Everyone navigates the built environment differently, with abilities changing across a person’s lifespan. One billion people, or 15 percent of the global population, experience some form of disability. The global population of people over 65 years of age is expected to double by 2050, totaling 1.6 billion people. Universal design means that everyone, regardless of ability or age, can access and participate in public life.
ASLA’s guide provides a comprehensive view of which communities are underserved by the built environment. It also offers a set of new universal design principles that address the needs of deaf or hard of hearing, blind or low vision, autistic, neurodevelopmentally and/or intellectually disabled, and mobility-disabled adults and children, as well as concerns for older adults. These include: accessible, comfortable, participatory, ecological, legible, multi-sensory, predictable, and walkable/traversable.
“This guide serves as an entry point into Universal Design, asking designers to assess our existing design models and projects, and to include disabled folks as stakeholders and experts in the design process,” said Alexa Vaughn, Associate ASLA, a landscape designer at OLIN. “As a Deaf landscape designer, I am elated that landscape architects, designers, planners, elected officials, and beyond have started to think about Universal Design.”
Landscape architects, urban planners, elected officials, and community advocates can implement these real-world solutions in their communities to ensure that the built environment is accessible to all.
“As our society ages, those of us involved in creating public places must understand the unique challenges that accessing public spaces has for older adults,” said landscape architect Brian Bainnson, ASLA, founder of Quatrefoil, Inc. “The simple concepts captured in this guide provide clear, achievable steps that will make our public spaces safer and more accommodating for everyone.”
More About the Guide
The ASLA Guide includes hundreds of freely-available case studies, research studies, articles, and resources from non-profit organizations around the world.
Projects and solutions are organized around different types of public space that landscape architects and planners design: neighborhoods, streets, parks and plazas, playgrounds, and public gardens.
New design principles identified ensure that public spaces are:
Walkable / Traversable
The guide was developed with the assistance of an advisory group that includes disabled landscape architects, designers, and experts: Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities, AARP; Brian Bainnson, ASLA, founder, Quatrefoil Inc.; Melissa Erikson, ASLA, principal, director of community design services, MIG, Inc.; Emily O’Mahoney, FASLA, partner, Gentile Glas Holloway O’Mahoney & Associates; Clare Cooper Marcus, Hon. ASLA, professor emerita of architecture and landscape architecture and environmental planning, University of California, Berkeley; Danielle Toronyi, OLIN; Alexa Vaughn, Associate ASLA, Deaf landscape designer at OLIN.
The guide was written by Ian Dillon, master’s of landscape architecture candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jared Green, senior communications manager at ASLA.
50 percent of trips on bicycles by 2030. That is the goal of BYCS, the organization behind the Bicycle Architecture Biennale (BAB). This year’s event, the second BAB has held, highlights fifteen projects from around the globe that feature bicycle paths, parking, and crossings. NEXT Architects served as the jury, selecting 11 built projects and 4 in the conceptual or planning phases.
Each project offers innovative ways of weaving bicycles into the city through three approaches: routes, connections, and destinations. BYCS says these themes “convey the balance between moving and staying that bicycle architecture employs to create thriving, livable places.”
The exhibition opened in Amsterdam, as part of the WeMakeThe.City, the biggest city-making festival in Europe. The exhibition will travel to Rome, Oslo, and Geneva, over the next two years.
A few standout projects include:
Xiamen Bicycle Skyway: The Xiamen Bicycle Skyway in Xiamen, China, designed by Dissing and Weitling Architecture, is an 8 kilometer (5 mile) elevated bike path that runs under and around the Xiamen bus rapid transit (BRT) system. The path, painted green, hovers nearly 5 meters (17 feet) above traffic, accommodating 2,000 bicyclists at one time without impediment from motor vehicle traffic.
The skyway has 11 entry points throughout, connecting it to 11 bus stops and 2 metro stops, further integrating bikes into the transportation system. In several locations, the skyway diverges from the BRT in order to maintain comfortable grade changes or to navigate existing infrastructure.
Cycling Through the Trees: Biking 10 meters (32 feet) in the arboreal canopy is now a reality outside the town of Hechtel-Eksel in Belgium, where a 700 meter (2,300 foot) circular path ramps up and then back down through the forest. The length of the circular path ensures the grade stays below 4 percent, keeping the path comfortable for bikers and pedestrians alike. The large ring, designed by BuroLandschap, is an offshoot of an existing cycling network, ensuring cyclists will ride through this unique experience.
