Interview with Robert Gibbs: Trees Cause You to Spend More

Robert Gibbs, ASLA / Gibbs Planning Group

Robert Gibbs, ASLA, is president of the Gibbs Planning Group, which has advised and planned commercial areas in some 500 town centers and historic cities in the U.S. and abroad. Gibbs is a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, a lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, author of Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development, and co-author of eight books.

In 2017, retail e-commerce grew 16 percent to $453 billion, and it now accounts for 9 percent of all sales. Furthermore, 2/3 of millennials prefer online shopping to brick and mortar stores. What does this mean for the future of America’s retail streets, districts, and malls – for all those physical stores?

There’s going to be hundreds of stores closing. In 2018 already more stores have closed than in 2017. What this means for the industry: a lot of retailers are moving stores into downtowns.

Research shows millennials and other shoppers want the experience of being in an urban environment rather than just buying a pair of pants online. So mall closures are good for cities. You’re going to see retailers moving back into cities, and many Internet-based companies opening brick and mortar stores.

Warby Parker, an online eyeglass company, is opening physical stores, and Amazon’s opening two hundred bookstores in cities. Internet-based companies have found when they open a brick-and-mortar store, their online sales go up 10-15 percent.

One prediction is a quarter of existing malls will close in the next 5 years (some 300 out of the 1,100). Anchor stores – the big department stores – are closing hundreds of branches, while some 35 major retailers filed for bankruptcy in 2017 alone. As many malls die off, what characteristics do the malls that are surviving, and even thriving, share?

About a fourth-to-a-half of malls will close in the next five to ten years.

The malls that are going to be sustainable — after what I call post-mall period — will be ones well-positioned, with really strong demographics — either high-end demographics or strong middle-class demographics. They’ll have good locations with access to regional transportation.

Only malls that keep their department stores will survive. A mall cannot function without department stores. So when they lose all but one or all of their department stores, they have to close.

The other factor for successful malls is to be mixed use and incorporating residential, office, and civic space into their properties. Just being a retail destination alone is not sustainable right now.

Transitioning to mixed use is not that hard to do because malls were built with more than twice the parking that is necessary by today’s standards. So, about half of the parking lots can be converted into other land uses.

The Grove in Los Angeles and 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica offer highly-stylized versions of urban forms – in the case of the Grove, an old European urban downtown, and 3rd Street Promenade, the American main street. Are successful contemporary shopping districts about re-using familiar urban forms in new ways?

Oh, very much so. The traditional grid or traditional straight main street is the best format for the new town centers being developed. There has been a lot of experimentation with curvilinear forms with parallel streets, and those haven’t worked too well. It has to be a simple main street.

We find the best shopping districts are only about a quarter of a mile long, about 1,200 feet. If you have a longer corridor, then we break it into sections. Where they come together, we anchor it with some form of civic or retail space. So, just the old fashioned street works the best, or with the very-slight deflection.

Some background on promenades like the one on 3rd Street in Santa Monica: In the 1960s and 70s, many downtowns declined and lost significant market share to large suburban shopping malls. In a well-intended response, over 250 downtowns imitated shopping centers and closed their main streets to vehicles in order to create outdoor pedestrian malls. Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Fresno, California, were pioneers in this experiment.

Unfortunately, all but ten of the pedestrian malls were a failure (the ones that survived are mostly in college towns). Most of the downtowns declined even further and remained almost entirely-vacant for decades. Even Santa Monica’s Third Street promenade and Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road were initially overwhelming failures. Without department stores, the pedestrian malls lacked the necessary critical mass of shopping to justify the inconvenience of parking in remote decks. Small retailers cannot afford much advertising and rely on drive-by impulse traffic for sales.

Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica / Wikipedia

We have been advising several downtowns, including Fresno, to re-open their streets to cars with generous parallel parking. The key is to implement modern traffic-calming measures, an attractive public realm, and realistic codes to enable walkability and cross-shopping.

What are the core components of a successful retail district layout? How do you get density, inter-connectivity, and scale right? On the one hand, there is the model of Soho in NYC, with its grid layout, but you also have the standard outlet mall, defined by an arterial form.

A fairly straight or simple, deflected street works the best. It’s essential a retail district have multiple uses. All four land uses are best: commercial, office, civic, and residential. It’s also essential to have a good public realms in these centers and appropriate sidewalks for the type of transect that it is, whether it be a town or a city or hamlet. There has to be a good public space, such as a square or a plaza.

Old Town Alexandria, King Street / Robert Gibbs

Retailers have higher sales and are willing to pay higher rents when they’re located on a square. We have found retailers who will give up exposure on the end caps of a street in exchange for being on the square, because that is where more people are and where they will achieve higher sales.

Troy, Michigan town center / Gibbs Planning Group

It’s really important for landscape architects to embrace the public realm, to be strong advocates for parks and plazas, a nice streetscape.

Retail has been described as a tool for revitalizing small town main streets and the downtowns of major cities. What else needs to come with retail to make the revitalization effort work?

