, and advocates, was formed to protest the Irish government Office of Public Works (OPW)’s plans to raise the historic quays’ walls, thereby destroying the historic relationship between the city and waterfront.
According to the group, OPW’s plan — which seeks to “build over 8 kilometers of concrete walls and 46 pump chambers around the River Lee in Cork” — will “destroy huge parts of Cork’s historic character through damage to and removal of the City’s historic quay walls and railings, replacing them with basic concrete walls; turn the city into a building site for up to 10 years during the construction, affecting trade and tourism; and visually and physically disconnect the city’s quays and Fitzgerald’s Park from the Lee due to the introduction of the proposed concrete walls and embankments along the river.”
Furthermore, the group believes that OPW’s overall approach of using concrete walls is outdated and expensive, with a high potential for failure. “River containment is a flawed system that has been abandoned as a flood defense measure in many countries as it is expensive, difficult to achieve and can increase water levels in times of flood, putting cities at even more risk. The scheme relies on rarely used mechanical systems such as water pumps and drain valves, that could fail with catastrophic results.”
Instead, Save Cork City has issued a three-point plan, featuring more upstream green infrastructure, a proposed tidal barrier in the harbor downstream of the city, and historic quay revitalization. The group argues the OPW’s approach only looks at the last 20 kilometers of the River Lee, but it’s in fact 90 kilometers long, so there’s ample opportunity to reduce flooding upstream. They believe their plan will cost only €135 million, much less than the €450 – 1 billion the OPW plan is expected to cost.
The group states their plan has been endorsed by a “Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Robert Devoy; the deputy director of the Dutch flood protection program, Erik Kraaij; the former dean of engineering in University College Cork, Philip O’ Kane, as well as thousands of concerned Cork citizens.”
Engineer Michael Ryan told The Irish Times that“flooding in Cork city involves a complex of factors, including upriver flows, tidal surges, a series of historic culverts and pipes under the city and the fact that the city is built on an extensive aquifer which is supplied and affected by both river flows and tidal surges.”
OPW recently dismissed Save Cork City’s proposal as “too costly,” reports the Evening Echo. OPW is still deliberating over the thousand-plus public comments it received about its flooding plan.
Another interesting opportunity: MIT Climate CoLab, “a global, web-based community designed to pool intelligence in a manner similar to Linux or Wikipedia,” offers seven new contests with a $10,000 grand prize. The competitions are in land use, transportation, buildings, carbon pricing, energy supply, adaptation, and shifting attitude and behaviors.
“Since its launch in 2009, Climate CoLab’s open problem-solving platform has grown into a community of over 85,000 people from all walks of life–including more than 300 of the world’s leading experts on climate change and related fields–who are working on and evaluating plans to reach global climate change goals.” Proposals are due September 10.
Creating a Garden Oasis in the City – The New York Times, 6/23/17
“Samira Kawash and Roger Cooper bought their Park Slope brownstone five years ago with the idea of giving big dinner parties and enjoying lazy afternoons in the extra-large backyard.”
Highland Park’s First ‘Green’ Stormwater System Completed – The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 6/26/17
“The first, and so far only, green infrastructure solution to flooding in Highland Park’s valleys is completed along Negley Run Boulevard — a 1,100-foot bioswale that will intercept an estimated 600,000 gallons of water running off pavement annually.”
In Local Code, Nicholas de Monchaux pushes us to assign new value to forgotten pieces of our urban fabric – the dead-end alley, the vacant corner lot; infrastructure’s leftovers. While many cities deem vacant parcels as unusable remnants of development, Local Code makes the case for aggregating them to build urban resilience.
To visualize the opportunities, de Monchaux, an associate professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley, uses data on vacant public land in four cities – San Francisco; Los Angeles; Venice, Italy; and New York City. He then translates the data into a series of diagrams and drawings that show the scale and types of these dormant landscapes.
In San Francisco, for example, what the city’s department of public works refers to as “unaccepted streets” – right-of-ways the city does not maintain — make up the equivalent surface area to Golden Gate Park (over 1,000 acres). New York and Los Angeles have “underutilized parcels.” Los Angeles also has space under billboards, while Venice has a “lagoon” of abandoned islands.
De Monchaux highlights what he calls the “institutional invisibility” of these spaces, showing how they coincide with higher levels of household poverty, urban heat islands, crime, and asthma. Then, de Monchaux shows how bioswales, drought-tolerant planting, and porous paving could help reduce these problem areas.
The result is a multitude of diagrams and drawings that demonstrate a scope of opportunities, rather than predetermined results. By addressing sites where these issues are most acute, de Monchaux argues that cities can build a spatial network to improve environmental circulation and function of urban ecosystems, which can even help cities spend more wisely on public works.