Limburg, the province Hechtel-Eskel is in, bills itself as a “cycling haven.” Cycling through the trees is the latest project to help build that reputation. In 2016, an award winning project, Cycling through water, was implemented along the same bike network.
Nelson St Cycleway: When a highway off-ramp was closed in Auckland, New Zealand, the city saw an opportunity to convert existing, unused space along an urban highway into a cycleway, extending existing bike trails into the downtown area. The conversion into the Nelson St. Cycleway, designed by Monk Mackenzie and LandLAB, creates a 600 meter (2,000 foot)-long hot pink strip next to the highway.
Slender rectangular lights were incorporated into the fencing. The color of the lights gradually change along the ramp, creating a rhythmic glow that heightens the brilliance of the pink ground. The vibrant colors transform transportation infrastructure into a playful space for people.
Utrecht Centraal Station Bicycle Parking: To create deeper connections between public transit and bicycle infrastructure, cities need to create more bicycle parking. Utrecht Centraal Station, the city’s largest rail station, has parking spaces for 12,500 bikes. The removal of a structure connecting the train station and a nearby shopping mall opened up space for Ector Hoogstad Architecten to design a new public square and bicycle storage facility.
The parking facility has a cycling path that branches off to available parking stalls, which are indicated as open or full through an electronic signage system. Bicycle commuters ride through the building directly to their parking stall, making the connection between parking and the public spaces and transit easy.
From the 1860s to the 1930s, Argentina welcomed some 3.5 million European immigrants as workers in its growing meat production industry. Argentinian policymakers sought to improve the hygiene of the cattle slaughtered but also the “social hygiene” of the incoming workers. These technocrats were influenced by the eugenics movement that had spread across Europe and was later adopted by the Nazi regime in Germany. In this instance, the idea was to perfect humans through the selection of desirable traits and exposure to nature.
According to Fabiola López-Durán, an associate professor at Rice University, hygienics and eugenics in Argentina were, “in fact, connected, revealing a bio-political coupling of the city and countryside; human and animal bodies; and land and resources.”
Beliefs about the “cleansing” benefits of exposure to nature guided the creation of new parks, playgrounds, open-air schools, and sports facilities. Technocrats, physicians, industrialists, and landscape architects were driven to use “health, hygiene, fresh air, cleanliness, sunlight, productivity, and ‘whiteness'” in service of this broad national goal to create a more perfect, rational society.
In a push to modernize Argentina in the mid 1800s, the country’s leaders sought to “rationalize production and reproduction,” re-organizing human life. Upon arrival in Argentina, immigrants were categorized, with those demonstrating more desirable “white” traits sent to the cities to power the new industries, and those with less desirable “middle eastern” traits sent to the countryside to work in farms. Native populations were the target of mass killings.
In the midst of this brutal reconfiguration of society, nature played a strange role, too. Intensive exposure to nature was selectively used to strengthen those with “weak characters.” And natural spaces were also strategically inserted into the urban realm in order to improve the moral health of cities.
Argentina’s leaders were inspired by France, which had undertaken a “social hygiene” campaign in an effort to strengthen the health and character of the French people after the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire in 1815. “There was widespread fear of degradation and decay.” French doctors and technocrats called for integrating nature into the built environment in order to build a stronger population.
As Sun-Young Park at George Mason University argued in an earlier talk, urban gymnasiums, which integrated nature play, were built in French cities to enhance the physical and moral education of the population. “They became social theaters to display fit bodies, a secular basilica, that would remove the germs of degeneration,” Park said.
Buenos Aires is itself inspired by Paris, which was viewed as the most civilized city. Carlos Thays, a French-Argentine pupil of famed French landscape architect Édouard André, designed the tree-lined boulevards and public gardens that make Buenos Aires feel so Parisian. López-Durán said the goal was to use “green space to revitalize the blood of the cities, to oxygenate them.”
In Argentina, there was the added fear of “pestilence and disease” coming from the dirty work of meat production. The industry was modernized with the latest hygienic standards. Workers were placed in campuses designed for maximum sunlight and clean air, but often next to slaughterhouses. In these complexes, industrialists built parks in which workers participated in mass physical exercises. These places helped “transform human being into productive citizens.”
