In these stressful and uncertain times, parks have become even more central to our physical and mental health, and safe access to them must be maintained. That was the key message from a packed webinar organized by the City Parks Alliance with brave and exhausted city park leaders from New York City, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco.
Mitchell Silver, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, said that New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., is allowing people to use parks and exercise outside if they follow social distancing guidelines, but the department has closed sports fields and playgrounds. “Solitary exercise is OK but not group exercise.”
Silver said the situation is changing “hour by hour and day by day,” and they are following the latest guidance from the health department, which is in the lead on setting rules.
That is not to say that NYC Parks and Recreation hasn’t made their voice heard in internal city government discussions. They have repeatedly made the case for keeping parks open so people can get “fresh air and access to green space, which are critical to mental health and boosting immune systems.”
“All indoor and outdoor programs have ended,” explained Phil Ginsburg, general manager with San Francisco Recreation and Parks. Large parks are still open, but the city has closed smaller parks, playgrounds, and play structures where it’s impossible to maintain social distancing.
The San Francisco parks department is very focused on equity issues, as a portion of the city’s population relies on programs and services at their recreational centers. Many of those facilities have have been converted into childcare centers for the children of front line healthcare workers. Children can get three meals a day there.
The pandemic shows why cities need green open spaces. “Parks are more important than they have ever been. Before, they were a nice-to-have, but now we’re seeing heavier park use than we’ve ever seen.”
San Franciscans are by and large complying with social distancing guidelines. “But the problem is that they are all complying at the same time. We tell people not to gather, to find their own space in parks.”
“Park use is up and social media use in parks is also up,” said Jayne Miller, President & CEO of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, a non-profit that works in conjunction with the city’s parks department and is active in 22 parks throughout the city. She said parks are open for running, walking, bicycling, or sitting 6 feet apart from others.
The Conservancy is blasting out public safety messages to align with city-issued rules and guidelines. They have also suggested new activities people can do from the safety of their home, like virtual environmental education webinars, and videos. To reach all audiences young and older, they are creating graphics, memes, FAQs, and emails.
Nancy Goldenberg, co-chair of the board at the City Parks Alliance, asked each park leader how parks departments are coordinating with health departments.
Silver said that the parks department is assisting with contigency planning with the city’s operational center during the crisis. The park has 3,200 essential workers who are still coming into the office. If one essential worker comes into contact with someone with the virus or is infected themselves, they have policies for disinfecting work spaces and then unaffected staff returning to work.
In San Francisco, there is an integrated command structure that became operational under the state of emergency. A city-wide policy group meets every week.
“The health department is now in charge and issuing directives that we then implement. They are prioritizing health with every decision.” But he said the parks department continues to make the case that “parks are an essential part of maintaining physical and mental heath and well-being.”
The parks department also wanted more streets closed to cars to create more walkable open space but the health department didn’t support the proposal. They worried the move would create a sense of “over-exuberance and bring too many people outside.”
Another question related to how city parks are helping vulnerable populations in a time when fewer programs and services can be offered.
In San Francisco, Chinese speaking park rangers have been assigned full-time to public spaces in Chinatown where they urge residents “not to gather or conduct business as usual,” Ginsburg said.
He was concerned that many smaller parks and playground where they can’t guarantee social distancing guidelines are being closed. Dense urban communities rely on these tiny parks. “Many are living in small, cramped apartments but we have to be mindful. There are trade-offs.”
He is worried that low-income residents will have fewer places to go outside. Those with a car or who live near Golden Gate Park or the Marin headlands have access to vast outdoor spaces that low-income residents won’t be able to get to. “I have some angst about that.”
In New York City, many schools, even while closed, are offering three meals a day to children of families that rely on those meals. Senior populations are also being delivered meals.
One final question was about the financial implications of COVID-19 on city parks.
Ginsburg indicated that their three primary revenue streams — fees from park-owned spaces, permits, and taxes from home sales — have all plummeted to nearly zero. “Resources were already stretched thin. Looking three months out, the budget consequences are dire.”
NYC’s annual parks budget, which is much higher than San Francisco’s, is also facing major challenges. Silver said “everything is now on hold. It’s not looking good.”
More money from state governments will be needed to keep parks, which are vital social and public health infrastructure, open during the crisis.
How can a street encourage people to explore, play, and hang out? How can art, plants, and furniture be combined to create a sense of place? In São Paulo, Brazil, a design collaboration between Brazilian firm Zoom Urbanismo Arquitetura e Design and furniture designers at LAO Engenharia & Design shows how. All Colors Sidewalk draws people in with its funky, organic charm.
In ArchDaily, the firms tell us that most streets in this mega-city, with a population of 12 million, are “very narrow, with irregular or no maintenance, and present many obstacles that discourage the circulation of pedestrians through the city.”