Proposals also focus on intertwined social issues. In New York City, where as de Monchaux notes, there have been many resiliency-related rebuilding efforts since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but most of which haven’t focused on improving quality of life in low-income neighborhoods. De Monchaux writes: “Combining stormwater and heat-island mediation with the creation of shared public space, the investment proposed here is one equally focused on the everyday resilience of communities as in episodic resilience to disaster.”
Scattered between the case studies are essays about the lives and professional contributions of three key figures – artist Gordon Matta-Clark, urban theorist Jane Jacobs, and architect Howard Fisher. In recalling these stories, Local Code acknowledges the painstaking data collection efforts of visionaries in urban design before the instant gratification of geographic information systems (GIS), which makes possible the book’s 3,659 proposals.
These essays make up a substantial portion of the text and give Local Code a character-driven quality to an otherwise data-heavy book. De Monchaux acknowledges in the introduction that “an abundance of data is not knowledge.” To that end, the historical essays give context on how cities function and adapt in response to environmental and social change.
To fully grasp Monchaux’s planning and design proposals may require experience in design, or at least visual communication, but the historical essays speak to a broader audience interested in cities, as does the optimistic approach to vacant parcels. Ultimately, Local Code encourages us to read between the lines, or buildings, and see new opportunities in forgotten spaces.
While green infrastructure is needed to manage stormwater and cool the air in our cities, these systems, as currently designed, aren’t enough. In the future, they must also boost biodiversity and help forge richer connections between humans and nature, argued a set of policymakers, academics, planners, and landscape architects, who are part of the nascent biophilic design movement. At the Biophilic Leadership Summit, which was hosted at Serenbe, an agricultural community outside of Atlanta, and organized by the Biophilic Institute, the Biophilic Cities Project, and Serenbe founder Steven Nygren, the main themes of biophilic urban planning and design were explored in an effort to achieve greater definition. Much work, however, still needs to be done to codify, measure, and popularize the strategies discussed.
As Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia and one of the central leaders of the movement has explained in his recent book, The Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, nature should be found everywhere, but especially in cities. Cities must remain dense and walkable, but they can be unique, memorable places only when they merge with nature. If well planned and designed, a city’s forests, waterfronts, parks, gardens, and streets can make out-sized contributions to the health and well-being of everyone who lives there.
The three-day summit mostly focused on the human side of the human-nature interactions fostered through biophilic design principles. What was missing was a discussion by ecologists and scientists on how biophilic planning and design actually benefits species, how to best measure a city’s biodiversity and human exposure to it, and therefore determine if a city is making real progress in their path to become more biophilic. Still, there were some valuable conversations.
“There has been a huge amount of progress in the last 15 years. But on the negative side, the growth of children with health issues has been enormous,” argued Robin Moore, director of the Natural Learning Initiative. Indeed, today, one of out three children in America is overweight or obese because of poor diets and a lack of exercise. Children now spend seven hours in front of some sort of screen per day, and just 10 minutes in “unstructured outdoor play.”
Mikaela Randolph, director of cities and nature at the Children & Nature Network, was less positive to start, stating that not all children, or adults, enjoy nature to the same degree in their communities. In many underrepresented communities of color, there are fewer trees, playgrounds, and parks. “That’s an issue of life and death. Is that segment of the city going to live as long?” Studies have correlated tree cover and mortality rates, and the conclusions for those without daily access to nature in their communities are grim.
Moore said we must get serious about coming up with a strategy for incorporating nature into the places where children spend most of their day: schools, child care centers, and playgrounds. He called for targeting municipal, county, and state decision makers. “Changing the laws and codes is the next step.”
Furthermore, homeowners associations, which often just drop in standards created by a national organization, need to change their model, so communities can becomes “more nature and children focused,” argued Hayden Brooks, co-founder, Children in Nature Collaborative. Nygren agreed and said “developers know every rule for cars but don’t know the rules for pedestrians and kids. What if developers had to demonstrate a connection to nature?”
Randolph and Hayden explained how their organizations help local non-profits in a set of cities come together to maximize their impact. The Children & Nature Network, which partners with the National League of Cities, removes obstacles to “green school yards, early childhood education, out of school time, youth leadership, and park activation.” The Children in Nature Collaborative enables local planning processes. One successful result of their efforts is the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, which was just passed by the city council of Austin, Texas.
Their efforts also yielded one of the best ideas discussed at the conference: “green school parks,” which are about first involving communities in redeveloping and greening school yards and then making them accessible to the community outside school hours. “These places are then co-owned by the communities. They have access too.”
