Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, Take Time to Reconnect with Nature

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Honor Award. Re-envisioning Pulaski Park. Stimson / Ngoc Doan

If you are in a place impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, spending 20 minutes experiencing nature in a park, street, or even your backyard can significantly reduce your stress levels. Just be sure to follow federal, state, and local guidelines and maintain social distancing of 6 feet. But even if you cannot or are unable to go outside, taking a break by opening a window and looking at a tree or plant can also help de-stress.

After years of research, Dr. MaryCarol Hunter, ASLA — a landscape architect, ecologist, and professor at the University of Michigan — can state with confidence that just 20 minutes of experiencing nature has major benefits. Her findings, which were widely covered in the media last year, were published in the Frontiers of Psychology.

The Coronavirus pandemic — and all the financial, social, and emotional havoc it has wrecked — has only increased stress worldwide. “People are stuck inside, freaked out, and the news doesn’t get any better,” Hunter told me.

She explained that there are a few good ways to stop “ruminating and concentrating on bad stuff.” One way is to exercise. Another is to experience nature, which offers a “great way to take you away from whatever is on your mind.”

She recommended walking or sitting or looking closely at a tree, plant, bug, or animal. “Get rid of your tech — your smart phone — and actively pay attention to something in nature. The experience of nature is what is key. The intentional focus gets you the stress reduction faster.”

Everyone’s experience of nature may be different. It can be experienced on a trail or street, in a park or plaza, within a backyard, on a patio with some plants, or out a window. “You can also close your eyes and listen to birds or insects.”

Parks are particularly important though, because it is also a way to see other people from a safe distance. These green spaces have few metal or plastic surfaces where viruses can lurk.

As the pandemic hits New York City, the NYC parks and recreation department has made a point of keeping city parks open.

Mitchell J. Silver, NYC parks commissioner told The New York Times there are no current plans to close the parks. “I’m optimistic. It’s critically important to get fresh air, it builds the immune system. People are out using parks. Twenty minutes in the park reduces stress, anxiety. You see people doing that today, given the times we’re in.”

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Elizabeth Felicella

Hunter reiterated a point Silver made: that spending time in nature is critical to boosting our immune system, which is essential to staving off health problems. A study by University of Illinois researcher Ming Kuo showed that “good immune system function is linked to resilience.” Hunter added that nature also helps improve cognitive function — our ability to pay attention, which is so important given everything going on.

Hunter’s study had such an impact because it was the first nature-focused one to sample the cortisol levels of relatively large numbers of subjects repeatedly over long stretches of time. 37 subjects were tested three times a week over 8 weeks. “The repeated testing of each person gave a realistic assessment of the stress reduction capacity of a ‘nature pill’ under the conditions of daily life.”

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, over the summer, Hunter’s subjects were given a wide berth in defining and finding their own nature experiences. For some, it was taking a walk in the park; for others it was sitting under a tree. “The only criteria was that they felt a connection with nature — that’s it.”

She gave her subjects an app, which prompted them to go outside. Many of her subjects, which had considered themselves avid outdoors people, were dismayed discover they weren’t going outside as much as they had thought. The app also enabled them to take photographs of whatever nature they experienced that moved them.

Examining cortisol levels in the saliva samples, Hunter and her researchers sought to figure out “the magic point” at which experiencing nature starts to relax people. She found that 20 minutes registered a significant reduction in stress. From 20-30 minutes, people are experiencing the “greatest efficiency in stress reduction, the biggest bang for the buck,” so to speak. After 40 minutes, there is continued stress relief but at slower rates.

Hunter said she gets one question a lot: “What if I don’t have 20 minutes?” Her answer: Even if you don’t have that amount of time at once, taking smaller breaks of 5-10 minutes helps, too.

The pandemic shows how important it is to embed nature wherever possible along streets and in pocket parks, plazas, and courtyards. Those nearby-nature experiences become more critical given people’s increasing time constraints and restrictions in traveling to big urban parks or nature preserves.

Hunter’s research was sponsored by the TKF Foundation. Learn more about their investments in scientific evidence demonstrating the health benefits of nature.

Listen to the Ecosystem; Design with Sound

There are three primary types of sound in our environments. There is geophony, which is the sound made by geophysical forces like rain, snow, rivers, ice, and cobble stones; biophony, which is the “sound of life,” including birds, frogs, and other animals; and anthropony, which is the “sound we make” through air conditioners, trains, and cars that creates a “low hum, like the base drum of the world.” In every soundscape, one component of sound dominates: NYC is clearly defined by its anthropony, while the Brazilian rainforest is one of the purest expressions of biophony. Soundscapes are the acoustic representations of a place and can be conserved, enhanced, or actively managed.