Through their re-imagining of the street landscape, the firms sought to show what an accessible space rich with layers would look like.
Along the 4,500-square-foot street, what grabs attention first is the flexible, wood street bleachers, which offer seating at street level and then perches above. The firms arranged them to create different views for people sitting, and flexible options for groups hanging out. At certain points, the bleachers rise up and form an arbor; at others, they become aerial structures for plants.
To eliminate flooding, which is a common problem in São Paulo, the design team married permeable pavers with street rain gardens. But they also made sure stormwater management didn’t impede accessibility. The team selected a permeable paver that is even and poses no obstacle for wheelchair users.
Furthermore, tactile signals in the pavement complement accessible signage, making the space open to blind pedestrians or those with low vision. There is also a map of the local transportation system and nearby points of interest.
To break up the monotony of the long wall lining the street, the design team incorporated crocheted “graffiti” and hung leaves with words knitted in them, which adds to the homemade feel of the place.
The project succeeds in creating a fresh landscape, a new sort of linear park. “We created the concept of [an] Urban Living Room: a furnished space where people are invited to sit, talk, wait, and rest — a living space in the middle of the city.”
Miami Is the “Most Vulnerable” Coastal City Worldwide — 2/4/20, Scientific American “Several major tourist attractions, including the Everglades, Biscayne National Park, and Miami Beach, are largely situated on land less than three feet above the high-water mark and may become permanently submerged by the end of the century.”
OLIN Receives Design Approval for D.C. Desert Storm Memorial — 2/6/20 The Architect’s Newspaper “Once the site was secured (a location just north of the Lincoln Memorial and west of the Vietnam War Memorial) adjustments needed to be made to the design. The new design has lower walls that meld into the ground and includes a central water feature, which symbolizes a desert oasis as well as the international coalition that participated in the operations.
National Indigenous Landscape Architecture Award Announced — 2/9/20, Architecture & Design “Planning for the [National Arcadia Landscape Architecture Award for Indigenous Students] has been in progress for almost twelve months, but the recent [Australian] bushfires brought a renewed focus on how Indigenous knowledge and traditional land and fire management practices can prevent fire damage and enable the return of healthy landscapes and ecosystems.”
A Native Plant Guru’s Radical Vision for the American Yard— 2/12/20, The Washington Post “The idea of planting gardens for wildlife and shrinking the lawn isn’t new, but [entomologist Doug Tallamy] wants to enlist every home garden in the battle to address the loss of biodiversity. The need has never been more urgent, he says.”
Abandoned Amusement Park to Gain New Life as a Nature Park in Suzhou— 2/13/20, Inhabitat “In Suzhou, China, an abandoned amusement park is being transformed into a 74-hectare nature park that will include a decommissioned roller coaster transformed into a habitat for birds. … Named ‘Shishan Park’ after its location at the foot of Shishan (Chinese for ‘Lion Mountain’), the urban park will provide a variety of family-oriented recreational amenities to cater to a rapidly growing, high-tech hub.”
A Daughter’s Disability. A Mother’s Ingenuity. And the Playground That’s Launching a Revolution — 2/14/20, Palo Alto Weekly “Magical Bridge was inspired by [Olenka] Villarreal’s daughter, Ava, who has developmental disabilities, and by the utter lack of safe, public play spaces suited to Ava and others like her. Tucked in a corner of Mitchell Park, the brightly colored Magical Bridge includes a wheelchair-usable spinner and slides, swings that keep a user upright and fastened in, wheelchair-friendly surfaces, a wheelchair-usable treehouse and a stage — features that are friendly to people with visual impairments, autism and cognitive disabilities.”
Transportation is central to employment and economic development. Unfortunately, people with disabilities often face major disadvantages in accessing transportation options, which reduces their ability to find and hold jobs and participate in community life. The issues go way beyond the lack of accessible ramps. Barriers include poor vehicle design; lack of accessible curbs, crosswalks, and sidewalks; the absence of elevators; and non-existent or inaccessible signage and wayfinding.
At a session at the Transforming Transportation conference in Washington, D.C., Charlotte McClain Nhlapo, global disability advisor for the World Bank Group and a wheelchair user, said that “1 billion people worldwide have some form of disability, and adults with disabilities make just 73 percent of the trips that abled people make.”
She led a conversation into what is holding back more inclusive transportation in developing countries:
“There is a staggering difference between the developed and developing worlds in terms of access. If you get around many developing countries, you’ll see there are often no sidewalks,” said Jamie Leather, chief of the transport sector at the Asian Development Bank. Just imagine wading into busy streets to get around, then imagine the greater dangers for a wheelchair user, or deaf or blind pedestrian.
