Landscape Architects Unite in Advance of Key United Nations Climate Change Conference
ASLA announced it will join a global coalition of 70,000 landscape architects in 77 countries in committing to limiting planetary warming to 1.5°C (2.7 °F). This is the largest coalition of landscape architecture professionals ever assembled to advance climate action.
IFLA’s Climate Action Commitment will be issued to sovereign nations at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will be held in Scotland, October 31 – November 12.
ASLA has committed to the six goals outlined in the IFLA Climate Action Commitment:
1) Advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)
ASLA and its member landscape architects and designers will accelerate efforts to protect and repair ecosystems.
2) Attaining Global Net Zero Emissions by 2040
ASLA and its members will dramatically reduce operational and embodied carbon emissions produced by projects, increasingly harness the unique capacity of landscapes to draw down carbon dioxide, and continue to advocate for low-carbon multi-modal transport systems.
3) Enhancing Capacity and Resilience of Livable Cities and Communities
Implementing green infrastructure approaches, ASLA and its members will increase efforts to mitigate the urban heat island effect and reduce climate impacts associated with fire, drought, and flooding.
4) Advocating for Climate Justice and Social Well-Being
ASLA and its members will maintain our priority on equity and equality and ensure the right to nearby green spaces and clean water and air.
5) Learning from Cultural Knowledge Systems
ASLA and its members commit to respecting and working with indigenous communities and honoring cultural land management practices to mitigate climate change impacts and continue work towards reconciliation.
6) Galvanizing Climate Leadership
Landscape architects are uniquely positioned to lead the built environment community’s response to the climate crisis. ASLA will continue to collaborate with clients, suppliers, and allied professions to champion climate positive landscapes, which involves planning and designing landscapes that sequester more greenhouse gas emissions than they emit.
“ASLA is proud to be joining forces with IFLA and the global community of landscape architects in advancing our climate action goals,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO, ASLA. “We speak as one voice, globally, when it comes to advancing climate action.”
“As landscape architects we can make a tremendous difference to climate change and to climate action through our work, so thinking globally but acting locally is critical,” said IFLA President James Hayter.
“In a year marked by historic flooding in Europe and China and deadly wildfires and heat waves in the United States, it’s clear we’re running out of time to start healing a century’s worth of harm done to our Earth and its atmosphere,” said Tom Mroz, FASLA, ASLA President.
“I am gratified that Climate Positive Design has been incorporated into the global Commitment,” said Pamela Conrad, ASLA, Founder of Climate Positive Design, Principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, and IFLA Climate Change Working Group Vice Chair. “All landscape architects must rapidly scale up their work transforming designed landscapes into natural carbon sinks.”
The IFLA Climate Action Commitment is the second major coalition ASLA has joined this year. ASLA also signed on to Architecture 2030’s 1.5°C COP26 Communiqué, calling for built environment industries to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.
Landscape architects plan and design with nature to help all communities reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate. Landscape architects use climate positive design approaches that transform parks and open spaces into natural carbon sinks. They develop resilient nature-based solutions that reduce the impacts of extreme heat; coastal, ground, and inland flooding; sea level rise; pollution; and wildfires. They also increase biodiversity and protect and restore ecosystems, which underpin life on Earth.
“Landscape architects are already helping communities adapt to climate impacts. We are having a particularly big impact on reducing dangerous urban temperatures, saving many lives in the process,” said Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA President and ASLA representative to the IFLA Climate Change Working Group.
A new report from The Trust for Public Land (TPL) makes a compelling case for transforming underperforming, paved public schoolyards into green oases for the entire community. While the benefits for schools and their educational communities are clear, TPL sees an opportunity to open up these facilities to surrounding neighborhoods after school hours, on weekends, and when school is out. If all 90,000 public schools in the country had a “community schoolyard,” more communities could tackle the persistent park equity issue — in which too few communities, particularly undeserved ones, enjoy access to nearby high-quality public green spaces. TPL argues that opening up all schoolyards, essentially turning them into part-time all-access community hubs, would “put a park within a 10-minute walk of nearly 20 million people — solving the problem of outdoor access for one-fifth of the nation’s 100 million people who don’t currently have a park close to home.”
TPL found that “only a tiny fraction” of current public schoolyards met their criteria for a community schoolyard. While some communities have been greening their schoolyards — adding trees, gardens, and stormwater management systems — and others have opened their schoolyards to the public after hours, very few have done both. TPL calls for massively scaling up efforts to revamp schoolyards and make them more accessible through more federal funding and support through their organization and others.
Community schoolyards are the result of planning and design efforts, most often led by landscape architects and designers, to transform “overheated, vacant, and uninspired” places into green healthy ones. These spaces include trees, which provide ample shade and cool the air; gardens that increase biodiversity and provide environmental educational opportunities; stormwater management systems that help reduce flooding; and tracks, fields, and play equipment that offer space for exercise and building social skills and community engagement.
These shade-producing spaces, designed to cool and clean the air, offer benefits to any surrounding community, but help some even more. Research from TPL found that nationwide, “36 percent of the nation’s 50.8 million public school students attended school in a heat island, which is defined as 1.25 degrees warmer or more, on average, than the surrounding town or city. Among that group, 4.1 million students to a school in a severe heat island of 7 degrees ore more, while 1.1 million attend school in an extreme heat island of 10 degrees or more. In some communities, the heat anomaly exceeded 20 degrees.”
Income is correlated with exposure to heat risks. Average household incomes in the communities with more dangerous heat islands were estimated to be $31,000 less than the income in the coolest parts of communities. Some of the discrepancies can be explained by the enduring and dangerous legacy of racist urban planning. A study published in 2020 in the journal Climate found that communities that experienced redlining and disinvestment are 2.6°C (4.6°F) hotter than neighboring communities that didn’t. This is because that legacy resulted in a lack of street trees and public green spaces. Indeed, in the 100 largest cities, neighborhoods where people predominantly identify as people of color have access to an average of 44 percent less park acreage that predominately white areas.
One case study demonstrates the great gains that can be made by investing in public schools in historically marginalized and underserved communities. In Newark, New Jersey, a new half-acre green schoolyard at the K-8 Sussex Avenue School, co-designed by third and fourth graders and Heidi Cohen, ASLA, a landscape architect with TPL, resulted in a new turf field and running track, trees and flowering shrubs, a drinking fountain (for the first time), and an outdoor classroom space.
The investment in students’ health and well-being resulted in noteworthy benefits: “Average daily attendance climate from 90 percent to 96 percent almost immediately after the renovation. Disciplinary actions declined, while test scores went up among the school’s 500 students, 95 percent of whom qualify for a free or reduced lunch.”
Given climate change is increasing the dangers of already hot, and unfairly hot, urban heat islands, future investment in high-quality public schoolyards is now a climate justice issue. TPL cites a study in NYC that found a correlation between rising temperatures and test scores. Another study by the Harvard Kennedy School, the College Board, and others offered “evidence that cumulative heat hurts cognitive development.” While a community schoolyard can’t solve all problems, they can improve health and educational outcomes for students. The health benefits of access of green space are increasingly well-understood, and a growing body of research shows that views of green spaces can improve cognition, mood, and learning. “By virtue of their shade, Community Schoolyard projects could help students improve their test scores,” TPL argues. Shaded areas can be up to 50 degrees cooler than a similar area in full sun.