One example is the Parque Patricios, which was built for workers and their families next to a slaughtering facility. López-Durán said its playgrounds, which were away from the street, was designed “to save children from bad influences.”
Urban children deemed particularly weak or at risk from bad influences were sent to open-air schools outside the city. This approach was guided by the ideas of French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, which are now described as Lamarckism (or Lamarckian inheritance). His idea was that negative environmental impacts on a body, or misuse of a body, can create acquired characteristics that are inheritable. Healthy environments can then prevent or undo the acquisition of undesirable characteristics that can impact later generations.
López-Durán said children exposed to malnutrition or who had syphilitic or alcoholic parents could be regenerated through exposure to natural spaces, what she called “clinical landscapes.” Children studied under shady trees, farmed garden patches, undertook physical education, sun bathed, and studied in hygienic facilities overseen by doctors and teachers.
Every day, the children would be evaluated by the doctor and measured on their intelligence, body metrics, and cognition. “Any children perceived to be defective would stay; if they were deemed ‘normal,’ they were returned to the city to regular schools.” The idea was that children could be made perfect through a system of surveillance and control. All this was part of an effort to “improve the bio-capital of the nation.”
Back in cities, social engineering continued throughout a worker’s lifespan. The state built sports facilities to “improve meat workers’ bodies.” Outdoor physical education facilities incorporated soccer fields, volley ball courts, and exercise areas to improve labor performance in the slaughterhouses. “Teamwork values drove organizational behavior.” Women were also controlled by the state through the healthcare they were given. The idea was to make the industrial complex into a kind of utopia of productivity.
In her disturbing conclusion, López-Durán asserted that “eugenics is alive and well today,” despite widespread condemnation about its long-time association with racism, sexism, discrimination, the genocidal horrors of Nazi Germany, and mass sterilizations around the world.
“Everyday in the news, we can read about the rise of epigenetics,” the chemical modification of our genes through environmental exposure and our own actions. The study of epigenetics is focused on determining “how the environment changes the body.” These studies are leading to new evaluations of the impact of nature exposure on our genetic health, and new planning and design approaches that play out in the therapeutic landscape and equitable “parks for all” movements.
One on side is the idea that all of society should reap the many health and cognitive benefits of regular exposure to nearby nature. We need to democratize access to green space. But with a look towards the strange history of these ideas, it may be interesting to ask: is a new, subtler, “therapeutic” form of social hygiene effort now underway?
The average American now spends 90 percent of their life indoors. Some 40 percent of adults no longer engage in any leisure physical activity at all. Some 90 percent of healthcare costs go to treating the 132 million Americans who suffer from treatable chronic diseases such as diabetes, depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure. There are now 78 million obese adults and 12 million obese kids. Furthermore, the trends seem to only be heading in the wrong direction.
How can we turn this around? For John Henderson, executive director of Park Rx America, a key solution is getting people outdoors and active again.
At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, Henderson explained that exposure to nature reduces the damaging impacts of chronic stress and improves mood and cognition. And exercising in nature amplifies the many health benefits of physical activity.
Given Americans experience 90 percent of their exposure to nature in their neighborhood, it’s important to provide “meaningful” opportunities for healthy nature engagement through high-quality local parks.
But with Americans spending so little time outside, even in their own neighborhoods, who’s going to get people to actually go outside to exercise?
The answer may be doctors and nurses, who have some of the highest levels of trustworthiness and credibility among any professions.
There are now more than 100 “Park Rx” programs in which doctors and nurses prescribe activities in neighborhood parks as treatment for a range of medical conditions. Washington, D.C.-based Dr. Robert Zarr has been credited with spearheading this growing nature-based healthcare movement.
Instead of detailing doses of pharmaceuticals in a conventional prescription, doctors in Park Rx programs prescribe doses of the “nature pill” — time spent in green spaces — including directions about how often and how long to do various activities there. Instead of sending a prescription to a pharmacy near the patient’s house, they send the patient to a park near their home.
Doctors and patients can use Park Rx America’s “Find a Park” web tool to identify parks near them. The tool enables users to filter parks that have been deemed safe and accessible by available amenities. According to Henderson, the number one question doctors ask about local parks is: “Are they safe?”
