Interview with Sadafumi Uchiyama: Designing Peace and Harmony

Sadafumi Uchiyama / Courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden

Sadafumi (Sada) Uchiyama, ASLA, is the Chief Curator and Director of the International Japanese Garden Training Center at the Portland Japanese Garden. Uchiyama is a third-generation Japanese gardener from southern Japan, where his family has been involved in gardening for over a century. In addition to his background as a gardener born and trained in Japan, Uchiyama is also a registered landscape architect in Oregon and California, with Bachelor’s and Master’s of Landscape Architecture degrees from the University of Illinois.

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville.

The mission of the Portland Japanese Garden is “inspiring peace and harmony.” The Garden identifies itself as a place of inclusion, anti-racism, and cultural understanding. How has the garden advanced these goals throughout its history? How have these goals taken form in the landscape?

It’s not what we do, but who we are and how we exist. We take a passive approach, but that doesn’t mean we don’t contribute to these goals.

There’s no prescription for how to enjoy the garden. Typically, a tour involves listening to what the guide is talking about, but we intentionally do not do that and only offer basic guidance. Our tours are very quiet. We just answer questions. We leave everything up to the visitors, because they have their own reasons for coming to the garden. It could be for tourism or because someone lost a loved one or had a new baby.

We don’t prescribe but be there all the time in the same way. We listen and then if a visitor chooses, we strike up a conversation. We have conversations that may be difficult, but we listen and talk.

We see our Japanese garden as a depository of all kinds of emotions. There’s not much signage and interpretation. Each visitor comes with a bag full of things or nothing. And then when the conversations start, we are ready to engage.

Everyone is a human being. Language, cultural background, and ethnicity doesn’t matter. We are accepting. We welcome the human being. We provide the essential experience of being a human being in harmony with nature. We try to bring human beings closer to that harmony.

When Nobuo Matsunaga, former ambassador of Japan to the U.S. visited Portland Japanese Garden, he proclaimed it to be “the most beautiful and authentic Japanese garden in the world outside of Japan.” Some 300 Japanese gardens were designed in the U.S. in the aftermath of World War II to help heal the relationship between the countries and create understanding. What makes the Portland Japanese Garden so beloved in Japan and the U.S.?

Well, it took 60 years at this point. You can imagine how bumpy the relationship was with the city just barely 10 years after the war. But we believed in the power of the garden. We owe a lot to local people, the community. We still define ourselves as caretakers of the garden for the community, which has been our tradition. Portland and the people of the city made the garden possible.

Instead of trying to overcome the differences, we embrace similarities. There are so many similarities between the Pacific Northwest and Japan. The climate is one thing. The hills, beautiful streams and rivers; that’s what Portlanders and Oregonians embrace. There was a natural acceptance of what is Japanese because it wasn’t totally foreign. We are a Japanese garden in the Pacific Northwest forest.

Designed in 1963 by Professor Takuma Tono of Tokyo Agricultural University, the garden combines eight different Japanese garden styles. What are these styles and what do they signify? How do they come together as a whole?

Professor Tono was clear from the get-go why he designed the garden. It’s really nothing but education in a broader sense: community education. He didn’t intend to create a masterpiece, but wanted to offer an introductory range of gardens.

That approach led to his original five gardens. Normally, when we design Japanese gardens, there is usually one theme or type, but he intentionally showed the spectrum of gardens, all different but what we call Japanese gardens. He designed a strolling pond garden, sand and stone garden, flat garden, tea garden, and natural garden, then we added a few, including through the recent Cultural Crossing expansion.

Strolling pond garden at Portland Japanese Garden / Courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden
Tea garden at Portland Japanese Garden / Courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden
Natural garden at Portland Japanese Garden / Courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden

We are very conscious about not copying or recreating the classic garden style, but advancing it. What can Japanese gardens become? Our responsibility is to also move the tradition forward, because tradition is only one little step within a long evolution.

A new, smaller courtyard garden is more like an agricultural field. Then we added a cascade garden to the forefront of the Japanese Garden, which is actually outside of the garden itself, because we like to provide for those who are not paying admission.

Often sand and stone gardens are referred to as Zen gardens in the U.S. but that isn’t accurate. They are dry landscapes, referred to as karesansui gardens, guided by the principle of the “beauty of blank space.” These gardens are designed for contemplation, rather than meditation. How do you explain the growing interest in “blank space” landscapes and buddhism over the past few decades?

It’s about the feeling of relief. An object is tangible — visible and touchable. We conceive what it is and generate feelings. But a void, or nothing, makes us think. In some ways, it actually frees us to change the mode, or forces us to change the mode of thinking, by not thinking. If you have all objects, there is friction. Having the void space provides lubricant for our thinking.

Void space is very important in all Japanese art: calligraphy, for example. An object only exists because of the void.

Sand and stone garden / Courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden

It’s important, especially in today’s world, to step out. Our ability to learn is tied to our ability to step out of “us,” “me,” and “my.”

You are there in the garden because of others. It’s a similar notion: only because of the void can the object exist and be identified. It’s relevant to how we live in our society and cross-cultural. The void is a very wise tool. If we can carry that tool, we can be able to see.