The report also covers the many climate resilience benefits of community schoolyards. Like other sustainable landscapes, they can effectively manage stormwater using green infrastructure. TPL’s community schoolyards in NYC are estimated to capture 19 million gallons of stormwater a year; and in Philadelphia, these schoolyards capture 17 million gallons annually. “Installing green infrastructure at public schools reduces flood risk throughout the neighborhood.” Planting and maintaining school rain gardens also provides environmental education opportunities for students of all ages.
ASLA announces the 2021 Professional Award winners. The 40 winning projects exemplify the highest level of achievement in the profession, and the professionals themselves will be honored at ASLA’s Conference on Landscape Architecture, Nov. 20 in Nashville, TN.
Winners each year are chosen by a jury panel representing a broad cross-section of the profession, from the public and private sectors, as well as academia. The 40 winners were chosen from 486 submissions from around the world. Award categories include: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, and Research. In addition, one Landmark Award is also selected each year.
“This year’s winners demonstrate how landscape architects are increasingly leading the planning and design of healthy and resilient communities for all,” said Torey Carter- Conneen, CEO of ASLA. “Landscape architects are advancing communities’ diversity, equity, and inclusion goals in significant ways.”
Professional Award recipients, their clients, and advisors will be honored in-person at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, TN on Saturday, November 20th, at 6pm ET.
ASLA announces the 2021 Student Award winners. The 35 winning projects exemplify the highest level of achievement by future landscape architect professionals. The students themselves will be honored at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture, Nov. 20 in Nashville, TN.
Winners each year are chosen by a jury panel representing a broad cross-section of the profession, from the public and private sectors, as well as academia. The 35 winners were chosen from 440 submissions of projects from around the world. Awards categories include: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, Student Collaboration, and Community Service.
“This program not only honors the tremendous creativity and passion of these future landscape architect leaders, it also highlights the extraordinary contributions they will make to communities upon graduation,” said Torey Carter- Conneen, CEO of ASLA.
To Curb Urban Flooding, China Is Building ‘Sponge Cities.’ Do They Work? — 07/29/21, The Christian Science Monitor
“Yu Kongjian, a professor of landscape architecture at Peking University, is credited as the main architect of the sponge city concept. In a 2019 video for the World Economic Forum, he described the previous approach to flood prevention as ‘totally wrong.'”
National ‘Vision Zero’ Resolution Introduced — 07/28/21, Streetsblog
“After months of intense campaigning from advocates, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) introduced a bi-cameral resolution Tuesday expressing the desire of the legislature to ‘reduce traffic fatalities to zero by 2050.'”
As China Boomed, It Didn’t Take Climate Change Into Account. Now It Must. — 07/26/21, The New York Times
“Yu Kongjian, the dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at Peking University, is credited with popularizing the idea in China. He said in a telephone interview that in its rapid development since the 1980s, China had turned to designs from the West that were ill-suited for the extremes that the country’s climate was already experiencing. Cities were covered in cement, ‘colonized,’ as he put it, by ‘gray infrastructure.'”
The Architectural League Celebrates 2021 President’s Medal Recipient Walter Hood— 07/22/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“As noted by the League, Hood, as an artist and designer dedicated to ‘creating beauty in everyday environments, revealing hidden histories, renewing connections, guiding the way to co-existence in all our multiplicity and difference,’ was a ‘fitting person to honor at the moment of our re-engagement of public life.'”
How to Give a Modernist Icon a Makeover — 07/22/21, Bloomberg CityLab “Hiroshi Sugimoto’s renovation of the Hirshhorn Museum’s sculpture garden will bring the Japanese designer’s touch to a space long acclaimed as a modernist landmark.”
Jennifer Toole, ASLA, is the founder and President of Toole Design and has over 30 years of experience planning and designing multimodal transportation systems. A certified planner with a degree in landscape architecture, Toole has a strong background in urban design. She has been involved in numerous projects of national significance for the Federal Highway Administration, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
In Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, bike infrastructure is identified as one of the top 80 solutions for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. The book finds that in 2014, 5.5 percent of urban trips worldwide were by bicycle. If that number grew to 7.5 percent by 2050, displacing some 2.2 trillion passenger miles completed by vehicles, some 2.2 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions could be avoided, realizing approximately $400 billion savings over the next 30 years. What are the most important steps cities and communities can take to rapidly grow bike use?
Most people just don’t feel safe bicycling, which is the greatest disincentive. We spent nearly a century in this country building a transportation system that essentially only caters to people who are driving motor vehicles. We have a system that fundamentally doesn’t support bicycling.
The best thing cities can do to incentivize bicycling is make it feel safer for people. This can be accomplished through interconnected networks of bike facilities separated from traffic that don’t end at major barriers.
That’s a big problem right now: we have a lot of bikeways that might get you part of the way to where you want to go, but then you get to a big intersection or an interchange with a highway and the bikeway ends.
We also need need to reduce motor vehicle speeds across the board, so that when bicyclists and motorists cross paths, it’s in a safe and controlled way. And we need to provide high-quality and secure places to park your bike once you get to where you’re going.
None of this is rocket science. If you look at countries that have successfully increased the percentage of people bicycling by even a few percentage points, it’s because they invested in infrastructure to make bicyclists feel safe — and, in fact, bicyclists are now safer in those places.
Drawdown also identifies e-bikes as a critical climate solution. While many bike-riders feel comfortable biking a few miles on flat surfaces, half of all trips are estimated to be 6.2 miles, which may be too far in the heat or if the route is hilly. E-bikes also better support riders who may be older or less able. What are some other ways cities and communities can incentivize e-bike use?
I am really excited about e-bikes because they eliminate another major disincentive to bicycling: hilly areas, with long, difficult uphill climbs. I live at the top of a really steep hill. Many times I have done that calculus in my head. Am I going to ride my bike? If I ride my bike, when I come home, I am going to have to come back up that hill.
When you look at a normal bike trip, it’s usually someplace between one to three miles in length. An e-bike trip is typically a little bit longer than a normal bike trip, because you don’t have to expend as much energy to make that trip.
The keys to incentivizing e-bike use are the exact same as they are for regular bikes. You’ve got to provide spaces where people feel safe riding their bike. E-bikes are a little bit faster than regular bikes, so that makes it even more evident that sidewalks are not the right place for them. E-bikes really need their own space. They need separated bike lanes. They need shared-use paths and bike boulevards. You have to feel like you have safe places to ride.
Cities are also providing e-bikes through their bike share services, which gives people a way to check them out and realize how much fun they are to ride. It’s one of the reasons why e-bike sales are just soaring all around the country.
According to the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), researchers in the U.K. found that biking to work is associated with 45 percent lower risk of developing cancer and a 46 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, compared to commuting by car or public transit. UNEP also states: “daily exercise prolongs life expectancy by approximately 3.4 years. Regular cycling boosts physical health as an efficient way to prevent obesity.” How can we better promote the health benefits of biking to communities?
Those are some pretty incredible statistics I think that most people are not aware of.
It’s more about providing ways for people to introduce exercise into their normal, everyday life without even thinking about it. There are a lot of studies that show people are more active and healthy in places where walking and biking for everyday trips is common, so making sure that destinations in shopping areas and workplaces are in close proximity to home is really an important part of making sure that people take those everyday trips on foot and by bicycle.
We need to make bicycling the logical choice — the no-brainer choice — for a certain segment of short trips we make. When you go to The Netherlands and ask people why they are riding bikes, they almost never talk about the exercise or the environment. They are riding a bike, because it’s the most efficient way to get where they want to go.