For Nite Tanzar, a development consultant, a critical issue is that many developing countries don’t have an accurate numbers of how many disabled people there are and how many are using transportation systems. “There is a real lack of empirical evidence,” which is holding back policy and regulatory change. Policymakers simply don’t understand the scale of the issues.
People can be temporarily or permanently disabled. But both types of disabilities often result from car crashes. Mohammed Yousuf, a program manager with the U.S. Federal Highways Administration, said that globally, car crashes cost up to 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) when you add in lost wages and medical expenses.
According to James Bradford, with the European Road Assessment Programme (EuroRAP), global vehicle crash data mostly comes from police reports, which don’t measure the full economic and social impact of the loss of life, injury, or disability caused by the accident.
He pointed to the Transportation Accident Commission (TAC) in New South Wales, Australia, which insures all vehicles and collects data on crashes and their outcomes. Analyzing some 120,000 insurance claims, TAC found that 68 percent of crash victims were still on long-term disability care two years later; a quarter also had severe brain injuries. “There is a huge social cost to road accidents, not just economic.”
The conversation then turned to the key drivers of more inclusive transportation. As McClain Nhlapo noted, the goal is to “enable everyone to live independently.”
Daniela Bas, director of the UN’s department of economic and social affairs’ division for inclusive social development, who is also a wheelchair user, said the most important step is to “change the mindset of people with disabilities: they must become agents of change and lead new processes.” She added that “disabled people are often poor because they have no access” but that can change with a sense of new empowerment.
Tanzar stated that in too many countries “there is a stigma associated with disabilities. These people are invisible, actively hidden, and viewed as shameful. We must get at that.”
Policies and regulations that lead to Vision Zero, which calls for an end to road deaths, can only help create a more universally-accessible transportation system, Leather believes.
Market-based incentives can also provide solutions. McClain Nhlapo said that in the Philippines, there are “special access taxis” to meet the needs of people with disabilities. In South Africa, the government has incentivized owners of informal buses and vans with the “nudge method: the owners get a major discount if they replace their old bus with a new, more accessible one.”
A number of panelists called for “disaggregating local data by disability” so that better policy-making and regulatory processes can happen. “We need to show a cost-benefit analysis for accessible transportation and show how the benefits are better,” Bradford argued. McClain Nhlapo called for using that data to make the case for “embedding accessibility requirements into development projects from the beginning.”
Major global events like the Olympics can also be designed to be universally-accessible, as they help “stimulate thinking” in countries about needed changes. “You can show people what fully accessible transportation looks like,” Bas said.
Three City Parks That Encourage Inclusion in Their Communities — 1/16/20, Urban Institute “Parks and green spaces can tremendously benefit a community. But if parks aren’t designed and activated with residents’ interests in mind, they can go underutilized, or the opposite—they can increase property values and price long-time residents out of the neighborhood.”
UGA Student Designs Winning ‘Kinda Tiny’ Home — 1/26/20, Athens Banner-Herald “One of things that made her design stand out, after talking to some of the judges, is the fact that her building really specifically relates to the site. She took into account the topography, and I think it was her landscape architecture background that gave her the insight to how the building and the site would interact together.”
A Novel Plan to Fix One of New York’s Worst Highways: Remove Lanes — 1/30/20, The New York Times “The idea of shrinking the highway to four lanes from six is a remarkable shift for the city, which, like the nation, has been shaped by a car-centric culture and is now wrestling with the consequences, including gridlocked streets, polluted air and rising pedestrian and cyclist deaths.”
Plans Unveiled for Hamtramck’s Veterans Memorial Park — 1/31/20, The Detroit News “In the coming years, Hamtramck’s Veterans Memorial Park could be transformed into a major destination brimming with features such as a splash pad, wooded trails, even outdoor ‘living rooms.’ ”
Amsterdam Leads the Way on Wetland Restoration — 1/31/20, CityLab “To find a way to restore the marshlands and pastures while maintaining its agricultural capacity, the Amsterdam Wetlands project will plow $9 million of funding into experiments. The scheme, a a collaboration between three nature preservation agencies, is intended to incorporate more water into low-lying areas instead of damming and pumping it out.”
Interview conducted at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego.
Over your career, you’ve worked on more than 500 cultural landscape projects. You have highlighted Pittsburgh’s $124 million investment in revitalizing its public spaces, such as the Mid-Century Modern Mellon Square, which you restored, as a model. What does Pittsburgh know that perhaps other cities need to learn?
In the 19th century, Pittsburgh had a vision of setting aside major green spaces in order to shape the city. Neighborhoods grew up around the green spaces. Since Pittsburgh is still today a neighborhood-based city, everyone cares deeply about their green assets. Pittsburgh has a history of understanding the value of parks.