According to Chris Streb, an ecological engineer with Biohabitats, who presented at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego, sound is also a “powerful component of placemaking.” Soundscapes can be analyzed, planned, and then designed.

“Our sense of hearing is often overlooked, but sound is critical. It’s our first sense in our mothers’ wombs — the sound of our mother’s voice.”

Humans can hear farther than they can see. Nature, in fact, privileges sound. “All higher vertebrate animals have hearing but not all have sight.” Without sound, many species, like birds, which rely on song to attract mates, wouldn’t be able to reproduce. Other species, like whales, even create “pop songs” that can go viral, spreading through their oceanic communities. “We think they create songs to impress their mates.” Predators rely on sound to capture prey, and prey use the same sense to evade being eaten.

In a world filled with Anthropogenic noise, “we are forgetting how to listen,” which is a shame because we can learn a great deal from hearing to the natural world. For example, if you listen carefully, you can tell the temperatures from the frequency of the chirps of the Snowy Tree Cricket (Oecanthus fultoni).

Through the noise we make, we are not only “interfering with our own experience of nature” but also nature’s ability to communicate. Frogs, for example, stop their chorus for up to 45 minutes after being disturbed by a “big noise.” Being silent for that long makes them more vulnerable to predators and also stops them from mating.

The health of an ecosystem can in part be determined by the sound it makes. The traditional method of analyzing the vitality of an ecosystem is to use jars and nets to capture fish, butterflies, birds, bats, and other critters. Another common approach is a Bioblitz in which a group of citizen scientists scour a given territory and count all species in a given time frame. The problem is these kinds of surveying are “very labor intensive, take lots of people, and also stressful on the animals themselves.”

Instead, a soundscape analysis conducted many times a day can be “worth a thousand pictures.” The depth and variety of sounds in an ecosystem can provide a metric for species density and diversity.

Streb showed a slide of an expanse of woods that had been recorded both before and after it was thinned out through logging. A base level was created to capture the sound of the stream and bird chatter, and then after the logging, recorded again. “The soundscape was totally different,” with a noticeable reduction in the amount of sound.

According to Lauren Mandel, ASLA, an associate and researcher at landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates, “soundscape mapping” can help landscape architects maximize geophonic and biophonic sounds humans and animals naturally gravitate to and minimize the anthropogenic sounds that create a negative physiological response.

Working with Michael Mandel, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, who brought deep expertise in how to apply digital tools to measure the quantity and quality of sounds, Andropogon mapped the sounds of the 6,800-acre Shield Ranch in Austin, Texas, as part of a master plan that determined areas of development and preservation. One goal was to protect the the most vital ecological soundscapes while allowing anthropogenic noise in areas that are already impacted by human sounds. Areas in red on the map had the largest amount of anthroponic noise.

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Honor Award. From Pixels to Stewardship: Advancing Conservation Through Digital Innovation. Andropogon, Austin, Texas / Andropogon

Michael Mandel said measuring the sound along the river and amid canyons of the ranch was challenging, as “sound travels in waves and ripples through the air, and when sound waves encounter a solid object, they bounce off, echo.” On a mountain top, for example, the case is “if you can see something, you can hear it.” But in other areas where echoes happen, “there are things you can hear but can’t see.”

And at the 2,500-acre Avalon Park & Preserve in Stony Brook, Long Island, which includes a diverse range of landscapes such as forests and tidal marshes, Andropogon also created a soundscape map that not only helped plan and design a new 7-acre park within the landscape, but also schedule public events and educational programs.

After a BioBlitz that identified the number of species at Avalon, Andropogon and their team set up audio recording devices to measure the type and decibel levels of natural and human sounds throughout the site. With sound meters purchased on Amazon.com, they conducted three readings a day in different locations. Andropogon also brought in local middle school and elementary school students to help with sound measurements. Older kids used a checklist while younger ones had a “visually-oriented form with images instead of words,” said Lauren Mandel.

While capturing decibels is useful, “getting measurements of sound quality is much more valuable.” Breaking the site into zones, Andropogon discovered the most pleasant sounding spaces were near meadows and forests, while the least pleasant next to a road crossing. The analysis led them to put a large sculpture, which was initially planned for a space in the woods, an area with a very high sound quality, in a place with a low sound quality. Visiting the sculpture is an anthropogenic experience anyway and bringing high numbers of visitors into the woods would only degrade the sound quality there. Thoughtful efforts like these helped increase the biodiversity in Avalon by 35 percent.

