Can spending time in nature help heal veterans with post-traumatic disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury? As suicides from PTSD sufferers only increase, the Institute of Integrative Health (IIH) seeks out answers to this important question through their new Green Road project, which just opened at Naval Walter Reed facility in Maryland.
In the middle of the vast medical and university campus, the Green Road takes patients, nurses, and staff down a zig-zaging path to a healing woodland garden, a beautiful 2-acre valley, which used to be a golf course, but now feels wild. A restored forest and stream is at the heart of the experience.
And these restored places are the source of the vista seen from two new, open-air cedar and steel pavilions.
The landscape was designed and built by a team led by CDM Smith, including landscape architect Jack Sullivan, FASLA, and his students at the University of Maryland, and Alt Architecture.
The idea for the project came from retired U.S. Navy neurologist Frederick Foote, M.D., now a scholar at IIH. His vision was to bring back an ancient idea: using nature to heal. As Foote explained, four different teams of scientists — from the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Tucson; Benson-Henry Institute of the Massachusetts General Hospital; Consortium for Health and Military Performance, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; and National Institute of Health Clinical Center, Pain, and Palliative Care Services — will undertake in-depth studies in the Green Road to “isolate where nature has the most effect.” Some $250,000 in research will be conducted, all made by possible by the smart and impactful TKF Foundation, which provided some $1.1 million towards the $1.5 million project.
Walking down the path, one of the first things visitors notice are the massive logs strewn through the garden. At first, I thought their intention was ecological: to regenerate the soil and create habitat for small creatures. But, as Foote explained, the dead trees are also symbols of fallen soldiers. Often, soldiers experience PTSD because they have lost a close friend in battle. The logs are opportunities for those suffering with PTSD to remember those they’ve lost in a more gentle, natural way and connect death with the positive cycle of regeneration.
Throughout, the garden brings in elements that veterans, both with PTSD and without, identified were important to them. As Sullivan explained at the opening ceremony, design charrettes were conducted with 30-35 veterans to figure out how the natural beauty of the stream and forest could be enhanced to create a healing effect. “They wanted both a solitary place where they could get away and find solace nature, and a special place to meet others to commemorate those who had fallen, a place to get together with family and comrades.”
The landscape restoration was extensive. Invasive plants were removed and 58 new trees were planted, including river birch, pin oaks, and magnolias. Summersweet shrubs, which will bloom in summer, were planted in abundance. Still, the restored stream, done by Quarry Aquatics, is perhaps the major attraction. One bank was stabilized, trees were cut back, and the other eroding bank will be restored next.
Foote explained that “the Green Road features stone, water, trees, and animals. Through design, they are paired in new ways. We believe these paired natural systems can help heal PTSD.”
Foote looks to nature for solutions, perhaps because he has spent decades witnessing the failings of modern medicine to solve PTSD in wounded warriors. “We have been trying to heal people one organ at a time with pills and surgery.” But the problem is that PTSD “doesn’t respond to those treatments, so we need to try holistic approaches.”
That move towards holistic medicine — which the Greeks of ancient times and the Chinese of today still practice — has been a slog. “Our cultural obsession with technology means we underestimate holistic therapy.” Mainstream medical practitioners undervalue them, because, to date, it has been impossible to measure “whole body effects, mathematically.” They can only measure with confidence that this treatment or that pill yields results on this or that organ.
Foote sees the future in creating proof of the benefits of holistic approaches: a set of “whole body metrics” that could be used to test and measure the effect of holistic treatments for PTSD and other disorders. Foote wants to apply many technologies and approaches to forge these new metrics: genomics, which would look at which genes are turned on during PTSD and what can turn then off; artificial intelligence-based textual analysis of patients’ writings to categorize and diagnose their disorders; integrated biometrics of stress to measure physiological effects of suffering and also treatments; and big data analyses to find more accurate sub-groups for evaluation. Foote hopes the Green Road can help test these nascent “whole body metrics,” at least for the metrics and potential treatments related to exposure to nature. “I hope this becomes the national laboratory for studying how humans interact with nature.”
His hope is that a group of 50 veterans, some suffering from PTSD and some not, will be studied in the Green Road. Their physiological response to the place will be measured in detail. “We could ask a group to spend an hour in the Green Road on a scavenger hunt, and then the next day, they could do the same on the streets and we could measure the differences in their responses.”
While the Green Road is a major success, the only criticism is that it’s hidden behind buildings and parking lots, and there is no signage to explain how to get there. It’s a good 15 minute walk from the medical facilities. For patients, it’s a destination, not a place to simply wander into. Walter Reed will need to further promote to ensure it’s well-used by the people who need it. Asked whether Walter Reed will actually prescribe patient time there or conduct horiticultural therapy sessions there, Foote seemed a bit pessimistic, pointing to limited budgets. “We need $2 million, $5 million to do everything.” But he does see the Green Road hosting events and therapeutic exercises.
His grand vision for sometime in the near future is beautiful: sufferers of PTSD will wear a device like a Fitbit that would measure whole body responses and would let them know when they are getting stressed and alert them to go spend time in a park. A fascinating mix of ancient wisdom and new technologies.