Pittsburgh looked at their historic parks and said, “This has value for the city.” The revitalization effort was initiated by the very bright Meg Cheever, a lawyer by education and a publicist by application who founded the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. She knew she needed to grab attention so she built up the Conservancy as a real partner to the city. She was very savvy about not having an adversarial relationship with the city, instead creating a true partnership. We’ve worked in a number of conservancies, and that coin can flip both ways. The first thing is you need to be a partner; the second thing is you have got to recognize value.
When I started my firm in the late-80s, we did a project in Gilford, Connecticut. I told them there are four groups of tools for improving the public realm: community engagement, plans or advisory tools, law or regulation, and finance. As landscape architects, we’re good at community and planning, not necessarily so good at legislation or finance. If we recognize those are the four things we need, we can figure out who to partner with and what skill sets and mindsets are needed to move forward.
Pittsburgh started with its 19th century legacy. They had three big parks: one that was gifted to the city in the early 20th century by Henry Clay Frick; Mary Shenley’s property, which the city had bought and then added to Shenley Park; and Highland Park, which was around a reservoir and then grew into a park. So each park had a different vector. Then, they focused on the Mid-Century Modern pieces: The Point and Mellon Square, which were the two iconic public spaces built in the 50s and part of the first Pittsburgh Renaissance. Those spaces became elements of a national model for urban renewal. They knocked down 25 percent of the core of the city in a 10-year period and rebuilt it.
Now there’s good and bad there. There was some environmental injustice and other problems, but they also renewed the core of the city and rebranded Pittsburgh. A number of other cities followed that path of renewal. (We called it urban renewal but often it was urban destruction). But the initiative worked for Pittsburgh. They were able to lift up what was a gritty steel city where industrial workers had to bring a minimum of two shirts to work because the air quality was so bad.
Your firm, Heritage Landscapes, partnered with HOK on the restoration of the National Mall in Washington D.C. What was involved in that process?
We were asked by the National Park Service (NPS) to track the history of Mall, which they framed as from L’Enfant’s 1792 plan to the present. The NPS asked us to framed it by the plans, but the plans did not reflect what the Mall actually was. We carried out this project as part of a NEPA compliance process.
Through a mapping effort, we overlaid all the soil disturbance over time — deep subsurface, shallow subsurface, surface — in CAD and made this very fun color map that showed probably a couple of teaspoons of the Mall were not altered over time. While we met NEPA compliance, we also now had the background, understood what the design was, and how the design of the Mall evolved to what we love today.
That evolution happened because of the strength of the personality and the stature of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.. He served on the McMillan Commission, the Commission on Fine Arts (CFA), and what is now called the National Capital Parks and Planning Commission (NCPC). He persuaded the NPS to do the plan for the Mall. The linear quality of the green panels was key.
We focused the HOK team on getting the grading right. The Mall had been slightly domed and tipped northward because the Tiber Creek and the Washington Canal — the drainage — were to the north. The Capitol, the White House and the Smithsonian were set on three hills, and so the Mall, the space in between, was kind of mushy. The new shape of the Mall needed to respond to that topography. The original lawn panels had a vertical curve to help drainage.
The NPS wanted the new panels accessible, under a five percent grade and, if possible, under two percent. We had to balance access, sustainability, and history. In addition, the soils were as hard as concrete. And as a result, the most common plant was a small knotweed. Soil experts, James Urban, FASLA, and others, and I thought that grading it under 2 percent wouldn’t work. The lawn panels would continue not drain well and tend toward compaction. We got the NPS to go with at least 1.8 percent, but at the edges we were up at about 4 percent and then 3 percent and then domed, but tipped northward.
To reduce compaction, soil must have open air pores. The team found the best soil for defending against compaction is sandy loam. Investigations addressed whether or not there should be additives in the soil; these little crunchy things that spring back and keep the soil open. The NPS didn’t want to go down that road, so they approved a very good sandy soil mix. The first phase they decided they had a little too much organic matter. They changed it up a little bit on the second phase. We achieved what L’Enfant and Frederick Olmsted, Jr. were after: the long green corridor.
You just completed a cultural landscape report for Woodstock and have begun design work to reinterpret the landscape, so its story becomes more accessible to future generations. What did you unearth through your research? Where has that led your planning and design work?
The Woodstock project is a lot of fun because it’s such recent history. We developed the Cultural Landscape Report by looking at the main field where the concerts happened. We found information digging into the archive at the Museum at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. They had been gathering material for years, including all these low-flown, oblique aerials from a plane and ground photography.
It turned out that just barely digging into the research we found the envelope is a lot bigger. There’s the main field, Filippini Pond, where everybody went skinny dipping, and Bindy Bazaar in the woods between the main field and the hog farm where food was made. The hog farm tells the story about the commune movement. They provided the food at Woodstock, so everyone saw how a commune worked.
