A tree, some grass, a low wooden fence, regular maintenance. With these basic elements, an unloved, vacant lot can be transformed from being a visual blight and drain on a community into a powerful booster of mental health.
According to a new study by five doctors at the University of Pennsylvania, residents of low-income communities in Philadelphia who saw their vacant lots greened by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society experienced “significant decreases” in feelings of depression and worthlessness. And this positive change happened for just $1,500 per lot.
For lead author Dr. Eugenia South and her co-authors, this is a clear indication that the physical environment impacts our mental health. And planning and design offers a cost-effective way to fight mental illness in light of the sky-rocketing costs of doctor and emergency room visits and drug prescriptions.
In many low-income communities, vacant and dilapidated spaces are “unavoidable conditions that residents encounter every day, making the very existence of these spaces a constant source of stress.” Furthermore, these neighborhoods with vacant lots, trash, and “lack of quality infrastructure such as sidewalks and parks, are associated with depression and are factors that that may explain the persistent prevalence of mental illness.”
Conversely, neighborhoods that feel cared for — that are well-maintained, free of trash and run-down lots, and offer access to green spaces — are associated with “improved mental health outcomes, including less depression, anxiety, and stress.”
This means that cleaning up empty lots in low-income communities can potentially buffer the negative mental impacts of living in a low-income neighborhood.
Some 541 vacant lots were studied in the trial. One third of these lots were greened; one third just had their trash cleaned up; and one third experienced no change. The researchers only included lots that were less than 5,500 square feet, had significant blight — “illegal dumping, abandoned cars, and/or unmanaged vegetation” — and been abandoned by their owners.
Each lot selected for greening underwent a “standard, reproducible process” that involved “removing trash and debris, grading the land, planting new grass and a small number of trees, installing a low wooden perimeter fence with openings, and performing regular maintenance.” Cleaned-up lots saw their their garbage removed; they were also mowed and given regular maintenance.
Some 342 people who lived in neighborhoods near these lots agreed to have their mental health assessed both before and after the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society intervened. After choosing an address closest to the lots, teams of researchers fanned out across Philly, selecting participants at random, who were given $25 to complete a survey that took 40 minutes on average.
“Participants were asked to indicated how often they felt nervous, hopeless, restless, depressed, that everything was an effort, and worthless using the following scale: all of the time, most of the time, more than half the time, less than half the time, some of the time, or no time.”
South and her co-authors contend that greening lots was associated with a “significant reduction in feeling depressed and worthless as well as a non-significant reduction in overall self-reported poor mental health.” The trash clean-up alone didn’t lead to any reduction in negative feelings.
In Philly, greening a lot cost just $1,500 and required around $180 in maintenance a year. In other cities and communities with significant amounts of blight, that amount would likely be a lot less.
Beyond the mental health gains, greening lots can increase “community cohesion, social capital, and collective efficacy.” Given the many associated benefits, greening lots in low-income communities is a no-brainer.
We experience “soft fascination” with nature when we sit on a park bench and let our mind wander, taking in the trees and flowers, noticing birds and squirrels, feeling the breeze. This gentle decompression in nature is actually critical to helping us restore our ability to pay attention. We need breaks where our minds can just go slack and subconsciously take in the complexity of the natural world. Researchers are still trying to figure out the ideal “dose” of this green medicine, but benefits have been seen with just 10 minutes.
New research argues those breaks in nature only help if we put down our laptops and other devices. A recent study published in Environment and Behavior contends that using laptops, smartphones, and other technologies while sitting on that park bench undoes all the good attention-boosting benefits of nature.
Attention is an important resource not to be wasted. We need the capacity to pay attention to make our way through our busy lives. According to the study’s authors — Bin Jiang, with the University of Hong Kong; Rose Schmillen, a landscape designer; and William C. Sullivan, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — “a person who cannot focus his or her attention is likely to miss important details and have trouble remembering details. Compared with someone who is not mentally fatigued, a person with low attention functioning is more likely to be irritable, have trouble with self-management, struggle to resist temptations, and miss subtle social cues. When a person is mentally fatigued, he or she is less effective in pursuing goals and interacting with others. A person with depleted attention is more likely to say or do things he/she might regret later, which can affect relationships, work performance, and even personal goals such as losing weight or saving money.”
