Interview with Ignacio Bunster-Ossa: The New Geography of Green Infrastructure in Philadelphia

Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA

Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA, is national practice leader for landscape architecture at AECOM. He is the author of Reconsidering Ian McHarg and with David Rouse, ASLA, Green Infrastructure: A Landscape Approach. In his previous work as a principal at Wallace, Roberts & Todd (WRT), Bunster-Ossa led the development of the Palisades Park and Beach Boardwalk in Santa Monica, California, and the SteelStacks Art and Cultural Campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia has made great strides in its efforts to become a more sustainable city. Most recently, the city government announced it will be powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. The city’s green works sustainability plan, transportation plan, and city-wide vision plan lay out ambitious goals. Over the past decade, what have been Philadelphia’s major contribution to the sustainable city movement? And where does the city need to improve?

What propelled the big leap forward was the consent agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use green infrastructure to manage water pollution going into the Schuylkill and the Delaware Rivers. The agreement became the Green City, Clean Waters program, which is managed by the Philadelphia water department.

Philadelphia had a vast network of rivers, streams, and creeks, which in many cases were supplanted by underground sewers. These sewers erased the city’s hydrological foundation. Green City, Clean Waters is not quite undoing this system but introducing a new geography of green infrastructure that is not only shaping how the city ecologically functions but also how it looks. The program has produced fantastic parks and greenways. That’s a credit to the leadership: Howard Neukrug, director of watersheds and then commissioner of the water department, who instigated a lot of this; and Mami Hara, ASLA, his deputy for years, who is now the water chief in Seattle.

Fairmount Park rain gardens by Studio Bryan Hanes / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

Where we still need to improve: We see projects in areas that have the land. Parks and plazas have been retrofitted or designed anew to incorporate green infrastructure. But Philadelphia is an old, pre-industrial city where streets and sidewalks are tight. The challenge is how do you green streets in South, North, and West Philadelphia? There is so little space to implement a green vision.

Green trolley station in West Philadelphia. A concrete wasteland was transformed into a plaza with colorful plantings, porous paving, shaded seating and a café. Designed by landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates. / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

If you talk to engineers, they’ll say, “well, we can only put an underground cistern,” which works from a water quality point of view, but doesn’t provide the other benefits that green infrastructure produces: shade, biodiversity, and the like. This is the problem we need to address in the future.

As you mentioned, Philadelphia’s landmark green infrastructure plan — Green City, Clean Waters — and the Rebuilding Community Infrastructure program have led to the creation of more than 850 greened acres. A greened acre absorbs up to one inch of rainfall through trees, rain gardens, bioswales, and green roofs. What does the program need to accomplish next?

800 acres is less than 10 percent of the total required by the consent agreement, which is 9,300-plus greened acres. The question is: how do you implement green infrastructure in places where it’s the most difficult to implement?

Typical narrow downtown street in Philadelphia. A parklet helps absorb stormwater / Ignacio-Bunster Ossa

There’s also an issue of cost: if a greened acre costs $100,000 an acre, that is expensive. Another challenge is hiring a quality workforce who can work on green infrastructure in a way that benefits the most number of people.

Connect, the city’s first strategic transportation plan aims to make public transportation systems more integrated, equitable, and accessible. However, state funding for SEPTA, the regional railway system, is expected to fall. How can a sustainable regional transportation plan be forged among the Delaware River Valley community?

The issue is politics. The solution lies in Harrisburg; it doesn’t lie with SEPTA. Many communities in Pennsylvania don’t use or need transit because they are too spread out. These communities hold power in the allocation of funds that both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia need for transit. It’s a classic case of constituencies fighting for resources.

SEPTA has improved a lot over the years. It’s much more pleasant now to ride trains and buses. We’ve added many miles of bike lanes. And in a warehouse somewhere, there are thousands of electronic scooters ready to be rolled out. There is a new dynamic for moving around in the city.