In opening up the land base envelope, we compared what we saw being used to what was actually leased to the concert organizers by the farmer Max Yasgur. The event was held on an alfalfa field, which was mown for the event. I happen to have an old alfalfa field and know what they look like. So when I saw the photos, I thought: “Oh, this is an old alfalfa field with people in Indian prints striding across it.”
There was a guy in one of the trailers who was drawing plans. He drew one plan of the Bindy Woods with the trails, so we used that to figure out that interesting area. Hippies had set up 20 something booths to sell tie dye, Indian prints, roach clips, or whatever. They put up hand-painted signs on the trees naming the paths — highway groovy path, etc.
Woodstock’s organizers planned very well for 100,000 people. They had medical officers and police; they were actually well-organized. But when the crowd hit 400,000 or 500,000, they didn’t have enough bathrooms or food.
The cultural landscape report investigation has informed where design interventions might be. The stage configuration was very interesting. The 60 by 70-foot stage was warped because of the plane of the slope of the hill. They made a turntable so they could swing the acts. When it rained, the platform wouldn’t turn anymore. They never finished the fencing but had this gorgeously shaped batwing fence.
We developed schematic designs of the footprint of the stage; the batwing fence; the performers’ bridge, which went over the road; and the posts at the height where the bridge occurred. We have a series of design options in front of the client that are very fun. We’ve already started to build the Bindy Bazaar paths and signs to interpret the vendors.
What makes a successful cultural landscape report? How are these reports evolving?
When we started doing cultural landscape reports, they were called historic landscape reports. There weren’t rules. We sat on committees and helped frame cultural landscape preservation and management standards and guidelines for the National Park Service and Secretary of Interior. There are a set of steps: history, existing landscape condition, analysis of continuity and change, treatment exploration and recommendations. The goal is to find out if you are going to just preserve a landscape as-found, restore it to some earlier documented time; reconstruct missing pieces; or rehabilitate the landscape, adapting to current needs. These reports help us to suit contemporary and future needs while preserving what has been inherited.
We’re now up to over 110 cultural landscape reports or assessments. The New York Botanical Garden and Longwood Gardens really wanted the history because they sought to understand how their property had evolved. That was all they wanted. So sometimes it’s just a piece. When we worked at Dumbarton Oaks, they wanted analysis as well, so they could understand continuity and change, the evolution of the designed landscape of Mildred Bliss and Beatrix Farrand.
Bloedel Reserve asked for a heritage landscape study. They came to us and said: “We understand Prentice Bloedel’s words, but what do they mean?” And we said, “You have the artifact. We can interpret the artifact to get at the meaning.” Cultural landscape reports are customized for each place. For the second phase of analysis at Bloedel, we told them: “Okay, now you actually need to dig deeper.” They have an amazing landscape that has four character areas and 26 component landscapes. The genius of this landscape is the differentiation between the individual components, but part of the practices they were employing in their daily management were blurring those unique aspects. We helped them really hone in on the character of the moss garden versus the Japanese garden versus the woodland paths so they can manage by area.
For our work at Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village, we made sure we researched the African American contribution to shaping the landscape. This kind of analysis depends on the place and the client, but there is a heightened sense of social justice today. That framework led us to understand whose labor actually created a place. At the Academical Village, we found the way of life for enslaved peoples did not change after the Civil War. What changed their way of life was technology. When water and sewer systems were connected to every building and lighting came, the daily life within the core of the campus shifted. These changed the back breaking labor of daily life — hauling water, chopping wood, and gardening — by enslaved peoples, who were freed at that point, but whose life and daily activities had not substantially changed from the evidence we saw on the land.
You have said that “culture and nature are entangled and inseparable.” How did you reach that conclusion?
While we have protected areas on the planet, there isn’t place on Earth that hasn’t been influenced by humanity. We’re in an era of human influence if you look at climate change and, hopefully, our greenhouse gas draw down vectors. If we envision ourselves as a part of nature, and we see humanity as one species of many, rather than the dominant species, and we see the planet as the place where we all live, it changes our perspectives on how to proceed. Nature and culture, place and people are completely interconnected, interrelated, and interdependent.
The big issue with climate change is finding ways to draw down greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. I was fascinated with Paul Hawkins’ book Drawdown, which ranked the top hundred ways to reduce emissions. Most people would think the answer would be more solar energy or carbon sequestration. But society needs to get up to speed with its needs. Actually, some of the most effective carbon reduction solutions are the empowerment of women, education for girls, and birth control for women, so we don’t overpopulate the world, and women can take a real role in the future.
You’ve been an advocate for cultural landscape preservation, equitable access to public spaces, and inclusive planning and design in international organizations such as UN-HABITAT, UNESCO, and ICOMOS. At the same time, you have also advocated for greater landscape architect participation in these organizations. How can we bridge the gap between policy bodies and the design world?