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is excited to announce its 30 professional award recipients for 2016. Selected from 456 entries, the awards honor top public, commercial, residential, institutional, planning, communications and research projects in the U.S. and around the world. The winners will receive their awards at the ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in New Orleans on Monday, October 24 at the New Orleans Ernest M. Morial Convention Center.
The following is a complete list of 2016 professional award winners:
General Design Category
Award of Excellence (see image above)
Underpass Park, Toronto, Ontario
by PFS Studio for Waterfront Toronto
Framing Terrain and Water: Quzhou Luming Park, Quzhou City, Zhejiang Province, China
by Turenscape for the Quzhou City Government
Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, Bishan, Singapore
by Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl for the Public Utilities Board / National Parks Board, Singapore
Converging Ecologies as a Gateway to Acadiana, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana
by CARBO Landscape Architecture for St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission
The Metro-Forest Project, Bangkok, Thailand
by Landscape Architects of Bangkok (LAB) for PTT Public Company Limited
The Power Station, Dallas
by Hocker Design Group for The Pinnell Foundation
Corktown Common: Flood Protection and a Neighbourhood Park, Toronto, Ontario
by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc. for Waterfront Toronto in Partnership with Toronto Region Conservancy Authority (TRCA) and Infrastructure Ontario (IO)
Grand Teton National Park Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, Moose, Wyoming
by Swift Company LLC for the National Park Service, Grand Teton National Park Foundation and Grand Teton Association
Eco-Corridor Resurrects Former Brownfield, Ningbo, China
by SWA for Ningbo Planning Bureau – East New Town Development Committee
Analysis and Planning Category
Award of Excellence
The Copenhagen Cloudburst Formula: A Strategic Process for Planning and Designing Blue-Green Interventions, Copenhagen, Denmark
by Ramboll and Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl for the Municipality of Copenhagen
Central Puget Sound Regional Open Space Strategy, Puget Sound Region, Washington
by University of Washington Green Futures Lab for The Bullitt Foundation and The Russell Family Foundation
Rebuild by Design, The Big U, Manhattan, New York
by Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners for the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, Rebuild by Design
Memorial Park Master Plan 2015, Houston
by Nelson Byrd Woltz for the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, The Memorial Park Conservancy, and Uptown Houston
Baton Rouge Lakes: Restoring a Louisiana Landmark from Ecological Collapse to Cultural Sanctuary, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
by SWA Group for the Baton Rouge Area Foundation
Bayou Greenways: Realizing the Vision, Houston
by SWA Group for the Houston Parks Board
Award of Excellence
What’s Out There Guidebooks
by The Cultural Landscape Foundation
Roving Rangers: Bringing the Parks to the People
by BASE Landscape Architecture, for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and the Santa Monica Mountains Fund
Activating Land Stewardship and Participation in Detroit: A Field Guide to Working with Lots
by Detroit Future City, published by Inland Press
Landscape Architecture Documentation Standards: Principles, Guidelines and Best Practices
by Design Workshop, published by John Wiley & Sons
PHYTO: Principles and Resources for Site Remediation and Landscape Design
by Kate Kennen, ASLA, and Niall Kirkwood, FASLA, published by Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group
DredgeFest Event Series
by The Dredge Research Collaborative
Sea Change: Boston
by Sasaki Associates Inc.
Weather-Smithing: Assessing the Role of Vegetation, Soil and Adaptive Management in Urban Green Infrastructure Performance
by Andropogon Associates Ltd. for the University of Pennsylvania
Residential Design Category
Award of Excellence
DBX Ranch: A Transformation Brings Forth a New Livable Landscape, Pitkin County, Colorado
by Design Workshop Inc.
Kronish House, Beverly Hills, California
by Marmol Radziner
The Restoring of a Montane Landscape, Rocky Mountains, Colorado
by Design Workshop Inc.
Chilmark: Embracing a Glacial Moraine, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
by Stephen Stimson Associates Landscape Architects
The Rivermark, Sacramento, California
by Fletcher Studio for Bridge Housing Corporation
Water Calculation and Poetic Interpretation, Carmel, California
by Arterra Landscape Architects
The Landmark Award
Michigan Avenue Streetscape: 20 Years of Magnificent Mile Blooms, Chicago
by Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects for the City of Chicago/Michigan Avenue Streetscape Association
The professional awards jury included:
Kona Gray, ASLA, Chair, EDSA, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Keith Bowers, FASLA, Biohabitats Inc. Baltimore
Jennifer Guthrie, FASLA, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, Seattle
Mami Hara, ASLA, Philadelphia Water Department, Philadelphia
Christopher Hume, Architecture Critic, Toronto Star, Toronto, Ontario
Lee-Anne Milburn, FASLA, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, California
Willett Moss, ASLA, CMG Landscape Architecture, San Francisco
Suman Sorg, FAIA, DLR Group | Sorg, Washington, D.C.
Toody Maher is the founder and executive director of Pogo Park. She is an artist, inventor, and entrepreneur and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, California.
In the Iron Triangle in Richmond, California, which is one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the country, you’ve created an exciting model, which combines community development, child development, play, and parks. What are the essential elements of a Pogo Park?
