The Case for Quality Public Spaces for All

Palaces for the People / Random house

“Try to imagine how many relationships have developed because two sets of parents or caretakers pushed their kids on the same swing set on the same afternoon. They might try and stay immersed in their phone, but inevitably they’ll end up acknowledging the humanity of the other person and at some point one will spark a conversation.”

Over time, a mutual trust or friendship develops, and maybe even a life-saving connection. A public space like this playground, where interactions are sparked, differences are spanned, and, as a result, communities are strengthened is what sociologist Eric Klinenberg would call a piece of “social infrastructure.” In a recent Oculus book talk at the Center for Architecture in New York City, Klinenberg discussed his recent book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life.

Good social infrastructure does not spring up by chance — it exists because of decades of hard work by activists who believed in the public good and have fought to make spaces like libraries, parks, plazas, playgrounds and childcare centers accessible and democratically available.

Highbridge Park Pool in Washington Heights / NYC Parks and Recreation
Washington Square Park, NYC / Wikipedia

Unfortunately, Klinenberg said, “we’ve neglected our social infrastructure just when we need it most. We are living in it the way a prodigal child lives on their inheritance.” Investment in our social infrastructure means designing, building, programming and maintaining it well. Without committing to these four important steps, we will feel the personal and societal effects of its absence, which could actually have life-threatening effects.

Klinenberg’s doctoral research studied the Chicago heat wave of 1995, in which survival rate in two demographically identical, impoverished neighborhoods was determined by proximity to social infrastructure. The one that fared worse was blighted, with residents living isolated lives, while the one that fared better even than wealthier Chicago neighborhoods had spaces for informal community interaction, making it easier for neighbors to check in on the community’s most vulnerable residents during the heat wave.

Klinenberg’s research on the life-saving benefits of public space lead to a role as research director for Rebuild by Design, the design competition initiated by HUD after Hurricane Sandy. His role was to advise the winning design teams on how to address environmental inequality and incorporate social infrastructure into their designs.

In the wake of the storm, Klinenberg was troubled by the many voices publicly calling for a massive seawall to be built around Manhattan. “364 days a year you don’t need a storm barrier. If you just design for the storm you’re probably going to make the city uglier, less efficient and less pleasant,” he said.

Thanks to Klinenberg’s input and influence, winning projects such as the Big U demonstrated that climate infrastructure can double as social infrastructure. The original design included what was called “a bridging berm,” which featured protective walls that serve as a public park with amenities like athletic fields, space for open air markets, bike and walking paths. “If you completely blow up the concept of climate resilience infrastructure by adding social infrastructure, something really special happens,” said Klinenberg. (Plans for those berms were recently replaced with one that will lift waterfront parks up by 10 feet and create a sea wall).

East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government

Making and maintaining a well-designed space is not a silver bullet when it comes to successful social infrastructure. True democratic accessibility is a critical component.

Klinenberg worries about the implications of the increase in philanthropist-funded public parks, many of which are well designed, built, programmed and maintained, but remain less accessible to those who would benefit from them the most. “If you are lucky enough to live in a place that gets that philanthropic support your public space gets supercharged,” says Klinenberg, while other spaces must rely on tax dollars, creating a profound difference in the quality of these public spaces.

To ensure all public spaces in a city receives the same investment, Klinenberg argues that we would get a better outcome from taxing billionaires rather than depending on their benevolent whims to create and maintain our social infrastructure.

Speaking to an audience of mostly planners and designers, Klinenberg inevitably got asked a question about the mechanics of social infrastructure — how can we make this happen in our own designs?

Klinenberg urged designers to carefully consider access, what it means to make a space  welcoming to all, and to de-prioritize efficiency. If mingling and chance encounters between people of all different backgrounds are the substance of social infrastructure, then landscape architects and designers should focus on creating the spatial conditions for these to occur.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, a landscape designer with Ecopolitan.