Countries like The Netherlands have a lot of folks who bike well into their 70s and 80s, because they have provided places that feel safe for riding a bike. I have no doubt it contributes to a much longer lifespan.
Data also shows that the pandemic has resulted in a bike boom in many cities and communities. According to a report from Strava, a fitness tracking company, bike use in car-centric cities like Houston increased by 138 percent and in Los Angeles by 93 percent. The Rails to Trails Conservancy found that trail use increased threefold in March 2020 over 2019. Do you think bike use will continue to remain at high levels after we have all been vaccinated? What role do you think “slow streets” have played? And if the bike boom continues, will it result in greater investment in permanent bike infrastructure?
I think it will. Bike use will continue to remain at higher levels, because our travel patterns have been disrupted in ways that we’re only now just beginning to realize. There’s a whole segment of workers who will probably never go back to working in an office from 9:00 to 5:00 five days a week. The flexibility of being able to work from home will mean that our rush hour is going to look different in the future.
Why drag yourself out of bed to go and sit in the car for an hour longer than you really need to just to get to work at a certain time? A certain segment of workers are going to make that calculus and say, “I don’t need to go into the office to work. I can do it right here,” because they’ve been doing it for over a year, and it worked fine. Working from home is going to become much more accepted and prevalent and, with that change, people are going to continue to look for ways to use a bicycle for trips that originate from their homes.
Slow streets have really been great, because they gave people places to ride that feels safe. I’ve heard so many stories of slow street projects that had opposition in the beginning and now people are getting upset when cities remove their slow-street designation. From what we’re seeing, cities are looking for ways to have more permanent, connected networks of bike facilities, and that was starting well before COVID-19. It’s not something that was new; I just think COVID brought it home how much we needed more infrastructure.
Research also finds that low-income communities bike to work more often than other groups. The Chicago Tribune reports that the biggest group of Americans who bike to work are from households that earn less than $10,000. But a report from the League of American Bicyclists also found that Hispanic bike-riders had a bike fatality rate 23 percent higher, and Black riders had a fatality rate 30 percent higher than white riders. How can cities and communities make bike infrastructure more equitable and improve safety for historic marginalized and underserved communities?
We need to do a better job at providing better infrastructure in underserved areas of our cities. Often these are the same neighborhoods that have been impacted by highway construction, where we have widened roads so that suburban commuters can get to their jobs and downtown. It’s not a surprise those are the same places that have higher rates of crashes for Hispanic and Black riders. They need more attention than we’re giving them in terms of providing safer facilities.
A lot of the work we do for cities is about adjusting that balance and giving more attention to neighborhoods that have been neglected when it comes to providing good places to not only to bike but also to walk. Among other things, we aim to reduce traffic speeds on those streets, which is not an easy thing because they were built for higher speeds.
Many of the projects we work on are focused on equity. For example, we are working on an expansion of the trail network in Fresno, California. We analyzed all the proposed trails the city has planned to build in the next 20 years using a tool that prioritizes equity factors. The city then selected four connecting trails segments in a community facing environmental injustices. It relied on a tool used in California that helps identify communities most affected by pollution and where people are often especially vulnerable to pollution.
The Biden administration just released a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which could result in much greater investment in complete streets, bicycle networks, trails. If you were somehow in charge of all the billions, how would you allocate it on bicycle infrastructure?
In many communities, they have already tackled their easier projects, the ones that weren’t difficult to build — streets that were overbuilt for the amount of traffic they’re carrying and required a road diet to reconfigure space.
The next phase of work is much harder. It’s closing the gaps between facilities. Imagine a trail that ends at a major intersection. It’s hard to get across that intersection in order to connect one part of town to another part of town where you have bike networks. You really need an overpass across the highway built for bike and pedestrian traffic. If I were in charge of that infrastructure investment, I would make it available for major infrastructure projects that close gaps in bike and pedestrian networks.
In South Bend, Indiana, your staff partnered with the administration of then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is now U.S. transportation secretary, to create an open space and smart streets plan to revitalize South Bend’s downtown. The plan resulted in the transformation of St. Joseph’s Boulevard to a green complete street. Secretary Buttigieg said the streetscape improvements led to $90 million in private investment by downtown businesses along the corridor. Can you tell us more about Secretary Buttigieg and his understanding of the connections between streetscape improvements and revitalization?
The most basic answer for how that revitalization led to all the private investment is that the design prioritizes the movement of people over cars. It was a very controversial approach to their downtown revitalization, and there were a lot of people who were worried that it wouldn’t work. To Secretary Buttigieg’s credit, he had a vision for making their downtown be a place where people felt comfortable walking everywhere.
The downtown businesses saw that it was going to be a place that was really special, which is what led to the investment. And it hasn’t stopped with downtown. The work we’re doing now in South Bend is going out like tendrils into the community. The city is systematically tackling their street network and prioritizing pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Secretary Buttigieg’s vision has continued to transform the city’s approach to transportation and it has clearly benefited the community.
Your firm is leading an interdisciplinary team working with the city of Atlanta’s Department of City Planning to re-imagine Peachtree Street as a shared space that blurs the lines between public space and streets. What are the benefits of these environments? How do you overcome safety or accessibility concerns?
Peachtree Street has long been Atlanta’s main street. The street receives a lot of traffic and is dominated by cars. The city is looking to change that dynamic and make it a destination for people. The benefit of making Peachtree Street a flush street — so all one level, no curbs — is that it really promotes that feeling that it’s a street where pedestrians are the highest priority. They don’t have to go to an intersection in order to cross the street. They can move freely across the street. It’s modeled on the types of streets that have been built really all over Europe, where there’s just one street surface.
Another benefit is that it slows everybody down. Cars can still travel down the street and park, but drivers don’t feel comfortable going fast down a flush street. Often there are fewer traffic signals or signs to direct traffic. This is due to a concept in traffic engineering: when you introduce an element of uncertainty, everyone slows down. It’s fundamentally about making sure motor vehicle traffic goes slower.
Also, a flush street is inherently more accessible. You can imagine people on wheelchairs don’t have to go to the corners to find a place to cross. People pushing baby strollers can easily move about. But you do need special accommodations for people who are blind or have low vision, because they need to know how to navigate down that street. They often use a curb line as a guide.
Fortunately, there are new ways to help people who are blind to navigate. A different type of pavement treatment with raised grooves can help guide a person with a cane down a street. These have been used in train stations and other places where there is a need to navigate through plazas and other open areas.
Landscape architects integrate safe, accessible pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure with green infrastructure. In St. Paul, Minnesota, your firm designed the Jackson Street Reconstruction Project, which transformed an outdated avenue into a truly multi-modal corridor that features two-way protected bike lanes, wider pedestrian walkways protected by green buffers that manage storm water. How is this project a model? How do you make the case that communities should spend the extra money for the green infrastructure?
Jackson Street is just such a great example of the way we should be designing streets in this country.
It’s important to think about what the street looked like before to understand the opportunity it represents for many other streets in this country. Jackson Street was as wide as six lanes, a classic example of an overbuilt street. Somebody at some point in the past decided that the road needed to have four lanes. The street didn’t have the traffic volume to support those lanes.
We were able to take up to two travel lanes off the road, which gave us 20-plus more feet of space to work with to provide a wider sidewalk, a two-way separated bike lane, and generous rain gardens between the bikeway and the road. We were able to use the green infrastructure to provide that much needed separation between the bikeway and the street. The bikeway itself is built from pervious pavement. The runoff from Jackson Street is directed into those rain gardens.