Any public space can be transformed into a Pogo Park. In essence, a Pogo Park is an amazing place, a magical place for children to play. There are five key elements. First of all, a Pogo Park must be staffed. You need someone there who clean the park, welcome folks as they come in, and make it a safe and welcoming gathering place for the community. Second, there needs to be an office there. The third is a rich play environment. We have to get away from plastic, static play equipment. Experts on play talk about how kids need loose parts and environments they can manipulate, so they can build their own things and explore. The key feature of a Pogo Park is a super-rich play environment. The fourth element is just basic amenities — a place to sit in the shade, a bathroom, and running water. And the last is to make it a hub of the community. We have the book mobile, farmer’s market, and visits from the National Park Service who want to show the kids a ranger tour. We’re just the place. We are the community hub.
If you’re knowledgeable about Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language, that’s the Bible for us. There’s certain things that you can do that are essential, but you can do it 500 or 5,000 ways.
To give you some background: Elm Playlot was an existing park for 70 years, but it failed. The city has renovated it three times, and the latest in 2009 cost $300,000. We begged the city not to do it, but they went ahead because they had a grant. Within a week, somebody tried to burn it down.
Pogo Park started with a core team of eight: the Elm Playlot Action Committee (EPAC). The first person I met was Carmen Lee, who lives right next door to the park. I just went around knocking on doors and meeting folks. There were people who wouldn’t open the door. I would show up each day and they wouldn’t even say hello. From 2009 to 2016 the composition of EPAC has changed. It went from eight to six to ten to twelve to fourteen to seven. All of the members have deep ties to the Iron Triangle: they were born there, they live there. But the members of the same core team who started at the beginning have been through all seven years of the project.
What’s great is the power of incremental change. We avoided the usual process: the park fails, then you helicopter in, and, in one week’s time, there’s a new park, and then the mayor comes, and you cut the ribbon, and the moment that everyone leaves — the moment the 76-piece marching back leaves — the whole thing goes back to what it was, so nothing is really transformed. As some residents say, you can’t put a mink coat on a skunk. By coming in and putting this thing down, it doesn’t mean lives are going to change. Transformation needs to be deeper.
EPAC started working with the residents to reclaim the park. Before we got our $2 million state park grant to redo the park, I told the team about Burning Man in the Nevada desert, how folks build this mini city in a week. I said: “let’s do Burning Man in the Iron Triangle!” We went to Home Depot and bought a $2,000 3-foot fence and built a fence around Elm Playlot to claim the boundary. We came in each day and cleaned the park, so it was super clean. We brought in a shipping container we got from the Port of Richmond and built a little office inside the shipping container we could open each day. We put out our play materials and made our enriched play space. We rented a porta potty, which we covered in beautiful plants and artwork. And if somebody needed to go to the bathroom, they’d come up to somebody on our staff and we would let them in. Folks would come just to go to the bathroom, because the porta potty was tricked out. We bought the house next to the park for $50,000. And got a $300 fridge off Craigslist and became an official distribution point for the school free summer lunches. We served 9,000 meals one summer. We got into the space and claimed it.
Going back to how to involve the community: Elm Playlot came alive because people from the neighborhood went and worked there each day. They cleaned it, built things, or served as staff. As folks drive by, they could see something was changing. Everybody started to come by because they were like, “What you all doing next? Oh, this so great.” One thing I learned: If the community makes the changes themselves, then the change is deeper and felt more widely.
It wasn’t just like there was a one-week charrette. We did a five year one! As the great park designer, Susan Goltsman, FASLA, with MIG in Berkeley, said: “Great playgrounds are in a constant state of change.” They can’t just be static. To be alive, parks need to evolve. Pogo Park has been a living charrette.
How did the process of 3-D prototyping the park design work? And why do you think it was better than the typical approach with charrettes, maps, renderings?
The real language needed to communicate design is the opposite of what you need to understand a landscape architecture plan on paper. With a 3-D model, you get to see what’s coming in life size. You’re actually experiencing it. If we want to put a tree somewhere, we’ll just go out and buy a tree in a five gallon bucket and put it there, so people can actually say, “Oh, a tree’s there.” They can walk around and see spaces.
I’ve noticed that when I’m dealing with some landscape architects and designers, they come out with the dimensions of what something should be right away. They’ll say, “Oh, well, why don’t we put the door at three feet and this at two feet.” And they work all by numbers. But our approach is: “Do not impose a number.” First of all, mark it, and when it feels right, measure. That is the measurement that goes on the paper. So many times when design is done on paper, it looks good on paper, because it’s all math. But when you build it, there’s so many little things that were off. The spacing is usually off. The only way you can really get spacing is to do it.
Pogo Park involved the community in the actual construction of the park, paying neighbors of the park to build it. How did the process of co-developing the park with the community work?
We have put over $1 million in wages and contracts into the Iron Triangle. Everyone expects people who are poor and have no job to come in and volunteer. Everywhere I went, people said: “Oh, Toody, you and your volunteers.” No. Everyone was paid for their contribution.
We were also blessed to partner with Scientific Art Studio, which happens to have a 2-acre fabrication studio six blocks from our park in the Iron Triangle, to build the park. The guy who runs it — Ron Holthuysen — is a world famous designer of children’s play spaces. He’s the bomb. He just did a $3.5 million new playground for the San Francisco Zoo. His belief is that children must be free to run wild and to explore.