In their experiment, Bin, Schmillen, and Sullivan set 81 participants (50 women and 31 men), aged 17 to 35, in a few environments to test their theory on how a laptop “substantially counteracts the attention enhancement effects of green spaces.”
After doing 10 minutes of taxing cognitive testing — 5 minutes of subtraction exercises and 5 minutes of memorization indoors — participants were asked to take a 15-minute break. But they were given four different types of breaks: participants either sat in a “barren” outdoor space or a green space filled with trees.
Some were given a laptop and asked to use them for “non-work” related leisure activities, such as social media, news sites, YouTube, blogs, online games, or shopping. Those given a laptop were asked to “sit on a fixed chair or bench in the shade to maintain a comfortable temperature and to reduce screen glare.” Others didn’t get a laptop. After the break, their ability to pay attention was tested again.
The experiment found “the only condition that produced an increase of attentional functioning was a green setting in which the participants didn’t have a laptop.” The authors believe this confirms the attention-boosting benefits of nature are “undermined by the use of an electronic device.” In an email, Sullivan confirmed the effect of a smartphone or tablet would be “identical” to the laptop.
For Sullivan and the other authors, this means policymakers, planners, landscape architects and designers need to ensure green spaces are close-by and easily accessible from dense environments, especially workplaces, educational institutions, and hospitals — places where people’s attention is constantly taxed and where nature’s restorative benefits are even more critical.
Landscape architects and designers also need to up their game and create green spaces that can divert our attention from our addictive devices.
Sullivan told me: “The findings here present a challenge for landscape architects. In the past, it was enough to design and build nature-rich cities — just by being in such places, people would get a range of health benefits. But with the ubiquitous use of mobile devices, one of the most important benefits of being in nature-rich urban space might be lost. The challenge is to create even more engaging landscapes — landscapes that encourage people to put their phones down and be in the moment.” Those attention-sustaining features could include “moving water, wildlife, fire, or other natural elements that move and change.”
Three case studies from an upcoming book on co-designing with children were presented at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) in Oklahoma City. An environmental designer, landscape architect, and landscape educator explained how kids — if properly motivated and trained — can lead planning and design processes. Working within a framework and with a motivated youth coordinator, kids of all ages can identify and solve design challenges.
Janet Loebach, an environmental designer based in Toronto, partnered with a group of mostly-immigrant kids at Blessed Sacrament school in London, Ontario, to create a new combined playground and garden. The school grounds were redesigned not only as a space for students and teachers but also as a park for the neighborhood.
The space is alongside a busy four-lane road that averages 30,000 cars a day, and where more than one car has plowed through the fence. Being so close to a busy arterial road is not only dangerous but also unhealthy for the kids — as exhaust fumes fill play spaces. With a $25,000 grant from the London Community Foundation, Loebach organized a project with students to create a green buffer of large trees for the new community space.
Over three months, a group comprised of 24 grade-8 students, aged 12-13 — that named themselves Green Direction — met for two hours a week over three months to create a design. They decided on “who’s doing what — the goals and processes. They were the primary researchers and designers.” Six groups of four students created designs, based in site measurements, inventory, and analysis; interviews with students and teachers; and activity and behavior mapping based on the age ranges of users.
The students created concept and bubble diagrams, scale drawings, and models; gave presentations and collected feedback; and undertook costing exercises. At the end of the process, Loebach synthesized the priority elements and refined the merged design.
Loebach said the process showed “youth benefit from authentic engagement and involvement in decision making around place-making. Kids can articulate needs and designs when they are given the proper tools.”
The resulting landscape had large shade trees, meandering paths, a pergola, and a vegetable garden. While used by all students, it has become especially useful for kids who are struggling, who need a “green time-out.” They are sent to water the garden for 15 minutes and benefit from the time in nature.
Rebecca Colbert, a landscape architect with MIG’s Denver office, explained how lottery funds in Colorado have been set aside for Great Outdoors Colorado, a program to preserve and protect natural resources and also improve children’s connection with nature. A $14 million grant program required applying communities to form diverse coalitions and undertake a collaborative planning process that is “youth-led or driven.” Initial planning grants of $75,000-100,000 led to implementation grants for the winners.
