Interview with Mitchell Silver on NYC’s Game Changing Park System

Mitchell Silver / NYC Parks and Recreation
Mitchell Silver / NYC Parks and Recreation

Mitchell Silver is commissioner of the New York City Departments of Parks and Recreation. Silver is past president of the American Planning Association (APA) and an award-winning planner with 30 years of experience.

In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the Community Parks Initiative, which aims to improve historically underfunded parks in densely populated and growing neighborhoods with higher than average concentrations of poverty. Some $285 million has been set aside for this effort, which will lead to the full re-imagining of 67 parks. Your department has broken ground in some 35 parks. What do communities want most for their new spaces after all those years of deferred maintenance? What are some common elements in these new places?

First, they want the asphalt gone. Most of these parks were just play spaces with asphalt. They want trees and green space. Even if it’s synthetic turf, they want a softer surface. Second, they want multi-generational spaces. We have an aging population and want make sure we have seating areas, gathering spaces, so it isn’t just a playground. And then, people want fitness equipment, or adult play equipment, which is a big trend right now. People want to come out and be healthy. And spray showers, because, if you have a pool, you can only use it a few months a year. With spray showers, you can still play on the same surface in the winter. In the summertime, they’re self activated, you can just cool off and enjoy without getting fully wet. Those were some of the primary ones, but number one is people want the asphalt gone. They want to go from gray to green.

Another exciting initiative you’re leading: Parks Without Borders. Some $50 million will be spent on improving park access through “opening sight lines, beautifying edges, adjusting furnishings.” Part of this will include lowering all those tall chain-link fences, unappealing gates, and fixing the sidewalks lining the parks. Can you talk about the connection between a park and it surrounding streets? Why focus on the borders? Why are they so important?

Frederick Law Olmsted once said the sidewalk adjacent to the park is the outer park. If you look at Prospect Park and Central Park, the sidewalk is part of the park. When I came on board, I recognized that in our city charter, the parks department not only oversees the parks, but the sidewalks adjoining the parks. The park doesn’t end at the fence line or the wall, it actually ends at the curb and beyond.

The second point is park land represents 14 percent of the city’s footprint. Streets and sidewalks represents another 26 percent. So in other words, 40 percent of New York City is within the public realm. We own it, yet the average citizen does not know where the parks department property ends and the department of transportation property begins. And guess what? They don’t care. They want a seamless public realm.

That gave birth to the Parks Without Borders. Parks aren’t just islands of green space; they’re connected to our entire public realm. Parks Without Borders help us create a more seamless experience at the edges, entrances, and adjacent park spaces. We don’t have to buy new land; we own it. We just have to program it differently, so we provide a better experience.

Parks without Borders / NYC Parks and Recreation
Parks without Borders / NYC Parks and Recreation

Are you concerned about security when you lower all those fences?

We’re always concerned about security. But here’s the good thing about Parks Without Borders: We met with our police department and they fully support the effort. Why? Because when you lower the fences, it increases natural surveillance. There are now more eyes on the park. We’re also removing landscaping and vegetation and other obstacles that block views. People who want to do bad things do not want to be seen. By removing the obstacles, improving the lighting, and increasing the sight lines into the park, we can actually make parks safer. Part of Parks Without Borders is also a public safety campaign.

We need fences for children to play and for certain recreation, but, for the most part, we don’t really need them. Without fences, we can create a more seamless experience.

Parks Without Borders is about making parks more welcoming, open, turning them into the living rooms of the city. It’s about removing all of these tall fences where young people feel, “Why are you imprisoning me in this public space?” We’re no longer in the ’80s and ’90s anymore. Parks are safe.

Another part of Parks Without Borders is bringing free Wi-Fi to city parks. New York City parks and recreation has partnered with AT&T. You’ve piloted benches that enable you to recharge your phone via solar panel while browsing on Wi-Fi. But aren’t parks meant to be an escape from technology in urban life? Doesn’t time spent downloading apps diminish time enjoying Central Park?

We carefully look at the demographics. From the Greatest generation, to the Boomer generation, and the X, Y, Z generations, people experience parks in different ways. Years ago in Bryant Park, there would be couples using the movable chairs, enjoying their public space. Today, people go by themselves with their smartphones. The smartphone is the most necessary device. It connects people to the world. I’m totally fine with that. Some people go to parks purposely to read a book, but they can also be alone with their smartphone.