Retail alone can’t revitalize a downtown. One of the most important elements is transportation. Streets have to be calmed from highways into real, walkable streets. Many downtowns are suffering just for lack of on-street parking or because the streets are too wide and traffic is too fast.

In addition, it is important to have a strong civic component: the library, city hall, courthouses should be in the downtown, not in the suburbs. For example, we find a good library can bring an average of 1,200 people per day — that’s as many as a good department store.

High density residential and office space are important as well. The Urban Land Institute (ULI) recently did a study that found every office worker directly supports twenty-five square feet of retail and restaurant space. If we can get office workers downtown, you can share parking with the office, because of off-peak times with retail.

So downtowns have to return to being real mixed-use, urban, walkable centers.

What is the role of landscape architecture in successful retail environments?

The leaders of many shopping center developers we work with are landscape architects. Many of our clients are former landscape architects or practicing landscape architects.

More than the engineers, architects or the MBA types, we find landscape architects have a holistic approach, and we enjoy working with them. They understand the physical realm and design, but also politics, the environment, and a little bit of engineering and economics.

More broadly, the landscape architect working on a retail environment has to advocate for good place-making: a nice public realm — public squares of plazas; traffic calming; and the right height-to-width ratios on the streets so streets aren’t too wide.

Do trees and other green features increase sales?

Trees are really essential for a competitive shopping district. There was a study by Kathleen Wolfe that indicated trees increase price elasticity by 9-12 percent. In other words, people feel comfortable paying up to twelve percent more for the same product if they purchase in a well-landscaped place with nice streets. Also, when properly located, street trees keep people in the downtown district longer. They feel more relaxed and are more likely to spend more money.

Shoppers in Naples, Florida / Robert Gibbs
Shoppers in Naples, Florida / Robert Gibbs

We’re working in Palm Desert, California, and found the shady side of the street has significantly higher sales and rents than the sunny side of the street. We’re redesigning the street to be asymmetrical, so that the sunny side will have a wider sidewalk so that we can put in a triple bosque of trees for shade. In this case, the shade is directly responsible for higher sales in retail. Research indicates that, too.

The one pet peeve I have is that many landscape architects — including myself (as I’ve done this) — tend to put street trees on an arbitrary grid, 22 feet or 28 feet on center, whatever. Very often the trees end up blocking a merchant’s storefront, sign, or window display.

We believe developers and communities should put in a lot of street trees but use common sense when locating them. Street trees should be on the property lines of commercial buildings rather than in middle and in front of buildings.

Street trees are very important for retail sales, and that’s been proven. Also, for residential values, there are studies that indicate home values are much higher on shady streets than streets without trees.

Urban stores of retailers like Bonobo, Apple, and others are essentially show-rooms, where you try out goods and then purchase online and receive products by mail. What other technology-enabled retail innovations do you see coming to the built environment?

Technology has been good and bad. One negative is many online manufacturers are selling directly to the customers, and they are not sending merchandise to small retailers. They’re cutting the retailer out of the better merchandise, which is hurting their sales.

A positive is many stores are getting rid of cash registers so you can walk in and out.

Another positive: Store are becoming warehouse and distribution centers. Department stores are now places where you can do a same-day pick-up of an order you made online. Physical stores are becoming return centers for Amazon and other online sites. For example, Kohl’s is partnering with Amazon to be a return center. This helps bring people to that shopping district who ordinarily wouldn’t go there. They’re going to make a return and then while they are making their return, they will go to restaurants or other shops.

In the Batture, Living with Constant Risk Increases Safety

Home in the Batture, New Orleans / Curbed NOLA

The Batture, a historic squatter community nestled between the levee and the Mississippi River in New Orleans is an unconventional model of a resilient community. But as climate change forces more coastal communities to deal with greater risks, their approach offers some important lessons.

This tiny community of now only 12 homes, which has fought eviction by the city government for generations, is constantly exposed to flood risk. But living right on the banks of the Mississippi has given the community a deeper understanding of the river’s ebbs and flows. The residents of the Batture are always watching the weather, know when flooding will occur, and are therefore better prepared for disaster. By constantly living with risk, the community has in turn become more adaptable and safer.

In a talk at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) in Oklahoma City, Carey Clouse, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the Batture is an important contrast to other communities in New Orleans that were separated from the river by the levee — communities that literally couldn’t see the river, canals, or other water bodies. With the great risk posed by the Mississippi and other water bodies out of view, these communities became “overconfident” about the safety of the levee system.

In reality, many communities were made even more vulnerable because they didn’t know what was coming. As the levees failed, the result of Hurricane Katrina was some 400,000 were displaced and 100,000 homes were destroyed. “Sadly, vulnerable people had no awareness of where they were in regards to sea level. The Army Corps of Engineers and insurance companies obscured the risks. 400,000 people were blind to topography.”

But the Batture, a “self-sufficient, resilient, and adaptive community, suffered almost no damage in the Katrina flooding.”