In Garfield county, Colorado — a struggling area an hour west of Vail with a “boom bust extraction economy” that includes the towns of Silt, Rifle, and New Castle — Colbert served as a youth engagement consultant with a coalition putting together a grant application. The team’s members included representatives from non-profits and state education, health, parks, and wildlife departments. A youth advisory council was formed, in which each high school student was paid a stipend of $1,000 over 9 months, all coordinated by an adult liaison.
The youth council undertook a multi-stage process, starting with team building, tours of places where children could better connect with nature, and outreach to other students. At libraries, they created a visioning process and mapped the barriers to accessing nature. They were creative about bringing other kids into the process: smaller children were asked to draw their favorite things in nature, and gamers at home were reached via an online survey in English and Spanish.
The process identified key goals for activity in nature, which included: team sports, cycling, walking and biking, nature play, camping, rock climbing, stand-up paddle boarding, archery, and horse-back riding. The youth group also found the obstacles preventing deeper engagement with these activities: “not having the right gear or know-how, or lack of access or funds.”
The youth council presented their recommended projects and programs to decision makers. The team ended up winning a $1.5 million grant, which has gone to an outdoor classroom featuring nature play, wilderness skills training, expeditions for kids along the Colorado River, and mentorship programs for outdoor jobs. Colbert said the experience for the youth council members was a “good learning experience — their voices were heard and they made an impact as citizens.”
Lastly, Patsy Eubanks Owens, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at University of California at Davis, explained how the Reach Youth Coalition, a group of 12-16 year-olds in Vacaville, California, came together to turn an abandoned railroad, which they had been using as a shortcut to get to school, into a safe, paved pathway for the community.
With financing from the Sierra Health Foundation, the group, assisted by a youth coordinator, started a campaign to improve the 3/4-mile Rocky Hill trail. “They were concerned that it was hard to navigate — it was so muddy they had to wear grocery bags on their feet to go to school. And it was unsafe — there were gang fights, and drug needles could be found near the homeless encampment.” Students traveling along the trail at all hours knew to go with a friend.
The coalition surveyed some 1,700 middle school students who use the trail, yielding short-term and long-term goals. According to Owens, a video produced by the coalition was critical to gaining support. “The video was a turning point. Before, the mayor didn’t even know the trail existed.” After the city council watched the video, they voted to allocate $75,000 to build a new trail.
“By 2030, there will be more than 75 million older Americans aged 65 and up,” said Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities at AARP, in a session at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) in Savannah, Georgia. This older population will need more livable, age-friendly communities that can meet their needs by offering affordable housing where they can age in place, accessible mass transit and walkable neighborhoods, and daily sources of civic and social engagement and meaning.
AARP recently released comprehensive new survey data, the first major data set in four years. They found that 8 out of 10 older adults want to stay in their home as they age. However, only 46 percent believe they can actually age in place because of accessibility, affordability, and lifestyle issues.
Arigoni thinks communities need to work much harder to keep older residents in their communities. “Older adults are an asset — they are the ‘experienced class’ who add value with their purchasing and voting power. They volunteer their expertise and are entrepreneurial.”
So what can communities do to better keep older adults? Arigoni said diversifying the housing stock is important.
In too many places, when an older person can no longer drive, it’s like a “receiving a serious medical sentence.” Being stuck at home means isolation, which has the health impact of “smoking about 15 cigarettes a day.” The health impacts are particularly acute for older adults.
Home sharing is a way to solve this problem. Some 15 percent of older adults already do this in order to get help with transportation, but also for companionship or economic reasons.
Accessory dwelling units (ADUs), sometimes described as “granny flats or mother-in-law suites,” which are independent units on the lot of a single family detached home, are another way to provide nearby support. Some one-third of older adults would consider building an ADU or living in one, but only 7 percent do, in part because “lots of regulations prevent them.”
8 out of 10 older adults want safe streets, which is why AARP has been supporting walkability audits and pursuing complete street policies at the state and local levels.
84 percent of older adults drive themselves, while 38 percent walk and 10 percent use ride share. Some 43 percent have used Uber, Zipcar, Lyft, and the like; some 55 percent are not likely to use. “What’s preventing them? 50 percent cited safety and privacy issues. Another cohort lacked the technology or knowledge. And 17 percent had disability concerns.”
Arigoni thinks the vast majority of accessibility issue with ride sharing can be resolved. “We have to solve the disability component — the last few feet of ride sharing.”