The void in sand and stone garden / Courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden

The flat garden (hira-niwa) further elaborates on this dry landscape style, adding trees and plants that provide color for all seasons. The garden is meant to be experienced from a single viewpoint, looking out beyond Shogi screens in the pavilion. You describe the void as a way to focus on an object in the sand and stone garden, but here that idea has evolved. Why is the expression of seasonal change important in this landscape?

The experience of the garden has both physical and temporal aspects. The flat garden with white sand, lined with pine, cherry, and maple trees, presents the notion of the passage of the time. By providing essentially a still picture through the flat garden, you become much more keen it. You are not physically moving, so you can catch time. But time also has its own way to move independent from our movement.

Flat garden / Courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden
Flat garden / Courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden

Often, there are no flowers in Japanese gardens. Compared with English gardens, there are certainly less. But when flowers exist in Japanese gardens, they are manifesting the passage of time.

Japanese gardens, in a skillful way, give you a sense of the clear passage of a season. That means you can anticipate what’s coming next. That anticipation is the beautiful part. We need to place ourselves in that cycle, so there’s a reason to live and something to look for.

A few years ago, you led the Cultural Crossing expansion of the garden with Portland-based landscape architecture firm Walker Macy and Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, creating a 3.4-acre set of spaces that includes a new pathway to the garden, entry sequence, visitor buildings. The addition seamlessly blends architecture and landscape architecture, Japanese aesthetics with ecological design. What does this project mean to you and how did you guide the project?

Given I have been garden curator for 14 years, it’s really the culmination of my service. The intent of the expansion was to release pressure on the existing garden. In 2015, we started to see close to 400,000 visitors a year. That’s a lot for five and a half acres.

We knew the time to expand would come, so we were well-prepared. Our goal was not expansion in the sense of make the space bigger, but to instead create a new experience outside the garden. The goal is to maintain the tranquility of the original garden, because that’s why people come. No matter if the visitor is in high school student or elderly, they are coming for tranquility, so we have to absolutely defend and maintain that.

It’s nice to have shelters, and, in the wintertime, have a sip of tea and visit exhibition and workshop spaces. In Japan, gates delineate sacred space and secure activities. The entire new space and the facilities serve as a gate to the existing garden.

ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Cultural Crossing Transforms Portland Japanese Garden into a Place of Cultural Dialogue. Portland, Oregon. Walker Macy. Portland Japanese Garden / Jeremy Bitterman

It’s a quintessential Japanese experience. Like in a small village, there’s the agricultural field surrounding the village, then semi-natural wooded areas, then wild nature. Typically, the village shrine is built right on the edge of the wild nature, so there is always the journey. We have emulated that.

When Kengo Kuma first visited the garden and looked at the site, the only one thing he said was, “Uchiyama-san, I don’t think we need to do much.” He was totally in tune with the land. We termed the concept for our expansion as editing the land, as opposed to creating something. We worked with what’s given. After all, we are surrounded by the triple environmental zone, so it’s the most difficult place in Portland to do anything. We embrace and treasure and only touch what is needed. That was the only discussion I had with him in a really substantial way. Once we agree on that editing part, the rest was really easy, because we know where we’re going. And the land actually told us.

ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Cultural Crossing Transforms Portland Japanese Garden into a Place of Cultural Dialogue. Portland, Oregon. Walker Macy. Portland Japanese Garden / James Florio

The new entry sequence also gives people to time to switch their mindset from the hustle and bustle to being ready to see.

We live in such a divided country and world. How does Portland Japanese Garden offer principles that can guide other cultural landscape exchanges in post-conflict contexts? And can approaches taken in the Portland Japanese Garden serve as a model for other forms of cultural exchange beyond landscape?

Our goal is not necessarily to have a Japanese garden. That’s really the means. A Japanese garden is really just a beautiful means. The garden enables us to invite everyone. Everyone can enjoy. But we are a place, an occasion in time, to enable them to think and have conversation that otherwise may be harder to have elsewhere.

I’ve never seen anyone fighting in the garden. Somehow the garden brings emotional stability. The garden helps people go back to who they are — human beings, just speaking different languages and with different hair and skin colors. Those things don’t matter. We have all been around the same height for 150,000 years. Two eyes; two ears. That creature feels the same fundamental things.

We’re passive as opposed to active in terms of addressing those issues. But there is very few places in the world that just welcome any time, rain or shine. We are there to receive your emotion. And that’s what we’re talking about exactly: that is the model. We are rebuilding the model by way of Japanese garden. Creating a space where everyone can express emotions and can have a conversation. That’s all.

The garden is non-denominational. If you think of a building, once it’s complete, it has functions and names. A garden is a garden, that’s it. A garden can be a wedding venue or a place to cry. The beauty of gardens, and not just necessarily Japanese gardens, is the space is built with our psyche as human beings.

We, nature, and the garden are the facilitators. The important thing is to facilitate.

New Research and Roadmap for Creating Healing Green Spaces

The Power of Sacred Places — 25 Years of Science and Evidence-based Design of Healing Green Spaces: A Landscape Architect’s Guide / Nature Sacred

Landscape architects can play a powerful role in changing lives — possibly in ways most haven’t fully contemplated. The spaces they design have the potential to measurably improve the health and well-being of those who spend time in them.