Avalon Park & Preserve / Andropogon, Landscape Performance Series

Sound guided the program schedule for spaces, too. To avoid “sonic conflicts,” they didn’t organize yoga at the same time as lawn mowing or mechanical pruning. And they also scheduled programs for kids when birds were their at their noisiest. “We shifted the program based on sound.”

Mandel explained how urban soundscapes can also be managed. Designers can use buildings, walls, and trees to dampen sounds. Reducing urban noise in green spaces increases their habitat value. And audio recordings of birdsong can be added to spaces to help reduce the negative impacts of anthropogenic noise.

Soundscape mapping can be done at the very large scale as well. Artificial intelligence is being programmed to listen to thousands of hours of recordings of Caribou and migrating birds made across millions of square kilometers of Alaska in order to analyze the ecosystem impacts of climate change or oil and gas exploration. The same systems can also be used to measure the effectiveness of ecological restoration efforts, explained Michael Mandel.

Artificial intelligence is already helping sound become a more mainstream species identification tool. Birdnet uses machine learning to help users identify what bird they have heard.

ASLA Announces 2019 Professional & Student Awards

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Heritage Flume. Sandwich, MA. Stimson / Ngoc Doan

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) announced the 2019 Professional and Student Award winners.

Chosen from 544 submissions, this year’s 36 Professional Award winners represent the best of landscape architecture in the General Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, and Research categories. In addition, a single Landmark Award is presented each year.

A full list of this year’s Professional Award winners can be found at www.asla.org/2019awards

ASLA 2019 Student General Design Award of Excellence. “Y” Shape Jetty System: A Sustainable Solution for Coastal Ecosystem Protection, Population Retreat, and Global Tourism Development, Yi Song, Student ASLA, University of Texas at Austin.

Chosen from 368 submissions, this year’s 26 Student Award winners represent the bright future of the landscape architecture profession in the General Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Research, Communications, Student Collaboration and Student Community Service categories.

A full list of this year’s Student Award winners can be found at: www.asla.org/2019studentawards

“ASLA’s Professional and Student Awards programs are the oldest and most prestigious in the profession. This extraordinary and diverse array of winners represent both the best of landscape architecture today and the brightest hope for our future,” said ASLA President Shawn T. Kelly, FASLA.

“This year’s awards reflect the global nature of landscape architecture and demonstrate to professionals and the public alike how our profession addresses some of the world’s most pressing problems, including climate change and resilience, livability, and the creation of healthy and equitable environments.”

All Professional and Student Award recipients, their clients, and advisors will be honored at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture on Monday, November 18, in San Diego, California. There are still complimentary press passes available.

Background on the ASLA Awards Programs

Each year, the ASLA Professional Awards honor the best in landscape architecture from around the globe. Winners of these prestigious awards are chosen by a jury that represents the breadth of the profession, including private, public, institutional, and academic practice, and exemplify diversity in professional experience, geography, gender, and ethnicity. Submissions are judged blind.

Professional Awards are presented in six categories: General Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, and the Landmark Award. In each of the first five categories, the Jury may select one Award of Excellence and any number of Honor Awards. It is not guaranteed that an Award of Excellence will be selected each year, as it is up to the jury’s discretion. Only one Landmark Award is presented each year.

This year’s Professional Jury included: Andrea Cochran, FASLA (Chair); Henri Bava; Kofi Boone, ASLA; Gina Ford, FASLA; Deb Guenther, FASLA; John King, Honorary ASLA; Pam Linn, FASLA; John Vinci; and Keith Wagner, FASLA. Joining the Professional Jury for the selection of the Research Category were representatives on behalf of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA): Stephanie A. Rolley, FASLA and Galen Newman, ASLA.

Student Awards are presented in seven categories: General Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Research, Communications, Student Collaboration and Student Community Service. Like the Professional Awards, the jury may select one Award of Excellence and any number of Honor Awards. It is not guaranteed that an Award of Excellence will be selected each year, as it is up to the jury’s discretion.

This year’s Student Jury included: Linda Jewell, FASLA (Chair); Diana Fernandez, ASLA; David Gouverneur; Robert Gray, ASLA; Damian Holmes; Kendra Hyson, ASLA; Maki Kawaguchi; Signe Nielsen, FASLA; and Daniel Tal, ASLA.