Philadelphia bike lane / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

One of my biggest hopes is the city will dedicate streets or a whole corridor to low speeds, like 15- 20 miles an hour. If you hit a pedestrian at those speeds, they have an 80 percent chance of being unscathed; maybe a bruise, but that’s it. The city could do that along major corridors. Dedicated street are better than just bike lanes — they result in greater usage of sustainable transportation options.

Through its Rebuilding Community Infrastructure program, the city will be investing $500 million to make fair and equitable improvements in community parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, libraries across the city. What has the program accomplished so far? Are there fears new amenities could exacerbate gentrification?

The program is new so it hasn’t produced the scale of improvements that can lift up the whole city. The rebuild program has identified specific areas based on income, quality of the resource, need for the resource, and level of improvement. They’re spending the money in a prioritized way. And the $500 million is not all there. It’s being accumulated from a tax on soda, as well as from contributions from foundations. This is a long-term program that can produce results.

The issue of gentrification is very, very serious in Philadelphia. From a personal experience living in West Philadelphia, now known as University City District, I’ve been the recipient of the positive side of gentrification. But because of that, I’m acutely aware of the impacts.

I don’t think it necessarily follows that improvements will produce gentrification, in part because Philadelphia is one of the poorest cities. For large cities, the median income is one of the lowest, if not the lowest. The city is also predominately African-American, so the infusion, if you will, of white money that can produce gentrification won’t affect communities most in need of basic improvements. Perhaps long-term that could be the case. But the program isn’t prioritizing in any way, shape, or form projects that can induce re-development in a gentrifying way.

A recent study by Bloomberg found the City of Brotherly Love is sadly the third most unequal city in the U.S. behind Miami and Atlanta. Furthermore, the city jumped 17 spots in the past year, the sharpest negative move among the top ten most unequal cities. How can Philly better address the large income gap between those who live in or near Center City and those in low-income neighborhoods?

An associated consequence of the income gap is the gap in access to public resources. A research study by University City District called Just Spaces surveyed under-represented communities in the district. They want to find out: why don’t low-income people use bike lanes? Why don’t they use parks or public spaces? There are racial and economic reasons.

The report may point the way towards how you can create equity– not in terms of income, but at least in terms of access to affordable mobility and parks and recreation, which can elevate quality of life for everyone.

Philadelphia is also a hot spot for air pollution, earning an “F” grade from the American Lung Association and ranking just behind Memphis and Richmond for the country’s worst air. One in ten Philadelphians have asthma. Furthermore, asthma rates are spread unevenly, largely tracking with areas that are abnormally hot with fewer trees. This is because extreme heat combined with pollution forms dangerous levels of ozone that lead to asthmatic emergencies. How can Philadelphia address the inequity of the urban heat and air pollution issue?

Green infrastructure is a real solution — and it was embedded in the precursor to Green City, Green Waters, which was the Green Plan Philadelphia, a landmark report that Mami Hara also guided. The problem in Philadelphia is the tight streets where you can hardly fit a tree, given all the utilities. God forbid you remove a parking space. There’s a tremendous need for vegetation, particularly in South Philadelphia, where it’s very hard to find a tree in any given block.

The other component is obviously the roof landscape. In much of the city, roofscapes exceed streets in area. I would start programs that can produce green roofs, certainly blue roofs, but also change the material on the roof, so they are more reflective. You would see temperatures go down. I would do everything possible to improve the shade cover on streets as well.

Comcast Tower green roof by OLIN / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

Philadelphia did a program called Green Streets that I was part of. They have a design manual for green streets, which explains how to incorporate green infrastructure every time you fix a street. Over time, the city can make a dent in the air pollution problem.

After many years as a principal at Wallace, Roberts & Todd (WRT), where you designed projects such as the Palisades Park and Beach Boardwalk in Santa Monica and the SteelStacks Art and Cultural Campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, you moved to AECOM, where you’re now national practice leader for landscape architecture. In your new position, how do you hope to move Philly in a more sustainable, equitable direction?