In the liminal space between the river and the embankment, the Batture was created through “Do-It-Yourself (DIY) urbanism, a homesteader’s approach.” Clouse spent time researching the community and found it was a “hidden landscape, filled with self-built structures” on pylons. The river is ever present. “It’s 50 feet away from houses but can pass right below their feet during storms.” Each resident has created homemade protections against floating debris.

Clouse believes residents of the Batture are “more secure having taken risk into their own hands, rather than relying on the city government.” In this “quirky, escapist, anti-urbanist community,” there is “great toughness and resilience,” rooted in a deep connection to place and the river.

The Batture began in the early 1900s as a squatter community for people who worked in fishing and other marine trades. In the Great Depression, the Batture swelled to hundreds of homes, becoming a Hooverville on the river. Settlers built homes out of driftwood, creating a “ramshackle shanty town.” There was a tiny school and church, but no roads, water, or electricity. In the 1990s, the New Orleans government came in removed many of the homes.

Early Batture settlement / New Orleans Public Library, from Oliver Houck’s book Down on the Batture, via NPR

Today, there are just 12 homes left, from “the humble to the post-modern.” Batture residents can’t legally buy or sell their own properties, have no access to insurance or protection by the city or state, but they do have now access to “city fire, water, electricity, and P.O. boxes.” A local lawyer has sued the residents, claiming to own the entire Batture and is trying to remove the last remaining residents, but judges have recognized the rights of the existing tenants. “Many believe they deserve to stay.”

For Clouse, the lesson of the Batture is that “with incremental exposure to risk, communities can alter their landscapes and lifestyles to manage that risk.” Levees, with their air of safety and permanence, may actually “invoke crises.” But in communities like the Batture, where people live in close contact with nature and risk, “they can cope, thrive; they can take matters into their own hands.”

ASLA Recommendations: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate / ASLA

Climate change is intensifying the negative impacts of standard development practices and is putting people and communities across the United Sates at risk. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) convened an interdisciplinary Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience in September 2017, and this week ASLA released a blueprint for helping secure a sustainable and resilient future that summarizes the panel’s work and recommendations.

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate: The Report and Recommendations of the ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience found that the U.S. needs a new paradigm for communities that works in tandem with natural systems. It recommends that public policies should:

  • Be incentive based
  • Promote holistic planning and provide multiple benefits
  • Take into account environmental justice, racial and social equity
  • Reflect meaningful community engagement
  • Regularly evaluated and reviewed for unintended consequences
  • Address broader regional issues as well as local and site-specific concerns.

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate also found that:

  • Designing and planning in concert with natural systems promotes resilience, capitalizes on the benefits of natural systems and provides greater long-term return on investment.
  • Key strategies include use of green infrastructure, native plants, urban and suburban tree planting plans, and healthy soil management practices.
  • Compact, walkable, and transit-oriented “smart growth” communities reduce energy use and are climate smart.
  • Special attention must be paid to vulnerable communities in coastal and inland flood plains and underserved and low-income communities.
  • Transportation should be considered critically as not only a connection point between home to work/services, but also as a source of greenhouse gas emissions, and a contributor or detractor to a community’s appearance and function in light of a weather event.
  • Agricultural systems must be addressed because they are being stressed by unsustainable farming practices and farmland is being lost to expanding development and sprawl.

“Our nation, states, counties, and cities are looking for solutions to mitigate the risks from the changing climate and extreme weather events,” said Nancy C. Somerville, Hon. ASLA, ASLA executive vice president and CEO. “With this report, landscape architects and their design and planning colleagues forward public policy recommendations that can make communities safer while taking climate change and existing natural systems into account.”

ASLA released the report at an evening reception and candid discussion yesterday with Somerville, and ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel members Adam Ortiz, director for the Department of the Environment for Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Diane Jones Allen, program director for Landscape Architecture, the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington and principal landscape architect with DesignJones LLC.

We have provided a platform for landscape architects, public officials, and other design and planning professionals to share their views on how to help communities adapt to climate change through smart design policies. Go to https://climate.asla.org.

The Blue Ribbon Panelists included a diverse range of practitioners, experts and stakeholders with different levels of experience working in different aspects of geographic and technical design. They are:

  • Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, SITES AP, ASLA Immediate Past President, Chair;
  • Armando Carbonell, FAICP, Senior Fellow and Chair, Department of Planning and Urban Form, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy;
  • Mark Dawson, FASLA, Managing Principal, Sasaki Associates Inc.;
  • Tim Duggan, ASLA, Founder, Phronesis;
  • Ying-yu Hung, ASLA, Managing Principal, Principal, SWA, Los Angeles Studio;
  • Dr. Dwane Jones, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Sustainable Development + Resilience at the University of the District of Columbia;
  • Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, Program Director for Landscape Architecture, the College of Architecture Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington and principal landscape architect with DesignJones LLC;
  • Adam Ortiz, Director for the Department of the Environment for Prince George’s County, Maryland;
  • Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, SITES AP, Executive Vice President and CEO, ASLA; and;
  • Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, Ph.D., Senior Program Officer, Environment, The Kresge Foundation.