Once patients are assigned a park, they can use a smartphone app to keep track of their progress in following a nature activity prescription. They can send their medical provider a text message and geo-tagged marker from the park, proving they’ve completed tasks. This data also helps inform the provider about the efficacy of different prescriptions.
Park Rx shows that a nascent healthcare infrastructure for doctors and patients is forming. But what about the other side of the equation — providing widespread access to high-quality neighborhood parks with lots of amenities?
Also on the panel at APA was a team from Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburban county outside Washington, D.C. that is being strategic about using its limited funds to create local parks, plazas, and trails with the biggest bang for the buck, health-wise.
The county has a population of one million and includes small cities like Wheaton, Silver Spring, and Germantown. Montgomery County already leads on national health indicator rankings but government leaders realized the county has much more to do to make green space accessible to everyone.
Christina Sassaki, a planner in charge of the county’s “energized public spaces (EPS)” program, explained how they recently forged an EPS master plan, which is the result of an exercise to map gaps in green space along with public surveys measuring demand for various amenities, such as playgrounds, trails, dog parks, and outdoor exercise equipment.
The team found that “parks and public spaces are not equal” across the county. Some neighborhoods enjoy larger parks, say 2-3 acres, while others in denser urban areas have smaller ones at an acre or less. But they found park size wasn’t the only determinant of park quality — it’s also about what amenities are available. “We decided to measure neighborhood access to different types of experiences instead of acres,” Sassaki said.
Through a systematic GIS analysis, Montgomery County analyzed all green public spaces in terms of their ability to provide contemplative experiences where residents can re-connect with nature; active recreational experiences with sports and exercise facilities; and social gathering experiences where residents can feel welcome and comfortable. GIS Manager Christopher McGovern then plotted all the amenities that enable these experiences on a grid covering the entire county.
The EPS plan identified the top 12 “deficit clusters,” mostly in the mixed-use centers, the downtowns where there are high concentrations of populations and multi-family apartment buildings. In these denser deficit areas, “there was particularly a shortage of contemplative and active experiences,” Sassaki said.
The plan focuses on improving the range of experiences found via amenities in smaller parks and creating new parks and plazas in underserved areas. The county has also been piloting revamps of public spaces — all of this with the goal of packing in more amenities groups like Park Rx America can then offer to nature-savvy doctors and patients.
How Better Urban Planning Can Improve Gender Equality — Behavioral Scientist, 4/9/19
“In the mid-1990s, public officials in Vienna found something surprising when they studied who was using their public parks: girls were much less likely to use parks after age nine, while boys continued using them into their teens.”
According to Babcock & Wilcox Vølund, the engineers of the power plant, Copenhill will convert 400,000 tons of waste each year into heat for 250,000 homes and energy for another 62,500 while producing zero toxic air pollution. Some 100,000 pounds of ash collected from the waste incineration process will be reused to build roads; and some 90 percent of the metals in the waste stream will be salvaged.
Two ski lifts take visitors up to the slope, which allows for all types of skiing — alpine and racing — along with snowblading and snowboarding. On the Copenhill website, one can already reserve a time to snow plow or slalom down the slopes for about $20 an hour. Visitors can also rent equipment, take a ski class, or join SKI365, the building’s ski club. The big plus: because the slope is built using specialized artificial turf, people will be able to ski up there year round.
Translating their website from Danish, it’s clear they’ve tried to design the space for everyone: “If you a beginner, a shark on skis, free-styler, fun skier, man, woman, boy, girl, thick, thin, tall or short, then you are part of the community. We have something for everyone. There are both red / black, blue, and green courses. In addition, there is also a slalom course, free-style park, and, of course, an area for the smallest.”
For those who avoid skiing, there are freely-accessible paths sloping up a 5-35 percent grade where one can walk up or take a heart-pounding run. Bjarke Ingels’ firm BIG and landscape architects with SLA planted more than 30 trees in landscaped areas. There, Copenhill invites you to “take a picnic in the shrubbery or just enjoy the view on one of the reclining benches.” There’s also a club for these path enthusiasts — RUN365, with crossfit training options for members.
