About 830,000 Americans biked to work in 2017, down from a high of 904,000 in 2014. Given communities large and small have made major investments in bicycle infrastructure — and bike share now seems ubiquitous — why haven’t the numbers of bike commuters dramatically increased?
In some cities, a safe, connected, and protected system of bicycle infrastructure has made it easy to get to work on two wheels. These cities include Berkeley, California, with a population of 120,000 people, where 9 percent of commuters travel by bike, and Portland, Oregon, with a population of 640,000, where more than 7 percent do. In those communities, safe infrastructure has been vital to achieving high numbers of bike commuters.
But looking from another angle, those numbers have been stuck at less than 10 percent for a number of years. Why? According to a number of speakers at the League of American Bicyclists’ National Bike Summit, held in Crystal City, Virginia, it’s because the bicycling movement hasn’t been inclusive.
Numerous sessions at the conference delved into how to broaden the appeal of bicycling for people of different ages, income levels, and races.
Christian Dorsey, chair of the Arlington County Board, said his community in Northern Virginia is in the process of revising its bicycle infrastructure master plan. The county’s goal is to “double the mode share of bike commuters.” But to achieve this goal, “we can’t just promote the new bicycle infrastructure to the bicycle advocates — it has to be for everyone.”
Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities at AARP, and an Arlington resident who bikes to work, said that just 6 percent of older adults regularly bike — and that number has “flatlined.”
Bicycling fatalities have increased over the past few years, with those 65 and older killed “over-represented.” She said if bicycle infrastructure isn’t designed to be safe for everyone — and therefore inclusive of everyone — then “it’s not safe for anyone.”
Dorsey said it is important that access to bicycle infrastructure and bike share systems is equitable. Bike share stations need to be set up in all neighborhoods, not just the wealthy downtowns.
Furthermore, an important but rarely-mentioned barrier is that most employers of low-income people don’t offer showers or bike lockers. If someone is biking to work, they have to do so in their work clothes. “There are often no facilities at the other end.”
In reality, it’s easier for an executive, with access to those facilities, to bike to work than it is for someone who works at a fast food restaurant. That is unfortunate — as those working for less money would benefit far more from the lower transportation costs offered by commuting by bicycle.
If the many safety and social benefits of inclusive infrastructure aren’t enough, there are also economic reasons.
Steve Hartell, director of U.S. public policy for Amazon, said that Amazon selected Crystal City as the location of one of its second headquarters because it’s walkable, bikeable, and next to two Metro stations. “Look at downtown Seattle where Amazon grew up. There, 50 percent of our employees bike, walk, or take mass transit to work.” Amazon was looking for places with the same kind of connected network offering lots of transportation options. And other companies are too.
In another session asking attendees to “think outside the bike,” representatives from a number of urban bicycle non-profits explained how they are diversifying the community of bikers:
Nicole Payne, a program manager at NACTO, noted that Oakland, California required 50 percent of bike share stations to be placed in under served areas. NACTO and the Better Bike Share Partnership have released a guide to engaging a broader community in biking.
At West Town Bikes, a youth development center, in Chicago, Danni Limonez works hard to teach both bicycling and basic work skills. Kids are taught how to maintain bikes used for tours, and some end up getting hired around city bike shops. West Town Bikes also organizes rides for families on the 606 Trail, a 2.7-mile-long elevated bike way created by landscape architects at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA). And there are tours for “women, transgender, and non-binary riders.”
For Cindy Mense with Trailnet, a community will only have an inclusive, accessible bicycle infrastructure if everyone’s voice is heard. St. Louis, Missouri, was envious of Indianapolis’ cultural trail and decided to create their own extensive bike network to connect cultural centers. Ensuring that feedback was received from all communities — especially those north of the “Delmar divide,” the predominantly African American community — Trailnet financed community champions, who were each given $250 for targeted engagement. “They made all the difference, as they told us what music and neighborhood events to go to” to find people to fill out their surveys.
And Waffiyyah Murray said her organization — the Better Bike Share Partnership — which is based in Philadelphia, is all about using bikes to build community. The organization provides low-cost tours throughout neighborhoods and to cultural centers like the Barnes Foundation; Internet, mobile phone, and bike safety education classes so people can better access Philly’s Indego bike share system; and free bike deliveries of food to the homeless. There are also programs using bikes to improve mental health and prevent suicides. “Biking can be a coping mechanism for anxiety and depression.”