The Next Generation of Landscape Architecture Leaders (Part 1)

LAF 2018-2019 Fellows for innovation and leadership. From left to right: Davi de la Cruz; Andrew Sargeant; Sanjukta Sen; Pamela Conrad; Lauren Delbridge; Karl Krause; Maisie Hughes

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) is helping to grow the next generation of leaders in landscape architecture. At a symposium at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. seven of the 2018-2019 LAF fellows for innovation and leadership, who each received a $25,000 grant, presented the results of their year-long investigations into climate change and sustainable design, community development, visual representations of landscape, and other topics.

Below are summaries of four fellows’ TED-like talks. Read part 2 for the other three.

Maisie Hughes: Investigating the Sense of Belonging through Video

The Urban Studio, a non-profit organization founded by Maisie Hughes, owner of Rhetorical Virtues, and Kendra Hyson, aims to help communities of color design their own neighborhoods. This is because Hughes believes “we have yet to fulfill the promise of landscape as common ground.”

Inspired by the intrusive thought, “Do I belong here?”, while at Dumbarton Oaks, a garden in Georgetown, Hughes began to explore how comfortable people felt in spaces through the documentary web series, Belonging. Hughes felt a certain sublime quality that she felt wasn’t meant for her, deciding instead to reclaim and redefine the word as: Rare+Awe.

The reclamation of an often unapproachable concept was the first step towards learning to “claim a space,” which Hughes defines as “getting comfortable being uncomfortable.” Hughes discussed the complex community identity issues associated with Malcolm X Park (officially known as Meridian Hill Park) in Washington, D.C. where a drum circle forms every Sunday, creating a diverse collective from the surrounding community. This is a claim to the space, one born from the community, which demonstrates the large gap between the official name of the park and the community that enlivens it.

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Still from Becoming web series with people dancing at the Malcolm X Park Drum Circle / Maisie Hughes

Daví de la Cruz: Collective Storytelling in South Los Angeles

Working as the Studio South Central component of The Urban Studio, Daví de la Cruz, a project manager with the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, works to empower youth in the Pueblo del Rio community in south Los Angeles. De la Cruz develop youth leadership within the community by helping them create their own narratives. The program also encourages youth to reengage with nature in their neighborhood.

De la Cruz offered seven workshops, each focusing on a different form of collective storytelling that expands the communication skills of the students. These ranged from the creation of a group poem to photographing their own neighborhood. An upcoming workshop focuses on the story of South Central Farm, the largest urban farm east of the Mississippi. The farm operated from 1994 to 2006, when it was sold amid controversy.

Continuing to work with The Urban Studio, de la Cruz intends to develop and expand the workshop program to strengthen the community’s connection to local green space.

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Workshops de la Cruz ran for the youth of Pueblo del Rio / Daví de la Cruz

Andrew Sargeant: New Forms of Landscape Representation

Disillusioned with the typical sunny renderings of landscape architecture, Andrew Sargeant, Assoc. ASLA, a landscape designer with Lionheart Places, is instead exploring how to use virtual reality (VR) to bring landscape representations to life. Sargeant contrasted the before and after perspectives of Humphrey Repton with an immersive video produced with the video game design engine Unity, to display the power of visually depicting the passage of time.

Sargeant decided to spend the year of the fellowship to dive into the Unity software. Although Unity has a steep learning curve, Sargeant was able to develop representations beyond the classic sunny landscape images. The final video displayed was a stormy day, complete with lightning, booming thunder, and pouring rain. Showing different, often undesirable, conditions like flooding can help clients and communities understand how landscapes can change and adapt.

Sargeant wants to encourage the spread of this technology in landscape architecture educational programs. To spur this along, he has created a competition focused on VR landscape representation, at Utah State University (USU) this fall.

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Still from Sargeant’s flooded landscape virtual reality simulation / Andrew Sargeant

Karl Krause: Spaces that Build Community in Public Housing Complexes

Karl Krause, ASLA, a landscape architect with OLIN, developed a set of principles for how to better integrate small green public spaces into public housing. He traced the history of public housing from its beginning in the 1930s through the fall of Pruitt Igoe in 1972, highlighting the role of the courtyard in the success, or failure, of community development.