Lastly, Moore cautioned that while green infrastructure is great, “there needs to be places for kids in it.” He pointed to Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas, which was designed by landscape architects SWA Group, as a positive example of what to do. The entire park and flood mitigation system makes room for a nature playground. It’s on a steep site and periodically floods, but “it’s where we want it to be — embedded in the urban environment.”
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) urges policy makers and stakeholders to support an infrastructure plan that not only addresses today’s crumbling infrastructure, but also creates tomorrow’s resilient systems. ASLA recommends that the infrastructure plan includes the following:
Fixing Our Nation’s Water Infrastructure
Our nation’s deteriorating drinking water and wastewater systems require extensive maintenance and repairs—more than $655 billion in investments, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Less-costly green infrastructure solutions designed by landscape architects naturally absorb stormwater runoff—the major contributor to water pollution and unsafe drinking water.
ASLA urges policy makers to support a comprehensive infrastructure package that:
Increases funding for the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds. These funds provide critical resources to states, localities, and water systems to improve water treatment infrastructure and help implement green infrastructure projects.
Reinforces EPA’s green infrastructure and low-impact development programs and policies, such as the Green Infrastructure Collaborative, Soak Up the Rain, Campus Rainworks, G3, and others, which provide communities with tangible, cost-effective solutions to address water management needs.
Upgrading to a Multimodal Transportation Network
Our nation’s roads and bridges are crumbling and in need of repair. Using expert planning and design techniques, landscape architects are helping to create less costly, more convenient transportation systems that also include walking, bicycling, and public transportation options.
To meet the demands of today’s transportation users, ASLA urges policy makers to support a comprehensive infrastructure package that:
Supports active transportation programs, like the Transportation Alternatives Program, Safe Routes to School, and Recreational Trails programs. Together, these programs are providing much-needed, low-cost transportation options for individuals, families, and communities across the country.
Enhances the Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants program, which, with increased funding, will successfully assist more states and local communities with building multimodal projects that address congestion, improve safety, and expand economic opportunity.
Invests in transit and transit-oriented development to meet the growing demand for expanded public transportation and intercity passenger rail systems across the country. Transit-oriented development is also critical to jump-starting local economic development.
Recognizing Public Lands, Parks, and Recreation as Critical Infrastructure
America’s natural infrastructure should be protected, preserved, and enhanced. Our public lands are also economic drivers and support critical jobs, tourism, and other economic development, yet there is a $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog of projects. Landscape architects design parks, trails, urban forests, and other open spaces that enhance communities and augment the value of other types of infrastructure.
ASLA urges policy makers to support an infrastructure plan that:
Invests in our nation’s public lands, including providing for construction, maintenance, and restoration projects at the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service.
Increases funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which provides critical assistance to urban, suburban, and rural communities for local park projects. Community parks are essential infrastructure that address stormwater, air quality, heat island effect, and public health issues.
Bolsters USDA’s Urban and Community Forestry program, which focuses on the stewardship of communities’ natural infrastructure and resources.
Designing for Resilience
Communities are increasingly faced with addressing hurricanes, tornadoes, severe flooding, wildfires, and other natural disasters. Landscape architects have the education, training, and tools to help these places rebuild homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure in a more resilient manner.
ASLA urges policy makers to support an infrastructure plan that:
Employs a sound planning and design process that incorporates disaster planning, which could greatly enhance a community’s resilience to extreme weather, sea-level rise, and other natural events.
Provides adequate funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to continue efforts that help communities adapt to and mitigate coastal hazards.
Expands the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild by Design competition for additional regions affected by natural disasters. The Rebuild by Design competition is a multistage planning and design competition that uses the expertise of multidisciplinary design teams to promote resilience in the Hurricane Sandy-affected region.
Saving the Tamarind – The Bangkok Post, 2/7/16
“For over a century, 783 tamarind trees have encircled the sacred ground of Sanam Luang. They were there, like stoic sentinels, during ceremonial pomp and political upheavals, come rain or shine.”
Channeling Steve Jobs, Apple Seeks Design Perfection at New ‘Spaceship’ Campus– Reuters, 2/7/17
“Apple Inc’s sprawling new headquarters in Cupertino, California, will be a fitting tribute: a futuristic campus built with astonishing attention to detail. From the arrangement of electrical wiring to the finish of a hidden pipe, no aspect of the 2.8 million-square-foot main building has been too small to attract scrutiny.”