To promote livable communities, particularly for older adults, AARP has put its considerable advocacy muscle behind Measure M in California, a $120 billion bond for public transit, which subsequently passed.
And they partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) to create the AARP Network of Age-friendly States and Communities, which 246 communities and two states have joined. In 2017, AARP gave 90 communities grants to undertake a 5-year age-friendly community planning process designed to result in a concrete action plan.
In Macon-Bibb, Georgia, which was the first city to sign onto the network, the age-friendly planning process was a “catalyst for things we wanted to accomplish,” said Myrtle Habersham, a consultant and AARP executive committee member.
Macon-Bibb assembled a 28-person age-friendly council, went out into the community, and identified priorities, like redesigning the city’s 2nd street corridor, creating new bus routes and mixed-income housing. The team also invested in revitalizing decrepit parks. “At the beginning of the process, we started with 30 volunteers and now there are 200,” said David Pilgrem, with AARP who was involved in the effort.
Letter to the Editor: the Frick’s Viewing Garden Is Worth Preserving– The Art Newspaper, 4/25/18
“Brian Allen’s opinion piece about the revised expansion plans for the Frick Collection—The Frick’s expansion is a sensitive, elegant plan—starts off on a high note: ‘The first order of business in a building project involving so lovely a setting as the Frick Collection is do no harm.'”
Who Benefits When a City Goes Green?– Next City, 4/25/18
“Going green is a cornerstone of contemporary urban policy planning — and cultivating a green identity has become vital in boosting a city’s economic profile.”
Participatory design is “hands-on democracy in action,” argue the editors of the impressive new book Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity. Participatory design (also known as cooperative or co-design) is a process in which a designer actively involves all stakeholders in a design process. Unfortunately, many of the best-known techniques to enable this approach, which have been used for the past few decades, have become stale. This has led to complacency among designers, and less-than-ideal outcomes for communities that need their help. To revitalize the approach and achieve better results, the authors call for making participatory design “truly democratic.” Furthermore, it must become “contextual, open, experiential, substantive, and holistic.”
One can tell the many editors, who are all landscape architects and professors, wrestled with themselves and perhaps each other to come up with a new synthesis of this design approach. The hard work of David de la Pena; Diane Jones Allen, ASLA; Randolph T. Hester, Jr, FASLA; Jeffrey Hou, ASLA; Laura J. Lawson, ASLA; and Marcia J. McNally paid off: the book is a well-organized compendium of proven techniques designers can apply in their projects. Their collective voice is determined and impassioned, which really helps make their case.
The editors note up front that none of these techniques will work if designers don’t have the right mindset when they begin to engage a set of stakeholders. And the right mindset can only come from close examination of oneself — one’s own history, preferences, position in society, and hidden biases. One section is worth quoting at length:
“Once we are clear on who we are are, we can see our position in society relative to the cultural and economic context of the community in which we plan to work. This in turn equips us with empathy rather than sympathy. This distinction is important because designers can find themselves in communities with acute needs that have been repeatedly ignored. Although providing technical assistance to a community in need is a critical role of participatory design, responding with sorrow or pity hampers one’s effectiveness. Sympathy, even when its grounded in understanding, can subtly convey to residents that only the designer’s expertise counts. Another pitfall lies in creating a patronizing process that diminishes the community’s self-worth.” For the editors, only fully self-aware designers can succeed at this work. Furthermore, designers who come in as arrogant experts risk doing real damage.
The book flows through the design process — starting with tools to help a designer achieve self-awareness, and then moving through how to interact with and learn from communities, reach an accommodation between “expert” and local knowledge, “catalyze new visions and certainty about the best course of action,” co-generate designs and co-construct, evaluate and improve, and, finally, how to “exercise power to make community improvements” actually happen. Each section has a few well-chosen techniques selected by invited contributors, which are detailed, illustrated with a case story, and then further qualified with a reflection on how to best apply.
One technique that helps a designer assemble the right team at the beginning is called “What’s in it for us?” Julie Stevens, ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at Iowa State University, explained how she applied this tool to develop and manage a team for a landscape project at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW). Stevens said the assessment helped her think more comprehensively about who should be on the project.