At Nature Sacred, we have spent the past 25 years creating green spaces – or what we call Sacred Places – with the sole intent of bringing nature to people so they could benefit from this restorative, healing connection. From the very beginning, we asked ourselves: how can we work with communities to create spaces that more fully capture the benefits nature has to offer? How do we incorporate established design principles while, at the same time, create spaces that resonate with people and their lived experiences? We knew instinctively that the two went hand-in-hand.

Working with landscape architects, academics, and on the ground with communities, we honed an approach to creating green spaces where people live, work, play and heal that is a blend of scientific evidence and ground truth. We’re sharing this approach in a new report that we released just two weeks ago at ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville.

The Power of Sacred Places — 25 Years of Science and Evidence-based Design of Healing Green Spaces: A Landscape Architect’s Guide” is part research and part practical guide, and shares key insights gained through having co-created more than 100 Sacred Places across the country in communities, many under-resourced; in prisons, at universities, and in hospitals. A handful of these sites were also implemented as part of an expansive, decade-long design, build, and research project.

The report, written by Nature Sacred’s Neha Srinivasan, MLA; and edited by Nature Sacred Design Advisor and University of Maryland Assistant Professor Naomi A. Sachs, ASLA, PhD, is intended to be a resource for landscape architects interested in creating green spaces that are designed to encourage contemplation and connection with nature.

Over the years, the science around the nature-health connection has continued to grow. While anecdotally, most wouldn’t argue with the statement that time spent in nature is health-building, the scientific evidence proves that nature has remarkable therapeutic benefits. Not to mention, our approach to designing nature spaces in cities is so critical to preserving our natural ecosystems and mitigating the negative health and ecological impacts of global warming.

The role of landscape architect is more influential than at any other point in history.

Using this research, landscape architects and designers can make stronger health-based arguments to decision makers and number crunchers to integrate thoughtful design of green spaces into larger planning projects — nature zones for recharging and wellness that will become magnets for the community.

For the research portion of this paper, we focused our attention on four domains: nature’s impact on individual, community, economic and ecological health. A few highlights of the research:

Individual health: Time spent in nature can reduce cortisol levels and symptoms of depression; research also suggests it can slow cognitive declines in people with dementia and improve memory and concentration — including in children with ADHD.

Community health: Easy access to shared green space and tree canopy in particular can influence drops in acts of aggression, violence and crime by 40-50% especially in public spaces, where trees are 40% more effective at reducing crime than trees on private property.

Economic health: Researchers have observed improvements in health perception comparable to a $10,000 increase in annual income with the addition of just 10 trees.

Ecological health: Healthy natural spaces provide carbon sequestration, filtration of air and water pollutants, reduced load on drainage systems, and decreased intensity of the deadly urban heat island effect.

All of these benefits can be reaped in small instances of nature — a pocket park, for instance.

Some of these benefits are what you might call passive; i.e. the sheer existence of the trees or well-planned green spaces will help address challenges related to carbon sequestration and water pollutants whether the community engages with the space or not. However, for many of the individual and community health benefits to kick in, people must engage with nature. Spend time in the green space.

And this is where Nature Sacred has spent a lot of energy over the past two decades — looking at how to best engage the community and how to best design so that the community embraces, and spends time in, their green space.

Suggestions for design

We grouped specific design suggestions into three outcome categories: making people feel welcomed, encouraging them to explore and play, and giving a site a specific purpose or two.

And central to the Nature Sacred approach: incorporating elements that are familiar to a community or reflective of its culture. This can go a long way toward helping nearby residents see themselves represented in a space, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will spend time in space and that it will become a Nature Sacred’s approach to designing landscapes involves four guiding principles, four design elements and one signature fixture. These ensure that our Sacred Places are optimally suited to meet the needs of the people they serve.

Four guiding principles

Every Sacred Place is designed to be:

Open and welcoming to everyone.

Nearby where people live, work, play and heal. Only when green space is conveniently reachable can it become an integral part of people’s everyday lives.

Community-led — This refers to both the creation and long-term stewardship; this is key ensuring the space is deeply rooted within the spirit of those it will serve.

Sacred — Meaning, this is a community-led space that strengthens ties, restores connection to nature and offers solace and rejuvenation.

Four design elements

Every Sacred Place incorporates a portal, path, destination and surround; a response to humans’ overarching need for cohesive structure in landscape. It’s important to note though that there are as many interpretations of these elements as there are Sacred Places.

Portal — An entry point to the site that indicates that one is stepping into an intentionally created space.

A Sacred Place at St. Anthony’s of Padua Catholic Church, Falls Church, Virginia / Dave Harp

Path — A guide, slowly leading visitors deeper into the space and giving them a journey to follow.

Naval Cemetery Landscape, Brooklyn, NY. Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects / Maureen Porto

Destination — An end point to which the path leads. In Sacred Places, this is often the Nature Sacred bench, which holds a waterproof journal to collect the thoughts and musings of visitors to the space.

A Sacred Place at The League for People with Disabilities, Baltimore, Maryland. Anne E. Gleeson with Agency Environmental Restoration, Inc.