How to Design a Better City for Deaf People– CityLab, 3/4/19
“Lighting, sound-deflecting surfaces, big spaces—all of these elements can influence a deaf person’s ability to communicate. DeafSpace design considers it all.”
Kiley’s Chestnut Grove Provokes Hot Debate– Urban Milwaukee, 3/7/19
“Shields is now in the strange position of overseeing the elimination of the 50-year-old chestnut grove created by Kiley for Milwaukee’s Performing Arts Center in 1969. The grove would go as part of a major renovation of the facility, now known as the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.”
Climate change is causing seas to rise, flooding to worsen, and hurricanes and wildfires to become more destructive, all of which puts our infrastructure at greater risk. On top of that, America’s current infrastructure received a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in their latest scorecard. Increased risk from climate events and the massive backlog of maintenance projects means that our infrastructure has never been more vulnerable.
But for some forward-thinking communities, vulnerability means opportunity. For these communities facing climate impacts, the best way to protect themselves has been to move beyond the grey infrastructure of the past and transition to green infrastructure.
In the Neoclassical Rayburn building on Capitol Hill, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and Environment and Energy Study Institute (EESI) hosted a briefing for over a hundred Hill staffers to explain how communities and landscape architects are using green infrastructure to help communities become more climate-resilient.
Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO of ASLA, said infrastructure should be created or remodeled to work “in tandem with natural systems.”
As outlined in the report Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, which was the result of ASLA’s blue ribbon panel on climate change and resilience, green infrastructure — such as “green roofs, streets, and corridors; tree canopies; parks and open spaces; and wetlands and wild lands” — leverages the benefits of nature to soak up excess stormwater and protect against flooding. These innovative projects also provide many other benefits, such as improved water and air quality, cooler air temperatures, and psychological and cognitive benefits for people.
“The risks of coastal, riverine, an urban flooding are increasing,” said Mark Dawson, FASLA, managing principal at Sasaki, one of the leading landscape and urban design firms in the U.S., which incorporates green infrastructure into all its community resilience projects.
His firm is now working with flood-inundated Shelby County in Tennessee, which won a national disaster resilience grant of some $60 million, to protect itself from persistent, destructive riverine flooding. Sasaki mapped the extent of current and expected future flooding and developed comprehensive plans with the impacted communities. In one especially hard-hit low-income community, there was serious conversation about selling and relocating but planning turned towards how to use parks and reconfigured residential lots with floodable zones to better protect homes. A new green infrastructural park now in development will accommodate an expanding and contracting flood plain (see image at top).
Montgomery county, Maryland, has also gone all-in on using green infrastructure to improve community resilience to climate change. Adam Ortiz, director of environmental protection for the county, said the county government is focused on bringing green infrastructure to previously under-served communities in order to spread the benefits to everyone.
For example, the Dennis Avenue green street, found in an “under-invested” neighborhood, is not only a “beautiful upgrade” but cleans and infiltrates stormwater runoff and protects against flooding. These projects aren’t just good for the environment and property values, they also create economic benefits. According to Ortiz, “green infrastructure projects have contributed $130 million to the local economy,” spurring the creation of county businesses that offer well-paying green jobs.
It’s worth reiterating that some communities need green infrastructure more than others, because some communities have borne “environmental insults” far longer. Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome with the Kresge Foundation argued that environmental justice considerations should guide who gets much-needed resilient green infrastructure. She said low-income “black and brown” communities are often more vulnerable to climate impacts because they are already dealing with so many contemporary issues and the legacy of past injustices. “First, you take institutional racism, then throw climate change on top of that, and it makes things only worse.”
White-Newsome said anyone working on these projects should seek to use good local science; conduct a comprehensive environmental justice analysis before starting a project; remove barriers to “education, access, and financial decision-making;” and empower local communities as part of the process. Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange and Earth Economics are helpful organizations for communities seeking to finance their own plans and projects.
In the past few years, there has been progress on Capitol Hill in incentivizing more resilient infrastructure, but not nearly enough. Ellen Vaughn, director of public policy for EESI pointed to the Disaster Recovery Reform Act; the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act; Defense appropriations around climate resilience; and the recently-passed Natural Resources Management Act, which provides permanent financing for the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). And Somerville noted that ASLA has been promoting the Living Shorelines Act and hopes it will be re-introduced this Congress.