St. Paul is a city concerned about water pollution, runoff, and flooding. It’s on the banks of the Mississippi, so this type of street design is logical. There are so many cities around the country that are increasingly concerned about flooding and need to find ways to let stormwater seep into the ground instead of run off into nearby waterways. Cities are feeling the impact of major flood events and the financial cost of those events, which is why they are looking at these streetscape projects as an opportunity to rethink the way that water flows in their city.
There are generations of work for landscape architects to fix all these streets and make them greener by providing vegetation in the streetscape on a scale that we’ve never done before. We were sort of stuck in the past with these tiny tree boxes. That was the conventional way of providing green in the landscape. This new way of designing streets is going to give us so much more room to work with different types of plants and soils. It’s a really exciting time to be a landscape architect.
19th century sanitation engineer George E. Waring, Jr. was a miasmaist. He believed in the miasma theory, which holds that toxic vapors emanated from damp soil, rotted vegetation, and pools of standing water. These toxic vapors were understood to be created by the Earth and interact with the atmosphere and cause disease in American cities.
According to Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the Bernard & Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, Waring was a “marginal figure,” but he had interesting ideas about how to “modify the climate to improve health.” In a virtual lecture hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Seavitt Nordenson said Waring was incorrect about the mechanisms for spreading disease — he didn’t understand the concept of vectors, like mosquitoes — but his drainage and sanitation solutions were “surprisingly successful.” A year into the coronavirus pandemic, it’s worth revisiting Waring’s ideas about the connections between the Earth, atmosphere, disease — and the maintenance of public spaces.
Waring wrote numerous books, created the drainage plan for Central Park, and later became an influential sanitation commissioner of New York City. Born in Pound Ridge, New York, in 1833, he studied agricultural chemistry. In his early 20s, he wrote a book on scientific farming that explored “atmospheric and molecular matter, the interchange of Earth and air,” Seavitt Nordenson explained. He called for “mechanical cultivation to reduce water in soil” through the use of “thorough under draining, deep disturbance of the soil, and trenches.”
Because of this book, he was later hired by former U.S. presidential candidate Horace Greeley to create a drainage system for his farm in Chappaqua, New York. At his estate, Waring created an elaborate herringbone-patterned drainage system that directed water to streams, with the goal of improving the marshy soil for farming, but he would soon also use for eradicating imagined wet soil-borne disease.
Later, in 1857, Waring apprenticed as a drainage engineer with Egbert L. Viele, who had previously created a comprehensive survey and study of Manhattan, examining the marsh, meadow, and constructed lands of the island. The study included the land that would make up the future Central Park, a land that had been home to the freed Black community of Seneca Village, which was later cleared by the city government to make way for the park. Waring’s early drainage studies of Manhattan informed the many entries submitted as part of a design competition for the new Central Park.
In 1858, Waring was promoted to drainage engineer by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux, who won the design competition for Central Park. Waring created an elaborate drainage system for the park landscape, which included low-lying wetlands. Waring had found favor with Olmsted. “Olmsted too was a miasmaist. Draining the park was framed as disease suppression.”
Considered the largest drainage project of his time, Waring designed a comprehensive system that directed water to constructed lakes and reservoirs. By 1859, the lower part of the park had been drained through a series of ceramic tubes buried deep into the soil that piped water directly to streams and ponds. “There was a mechanical movement to the low points,” where water would flow to.
With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Olmsted left his position at Central Park and became executive secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, where he was charged with reducing the death rate from disease for 8,000 sick and wounded soldiers. Olmsted created field hospitals in places he thought free of dangerous miasmas. Meanwhile, Waring resigned from Central Park work to become a major and lead cavalry in the Civil War.
After the Civil War and the publication of his book Drainage for Profit, Drainage for Health, Waring took up a post in Memphis, Tennessee, a city that had suffered severe epidemics of cholera and yellow fever, killing some 5,000 people in 1878 alone. While Waring didn’t understand the mosquito was a key disease vector, his plan for attacking standing water in building basements and streets had a positive effect on reducing disease. His comprehensive plan to separate the conveyance of stormwater and sewage, which was eventually implemented by the city, ended the health crisis.
Upon returning to New York City as sanitation commissioner, Waring applied his miasma theory to cleaning up the streets of the city. At the time, horses were leaving millions of pounds of manure and urine on the streets each day. Horse corpses were also left to rot. Garbage piles ran feet-deep and were cleared by ad hoc groups of unemployed.
Seavitt Nordenson thinks Waring elevated street cleaning and maintenance into a “performance,” targeting garbage as contributing to disease and declining morals. Taking a “militaristic approach,” he hired an army of sanitation workers that he dressed in all white. Nicknamed the “white wings,” they were given hand carts and brooms and also took on snow removal.
Waring would lead parades on horseback, with thousands of sanitation workers in army formation marching down the street. “It was a triumph of sanitation.”
After leaving the sanitation department of New York, Waring was dispatched to Havana, Cuba, by President McKinley to help solve their yellow fever epidemic. Until 1902, the U.S. had a colonial presence in Cuba, and American soldiers were dying of disease. While establishing Havana’s department of street cleaning, Waring contracted yellow fever from a mosquito. A day after his return to New York, he died, his remains quarantined on an island in New York Harbor.
Seavitt Nordenson said the legacy of miasmaists like Waring and Olmsted is the public health focus on the air — the intermixing of atmosphere and Earth. While Waring was a “brilliant failure” in terms of his scientific theories, a “great mind but incorrect,” Seavitt Nordenson also wondered: was he right?
During the pandemic, everyone has become a miasmaist to a degree, imagining the invisible droplets we know are floating in the air.
Seavitt Nordenson is currently completing a book on this topic with the University of Texas Press, with support from the Graham Foundation and the Foundation for Landscape Studies.
“Our climate is in crisis. Social and racial injustice issues continue to go unaddressed. The pandemic is forcing us to rethink public space,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). “Landscape architects aren’t just designing resilient, sustainable solutions for all these problems – they’re designing the public policies necessary to support that vital work.”
The report makes specific, actionable policy recommendations in four major areas:
Applying STEM-related design principles to protect communities.
Addressing climate change through sustainable, resilient design.
Supporting green community infrastructure solutions.
Promoting racial, social, and environmental justice in design.
“The pandemic has revealed now more than ever the value of public open spaces: we are human beings and need to be outside and with other human beings,” said Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, CEO of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF). “These policy recommendations provide overdue support to enable landscape architects to design healthy, accessible and equitable outdoor places for people to connect with nature and each other, and rebuild the public realm infrastructure.”
“Landscape architects play a vital and irreplaceable role in the design of the built environment. It’s time their recommendations for how that design is governed are heard and implemented,” Carter-Conneen added. “ASLA urges the Biden-Harris administration and the new Congress to review these recommendations and begin the process of implementing them.”
ASLA and our partners look forward to working with the Biden-Harris administration and the new Congress on implementing these policy recommendations that will lead to vibrant, resilient and just communities across the nation.
The American Society of Landscape Architects compiled a comprehensive series of specific, actionable policy recommendations designed to give landscape architects a seat at the table and support for their vital work. The report is broken down into four sections.
The first, Landscape Architects Apply STEM to Protect the Public, outlines the measures necessary to assist landscape architects in meeting the economic demands and challenges facing our nation.