Surround — A design feature that creates the sensation of being embraced and sheltered within the space — a feeling of refuge and safety.


Healing Garden and Labyrinth at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Baltimore, Maryland. J. Christopher Batten / Neha Srinivasan

In the paper, we share images, examples, of how these elements have been interpreted by communities in their Sacred Places. For instance, at the Sacred Place at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Falls Church, Virginia, peace poles decorated in the many languages of the diverse immigrant community around the church serve as the portal into the space. And at the Sacred Place at Brooklyn’s Naval Cemetery Landscape, a boardwalk, a suspended path, leads visitors through a wildflower meadow, allowing them to experience it without disturbing the former burial grounds and native plants growing beneath their feet.

More examples of the interpretations of these design elements can be found in the paper as well as on our website.

We believe the research and guidance laid out in this paper, coupled with a landscape architect’s own experience, can lead to the creation of more green spaces that truly improve society on multiple fronts. As advocates for nature, the planet and people, landscape architects are in an ideal position to communicate to clients and partners the crucial need to value and prioritize green space in our built environments.

Download the paper.

If you are interested in collaborating with us, or serving as a design advisor, we invite you to connect with us.

Alden E. Stoner is CEO of Nature Sacred. She served on Nature Sacred’s board for nearly 15 years before transitioning to CEO.

Women Landscape Architects Take the Lead on Climate Action (Part II)

Hunts Point Riverside Park, South Bronx, NY / Rudy Brunner Award

During Courageous by Design, a day-long conference organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in New York City, women leaders outlined what can be done as landscape architects, designers, and horticulturalists to address the twinned climate and biodiversity crises. From the federal and state to local and site levels, landscape architects can advocate through design to change policies, shift mindsets, and introduce more sustainable and resilient practices. Each landscape project, no matter how small, offers an opportunity for positive change and to set new standards for climate-responsible design.

For Heather Morgan, director of climate risk adaptation at AECOM, partnering with the federal government can be challenging because there are “layers of hundreds of years of rules and regulations.” Furthermore, “federal systems can’t move with the pace, agility, and innovation needed to face our climate crisis.” But she urged landscape architects to take the time to figure out the rules of engagement in the federal system.

She called on landscape architects to improve federal decision-makers’ understanding of nature-based solutions. “Many federal workers want to try these approaches and have a passion for them, so don’t assume they don’t.” Take time to empower public servants through workshops and educational opportunities. Educate Congressional representatives and their staff and invite them on site tours. At the state and local levels, advance the understanding of non-federal sponsors of projects. Infrastructural projects led by the Army Corps of Engineers require 35 percent of funding to come from state and local sources. Those local project sponsors and financing sources can be a more direct way to incorporate nature-based solutions.

Landscape architects can use “funded and real” state-funded projects to “push for more climate positive actions,” said Signe Nielsen, FASLA, a founding principal at MNLA in New York City. She asked landscape architects to “look for opportunities in site constraints to advance climate resilience and circumvent ‘this can’t be done’ attitudes.”

For example, her firm’s work on Hunts Point Riverside Park in the South Bronx, New York (see image at top), the first new park in that underserved community in 60 years, involved navigating complex state and local regulations and required a herculean effort to convince regulators to abandon sewer and water lines to the park so that the totality of an 100-foot easement could be used for the public landscape.

She also told the story of how it took her seven years to convince regulators to incorporate solar-powered, instead of hardwired, street lamps in a new park on the Lower East Side in an area at high risk of flooding. After years of providing testimonials, working with the manufacturer to study prototypes, and sharing findings with regulators, “at last, we prevailed,” and solar-powered street lamps will “be the standard in near-future flood risk areas.” Her lessons learned: “be tenacious, find solutions, and keep persevering — even small projects can make a big impact.”

Annette Wilkus, FASLA, founding partner of SiteWorks, pivoted the conversation to how to move forward ecological restoration, improve biodiversity, and realize climate-responsible landscapes through permitting, design construction, and maintenance. She said “permitting doesn’t stop when construction begins. Unexpected things happen in construction, which require more permits.” She sees her role as transforming “what landscape architects seek to evoke through their designs” into a reality that can be preserved and maintained over time.

This work involves thinking through the economic sustainability and long-term maintenance plans of new climate-smart projects. As part of the re-imagining of the Houston Botanic Garden, a project planned and designed by landscape architecture firm West 8, Wilkus worked with the garden’s board of trustees to create a staff and budget plan, wading into the organizational chart to determine where new resources need to be added to ensure the new sustainable gardens are well-supported.

Houston Botanic Garden / West 8

And for a new project by MNLA at the 25-acre Roberto Clemente State Park in Bronx, New York, Wilkus created an easy-to-understand and highly visual maintenance manual with the team charged with maintaining the site. “The maintenance staff were ecstatic about it.” She urged the audience to “really think about maintenance” requirements at the beginning to ensure that climate solutions “survive over time.”

Inter-tidal pool at Roberto Clemente State Park, Bronx, NY / MNLA

The conversation then shifted to how landscape architects can become better stewards of biodiversity in the age of “eco-cide,” which is caused by climate change, habitat loss, and development and a process in which ecosystems are collapsing, more species face extinction, and the number of animals, plants, and insects in our landscapes continues to decline.

At Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP) in Brooklyn, New York, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), the landscape architecture firm that has led the development of the park over the past twenty years, purposefully designed diverse wildlife habitats into a park visited by millions of people each year, said Rebecca McMackin, the park’s director of horticulture. BBP includes wetlands and grasslands, providing critical habitat for a range of birds that fly over. Even these relatively small stop-over points are vitally important given the U.S. has lost 30 percent of its bird population in the last 50 years and over 50 percent of grassland birds.

Salt marsh grasses at Brooklyn Bridge Park. ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn, NY. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Scott Shigley

Together with the BBP team, they crafted an ecological approach rooted in “adaptive evolution” that enabled the park to thrive as a biodiverse hub in the midst of the city. While most urban landscapes are designed with plants in a fixed place, MVVA created a series of landscapes that function like ecosystems, with plants duking it out over light, water, and resources, creating a subtly shifting park in which plants “compete, die, and reproduce.” This requires a new approach to stewardship.

McMackin evoked a sense of wonder at the profound impact of trees. When a tree shed its leaves in the fall, those leaves provide a layer that protects the tree’s roots during the winter but also creates a very “biologically active space” for beetles, bumblebees, and other insects. She showed photos of foxes and owls diving into this layer for food during lean, cold months. Those leaves also decompose and turn into soil that in turn nourishes the tree and aids carbon uptake. She explained all of this to say that “it’s important to leave the leaves, which enables all of this to happen. Gardeners at BBP have been trained to get out of the way of the natural cycle.” In the meadows, gardeners are careful when they cut back the grasses in the spring to leave seeds on the ground for birds that have nested. When trimming back Aster trees, they also do this carefully to not disturb the caterpillars that live on the roots at the base of the trees.

All of this precision stewardship of the wildlife has great benefits for park visitors, too. Katydids have transformed the park with their music, creating a biophilic response that aids in relaxation. Because BBP doesn’t spray herbicides in the park, aphids have survived, which in turns attracts charming ladybugs. Walking Stick insects have been recently spotted in the park; “they haven’t been seen in NYC for ages.” BBP is also now home to a very rare bee — the blueberry digger bee. Brooklyn Bridge Park shows that organically-managed parks, with organically-grown native plants and trees, can “become an ecological refuge in cities.” Over the long-term, “respectful, adaptive management” is key to success (and so is buying native plants not treated with any chemicals).

Ecological landscape at Brooklyn Bridge Park / Nancy Webster Twitter

Deeply concerned about the impact of climate change on the next generation, and their already tenuous connection with nature, Barbara Wilks, FASLA, founding principal of W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, cited a recent survey of 1,000 park goers in New York City that found 50 percent haven’t experienced nature outside of the five boroughs. With this understanding, it’s crucial that every available space be used to advance climate positive design and also to provide pockets of biodiversity, which can forge those connections to nature so critical to future stewardship. “Landscape architects can bring systemic thinking to the small scale,” and these smaller projects can be connected into “large-scale infrastructure.”

Urban forestry presents a major opportunity to address the climate crisis and increase biodiversity. A broad-based campaign among non-profit groups in the city calls for achieving a 30 percent tree canopy by 2035; currently, only 21 percent of the city is estimated to be covered by trees, far lower than other major American cities. Her streetscape projects in the city over the past twenty years have layered in diverse tree species in urban woodlands that go beyond the typical street tree format. Wilks has also proposed “marine streets” where dead-end streets that come to the water could be transformed into living, dynamic edges. “Give nature agency” wherever possible, “keep it wild,” and embrace “the dynamics of messy landscapes.”

Marine Streets / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture

“Every landscape needs to be an act of activism on biodiversity,” argued East Hampton, New York-based landscape designer Edwina Von Gal, Affil. ASLA, founder of the Perfect Earth Project. Her organization is focused on creating non-toxic landscapes free of pesticides and filled with native plants.

Garden by Edwina Von Gal in the Hamptons, NY / Women Across Frontiers, Rosemarie Cromwell

“We’ve lost 2.9 billion birds over the past 50 years. Birds have been impacted by a loss of habitat, pesticides, and loss of insect populations.” To address this crisis, she has also launched a campaign — two-thirds for the birds and asked for a commitment from the audience of hundreds of designers to design better habitat for birds, with at least two-thirds native plants in every project. “That means two native plants for every other plant” and zero pesticides.

Two-thirds for the birds / Perfect Earth Project

She also called for “less mow and blow, less pollution, cleaner water, more on-site composting and biomassing.” Appalled by pristine landscapes free of fallen leaves and insects, she said “design has become so reduced, simplistic, and controlled. That tidy look is the direction we can’t go; that sanitized look can no longer be aspirational. Nature is so beautifully designed and messy. We need to support all the little wild lives that support us.”

As British environmental writer George Monbiot argues, “human survival is now a niche interest.” Von Gal took this further, arguing that landscape architects and designers “can create places for biodiversity — nature-based places — and massively enlarge the niche.”

Read Part I in the series.