People may want to look for something within the park, download a map to see where they’re going, meet up with a friend, or pull out their phone and take photographs and selfies and tweet them out. We want to encourage those activities.

Soofa Charging Bench / NYC Parks and Recreation
Soofa Charging Bench / NYC Parks and Recreation

For me, technology and parks go together. I love taking pictures of people taking pictures in parks. Very often, you know you have a popular park when someone pulls out their phone and they start taking selfies.

We’ve put in charging stations at beaches. Who knows? Maybe you may can meet your future husband or wife getting your phone charged on the beach. I don’t see any disconnect: Technology and parks definitely go together.

Beach Charging Station / NYC Parks and Recreation
Beach Charging Station / NYC Parks and Recreation

You said the newly-rebuilt 5.5 mile Rockaway Boardwalk is a part of New York City’s “first line of defense against climate change.” The boardwalk features “multiple layers of protection” with six miles of planted dunes backed by concrete retaining walls. When the next super storm hits, how is that reconstructed shoreline expected to perform? And how do you know?

Super Storm Sandy established a new reality for New York City. We never thought we were that vulnerable. In New York City, we have 520 miles of coastline and 155 miles are within parks. So in each neighborhood, we’re looking at a different approach of how to address risks, but there’s no question our parks are now the first line of defense.

In the Rockaway, we worked with our landscape architects and engineers. We did beach replenishment. We put in dunes. We use concrete as opposed to piles of wood. What we’ve built will do a much better job at saving life and property. What we’ve built is stronger and better.

Rockaway Beach Protective Dunes / NYC Parks and Recreation
Rockaway Beach Protective Dunes / NYC Parks and Recreation

And that’s our goal moving forward. Solutions will vary between different neighborhoods, but the Rockaway shows one example of a very vulnerable neighborhood that now has a concrete boardwalk that’s reinforced with dunes on both sides.

Clearly we’re going to be tested one day. We hope not soon.

Parks, plazas, even playgrounds, can be part of a city’s system for protecting itself against storms and floods. As the Big U, the set of parks that double as berms, take shape in Lower Manhattan, your city is showing the way forward on how to create protective infrastructure that doubles as public parks. How do roles and responsibilities change when you have a $350 million dollar piece of public multi-use infrastructure charged with protecting billions of dollars of real estate in Lower Manhattan? Are you creating a governance model for this system that other cities can use?

Under our previous mayor and current mayor, the Mayor’s Office for Resiliency, Recovery and Resiliency has been the overarching coordinating agency that works with all the relevant agencies, such as parks, environmental protection, and transportation. They take the lead role, even though all the resilient infrastructure is placed in the park. The Big U is not just about green infrastructure but also acts as a protective infrastructure to protect life and property.

ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Rebuild by Design, The Big U / BIG and Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners
ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Rebuild by Design, The Big U / BIG and Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners

We need to be a resilient city. Sea levels are increasing over time, and New York City is a coastal city. We recognize we have to plan for change now. All these projects are also taking into account sea level rise in a city that is basically an island, except the Bronx, which is part of the mainland.

The Office of Recovery and Resiliency is a model that other cities should emulate. They have designers, engineers, planning professionals, and policy makers that focus on resiliency efforts throughout the world.  They focus on this day in and day out. Parks will then bring in their experience because we know plant material, horticulture. We know how to plan for different type of environments in our city and how to protect the environment. But an overarching agency that spends all of their time focused on recovery and resiliency is a good coordinating mechanism.

You told The New York Times that part of your Sunday routine is to visit a park you’ve never been, a new one out of the whopping 1,700 parks in five boroughs you oversee. You see who is visiting, take photos, document issues. What have your Sunday adventures taught you about the park system that you couldn’t read in a briefing book?

Taking these surprise visits, I’ve learned that our parks are cleaner than I thought. I get a lot of reports about people complaining how filthy our parks are. That is not the case. There were a couple of instances, but our parks are a lot better maintained than I would believe just by doing these spontaneous visits.

Second, New Yorkers love parks. I spend a lot of time watching where people are sitting, what they’re doing. On a hot sunny day, a spot under a tree is a very popular spot.

People enjoying the shade under a tree at Sunset Park / Mitchell Silver
People enjoying the shade under a tree at Sunset Park / Mitchell Silver

I look at how different generations are using the spaces, what seniors and families are doing.

I knew we lacked capital investment and, so, going into certain parks, I knew we had to focus on finding a way for some of our lesser known parks to get an infusion of capital. That has became obvious to me.

There are certain parks that did have some maintenance issues, but I realized staff did not have the proper equipment. I didn’t go into these parks to whack staff. I want to find out what I need to give them to do their jobs better. Now we have a whole new approach to make sure the service for our equipment is better and staff have the tools they need to maintain this park.

I live in Brooklyn, I grew up in Brooklyn. I had no idea we had such an incredible park system. I was blown away by parks I’d never heard of. I just came from Bowne Park in Flushing, Queens, which is beautiful. I’m going to parks and saying, “I cannot believe I’m in New York City.” I had a chance to take a canoe down the Bronx River and I was transported to another place.

I want to go on my own, unannounced without staff, just to be free to explore and see how people are using spaces. I love photography, so enjoy taking pictures of some of my favorite moments in these parks.

Lastly, given Mayor de Blasio’s focus on creating One City in NYC, what role do you think public spaces like parks, greenways, playgrounds play in reducing inequality? Can they reduce poverty?

Parks are free. They’re democratic spaces. Regardless of your race, income, age, parks are accessible to everyone.

We do have our quality regional parks — Central Park, High Line, Prospect Park — open to everyone. But we want to take that a step further: Every neighborhood deserves to have a quality space. We want everyone to be within a ten minute walk to a park. But it’s not just the proximity, we want that park to be a quality park.

We launched the Community Parks Initiative because we believe parks are places where people connect, get healthy, and relax. Having that in every neighborhood addresses inequality. We want to make sure we’re fair about how we invest in our parks, and all young kids have a chance to enjoy green spaces and get healthy.

I can’t say parks address poverty per se, but they certainly address inequality. Everyone deserves a quality space in New York City, where density and open space go together. You cannot have one without the other. You don’t just want to have affordable housing. You want to have a quality neighborhood with adequate public space.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (October 16 – 31)

Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan / Mia Lehrer Associates
Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan / Mia Lehrer Associates

Good News, Brooklyn Skaters: Fat Kid Spot Is Coming Back – 10/21/16, The New York Times
“To the uninitiated, Golconda Park looks like a bit of a mess: a collection of crooked Escher-like steps, some misplaced highway berms, a loading dock and a drained, scuffed swimming pool, all amid gravel and scattered construction equipment.”

10 Streets That Define America 10/25/16, Curbed
“What can we learn about our ever-changing country from individual streets? To get to the heart of that question, Curbed took a deep dive into ten cities around the United States—selected for their diverse sizes, ages, populations, and locations—and talked to the people that call each place home.”

What Could Hermann Park Look Like in 20 Years? Hilly – 10/27/16, The Houston Chronicle
“Imagine what Hermann Park could be like if the sea of parking in its center was instead a place where children could scamper up a knoll to a ‘creature forest’ and a ‘swing marsh.’”

Ugly Sites Can Help Beautify Landscape – 10/27/16, Shanghai Daily
“Shanghai has set up a team of experts, backed by government departments, to speed up converting contaminated land or demolished industrial sites into green areas.”

Q&A: Mia Lehrer – 10/28/16, Metropolis Magazine
“For more than two decades, Lehrer has also advocated for the transformation of L.A.’s junk river—paved over with concrete by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1930s to fight flash floods—and had a hand in creating the 2007 Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, before the city handed off the project to Gehry + Partners last fall.”

Heal the Landscape and Ourselves

Bronson Hospital in Kalamazoon / MLive
Bronson Hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan / MLive

“Healing must begin with a discussion about woundedness,” said Todd Degner, Affil. ASLA, in a moving and powerful presentation at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. By sharing both images of himself as a child and the story of his own trauma, Degner recalled the place that was his refuge. The canopy of a spirea hedge became a fortress, a place that called to him and helped him heal himself, and “smelled like hope.” Degner, along with Naomi Sachs, ASLA, founder of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network; Jerry Smith, FASLA, Smith/GreenHealth Consulting; and Virginia Burt, FASLA, Virginia Burt Designs, provided research, guidelines, and emotional anecdotes to inspire landscape architects and designers to heal ourselves and our landscapes.

As designers, “stories of the wounded fall in our lap without resolution,” said Degner. While we cannot know the outcome of these stories, they entreat designers to be mindful – to be merciful and healing. Through a simple landscape devise, landscape architects and designers can transfer deeper truths and offer paths to healing.

Many among us have sought out landscapes for solace for our own traumas or personal struggles, including Sachs, as she shared with the audience. She also shared research to help designers who may be met with resistance to their “best intentions,” as elements are cut through value engineering or tight budgets.

For example, a 5-minute-a-day walk in a natural environment can lead to decreased levels of depression and stress. For children with ADHD, 20-minutes in a park can result in fewer symptoms with results similar to a dose of Ritalin.

Even if a person is unwilling or unable to be active in a natural setting, studies prove just living near nature and trees can have such effects as better test scores for girls and decreased instances of domestic violence. Access to nature simply makes people exhibit “more pro-social behavior.”

Healing Garden / Edgerton Hospital and Health Services
Healing Garden / Edgerton Hospital and Health Services

But, as Smith reminds us, it isn’t just the individual that needs healing, but also our landscapes. Working through a process of “evidence based design,” landscape architects can convince clients “there is a reason we want to do these things, it’s not just a matter of taste.”

There has been a paradigm shift in how we talk about our landscapes. It is no longer enough to conserve, but we have to regenerate the land through performative landscapes in order to start healing. There are a number of initiatives to help us get there. The Sustainable SITES Initiative™ (SITES®) has taken “deep dive into sustainability,” and added to the list of the usual considerations of a place like water, soil, and plants, goals like the health and well-being of humanity.

Humans play a role in healing the landscape, and, in turn, it can heal us. If we are to accept this mutual responsibility, we must approach our designs holistically, and, as Burt said, with “intention.” Designs must acknowledge the emotional response that so often comes from plants. Smell can be a deep trigger for memory. For Burt, this pursuit of intention is spiritual and leads her design process: “where intention goes, energy flows.”

For the University Hospital Schneider Healing Garden adjacent to the Seidman Cancer Center (SCC) in downtown Cleveland, she created a healing garden at its front door. Starting with input from staff and inspiration from poetry, she arrived at a garden where the transformative process of healing can begin. The garden offers patients and staff places of quiet and contemplation, and sensory experiences that elevate and transport.

Schneider Healing Garden / Brad Feinknopf
Schneider Healing Garden / Brad Feinknopf

As Degner mentioned, healing is a process, and there is no quick fix. A therapeutic garden, no matter how perfectly designed, will not immediately solve all our woes.

“Healing begins with hospitality,” from our family, friends, and the professionals who help us heal. Designers can offer hospitality, too – a place that “covers, protects, and is in a setting abounding with life.” Degner offered this benediction: “say ‘yes’ to the call to help wounded people and wounded landscapes.” It is the calling of landscape architecture.

The Road to Recovery May Be Green

The Green Road / Jared Green
The Green Road / Jared Green

Can spending time in nature help heal veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury? As suicides from PTSD sufferers only increase, the Institute for Integrative Health (TIIH) seeks out answers to this important question through their new Green Road project, which just opened at the Naval Support Activity Bethesda, home of Walter Reed Military Medical Center, 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. The restored forest and stream are at the heart of the experience.

Restored stream / Jared Green
Restored stream / Jared Green
Restored stream / Jared Green
Restored stream bank / Jared Green

And these restored places are the source of the vista seen from two new, open-air cedar and steel pavilions.

Pavilion / Jared Green
Pavilion / Jared Green
Pavilion / Jared Green
Pavilion / Jared Green

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.

The idea for the project came from retired U.S. Navy neurologist Frederick Foote, M.D., now a scholar at TIIH. 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 $1.1 million in research will be conducted, all made by possible by the smart and impactful TKF Foundation, which provided some $1.1 million towards the $3.2 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.

Fallen trees / Jared Green
Fallen trees / Jared Green
Fallen trees / Jared Green
Fallen trees / Jared Green

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 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.”

Stone Council Circle / Jared Green
Stone Council Circle / Jared Green

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 Angler Environmental, 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.”

Stone fountain / Jared Green
Stone fountain / Jared Green

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 it, 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 these 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.”

Trees and people / Jared Green
Humans and nature / Jared Green

His plan 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.

ASLA Announces 2016 Professional Awards

ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Underpass Park /
ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Underpass Park by PFS Studio / Tom Arban

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 September issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM) features the winning projects and is available for free viewing.

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

Honor Awards
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

ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. The Copenhagen Cloudburst Formula: A Strategic Process for Planning and Designing Blue-Green Interventions. Ramboll and Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl / Ramboll and Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl
ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. The Copenhagen Cloudburst Formula: A Strategic Process for Planning and Designing Blue-Green Interventions. Ramboll and Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl / Ramboll and Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl


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

Honor Awards
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

Communications Category

ASLA 2016 Professional Communications Award of Excellence. What's Out There Guides / The Cultural Landscape Foundation
ASLA 2016 Professional Communications Award of Excellence. What’s Out There Guides / The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Award of Excellence
What’s Out There Guidebooks
by The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Honor Awards
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.

Research Category

Honor Awards
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

ASLA 2016 Landmark Award. Michigan Avenue /
ASLA 2016 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. DBX Ranch by Design Workshop / D.A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc

Award of Excellence
DBX Ranch: A Transformation Brings Forth a New Livable Landscape, Pitkin County, Colorado
by Design Workshop Inc.

Honor Awards
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

ASLA 2016 Landmark Award. Michigan Avenue Streetscape /
ASLA 2016 Landmark Award. Michigan Avenue Streetscape by Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects for the City of Chicago / Steven Gierke

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.
  • Laurinda Spear, ASLA, ArquitectonicaGEO, Miami

Interview with Toody Maher on Co-Designing Parks with the Community

Toody Maher / SF Gate
Toody Maher / SF Gate


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.

The community were co-designers of Elm Playlot and Harbor-8 Park. How did this work?

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.

Elm Playlot / KQED, Nancy DeVille
Elm Playlot / KQED, Nancy DeVille

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.

Elm Playlot / Pogo Park
Elm Playlot / Pogo Park

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.

Play element construction / Pogo Park
Play element construction / Pogo Park

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.

Park construction / Pogo Park
Park construction / Pogo Park

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.

Harbor 8 Park playground / Pogo Park
Harbor 8 Park playground / Pogo Park

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?

Yellow Brick Road rendering / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road rendering / Pogo Park

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.

Yellow Brick Road demonstration / Richmond Confidential
Yellow Brick Road demonstration / Richmond Confidential
Yellow Brick Road / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road totem pole and roundabout / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road opening, January 2016 / Kaboom.org
Yellow Brick Road opening, January 2016 / Kaboom.org

Philadelphia Passes Historic “Soda Tax” to Fund Revamp of Parks

eastwick
Eastwick Playground Park / Nicole Westerman

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.”

swingset-mcveigh
Swing set in McVeigh Park / Nicole Westerman

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.

10 Parks That Changed America

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.

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

plimsollbuilding
The Plimsoll Building / The Telegraph

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.”

The Real Challenge for Los Angeles’ New Football Stadium Is Everything Around It – The Los Angeles Times, 2/8/16
“The feints, dodges, Potemkin stadium renderings and extended leverage plays are over. The National Football League — behemoth, cruelly skilled manipulator of cities and printer of money — is officially headed back to Los Angeles.”

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 CitiesThe 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.”

When It Comes to Gardens, Your Architect Should Collaborate with Your Landscape DesignerThe Australian Financial Review, 2/15/16
“A garden is often seen as an afterthought, something to look at after the foundations of a house are laid. But this approach can create a disjointed result with the architecture and landscape appearing independent from each other.”

We Must Better Communicate the Health Benefits of Nature

ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. Mill River Park and Greenway by OLIN / OLIN, Sahar Coston-Hardy
ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. Mill River Park and Greenway by OLIN / OLIN, Sahar Coston-Hardy

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.