A recent trend is to incorporate public housing into larger market-price developments in order to create mixed-income communities. Residents of these communities Krause spoke to felt the new developments had ruined the sense of community that was present in dedicated housing complexes for low-income residents. After interviewing many members of low-income communities that have undergone redevelopment, Krause recommends designing with the following principles:

  • Let plants create place: Keep existing trees to create a sense of character and retains the spirit of the place;
  • Create places for good neighboring: Spread public space throughout the community, offer many small places for socializing;
  • Places for people, not cars: Eliminate oversized parking lots and offer more public space instead to improve social life.
Karl
Old trees maintain character and create places, High Point Neighborhood in Seattle / Karl Krause

Read part two featuring the other three LAF Fellows.

The Next Generation of Landscape Architecture Leaders (Part 2)

LAF Fellows. From left to right: Davi de la Vida; Andrew Sargeant; Sanjukta Sen; Pamela Conrad; Lauren Delbridge; Karl Krause; Maisie Hughes

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) is helping to grow the next generation of leaders in landscape architecture. At a symposium at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. seven of the 2018-2019 LAF fellows for innovation and leadership, who each received a $25,000 grant, presented the results of their year-long investigations into climate change and sustainable design, community development, visual representations of landscape, and other topics.

Below are summaries of three fellows’ TED-like talks. Read part 1 for the other four.

Sanjukta Sen: Landscape Resilience in New York City

Hurricane Sandy flooded 51 square miles of New York City, killing 43 people, damaging 12,000 homes, and causing $19 billion in property losses. But you wouldn’t think NYC’s policy makers or developers have learned from what can happen when you develop in areas that naturally flood. Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration further opened up the waterfront and floodplains to development, a process that continues unabated under Mayor Bill de Blasio. Just one example: 3,500 new apartments will be built in the floodplain in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. According to Sanjukta Sen, a senior associate at James Corner Field Operations, the “ludicrous” part is that the “net value of property in the floodplain has gone up.”

NYC’s expanded waterfront development fills Sen with both “pride and dread.” Pride because there are all these “amazing new places on the waterfront, which is now much more accessible.” Dread because she worries the city has not effectively and equitably created resilience to rising sea levels. “There are islands of protection that developers can afford but low-income communities don’t have the same protections.”

After Hurricane Sandy, the city quickly mandated that buildings build in protections, like elevating themselves or moving critical infrastructure out of ground or basement levels. But there is no cohesive landscape resilience strategy along public waterfront spaces. One solution is to take more waterfront land from developers for natural flood protection systems that can reduce the entire community’s risks. Sen proposed mandated setbacks and floodwater storage systems and incentives for developers. “Resilience is a social obligation and requires a long-term investment.”

Pockets of resilience across private parcels / Sanjukta Sen

Lauren Delbridge: Rethinking Wastescapes

In 2015, communities had to find a safe storage place for or re-use 117 million tons of coal ash, a by product of coal energy production that accounts for half of all municipal waste. According to Lauren Delbridge, Assoc. ASLA, a landscape designer with Land Design, coal ash is often pumped into poorly-designed ponds that can spill and seep. Coal ash sludge in these ponds, which can span 50 acres, is loaded with dangerous metals like arsenic, mercury, lead, and chromium that can poison groundwater supplies. Even more terrible, these ponds can break their banks, as in the case of the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, which released 1.1 billion of coal fly ash slurry into nearby communities and rivers. This kind of disaster could happen to any of the 735 active coal ash ponds in the U.S., many of which don’t meet safety requirements.

In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined coal ash to not be a hazardous waste product, putting the management of this toxic material into the hands of state governments. Some 60 percent of coal ash is recycled into concrete or grout or used to fill up old mines. Some ash fly is being “de-watered” and moved into sealed mounds that have a protective bottom layer and landscaped cap.

Delbridge called for more “imaginative solutions” for these unsightly ash fly-filled mounds, pointing to educational and artful places in Europe that have arisen out of industrial and waste landscapes in Germany, like Zollverein coal mine complex in Essen, which has been “left as is” and now functions as a park; the Tetraeder on Halde Beckstrasse in Bottrop, an inventive art piece on a slag heap mound; and the Metabolon in Lindlar, which includes fun trampolines at the top of the giant mountain of garbage.