“I nearly dismissed an application from a potential intern, because his essay did not express any compassion for the prison population. In terms of what he offered to the project, I recorded that he had experience with construction tools and equipment. In terms of what the project could do for him, I recorded that this young, white man might benefit from a summer working with women from much less privileged and much more racially diverse backgrounds, which could open up new worlds as he engaged people both informally and through design. His inclusion on the team was validated when I saw him give an incarcerated woman a high-five after completing a difficult retaining wall.”
In the section “Going to the People’s Coming,” which covers how to start engaging with and learning from a community, Chelina Odbert and Joe Mulligan, with Kounkuey Design Initiative, discuss an ingenious technique they call Community Camera: Piga Picha, a “photo activity that helps residents introduce their community to an outside project team, and in the process, to see familiar places through a new lens.” Using the approach in Kibera, large slum of Nairobi, Kenya, they gave 30 diverse community participants a disposable camera. When the residents then got the photos back, “it was clear they were seeing very familiar sites from a new perspective — as spaces worthy of design consideration.”
The next chapter is on “Experting,” which focuses on how to “transfer the title of expert to members of the community” in order to further empower them and build their capacity to achieve goals. In one technique described by Kofi Boone, ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at North Carolina State University, cell phones are passed out to community members so they can be used to create video diaries. This way “community members can document their place-based stories independently, on their own time, in their own voices.” For a new park in the neighborhood of Chavis Park, a historically African American community, videos, which ranged from 30 seconds to 7 minutes, were geo-tagged to an interactive map.
Smart, proven techniques cover how to encourage communities to prioritize efforts through fair and transparent voting processes using dots and tokens and create a shared vision through citizen-generated collages. Then, Design as Democracy delves into innovative ways to get to meat of these projects — and really co-generate designs and co-construct.
On a simple level, co-generating first involves breaking down the design process into easy-to-understand elements and options that community members can then manipulate and use to create design options. But as they create the design together, the community enters a process that “requires negotiation and sometimes creative compromise.” Through this process, the outside designer can then “actively nurture” multiple designers in the community, giving them agency and authority. Community design teams can also use green rubber stamps to quickly illustrate priorities, feast on a “design buffet” and “collect food (design ingredients)” that can result in a novel design, or place representative models on a mat as part of “animated visioning.”
Co-constructing, or building together, then lets everyone experience the “joy and energy of building,” which in turn “imbues a sense of accomplishment, pride, and ownership like nothing else can.” To avoid burnout from long visioning and co-design processes, the contributors in this section instead call for quick prototyping and making things spontaneously. The goal is to make sure the process doesn’t become a drag. “Making alleviates frustration, anger, and apathy from process without products.”
More powerfully, co-constructing with a community can be restorative in itself. In a project at the Rab Psychiatric Public Hospital, the Design/Build Service Learning Studio at the University of Washington redesigned 50 percent of the landscape as healing gardens and then co-constructed them with patients and staff. Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA, explains that despite the challenges, “the patients commented they found the act of building therapeutic. Many said they gained a sense of purpose, renewed self-confidence and self-esteem, and an appreciation for the garden work as a respite from the mandated intensive and exhausting therapies.”
The editors conclude that “design is a political act.” And “participatory design is one of the most effective means in a democracy to create cities and landscapes that distribute resources and shape places to be sustainable, representative of diverse publics, well informed by local wisdom, and just.” But they seem to disagree on the extent to which participatory design should be used to actively fight injustice.
While landscape architects and planners should of course work with communities to map environmental injustices, should they engage in conflict to achieve their ends? For Randolph Hester, FASLA, professor emeritus of landscape architecture at University of California at Berkeley, “no truly transformative design occurs without confronting status quo powers.”
But going back to the beginning for a moment: What this book leaves out is basic guidance on to how to find and partner with existing community leaders who are seeking positive change, who have been fighting injustice. How can a planner or designer know they’ve found the right client in a community? What are the tools for evaluating whether to engage or not? And what does a designer owe a client if the client’s goals end up being different from the community’s?
Plus, grey areas around financing seem to be avoided. For example, many participatory design projects in developing countries are financed by government aid agencies, companies, and non-profits with their own agendas. How can an ethical, self-aware designer establish and finance projects in a transparent way that builds trust with a community?