But more must be done at the federal level to spread the protective benefits of next-generation resilient infrastructure to more communities. Somerville said: “what is needed is dedicated federal funding for green infrastructure.”
The district encompasses San Francisco City Hall, the Asian Art Museum, the San Francisco Public Library, and UN Plaza, among other civic spaces. It also touches S0Ma and the Tenderloin, two of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and most under-served in terms of public space.
CMG’s plan is the result of two years of community outreach, though it sits within a series of outreach efforts led by others that started in 2010. CMG arrived on the scene in 2017, conducting online and in-person surveys, installing mobile outreach stations, organizing focus groups, and reaching out to the diverse ethnic communities in the area. Vietnamese, Chinese, and Spanish-speaking communities, as well as youth, received particular attention as they are heavy and underserved users of the district. Because this area also includes the city’s highest concentration of single-room occupancy buildings in the city and their related services, CMG also reached out to organizers in those communities.
The plan pulls elements from three possible schemes that were unveiled in 2018. Lauren Hackney, ASLA, a landscape architect with CMG, explained the three plans were intended to “provoke conversation,” and allowed CMG to subsequently incorporate the most popular and consistently-desired aspects of the three proposals into the final plan.
The final design strives to simultaneously meet the needs of a civic space and those of surrounding residents, while also calibrating the space’s historic design with contemporary needs.
Noteworthy for its Beaux-Arts plan implemented at the turn of the 20th century, Civic Center comprises a National Historic District, and it was necessary to respect that history. But “the crazy thing is that Beaux-Arts planning doesn’t align with contemporary ambitions around how you use space,” said Willet Moss, ASLA, a partner at CMG. Thus, CMG stripped the Beaux-Arts plan to its foundational principles of cohesion, axes, integrity, and unity. Doing so allowed the Beaux-Arts ideas to serve as “a starting point” from which the designers could accommodate contemporary needs.
That balancing act is one of the project’s biggest challenges: designing a single framework for many desired needs and overlapping jurisdictions and for a client composed of eight city agencies. “One of the real sincere challenges is how you get such a diverse spectrum of stakeholders to talk about identity — and about this place that everybody in San Francisco has a relationship with,” Hackney said. From protests to City Hall marriages, from the library to the farmers’ market, the ways people experience the space are numerous and varied.
CMG addressed these disparate needs by emphasizing the central axis and enlivening the sides and edges of Civic Center. The space can function ceremonially while accommodating multiple uses around its fringe.
Planting, paving, and lighting organize the district’s civic “spine.” CMG has given the plaza facing City Hall a room-like feel—reinforcement of the Beaux-Arts plan—by framing the space with planting. The frame provides structure while leaving space for large gatherings (Gay Pride, for instance, can see hundreds of thousands of people pass through the space).
Identical paving throughout the district provides cohesion, and marks its transformation from car-centric to pedestrian-oriented. This is also the first effort to comprehensively light the entire district, making it safer to navigate from BART to public spaces at night. These qualities all contribute to accessibility. After all, Hackney said: “The linchpin of democratic public space is access to it.”
To meet the needs of surrounding communities, CMG proposes incorporating green and other spaces for recreation. A shallow mirror pond that turns on and off can be playful, while nodding to the ceremonial. Gardens that surround existing playgrounds, lawns that transform into soccer fields, and a sculpture garden with ample seating exemplify smaller scale spaces activating the plaza.
The outreach process also made clear that the new plan needed to address basic needs of its constituents. At present, there are no benches, and a single bathroom. The common reaction in San Francisco is to do without seating, lest it become crowded with homeless people.
CMG’s response? “Let’s have so much seating that there will never not be a seat for anyone,” Moss says. And the same principle applies to bathrooms across the site, too. “Homeless people are an important constituent of the public space,” Hackney says. “You need to meet the needs of the people who are in the space long term.”
Linked to similar concerns, Lawrence Halprin’s fountain within UN Plaza has stirred strong feelings from both its proponents and its detractors. Ultimately, CMG decided to retain the fountain, harnessing it as part of a gateway to the Tenderloin and UC Hastings College of Law.