We have folks in Philadelphia working for the water department on the green infrastructure program. We collaborate on where the rubber hits the road: How do you take a very small area and make it green? If there’s one lesson about the Green City, Clean Waters program is we’re almost dealing at the micro-landscape scale. That’s the level at which improvements are made over time.

The other work is focused on building parks near creeks to improve the quality of the water, but also recreational trails, such as in Pennypack and Tacony Creeks, and the Schuylkill River boardwalk, which is part of one the nation’s top urban trails.

Schuylkill River boardwalk / AECOM

The city has a very robust community engagement process. Philadelphia has a neighborhood-centric social structure. It’s great to work with people at that scale to make change.

And what have you learned from your 20-plus years’ experience in Philly that you want to bring to other cities and the national level?

It’s all about the scale of the city. Compare downtown Philadelphia to downtowns in other places, compare the widths of streets. I’ve measured this: it takes me 12 steps to cross most Center City streets. That’s 2-3 seconds. It’s a highly pedestrian-friendly environment because it’s so easy to cross a street.

When I go to other places and they tell me, “oh, you need a radius of 30 feet, because you need a truck to move around the city,” I say, “No you don’t.” I can show examples of big fire trucks moving around the city in this tight environment.

If I had to say anything about Philadelphia that would lead to a better future — it’s we need to take vehicles out of Center City and dense urban areas. Uber and autonomous vehicles (AVs) create on-call circulation that can travel at very low speeds. You no longer need parking. This evolution is inevitable in American cities. Philadelphia is ready made to lead the way.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 16 – 30)

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Ford Foundation restoration, New York City / Simon Luethi, Ford Foundation

Building Your ValuesCurbed New York, 11/20/18
“The Ford Foundation’s restoration of its landmark building makes a bold statement about what architecture owes the public today.”

It’s High Time to Memorialize the South’s History of LynchingThe Architect’s Newspaper, 11/2018
“According to a new report by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) entitled, Landslide 2018: Grounds for Democracy, numerous lynching sites in Shelby County, Tennessee, are virtually unmarked for their historical significance.”

Planning a Neighborhood SquareWestern Planner, 11/21/18
“Designing a neighborhood square to fulfill these social functions is not so simple. One of the biggest challenges is to get the proportions of the square right.”

How the Olmsted Brothers Shaped Our Natural Landscape Into a System of Interconnected, and Enduring, Public SpacesThe Seattle Times, 11/21/18
“John Charles Olmsted, the primary visionary of the Seattle Park System, developed a master plan that connected existing and planned green spaces across the city.”

Growing Green Spaces in the Sky CNN, 11/26/18
“At 85, landscape architect Richard Tan is still creating some of Singapore’s most iconic green walls and rooftop gardens.”

The State of City ParksU.S. News and World Report, 11/28/18
“City parks departments grapple with competing priorities as they recover from the Great Recession.”

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

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A green rooftop project in Shenzhen, China / Yang Xu, The Nature Conservancy

Take a Look at Ambitious Plan to Transform Pease Park Curbed Austin, 11/2/18
“A year after receiving a $9.7 million Moody Foundation grant to jump-start implementing its long-awaited master plan, the Pease Park Conservancy unveiled new drawings and details about the major transformation in store for the beloved central-city parkland.”

Urban Mountains: Shenzhen’s Green Rooftop Project – in Pictures The Guardian, 11/7/18
“The Chinese megacity of 12 million people is crowded, polluted, and vulnerable to flooding. A rooftop garden is using plants to make stormwater work for the city, and to improve the livelihoods of residents.”

Brooklyn’s Domino Park Blends Industrial Chic with Careful Pacing The Architect’s Newspaper, 11/12/18
“For the first time in 160 years, a 6-acre span on the East River waterfront in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge is open to the public.”