As we look forward to covering new stories on the built and natural environments this year, here’s a look back at the 10 most popular DIRT posts of 2017. Coverage of conferences, including the American Planning Association (APA), Greenbuild, Earth Optimism Summit, and Biophilic Leadership Summit, attracted the greatest interest. And news on the health benefits of nature and the fate of Modernist landscapes were widely read.
Always worth mentioning: We are looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners, on topics that inspire you. If interested, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
DesignIntelligence recently announced its 2017 landscape architecture graduate and undergraduate program rankings. For the third year in a row, Louisiana State University (LSU) was deemed the best undergraduate landscape architecture program. And for the 13th consecutive year, Harvard University retained its dominance as the best graduate program, in the annual survey conducted by DesignIntelligence on behalf of the Design Futures Council.
2) Best Podcasts for Landscape Architects
Over the past decade, podcasts have emerged as a popular storytelling platform and captivating way to learn more about the world around us. Podcasts offer a source of inspiration for designers exploring other disciplines and seeking fresh perspective within their own. For landscape architects, podcasts reveal new opportunities and ways of thinking about the way we design space.
New Urbanism is a well-known movement that aims to create more walkable communities. Less known is New Ruralism, which is focused on the preservation and enhancement of rural communities beyond the edge of metropolitan regions. Small towns now part of this nascent movement seek to define themselves on their own terms, not just in relation to nearby cities. These towns are more than “just food sheds for metro areas,” explained Peg Hough, Vermont, planner and environmental advocate with Community-resilience.org, at the American Planning Association (APA) annual conference in New York City. Representatives from three northeastern states — Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire — explained how the principles of New Ruralism can help suffering communities.
People feel happier, healthier, and more social when they engage with nature. Their cognitive abilities go up and stress levels go down. So why is nature so often thought to be found only “out there” in the wilderness, or perhaps suburbia? For Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia, nature should be found everywhere, but especially in cities. Cities must remain dense and walkable, but they can be unique, memorable places only when they merge with nature. If well planned and designed, a city’s forests, waterfronts, parks, gardens, and streets can make out-sized contributions to the health and well-being of everyone who lives there. In his latest excellent book, the Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, Beatley brings together all the established science, the important case studies, the innovative code and design practices from around the world in one place. Even if you think you already know a lot about how best to incorporate nature into cities, there will be some interesting new facets in this book for you to explore.
Deep in the woods southwest of Atlanta, Serenbe is a unique designed community — a mixed-use development, with clusters of villages comprised of townhouses and apartments fueled by solar panels and heated and cooled by geothermal systems, and vast open spaces with organic farms, natural waste water treatment systems, and preserved forests. A leader in the “agrihood” movement, which calls for agriculture-centric community development, Serenbe is now moving into wellness with its new development called Mado.
We know that connecting with nature is good for us, but there are still many questions that need to be answered through more credible scientific research: What is the ideal “dose” of nature? What health conditions do these doses actually help with? Does duration and frequency of dose matter? How long do the benefits last? Does who you are and where you live impact how beneficial exposure to nature will be? And how does technology help or interfere with our connection to nature?
As our cities evolve, and what people want from their public spaces changes, should Modernist parks, plazas, and streets be saved? For lovers of Modernism, the answer is always yes. But, in reality, if the public, and their representatives, choose to keep these spaces, many will need to better respond to contemporary expectations. The question then is how can they be “respectfully honored and adapted?,” asked Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, in an event at the National Building Museum at Washington, D.C.
While green infrastructure is needed to manage stormwater and cool the air in our cities, these systems, as currently designed, aren’t enough. In the future, they must also boost biodiversity and help forge richer connections between humans and nature, argued a set of policymakers, academics, planners, and landscape architects, who are part of the nascent biophilic design movement. At the Biophilic Leadership Summit, which was hosted at Serenbe, an agricultural community outside of Atlanta, and organized by the Biophilic Institute, the Biophilic Cities Project, and Serenbe founder Steven Nygren, the main themes of biophilic urban planning and design were explored in an effort to achieve greater definition. Much work, however, still needs to be done to codify, measure, and popularize the strategies discussed.