The facility replaces an older power plant, and the cost of building Copenhill is shared among the five municipalities who will sell Copenhill’s heat and power. But according to Bloomberg, the city government thinks it’s perhaps the tourism money — rather than the heat or power — that will end up offsetting a larger share of the cost of the new plant. Situated just 13 minutes from the airport, it will be hard for first-time visitors — particularly those with kids — to avoid making a stop.
In an interview, BIG told Inhabitatthat the building is expected to blow steam rings at some point. The technology apparently works — they are now fine-tuning.
For thousands of years, humans have purposefully immersed themselves in forests in order to revitalize their spiritual, mental, and physical health. But in 1982, Tomohide Akiyama, director of Japan’s forestry agency, put a name to this, coining the term shinrin yoku, which can be translated as forest bathing. Since then, interest in the practice has skyrocketed among both the public and scientific researchers. And last year, forest bathing may have hit a tipping point, with four books published around the world on this natural therapeutic approach. Forest bathing seems poised to go global, as interest expands beyond Japan into South Korea, the rest of Asia, and throughout the West.
In Shinrin Yoku, The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing, Yoshifumi Miyazaki — who is a professor at the Chiba University center for environment, health, and field sciences; coiner of the term “forest therapy;” and one of the first to conduct scientific research on the health benefits of forest immersion — we have the original Japanese take on the practice.
In Japan, forest bathing and the more-regimented, often multi-day practice of forest therapy are mainstream. Companies regularly send their employees to forests to restore themselves. And Japanese go on therapeutic vacations to some of the most well-known sites of natural beauty. Today, there are some 60 official forest therapy trails, designated for the practice of shinrin yoku by the Forest Therapy Society. And there are a growing number of doctors who are certified to practice forest medicine.
Over the course of human evolution, we have spent 99.99 percent of our development in natural environments. It’s only very recently that we have, as a species, moved into dense urban areas. According to Miyazaki, this has resulted in major health issues. “We are over-stimulated and stressed by today’s man-made world, and that makes our bodies more susceptible to disease.” For him, “it’s not surprising that attention is turning to shinrin yoku as an example of a natural and low-cost way to alleviate this problem.”
In 1990, Miyazaki conducted some of the first experiments to examine the physiological effects of forest bathing on the Japanese island of Yakashima. The study had limited value because then only saliva samples measuring cortisol levels were used. Since 2000, though, the science “moved on,” yielding new ways to measure brain activity and autonomous nervous activity, “both good indicators of the level of stress in the human body.” Over the past 10-15 years, data on the benefits of forest bathing has accumulated.
Miyazaki does an excellent job of clearly communicating the dangers of stress and how forest therapy helps reduce its impacts.
Our over-stimulated urban lifestyles leads to chronic stress, which is exacerbated by “technostress,” the unique stress caused by our fixation on smart phones, twitter feeds, and Netflix accounts.
According to Miyazaki, stress causes illness such as the common cold; back, neck, and shoulder pain; slower healing; weight gain and loss, sleep dysfunction; depression; dysautonomia (autonomic nervous disorder); irritable bowel syndrome; ulcers and stomach problems; heart diseases; and increased cancer risks.
Forest therapy increases physiological relaxation, boosting our immune system and undoing the damaging effects of stress.
The benefits of forest therapy measured by Mizayaki and others include:
“Improvement of weakened immunity, with an increase in the count of killer (NK) cells, which are known to fight tumors and infections.
Increased relaxation of the body due to increased activity in the parasympathetic nervous system activity.
Reduction in blood pressure after only 15 minutes of forest therapy.
Reduced feelings of stress and a general sense of well-being.
Reduction in blood pressure after 1 day of forest therapy, which lasts up to 5 days after therapy.”
On a deeper level, Miyazaki believes we experience these benefits when we de-synchronize with technology and the stressful pace of urban living and re-synchronize with the natural rhythms we have evolved with. Over seven million years of human evolution, “we have lived amid nature and our bodies have adapted to that nature.”
In Japan, there is a deep connection with nature. From the country-wide festivals under the beautiful, ephemeral cherry blossoms to the prayers left at the base of honored tree specimens, Japanese live with nature, as opposed to admiring it as the other. People and the natural world co-exist in a country still covered in nearly 70 percent forest. It makes sense then that the Japanese government invested greatly in research on forest therapy, some $4.3 million since 2004.