Ron helped us figure out how to work with a playground safety inspector. We were building custom-made, artisanal play elements. Every step of the way we made sure we conformed with the safety regulations. He set up a studio for us in his studio where he acted as our training wheels, empowering local people to do it for themselves.
It was this holy trinity. First, we had community residents. Second, we had the city of Richmond, which is very entrepreneurial and forward thinking. They gave us the green light to do this radical thing: to try and build a park with the community by hand. And, third, we had Ron from Scientific Arts. However, the residents were the most powerful force. All we did was create a system where someone could think up an idea and then just do it. Residents started getting into it, saying things like: “Well, we should put a bench there.” So then we would just go to Ron’s shop and build a bench and bring it back. Residents started gaining a lot of confidence by thinking, doing.
The numbers who have been employed with Pogo Park over the past decade is around 110-120 community residents. We’ve had probably another 250 who come and work for two weeks. But we primarily pour our money into our core staff. We have 10 people on the community resident team now that work between 15 hours a week and full-time. And they’re paid between $16 and $22 an hour. Those working full-time have full health, dental, and vision benefits. All of these people have never had insurance before. Pogo Park has definitely helped transform the lives of the key folks on our team. And we now have $1.5 million in contracts to design and build more parks in Richmond, too.
About 25 percent of our team does cleaning and maintenance. It’s a lot of work, because you’re cleaning not only the park, but also the streets around the park. When people come into our block, they can just feel it, because the streets are all clean, and there’s all these trees planted. I mean we clean up. Last year, we had 15,000 kids sign in at our sites. And these kids play hard, so things get broken. You have to replace the wooden planks and other things. When things break things, we take them to a work shop where we have a team. Our maintenance team can also build things.
About 50 percent are employed in running the park. We have a park host who comes in somebody who comes into the office every day. They put out all the play stuff and open up the bathrooms. They’re the ones scheduling all the programs Monday through Saturday. The other 25 percent does outreach and design for The Yellow Brick Road, plants trees, plant trees, and individual and group skills training. They train community members on how to use email, resolve conflicts, speak in public, etc.
How do you generate deep community buy in and involvement where others have failed?
We just show up every day and keep showing up. Most folks come into a community for a year or two and then leave. And then things go back to what they were. So the community doesn’t trust new initiatives, because they too will leave. It’s taken us nine years of work in this neighborhood, showing up Monday through Friday and not leaving, to gain that trust.
Some 7,500 neighborhood kids use Elm Playlot and Harbor-8 Parks annually. What do these places try to do about works and what doesn’t in terms of play? And, specifically, what’s needed to create a safe, welcoming playground in a neighborhood that has a lot of crime?
If you go into any of these neighborhoods, the first thing is you have got to staff the park. What makes it safe is there’s someone who’s there watching out to make sure the park is clean, safe, and welcoming. Second, parks must be “bespoke,” custom made for the particular neighborhood, so they can then be woven into the fabric of the neighborhood. The park has got to have soul. Most of these new plastic playgrounds that are plopped in from a catalogue just don’t have soul.
The design of the playground has to be generated from the inside out. The community has to be involved and figure out how it’s going to weave into the neighborhood. Children’s play is very complicated. It’s the mother’s breast milk of healthy development. Parks departments typically put in static play equipment that’s only good for physical play. You go up a ladder and slide down the slide and then go on the swing. But there’s all kinds of play: cognitive play, linguistic play, and imaginative, creative play. We have to create playgrounds that meet all the play needs of kids, not just physical needs. That’s why we say Pogo Park is an enriched play environment.
How have the new parks helped resolve community conflict and build inter-community trust? And what do you think still needs to happen?
Parks provide a community space for every human being on the planet. We’re social beings and gravitate toward public spaces where we can be with other people. Just claiming and holding this space, it becomes a sacred watering hole for the community. That has helped build the trust of the community, because it’s a place where people can actually connect in a real way with other residents and families.
You can’t just put the bones of the park down. You can’t just come into a neighborhood like the Iron Triangle and just plop something down and leave. You have bones but you also have to spirit. The spirit is programming, which makes the park come to life.
Now you’re rethinking another form of community space, streets. A project now in the works is the Yellow Brick Road, a “safe, green and clean” route for walking and biking that connects neighborhood schools, parks, transportation, shopping. Pogo Park organized another preview of a full scale 3-D prototype for the community to try out. What is your approach for designing, building, and maintaining this Yellow Brick Road?
We used the same 3-D modeling language we used for the parks, but translated it into the streets. We had to slow down traffic on the corners of the park, as we had some 15,000 people sign into the park last year, including thousands of kids. We worked with some of the top transportation engineers to design a new roundabout. We figured out what the dimensions needed to be and then mocked up a 3-D roundabout model. In the middle of the roundabout there is a hand-carved, eight-foot-tall totem pole the Pogo Park community team carved. Over two days, we let the neighborhood, police, and fire fighters actually drive through it.
We’ve spoken to others who have done 3-D models out of the street, but they never opened theirs to actual traffic. Neighbors could see what is going to be built rather than see it on a piece of paper. They could then add their thoughts right away. The community team, who are people the neighborhood knows, facilitated. Many neighbors, police, and fire fighters came up and thanked us so much for this. The 3-D models really got the community and city involved in a new way. We received a grant from the California department of transportation, and the Yellow Brick Road opened in January.