Some quotes from panelists on the importance of adopting effective public policies and landscape architecture design solutions:

“The plans we’re going to have in the future to deal with living with water have to be more realistic. We have to live with the acknowledgement that there will be hurricanes and areas that naturally want to flood. How do we build differently as opposed to thinking we can keep water out?”

Diane Jones Allen, ASLA
Program Director for Landscape Architecture, the College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington

“We have a number of antiquated policies within governmental structures. Reevaluating them every five years or so would help us to reflect what is currently happening and to better project how we should design communities to be able to proactively respond to such changes and challenges.”

Dr. Dwane Jones, Ph.D.
Director of the Center for Sustainable Development + Resilience at the University of the District of Columbia

“All public projects really have to be interdisciplinary. They have to incorporate the local culture, the local economy, forward-thinking design concepts, as well as good engineering. All that together, in a very thoughtful way that respects the complexity of our society, is a way to make a sustainable project that people enjoy and love.”

Adam Ortiz
Director for the Department of the Environment for Prince George’s County, Maryland

“One of the things we need to be doing is do a lot more experimentation. Sometimes you just need to be able to try things and see if that solution can take you forward. If it’s not a good solution, let’s try something else. That kind of creativity and ideas is really what innovation is all about.”

Vaughn B. Rinner, FASLA, SITES AP
Immediate Past President, American Society of Landscape Architects

“Our standard development practices are not sustainable, but when we understand and work with natural systems, we can build safer and healthier communities.”

Nancy C. Somerville, Hon. ASLA. SITES AP
Executive Vice President and CEO, American Society of Landscape Architects

“My hope is that we embed true kinds of community engagement, justice, and equity into our focus on climate change and resilience. We need to really do that in a way where it’s not so scientific. The social engineering matters as well. It’s what you’re doing in your profession that impacts people and makes those impacts equitable.”

Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, Ph.D.
Senior Program Officer, Environment
The Kresge Foundation

Retrofitting with Green Infrastructure

California Avenue Rain Garden, University of Calinfornia, Davis / Kevin Robert Perry

Why retrofit cities and suburbs with green infrastructure? Re-inserting the landscape back into the built environment helps us strike a better balance with nature, boost neighborhood health, and solve stormwater management problems. In a session at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) in Savannah, Georgia, a landscape architect, an urban designer, and a civil engineer offered fresh takes on why green infrastructure is so valuable.

According to landscape architect Kevin Robert Perry, ASLA, founder of Urban Rain Design, the issue is the sheer amount of impervious surfaces, the oceans of asphalt in our cities and suburbs, which can account for half of the built environment. “We need to get more water into the ground.” He said communities should take a “decentralized, natural approach” to getting more stormwater off pavement and into the ground, where it can recharge underlying aquifers.

In increasing levels of optimization, communities can maximize landscape along streets; increase their tree canopies; create park-like streets, sidewalks, and driveways; scale up networks of green, complete, streets; or build an “entire green envelope, covering buildings and streets” across the entire city or suburb.

But Perry noted the need to keep actual green infrastructure solutions simple and low-cost. His well-known Siskiyou Green Street in Portland, Oregon, cost just $20,000.

ASLA 2007 Professional General Design Honor Award. Siskiyou Green Street, Portland, Oregon / Kevin Robert Perry

Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of urban design at Georgia Tech and author of Designing Suburban Futures, and her students collaborated with the Atlanta city government, as it begins to realize its vision of a new city design, which is rooted in Atlantans’ love of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr, who was born and raised there, and the city’s luxuriant tree canopy, which covers some 45 percent of the city. The design paints a picture of equitable growth in an urban forest.

Dunham-Jones and her students began to examine how a city expecting to triple in population could still maintain its tree canopy, with all its health and stormwater management benefits.

Beyond concentrating development in centers and corridors, so as to protect old growth trees, another way to do this is to retrofit trees into neighborhoods through novel regulations.

Using the Cascade Road neighborhood, a majority African American community in southwest Atlanta, as a study site, she sent out seven pairs of students to identify some options. Her team recommended re-planting or relocating trees off private property into nearby public conservation easements, and “fee-simple” donations of wetlands and flood zones that have mature trees to the city government.

“The idea is to move more trees into the public realm. We can protect them better if they are on public property; and we can also protect the rights of private property owners.”

She said Atlanta hopes to enshrine many of these ideas in a new, more stringent “nature ordinance,” designed to replace the current tree ordinance, which has relatively lax rules on tree removal.

And Paul Crabtree, a civil engineer who runs the Crabtree Group, concluded that those who are forging innovative green infrastructure solutions in communities should be considered “shock troops, highly-skilled soldiers on the front line, taking heavy casualties, even when successful.” After much persuasion and many grants, he managed to create an innovative “tree zipper” in the middle of a street in Ojai, California.