One study was conducted in 63 forests across Japan, using some 756 subjects, who were split into 6 groups in different regions. Within each group, half went to urban areas and half were sent to forested areas. Subjects were asked to walk slowly through an urban or forested environment for 15 minutes in the morning, and then just sit and look at the view for 15 minutes in the afternoon. Their autonomic nervous activity, pulse rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels were measured, and they were asked questions about how they felt. The study proved that “during forest therapy, the body experiences physiological relaxation.” And subjects in the forested areas reported an increased feeling of comfort, calm, and refreshment; an improvement in their emotional state; and reduction in anxiety.
Other studies in Japan showed that a forest therapy session reduced blood pressure among men with high blood pressure and office workers; calmed pre-frontal brain activity; and among mature women, reduced stress levels. Furthermore, if a forest isn’t accessible, spending time in a large urban park, looking at ornamental house plants, flower arrangements, or bonsai trees, or smelling wood also relaxes the body.
The book is also worthwhile as a guide to shinrin yoku on your own. Miyazaki explains how to walk mindfully in the forest, feeling the forest floor, taking in the sounds and smells, or closely studying a tree. For a therapeutic boost, he recommends meditating, stretching, or sketching in a forest.
Other notable forest bathing books published in the past year:
Many have called Kongjian Yu, FASLA, president of Turenscape, the Frederick Law Olmsted of China. And with his new book Letters to the Leaders of China: Kongjian Yu and the Future of the Chinese City, one understands why. This collection of letters to Chinese president Xi Jinping and provincial governors, essays, interviews, and other advocacy pieces reveal how much Yu has invested in promoting his ecological, water-centric “sponge city” approach. His book demonstrates that every landscape architect can become a leader and a powerful force for improving environmental and human health in their community.
Yu connects the professed communal and environmental aspirations of the Communist Party leadership with his own goals — healthy places for people and well-functioning ecosystems. But he also believes there has been some deviation from the original goals of the Communist revolution, with the pursuit of Western-style, car-based development; isolated, residential skyscrapers; and widespread environmental degradation.
He submits typical contemporary urban design in China to a kind of criticism study session, asking mayors and governors to re-examine their own motivations and re-align themselves with the true needs of the Chinese people and the environment.
He takes aim at the Chinese version of the western City Beautiful movement that has been carried out “aimlessly and autocratically,” damaging both the civil realm through the development of highways that split communities, giant soulless plazas, and parks filled with non-native plants; and the natural environment, through the country-wide pollution of air and water. His core argument: to mindlessly ape Western development models — and profit from these destructive approaches — is fundamentally un-Chinese and certainly not Communist.
In one compelling essay directed to mayors, he writes: “contemporary movements to build the ‘City Beautiful’ and the ‘eco-city’ are short-sighted. It is wrong to raze old homes downtown to erect a paved concrete square; wrong to demolish natural features to build ‘parks’ stuffed with exotic plants; wrong to cut down forests that meander along riverbanks, only to line those rivers with concrete; wrong to take productive rice fields that are over a thousand years old and cover them up with lawns of imported grass — all to inflate and publicize a mayor’s false achievements.”
He seeks to grow a new stock of governors and mayors who can change the status-quo urban planning paradigm in China. He wants them to adopt a “negative planning” approach in which important ecologies are purposefully protected from development. Instead of running population growth estimates and then creating a development plan based in standardized land requirements per person, Yu wants urban planners to preserve and enhance undeveloped land — hence the “negative” or zero planning or development approach — that provide vital ecosystem services. With negative planning, China can then build “landscape security patterns,” which form out of “strategic locations and linkages” that are “extremely important to the maintenance and control of ecological processes.”
In a country that has become a toxic brownfield, landscape security could provide the stable foundation for the renewed sustainability and resilience of the country.
He calls for using a number of ambitious strategies for achieving landscape security, and bringing nature back to the cities in a real, not fake “eco-city” manner. Historic and cultural preservation, as well as agriculture, are woven through the ideas, too:
“Maintain and strengthen the overall continuity of the landscape pattern.
Establish and protect the city’s diversity of habitat.
Maintain and restore the natural configuration of rivers and shorelines.
Restore and protect wetland systems.
Integrate rural windbreaks into urban greenways.
Build greenways for pedestrians and cyclists.
Establish green cultural heritage corridors.