Metabolon in Lindlar, Germany / Lauren Delbridge

Pamela Conrad: Climate Positive Design

Landscape architecture projects can be carbon-intensive but they don’t have to be. Specifying low-carbon materials and low-maintenance green spaces and planting more trees and shrubs helps to ensure projects sequester more carbon than they emit through their life spans. For Pamela Conrad, ASLA, a principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, it’s as simple as doing the math: sources (materials used in a landscape) subtracted from sinks (the carbon captured in a landscape) added to the costs (carbon embodied through long-term maintenance) equals a landscape’s carbon footprint. With this algorithm, landscape architects can achieve carbon positive landscapes in just 5 years for parks and 20 years for plazas.

To spread this approach in the marketplace, she has invented an easy-to-use website and app that will help landscape architects and designers find appealing ways to reduce their project’s carbon footprint.

Climate Positive Design / Pamela Conrad

Material amounts and site dimensions are inputted and then the app calculates the number of years it will take for the project to be carbon positive. The tool also offers recommendations, like cement substitutes, ways to reduce paved surfaces and lawn, add more trees and shrubs, and minimize soil disturbance — all to reduce the time needed to reach a state of carbon positivity.

Climate positive design / Pamela Conrad

Conrad said environmental product declarations for landscape materials will soon be incorporated as well, making it easier to find products with transparent carbon profiles. (The landscape product marketplace is far behind the architecture product marketplace in providing this information).

Conrad believes that if all landscape architects around the world adopted a climate positive approach, the reduction in carbon emissions would equal a gigaton, putting landscape architecture among the top 80 solutions listed in Paul Hawken’s Drawdown book.

Check out the website and app at ClimatePositiveDesign.com.

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

Climate Ready Boston Harbor / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Winning Designs: Jury, Community Picks for Linear Park along Old Rail Corridor
The Buffalo News, 06/14/19
“A Buffalo firefighter and a New York City landscape architecture firm emerged as top winners Friday in a design competition for a linear park proposed along the former DL&W rail corridor.”

Greenwood Lake Commission Cancels Canada Geese Catch-and-kill, Adopts Alternate Plan
Northjersey.com, 06/14/19
“The revised strategy introduced by local advocates involves a long-term plan to addle eggs and use dogs to deter Canada geese from making the state’s second-largest house-lined lake their home, commission records show. Other control methods now in limited use or under consideration include laser lights, organic sprays and landscape architecture, said Paul Zarrillo, the commission’s New Jersey chairman.”

Sea Ranch, California’s Modernist Utopia, Gets an Update
The New York Times, 06/14/19
“Trees were key to the science-based approach of Lawrence Halprin, the master planner. Ms. Dundee estimates they planted 100,000 pines on the property, with 10,000 expected to survive.”

Judge: Plan to Build Obama Museum in Jackson Park Should Not Be Delayed, Dismisses Legal Challenge
The Cook County Record, 06/11/19
“U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey dismissed a lawsuit filed by the group known as Protect Our Parks, challenging the city of Chicago’s approval of the plan to bring the Obama Presidential Center to the historic park on the city’s South Side.”

Cooper Hewitt Celebrates 20 years of National Design Awards with 2019 Winners
The Architect’s Newspaper, 06/11/19
“SCAPE Landscape Architecture was recognized for its numerous projects (and master plans, and research) that combine landscape architecture with living ecology. SCAPE works across all scales but its use of regenerative landscapes and public outreach is deeply embedded in the firm’s process no matter the size of the project.”

Winning Design for Revamped Detroit Cultural District Envisions Unified Landscape, Architecture and Technology
Crain’s Detroit Business, 6/10/19
“With its vision for Detroit Square, a team including Paris-based Agence Ter with Detroit-based Akoaki LLC, Harley Etienne, assistant professor in the University of Michigan Urban and Regional Planning program, and Ann Arbor-based Rootoftwo LLC was named the winner of the DIA Plaza/Midtown Cultural Connections international design competition Monday morning.”