Videos: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience last fall to offer communities strategies for adapting to global climate change and its impacts on human health and the environment. The panel, composed of leaders from landscape architecture, planning, engineering, architecture, public policy, and community engagement, met September 21-22, 2017, at the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C.

Watch and share the videos below that introduce our panelists and their smart strategies to strengthen community resilience.

The panel’s recommendations will be forthcoming on June 19, 2018.

MIT Researchers Seek Optimal Form of Urban Stormwater Wetlands

MIT_plan_render
Diagrammatic plan / Jonah Susskind, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands

Cities are sitting on a largely underused public resource: urban stormwater wetlands. If properly designed, these landscapes can reduce flooding, support urban wildlife, and serve as public space. A new report Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands authored by an interdisciplinary group of researchers and students at the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism led by Celina Balderas Guzmán, Heidi Nepf, and Alan Berger — advocates for the positive role wetlands can play in cities and outlines research that provides insights for landscape architects, engineers, and planners.

The authors make a case for the potential of urban wetlands, especially in a time of changing climate and deteriorating urban infrastructure. “Wetlands, the world’s most valuable terrestrial ecosystem, provide a multitude of ecosystem services: water treatment, flood protection, carbon storage, habitat, recreation, and aesthetic value,” they write.

And yet, in many cities, existing wetlands have been filled, paved, developed, or channelized, eliminating the benefits they provide. In this context, the authors see opportunity. “Just as urbanization has obliterated wetlands, urbanization can build them new,” they write. “While constructed wetlands are not in all aspects comparable to natural wetlands, they can partially restore some lost ecosystem services.”

However, urban wetlands present challenges for the prospective designer, not the least of which is understanding hydraulic dynamics well enough to create a design that is both beautiful and functional. This is where the team’s research steps in.

At MIT’s Nepf Environmental Fluid Mechanic Lab, the researchers tested dozens of different wetland landform configurations to better understand how “island size, shape, and placement affect hydraulic flow and provide ecological habitat.”

MIT_model_iterations
Topography variations / Tyler Swingle, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands

Researchers fabricated models of different topographies from high-density foam using a CNC milling machine. The models were then inserted into a flume (essentially a long, plexiglass tank that circulates water) for testing. The researchers used dye to track how different landform configurations impact the speed and direction of water flowing over the model.

MIT_model_test
Model test / Celina Balderas Guzmán, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands

In analyzing the results of these tests, the authors made some findings. First, topography matters. Topography describes the physical features of a landform. Results varied widely for the different landforms, meaning that certain design approaches are more or less appropriate depending on the goals of the design.

According to the authors, “wetland engineers and designers must make carefully considered design decisions based on hydraulic goals, balanced with ecological and urban goals as well.”

Second, in attempting to slow down water and filter pollutants, smaller interventions may be more effective. “Adding topography subtracts volume from a wetland’s potential water storage capacity,” they write, which means that “water will exit sooner simply because there is less water volume, leading to less pollution treatment.”

In their tests, the researchers found that models were most effective when the total volume of topography equaled approximately 10 percent of the total volume of the basin, although they caution this number may shift in real-world applications.

Of the thirty-four topographies tested, the team found two that provided the best balance of hydraulic performance and pollutant filtering capacity. They conclude the report by applying these topographies to two case study sites: Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas, and Taylor Yard, on the Los Angeles River in Los Angeles, California.

MIT_site_org
Site Organization Diagram for Taylor Yards, Los Angeles, CA / Waishan Qiu, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands
MIT_LA_rendering
Rendering of Los Angeles River Case Study / Jonah Susskind, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands

The case studies are intriguing, but may be frustrating to those hoping for a more detailed explanation of how to apply the team’s findings. However, the authors note that the studies are “urban design frameworks” and meant to be conceptual. Those seeking to transfer the team’s research to real world projects will likely find their topographic models to be helpful starting points, but will still need to develop unique design solutions that respond to site and program requirements.

Ultimately, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands aims to “inform decision makers, planning agencies, consulting engineers, landscape architects, and urban designers about the efficacy of using ecologically-designed constructed wetlands and ponds to manage stormwater while creating new public realms.”

However, the authors do not present any hard and fast rules for designing urban wetlands. Instead, the report makes a compelling case for why constructed stormwater wetlands are an important and underused resource in urban areas, and provides information that may prove valuable to designers and public officials looking for ways to extract more public benefit from stormwater infrastructure.

“We hope this work gives practitioners and designers a new set of adaptable forms to work with and elaborate upon either in implementation or in future research,” says co-author Celina Balderas Guzmán, describing the study as “a crucial first step to explore forms and validate designs quickly and easily with scientifically rigorous metrics.”

In this respect, the report is a success, presenting imaginative possibilities for new urban spaces supported by hard research. As a resource for designers, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands may not have all the answers, but it does have important ones.

Amid Divisive Politics, Keeping a Laser Focus on Climate Change

From top: ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. The Big U, New York, NY. BIG and Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners. ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. Perez Art Museum Miami: Resiliency by Design, Miami, Florida. ArquitectonicaGEO / copyright Robin Hill. Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NY. SCAPE Landscape Architecture. ASLA 2016 Professional Communications Honor Award. Sea Change: Boston, Boston, MA. Sasaki Associates.