Improve urban green spaces by making them more permeable and accessible to the public.
Dissolve parks into the city’s matrix.
Dissolve the city, protect and integrate productive farmland as an organic element of the city.
Establish native plant nurseries.”
Amid the essays and lectures, Letters to the Leaders of China intermingles actual letters written by Yu to provincial governors, mayors, and Chinese president Xi Jinping himself. They give an insight into the opportunities and limits of Yu’s role as a leading intellectual and critic and the preeminent landscape architect in China. Unfortunately, though, Yu doesn’t provide any of their responses back to him, so these sections feel like a one-sided conversation. One doesn’t know the results of his lobbying.
Still, one letter to Wen Jiabao, premier of the state council, calling for a “vernacular heritage landscape network” — essentially, a national system of cultural landscapes that could also provide ecosystem services — is a particularly creative, efficient policy proposal that even includes specific governmental and regulatory changes to make his proposal happen. The letter shows an understanding of how the government is structured and what needs to change.
Through the letters, essays, and lectures, one gets a sense of how much Yu cares — and how driven he is to undo the unsustainable development patterns that repeat the same destructive errors made in the West over the past 50 years. He is trying to respectfully guide the leadership of China towards a more ecological, humane approach, and he works every angle he can find.
At the end of the book, there is a transcription of an interview with Chinese contemporary artist Ai Wei Wei. Ai presses Yu on his ideas, forcing him to justify his arguments. Yu states that China’s rustic, vernacular, “low culture” is what’s key to achieving sustainability — not the imported Western ideas of development, architecture, and landscape or bourgeois Chinese traditions. To achieve social and environmental reform, China must raise up what is considered low today — the wetland that functions, the productive aesthetics of the humble farm, the clean river.
And so he seeks to educate China’s many mayors on the beauty of what is plain, which is why his works of landscape architecture are “consciously educational.”
Invisible wounds. It’s a haunting phrase and one that’s become all too familiar to a vast number of the military men and women serving in conflict zones in recent years. These wounds, a fact of modern war, have proven particularly vexing to the medical teams whose job it is to treat our troops. As many as 40 percent of soldiers returning from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan experience these wounds, which all too often lead to suicide, according to Fred Foote, a former Naval physician, scholar of the Institute for Integrative Health, fierce advocate for wounded veterans, and leader of the Green Road project.
Let that number sink in. Forty percent; a staggering statistic that is devastating — to the military, to each of the lives the number represents.
I had my first intimate impression of the suffering being borne by so many soldiers while working with a film called That Which I Love Destroys Me; it too dealt with the hidden wounds of war. I became friends with the men and women who were interviewed for the piece; they helped shape my perspective — my thinking and understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury. In connection with the film’s release, we held a series of screening events to specifically reach those who had served. At almost every gathering, at least one would approach the director, or one of the people interviewed in the film, and say that they were contemplating suicide. The reality of this was devastating — coming face-to-face with those who had given so much for our safety and freedom. I became keenly aware of the need for more ways to help them.
The Green Road
It was during a time when mainstream news of veteran suicides was coming with increased frequency that the TKF Foundation received the grant application from the Institute for Integrative Health for what would become the Green Road — a green space designed and built by a team led by CDM Smith, including landscape architect Jack Sullivan, FASLA.
The proposal involved taking a forested piece of land at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, home of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and, while keeping the integrity of the space, making it into a place where the recovering men and women could experience nature as a part of their healing process. Once completed, researchers would study and document the impact of nature on recovery, using a set of newly defined mathematically-based metrics that map and measure the effects of nature on the body. The insights they gain will be used to inform future courses of therapy—not only at Walter Reed but potentially around the globe.
We were immediately drawn to the project. And I was instantly reminded of the men and women I met during my work with That Which I Love Destroys Me.
We know that nature heals, but we also know, like Dr. Foote, that much work remains if we are to convince many naysayers, who still see nature as lacking the potency of a pill; of being a legitimate form of treatment to stand alongside and augment traditional therapies.
Our hope is that this space will act as a blueprint and that more will begin to appear in communities throughout the US; everywhere veterans are suffering. Nature holds an undeniable power to foster healing, even when the psychological wounds are deeper than most of us could ever imagine.