The Philadelphia city council approved a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages. The “soda-tax”, as it is being called, will raise funds for parks and recreation center upgrades, pre-Kindergarten programs, community schools, and the city’s general fund, according to Mayor Jim Kenney.
The city council claims that soda-tax revenue will account for $91 million per year and $386 million over the next five years. About 15 percent of that revenue, or $58 million, is allotted for what the city is calling it’s Rebuild program, which includes parks and recreation center upgrades. Philadelphia’s parks and recreation facilities are notoriously underfunded.
One of the major goals of the Rebuild program is to address equity in the city, according to first deputy managing director Brian Abernathy.
“Everyone, no matter where they live, deserves quality recreation centers, open space and libraries.”
Abernathy added that the Rebuild initiative will conform with Philadelphia’s larger green infrastructure agenda by supporting “broader storm water management, energy efficiency, and sustainability goals.”
The bill was not passed without controversy, with opponents claiming it will be levied disproportionately on the poor. Last-minute negotiations designating a portion of the revenue towards shoring up gaps in the city’s budget further stoked opposition to the bill. Its approval has made Philadelphia only the second U.S. city to pass such a tax.
Mayor Kenney had been building political momentum for such an investment in public infrastructure prior to his election last November and financed research to find out what the opportunities are.
Chris Mendel, a landscape architect with Philadelphia-based Andropogon Associates, whose team helped lead a cost-estimate analysis of park upgrades, said Mayor Kenney’s staff approached his firm last October to analyze approximately 470 outdoor open spaces owned and operated by Philadelphia parks and recreation. Aided by data from planning and urban design office Interface Studio, Mendel and his team of Lauren Mandel, ASLA, and Patty West, Associate ASLA, had two months to complete the assessment.
“I came up with a survey method and we quickly chose some representative target sites to go see. 82 sites were physically visited. We were done with the assessments by mid-November.” Mendel said that in the waning days of the assessment, two parks staff members joined his team, helping to complete the assessment in time.
“As we finished up, everybody was hungry for numbers: how much this is really going to cost,” Mendel said. He and his team created two cost estimates for each site: One, a basic package that would make each park clean, safe, and ready to use; the second, a deluxe upgrade that would add sustainability and dynamism to the sites. “That’s where we added porous asphalt, nature play and water features.”
Mendel and his team then went over the estimates with seasoned parks staff, whose knowledge he said was invaluable to the process. “What we found was that the costs were not so bad.”
The portion of the soda tax revenue designated for Rebuild will be used to service debt on $300 million in bonds that the city is seeking, which will in turn be used with other private and public sources to help fund the project, according to Philadelphia Magazine.
PBS will broadcast a new documentary, 10 Parks That Changed America, on April 12th. Produced by WTTW in Chicago and featuring Geoffrey Baer, the show identifies the 10 most influential urban parks in the country, from the era of America’s early settlers to the present day. In a preview at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Baer and show producer and writer Dan Protess announced the 10 parks selected by WTTW and its expert advisors, including Thaisa Way, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of Washington; Walter Hood, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of California, Berkeley; and Peter Harnik, Hon. ASLA, director of city park excellence at the Trust for Public Land and author of Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities.
Here are the parks they settled on:
1) The Squares of Savannah, Georgia
2) Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
3) Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts
4) Central Park, New York City, New York
5) Chicago’s Neighborhood Parks, Chicago, Illinois
6) The Riverwalk, San Antonio, Texas
7) Overton Park, Memphis, Tennessee
8) Freeway Park, Seattle, Washington
9) Gas Works Park, Seattle, Washington
10) The High Line, New York City, New York
At the preview, Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), and Harnik discussed the list. Somerville said the parks were all created to solve complex environmental, social, or economic problems, and those problems are still here today. “Savannah’s squares were created with the belief that everyone should have access to a park. Today, we see the same ideas underlying the environmental justice movement and the quest for clean air and clean water for everyone.”
She argued the one important park left out of the list was the National Mall in Washington, D.C. because it’s a symbol of the “accessibility of our democracy.” The National Mall shows the “power of places to bring people together. It was hugely influential in setting the public park or plaza as the place where people get together to express themselves. It’s the epitome of that.”
Protess said it was challenging to select just 10 parks that changed America and admitted many good candidates for the list had to be left on the cutting room floor. “Parks were selected for their influence, but we also needed to represent diverse geographies and include a diversity of forms, so it wasn’t all trees and grass.”
Somerville and Harnik were largely positive about the state of American urban parks. Somerville said “most urban park bonds pass. While Americans seem to be anti-government and hate spending these days, they are happy to put money into parks because they know how much they do for communities.” Harnik argued that “with the further densification of cities, every city now knows they need good parks to compete.” He said young people moving into the cities are looking for “places to play” and “empty nesters,” or retirees, moving back into cities from the suburbs, are looking for “some of the green space they had in suburbia.”
They also argued that showcase parks like the High Line in New York City and Millennium Park in Chicago aren’t being built at the expense of neighborhood parks either. Somerville said “the momentum for more parks is greater than that.” And Harnik, who ranks urban parks with his ParkScore tool, said “there is now a political movement for parks. There is a whole group of people who think parks are cool and important and they are bringing their voices.” In particular, dog owners are revitalizing the parks movement by pushing for investment in dog parks, which is having positive ripple effects for the rest of parks.