Their plan attempts to restore people’s engagement with the fountain (right now it is fenced off), maintaining it in a way consistent with Halprin’s intention to “invite people to engage with their environment in a different way.” CMG has also leveraged it as a piece of their stormwater infrastructure so that it becomes a large detention basin when it rains. “I believe we could breathe new life into it,” Moss says.
Halprin’s fountain is only one component of the district’s complex green infrastructure strategy. At present, no stormwater treatment exists, and all the surrounding civic buildings pump out foundation water, which then flows into San Francisco’s combined sewer systems and causes downstream flooding. The new plan harvests that water; some is used for irrigation and toilet flushing, some is treated to become potable (72 hours of drinking water will be stored for use during emergencies). An underground infiltration “gallery” comprised of gravel media allows rainwater to infiltrate to the water table.
Beyond water concerns, CMG also incorporated tenants of San Francisco’s Green Connections and urban forest plans. In designing, attention was given to tree canopy and habitat, species diversity, optimal growing conditions, and understory planting.
The implementation timeline of the plan is unclear, and likely will be for some time. The plan will first undergo one to two years of environmental review, and its phasing and budget are still in development. A project of this scale necessitates many funding streams for different areas. Funding efforts are now directed towards an identified first phase, which aligns with the in-progress project Better Market Street and includes 6th to 8th Streets. As for an exact timeline, CMG is reluctant to say—it depends on decisions, reviews, and city processes.
This vagueness garners skepticism. After having crafted a design based in extensive outreach, the question is now how to realize it financially and politically. “It’s less about what people want than people’s confidence in the city’s culture; and the city bureaucracy making change and sustaining this place in the long term,” Moss said. But CMG is hopeful: the city understood the fundamental need for long-term management and operation, and included that in discussion from the start.
But even with the worthy intentions of the landscape architects and city players, the plan calls into question the ability of a public space to address mounting social ills in San Francisco. Even if the space is designed for everyone, will the community at large support this mission? Can accessibility to public space truly provoke change in a city rife with inequity? An important first step would be to meet the urgency of these problems with a similar haste to build the proposed plan.
This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.
AARP knows that working to create more livable communities is not an optional endeavor – rather, it is central to our mission of supporting people to live their best lives at every age. Increasingly, communities are realizing that the flipside is true, too –ensuring that communities work for people of all ages is essential to their own community’s ability to thrive economically, socially, and culturally. And that realization is coming not a moment too soon: currently one in three people is over the age of 50, and by 2035, there will be more people over the age of 65 in the United States than under the age of 18. Any community that isn’t already asking, “Are we ready?” is going to be in for a surprise.
So, what does “ready” look like? Ultimately, it looks a place that offers diverse choices in housing, a range of viable transportation options, and well-designed parks and public spaces that invite interaction and activity. “Ready” means that communities are crafted to engage older adults in the community – as volunteers, as entrepreneurs, and as local leaders – and to harness their insights to drive better public investments and policy. The good news is these attributes don’t just deliver benefits to a single age group – they meet the needs of all.
AARP works closely with communities through our Livable Communities initiative to help examine their needs from an “age-friendly” lens in ways that can create a fruitful context for change. To date, more than 330 communities – and three states – have joined AARP’s Network of Age Friendly States and Communities. As a result of AARP’s efforts, more than 25 states reported local and/or state policy wins in 2018 that deliver better housing and transportation choices for older adults, and by extension, for all.
Inherent to our Livable Communities approach is the ability to help communities demonstrate the “proof of concept” for change – whether that change means a temporary roundabout, or a short-lived demonstration bike lane, or a model approach to adapting tiny homes to increase their accessibility. Since 2017, we have funded nearly 220 such models through our Community Challenge Grant program – which this year will give awards to communities for small-scale, quick-action demonstration projects.
If past grantees are any indicator, our 2019 awardees will help advance real impact in communities across the US – in cities, towns, and on tribal lands — through small, tactical investments in placemaking, housing, and transportation that spark broader conversation and community change.
Past Community Challenge projects include:
City Heights, San Diego, California – The eastern San Diego neighborhood of City Heights is an enclave for refugees from Somalia and other East African countries. The Challenge grant supported the construction of permanent seating and landscaping along University Avenue – home to shops, markets and mosques and a popular area for local residents (especially ones 50 or older) to gather (see image above).