Faced with the rise in traumatic brain injury and PTSD, the military, urged by voices like Fred’s, was convinced a little over 10 years ago, to begin searching for new modes of treatment; notably, modes that stretch beyond the confines of conventional medicine. Enter nature.
In the decade since the military reached out to Dr. Foote, an early proponent of holistic medicine, and of nature exposure, he has worked with prominent civilian and military experts to help craft a structured means to study and measure the impact of whole-body therapies on mental and physical health. Supported by the non-profit Institute for Integrative Health, it was this work that eventually led to the creation of the Green Road, and to the involvement of the TKF Foundation via our National Nature Sacred Awards program.
Today, behind the tightly manicured lawns and sprawling buildings of the nation’s flagship military medical complex at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, this wild yet defined, wooded space offers a refuge. A place to pause in an environment that heals.
Alden E. Stoner is a filmaker and board member of the nonprofit TKF Foundation.
Neurosurgeon Edie Zusman, a real-life Doogie Howser who started medical school at 19 and has completed some 6,000 brain and spinal surgeries, said what landscape architects do saves far more lives than what she does. The early prevention of disease reduces the need for surgeries. Prevention is made possible by eating healthy foods and walking and getting exercise in green environments that lower stress and improve well-being.
At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting, Zusman and a number of landscape architecture professors delved into research proving that access to nature improves our health and well-being.
According to Sara Jensen Carr, a professor at Northeastern University, landscape architecture and public health have been intertwined since the beginning. Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of the profession, started his career as a public health officer and writer. His first projects were the “siting and planning of camps so soldiers wouldn’t get sick.”
In our contemporary era of science, the brilliant intuition of Olmsted has only been proven by study after study. Most recently, a study in Philadelphia by five doctors with the University of Pennsylvania found that greening vacant, derelict lots led to “significant decreases” in feelings of depression and worthlessness among those in low-income communities living near the lots.
Studies on the health benefits of integrating nature into the built environment are also being conducted by design professors. William Sullivan, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been trying to figure out the “dose of nature” people need to recover from stress and regain the ability to pay attention.
He gave an overview of his intriguing research into how views of green streets “increase the rate of recovery from stress.” In one study with his associate Dr. Bin Jiang, the research team purposefully elevated stress levels in a few good-natured human guinea pigs, then asked them to watch videos of streets with different degrees of tree canopies — ranging from 2 percent tree cover to 62 percent. He found that “the greater the percentage increase of tree canopy, the faster the recovery.”
And in another study, Sullivan and his associate Dongying Li randomly assigned 94 students, equally male and female, to three settings: a classroom with no windows, one with a window view looking out on a barren landscape, or one with a window view looking out over greenery.
After students had completed 30 minutes of classroom activities in these different rooms, the students were given a 10 minute break. Sullivan and Li discovered those who had a green view bounced back, attention-wise, and were less stressed. This group “performed significantly better on standard tests of attention and showed significantly greater stress recovery than their peers who were assigned to classrooms without a green view.”
Then Jenny Roe, an environmental psychologist who is director of the center for health and design at the University of Virginia, explained her research in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her team got some game folks to wear a device measuring alpha and beta brain waves, which looked somewhat similar to what Rick Moranis’ character was asked to wear in the Ghostbusters to determine if he was human or gatekeeper (see image at top).
Some very extroverted locals — who else who parade through town wearing EEG measurement devices? — followed a path through Leith, Edinburgh, a “rough area,” to a park. Others simply meandered through the city with their brain meter on. Roe found that among her research subjects, soothing alpha waves increased in the park while alert-state beta waves decreased. Alpha waves also decreased in busy urban areas.
But she found that “irrespective of which route people took” — through city or nature — “everyone’s stress levels were reduced after a 10-15 minute walk.” Walks, particularly for her older research subjects, increased exposure to “nature, color, wildlife, memories, and social interaction” — all good things.
Sullivan said all this research is meant to arm landscape architects, planners, and others who care about this with the facts they need to make the case to policy makers and legislators in their community.
Zusman wants designers to influence the big decisions — those key pivot points — that can help shape a healthier built environment. In Sacramento, where she practices medicine, Zusman is now part of the Design 4 Active advisory board, a multi-disciplinary group of health providers, planners, and design professionals, helping to integrate healthy design principles and guidelines into city projects.