The first generation of net-zero communities, which were designed to add no carbon to the atmosphere, are entering their second decade. Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) in London is about 15 years old now; and the first phase of Dockside Green in Victoria, Canada, is now 10 years old. In a session at the 2017 Greenbuild in Boston, Steven Dulmage with Urban Equation and Justin Downey at RNWL outlined lessons learned from these early sustainable communities and how they informed second-generation developments, such as Zibi in Ottawa, Canada, and Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“It’s easy to be cynical or pessimistic” about the the state of the global environment, said David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian, at the opening of the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C. “We’re not blind to the realities, but if organizations and individuals work together, obstacles can be overcome.” Over three days, an audience of 1,400 heard one inspiring environmental success story after another. While no one forgot that climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem degradation have created a global environmental emergency, there was a concerted effort to change the narrative — from one of relentless anger and despair to one of progress and a cautious optimism about the future. The goal was to highlight was is working today and figure out the ways to replicate and scale up successes.
Louisville, Kentucky, has some of the worst air in the country. Given the city is a transit hub, tens of thousands of planes, trucks, and trains pass through the city each year, not to mention all the cars. Louisville is also an industrial center where chemicals are manufactured. Heart disease, strokes, asthma and other conditions caused by excessive pollution are found at very high levels. Last year, the city received a failing grade from the American Lung Association in its annual report.
In order to see if trees can help combat the negative health impacts of the city’s deadly air pollution, University of Louisville Medical Center, the Nature Conservancy, Hyphae Design Laboratory and other organizations are coming together in the Green Heart project, the first clinical trial where “nature is the pharmaceutical.”
According to the Nature Conservancy, “this ambitious effort will conduct a first-of-its-kind medical study by planting trees in strategic locations across a cluster of Louisville neighborhoods and observing precisely how they impact residents’ health.” The study is financed by the National Institutes of Health and Louisville-based philanthropies.
Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar at the University of Louisville Medical Center and his colleagues, who essentially created the field of “environmental cardiology,” are doing a controlled experiment to test the impact of nature, as if it was a drug, on a neighborhood scale.
The challenge is “a neighborhood is not a laboratory, where variables are easily controlled. And this project would be far beyond the scale of prior research that identified connections between neighborhood greenness and health.”
Bhatnagar said: “there has never been a rigorous scientific study that quantified the health effects of urban greening. This will be the first attempt to understand, is nature a viable, replicable therapy?”
This past October, the project has its official launch, with a community workshop and the start of baseline data collection. “Temperatures, particulate matter levels, volatile organic compounds in the air will all be tracked by a network of more than 50 passive air monitors as well as more elaborate monitoring arrays mounted on towers and even an electric car.”
Starting next fall, some 8,000 trees, shrubs, and other plants will be planted in South Louisville, according to a map devised by the Nature Conservancy, based in data on where likely impacts will the greatest benefit. As has been noted, trees catch small particulate matter in their leaves, reducing nearby air pollution by a third in some cases; and, if planted near highways, they can act as a buffer, reducing pollution by up to 60 percent.
The Green Heart project is now recruiting 700 neighborhood residents to “participate in several rounds of medical tests, tracking the residual evidence of air pollution in their blood and urine.”
The Nature Conservancy writes that “different chemical signals will be monitored, including the presence of cortisol and adrenaline that are produced when the body is under stress. Participants’ physiological reactions to air pollution will be studied over five years, because some compounds appear within hours of exposure while others take months or years to emerge.” Residents are essentially “human environmental monitors,” said Ray Yeager, PhD, a researcher with the University of Louisville Medical Center lab.
At the end of the five year study, the researchers will have a set of data on residents’ health — looking at both before and after the trees were planted, and, for comparison’s sake, data from people who live nearby but didn’t get new trees. It will be interesting to see if five years is enough to test the benefits of trees — newly-planted, young trees would appear to have less capacity to catch particulate matter and serve as buffers than mature, fully-grown trees with broad canopies.
Unhealthy air is estimated to claim 4 million lives a year. If Dr. Bhatnagar and his colleagues discover medical benefits from the strategic tree placements, the results of this study could result in a new public health model that can help reduce urban pollution-related deaths. Yeager is confident: “what we learn in Louisville is going to affect people all over the world.”
If benefits are proven, the study could also positively affect Louisville, reducing health inequities. The Nature Conservancy refers to data showing that life expectancy in the “leafy suburbs” of the city is 13 years longer than in South and West Louisville neighborhoods with lower incomes and less access to nature, proving once again that “zip code is a reliable indicator of health.”