Somerville pointed to the slew of new research on the health benefits of nature, arguing the science shows “humans are hard-wired for nature, and so urban communities are putting in green spaces wherever they can.” The research shows that spending time in nature “reduces blood pressure, releases all these good hormones, decreases stress levels, and these effects last a while.” The opportunity to spend time in an urban park is “precious.” In the future, she sees only “more opportunities to bring in nature” in underused urban edges, like damaged waterfronts, and even in underpass parks, which are being developed in a number of cities. The key will be making these places resilient to climate change, storm-proof respites that can also mitigate flooding and the urban heat island effect.
Park access must become more equitable, and Somerville and Harnik identified some communities showing the way forward. Somerville said “under-served areas are now turning post-industrial landscapes into resilient public spaces that people want to be in.” She pointed to Hunts Point Landing, a park that sprung up amid a polluted waterfront in the South Bronx, which has some of the highest asthma and obesity rates in New York City. And Harnik explained how New York City’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio has shifted away from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s focus on the showcase parks like the High Line to invest in small parks in poorer neighborhoods.
Plans for Botanic Garden Move Forward, Despite Neighbors’ Protests– The Houston Chronicle, 2/3/16
“Until now, the proposed Houston Botanic Garden has delivered more pain than gain to some neighbors in the southeast quadrant of the city. The future garden site is still functioning as Glenbrook Golf Course, and some residents would rather keep it just as it is.”
London’s Green Revolution– The Telegraph, 2/9/16
“Landscape architects in London rarely get to think big. It’s all “pocket parks” and “parklets,” typical of a capital city where every inch of green space is worth its weight in gold, almost literally, and where garden designers strive to make buyers in small spaces feel they’re getting a taste of the great outdoors.”
There’s a Lesson in Spain’s Surreal, Unfinished Cities – The Huffington Post, 2/11/16
“In a memorable scene in ‘The Big Short,’ the Oscar-nominated 2015 movie about the financial crisis, a real estate agent shows the main characters around a desolate Florida subdivision. She insists that the market is just in a lull as they drive past rows and rows of vacant homes.”
Feature: In and Outdoors– The Architects’s Newspaper, 2/11/16
“As more people choose to live in dense urban environments, the latest hot-ticket residential amenity has nothing to do with marble countertops or on-call concierges: It’s outdoor space, the scarcest of all commodities in an environment where, regardless of grandeur, distance from nature can take a toll on quality of life.”
What Happened to the Great Urban Design Projects? – The New York Times, 2/12/16
“American infrastructure is deferred home maintenance on a massive scale. We just keep putting it off until something major — and often catastrophic — happens, and then it ends up costing twice as much as it would have had we taken care of it proactively.”
While landscape architects, arborists, and park advocates, and an increasing number of mayors, planners, and public health officials, understand the presence of nearby nature in cities to be central to human health and well-being, the public seems to think of tree-lined streets, trails, and parks as “nice, but not necessary, add-ons,” according to a new report commissioned by the TKF Foundation and conducted by the FrameWorks Institute, a non-partisan research organization. The report shows wide gaps in understanding between members of the public and experts on the health benefits of nature, the value of daily exposure to nature, how landscape design can enhance nature’s health and social benefits, and how the presence of green space and trees can boost neighborhood and, by extension, community connections. The members of the public surveyed also don’t perceive the typical differences in the amount of trees and parks available to wealthy and poorer urban neighborhoods and so don’t see it as a major equity issue. Urban nature is simply not a top priority. As one survey respondent said, “nature doesn’t pay the bills.” FrameWorks argues the best way to increase public demand for more parks, trails, and green streets is to undertake a broad communications campaign to educate the public about the health benefits of nature.
FrameWorks interviewed 13 experts on urban nature in one-on-one sessions over multiple hours. Interviews with 52 members of the public were conducted across the country, with 20 in-depth dialogues along with 32 10-minute ones on the street. Interviewees were selected to be representative of the make-up of the country in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, residential location (inner city, outer-city, and rural areas up to three hours from the city), educational background, religious involvement, and political views. This is a small sample of the general public, but FrameWorks argues it’s enough to get a sense of the public’s “top of the mind” thinking about nature, cities, and health.
The experts and members of the public agreed on many things, and FrameWorks argues these areas of agreement are key starting points for creating a campaign that can increase public demand for more urban trees and green spaces:
First, nature is the root of human existence. Humans evolved from natural environments. Experts know this because their training is “firmly grounded in evolutionary biology,” but members of the public understand this, too.
Second, both the public and experts agree that nature sustains us. “Nature is the source of human sustenance,” said both groups, but members of the public tend to be more “consumerist in tenor and less attuned to the importance of biodiversity and linkages across ecosystems.” Consumerist because many of the respondents view nature as simply a source of food, wood and paper, etc — something to be consumed to meet human needs.
Third, cities are inherently stressful; they work against human well-being. Members of the public and experts agree that city life, with its fast pace, as well as “elevated levels of congestion, air pollution” and prevalence of concrete, can be “hard, cold, grey, and depressing.”