Later this spring, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) will release a set of policy recommendations on climate change and resilience designed to better arm advocates pursuing changes in laws, regulations, and codes at the federal, state, and local levels. Introducing a panel at the group’s spring meeting in Washington, D.C., ASLA CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, explained that the recommendations will cover both natural systems and the built environment, and their goal will be to spur the use of financial incentives to encourage positive change.

Natural system recommendations will include measures designed to expand the use of green infrastructure; protect tree canopies, green bio-corridors, and open spaces; support biodiversity, especially among pollinators; and assist diverse plants and animal species migrate and adapt. Example recommendations include: create dedicated funding streams for green infrastructure; incentivize the planting of native and regionally-appropriate plants, protection of habitats, and the increase of biodiversity; and encourage the inclusion of climate change assessments in green space planning, including at the regional level.

Built environment recommendations focus on how to further encourage more resilient and sustainable growth patterns through the use of compact development, sustainable land development and zoning, and transit. Example recommendations include: restructure insurance to encourage resilient re-building; set up community investment trusts for green infrastructure and resilient design projects; and evaluate new transit projects through an equity lens.

A panel discussion then covered how allied organizations are maintaining a focus on climate change in today’s divisive political climate. ASLA President Greg Miller, FASLA, led Jeff Soule, director of outreach at the American Planning Association (APA); Mark Golden, CEO of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE); Tom Smith, CEO of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE); and Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, immediate past-president of ASLA, through a discussion.

To varying degrees, all organizations actively call for sustainable and resilient planning, design, and engineering that will help communities better protect themselves and adapt.

A key message, which was relevant for all organizations, came from Golden: “health, safety, and welfare (HSW) comes above all other considerations.” Following where the climate science leads, these organizations promote sustainable and resilient practices because they will help ensure health, safety, and welfare in an era of temperature and weather extremes.

According to Golden, more resilient buildings and landscapes are less costly to build if they are created in advance of a destructive natural event. A recent National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) report found that for every $1 spent on hazard mitigation saves $6 after a disaster. Sadly, though, most communities “continue to be reactive instead of pro-active” in preparing for climate change-driven natural disasters.

Rinner explained ASLA is now purposefully talking more directly about climate change. “The words we use matter. We take a strong position on climate change, sustainability, resilience, and adaptation.” She added that nearly a third of sessions at last year’s Annual Meeting & EXPO in Los Angeles were focused on climate change and resilience.

In the next year or two, Congress will be taking up a new transportation bill. The sentiment seemed to be advocating for a more sustainable transportation system at the federal level will be an uphill battle. According to APA director Soule, “we are actually regressing at the federal level and just trying to keep what we’ve accomplished.” Leadership on green and complete streets and other forward-thinking transportation systems now comes from states and cities. Most of the funds for transportation will be spent at those levels, too, so it makes sense to focus advocacy there.

ASCE CEO Smith said it’s increasingly important to leverage skills and resources from the local level. He sees the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which is training chief resilience officers around the world, as a success story.

Rinner agreed, explaining that the bottom-up We’re Still In coalition — a group of American communities adhering to the U.S. commitments to the Paris climate accord — has signed up 2,700 cities and towns, and the numbers keep growing. “Local action can have a cumulative impact.”

States and cities can also experiment and create new models where the federal government cannot. For example, California has taken the lead in developing a new carbon trading system. “The rest of the world is watching to see if it works — and if it does, California’s model will become something more can follow.”

Smith brought up how the dearth of maintenance budgets hurts efforts to achieve greater sustainability and resilience. According to a report card ASCE releases every four years, the U.S.’s infrastructure now has a sad D+ rating. “Maintenance is the number-one issue.” To deal with this problem, ASCE is developing new guidelines to reduce infrastructure life cycle costs by 50 percent. “We’ve got to think differently in the future.” Smith sees some public-private partnerships as leading the way on the leaner, smarter infrastructure of the future.

In a reality check, APA director Soule cautioned there is still a major gap between high-level policy discussions on sustainability and resilience and the situation on the ground. For example: As New Orleans rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, local officials and planners tried to stave off rebuilding in areas that had been deemed especially at risk of flooding, with the goal of saving those areas for permanent stormwater management. But the “political reality” demanded homeowners be allowed to build back where they had lived before.

The truth is no one wants to be told they can’t go back home and rebuild. As a changing climate impacts more communities, reconciling health, safety, and welfare considerations with people’s emotional attachment to a place will become an even greater challenge.