Learning from Copenhagen: A Focus on Everyday Life

København: Urban Architecture and Public Spaces / © Edition DETAIL, Munich

By John Bela, ASLA

København (Copenhagen), the capital of Denmark, is at the forefront of many landscape architects and planners’ minds for both its groundbreaking moves towards sustainability and cutting-edge public spaces, bicycle culture, architecture, and food scenes.

Having spent a significant amount of time in the city over the last decade, I’ve had the opportunity to begin to get to know the city and its people. One of the striking things about the city, perceptible in even my time there, is its continued trajectory of improvement. A chorus of people working diligently for decades to optimize the city for the everyday lives of its inhabitants have been laying the groundwork for what is possible today. I’ve been in Copenhagen in every season — in the depths of winter when the term Hygge takes on a deeper meaning and the scant hours of sunlight and the chilly winds inspire the strong desire to gather together by the soft light of a fire or candlelight to pass the dark hours. And during the summer months when the long hours of sunlight inspire a collective feeling of exultation and the city’s public spaces: the streets, parks, plazas, waterfront, and the harbor itself are teeming with life and energy. This was not so 20 or 30 years ago. The character of the city has radically changed and the new book København: Urban Architecture and Public Spaces, edited by Sandra Hofmeister, beautifully captures the new spirit of the city.

The book features many places in the Danish capital that have made a significant impact in public space and public life over the past several decades and groups them into four chapters: public spaces, sports and leisure, culture and education, and housing. Well-illustrated project descriptions are complemented by a series of interviews and essays with some of the most prominent and thoughtful designers part of the city’s design scene today.

One of the many featured projects in the public spaces section of the book offers a useful inspiration for what could be possible in U.S. cities if we recognize the value of urban spaces now occupied by parking and remake them in ways that draw public life, commerce, and play.

The Flying Carpet: Israel’s Plads (Israel Square) is a great example of the transformation of public spaces taking place in Copenhagen over several decades. A former vegetable market site near one of the busiest transit stations had degenerated into a parking lot and eyesore. The municipality led the transformation of the site by erecting two covered market halls (the wonderful Torvehallerne) and a public plaza that hosts a weekend farmers market.

Across the street, the city issued a design brief outlining that the former parking lot should be converted into a new public space. The winning competition by Cobe, a Copenhagen-based multidisciplinary planning and design firm composed of landscape architects, planners, and architects, envisaged a “flying carpet” across the entire square. The cars would be “swept under the rug” with underground parking. In the completed design, organically shaped areas punched out of a neatly paved surface provide a variety of public recreational functions. As one the city’s largest new public spaces, Israel Plads is an “informal uncoded space that enables the public to enjoy urban life.”

Israel’s Plads by Cobe, Sweco Architects / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

What you don’t get from the beautiful images and plans featured in the project description — and what is so useful for those of us in the planning and design professions — is covered in an essay that follows. The lead designer for the plaza, Dan Stubbergard from Cobe, illuminates some the underlying processes and struggles that were fought and won and resulted in a new plaza that functions as a diverse and active public space.

Stubbergard notes that “infrastructure had a very important role in defining our cities from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. Public spaces and zones in between buildings became carspaces, and this affected everyday life. But today we know that we have to combine infrastructure with the public quality of urban space. Be it a bicycle parking lot, a metro station, or a streetscape, you need to insist that all infrastructure is also a social and public space.”

Cobe has been leading some of the most impactful urban design efforts in Copenhagen. Their approach to Israel’s Plads reflects the deeply collaborative and creative approach of the practice that co-designs with communities. Dan continues: “Israels Plads is the biggest public space in Copenhagen, but it’s also a schoolyard shared by two schools – we argued it should be an open space nevertheless…We created a discrete boundary and that’s how we persuaded the school to have a safe zone in the middle of the city and an open environment at the same time. The challenge for [landscape] architects is to offer new ways of living together and to foster a lively everyday life.”

Swimming in the Harbor

You can’t comprehend Copenhagen today without understanding its changing relationship to the water. The book’s sports and leisure section describes one of the city’s newest ways to interact with the water: the Kalvebog Bolge (Kalvebod Waves). “An undulating sculptural promenade…the complex stretches out over the water like a park landscape, leading back to land with walkways that rise to different levels. Benches, play areas, and lookout points invite visitors to linger. What may seem coincidental follows a precise plan. Rough winds in the exposed location were considered in the positioning, as well as the course of the sun and the shadows created by surrounding buildings.”

As is typical of the projects described in the book, the space combines various programs in interesting ways. The “wave” stacks many functions: a kayak and canoe club, a swimming basin, a floating mini-hotel for canoeists, and a platform for cultural events all come together in this prominent harborside location. Furthermore, “the site’s cradle to cradle approach ensures that all materials can be separated by type at the end of their service life so they can be recycled or reused.”

Kalvebod Bolge by Urban Agency, JDS architects / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

The Kalvebod Wave harbor bath and others like it in different parts of the city are emblematic of the radical transformation that has occurred regarding the city’s relationship to the water. As in many former industrial waterfronts, the harbor water, as recently as the 1980’s, was polluted and dangerous, and one would not conceive of diving into it headlong as you see so many young and old people doing today.