Kenaitze Indian Tribe, Alaska – The Old Town Kenai campus is home to the Dena’ina Wellness Center as well as the Tyotkas Elders Center. Medicinal plants are an important tradition for the Dean’ina people, who have inhabited this region for more than 1000 years. The AARP Challenge grant funded the construction of six raised-bed garden boxes containing 12 native Alaskan medicinal plants which enabled tribal elders to grow the plants without stooping over. Walking tour maps and informational signs describe the medicinal properties of each plant and how they address specific ailments.
Chicago, Illinois – “People Spots” are temporary platforms that turn an existing parking spot into an outdoor space for public enjoyment. AARP grant funding enabled the City of Chicago to offer a People Spot prototype for installation on a rotating basis in areas of high economic hardship, or those designated “retail thrive zones” on Chicago’s south, southwest, and west sides.
Jackson, Mississippi – Jackson’s first pedestrian-aimed project is a pilot for its Open Streets program to transform its auto-centric downtown streets into vibrant social spaces. The AARP grant funded the transformation of a block of Congress Street to including outdoor furniture, a parklet, bike infrastructure and programmed events such as PARK(ing) Day Friday on September 21, 2018.
Manning, Iowa – Manning’s brick-paved Main Street is a popular gathering spot for neighbors of all ages, including residents of the nearby Plaza Nursing Home. AARP funding helped add ambience and new design elements to the area with the purchase and installation of 12 lighting fixtures created by students from the Iowa State University College of Design.
Gardner, Kansas – The citizens of Gardner want to maintain the traditions of their small but fast-growing community while creating new public spaces to meet the changing needs of residents and visitors. AARP funding helped create a portable parklet in the heart of the community, offering a place to rest in the shade near many facilities. Guided by more than 500 responses to a public input survey, the accessible parklet was equipped with shade canopies, comfortable seating, plants, lighting and is helping build awareness about larger green spaces planned for the area.
Woodbridge, Virginia – In this two-part project at the Woodbridge Senior Center, AARP funding was used to develop a vegetable garden that supplements the meals provided to residents and creates an opportunity for physical activity. The second part of the project involved improvements in an outdoor area that lacked sufficient seating and landscaping, encouraging more social activity.
The task of preparing communities for a future in which older adults are able to live their best lives calls for broad engagement about how to improve housing, transportation and public spaces. Efforts like AARP’s Community Challenge Grant program provide a clear opportunity for landscape architects, planners, community members, and local leaders to come together to craft and deliver real solutions in communities. Little by little, working hand in hand, together we’ll prepare our communities – and our country – for the age-friendly future that awaits us.
An astonishing 6,000 pedestrians were struck and killed by vehicles in 2017, adding to a deadly decade in which 49,340 people were killed on the nation’s streets between 2008 and 2017. Compounding this national tragedy, victims are disproportionately from vulnerable groups, including people of color, those living in low-income communities, Native peoples, and the elderly.
Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, the executive vice president and CEO of ASLA, welcomed the study, saying, “Too often, danger is built right into our nation’s streets, especially in communities with large elderly populations and people of color. Strong policies are needed that will allow landscape architects to continue to put good street design to work to reduce unnecessary risks and make sure our transportation systems equitably serve all Americans. As cities begin the process of rebuilding and reimagining our decaying urban infrastructure, pedestrian safety must be among our highest priorities.”
Somerville added that “The landscape architecture profession plans and designs streetscapes across the country and welcomes this opportunity to direct the attention of the public and policymakers to this deadly daily crisis. Landscape architects are devoted to improving the health, safety, and welfare of every community, and urge the creation of federal, state, and local policies that will correct the tragic inequities that are built into our nation’s aging road systems.”
Using the most recent federal data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, the study generates a Pedestrian Danger Index that ranks each state and the 100 most populous metropolitan areas on how deadly they are for people on foot. It also reveals the degree to which vulnerable groups face disproportionate danger and higher risk of death and injury.
Smart Growth America is hosting a public briefing online about the report findings on Thursday, January 24, at 2:30 p.m. EST.
As we look forward to covering new stories on the built and natural environments this year, here’s a look back at the 10 most popular DIRT posts of 2018. Readers were most interested in the debate over whether beauty still matters in an age dominated by science; how the practice of landscape architecture is evolving to deal with climate change and increasingly diverse communities; how urban sprawl is impacting biodiversity; and the interesting relationship between landscape architecture and retail. As in past years, new research on the health benefits of nature remains a favorite topic.