Smithsonian’s Ambitious South Mall Masterplan Clears Major Hurdle

Smithsonian South Mall campus / Smithsonian Institution

Today, a revamped master plan for the Smithsonian’s South Mall campus cleared one of the last remaining hurdles — approval by the Commission on Fine Arts. First released to the public four years ago, the original plan by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and landscape architecture firm Surface Design, among other firms, was criticized for eliminating the beloved Enid A. Haupt Garden in favor of a more contemporary landscape. After years of refining the plan with significant public input, a revitalized garden, which is the legacy of the great philanthropist and horticulturalist Enid A. Haupt, is back at the centerpiece of the quadrangle framed by the Castle, Freer and Sackler Galleries, Ripley Educational Center, National Museum of African Art Museum (NMAAM), and the Arts & Industries building.

Enid A. Haupt garden / Smithsonian Newsdesk

The updated master plan is smart: it proposes using a series of fully-accessible entrances to bring visitors down to a unified underground space that will seamlessly connect museums. This will also stop tourists and visitors from having to ascend and descend each time they want to visit a museum, going through security and checking bags over and over. The master plan will guide the 20-year-long $2 billion project.

Underground connectivity and infrastructure enhancements / Smithsonian Institution , BIG

Major updates made to the plan over the past four years:

The Castle acts a front door to the south mall campus, a portal into the more secluded quadrangle. According to Smithsonian Undersecretary Albert Horvath, more than 80 percent polled by the Smithsonian see the Castle as the central symbol of the museum and research system, so its enhancement as a hub is the first major project of the master plan.

BIG reduced the proposed excavation under the Castle by 50 percent, while still expanding the public space within the building and connecting it underground to the rest of the campus.

Underground connector / Smithsonian Institution, BIG

The 37-feet-tall Sackler and African Art Museum pavilions, which line Independence Avenue and hem in the south side of the quadrangle, will be removed in favor of smaller 26-foot glass pavilions at the north edge of the quadrangle. The pavilions were moved to the north end because “70 percent of the traffic” to the under-visited Sackler and NMAAM comes from the National Mall.

Entry pavilions for the Sackler Gallery and National Museum of African Art / Smithsonian Institution, BIG

In a presentation to the CFA, BIG project manager Aran Coakley said: “the Sackler and National Museum of African Art lack a presence on the National Mall. Moving the pavilions, so they can be seen from the Mall, will elevate their visibility.” Despite the criticism about the contemporary peeled-up glass pavilions found in early proposals, they make a re-appearance here, but in a more subdued form.

View of the Sackler Gallery Entry Pavilion from across Jefferson Avenue / Smithsonian Institution, BIG

The landscape is also poised for a major overhaul, but not for another decade. The Enid A. Haupt garden will be re-made because it rests on a green roof structure that needs to be rebuilt.

But perhaps more importantly, with the removal of the pavilions, the scale of the garden has changed and therefore the experience of the landscape needs to be re-considered.

As CFA Commissioner and landscape designer Liza Gilbert, ASLA, explained: “Everything has changed. The gardens are so much more open now with an expanded street presence.”

View of the landscape from Independence Avenue / Smithsonian Institution, BIG

Furthermore, given new skylights will stream light deep into the museums from the edge of green roof that holds up the Haupt garden, there is a new design opportunity to “show how this all works. Visitors will be able to see the landscape layers, so it’s important to make them apparent.”

Expanded skylights / Smithsonian Institution, BIG

Gilbert called for a rigorous “landscape investigation” along the lines of what has occurred with the campuses’ structures, in order to turn the current plan’s “notional ideas” into a design that enhances the intimate scale of the gardens, improves resilience and sustainability, and illuminates how landscape architecture works.

Other elements of the plan: a new entrance for the Freer Gallery on the west side of the museum; an integrated underground circuit for trucks delivering and picking up art works; a revitalized Hirshhorn building and landscape and new design for a new sunken sculpture garden and subterranean exhibition spaces on the north side of Jefferson Avenue; clearer surface connections between all the buildings and museums and down to the new Eco-District that will line L’Enfant Plaza; redesigned connections between galleries underground and reconfigured spaces for artworks; a fully-restored Arts & Industries building; expanded events and educational spaces in the Arts & Industries building and Castle; and, lastly, an expanded Mary Livingston Ripley garden.

Next up for the Smithsonian: finalize the programmatic agreement, which concludes the Section 106 historic preservation consultation process, and discuss in one last public meeting. And in the early summer, take the final version of the master plan to the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) once more.

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

AlaMoana_beachpark0003_1400_858_80
Ala Moana Beach Park, Honolulu, Hawaii / John Hook

A Retail District in Houston Reimagines the Strip Mall, One Building at a Time The Architect’s Newspaper, 3/5/18
“Caution and timidity have been the ruling traits of Houston’s commercial real estate market for the past three decades.”

The Future of Honolulu Depends on Its Parks Next City, 3/5/18
“Public parks have emerged as battlegrounds in the city’s response to a changing climate and a growing housing crisis. Could they also hold the solutions?”

Building a ‘Second Nature’ Into Our Cities: Wildness, Art and Biophilic Design The Conversation, 3/7/18
“Given the increasing popularity of this urban design technique, it’s time to take a closer look at the meaning of nature and its introduction into our cities.”