In an essay, Hofmeister unpacks the process of transforming both the physical quality of the water and the harborfront as well as its mental image in the mind of Copenhageners. “With the shift from an industrial city to an eco-conscious city not only has the quality of life improved, but also the water quality…thanks to targeted measures in wastewater management and modernization of the sewage system. Today living on the waterfront is integral to the city’s image.”

These critical water quality improvements laid the foundation for a fundamental restructuring of the city’s relationship and orientation to the waterfront and a re-conception of the harbor from the “back of the city” to a blue-green central park. So many of the projects featured in the book show how to take advantage of this new orientation. The areas along the harbor offer high quality waterfront living and opportunities to swim or gather to watch the sunset. This is where the city opens up to offer wide views. The city’s master plans stipulate that all harborfront areas must not only be accessible to the public but also enlivened by the public.

Kroyers Plads by Vilhelm Lauritzen Architects, Cobe / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

This orientation of the city around the harbor as its central park is enabled by a steadily growing set of landscape, open space, pedestrian, and bike circulation connections around and across the harbor that provide continuous access around the water’s edge and have opened up new areas for the city’s famous pedestrian and bicycle culture. There are important lessons here for landscape architects and planners working in the U.S.

The first is that protecting, enhancing, and restoring the ecological health of extant water bodies and open spaces is crucial for laying the groundwork for future public access and enjoyment. The second is that a powerful vision in the form of a masterplan framework must be established that can live beyond short-term political cycles to guide the actions of many actors over time. The third is that landscape architects must conceive of each intervention, even if it is a small piece of a larger puzzle, as contributing to the realization of the larger vision that will, eventually, result in a radical transformation of place.

The first carbon-neutral capital

Copenhagen, as in many cities with ambitious leaders across the globe, is leading the way towards a more equitable and sustainable future for its inhabitants. By 2025, Copenhagen is to be the first-ever carbon-neutral capital city. Switching from cars to bicycles plays a decisive role.

As described in an essay on cycling culture and quality of life, the city’s bicycle culture is well known to urbanists throughout the world, and it’s a powerful experience to be immersed in it. But what is less well known are the other factors that contribute to making Copenhagen a city where you can actually live without a car, such as the provision of dense, human-scale, compact, and transit-connected urban infill for areas of new development and providing citizens with mobility choice in the form of a world-class transit system. As the city gradually implemented and expanded its famous bicycle infrastructure, there has been commensurate major investment in expanding mass transit, including the brand new Cityringen line completed in 2019.

The wonderful essay by Jacob Shoof unpacks the critical role of innovative public-private partnerships, a role played by redevelopment agencies in the U.S. These partnerships have been charged with re-imagining some of the city’s most valuable port lands and new development areas, financing the construction of major public transport projects such as the Cityringen, as well as leading the re-imagining of the city’s largest new development area, Nordhavn, under its masterplan by Cobe.

Back to the Water, Jakob Shoof, with image of Nordhavn / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

One essay goes into the details of one private-public partnership focused on the port: “The City of Copenhagen and the Danish state the laid foundations for this in 2007 with the founding of the project development company By & Havn (City and Harbour)…the new company has two main tasks: to manage and regulate the use of Copenhagen’s port waters and shore facilities and to promote the conversion of disused port areas…the company operates like a private company largely free from political influence, and can therefore pursue long-term strategies…the business model of By & Havn is to use sales proceeds [of port lands] to build public infrastructure in the newly developed areas. The new Cityringen (City Circle line) of the Copenhagen Metro has been running under the city since 2019 and was also planned by By & Havn. In order to pre-refinance the development of the infrastructure without having to rush property sales the company has taken out long-term loans, using land in its possession as security.”

Innovative financial models and thoughtful long-term planning for public infrastructure investment from bicycle lanes to the new underground metro line are critical to making a thriving and successful public realm as well as incentivizing active mobility and transit use, and therefore enabling the city to meet their ambitious long-term sustainability goals

Dense, diverse, and green. Is it possible?

As with so many urban areas around the globe, Copenhagen is experiencing an urban renaissance as more people choose to reside in dense, amenity rich, and socially diverse urban neighborhoods. But how has the city managed to maintain affordability and access for people at the beginning of their careers or those who are just forming families? So many areas in the U.S. experiencing this same urban renaissance are characterized by significant social conflict due to rapid gentrification and displacement of long-term residents.

A final theme that emerges in the book is the role of an engaged citizenry in generating grassroots-level action to provide a strong political mandate for the municipality and the design community to work for things like mobility choice and affordable housing. For instance, part of the less well-known story of the city’s bicycle culture, which reemerged in the 1970’s after going into decline in the age of the automobile, are the massive protests and collective action in response to the 1970’s oil crisis that inspired city leaders to take seriously the role of the bicycle in urban mobility.

And this level of community engagement has also shaped the city’s approach to housing. Since the late 1960’s, the city’s different forms of communal living have drawn international attention. The final chapter of the book focused on housing describes several of the innovative and beautifully well-designed housing complexes on the re-energized harborfront as well as some excellent examples of co-housing, a trend which is growing in popularity globally and was featured prominently in this year’s Venice Biennale exhibition theme: “How will we live together?”