Always worth mentioning: We are looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners, on topics that inspire you. And tell us about your new projects and research. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kicking off a two-day planting symposium at the University of California at Berkeley, professor emeritus Marc Treib posed the question: Is there still a place for the “art of landscape design” in an age “dominated by the science of landscape ecology?” Planting design is often brushed aside as superfluous or unserious. British historian and critic Tim Richardson reminded the audience of the litany of unfavorable adjectives associated with artful planting: the bourgeois, the small-scale, the amateur, the hobbyist, the ephemeral, the female.
If you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or just one for yourself to delve into over the winter break, explore THE DIRT’s top 10 books of 2018, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape.
Instead of simply responding to catastrophe, Boston is getting out front on climate change. As part of its Climate Ready Boston plan, the city of 670,000 aims to act fast and protect two coastal neighborhoods most vulnerable to rising sea levels and storms: East Boston and Charlestown. New plans for these neighborhoods explain how a simple fix like creating a temporary flood wall at the coastal end of the East Boston Greenway, at a cost of just $100,000, would protect 4,300 residents, 70 businesses and critical infrastructure, and result in $17 million in benefits.
When a neighborhood floods, who is at fault? A class action lawsuit in Houston asks that question. The residents of a master-planned community that flooded during Hurricane Harvey are suing the engineering firm that designed the neighborhood’s stormwater management system. While that suit targets engineers, it nonetheless represents the heightened risk landscape architects face from climate impacts on their projects.
Cities are sitting on a largely underused public resource: urban stormwater wetlands. If properly designed, these landscapes can reduce flooding, support urban wildlife, and serve as public space. A new report Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands — authored by an interdisciplinary group of researchers and students at the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism led by Celina Balderas Guzmán, Heidi Nepf, and Alan Berger — advocates for the positive role wetlands can play in cities and outlines research that provides insights for landscape architects, engineers, and planners.
Neurosurgeon Edie Zusman, a real-life Doogie Howser who started medical school at 19 and has completed some 6,000 brain and spinal surgeries, said what landscape architects do saves far more lives than what she does. The early prevention of disease reduces the need for surgeries. Prevention is made possible by eating healthy foods and walking and getting exercise in green environments that lower stress and improve well-being.
Trees are really essential for a competitive shopping district. There was a study by Kathleen Wolfe that indicated trees increase price elasticity by 9-12 percent. In other words, people feel comfortable paying up to twelve percent more for the same product if they purchase in a well-landscaped place with nice streets. Also, when properly located, street trees keep people in the downtown district longer. They feel more relaxed and are more likely to spend more money.
Participatory design is “hands-on democracy in action,” argue the editors of the impressive new book Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity. Participatory design (also known as cooperative or co-design) is a process in which a designer actively involves all stakeholders in a design process. Unfortunately, many of the best-known techniques to enable this approach, which have been used for the past few decades, have become stale. This has led to complacency among designers, and less-than-ideal outcomes for communities that need their help. To revitalize the approach and achieve better results, the authors call for making participatory design “truly democratic.” Furthermore, it must become “contextual, open, experiential, substantive, and holistic.”
We experience “soft fascination” with nature when we sit on a park bench and let our mind wander, taking in the trees and flowers, noticing birds and squirrels, feeling the breeze. This gentle decompression in nature is actually critical to helping us restore our ability to pay attention. We need breaks where our minds can just go slack and subconsciously take in the complexity of the natural world. Researchers are still trying to figure out the ideal “dose” of this green medicine, but benefits have been seen with just 10 minutes.
Mount Umunhum, the third largest peak in the Bay Area, has long been sacred to the Amah Mutsun tribe. Its peak is central to their origin story. And for many years, the tribe would form a ceremonial circle there and stomp their feet as hard as they could so that creator would hear.
In the 1950s, the US Air Force purchased the top of the mountain, terraced it, and built an early warning radar station that included some 80 structures, such as a swimming pool and bowling alley. From the late 1950s up unti 1980, when the base closed, the station was off-limits to the tribe and all other visitors. Then in 1986, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (Midpen) purchased the land with the goal of restoring the landscape as a spiritual home for the Amah Mutsun.