Recommendations in this section include:
Support continued state licensure of highly complex technical professions, including landscape architecture, to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.
Provide targeted and sustained COVID-19 relief for small businesses, including landscape architecture firms.
Appoint landscape architects to key positions throughout the Biden-Harris administration, including within the Departments of Transportation, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, and Agriculture, and in the Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, the U.S. Access Board, and others.
Include landscape architecture on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Designated Degree Program List.
The second section, Landscape Architects Lead in Climate Solutions, focuses on policy solutions that support landscape architects’ work to design resilient, sustainable spaces that help communities mitigate and adapt to the effects of the ongoing climate crisis.
Recommendations in this section include:
Create a comprehensive, science-based climate action plan to significantly reduce carbon emissions.
Establish adaptation and mitigation strategies using natural systems to make communities more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
Protect underserved communities from climate and environmental injustices.
Adopt the Sustainable Sites Initiative® (SITES®) for all federal projects.
Reverse rules, regulations, and policies from the Trump administration that weaken environmental protections and ignore climate change, specifically involving the National Environmental Policy (NEPA) and the Waters of the U.S.( WOTUS).
The third section, Landscape Architects Transform Community Infrastructure, outlines policies to encourage the designing and building of community infrastructure projects in a way that fosters sustainable development, generates jobs, encourages healthy lifestyles, and creates resilient, equitable, and economically vibrant communities.
Recommendations in this section center around the following goals:
Upgrade to a multimodal transportation network.
Fix our nation’s water management systems.
Recognize public lands, parks, and open space as “critical infrastructure.”
Design resilient communities.
The fourth and final section, Landscape Architects Seek Racial, Social, and Environmental Justice, provides specific recommendations that seek to address the inequities that harm underserved communities, including communities of color, low-income populations, and Tribal and Indigenous communities across the country.
Recommendations in this section include:
Work with Congress to codify Executive Order 12898, so that it is permanent law for federal agencies to identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse health and environmental effects of agency actions on low-income and minority communities.
Join stakeholders across the country in advancing the tenets of the Environmental Justice for All Act (H.R. 5986), which help to ensure that all communities are protected from pollution and that all voices are heard in the federal environmental decision-making.
Consider policies that promote design techniques as a tool to address racial, environmental, and social justice for all.
Humanity has become totally out of synch with the planet’s biophysical systems — for proof, just look to climate change, COVID-19, environmental degradation, ocean acidification, and the accelerated extinction of species. As we now begin to understand, the planet is a single organism, a complex, inter-connected system that can either be healthy and in balance — or not. Furthermore, our health and well-being are intrinsically connected to the health and well-being of natural systems.
In Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves, a new book edited by Drs. Howard Frumkin and Samuel Myers, we are given a roadmap for how to undo the damage to the Earth and live in a way that is more respectful of the planet’s limited capacity. The authors convince us to take this path not just for nature’s sake but also for our own future health and well-being.
Dr. Howard Frumkin is former Dean of Public Health at the University of Washington and former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Samuel Myers is principal research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Together, they have put together a thought-provoking and rich 500-page overview of the emerging field of planetary health, which is increasingly used by UN organizations, governments, non-profits, and universities as a framework for understanding the relationship between human and environmental health.
Frumkin and Myers and their contributors build their case so methodically, with loads of persuasive data, that by the end of the book, it seems difficult to imagine a better framework for understanding Earth’s contemporary human-environmental dynamics. This book is a must-read for anyone passionate about creating better outcomes for more people, far into the future.
In their introduction, the editors explain how today is “the best of times and the worst of times.” On one hand, it has “never been a better time to be a human being.” In the past 65 years, the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty fell from 63 percent to 10 percent, despite the population tripling in size. Child mortality rates are the lowest in recorded history.
But on the other hand, human activity is “driving biophysical change at rates that are much steeper than have existed in the history of our species.” 40 percent of the planet is now dedicated to agriculture, at the expense of natural systems. Habitat destruction and the anticipated extinction of up to a million species threatens the underlying biodiversity that maintains the resilience of natural systems.
Some may see promise in the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch created by humans, and imagine a future planet optimized by direct human control. But in reality, the poor human management of the planet’s biophysical systems to date means that more of the status quo will lead to civilizational collapse.
According to Frumkin and Myers, we have disrupted the climate system; polluted air, water, and soils; caused rapid biodiversity loss; reconfigured biogeochemical cycles; made pervasive changes in land use; and depleted fresh water and arable land. These changes all have significant health implications for billions of people. A new approach rooted in planetary health is needed.
The book first provides a background on the intellectual history of the concept of planetary health, which only began as a systems-scale field of research in the 1990s. As Dr. Warwick Anderson explains in his essay, the field made a big leap in 2010, when The Lancet, a major research journal, and the Rockefeller Foundation partnered with other public health groups to promote a “new health discipline — public health 2.0.” In 2015, with the release of the seminal Lancet – Rockefeller Foundation commission report Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch, Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, deemed the new field of inquiry “planetary health,” which Anderson states, “rapidly gained currency.”
The book then lays out the scale and complexity of the problems and offer some positive models to addressing them:
A chapter by a team of esteemed researchers from organizations such as the Population Council, Population Reference Bureau, and Population Institute explore how the growth in human population and consumption are driving environmental change. They argue that “given the tight interconnectedness of the two drivers, it may be best to see them as coequal challenges.”
These contributors call for disincentivizing the excessive consumer consumption of the U.S. and western Europe, which would doom the planet if expanded to a global scale. They also point to the connected drivers that can further reduce population growth, including greater investment in the education of girls and women around the world, which helps to empower them to make their own decisions, and the expansion of access to contraceptives.
Their conclusion: a “multi-pronged strategy that integrates education, sound policies, and high-quality health services — all while guaranteeing the rights and respecting the dignity of all people — could dramatically accelerate the transition to truly sustainable levels of human population and consumption.”
A companion essay outlines the environmental impacts of the twinned growth in population and consumption. The authors argue: “We live on a different planet than the one our great-grandparents called home a century ago. It is a warmer planet, a more crowded planet, a planet with fewer species, a planet marked by widespread contamination and altered biogeochemical cycles.”
In this chapter, we learn about humans’ many impacts on the environment — ranging from the climate to the nitrogen cycle in agriculture, from land use and cover to water scarcity, biodiversity loss, and pollution.
Through a series of essays, Planetary Health delves into how those specific environmental changes — all driven by human behavior — are in turn jeopardizing human health and well-being by increasing risks in the area of nutrition, infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, population displacement and conflict, and mental health.
In the section on nutrition, Myers explains how rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels increase risks in the agricultural sector, impacting everything from the amount of time farm workers can stay in the heat to the nutritional yield of important mainstay plants. He also flags the lack of genetic diversity of the few plant species we rely on and the need to greater protect plant diversity.
A chapter on infectious diseases by Richard Ostfeld, with the Cary Institute of Ecological Studies, and Felicia Keesing, a biologist at Bard College, explains the growing risks of various infectious diseases. They write: “key environmental drivers, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, land use change, pollution, and alteration of biogeochemical cycles cause changes in the abundance, distribution, physiology, and behavior of important species involved in the transmission of both zoonotic and nonzoonotic pathogens to humans.” They analyze the relationships between land use, biodiversity, and diseases like malaria, lyme disease, and schistosomiasis, among others.