ASLA Publishes Guide to Universal Design

Frequent seating with armrests, wide paths and ramps, an accessible bathroom near the street, consistent lighting, and diverse plant life all contribute to making Tongva Park + Ken Genser Square in Santa Monica, California universally designed. ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Honor Award. Tongva Park and Ken Genser Square, Santa Monica, CA. James Corner Field Operations LLC / Tim Street-Porter

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has published a new guide to universal design.

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.”

Dilworth Park is a universally-accessible public plaza at Philadelphia’s City Hall. A formerly-sunken plaza was redesigned to be even with street level, eliminating the need for stairs and walls and improving access to City Hall. A water feature at grade creates a place for people to play, while allowing easy navigation around it. Connections to the metro further the connectivity of the park to the rest of the city, creating a civic space that functions for everyone. Dilworth Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, OLIN / Sahar Coston-Hardy

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:

  • Accessible
  • Comfortable
  • Participatory
  • Ecological
  • Legible
  • Multi-Sensory
  • Predictable
  • 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.

Latest Innovations in Bicycle Infrastructure

Nelson-St2
Nelson Street Cycleway / Monk Mackenzie and LandLAB

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.

Xiamen-Bicycle-Skyway
Xiamen Bicycle Skyway / Dissing + Weitling Architecture

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.

Cycling through the trees / BuroLandschap

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.

Nelson-St
Nelson St. Cycleway / Monk Mackenzie and LandLAB

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.

biggest-cycle-parking
Utrecht Station Bicycle Parking / Ector Hoogstad Architecten

Explore the other 11 projects showcased in the 2019 Bicycle Architecture Biennale.

In 19th Century Argentina, Nature Served Eugenic Agenda

9 de Julio Avenue, Buenos Aires / Wikipedia

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.

At the Dumbarton Oaks’ symposium on landscape, sport, and the environment, López-Durán revealed the findings of her investigation into this disturbing chapter in modern Latin American history.

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.”

Parque Patricios / Wikipedia

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?

A Solution to the Health Crisis: Prescribed Time in Neighborhood Parks

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Awards. Re-Envisioning Pulaski Park, Northampton, Massachusetts. Stimson / Ngoc Doan

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?”

Park Rx America map of spaces in Washington, D.C. / Park Rx America

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.

Energized Public Spaces master plan / Montgomery County

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.

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

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Jewel Changi Airport / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

City and Aps Launching a Pilot Program to Turn School Lands into Public ParksThe Sarasota Report, 4/1/19
“Atlanta can greatly add to public green space and parks by partnering with the Atlanta Public Schools to open up school property to the public.”

Why You Should Start a Pocket Prairie in Your YardHoustonia, 4/8/19
“Durham believes that prairie grass is the key to maintaining a more cost-efficient yard while also contributing positively to our flood-prone environment.”

How Better Urban Planning Can Improve Gender EqualityBehavioral 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.”

Mission 66: The Controversial Plan That Brought National Parks into the Modern EraUSA Today, 4/11/19
“Spurred by a comprehensive program known as Mission 66, these new additions were built to address problems plaguing the parks, including outdated buildings that could not accommodate the expected 31 million increase in visitors by 1966.”

Singapore’s $1.3 Billion Airport Expansion Is Half Botanical Garden, Half Mega-Mall Fast Company, 4/12/19
“Jewel Changi is not an airport, nor an amusement park, nor is a retail hub–it’s something in between.”

In Copenhagen, You Can Ski Down This Power Plant

Copenhill / Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST

Eight years ago Danish architect Bjarke Ingels came up with a fantastical idea — build a ski slope on top of a power plant. Well, now, it has actually happened — the $660 million Amager Bakke is preparing to welcome adventurous ski bunnies in Copenhagen. Known to locals as Copenhill, this cutting-edge renewable energy system converts waste into energy while giving sports lovers access to a 2,000-feet-long ski slope, a 295-feet-high climbing wall, and hiking and running paths. The project is the most visible demonstration yet of Copenhagen’s determination to become the world’s first carbon neutral city by 2025.

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.”

Copenhill / Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST
Copenhill / Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST
Copenhill / Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST

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.

Copenhill landscape rendering / SLA

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 Inhabitat that the building is expected to blow steam rings at some point. The technology apparently works — they are now fine-tuning.

Copenhill / Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST
Copenhill / Bjarke Ingels Group

See more images at DesignBoom and check out an interview we did with Ingels in 2011, where he discussed his bold ideas about merging buildings and landscapes.

Forest Bathing Goes Global

Shinrin Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing / Timber Press

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: