Love and Fear in Los Angeles

Graphic by Margaret Gerhart

Sometimes things happen that make you question everything.

Two weeks ago, I walked along 103rd Street toward the corner of Grape in Watts with several community advocates and a selection committee from the California Natural Resources Agency. Viviana Franco and Maria De Leon from From Lot to Spot, the non-profit who applied for an urban greening grant, led us past Jordan High School and the Jordan Downs public housing development that is under redevelopment.

We described our proposal to the Agency, pointing out the portions of sidewalk to replace with shade trees and planting. Viviana had us meet in the beloved Heart of Watts community garden they installed a year ago, and showed us the parkway plantings and new concrete that brought patches of life and pride amid the crumbling curbs. As we walked, we talked about which trees would best shade people walking by and cool the apartment homes, which have no air conditioning. We noted the phone lines overhead, and the weeds and litter underfoot. We discussed native species and biodiversity. And maintenance.

A young man in a white suit and several teenage girls passed by on their way to school. Otherwise the sidewalk was empty.

Our group included John Jones from Council District 15, Haleemah Henderson of Watts Labor Community Action Committee, Amada Valle from the Heart of Watts garden, and Watts Gang Taskforce member Pinkus Crowther. We stopped at the corner of Grape at a large fenced lot where Mudtown Farms Agriculture Park will soon be. A few scraggly trees and one large one lined the fence opposite us on 102nd Street.

The light was red where Grape Street dead-ended into 103rd. A line of cars gathered. One driver leaned out his window to complain, laughing, to John about a new sign reading “No Right on Red.” John told him, “The community asked for it.”

Pinkus and I talked about the huge change trees could bring to the street.

“I just hope they don’t come cut their branches,” he said. “We plant trees and as soon as they start growing, they cut the branches so the police can see.” He turned to John, “Do you know if the police came to cut the trees yet?”

“Not yet, but they need to,” John said. He pointed across the lot at the big tree. “That big one. That’s where one of the toughest gangs in LA hangs out. The police need to cut it so they can see who is there.”

As we walked back towards the Heart of Watts, I said to Pinkus, “I know nothing of the situation here. But how do we balance immediate security with providing the very thing that can improve social cohesion, reduce criminal behavior, improve self-esteem, and build a community? Because we know trees and gardens can do that.”

“I don’t know,” he responded. I don’t know either.

This is where the tension lies. Which approach would you choose: fear, or love?

The night after I walked through Watts for the first time, my son’s best friend was killed there, on the same street I had walked on the day before. He and two friends went to a birthday party meant to bring youth from different communities together. They left the party without a ride, were attacked by a group of men, and beaten until he lay unconscious against an alley wall. One of the men pointed a gun at his friends. They ran for their lives. Two gunshots sounded. They returned to their friend, called 911, and tried to stop his bleeding. He died while they watched over him.

His friends are devastated. My eyes ache from crying. I cannot imagine the pain his family is going through. We all loved him. I will miss his kind smile and gentle nature and the days and weeks he spent with us. I will miss the unconditional love and support he gave my son during our own family struggles.

I’m grieving the only way I know how, by writing. As I grieve, I cannot help thinking about that tree as a symbol of the lives that are lost in places like Watts.

Trees provide the air we breathe. They cool our homes and our cities, protecting us from deadly heat waves. They absorb rainwater and protect us from floods. Planting more trees may even prevent senseless deaths like our dear one’s.

Drs. Frances Kuo and William Sullivan, ASLA compared Chicago public housing projects and found that trees and grass in the courtyard correlated with a greater sense of community, greater feeling of safety, less aggressive and violent behavior, and less impulsivity and irritability. A study with their colleague Dr. Andrea Faber Taylor found greater self-discipline (and fewer pregnancies) in teenage girls who lived in housing where trees and grass were. These studies illuminate the power of nature to improve mental health — to reduce the stresses and irritability that can lead to violence.

The systems so many (cities, school districts, housing developments, detention centers) have in place now — security cameras, security fencing, security guards, Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED), helicopter policing, reducing growth of trees and shrubs so people cannot hide behind them — these are based on fear. Fear of somebody doing something if we don’t control our environment.

This is the same fear felt by parents who keep their children inside and over-scheduled after the freer attitudes of the 60s and 70s when so many of us roamed our neighborhoods and creeks and parks by ourselves.

But what about design born of love? Love lets us imagine the best for all of our communities. Tree-lined, clean streets with safe sidewalks, public plazas and gardens for people to gather, public restrooms and parks where families feel safe. Shaded bus stops with benches and green schools with playgrounds open to the community at all hours. Jane Jacobs summed up a safe neighborhood with four words: eyes on the street.

I grew up in a neighborhood like this in the 70s. When our classmate was brutally murdered while walking home from school, our schools and parents taught us to walk in groups and know our neighbors, not to stay inside and hide. I lived in a neighborhood riddled with crack in the 80s, where gunshots went off regularly, few dared to walk after midnight, and our roommate was held at gunpoint at the corner deli. I’ve lived in a lot of situations in between, and I’ve known love and fear in all of them.

We need to overhaul the racist lending, housing, and justice systems that paved the way to where Watts and neighborhoods like it are today. Instead of the fear-based approach that led to barren projects surrounded by crumbling streets and punitive law enforcement, people deserve to be treated with compassion, humanity, and dignity. These communities need empathetic justice, medical and mental health care, education, job training, decent shelter, clean water, healthy food, and purpose.

People also need a respite from stress, a sense of community, self-esteem, beauty, and hope. These are things trees and gardens provide. Our children and teenagers, who are drowning in anxiety, need and deserve relief.

There are non-profits all over the city working for environmental justice. WORKS is a non-profit developer building affordable and sustainable residences with mental health services in LA’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. The Trust for Public Land in LA has created 10 parks in the last eight years, including Watts Serenity Park, which opened in 2015. From Lot to Spot sees a more humane and beautiful Watts through planting street trees and community gardens. The Watts Labor Community Action Committee is leading the effort to build Mudtown Farms Agriculture Park.

We need to support these efforts, and others like them, by advocating for funds, programs, and services to help build healthier, safer communities without displacing people — to work towards social and environmental justice. Fear has had its chance, and it isn’t working. Let’s try more love.

This guest post is by Claire Latané, ASLA, LEED AP, SITES AP, fellow in innovation and leadership, Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), and senior associate, Studio-MLA.

What We Still Don’t Know about the Health Benefits of Nature

ASLA 2017 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Klyde Warren Park, Dallas, OJB Landscape Architecture / Gary Zonkovic Photography

We know that connecting with nature is good for us, but there are still many questions that need to be answered through more credible scientific research: What is the ideal “dose” of nature? What health conditions do these doses actually help with? Does duration and frequency of dose matter? How long do the benefits last? Does who you are and where you live impact how beneficial exposure to nature will be? And how does technology help or interfere with our connection to nature?

To get a better handle on the remaining unknowns, leading public health expert Dr. Howard Frumkin assembled a multi-disciplinary team at the University of Washington comprised of experts in epidemiology, environmental health, clinical medicine, psychology, ecology, landscape architecture, urban studies, and other disciplines, along with experts from the Nature Conservancy, Seattle Children’s Research Institute, U.S. Forest Service, Willamette Partnership, Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology, and the Natural Capital Project. Together, they crafted a creative, ambitious research agenda, which was just published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

According to Frumkin and the other co-authors, “nature contact offers considerable promise in addressing a range of health challenges, including many — such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, depression, and anxiety — that are public health priorities. Nature contact offers promise both as prevention and as treatment” at all stages of life.

Furthermore, exposure to nature is likely cheaper than “conventional medical interventions,” safe, practical, and doesn’t require a highly-trained professional to dispense treatments. Green spaces designed to provide health benefits of nature also offer many co-benefits: they provide wildlife habitat, store stormwater, or offer shade, for example.

While the benefits of nature are increasingly understood, the team found seven domains where further research is needed. Below are high-level summaries; for greater detail, read the research agenda.

Mechanistic Biomedical Studies: We need to better understand how nature exactly works its magic on us. While some scientists believe the mechanisms, or pathways of impact, on our minds and bodies have an evolutionary origin, meaning they are deep-rooted and associated with our innate biophilia, others posit there may be more precise pathways that are psychological, relate to our immune system, or are linked with increased social contact or improved air quality. We don’t know exactly the way nature exposure works its benefits on us.

Just in terms of psychological pathways, there are a diversity of theories: some argue that nature helps by relieving stress, while others focus on the way nature can relieve mental fatigue. Those are different things. And there could be multiple mechanisms happening at once, too. Frumkin and team argue that with more research “specific neural pathways” for these benefits will likely be discovered.

There is also some research suggesting exposure to nature boosts immune function; physical activity outdoors in a green space is better than in a gym; being in nature promotes the creation of social connections, which in turn provide health benefits; and trees and other green spaces, particularly in cities, reduce air pollution, creating health benefits.

But the research agenda notes that much more evidence-based research is needed to isolate the exact mechanisms through which nature exposure works its theorized benefits.

Exposure Science: Epidemiologists try to measure the “magnitude, frequency, and duration of exposure to an agent, along with the number and characteristics of the population exposed.” When “researching the environmental impacts on people,” research focuses on “pathogens, medications, toxic chemicals, and social circumstances, or salutary exposures such as nature.”

However, they argue that “standard approaches to exposure measurement” have limitations. “First they fail to capture variations in how people in how people experience nature, nuances that may be highly relevant. Suppose that one person sits in a car atop a seaside bluff and admires the view of the beach (while checking email on a smartphone), a second person walks barefoot along the shore, enjoying not only the view, but the feel of the sea breeze and the lapping waves, and a third person plunges in a for a swim. The designation ‘beach contact’ or a measure of ‘time on a beach’ would fall short of capturing the variation in their experience.”

As such, measuring the effects of various doses of nature becomes more complicated — someone paying close attention to all the details while on a forest path and really immersing themselves in the experience and another person simply walking through while looking at their smartphone will “likely ‘absorb’ differing levels of nature.”

Epidemiology of Health Benefits: Epidemiologists, who research the health and disease profiles of populations, conduct “true experiments, ‘natural experiments,’ and observational studies.” The bulk of research on nature contact and health have been observational studies, which Frumkin and his team argue are practical, can be conducted rapidly, and reduce costs of research, given they typically use data collected for other purposes. However, there are also built-in limits to the pre-existing data, and it’s hard to control bias in these studies.

True experiments, which are clinical trials, are the “gold standard” in science. Natural experiments, which “are study opportunities that arise through circumstances outside the investigator’s control” — like Roger Ulrich’s famous study of hospital patients, their views of trees, and recovery times — enable researchers to test hypotheses in realistic settings. More of these studies are needed.

The group also recommends nature and health researchers do a better job of tapping into existing large-scale research studies and data sets; finding new sources of big data, such as using Google Street View, webcams, and location-based data-collection apps like Mappiness; and investing in more advanced statistical analysis and advancing epidemiological research in general.

Diversity and Equity — The Role of Nature Contact: More research is needed to better understand “a) patterns of disproportionate exposure; b) cultural and contextual factors that affect nature preferences; c) differing patterns of benefit across different populations; and d) the possibility that improved access to nature may have unintended negative consequences on vulnerable populations.”

As has been explored by other researchers, low-income communities are more likely than not to also have limited access to nature and green space, which only exacerbates the negative health impacts of poverty, bad diets, lack of exercise, and crime.

African Americans, Frumkin and his team write, may also have different associations with trees, fields, and forests than other groups, due to the legacy of “forced labor, lynchings, and other violence.” 

And livelihoods play a role in creating different understandings of what’s restorative: “a rural farmer has quite different preferences regarding nature from those of an urban computer programmer.”

On the positive side: there is some research that argues that access to nature and green space may disproportionately help those in low-income communities who suffer from unequal access to many services, but, again, more study is needed.

Technological Nature: Modern technologies — the Web, smartphones, games, virtual reality (VR), the list goes on — are altering our relationship with nature. Kids, who spend more and more time glued to their screens, are particularly impacted. But there are also other kinds of technologies  — those that “mediate, simulate, promote, and/or augment the human experience of nature,” which must also be better understood. Computer desktop wallpaper of nature scenes, VR movies in which users go on safari in Africa, and location-based games like Pokemon Go may offer some of the benefits of nature exposure — and may be better than nothing — but more laboratory-based experiments are needed.

Economic and Policy Studies, including Co-benefits: The benefits of nature are increasingly being quantified. As such, policies are being promoted to increase the value of these benefits for communities and ecosystems. Frumkin and the co-authors propose looking to ecological and health economics for new models of evaluation and quantification of the benefits of nature as well as the avoided health care costs.

When the value of a new park is estimated, it’s important that policymakers don’t just look at improvements in real estate value or gains in stormwater credits, but also the real, quantifiable community health benefits. Furthermore, cost-benefit analyses rooted in benefits valuations can help guide limited public funds towards the most effective forms of green space investment.

We couldn’t agree more. It’s critical to answer: What policies and regulations can positively boost the health benefits of nature and which don’t do much at all? Many cities aim to provide a park within a five minute walking distance of every resident. Is this a worthy policy? Toronto just created a shade policy to help reduce the negative health impacts of heat in the summer. What metrics should be used to measure the success of such policies?

Implementation Science — Studies of What Works: “Research findings don’t necessarily translate into action.” This group wants to see more what “intervention studies are needed to determine what works in practice.”

As an example, they point to the U.S. Forest Service’s iTree software, which helps anyone with a computer understand the ecosystem service benefits of the trees they are planting. The researchers ask: “might further development of such tools incorporate additional mental and physical health benefits?”

While this research agenda is impressive and comprehensive, there are a few other unknowns important to include:

First, doctors are now prescribing time in the park. Do these treatments, which often combine increased activity, social interaction, and nature exposure work? Is the combination of exposure, social engagement, and exercise what is key?

Second, what is the impact of climate change on the nature and health connection? As nature becomes a more changeable, and often destructive force, in many places, do we need to differentiate between safe and unsafe nature spaces? Can an ocean that floods a community every year be considered restorative when it isn’t causing damage?

Lastly, there are landscape architecture educators and researchers, like William Sullivan, ASLA, and MaryCarol Hunter, ASLA, who seek to determine which forms and arrangements of landscape elements have the most benefits. Their forward-looking studies are critical: The next step is to translate proven health benefits from nature exposure into design principles planners, landscape architects and designers, and engineers can apply in their work. What designed landscape forms and elements act as pathways to the biggest benefits?

Best Podcasts for Landscape Architects

And the best way to listen


Over the past decade, podcasts have emerged as a popular storytelling platform and captivating way to learn more about the world around us.

Podcasts offer a source of inspiration for designers exploring other disciplines and seeking fresh perspective within their own. For landscape architects, podcasts reveal new opportunities and ways of thinking about the way we design space.

The podcasts on this list seeks to capture the range of topics that influence the field — from interviews with leading landscape architects, to stories on cities, urban planning, communities, and sustainability, as well as insight from creative people in other professions.

All of these podcasts are available on iTunes and Stitcher

99% Invisible: Roman Mars and his team at 99% Invisible pull together seemingly disparate pieces of information to weave compelling stories of why things are the way they are. While not landscape-specific, this podcast is a must-listen for anyone interested in places, people, and design.

Recommended episodes: “Making Up Ground” is all about cities built on constructed land and the modern day implications of reclamation. 22 minutes

American Planning Association: The APA produces a series of podcasts that focus on everything from the people behind plans, to disruptive transportation technologies, to planning for public health and for public space. Together, the podcasts offer a good way to keep up with all things planning.

Recommended episode: In “Planning for Parks in Washington D.C.’s NoMa,” APA’s Mike Johnson interviews Robin-Eve Jasper and Stacie West, who are shaping the future of a D.C. neighborhood where, in an era of rapid development, almost no land was set aside for public parks. 23 minutes

Design Matters: If you’re in the design world and don’t know how Debbie Millman is, this podcast is a great introduction. Her podcast, Design Matters, has been around since podcasts about design have been a thing. She has interviewed influential people from a multitude of creative industries. Their stories are inspiring for designers in any field.

Recommended episode: Interview with architect Pierluigi Serraino about what creative people have in common. 28 minutes

Infinite Earth Radio: This weekly podcast explores solutions for a more sustainable world. Hosts Mike Hancox and Vernice Miller-Travis interview people — from government officials to local entrepreneurs — who are working to advance more equitable, resilient communities.

Recommended episode: “Bottom Up Water Solutions” talks about freshwater, keeping our streams clean, and smart growth in the face of climate change. 28 minutes

The Landscape Architect Podcast: This podcast, which is focused on landscape architecture, broadens the discourse within the profession by talking to leaders from all areas of the field. Host Michael Todoran with co-host Margaret Gerhart hold candid discussions with professionals in landscape architecture, as well as writers, researchers, and innovative thinkers influencing the future of the profession.

Recommended episode: “Feng Shui & Landscape Architecture” discusses movement and the environment with landscape architect Shelley Sparks as she analyzes Feng Shui for homes, business, and gardens. 53 minutes

Placemakers: Slate is a major hub for podcasts, and their Placemakers is a story-driven show about urban design and planning. Host Rebecca Sheir and the producers at Slate explore how innovative communities are tackling environmental and social issues.

Recommended episode: “The Greatest Misallocation of Resources in the History of the World” is an episode about an agricultural approach to tackling suburban sprawl. 29 minutes

Roots of Design: This podcast is by landscape architects for landscape architects. Produced by the New York Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), hosts Frank Varro and a variety of co-hosts discuss the breadth of opportunity in the profession through interviews with leaders in the field. It fills a crucial need for a landscape architecture-exclusive podcast and raises awareness of an often misunderstood field.

Recommended episode: Their first, “The Birth of Central Park and Landscape Architecture,” is a great place to start — and really any number of their interviews thereafter. 13 minutes

The Urbanist: For a global perspective, listen to Monocle’s The Urbanist. Host Andrew Tuck covers everything from urban policy to environmentalism to art. This podcast packs a variety of topics in each 30-minute episode, providing a well-rounded but thorough update on urban developments each week.

Recommended episode: “River crossing” on how rivers and bridges can both connect and divide urban areas. 26 minutes

What did I miss? Comment below and share your favorite podcasts.

Soon We’ll Be Able to Swim in the Chicago River

Chicago River / Pinterest

Take a dip in the Chicago River? Those familiar with its history might think twice.

The Chicago River has a notoriously waste-filled past. Originally, the 150-mile-long waterway was used to fuel booming industry in the Midwest city. Little attention was paid to its environmental and civic value. By the turn of the century, it was contaminated with sewage and factory waste. When a storm cause the Chicago River to overflow, it would spill into Lake Michigan, the source of the city’s drinking water, posing such an acute risk to residents’ health that in 1900 the city turned it around, reverse-engineering its flow and diverting wastewater away from Lake Michigan and out of the region to the Mississippi. The reversal was crucial to protecting thousands of Chicagoans a year from waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera.

By 1930, after legal complaints from cities downstream, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Chicago to address the pollution problem. Since then, efforts have been ongoing to clean up the waterway. Recently, the city has stepped up those efforts again with hopes of increase activity along and in the river, including swimming.

In 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Metropolitan Planning Council announced the Great Rivers Chicago effort, a city-wide “visioning process” to develop a long-term plan to clean up and reintegrate into city life the three rivers of the Chicago system – the Chicago, Calumet, and Des Plaines Rivers.

The vision, released last year, lays out a series of goals that aim to make the river “inviting, productive and living” with benchmarks at 2020, 2030, and 2040. Ultimately, the city wants to draw more people to a river front that’s safer and more engaging with improve water quality.

And by 2030, they hope to make the river swimmable.

But despite reversing the Chicago River, the city’s combined sewage and stormwater system is still inundated during large storm events and can overflow into the rivers, canals, and Lake Michigan. According to The Chicago Tribune, 18.2 billion gallons of pollution entered the river last year. Chicago plans to eliminate the system’s overflows through green infrastructure and  completing the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, known as the Deep Tunnel project, which started in 1975 and the city hopes to complete by 2029.

For recreation purposes, the rivers need to achieve the “primary contact” water quality standards set for them by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, which would allow for safe swimming, paddling, and fishing.

Each year, 1.5 million Chicagoans and tourists flock to the popular Riverwalk, a 1.25 mile pedestrian walkway that runs from Lake Shore Drive to Lake Street on the south bank of the Chicago River in the city’s downtown. A new $108-million segment designed by the landscape architecture firm Sasaki, Ross Barney Architects, and Collins Engineers that just saw its official opening has generated even more interest in the river.

Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki
Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki
Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki

Paddling is already happening on the river. And a floating museum, or barge-turned moveable entertainment center, which launched this week, will travel along the Chicago River through August, eventually landing at Navy Pier.

New cleanup efforts are happening right alongside all the activity. Last month, the city tested a trash skimmer to collect garbage pooling along the Riverwalk. According to The Chicago Tribune, the floating dumpster is an $11,000 pilot program running through the fall that “sucks in the bacteria-laden water and uses a mesh screen to catch oil pollutants and floating garbage.”

Some residents are ready to take the plunge now, but getting much of the public past the initial “ew factor” of swimming in infamously-polluted waters may take time. Regardless, beyond swimmable urban waterways, this aspiring scheme could offer a unique way of looking at a role of a river can play in connecting a city.

New Campaign Needed to Bring Urban Nature into the Healthcare System

ASLA 2012 Landmark Award. Village of Yorkville Park by Schwartz Smith Meyer Landscape Architects, Inc. and PWP Landscape Architecture / © Peter Mauss / Esto

The health benefits of nature have been well-established. From improved well-being to a reduction in respiratory illnesses, access to green space is crucial to improving public health in urban areas. The problem, according to Dr. Cecil Konijnendijk van den Bosch, is that “nature is still not an integral part of our healthcare system.”

Konijnendijk van den Bosch, along with his wife, Matilda van den Bosch, are professors at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Their research focuses on trees, green spaces, and public health in urban environments. 

“The impact of trees and green spaces on our public health will be the number-one selling point for our profession in the next years,” Konijnendijk van den Bosch told arborists at the International Society of Arboriculture’s (ISA) annual meeting in Washington, D.C. 

Studies published in prestigious journals like the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), BMC Public Health, and Nature affirm the health benefits of nature. Summarizing the research, Konijnendijk van den Bosch said tree canopies and green space can reduce the health gap caused by socioeconomic inequality; and lower rates of ADHD, cardiovascular and respiratory illness, depression, and overall mortality while boosting cognition and happiness. 

“There’s so much potential in these benefits,” but they are not being widely translated into our healthcare systems, despite all of the credible research. 

Konijnendijk van den Bosch noted the World Health Organization’s new guidelines for access to green spaces, and pointed to cities like Toronto, which implemented a shade policy, as examples of progress. Still, there is a gap between ambitions and action.

“Things are happening here and there. Step by step,” he said. “It’s not a major campaign. It’s not a movement of integrating green space and trees into our healthcare systems.”

So far, urban foresters have failed to promote the public health benefits of their work. Konijnendijk van den Bosch gives a number of reasons for this: cognitive bias; barriers between research and practice; unbalanced messaging on issues like outdoor safety for children and the risks posed by nature; and competing interests for already cash-strapped city budgets.

So what can urban foresters, landscape architects and designers, and advocates do to inject nature into the discourse on healthcare?

“We have to change people’s mindset,” he said.

First, Konijnendijk van den Bosch argued, medical professionals and urban foresters need to build alliances. “If you want to get this message across, if you really want to be successful, you need to the doctors. You need them to tell the story,” he said, citing the credibility that comes with having a medical degree. While a number of pioneering doctors are already prescribing time in a park, the medical education system does not yet teach the preventative healthcare benefits of green spaces.

Second, urban foresters need to build strategic partnerships with organizations like the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), American Planning Association (APA), American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and American Institute of Architects (AIA) to create a cross-disciplinary approach.

Lastly, more public outreach can raise awareness of nature’s health benefits. But we need to be creative about fostering deeper emotional connections with nature. Take Amsterdam, for example. The city lost many of its Elm trees to Dutch Elm disease. Now there’s a perfume that bottles that now-nostalgic scent. It’s a marketing tactic that’s “tapping into something. It’s tapping into people’s emotions,” he said.

A Powerful New Therapy: Climbing Trees

Dr. John Gathright climbs a tree with students, as part of the TreeHab program / John Gathright, Tree Climbing Japan


Climbing trees isn’t just for able-bodied children and adults. Dr. John Gathright believes it can be an inclusive form of therapy with the power to foster positive emotions in people of all physical and mental abilities. 

Gathright is the founder of Tree Climbing Japan, an organization that uses tree climbing as rehabilitation for physically-challenged people to overcome pain while improving well-being, mobility, and strength.

“I believe that trees are our friends, teachers, and doctors,” Gathright said at annual conference of the International Society of Arboriculture in Washington, D.C.

The inspiration for his new therapeutic approach for people with disabilities came from a 57-year-old woman named Hikosaka Toshiko. Gathright met her before he was involved in field of tree climbing at a signing event for a book he wrote about achieving your dreams. She is physically challenged and uses a wheelchair. She told him her dream was to climb the world’s tallest tree and asked for his help. Gathright agreed and, in 2000, after three years of preparation, Toshiko was ready to take on a 250-foot tall giant sequoia. It took her over an hour to get a quarter of the way up.

“She had the goal of reaching the top of the tree, and it took her three and a half hours to get half way,” he said, recalling her reaction when, after over five hours, she made it to the top. “She said, ‘I’m here. I’m not a cripple. I’m a challenger. Thank you, tree. Thank you, everybody.’”

Gathright wanted to then empower others with physical and mental disabilities. Through his work with Toshiko, Gathright developed TreeHab, a set of adaptive, therapeutic tree-climbing techniques.

“People said climbing had physiological and social benefits, that when they climbed trees they didn’t feel pain. The people who were depressed and had anxiety changed in our programs,” Gathright said, relaying testimonials from people who climbed.

But there was a lack of research on the subject, so Gathright went back to school to get his PhD at Nagoya University to prove the science behind the program. He conducted a study monitoring subjects’ brain waves and stress hormones as they climbed a live tree compared to when they climbed a concrete tower in the same forest.

“We wanted to know how people’s bodies changed with the trees,” he said. “We discovered climbing a tree and a concrete tower in the same forest produced very different and measurable physical and physiological results.”

He found that tree climbing had a masking effect on internal pain, and that positive emotions were enhanced while negative emotions were decreased in subjects climbing live trees, but not when climbing the concrete tower.

His program has helped children to cope with mental and physical trauma by creating a connection to nature and allowing trees to tell their story when they cannot. Gathright also uses the program to educate climbers about tree health and forests and turn them into advocates for forests.

Beyond Japan, Gathright believes there’s great opportunity for this form of therapy worldwide.

“I think it will be huge,” he said. “Look at the demographics: in America alone, 57 million people have a disability. Anxiety disorders — another forty million adults.”

The History of American Cycling: From Boom to Bust to Boom Again?

Bike Boom: The Unexpected Resurgence of Cycling / (c) 2017 Carlton Reid, published by Island Press, 2017

In the 1970s, cycling had its moment in the United States. Manufacturers were churning out bikes and adults, not just children, were buying them. The nation was set to usher in a new era where two wheels trumped four, and the infrastructure was there to support this rediscovered mode of transport.

Look around in many cities today and you’ll notice cyclists whizzing by, at best in a bike lane, and more treacherously, weaving between cars and people. But despite appearances, the U.S. is not experiencing a bike boom. “Compared to the 70s boom, today’s is illusory,” author Carlton Reid argues in Bike Boom: The Unexpected Resurgence of Cycling.

So what happened to the bike-centric world that seemed so promising in the 1970s? Reid, a journalist and author of the 2014 book, Roads Were Not Built for Cars, revisits the promise of a fleeting, bygone bike-crazed era and then analyzes the history of cycling.

“After addressing an American Bike Month meeting on May 1, 1964, Dr. Paul Dudley White, second from the left, and Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall, right front, join with a group of congressmen riding to the Capitol in Washington. At left is Rep. Caton R. Sickles, with Rep. Dante B. Fascell riding between Dr. White and Udall.”  / Associated Press via Bike Boom

Reid weaves a data-heavy tale of nationwide booms and busts; city-scale success and failures; and character-driven movements and their sometimes lasting effect on the history of cycling.

Reid analyzes policy, infrastructure, and cultural acceptance of cycling in the U.S. and Britain, chronicling each country’s attempt to keep up with the Dutch, to no avail for decades. In telling these tales, Reid does not prescribe an specific remedy to revive cycling, but rather looks at lessons learned from attempts to encourage cycling in the past.

The Netherlands — where nearly 30 percent of all trips nationwide are by bicycle — is undoubtedly the longest-reigning king of bicycle infrastructure and cultural acceptance. Reid gives a number of reasons for this, one important one: they’ve been at it a long time. Compared to the mid-21st century beginnings of transportation agencies in the UK and US, the Dutch’s ministry of transportation and the environment was founded in 1798.

“The Chinese famously take the long view of history, and Dutch nation-builders take the long view of infrastructure,” Reid writes.

In 1973, at the peak of the U.S. boom, 15 million adult bikes were sold. “The bike was rural and recreational, but it was also urban and practical,” Reid said. In the U.S., the 1970s bike boom successfully linked biking with the rising environmentalist movement. Beyond a carbon-free commute, biking offered individual agency in movement and efficiency.

But with an uptick in urban cyclist came safety concerns and varying interests among enthusiasts, including vehicular cyclists. Reid devotes an entire chapter to the history of vehicular cyclists and the debate about where on the road, if at all, bikes belong.

Throughout the book, Reid cites separated Dutch cycle paths as a model for creating an environment where cyclists feel safe and comfortable, but that’s not to say other cities haven’t had their share of success.

Dutch cycle path / The alternative department for transportation

He goes in depth into factors that allow Davis, California, for example, to become an early and natural haven for cyclists, even when there weren’t separate cycle paths.

Cycling was popular in Davis many years before the installation of curb-protected bikeways in 1967.  / City of Davis, via Bike Boom

Also, cycle infrastructure is important, Reid writes, but that alone will not make people hop on the saddle. Take Columbia, Maryland, in the U.S. and the town of Stevenage in Britain. In both places, the cycle infrastructure was there but, given the option of a quick and easy bike ride or a quick and easy trip by car, people in both places chose cars.

Cyclists in Stevenage have their own route network / Bike Boom

What a robust, connected cycle infrastructure does show, Reid argues, is how welcome a city is that mode of transport. In seeking to replicate the Dutch model, Reid points to Meredith Glaser, a cycle-infrastructure consultant, who once told him that cities need to show their appreciation for cyclists by building “’wow’ infrastructure,” like the Cykelslangen, or “cycle-snake” bridge in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Cykelslangen / Dissing + Weitling

The fact is, we’re behind and we have a long way to go. “It will be tough to replicate what the Netherlands took more than a hundred years to perfect.” But of course, Reid says, that’s no reason not to try.

NYC Is Building a Fairer Park System

Community Parks Initiative launch / NYC.gov

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his parks commissioner Mitchell Silver, Hon. ASLA, want the city’s massive park system — which covers 30,000 acres, some 14 percent of the city’s land — to be fairer. For too long, some neighborhoods have had wonderful, high-quality public spaces, while others have had parks that don’t meet contemporary needs and have fallen into disrepair. As Silver said in an interview with The Dirt: “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.” The park department’s Community Parks Initiative (CPI) — which rebuilds or significantly improves parks that have not seen any capital investment in 25 years — is one of the central efforts for achieving this goal. At the American Planning Association’s annual conference in New York City, Silver and others explained how the city’s already improving park equity — and setting a new model for other cities to follow.

Exploring all of NYC’s five boroughs, Silver has discovered people want the parks department to “break up all the pavement and add more green. They want more spray showers, dog runs, adult fitness equipment, and colorful places.” Communities also want “multi-generational social seating,” with benches for older residents and playgrounds for kids.

The CPI uses a “data-driven methodology” to identify the parks it will redesign or improve, explained Alyssa Konon, with the NYC parks department. They have identified 215 parks, plazas, and playgrounds in areas with high levels of poverty and inequality that especially need help. Some 56 comprehensive park redos have been started, and 11 more will start this fall. There have been targeted improvements in another 86. To date, some 55 neighborhoods, which are home to half a million NYers, now enjoy improved park space.

Community Parks Initiative project map / NYC Parks

While about $1 billion in capital is needed for all 215 spaces, they also need “support, partnerships, programs, and maintenance.” Konon said NYC Parks is also ramping up programmatic support for these parks, partnering with other city departments and non-profits. NYC residents have already benefited from 130 outdoor exercise classes organized by the parks department. There are 15 staff members who just focus on partnerships, helping to coordinate the 33,000 volunteers who donate their time in hundreds of parks. There are now some 48 parks friends groups.

Shape Up exercise class at West Harlem Piers / NYC Parks

Susannah Drake, FASLA, DLandStudio, a landscape architect who is a consultant with the parks department, believes “every community can have an incredible park.” She is redesigning a few older parks and playgrounds in Staten Island, working with communities to explore the “ecology, history, culture” of these spaces and strike the right balance between “passive and active uses.” She said parks department-led public planning sessions are particularly “humane,” as they schedule them when single parents can attend and also offer good food, so those parents can bring their kids along. “It’s a small thing, but it makes a huge difference.”

LT Petrosino playground proposal, under CPI / DLandStudio

So that communities don’t get “park fatigue” waiting forever for changes to happen, Silver and his team have “transformed the capital development process,” Drake said. “Parks now happen a lot more quickly — in just two years,” instead of the typical four-to-five year cycle. “Whereas before we had five community design meetings, now we have two.” Silver said his goal has been to “streamline the process, because there are just too many regulations.”

New York City Council member Mark Levine explained how many of the city’s parks got into such dire straits in the first place. “In the 70s and 80s, the rough years in the city, the parks budget dropped and never recovered.” Now, parks only get 0.5 percent of the city budget, just $344 million out of $70 billion.

Levine thinks the CPI is a great initiative, but parks overall just need more money, particularly in neighborhoods like East Harlem and the South Bronx, which have been up-zoned and are becoming more dense, and, therefore, need more high-quality public spaces. “Parks need to be considered part of new infrastructure.”

Planning for Better Health at the Regional Scale

CAMPO 2045 regional active transportation plan / Community Impact Newsletter

“Zip codes can determine your health,” said Kelly Porter, regional planning manager for the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), at the American Planning Association (APA) annual meeting in New York City. Given communities right next to other can have significant differences in overall health and even lifespans, it’s important to take a regional approach in order to reduce inequities. Representatives from three regional planning organizations — in Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; and San Diego, California — explained what they are doing to improve the health of their regions.

In the Austin metropolitan region, which totals more than 2 million, CAMPO has created the 2045 regional active transportation plan, the first-ever for the region, which is expected to be finalized this summer (see image from the draft plan above). With a federal grant, Porter said CAMPO was able to “double the average number of planning and design charrettes,” so they could “build the regional plan from the small community up.”

Setting up a WikiMap, they identified where the physical barriers were to more walking and biking, and went out in the communities with iPads loaded with surveys to find out where people actually wanted to walk and bike.

Layering over data about average trips, the number of households with children, and the underserved areas that “could really benefit from these projects,” CAMPO planners identified the hot spots to target first. “Our goal is to demonstrate the health benefits of these projects.”

They are now working on incorporating performance measures for even better outcomes. Porter admitted they are just in the early stages of looking at regional transportation through a health lens.

In the Nashville metropolitan region, which totals 1.8 million, the 2040 regional plan has identified 400 projects that will require some $8.5 billion to implement. Some 200 have been funded, explained Rochelle Carpenter, who leads the Nashville metropolitan area planning organization’s transportation and health program.

In this plan, some 77 percent either include sidewalks or bicycle infrastructure, up from just 5 percent in 2005. “Health became a new way to prioritize projects.”

Nashville area MPO Regional transportation plan / Nashville area MPO

Using both qualitative and quantitative analyses, they discovered the communities with the poorest health levels, and found those communities also had the high numbers of poor, unemployed, seniors, and people without cars. They expect their plan will reduce diabetes and cardio diseases by 3 percent and depression by 1 percent. From that statement, it sounds as if they will be measuring progress after projects to see if health outcomes do indeed improve.

Learn more about the elements of the plan, which includes $ 6 billion in new transit capital investments along with freeway bus rapid transit (BRT). Furthermore, the Southern Environmental Law Center has endorsed the plan.

Lastly, perhaps the most controversial planning process is in the San Diego metropolitan area, which has 3 million people. Carolina Ilic, senior regional planner with San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), said three behaviors — smoking, poor diet, and no exercise — contribute to four diseases — heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and lung disease — that account for more than “50 percent of deaths.” Live Well San Diego, a stakeholders group that includes planners and medical practitioners, and San Diego Forward: Regional Plan are efforts to reduce those behaviors, Ilic argued.

Under the plan, local governments in the region will roll out 275 miles of bicycle lanes, undertake hundreds of projects to improve access to transit and regional bike routes, and spend hundreds of millions on Safe Routes to Schools and new sidewalks and crosswalks. Some $200 million will be spent on a “regional bike early action program.” SANDAG gives local communities in its region grants, so they “take on a lot of the work.” Ilic said federal support was “instrumental;” the country received $16 million in grants and SANDAG $3 million, which they then mostly passed on to communities.