Non-communicable diseases, which include cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, and other conditions, account for 70 percent of global deaths each year. In this chapter, Frumkin and Andy Haines, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases, lay out the data on how climate change, urbanization, and air pollution increase non-communicable disease risk. Of particular interest for landscape architects and planners is a section on the dangers of automobile-dependent communities.
A team of researchers then connect the dots between environmental change, migration, conflict, and heath impacts, explaining how the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, is now understood as the first “modern climate change conflict,” and how we can expect more to come.
One of their arguments for investing in climate solutions is worth re-stating: “Adaptation to global environmental change is part of preventing migration. Adaptation can reduce vulnerability to both sudden shocks and long-term trends. Examples include switching farming practices to drought-tolerant crops and soil-conserving techniques, not building in floodplains, constructing levees and sea walls, restoring coastal barrier systems (mangroves, vegetated dunes, coral reefs, wetlands), and altering building codes to put key utilities on roof instead of in basements.”
Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster, provides a much-needed overview of the expected mental health impacts of climate and environmental change. She collects many useful studies in one place, providing a valuable reference.
One worrying conclusion: “Higher temperatures can provoke increased aggression. This manifests in many ways: from pitchers beaning batters during baseball games and drivers aggressively honking their horns, all the way to violent crime, particularly when combined with frustration over limited access to resources, such as fresh water or arable land.” One of her key solutions is expanding access to nature, particularly in cities. “Reconnecting with nature…offers a range of direct and indirect mental health benefits.”
Planetary Health then turns to building the case for systemic changes in our societies and economies, including a shift away from using gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of growth and instead using gross national happiness and other metrics that better account for human health, well-being, and environmental health. Central arguments include: “happiness and human health are intertwined; natural environments make people happy; and happiness production is not resource-intensive.” In other words, more experiences in nature create happiness, not the latest purchases.
After wading through the problems, we then get to the solutions — healthier models for various sectors: energy, chemicals, cities, economic development, and private sector growth. The chapter on urban places and planetary health is particularly worth reading as it makes the health argument for “integrated green urbanism,” transit-oriented development, bicycle infrastructure, and urban food systems. Iryna Dronova, a professor of landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, contributes to this discussion. The chapter on chemicals outlines how to reduce the risk of endocrine disruptors and create new green chemicals.
This significant new book also proposes how to create a set of planetary health ethics that can guide current and future action — a mutual promise to do no further harm in our era of climate and environmental change. Here, the contributors call for a “social movement, a scientific framework, an attitude towards life, and a philosophy of living that fosters resilience and adaptation.”
The core message: If we truly commit to maximizing human and environmental health in all communities, and undertaking all that entails, we will get on a pathway to saving the planet.
It is especially gratifying to be recognized on the 120th anniversary of the birth of the man who established landscape architecture as “the mother of all arts”—Sir Jellicoe himself.
My Roots in the Village
I’d like to begin by talking a bit about my childhood, which ultimately had a profound influence on the way I’ve come to approach my work. I was born to a peasant family in Dong Yu village in southeast China’s Zhejiang Province. The village is located where White Sand Creek and the Wujiang River meet.
I swam in the creek during the summer and caught big fish when the monsoon season came. When I was small, I took care of a water buffalo, which grazed along the waterways and between the paddy fields. There were seven ponds, a patch of sacred forest and two big camphor trees in front of the village, under which many legendary stories about my ancestors were told.
The land was extremely productive. We planted three crops throughout the year, including canola, wheat, buckwheat, rice, sugar cane, peanut, sweet potato, corn, soybeans, carrot, turnip, radish and lotus.
The land and water were precious, but the weather could be unpredictable, so we had to design and manage our farm fields wisely, following nature’s cycle and wasting nothing, and adapting in order to make a living.
We worshipped the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, the legendary king who knew how to manage water and plan the land. We also worshipped our ancestors, who had the wisdom of adapting to nature and cultivating the land.
In all likelihood, I would have followed in the footsteps of my father, who taught me how to cultivate the land, manage water, and be a productive farmer.
But it was a difficult time. Although we were a peasant family, we had also been landowners. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, my family was labeled as members of the “landlord class.” Our land was seized and redistributed to communes, after which we collectively farmed it. More significantly for me, children from the landlord class were prohibited from attending school.
But in 1978, an army veteran who came to teach in my village, Mr. Zhou Zhangchao, caught up with me one day while I was riding my water buffalo home. He told me that Deng Xiaoping had reversed the policies that barred the children of the landlord class from going to school. I immediately enrolled in school and began studying hard to catch up.
In 1980, after 17 years working on the commune, I passed the national university entrance examination. I was the sole lucky university entrant out of 300-plus students in our rural high school.
On the Shoulders of Giants
By chance, I was chosen to enroll in Beijing Forestry University as one of 30 students in the entire nation to study gardening, which had been cancelled for ten years during the Cultural Revolution. I was fortunate to have some of the best landscape gardening professors in the nation as my mentors, including Wang Juyuan, the founder of the Landscape Gardening Program at the Beijing Forestry University; Chen Youming, my Master’s thesis advisor; and Sun Xiaoxiang and Chen Junyu.
In a certain sense, leaving the dusty countryside to make beautiful gardens in the city was a dream for me and my parents.
But when I finished college and was starting my career of teaching and making beautiful gardens for the city, I returned home to find that my village had been destroyed. The sacred forest and the camphor trees had been cut and sold off. The creek itself had become a gravel quarry, and the fish disappeared.
I began to ask myself: Was there something more I should be doing? What about my village and my fellow villagers? What about the land beyond the garden walls and beyond the city walls—where, at the time, almost three-quarters of a billion Chinese lived?
At this same time, I began looking abroad to learn more. In 1992, I was accepted at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. I spent the next four years working with Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, along with landscape ecologist Richard Forman and GIS and computing expert Stephen Ervin. I would often encounter Ian McHarg, Michael Van Vulkenburgh, FASLA, Peter Rowe, and others in the hallways.
For me, it was a tremendously exciting time. It was a chance to meld the village-level concepts of the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, from my childhood, with the ideas of the great Chinese “gardening” masters—and some of the best minds in the West.
The concepts of landscape and urban ecology, people-oriented urbanism, landscape perception and revolutionary anthropology, landscape and architectural phenomenology, etc., enlightened the left side of my brain. Design works by contemporary masters including Peter Walker, FASLA, Laurie Olin, FASLA, Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Richard Haag, FASLA, Maya Lin, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Peter Latz, Bernard Tschumi, and so on, inspired the right side of my brain.
It happened to be a time of great debate within academia, and I found myself fascinated by the tensions between design as political procedure versus design with nature, and art versus ecology.
I was captivated by two questions, which have subsequently driven my entire career:
Conservation vs. Development: Spatial planning based on the idea of balance –when land and space are limited, how can we balance ecological protection with development?
Sustainability vs. Beauty: The creation of Deep Form — what is the relationship between sustainability and beauty, how can we unite ecology and art?
After graduating, I was recruited by SWA in Laguna Beach, California. There, I was able to work with Richard Law, FASLA, on luxury properties, new urban development, and projects in the booming Asian market. Life on the beach was pretty good.
But while I was happily designing luxury properties and imagining the grandeur of new cities, I found that the land at home was under assault. Old buildings were torn down; hills were leveled; lakes and wetlands filled and polluted; rivers channelized and dammed; and public squares and boulevards were built at gargantuan size. It was the opposite of everything I had learned about how to create livable cities and landscapes.