Waterfront Upgrade Phase 2: Time for Public to Pipe up–The San Diego Union Tribune, 2/13/17
“Three years after jacarandas, a hip cafe and a widened bayside promenade transformed a section of the downtown waterfront, the San Diego Unified Port District is jumpstarting talk of Phase 2.”
People feel happier, healthier, and more social when they engage with nature. Their cognitive abilities go up and stress levels go down. So why is nature so often thought to be found only “out there” in the wilderness, or perhaps suburbia? For Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia, nature should be found everywhere, but especially in cities. Cities must remain dense and walkable, but they can be unique, memorable places only when they merge with nature. If well planned and designed, a city’s forests, waterfronts, parks, gardens, and streets can make out-sized contributions to the health and well-being of everyone who lives there. In his latest excellent book, the Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, Beatley brings together all the established science, the important case studies, the innovative code and design practices from around the world in one place. Even if you think you already know a lot about how best to incorporate nature into cities, there will be some interesting new facets in this book for you to explore.
Some 54 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, some 4 billion people. That number is expected to reach 70 percent by 2050. As more of the world goes urban, we have a fundamental task ahead: to make the world’s cities ecologically-rich and emotionally satisfying. As Beatley puts it, we must use the “power of nature” to improve the experience of city life. As has been laid out elsewhere, increased amounts of urban nature and improved access to it can boost happiness, creativity, and cognitive abilities, reduce stress and crime, make communities wealthier and more social and resilient. Study after study demonstrate these benefits.
But Beatley unearths fascinating examples like the Mappiness Project in the UK. More than 60,000 Brits out and about in their daily lives were pinged by an iPhone app that asked them at random times to indicate how happy they were. Responses were then geo-coded to locations, with their relevant natural features. The study found “people are happiest when they are in nature. This is one of the main conclusions of the project.”
He also details the many ways cities can create room for nature. While creating connections to waterfronts and planting more trees are no-brainers, he calls for “an integrated, multi-scalar approach,” in which biophilic experiences are embedded at “interconnected scales and levels.” Biophilic encounters reinforce each other, and as they accumulate, the benefits increase. On a daily basis, people experience “doses” of urban nature in different ways — on their porch, walking down the street, on a park bench — and together these make up their overall “urban nature diet.” He recommends spending time a park or greenspace at least once a week, but the science is still out on what that ideal amount of time is. Beatley argues for direct contact in outdoor settings, like sitting under a tree, over indirect exposure to nature, like found in indoor environments or natural history museums.
Beatley has long held up a few cities as model biophilic cities, but he goes into more detail about what they offer. He explores Singapore’s sky-bridges that course through forests and vertical gardens set in skyscrapers, and Wellington’s comprehensive efforts to bring back bird song by restoring habitat and its pioneering launch of the world’s first marine bioblitz.
But he also includes lesser-known success stories, like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where 3,000 vacant parcels are being re-imagined as gardens and urban farms, and San Francisco’s Please Touch community garden, designed so the blind and visually impaired so can also have a multi-sensory nature experience.
We then get to the nitty-gritty of how to make biophilic cities happen — through smart policies, thoughtful urban planning regulations, and breakthrough designs. There are 80 pages of interesting examples, with many works of landscape architecture, including Paley Park in New York City, designed by landscape architect Robert L. Zion, which he rightfully identifies as a unique multi-sensory experience that demonstrates the “power of water.” With its 20-foot-tall fountain, this tiny park, at just one-tenth of an acre, demonstrates the incredible potential of small, left-over urban spaces.
So many other projects are worth reading about — like the Aqua in Chicago, which is a bird-friendly skyscraper; the Philadelphia Orchard Project, which plants fruit trees in poor communities; Milkweeds for Monarchs in St. Louis, which incentivized citizens to plant hundreds of gardens for threatened Monarch butterflies; the Healthy Harbor Initiative in Baltimore, which is taking steps to achieve a swimmable, fishable harbor by 2020; the Vertical Forest, a residential tower in Milan, Italy, which extends trees upwards through 27 stories; and the 54-acre Qiaoyuan Park in Tianjin, China, which repairs a damaged ecosystem while storing stormwater and creating wildlife habitat.
Beatley concludes with a few thoughts that resonated with me about how the whole biophilic cities movement needs to evolve. As we green cities, we must aim to achieve a “just biophilia” in which everyone benefits. Given study after study demonstrate that access to nature can improve and even lengthen lives, it’s deeply unfair that not every community gets to have the healing benefits of nature. Plus, we must also must figure out how to reach an increasingly technology-fixated public, who are often interacting with nature through their phone’s camera. He promotes Sue Thomas’ book Technobiophilia, which argues we can better foster connections to nature through cyber-parks — real parks that leverage the Internet.