After spending millions to remove asbestos, machinery oils, and lead paint from the site — and taking down all structures save the radar tower — Midpen reached out to landscape architecture and environmental planning firm Restoration Design Group (RDG) to make this spiritual place both physically and culturally accessible. Over seven years, RDG landscape architects Bob Birkeland, ASLA, Peter Rohan, ASLA, and planner Rich Walkling collaborated with the Amah Mutsun tribe to realize their shared vision. A new Mount Umunhum opened in late 2017 after many years and a $14 million investment.
In a phone interview, Walkling said RDG organized a half-day design charrette with the tribe to plan and design the spiritual revitalization. The tribe not only guided the placement and size of the ceremonial circle, but also its connections to the greater world and its materials.
“They needed to know where the four cardinal directions were, so we put in gaps in the seat walls” to indicate north, south, east, west. The tribe needed to enter the circle from the east, so the access trail to the space was set on the east side. And because the tribe stomps on the ground with their bare feet, the base of the circle was formed of a softer natural substrate.
Beyond bringing the circle back to the peak, RDG also started the process of ecological restoration of the multi-acre peak landscape, which is found within a “coastal influence zone.” Walkling said this has been tricky because “there are not a lot of reference conditions; it’s now much different from its natural state.” RDG worked with a botanist to create multiple restoration patches to see which plants would survive in a place that “receives up to nine inches of rain in a day, 100-mile-an-hour winds, snow, fog, and pounding sun.”
Walkling said the whole process “was very rewarding for the tribe — it’s a process of healing for them.” But perhaps with one caveat: the radar tower, which some groups fought hard to preserve, remains a potent reminder of the place’s military history as well.
Still, after being scattered for so long, the tribe has now been able to “reconstitute, re-ground itself” in its restored home.
In the wonderful video at top, tribal chairman Valentin Lopez explains why it’s so important to restore the greater ecosystem of the peak landscape. “We must heal mother earth — people, plants, wildlife, rivers, fog, rocks, the shadows. They are all alive. There is a responsibility to take care of them all.”
And he has an important message for other communities seeking reconciliation with the past: “Every inch of land was once indigenous land. Get to know whose land you are on. Say a prayer for them. Get to know them.”
In 2019, ASLA will host its Diversity Summit May 17-19 at the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington D.C.
The Summit welcomes landscape architects from diverse backgrounds to engage in critical, thoughtful, and challenging dialogues to inform how the Society and its members can create an inclusive and equitable community of landscape architecture professionals.
ASLA will invite selected participants to think in deeper and more complex ways about diversity and inclusion in the profession. Attendees will explore strategies for ASLA to advance its diversity and inclusion efforts while tackling some of the most pressing issues facing diverse communities throughout the Summit.
Eligibility and Deadline
If you are a landscape architecture professional of color in the United States with at least two years of professional experience and are interested in applying, please complete the 2019 ASLA Diversity Summer Call for Letters of Interest by midnight on Friday, January 25, 2019. We will notify selected participants in early February. ASLA will pay primary transportation, two nights lodging for all participants, and provide breakfast and lunch on the summit days.
In 2013, ASLA convened its first Diversity Summit with the goal of developing a deeper understanding of why landscape architecture is failing to attract a more diverse profile. Each summit has brought together a group of experienced and emerging landscape architects who identify as African American or Latinx to develop strategies that address diversity issues in the field.
In 2017, the Diversity SuperSummit convened the largest group of attendees to date. Participants evaluated goals from previous summits, developed focus areas for four key diversity initiatives to guide ASLA’s work plan in the coming year, and discussed the future of the Diversity Summit. Focus items and initiatives will continue to be established and evaluated as ASLA plans future Summits. The following includes links to resources, news and articles, and Summit reports published since the first Diversity Summit convened in 2013.
In 2018, ASLA invited five professionals from the Diversity SuperSummit and nine new participants from the Call for Letters of Interest to add valuable input to discussions and resource development. Attendees reviewed benchmarks prioritized from the 2017 Diversity SuperSummit, offered suggestions for developing resources that can assist implementing diversity and inclusion practices into business strategies and reaching out to the youth and communities.
This post is by Lisa Jennings, ASLA Career Discovery & Diversity Manager.