I have had rewarding engagements with peers and related professionals in working groups that build international doctrine. You gain a broadened sense of where your work can fit because the picture is expanding for you. In my opinion, all of us can benefit from global engagement — from meeting with peers face to face and engaging in committees to participating in the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), which has a very strong new policy that they passed in September on climate change, and ICOMOS, which is a curator of world heritage, the culture advisor to UNESCO World Heritage. I am constantly contributing to ICOMOS to strengthen our global heritage.
In these international bodies, I learn from others, share what I know, and the result is we all lift ourselves up together. We also bring forward emerging professionals. I’m currently the president of the ICOMOS-IFLA International Scientific Committee on cultural landscapes. We have about 212 members worldwide. We’re strengthening and coalescing our membership in Latin America to do a better job there with cultural landscapes. We’re adding a number of emerging professionals to begin to address the wealth of cultural heritage in Africa. We gain a lot by uplifting everyone, all boats rise together.
While we are always looking ahead to what’s new in the built and natural environments, it’s also valuable to look back at what grabbed our attention last year. Here’s a review of the 10 most popular DIRT posts of 2019.
Readers were most interested in how to plan and design universally-accessible landscapes; how communities are increasingly looking to landscape architecture as a solution for the climate crisis; examples of inventive multi-use infrastructure, like the Jewel Changi airport terminal in Singapore and Amager Bakke in Copenhagen; and the on-going debate about the changing roles of landscape architects and urban planners.
ASLA members: send us your original op-eds on topics that inspire you. And tell us about your new projects and research. Please email us at email@example.com.
International airports are in fierce competition for passengers and regularly one-up each other with new wow-factor amenities, shops, and restaurants. But Singapore decided to raise its game by going another direction: a plant-filled haven, a gateway consistent with its moniker — “the city in a garden.” The result is an inventive model other airports should copy, if not in form, then certainly in spirit.
Landscape architects need to become urban planners and work “upstream” in policy and regulatory processes to ensure public space leads urban placemaking efforts. That is the argument Michael Grove, ASLA, chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki; Brian Jeneck, ASLA, director of planning at HOK; and Michael Johnson, ASLA, principal at SmithGroup made at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C.
The Architecture of Trees was first published by Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi, two versatile Italian furniture, landscape, and architectural designers, in 1982. This “scientific tome” and “original ‘labor of love and obsession’” has been re-issued by Princeton Architectural Press in all its arboreal glory.
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?
Today in New York City, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres will convene the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit to, in his words, “hear about how we are going to stop the increase in emissions by 2020, and dramatically reduce emissions to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century.” This Summit comes on the heels of the Youth Climate Strike last week, and kicks off Climate Week in which people in New York and across the country will demand action to mitigate the ongoing climate crisis.
This purpose of this article is to reflect on the Design with Nature Now exhibition that ran over this past summer at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. The exhibition marked the 50th anniversary of Ian McHarg’s 1969 tome Design with Nature and was curated by Fritz Steiner, FASLA, Karen M’Closkey, Billy Fleming, ASLA, Bill Whitaker, ASLA, and myself.
ASLA’s guide provides a comprehensive view of which communities are underserved by the built environment. It also offers a set of new universal design principles that address the needs of deaf or hard of hearing, blind or low vision, autistic, neurodevelopmentally and/or intellectually disabled, and mobility-disabled adults and children, as well as concerns for older adults. These include: accessible, comfortable, participatory, ecological, legible, multi-sensory, predictable, and walkable/traversable.
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.
At Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., DeafSpace, a concept developed by campus architect Hansel Bauman, is now guiding the development of buildings and landscapes in order to better address the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing people, which also results in better spaces for everyone. Gallaudet University — the oldest university for the deaf community in the country and the only university in the world where all programs and services are designed with deaf and hard of hearing people in mind — is creating a new 2020 campus master plan that expands DeafSpace beyond the buildings and into the historic campus designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and the surrounding neighborhood.
“When we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, what are we actually talking about?,” asked Thaisa Way, FASLA, program director of landscape and garden studies at Dumbarton Oaks, in a session with Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, director of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington; and Mitchell Silver, NYC commissioner of parks and recreation, at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego.
“Diversity means difference but it’s complex. Diversity has been described as bringing different people to the table, but that’s not real diversity. We actually have to change the table. Equity is about fairness, but it’s also complex. Fair for whom? And inclusion is about creating spaces ‘for all people,’ but how do we design for all people?”
Way made these points to say that “our language really matters.”
She applauded the efforts of ASLA and its members to make landscape architecture a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive profession. “The ASLA diversity summits have been an important project.” But what needs to happen next is for Caucasian landscape architects to “give up some of our privilege and power.”