Democratizing New Urbanism

Cover Image
Building Local Strength / Congress for New Urbanism

New Urbanism has been around for nearly 30 years. The movement promotes the neighborhood as a livable unit, prioritizes walkability in communities, and seeks to end sprawling suburbs. With these goals, new urbanists have developed entirely new communities with multiple types of residences, shops, and cultural centers. Lots of money is needed to develop these projects, which often results in a high cost of living, fueling criticism that the movement is only able to serve the social and economic elite.

A new report, Building Local Strength: Emerging Solutions for Inclusive Development, produced by the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU), highlights eight projects across the country that seek to improve existing communities that are economically disadvantaged. The methods explored in the report focus on “smaller, more gradual change,” allowing the character of the existing neighborhood to remain intact.

Through the examination of eight projects, CNU identifies fourteen tools to implement New Urbanist policies, which include: acquiring and aggregating vacant land, respecting local history, creating philanthropic funds, using tactical urbanism, promoting incremental development, and creating an active and beautiful public realm. Each of the strategies is explained in detail, followed by a matrix at the end of the report showing what tools each project used.

The group calls for a holistic approach to revitalization. As the report notes: “A well-functioning neighborhood requires that employment and recreation opportunities, neighborhood-serving retail, schools, public gathering space, and affordable housing are all available within a walkable transit-oriented environment.” In the report, refurbishing existing housing or developing new homes are the primary medium for revitalization (Grow DeSoto Market Place in DeSoto, Texas being the exception).

All of the projects have merit, but two stood out:

The Anacostia neighborhood sits across the Potomac river from the Navy Yards in Washington, D.C. The predominately African-American neighborhood has been economically disadvantaged for years and is now facing a gentrification threat from the development of the new 11th Street Bridge Park, which will span the Anacostia River where the 11th street bridge stands. The nonprofit organization creating the park, Building Bridges Across the River, led the creation of an equitable development plan, which aims to help renters within a one-mile radius of the park buy their homes at a discounted rate, limiting displacement. If they choose to sell at any point, homeowners agree to return 75 percent of the equity earned on the house to the trust. This will help ensure the trust’s longevity and homeowners create wealth.

The proposed 11th Street Bridge Park will span the Anacostia River in southeast Washington, D.C. / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

A million dollar grant given by JP Morgan will go towards growing small businesses on either side of the Anacostia River, further helping to strengthen the neighborhoods. The combination of efforts to ensure residents can stay within their homes — and in many cases own them — along with the development of the local economy is crucial to improving the quality of life of residents of the neighborhood.

Anacostia_w_st
A typical home in Anacostia / Wikipedia

In Portland, Oregon, Jolene’s First Cousin, developed by Guerilla Development, is a mixed-use project with a social mission. Construction has already begun, with completion scheduled for 2019. Combining retail space and housing, the project includes single occupancy rooms that are meant for the recovering homeless population. There are nearly 4,000 people on the streets of Portland on any given night. Oregon ranks second for the highest percentage of unsheltered people, behind California, according to a 2018 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report.

The development was partially crowdfunded by pools of smaller investors. In this case, $300,000 was raised by 43 investors, which built upon an additional $1.5 million construction loan. Many of the investors were from Portland, “showing a strong market for this type of investing,” writes CNU. The report leaves out that many of these investors had invested in a previous project by Guerilla Development, Fair-Haired Dumbell, which was already producing returns. Still, crowdfunded opportunities give everyday people a stake in the success of a neighborhood.

Guerrrila Development first crowd funded
The first Guerilla Development crowdfunded project, One + Box / Guerilla Development Company

Many of the strategies outlined in the report focus on the economic side of sustainable urban development. While these are important, they are only one part of the holistic approach CNU calls for.

The report highlights strategies for producing positive incremental change in underprivileged communities — approaches also designed to prevent displacement. This is an important step in eliminating CNU’s elitist reputation.

New ASLA Exhibition: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate exhibition / EPNAC

Across the country, landscape architects are stepping up to face the growing global climate crisis head-on. In 2018, ASLA’s interdisciplinary Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience issued a report that outlined policy recommendations and design best practices for creating resilient, sustainable communities.

The new Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Exhibition showcases 20 diverse case studies that illustrate the success these recommendations can have in harnessing natural systems, reducing carbon emissions, and improving communities’ resilience to climate change.