Landscape Preservation’s Urgent Challenge: Civil Rights Historic Sites Curbed, 11/12/18
“If the U.S. can’t preserve sites where it fought for its rights, what does that say about maintaining the rights themselves?”

Are ‘Green Roofs’ the Next Eco-Friendly Initiative for Baltimore?WBALTV-11 Baltimore, 11/13/18
“Like many regions of the country, the Baltimore area struggles with its share of environmental concerns, such as flooding and pollution in the watershed and air. Some say a solution is right above our heads.”

New Public Spaces Are Supposed to Be for All. The Reality is More Complicated The New York Times, 11/13/18
“But as these public spaces have proliferated, they have also become testing grounds for what is acceptable — and unacceptable — public behavior.”

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

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Miami Beach / Lorraine Boogich, Architectural Digest

The Van Alen Institute, in Partnership with the New Yorker, Explores Climate Change in Miami Architectural Digest, 7/3/18
“The results are visible,” says landscape architect Jennifer Bolstad of the effects of climate change on Miami. “Even if people say they don’t believe in climate change, they believe in an octopus in the middle of their street.”

10 Streets That Changed America Curbed, 7/5/18
“Americans define their homes in many different ways, but few parts of the landscape capture the culture of a city or the rhythm of daily life better than a signature street.”

How to Design a Wildlife-Friendly City Undark, 7/5/18
“Whether it’s giving endangered species a break or providing our children with a firsthand look at nature, the benefits of biodiversity are bountiful.”

S.F.’s Long-Awaited Salesforce Transit Center Sets Opening Date for Aug. 12 The San Francisco Chronicle, 7/10/18
“Eight years after its predecessor was demolished and 17 years after planning began, San Francisco’s new transit center has an official opening date.”

Pier 3 at Brooklyn Bridge Park Is Now Open, Making the Parkland 90% Complete Architect’s Newspaper, 7/11/18
“Another five acres of permanent green space was added to New York City yesterday with the opening of Pier 3 in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Now 90 percent complete, the beloved, 85-acre waterfront parkland designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates is almost finished after nearly 20 years in the making.”

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

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The grounds of St. Louis’ Gateway Arch have been brilliantly updated for the 21st century. / Photo Credit: Alex S. MacLean/Landslides Aeria

Is LEED Tough Enough for the Climate-Change Era? CityLab, 6/5/18
“Twenty years ago, the U.S. Green Building Council piloted its LEED certification, which has reshaped architecture and real estate. But how much does it dent buildings’ energy use?”

Gateway Arch Transformed: New Landscape, Expanded Museum Better Link the Icon to St. Louis The Chicago Tribune, 6/6/18
“Fusing the traditional form of an arch with the modern materials of steel and concrete, the Gateway Arch doesn’t just pay tribute to America’s westward expansion.”

The Happy Prison Urban Omnibus, 6/7/18
“In 1999, a New York Times journalist was astonished by his visit to the Rikers Island jail complex: ‘Environmentalists might think they had died and gone to eco-heaven,’ he wrote.”

Detroit’s Lafayette Park to Get Five New Developments The Architect’s Newspaper, 6/8/18
“Twelve-hundred new residential units and a variety of commercial and retail offerings are slated for Detroit’s Lafayette Park neighborhood, the Detroit Free Press reports.”

Secret Gardens: A Global Tour of Hidden Urban OasesCurbed, 6/12/18
“Cities attract residents and tourists alike for their energy. The constant movement and activity, the visual poetry, and the sensory overload can be both engaging and addictive.”

Above the Bay, the Tunnel Tops Green Space is Coming to San Francisco The San Francisco Chronicle, 6/12/18
“You wouldn’t know it whizzing through the tunnels of the Presidio Parkway, or motoring to or from the Golden Gate Bridge, but above you, San Francisco’s next great green space is starting to take shape.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 16 – 30)

Downtown Houston / Getty Images


25 People Shaping the Future in Tech, Science, Medicine, Activism and More
Rolling Stone, 11/27/17
“If our cities are going to survive rising seas, we’re going to need someone as inventive as Kate Orff.”