And it turned out to be a national-scale challenge. Over 80 percent of Chinese cities suffer air pollution, which kills 1.2 million people each year. Flooding causes some US$ 100 billion in damage. Four hundred of 662 cities suffer water shortages. Seventy-five percent of the nation’s surface water is polluted, and 64 percent of cities’ groundwater is polluted. 50 percent of wetlands have disappeared in past 50 years, resulting in tremendous losses of wildlife habitat.
Meeting the challenges
(1) Start with Education and a New Identity
I landed at Peking University as a professor in 1997 and was immediately joined by my lifelong friend Li Dihu. Together we started the landscape architecture program in the Department of Geography. We hoped to help an important new profession establish a foothold across a vast landscape. But we had humble beginnings: We started with a grand total of 3 students. (Today, we have 200 students enrolled, with more than 600 graduates.)
But people still tended to see me simply as “a gardener,” with no relation to urban development, land and water management, flood control, or ecological restoration.
In China, there’s a legend about “The Land of Peach Blossoms,” a magical realm of peace, a sort of Shangri-La. To a certain extent, I have always thought of Dong Yu village, where I grew up—with the two big camphor trees under which I heard the stories of my ancestors and the sacred forest where they rest–as the Land of Peach Blossoms. And landscape architecture, to me, seemed a way to recover the lost Land of Peach Blossoms.
So I felt compelled to reclaim the importance of landscape architecture itself and began describing it as “The Art of Survival.” In doing this, I was inspired by Ian McHarg’s pugnacious call to arms: “Don’t ask us about your garden. Don’t ask us about your bloody flowers …. We’re going to talk to you about survival.”
We launched a new magazine, Landscape Architecture Frontiers, to promote our new approach. We brought in top thinkers in the field to lecture and held over 15 landscape architecture conferences to educate a young generation and begin creating a consensus.
(2) Trying to reverse the damage and inspire policy change
We felt that immediate action had to be taken to reverse the damage, so we launched the concept of “Inverse Planning” (反规划 fǎn guīhuà), which emphasizes the protection of existing natural functions and prioritizes what is not built—what should be protected instead.
I also realized that the only way to reverse the damage caused by conventional planning procedure was to convince decision makers to change the policies. So I kept writing and talking and lecturing to decision makers, from top authorities to township leaders. I delivered over 300 lectures to municipal decision makers and ministers.
In 2006, I made a proposal to then-Premier Wen Jiabao that, to my surprise and gratification, initiated the process of national security pattern planning and ecological red line regulation.
These two concepts help identify and protect critical landscapes to safeguard natural, biological, cultural and recreational values and functions, thus securing this wide range of ecosystems services essential for sustaining human society. The State Council has since issued four state regulations to safeguard national ecological security.
(3) The “Big Foot” Revolution
I also realized that bad decisions were being made simply because of a misguided mentality about civilization and misguided aesthetic sensibilities. For thousands of years, the “civilized” urban elite worldwide has insisted on the privilege of defining civilization, beauty, and good taste. Bound feet, deformed heads, and twisted bodies are only a few such expressions of cultural practices that, in trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural bumpkins, have rejected nature’s inherent principles of health, survival, and productivity.
In China, for more than a thousand years, young girls were forced to bind their feet in order to be able to be considered beautiful enough to marry urban elites. Natural, “big” feet were considered rustic and rural. The obsession with “little feet” sacrificed function and dignity for ornamental value.
Today, landscaping and city building, by far, are the most visible and extensive manifestations of the folly of civilization and aesthetic standards defined from above—what I think of as “little foot” urbanism and the “little foot” aesthetic.
On one hand, the “manicured little foot” grey infrastructure simply lacks resilience and is a waste of energy and materials. On the other hand, urban elites with “little foot” aesthetics trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural peasants have rejected nature’s inherent goals of health and productivity.
These kinds of “little foot” grey infrastructure and aesthetics are not only expensive, but also wasteful and unsustainable. China’s carbon emissions in 2017 accounted for 28 percent of the world total. And according to 2018 figures from the World Economic Forum, China consumes 59 percent of the world’s cement and 50 percent of its steel and coal.
So I began advocating for what I call a Big Foot Revolution. This movement begins with questioning some of the basic values I have mentioned above, and my hope is that it will mirror an earlier revolution in the way Chinese thought about their own bodies and culture.
In the early 20th century, The New Cultural Movement was launched by teachers and students at Peking University, and ultimately led to the rejection of foot binding and a re-embracing of the natural beauty of the human form.
I believe the Big Foot Revolution will happen at three levels of action:
Planning the Big Feet (planning ecological infrastructure across scales)
Creating Working Big Feet (creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom)
Making Big Feet Beautiful (new aesthetics to create deep forms).
“Planning the Big Feet” or planning ecological infrastructure across scales, is critical for securing ecosystems services, and weaving green infrastructure together with grey infrastructure. Inspired by the ancient concept of sacred landscape—and by modern game theory¬—I developed the concept of the Landscape Security Pattern, which focuses on protecting the critical landscape patterns needed to ensure that natural processes can continue.
“Creating working Big Feet” means creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom, particularly from agriculture. We have developed replicable modules based on traditional farming techniques of terracing, ponding, diking, and islanding to address climate change and related problems at a massive scale in a cost-effective manner.
In China, all rivers are dammed and channelized with concrete flood walls. China has more than half of the world’s dams greater than 15 meters in height. More than US $20 billion is invested to control flooding each year, but US $100 billion is lost and 10 million people are affected every year. We need to accept and embrace flooding as a natural phenomenon, and turn grey infrastructure into green to help temper the damage of inevitable floods.
Due to the monsoon climate, over 62 percent of Chinese cities suffer from urban flooding. How much more flooding could be managed better if nature-based solutions were implemented nationwide? Using sponge city concepts would greatly increase water resilience.
In China, 75 percent of surface water is contaminated. Globally, 85 percent of sewage goes untreated. But the landscape can be a living system to clean water. Terraced, constructed wetland can be used to remove nutrients through biological processes.
We have already incorporated many of these ideas at several parks throughout China. In Zhejiang Province’s Taizhou City, we redesigned the Yongning Park as a “floating garden” with ecological embankments that can reduce peak flood flow by more than half, and create a seasonally flooded natural matrix of wetland and natural vegetation that sustains natural processes. This park demonstrates an ecological approach to flood control and stormwater management, while also educating people about new and forgotten solutions to flood control beyond engineering.
In Zhejiang’s Jinhua City, water-resilient terrain and planted vegetation were designed to adapt to monsoon floods. A resilient bridge and path system was designed to adapt to the dynamic flows of water and people. The river currents, the flow of people, and the gravity of objects are all woven together to form a dynamic concord. This is achieved through meandering vegetated terraces, curvilinear paths, a serpentine bridge, circular bioswales, planted beds, and curved benches.
In Harbin, in the far north, we turned the Qunli Stormwater Park into a “green sponge” that filters and stores urban stormwater while providing other ecosystem services, including the protection of native habitats, aquifer recharge, recreational use and aesthetic experience, which together help foster sustainable urban development.
At Dong’an Wetland Park on Hainan Island, off the coast of southern China, creating a green sponge in the center of the urban environment was an essential adaptation strategy for increasing resilience to climate change, particularly in an area where tropical storms can easily overwhelm conventional drainage systems.