If the results show positive benefits from trees, the city government should first address inequities and partner with local community groups to build robust tree canopies in the neighborhoods that lack them. With solid data, the city could also further invest in the existing urban forest, which loses about 55,000 trees every year.
At Spaulding, patients recovering from traumatic injury are rejuvenated by good medical care, but also sunlight, garden terraces, and views of the surrounding Charles, Mystic, and Chelsea Rivers. The hospital landscape is a multi-functional therapeutic space where therapists aid patients in the air and sun. In a tour of the 132-bed facility at the 2017 Greenbuild, Jeffrey Keilman, an architect with Perkins + Will and Sean Sanger, ASLA, principal at landscape architecture firm Copley Wolff Design Group explained how the facility heals, but is also one of the most sustainable and resilient hospitals in the country.
Spaulding picked this brownfield site in part because rehabilitating it would help tell the story of resilience to its patients. If a toxic place can become a place of healing, then a broken person can return to health stronger as well.
The LEED Gold-certified hospital — designed by Perkins + Will, with Copley Wolff Design Group and Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects — has all the usual green building features, but its the extra, humane elements that make it something special — the custom-made sinks so that a patient in a wheel chair can more easily wash their hands; the tall wall of windows in the main rehabilitation room that offer views of the river; the light and views every patient enjoys from their rooms; the garden terraces with horticultural therapy spaces, as well as the gardens just for staff; and the multi-functional therapeutic landscape.
The landscape — which was ingeniously designed by Copley Wolff Design Group to significantly reduce the impact of flooding in a 500-year storm event — is both for patients and the public. Like the building, the landscape has small but thoughtful features that exemplify patient-centered design.
For example, there are small brass sculptures of animals spread throughout. While these can be enjoyed by visitors and the public, they are really there for patients recovering from traumatic brain injuries who search for them in scavenger hunts in order to rebuild cognitive abilities and memory.
A multi-functional space for physical therapy was designed for “active use.” Patients and caregivers didn’t just want “a space for respite and solitude. They wanted a space for activity, so they can get mentally and physically ready to re-enter society,” explained Sanger.
The space offers a “beginner’s walk,” with a slight grade and handrails. Throughout, there are benches, so patients can take a break.
Sculptural rock forms on poles are actually therapeutic tools for building upper body strength.
Amid the gardens, there is also a ramp for teaching patients how to use a wheelchair.
In warmer months, the hospital puts recumbent bikes on the waterfront harbor walk. Rails along the walk were specially designed so people in wheelchairs can use them to pull themselves up.
Our tour then moved over to MGH’s Yawkey Outpatient Center, where cancer and other patients are treated in downtown Boston in a maze of co-joined buildings. Here was a therapeutic landscape that feels like the opposite of the one at Spaulding: a small but impactful place of respite and restoration.
As you enter the roof garden, which was added later after the building had been built, the broad trees and gorgeous views of the Charles River momentarily awe. The space is a welcome surprise in the midst of the vast hospital complex.
Designed by Robert Adams, ASLA, principal at Halvorson Design Group, the garden is well-loved by adults and children undergoing cancer treatment.
The enclosed entry pavilion, with expansive glass windows, is open year round. Cancer patients often have a terrible, metallic taste in their mouth, so any metal fittings were painted over so as to not remind them. A journal is available for patients to write in. A giant urn is filled with rocks. Patients take the rocks to keep as touchstones; and survivors often bring back stones from their journeys, replenishing the urn, which has a “most sacred” duty, Adams said.
And the garden itself, with its simple shade-covered walking loop, benches facing the river, and sculptures, is open in warm months. “You’ll often see patients with their IV in tow walking the loop.”
For Adams, the only wrinkle is the garden has become so popular staff can no longer easily access. Before, staff were eating lunch there and visiting often. This is a sign that “staff need open spaces, too.” As author Clare Cooper Marcus described in a recent interview, over-worked and stressed doctors and nurses means more deadly medical errors. Just a 15-minute break for these critical workers outdoors can help boost their cognition and lower stress.
Why aren’t more hospitals creating restorative spaces not only for patients but also for their staff? Spaulding and Yawkey, two of the best hospitals in the country, offer models for how to bring nature into healthcare environments that other facilities can learn from.