Houston’s Downtown Redesign in the Wake of Hurricane Harvey May Include a Five Mile “Green Loop”Architectural Digest, 11/20/17
“Even though Houston is poised to surpass Chicago as the third-most populous city in the U.S., its downtown isn’t as vibrant as what you’d find in other major metropolises.”

Brooklyn’s 100-Year-Old Japanese Garden Is Like a Living PaintingArtsy, 11/27/17
“A slender path rambles through Japanese white pines and Fullmoon maples, over rock terraces, and up to the threshold of a Shinto shrine, before lapping back down to the banks of a koi-filled pond.”

Will Denver’s New Green Roof Law Catch on in Other Cities?Livability, 11/28/17
“Earlier this month, Denver joined San Francisco as one of the first cities in the United States to mandate green roofs on new buildings.”

Landmarks Approves Fort Greene Park Design That Eliminates Rare A.E. Bye LandscapeThe Architect’s Newspaper, 11/29/17
“The Landmarks Preservation Commission has unanimously approved a Parks Department plan to build a grand new entrance to Fort Greene Park.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (August 16 – 31)

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Top: The Rio Grande in eastern Ciudad Juarez today. Bottom: The same site envisioned 10 years from now / Gabriel Diaz Montemayor

Green Roofs Are Getting a Big Trial in Hoboken Next City, 8/18/17
“The movement toward green building and sustainability-minded development is at an odd crossroads. On one hand, some progressive cities have made regulation strides toward more energy-efficient and less environmentally harmful building practices, while a viable industry has grown up around green construction and roofing materials.”

Here’s A Better Vision For the US-Mexico Border: Make the Rio Grande Grand Again The Conversation, 8/22/17
“The United States and Mexico have shared their current international border for nearly 170 years. Today they cooperate at multiple levels on issues that affect the border region, although you would not know it from the divisive rhetoric that we hear in both countries.”

The Pre-Oscar Snub The Huffington Post, 8/23/17
“Well, it’s not Oscar season but we already have one of the biggest snubs of the year. It’s pioneering Modernist landscape architect Dan Kiley in the recent motion picture Columbus.”

Technology Brings New Level of Comfort to Outdoor Living The Atlanta Journal Constitution, 8/26/17
“As technology becomes more weather-friendly, there’s a growing number of ways to transform the space around your home into outdoor hot spots.”

‘Project Birdland’ Transforms Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School The Baltimore Sun, 8/27/17
“School doesn’t start for another week, but 6-year-old Kyle Schuller spent Sunday afternoon running around in front of Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School. The soon-to-be first-grader watered some freshly planted shrubs in a “habitat lab” that will soon welcome him and other students to school each day.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (April 16 – 30)

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Grant Park deck rendering / Smith Dalia

They Turned the Front Lawn into a Welcoming Extension of Their Woodland Hills Home The Los Angeles Times, 4/19/17
“What happens when an architect and a landscape architect renovate a front yard together? In the case of architect Carmel McFayden and landscape architect Louisa Relia, the result is a grid-based landscape that thoughtfully complements the lines of McFayden’s 1969 Midcentury home.”

Saving Bertha: The Effort to Turn a Piece of Seattle History into Art Seattle Magazine, 4/20/17
“After Bertha’s dramatic emergence from the nearly 2-mile-long tunnel she diligently, if erratically, drilled in service of a new, underground stretch of SR 99 (and re-opened Seattle waterfront), a certain post-drill pallor has descended upon the city. After all the fanfare and ceremony—not to mention millions of tax dollars—Bertha is scheduled to be dissembled and sold off for scrap, and soon.”

Using RPGs to Solve Environmental Problems PC Magazine, 4/21/17
“Landscape architects at North Carolina State University developed open-source modeling software that uses the basics of role-playing games to help solve environmental problems.”