San Diego region bikeway / Keep San Diego moving

What Ilic didn’t mention at APA was that environmental and civic organizations and the state government sued to stop SANDAG’s regional transportation plan, because its emphasis on expanding freeways was deemed to run counter to state mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve transit, and improve air quality. To address criticism, SANDAG later announced $200 million for its early action bicycle plan and then more for bike-ways over the next few decades.

Now, there’s a referendum to reform SANDAG. Read about support for the current structure for the group of 19 cities as well as the arguments for reform.

Maximizing the Health Benefits of Landscapes

Forest bathing in a Japanese cedar forest / Dr. Qing Li, via Hiking Research

Nature can make our daily lives, which are mostly spent in buildings, much better. With access to ample sunlight; lots of indoor plants; views of trees, green roofs, and gardens outside; and the incorporation of natural building materials, designers can boost our well-being and productivity. But our landscapes really are the places to create the deeply restorative connections so critical to our health. In a talk at the Biophilic Leadership Summit, hosted at Serenbe, an agricultural community outside of Atltanta, Julia Africa, program leader, nature, health, and the built environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health‘s Center for Health and the Global environment, and Micah Lipscomb, ASLA, senior landscape architect with Perkins + Will, offered a few ways to maximize the health benefits of our landscapes.

Africa has been doing extensive research on forest bathing programs in South Korea and Japan. According to Africa, “forest therapy centers can provide a range of services, including health assessments and counseling, fresh local foods, hot springs, and guided walks through forests believed to have medicinal properties.” Spending time in forests can provide cognitive, emotional, and physical benefits, but she added there’s “some debate as to whether the benefits spring from physical (phytoncides, exercise), sensory, or social stimuli.” She said while Japan is perhaps more well-known for “Shinrin Yoku” at its centers, South Korea is catching up and may have the more ambitious long-term strategy.

According to Africa, Korea Forest Service plans to open 34 public healing forests and two national forest healing centers by 2017. The goal is to engage Koreans “from cradle to grave” by building a continuous, life-long relationship with healing forests. To perhaps counter the increasingly-widespread digital addiction experienced by Koreans, caused by their smart phones and ubiquitous high-speed broadband, they seek to create “forest welfare services, a system in which forests are used to create health and well-being for the welfare of the nation across various life stages.” Furthermore, “500 forest healing instructors will be trained to staff these centers. And interdisciplinary medical research is planned, with the potential to yield a staggering amount of data on forest bathers.” Africa seemed awed by the effort, wondering “how can we apply this to the United States?”

Japan has 60-plus forest therapy bases, with 100 planned in the future. With the help of her translator Hui Wang, she interviewed five managers of forest bathing centers to better understand how they work. She found that “some forest bathing centers have relationships with companies that have an interest in the region, either through commerce or personal relationships. Employees may be sent to the centers for a few days as a subsidized health amenity. Rudimentary ‘health checks’ for basic indicators like blood pressure, heart rate, reflexes may provide a point of assessment at the beginning and end of a forest visit. If they enter a guided program, a daily schedule may include educational sessions, therapeutic meals, and instruction on taking in the forest through all five senses. Sugi and Hinoki trees are particularly sought after features of the environment, as they are believed to produce phytoncides, a broad class of aerosols that some believe ward off pests and, also, coincidentally, benefit human health.”

Forest bathing in a Cypress forest / Dr. Qi Ling, via Hiking Research

Africa wanted to discover if the forest bathing centers are “linked — functionally or notionally — with any other therapeutic landscapes or facilities?” She found that “no, they are isolated experiences, and the healing experience is conducted in forest bathing parks only.” Learn more about her research.

Africa made another interesting point: our relationship with nature is evolving, because nature itself is in a dynamic state of change, particularly as the effects of climate change ripple through our ecosystems. “Simply examining what appeals to us about nature and why is too simple. We need to keep refreshing our understanding as nature keeps changing.”

Citing Roger Ulrich’s important study of how a view of trees in a hospital room reduced recovery times and pain medication use, Lipscomb focused us on Perkins + Will‘s work to bring nature into healthcare environments. At the Spaudling Rehabitation Center in Charlestown, Masschusetts, patients look out over where the Mystic and Chelsea Rivers meet or a green roof designed by landscape architects at Copley-Wolff Design Group. Other patients doing physical therapy have ample sunlight indoors or can go outside in the garden to do their routines.

Spaudling Rehabilitation Center / Perkins + Will
Spaudling Rehabilitation Center green roof / Perkins + Will
Spaudling Rehabilitation Center / Perkins + Will
Spaulding rehabilitation center garden / Copley Wolff Design Group

At the CARTI Cancer Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, patients in the cancer ward receiving infusions look out on a green roof designed by Perkins + Will.

CARTI Cancer Center / Nick Merrick

On a technical note: Lipscomb cautioned that maintaining biodiverse species of plants in a designed landscape can be challenging for maintenance workers, so either there needs to be a budget for long-term training and maintenance, or landscapes need to feature hardy plants. “Align your plants with the anticipated level of maintenance.”

Lastly, Lipscomb is working on building biophilic connections for his own office of landscape architects and architects at Perkins + Will in Atlanta. Those working hard to integrate nature into our daily lives now get to experience the same benefits themselves. Partnering with University of Notre Dame psychologist Kim Rollings, Lispcomb brought lots of plants into some parts of the office, but not others, and established a control group to test whether there are cognitive benefits from gazing at them. They’ll release their findings in The Dirt early summer.