“Landscape architects can provide a voice and be a tool for vulnerable communities,” Allen said. Through her work with vulnerable communities in New Orleans, Louisiana, she found that diversity, equity, and inclusion is “what happens on the ground.”
After Hurricane Katrina, Charity Hospital, which was a crucial community teaching hospital, was shut down by Louisiana State University and instead merged into city’s new medical center in the lower Mid-City neighborhood. “The community was upset. This is the place you went with an emergency, like a gun shot wound, and where the indigent went for care.”
The Greater New Orleans Foundation stepped in, leading a new master planning process for a Spirit of Charity Innovation District, with the goal of redeveloping the old hospital as a new mixed-use district. “If this was to be an inclusive process, participation is needed.”
Allen coordinated the engagement effort, which involved using both online and on-the-street surveys at transit stops and food trucks, events specifically tailored for kids and families, and reaching out directly to the homeless. Her team also organized community workshops, both large and small planning and design charrettes. At a second set of charrettes, the results of the surveys and feedback were then presented back to the community. Local residents saw the need for a pharmacy, clinic, and steps to address homelessness.
Findings from the community listening process were compiled in a summary report, which proposed steps to achieve “continual engagement,” and then given to the design team and developers.
In another project — the Claiborne Cultural Innovation District — Allen and her team helped local stakeholders better understand the needs of the community that had been split by the insertion of Interstate 10 through New Orleans. “We learned they didn’t want to take the highway down, because they feared gentrification would then happen, and the space they had claimed underneath the highway would be gone.”
Through a comprehensive engagement process, her team learned the community also didn’t want the underpass turned into all green space. “You can’t second line or have a parade through green infrastructure.” The goal instead became “how to stabilize the cultural activities that were already happening and better connect the site to the community’s Moorish, French, and Spanish histories.” The result was a master plan for 19 blocks that included a Garden of the Moors and a marketplace. “We didn’t want to over-design; we wanted to reinforce what they were already doing.”
Allen believes engagement summary reports are a “critical prerequisite” for any project.
For Silver, the problem is that “diversity, equity, and inclusion are too often merged together, like they are the same thing. They are not the same thing. If we are going to use the words, we need to better understand the emotion and intent behind them.”
He traced the history of the social equity movement from the Suffragettes, who advocated for women’s right to vote at the beginning of the 20th century, to the African American and LGBT civil rights movement in the 1960s, the social and environmental justice movements of the 1990s, and then national debates on fairness, affordability, and gentrification that began in the wake of the 2008 “Great Recession.”
For Silver, “equity is about fairness. Whether you are 5 or 50, you know what is fair or not.”
When Silver came on board, New York City had spent more than $6 billion to improve parks over a 20 year period. But still too many neighborhood parks throughout the five boroughs were in such poor condition that “you wouldn’t let your children or grandchildren go in at anytime of day.” Through an in depth analysis, Silver’s team found that 215 parks had seen little or no capital improvements over those 20 years. “That wasn’t fair and had to change.”
With some $300 million, Silver initiated a program that has redesigned some 67 parks, turning decrepit places into multi-functional green spaces with adult fitness equipment, spray parks, playgrounds, and green infrastructure to capture stormwater. The new parks were also redesigned to be multi-generational. “Seniors like to sit at the periphery, so more seating was added to the perimeters of parks.”
Furthermore, earlier regulations didn’t allow adults, except in the company of a minor, to access play spaces. For many seniors looking for shade on a hot summer day, that rule could cause them to walk another 10 blocks to find a seat. Silver’s team did away with the regulation.
Of the 67 parks targeted for redevelopment, some 45 have been completed. In the new parks, “usage rates are up 15 percent” on average.
Other inclusive public space programs include: the Creative Courts program the city has undertaken to bring in artists to paint basketball courts across the city; the AfroPunk festival, held in Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn each year; and the incorporation of BBQs and picnic spaces across public parks and plazas, which allows people of all colors and ethnicities to “go eat, connect, and have fun.”
Mitchell argued that the broad case for planning and designing for diversity can’t be economic, a marketing ploy, or a scheme to win more business. “Diversity is about the value of having different perspectives and being socially and morally responsible.” The reality is that by 2030, the majority of U.S. households will be single persons; and by 2040, majority-minority.
In the Q&A, discussion veered towards how to make room for multiple histories in a landscape. Allen said she is “always looking to history as it’s the source of inspiration and transformation.” But she also acknowledged that reintepretations of public spaces can bring up conversations like: “whose history are you going to use — African American, or Native American, or Caucasian?”
“There’s a real tension, which is the exciting part. Things change; history is in flux.” But conflict can arise when there is the feeling that “you are erasing our history to talk about their’s.”
Mitchell believes “demographic change is making a lot of people uncomfortable.” Communities need to learn there are “multiple histories side by side.” But they have to go through this process of reaching a new understanding together.