One of the defining characteristics of Copenhagen’s inner city housing stock is the traditional form of the perimeter block that surrounds a shared green space. These forms can accommodate a variety of functions — from a safe play area for children, food producing gardens, bicycle parking, and larger community gatherings. These collectively owned and managed semi-private green spaces are rare in the U.S., but they contribute significantly to the quality of life in Copenhagen and are a major factor in attracting and retaining young families within the urban core.

The Lange End Co-housing project by Dorte Mandrup is a wonderful, contemporary interpretation of this traditional perimeter block with a large, internal shared green space. Mandrup describes how this happened: “The central aim of the project was to establish a community accommodating a range of age and occupational groups, cultural backgrounds, and ways of living. To determine the different spatial requirements – common areas for meeting and communication, but also more private areas – an extensive participatory process was carried out, with various workshops held between the planners and future residents.”

Lang Eng Cohousing by Dorte Mandrup / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich
Lang Eng Cohousing by Dorte Mandrup / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

Hofmeister’s interview with Mandrup reveals the deeper motivations behind the work. “We already have numerous co-housing situations for very specialized groups – elderly people, students, or young families. My dream is that we can mix the different groups much more and build co-housing spaces that reflect the whole society – singles and families, old and young people.” And in a commentary on the next challenges the city faces, Mandrup says: “I would also wish that the city of Copenhagen would move forward with densification without simply doing things on a larger scale. We have to find better solutions to densify our cities than simply higher buildings. Densification on a small [human?] scale – that’s a real challenge for the future!”

Landscape architects have a critical role to play in the design of new housing areas in our urban neighborhoods. We can ensure there is a clear hierarchy of spaces from public to semi-public to private open spaces. Establishing this hierarchy and definition of whom these spaces are designed to serve is often overlooked but is crucial for achieving quality and livability in dense urban environments.

A beacon of sustainable urbanism

The many innovative ideas and projects described in this book and the exploration of some of the values and motivations that drive the work are what make this book a valuable resource for landscape architects and planners in the U.S. or anywhere in the world.

We can now point to these works and say, look what is possible if we work together for the common good of our communities! The City of Copenhagen brings together innovations in public participation, long term planning, finance, and a socially engaged design community to create the sustainable city of the future for residents today. It’s no wonder city leaders and design professionals around the globe are taking notice!

John Bela, ASLA, is an urban strategist and designer based in San Francisco. Bela co-founded Rebar, the creators of Park(ing) Day. A founding partner and design director at Gehl San Francisco, he left Gehl in 2021 to form his own design advisory and consulting practice: Bela Urbanism + Design. He is a licensed landscape architect in California.

ASLA Ratifies International Federation of Landscape Architects’ Climate Action Commitment

ASLA 2021 Professional Urban Design Honor Award. Xuhui Runway Park, Shanghai, China. Sasaki / Insaw Photography

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.

The Incredible Opportunity of Community Schoolyards

NY Public School 366 (before image) / Trust for Public Land
NY Public School 366 (after image) / Trust for Public Land

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.

NY public school 152 before image / Trust for Public Land
NY public school 152 before image / Trust for Public Land

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.

K-8 Sussex Avenue School / Trust for Public Land
K-8 Sussex Avenue School / Trust for Public Land
K-8 Sussex Avenue School / Trust for Public Land

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.

LaCima charter school, Brooklyn, NYC before photo / Trust for Public Land
LaCima charter school, Brooklyn, NYC after photo / Trust for Public Land

ASLA Announces 2021 Professional Awards

ASLA 2021 Landmark Award. Portland Open Space Sequence, Portland, Oregon. PLACE.

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.

Explore the full list of this year’s Professional Award winners

ASLA Announces 2021 Student Awards

ASLA 2021 Student General Design Honor Award. The Interaction Between Masks And Desertification: A Paradigm of Family Sand Control by Mongolian Herdsmen. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Xi Zhao; Xue Li; Xinyu Yang; Qiong Wang, Student International ASLA, Beijing Forestry University

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.

Student Award recipients 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.

Explore the full list of this year’s Student Award winners

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (July 16-31)

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Deep Form of Designed Nature: Sanya Mangrove Park, Sanya City, Hainan Province, China. Turenscape

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.”

In Order to Achieve Tree Equity, the U.S. Must Plant 522 Million Trees in Urban Areas — 07/20/22, The Urbanist
“In order to make up for discrepancies between levels of tree coverage in neighborhoods lacking resources and more affluent, often White majority neighborhoods, the United States must commit to planting 522 million trees in urban areas.”

Earth Day Interview: Jennifer Toole Makes the Case for Better Bike Networks

Jennifer Toole, ASLA / Toole Design

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.

Safe separated bike lane in Denver, Colorado / Trung Vo

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.

E-bike riders in Seattle, Washington / Kenneth Loen

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.

Bicyclists in Columbus, Ohio / Catherine Girves

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.

Downtown South Bend, Indiana before image / City of South Bend
Downtown South Bend, Indiana after image / City of South Bend

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.

Re-imagining Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia / Toole Design

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.

Jackson Street Reconstruction Project, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design
Jackson Street Reconstruction Project, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design

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.