Climate Readiness: Think Big, Act Fast The Boston Globe, 3/8/18
“Until recently, Boston was ahead of other cities in planning for sea-level rise and the effects of climate change before a catastrophic storm like Sandy or Harvey hit.”

In Britain’s Playgrounds, ‘Bringing in Risk’ to Build Resilience The New York Times, 3/10/18
“Educators in Britain, after decades spent in a collective effort to minimize risk, are now, cautiously, getting into the business of providing it.”

The Gateway Arch, a Global Icon, Reconnects to St. Louis CityLab, 3/12/18
“St. Louis’ Gateway Arch once stood in splendid isolation. A new $380-million renovation of its grounds brings it closer to downtown.”

Concrete Jungle Hong Kong to Get Diverse Array of Plants on Urban Streets in Drive to Green the City The South China Morning Post, 3/14/18
“About 20 tree and shrub species can now be found across urban areas but this will increase to 120, with city planners shown how to ‘match plants to places.’”

Green Heart: First Major Clinical Study to Examine the Health Impact of Trees

Tree in parking area under “Spaghetti Junction” near corner of 8th and Main St. Louisville KY/ Randy Olson

Louisville, Kentucky, has some of the worst air in the country. Given the city is a transit hub, tens of thousands of planes, trucks, and trains pass through the city each year, not to mention all the cars. Louisville is also an industrial center where chemicals are manufactured. Heart disease, strokes, asthma and other conditions caused by excessive pollution are found at very high levels. Last year, the city received a failing grade from the American Lung Association in its annual report.

In order to see if trees can help combat the negative health impacts of the city’s deadly air pollution, University of Louisville Medical Center, the Nature Conservancy, Hyphae Design Laboratory and other organizations are coming together in the Green Heart project, the first clinical trial where “nature is the pharmaceutical.”

According to the Nature Conservancy, “this ambitious effort will conduct a first-of-its-kind medical study by planting trees in strategic locations across a cluster of Louisville neighborhoods and observing precisely how they impact residents’ health.” The study is financed by the National Institutes of Health and Louisville-based philanthropies.

Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar at the University of Louisville Medical Center and his colleagues, who essentially created the field of “environmental cardiology,” are doing a controlled experiment to test the impact of nature, as if it was a drug, on a neighborhood scale.

The challenge is “a neighborhood is not a laboratory, where variables are easily controlled. And this project would be far beyond the scale of prior research that identified connections between neighborhood greenness and health.”

Bhatnagar said: “there has never been a rigorous scientific study that quantified the health effects of urban greening. This will be the first attempt to understand, is nature a viable, replicable therapy?”

This past October, the project has its official launch, with a community workshop and the start of baseline data collection. “Temperatures, particulate matter levels, volatile organic compounds in the air will all be tracked by a network of more than 50 passive air monitors as well as more elaborate monitoring arrays mounted on towers and even an electric car.”

Starting next fall, some 8,000 trees, shrubs, and other plants will be planted in South Louisville, according to a map devised by the Nature Conservancy, based in data on where likely impacts will the greatest benefit. As has been noted, trees catch small particulate matter in their leaves, reducing nearby air pollution by a third in some cases; and, if planted near highways, they can act as a buffer, reducing pollution by up to 60 percent.

The Green Heart project is now recruiting 700 neighborhood residents to “participate in several rounds of medical tests, tracking the residual evidence of air pollution in their blood and urine.”

The Nature Conservancy writes that “different chemical signals will be monitored, including the presence of cortisol and adrenaline that are produced when the body is under stress. Participants’ physiological reactions to air pollution will be studied over five years, because some compounds appear within hours of exposure while others take months or years to emerge.” Residents are essentially “human environmental monitors,” said Ray Yeager, PhD, a researcher with the University of Louisville Medical Center lab.

At the end of the five year study, the researchers will have a set of data on residents’ health — looking at both before and after the trees were planted, and, for comparison’s sake, data from people who live nearby but didn’t get new trees. It will be interesting to see if five years is enough to test the benefits of trees — newly-planted, young trees would appear to have less capacity to catch particulate matter and serve as buffers than mature, fully-grown trees with broad canopies.

Unhealthy air is estimated to claim 4 million lives a year. If Dr. Bhatnagar and his colleagues discover medical benefits from the strategic tree placements, the results of this study could result in a new public health model that can help reduce urban pollution-related deaths. Yeager is confident: “what we learn in Louisville is going to affect people all over the world.”

If benefits are proven, the study could also positively affect Louisville, reducing health inequities. The Nature Conservancy refers to data showing that life expectancy in the “leafy suburbs” of the city is 13 years longer than in South and West Louisville neighborhoods with lower incomes and less access to nature, proving once again that “zip code is a reliable indicator of health.”

If the results show positive benefits from trees, the city government should first address inequities and partner with local community groups to build robust tree canopies in the neighborhoods that lack them. With solid data, the city could also further invest in the existing urban forest, which loses about 55,000 trees every year.

Read the full article at The Nature Conservancy.