Fourth, feeling safe in nature boosts well-being. A quiet natural spot is seen by both members of the public and experts as a “respite from the stressors of modern urban life.” Places with lots of trees and water can provide “rest and positive distraction.” Nature is the opposite of our hectic urban life. Another key concept upon which to build greater understanding.
The gaps between members and the public are too numerous to list in full here, but here are main areas of divergence:
While experts view nature as central to human health and well-being, members of the public view it as a nice add-on and the absence of urban nature doesn’t rank among their top concerns. This may be because the members of the public surveyed don’t understand how time in nature reduces their stress, improves their ability to pay attention, or boosts their sense of well-being.
Experts understand that neighborhood access to trees and park space trends quite closely with income levels — wealthier neighborhoods typically have more of these natural assets than poorer ones, but members of the public are unaware of these different levels of access of nature. Experts also look to the broader return on investment these green spaces provide to tree and park-laden neighborhoods — in terms of increased safety, greater social cohesion and community connection, and improved health — while the public isn’t thinking in those terms. In particular, the community benefits of trees and green spaces are way off their radar.
Experts conceive of a whole range of innovative green infrastructure to deliver the health benefits of nature, but the members of public surveyed mostly thinks in terms of parks and walking or bike trails for recreation and exercise. According to the experts, natural infrastructure helps maximize daily exposures to nature, as exposure needs to be continuous for the benefits of small doses to accrue. But the public thinks of time in nature as a memorable one-off experience — a road trip to Yellowstone National Park, or a weekend hike on the Shenandoah Trail. Nature is a place to go to outside the city to recharge.
For experts, designed nature — realized through landscape architecture or garden design — has intrinsic value. They believe it’s still nature even if it’s managed, but the public largely sees nature “out there,” away from cities, as the most “salutary.” According to the experts, even a small urban garden can provide benefits, but members of the public don’t think these places offer a true break, only those places that truly remove them from their everyday urban life.
Lastly, the experts see the value of good design in public parks, but members of the public surveyed simply think in terms of quantity of green space. “For the public, design is largely a taken-for-granted feature.”
The question then for the many health, design, parks, and trails organizations working on these issues is: how best to communicate the health benefits of nearby urban nature to the public? How can we convince the broader public that spending time in a park, riding a bicycle on a tree-lined trail, or jogging along an urban forest path will have a “meaningful difference” in their health and this natural infrastructure can boost the broader health of the city? How can we convince them that nature in cities can be just as restorative as the nature “out there?”
The best proof may be the reality — well-designed urban parks are natural draws. But many argue that what’s needed is more research and more promotion of positive findings through the media and advocacy efforts directed at urban policymakers. ASLA created a guide to the Health Benefits of Nature, which collects the most credible research, and it has been immensely popular. But, clearly, more research studies are needed, which TKF and some universities and foundations are sponsoring, and more targeted communications campaigns are also needed to reach the urban public.
More promising small-sample research studies could also generate demand for a government-financed, large-scale, longitudinal study examining the impact of nature on all sorts of health mental and physical health issues. This kind of study, if it demonstrated positive results, could help bring the mainstream public health community on board, and, in turn, even more urban policymakers.
The good news is that many mayors and cities already get the value of access to nature, even in car-centric places like Houston, which is investing huge sums in new parks and trails. As momentum builds and more cities act, we can imagine a future where people in all of a city’s neighborhoods enjoy a daily nature outing because nature is everywhere, but this future will take lots more work to achieve.
What if what is outside a school’s windows is as critical to learning as what’s inside the building? A fascinating new study of high school students in central Illinois found that students with a view of trees were able to recover their ability to pay attention and bounce back from stress more rapidly than those who looked out on a parking lot or had no windows. The researchers, William Sullivan, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Dongying Li, a PhD student there, reported their findings in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning.
Sullivan and Li argue that “context impacts learning. It is well-documented, for instance, that physical characteristics of school environments, such as lighting, noise, indoor air quality and thermal comfort, building age and conditions all impact learning.” However, schools’ surrounding landscapes have been too long overlooked for their impact on learning, and it’s time to understand what campus greenery — or lack thereof — means for student performance. Research studies to date have had relatively small sample sizes. While these studies point to encouraging correlations or associations between improved student performance and access to nature on campus, Sullivan and Li argue that up until their study, no causal connections have been proven.
Looking at the effect of views of nature on both cognition and stress recovery, they test two theories: attention restoration theory and stress reduction theory. According to their report, attention restoration theory posits that “people use voluntary control to inhibit distractions and remain focused, and this capacity to remain focused fatigues over time.” But the theory also contends that even just a short period of time in nature (10 minutes or so) can renew our cognitive capacity to pay attention. Nature does this through its ability to engender “soft fascination” that doesn’t demand all of our attention, just enough to enliven us. Stress reduction theory looks at how nature supports psychological and physiological recovery, including lower blood pressure and levels of stress hormones.
In Sullivan and Li’s study, a third of the 94 students, equally male and female, were each randomly assigned to a classroom with either no windows, a window view looking out on a barren landscape, or a window view looking out over greenery. They were all put through about 30 minutes of classroom exercises. Their stress and cognitive states were tested in the beginning to set a baseline, at the end of the classroom activities, and then again after a 10 minute break after the activities. Researchers used both standard questionnaires to test stress and attention levels and various tools to measure their physiological responses to stress, including heart rates, body temperatures, and skin conductance.