In this case, a heavily polluted 68-hectare site was filled with non-permitted buildings and illegally dumped urban debris. Inspired by the ancient pond-and-dike systems and islanding techniques in the Pearl River Delta, and using simple cut-and-fill methods, a necklace of ponds and dikes was created along the periphery of the park that catches and filters urban runoff from the surrounding communities.
In the central part of the park, dirt and fill were used to create islands that are planted with banyan trees to create a forested wetland. Both ponding and islanding will dramatically increase the water-retention capacity of the park and increase the eco-tones between water and land to speed up the removal of nutrients. The constructed wetland can accommodate 830,000 cubic meters of storm water, dramatically reducing the risk of urban inundation.
Along the Huangpu River in Shanghai, we designed Houtan Park as a regenerative living landscape on a former industrial brownfield. The park’s constructed wetland, ecological flood control, reclaimed industrial structures and materials, and urban agriculture are integral components of an overall restorative design strategy to treat polluted river water and recover the degraded waterfront in an aesthetically pleasing way. The 10-hectare park, which is 1,700 meters long, filters phosphorous and other nutrients from 2,400 cubic meters of water per day, which is enough water for 5,000 people.
The Meshe River in Haikou has suffered flooding due to the monsoon climate and water pollution caused by sewage and non-point source pollution from urban and suburban runoff. The river had been channelized with concrete for the sole objective of flood control, which destroyed its ecological resilience.
We used nature-based solutions to create resilient green infrastructure that has revived the river. The concrete flood walls have been removed and the river was reconnected to the ocean so that tides could once again enter the city. Wetlands and shallow river margins were reconstructed so that mangroves could be restored. A terraced mosaic of wetlands along the banks of the river was designed as natural water-treatment facilities that catch and cleanse nutrient-laden runoff, and a significant amount of wildlife habitat has been recovered in the dense city center.
The Mangrove Park in Sanya City, on the island of Hainan, is another example of nature-based climate resilience. To mitigate urban flood risk caused by climate change, it was critical to restore mangrove along the waterways and coastal shorelines. One of the key challenges was finding an efficient and inexpensive method to reestablish the mangrove habitat that had been extensively destroyed due to rapid urban development. To that end, fill composed of urban construction debris and concrete from the demolition of the flood wall was recycled on site.
Cut-and-fill techniques were subsequently used to create a gradient of different riparian eco-tones for diverse fauna and flora, particularly different species of mangroves. An interlocking-finger design was used to lead ocean tides into the waterways, while also attenuating the impact of both tropical storm surge and flash floods originating in the urban and upland area upstream, both of which can harm establishment of mangroves. This also maximized habitat diversity and edge effects, which increase the interface between plants and water; this, in turn, enhances ecological processes such as nutrient removal from the water.
The dynamic aquatic environment that follows the rise and fall of tides and provides several aquatic species with the daily water-level fluctuation they need for survival. Terraces between city streets and the river have been augmented with bioswales to catch and filter urban stormwater runoff. In just three years, an area of lifeless land fill within a concrete flood wall in the center of the city was transformed into a lush mangrove park. This type of mangrove rehabilitation can be implemented at a large scale efficiently.
In China, 60 percent of urban soil is contaminated, and conventional remediation is usually very expensive. In Tianjin’s Qiaoyuan Park, I wanted to show how we can let nature do the work, by using nature-based soil remediation techniques. Through regenerative design and by sculpting land forms and collecting rainwater, the natural process of plant adaptation and community evolution was introduced to transform a former shooting-range-turned-garbage-dump into a low maintenance urban park. The park provides diverse nature-based services for the city, including retaining and purifying storm water to regulate pH, providing opportunities for environmental education and creating a cherished aesthetic experience.
Making Big Feet Beautiful means promoting the new aesthetics to create deep forms. In this, I was inspired by Anne Whiston Spirn’s New Aesthetics that “encompasses both nature and culture, that embodies function, sensory perception, and symbolic meaning, and that embraces both the making of things and places and the sensing, using, and contemplating of them.”
The timeless interdependence of culture and nature is most visible in the bond between peasants and their farmlands, and practices such as cut and fill, irrigate and fertilize, frame and access, grow and harvest, recycle and save — all of which embody some of the principles of new aesthetics that inspired my design.
In Qinhuangdao, I put a ribbon on the river to frame and transform the messy nature into an ordered urban park. Winding through a background of natural terrain and vegetation, the “red ribbon” spans five hundred meters and integrates lighting, seating, environmental interpretation and orientation. This project demonstrates how a minimal design solution can dramatically improve the landscape, while preserving as much of the natural river corridor as possible during the process of urbanization.
China has 20 percent of the world’s population, but only 8 percent of the world’s arable land—10 percent of which has been lost in the past 30 years due to urban development. Our project on the Shenyang Jianzhu University Campus uses rice paddies to simultaneously define the structure of the landscape design and introduce a productive landscape into the urban environment. It is a demonstration of a method to resolve the tension between urban development and food production in today’s developing world.
In Quzhou’s Luming Park, we embraced the concept of agricultural urbanism. On a site surrounded by dense new urban development, we created a dynamic urban park by incorporating the agricultural strategy of crop rotation and a low-maintenance meadow. An elevated floating network of pedestrian paths, platforms and pavilions creates a visual frame for this cultivated swath and the natural features of the terrain and water. Using these strategies, a deserted, mismanaged landscape was dramatically transformed into a productive and beautiful setting for urban living, while preserving the natural and cultural patterns and processes of the site.
I have also tried to show the possibilities of reusing and recycling. While China has been on an incredible building boom, it has also demolished large parts of its cities. In 2003, for instance, some 325 million square meters of new buildings were constructed, while 156 million square meters was demolished. Thousands of villages and factories were wiped out.
The Zhongshan Shipyard Park near Guangzhou, inaugurated in 2002, was an effort to show that existing building and other structures can be incorporated into new development. The park reflects the remarkable 70-year history of socialist China and has been lauded as a breakthrough in Chinese landscape architecture. The original vegetation and natural habitats were preserved and only native plants were added. Machines, docks, and other industrial structures were retained not only for functional purposes, but also to educate and because of their aesthetic appeal. The park demonstrates how landscape architects can create environmentally-friendly public places full of cultural and historical meaning on sites not previously designated for attention and preservation. Its design supports use by the common people, as well as the environmental ethic that “weeds are beautiful.”
For over 20 years, we have tested and built over 500 projects in 200-plus cities and showcased numerous replicable models for healing and transforming our land at various scales.
Looking back, I have a better understanding of how my village-level landscape experiences, melded with modern concepts of landscape and urbanism, sustainability and aesthetics, which were developed by my many teachers and mentors, have helped me to address some of the common challenges that our profession is facing today.
I find myself thinking often of my roots in Dong Yu village. I think of King Yu the Great, who had the vision of healing the earth and living with nature. I think of the peasants who transform the landscape in which they live with their own hands. And I want to think like a king, but act like a peasant.
This is an incredibly sobering time to contemplate the relationship between humans and the natural world. The global pandemic is a powerful reminder that any belief in the conquest of nature is pure folly. We are all living in a new era of humility.
Yet I also believe that the pandemic—together with climate change—is also highlighting how important it is to create landscapes that can not only heal bodies and minds, but also the planet itself.
It is such a great honor to be in the company of the many great and thoughtful landscape architects who come together under the banner of IFLA. As former IFLA president Martha Fajardo said in 2005: “Landscape architect is the profession of the future.”
Thank you, and I wish everyone the best in collectively keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.