Walter Hood Digs Deep – Architectural Digest, 11/18/19 “The Oakland, California–based landscape designer, fresh off a string of prestigious design prize wins, has an approach that embraces the eccentricities of people and place.”
Dreaming Up Disneyland – The New York Times, 11/25/19 “Those who knew Walt Disney often described him as an uncomplicated man of conventional 20th-century sensibilities: a lover of model trains, farm animals, lunch-wagon food, hard work, evening belts of scotch and endless Chesterfield cigarettes. One of his rituals upon coming home from his movie studio was feeding his poodle, Duchess, a cold frankfurter, or “wienie,” by leading her from room to room while throwing pieces on the floor.”
A survey of homeless individuals by Downtown Streets Team yielded one overwhelming response: they felt completely ignored as human beings. At the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego, Brian Elliott, policy analyst for San Diego Councilmember Chris Ward; Brandon Davis with the California-based Downtown Streets Team; and Lena Miller with Urban Alchemy, discussed strategies to reintegrate homeless individuals into their communities, ranging from top-down policy decisions to empowering local unsheltered populations through employment options.
California is ranked number 1 in homelessness, with nearly 130,000 homeless individuals, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and numbers only continue to rise.
Elliott expressed a commitment to reduce the number of unsheltered people in San Diego County, which he cited as at least 4,476 people, nearly 55 percent of the at least 8,100 homeless residents of San Diego County. Councilmember Ward is the chair of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, an “integrated array of stakeholders committed to preventing and alleviating homelessness.”
Dispelling myths about who the homeless was paramount to all three speakers, but Elliott highlighted that in San Diego, the cause is primarily economic. He noted that “a hospital bill they could not pay, a utility bill they could not pay, balanced with housing, especially in a high-cost market with low vacancy rates, leads to homelessness.”
The City of San Diego unanimously passed the Community Action Plan on Homelessness, a body of policy focused on helping the existing homeless population, preventing future homelessness, and ensuring that homelessness is an experience that is brief and non-recurring. Davis made clear that “homelessness is an experience, not an identity.”
The plan looked at three short-term goals to be achieved in three years: end youth homelessness; end veterans homelessness; and decrease unsheltered homelessness by 50 percent. Building community and state level buy-in is central to achieving these goals. As can be seen below, veterans homelessness spreads across generations.
The first step of the plan calls for transitioning away from using the police as a first point of contact and instead reaching out to social workers. In order to combat the housing issue, the city council has committed to at least 140 new units of permanent support housing in all 9 council districts to be built over two years. To achieve this, Elliott encouraged landscape architects to continue to design for everyone, not specific populations.
Miller started Urban Alchemy in 2018. The organization birthed out of Hunter’s Point Family, an earlier non-profit Miller founded that focused on public housing.
Miller became interested in public toilets, specifically their importance in ensuring the dignity of the homeless, but also their potential for jobs. The organization has created 24 safe and clean public toilets in Tenderloin and other parts of San Francisco with high homeless populations and given homeless individuals jobs cleaning and maintaining those toilets, BART stations, the Civic Center area, downtown streets, and parks.
Urban Alchemy works with long-term offenders, integrating them back into society in order to prevent them from experiencing homelessness. Miller pointed to their high levels of emotional intelligence, their ability to read people, and their ability to interact with different kinds of people. All of these skills help them to establish and maintain social norms in the public places they work.
The police are brought in to offer deescalation training, helping to establish a relationship between law enforcement and employees of Urban Alchemy. Miller said this “transforms the paradigm of how the police see us, and how everyone in society sees us.”
Miller noted how the work provides not only an income but also a sense of pride, remarking on an anecdote where one employee called the Governor of California into a bathroom stall he had just cleaned to show him how clean it was.
Urban Alchemy saved 85 lives in 2018, through Narcan deployment, which brings back people from drug overdoses, and providing water to dehydrated people.
Downtown Streets Team employs local homeless populations to clean community spaces in San Jose and San Francisco. Instead of an hourly wage, they offer a non-cash basic-needs stipend, case management, employment services, and a support network within their community. The program offers people who have been out of work for a few years a platform to build their resume and eventually re-enter the workforce.
Volunteers wear bright yellow shirts, denoting them as members of the community and part of the Downtown Streets Team. The simple action of donning a yellow shirt and cleaning the community restores their dignity as people and members of their community.
The marginalization of homeless individuals often leads them to ignore the social norms of public space. Including them as part of the community helps ensure norms are met.
Each Tuesday, Downtown Streets Team hosts a town hall where people can participate in public life, share in each other’s successes, and be together. For Davis, “we are all here to hold each other accountable to be our better selves.”
To date, Downtown Streets Team has secured over 1,900 jobs and homes for people.