After the students had completed 30 minutes of classroom activities, the researchers found the window views of greenery had no impact on students’ ability to pay attention or their stress levels. However, at the end of a 10 minute break after the activities, the researchers discovered those who had a green view bounced back, attention-wise, and became less stressed — this group “performed significantly better on standard tests of attention and showed significantly greater stress recovery than their peers who were assigned to classrooms without a green view.” They think this is because during the classroom activities the students were too busy focused on what they were learning. Only when students with green views had a chance to take a break was their “involuntary attention” engaged while looking out the window. Only then did they receive the restorative benefits of looking at the trees.
Sullivan and Li say they found a causal relationship: “green views produced better attentional functioning and stress recovery.” Furthermore, viewing nature helps both cognition and stress recovery, but through separate mental pathways. In other words, nature’s ability to help us recover our ability to pay attention has nothing to do with whether we are stressed out or not, but nature, separately, also helps us recover from stress. (To learn more about this aspect of their research, read the study).
What’s important for designers, school principals, and educational policymakers is that this is yet another promising study that points to the direct benefits of exposure to nature for students. Sullivan and Li argue that new schools, which are often placed at the “urban-rural fringe” need to be sited where there are a lot of existing trees, and, if that’s not possible, trees and shrubs need to be added. New schools should also be designed so they maximize views of trees and greenery from the inside; and existing schools retrofitted to improve the connection to nature. As Sullivan and Li argue, “architects should work to ensure every classroom has views of green space. Landscape architects should consider the location of classrooms, cafeteria, and hallway windows in the development of their campus design.”
These changes to schools could be more cost-effective than “most interventions aimed at relieving stress (e.g., emotional skill building, anger management, positive behavior programs). Placing trees and shrubs on the school ground is a modest, low-cost intervention that is likely to have long-lasting effects on generations of students.” Lots of schools encourage student environmental groups to engage in volunteer community service. Why not involve these students in the greening of their own campuses and teach them about the value of nature at the same time?
As with any study on the health benefits of nature with a relatively small sample size like this, there are priming issues. And Sullivan and Li acknowledge this: “one limitation is that we could not take into account students’ interactions, physical activities, and their immersive experiences out on the school ground during break, or their exposure to green space during physical education classes or after school. This limits the ecological validity of the findings.”
What’s needed is a large-scale, longitudinal, government-financed study that looks at the benefits of nature across all critical dimensions, but, until then, here is another study that points to the positive effects of nature on cognition and stress recovery, this time in an educational environment.
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 2015. The results of ASLA’s online survey, which asked landscape architects about their use of smartphone apps, were enduringly popular. On the technology front, readers also sought out an op-ed from Jordan Petersen, ASLA, on what drones will mean for planners and designers. (Speaking of which, The Dirt is always looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners. If interested, please send us a note at email@example.com).
Also worth highlighting: The Dirt‘s readers were very interested in the latest research on the health benefits of landscape architecture. We’ll post more on this exciting field of discovery in the coming year.
1) DesignIntelligence 2015 Landscape Architecture Program Rankings Once again, Louisiana State University came in at the top of undergraduate landscape architecture programs. And for the 11th year, Harvard University came in as the best graduate program in the annual survey conducted by DesignIntelligence on behalf of the Design Futures Council.
3) What Dose of Nature Do We Need to Feel Better? There has been a boom in studies demonstrating the health benefits of spending time in nature, or even just looking at nature. But a group of ambitious landscape architects and psychologists are actually trying to determine how to prescribe a “nature pill.”
6) A New Map of the World’s Ecosystems
A new, free, web-based tool from the US Geological Survey (USGS) and ESRI allows us to gain a better understanding of the ecological character of any place in the world.
7) Do Urban Growth Boundaries Work?
Urban growth boundaries are held up as one of the most effective tools for limiting sprawl. But do they actually constrain unplanned development?
8) Drones Will Elevate Urban Design
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently released long-awaited guidelines for commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drones.
10) A Rare Look at the New U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters
This $646-million project is just the first in a series that will transform a mid-19th-century mental asylum, founded by social reformer Dorothea Dix, into the new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security, of which the Coast Guard is a major piece.
A newly expanded and now mobile-friendly version of ASLA’s Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes online exhibition highlights real-world examples of sustainable landscape design and its positive effects on the environment and quality of life. These spaces use natural systems to provide ecosystem services, transform untapped assets into vital community spaces, and create new economic opportunities — they ultimately provide significant environmental, social, and economic value.
Ten new case studies that range from a coastal ecological restoration project to a volunteer-run urban farm illustrate just what sustainable landscapes are and how they provide important benefits on a variety of scales. In the process, the case studies, written in clear, understandable language, also introduce users to what exactly landscape architects do.
The new case studies were carefully selected to show a diversity of landscape types and scales and reflect geographical diversity. There are now a total of 40 case studies.
Lafayette Greens, Detroit, Michigan, a volunteer-run urban farm in downtown Detroit where 800 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables are grown every year.
Living Breakwaters, New York, New York, an innovative coastal ecological restoration project that won $60 million in the Rebuild by Design competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).