World Landscape Architecture Month: Let’s Celebrate All Things GreenThe Missoulian, 4/25/17
“It’s been a long, hard winter here in western Montana, what with blizzards, sub-zero temperatures and lots of snow. As spring slowly emerges, it’s time to celebrate all things green. Let’s celebrate April – it’s World Landscape Architecture Month.”

Grant Park’s Zoo Parking Deck Redo Moves Forward with Greenspace and Restaurant Curbed Atlanta, 4/26/17
“Parking spaces and park spaces may be separated linguistically by only a syllable, but as urban features, the two are diametrically opposed.”

São Paulo’s Mayor Tries to Make the City Greener The Economist, 4/27/17
“The phrase ‘concrete jungle’ might have been coined for São Paulo. Brazil’s megalopolis has 2.6 square meters of green space for each of its 11 million inhabitants, a tenth as much as New York and a fifth of what the World Health Organization recommends.”

Understanding What Makes Plants HappyThe New York Times, 4/30/17
“First, we have to understand that plants are social creatures. Our garden plants evolved as members of diverse social networks.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 16 – 31)

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Keller Fountain Park / Jeremy Bittermann, via the Cultural Landscape Foundation

Expand Sanctuary Concept Beyond the UndocumentedPhilly.com, 12/18/16
“I believe now is the time to expand this sanctuary city concept; to make all our cities refuges for learning, for health and safety, for tolerance and inclusion, and environmental quality.”

Revamped City Planning Aims at Neighborhood Revivals The Detroit Free Press, 12/19/16
“The City of Detroit’s Planning Department used to do remarkably little planning. Mostly the staff processed federal grant money for public housing or demolitions. One director of the Planning department confided to me years ago that he had more accountants on his staff than planners.”

Seaport District May Find Its Soul in Park Named for Martin Richard The Boston Globe, 12/21/16
“If our gleaming new Seaport District lacks a soul, it won’t after Martin’s Park is built.”

Celebrating a Rugged Vision of Landscape Architecture The New York Times, 12/23/16
“These bold environments, strung across an eight-block section in the city center, were designed by the modernist landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and his firm between 1965 and 1970.”

Eight Rooftop Gardens That Top the Lot The Sydney Morning Herald, 12/26/16
“When summer rolls around, as it will be doing before much longer, there’s absolutely nothing better than spending all day on a rooftop garden with friends, a fridge full of cold drinks, good music and never-ending views.”

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

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A rendering of an overhead view of San Jose’s St. James Park as re-imagined by CMG Landscape Architecture / Courtesy City of San Jose

Land Bridge Could Transform a Section of I-94 in St. PaulThe Star Tribune, 10/8/16
“A land bridge over Hiawatha Avenue includes Longfellow Gardens. The idea is not a new one, but it is catching on among highway planners.”

The Key to Creating Sydney’s Friendliest Streets Is to Add PlantsDomain, 10/11/16
“As Sydney’s population grows with expectations it will reach 6.25 million in the next 20 years, one added side effect is the increased anonymity that comes with big-city living.”

Gardens by France’s Most Revered Landscape DesignerThe New York Times, 10/12/16
“Gardens are ‘an expression of faith’ and ‘the embodiment of hope,’ wrote the revered English landscape architect Russell Page in his memoir, The Education of a Gardener, in 1962.”

How to Remake San Jose’s St. James Park The Mercury News, 10/12/16
“San Jose will host one of the more fascinating design competitions in its history: The ambitious goal is to try to remake downtown’s most gaping urban sore, St. James Park.”

New York’s Biggest Ever Green Wall Flies the Flag for Eco-Friendly CitiesThe Huffington Post, 10/13/16
“Recent reports that global carbon dioxide levels have hit an all-time high have also reinforced the need for action, and the quest for sustainability is more pressing than ever.”