Some projects lower carbon emissions from transportation by improving access to bicycle lanes and sidewalks and limiting space for vehicles, like the Jackson Street Reconstruction Project in Saint Paul, Minnesota, by Toole Design Group.

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

Others show how we can restore natural systems and bring back biodiversity on previously-developed sites, like the Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects.

ASLA 2010 Professional Honor Award in General Design. Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona. Ten Eyck Landscape Architects. / Bill Timmerman

Some projects show how cities can design to prepare for worst-case flooding scenarios using natural systems, like the Buffalo Bayou Promenade in Houston, Texas by SWA Group.

ASLA 2009 Professional Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade, Houston, Texas. SWA Group / Bill Tatham

Others integrate renewable energy facilities into communities, like the Solar Strand project in Buffalo, New York by Hood Design Studio.

Solar Strand project in Buffalo, New York. Hood Design Studio / Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo

The exhibition is free and open to the public at ASLA’s Center for Landscape Architecture (636 I Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20001) every weekday from 10am to 4pm EST (excluding holidays) through May 1, 2020.

ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture / ASLA

There is also an expanded companion to the exhibition at the website: climate.asla.org.

To put on the Smart Politics for a Changing Climate Exhibition, ASLA was awarded an Art Works Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. “These awards, reaching every corner of the United States, are a testament to the artistic richness and diversity in our country,” said Mary Anne Carter, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Organizations such as the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) are giving people in their community the opportunity to learn, create, and be inspired.”

ASLA is also calling for the submissions of further case studies that show how landscape architects design for a changing climate. If you know of a project that fits the bill, please submit at the exhibition website.

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

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The so-called Latino High Line, part of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park redevelopment, San Antonio, Texas / Muñoz and Company

First Look at Frank Gehry’s ‘Anonymous’ Building X for Facebook in Redmond The Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce, 3/21/19
“As part of GGN’s landscape plan, native plans will be restored. Gehry Partners says, ‘the intent is to return as much of the site as possible to its natural state by removing non-native plant material and replacing it with native species.’”

Eight Buildings That Incorporate Waterfalls Dezeen, 3/21/19
“The focal point of architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker’s memorial to the September 11 attacks is two square fountains.”

When a ‘Be In’ in Central Park Was Front-Page News The New York Times, 3/25/19
“Fifty-two years ago, thousands came to Central Park for a counterculture happening that influenced decades of political gatherings there.”

A ‘Latino High Line’ Promises Change for San Antonio CityLab, 3/25/19
“The San Pedro Creek Culture Park stands to be a transformative project for nearby neighborhoods. To fight displacement, the city is creating a risk mitigation fund.”

Harrisburg Plans ‘Chutes and Ladders’ Playground at Reservoir Park Penn Live, 3/27/19
“Kids of all ages will eventually be able to play in a life-sized version of the classic board game “Chutes and Ladders” at Reservoir Park, after Harrisburg City Council voted to hire a landscape architect to design the playground.”

A Landscape Architect’s Plant-filled Oasis in Lower Manhattan Architectural Digest, 3/29/19
“Of course, one shouldn’t expect any less from Von Koontz, a talented landscape designer who works on everything from large country estates to petite, elegant rooftop spaces in Manhattan.”

Why Bicycling Has Flatlined

Protected bike lane in Arlington, Virginia / BikeArlington

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.”

Chicago Tour de Fat / West Town Bikes, John Greenfield on Flickr

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.

St. Louis connected bicycle network / Trailnet, HOK

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.”

Better Bike Share Partnership tour in Philadelphia / Better Bike Share Partnership

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

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Toronto’s Bentway / Nic Lehoux

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.”

The Bentway Transforms Space Under Toronto’s Expressway Into a Community Venue Designboom, 3/9/19
“The city of Toronto presents the transformation of the Bentway, a 1.75km space under the city’s Gardiner Expressway.”

Preventing Crime, One Park at a Time Planetizen, 3/11/19
“Deborah Marton, executive director of the New York Restoration Project, connects parks and open space to improved public safety.”

The Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden Set for a Hiroshi Sugimoto Overhaul The Architect’s Newspaper, 3/11/19
“A year after the Japanese artist and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto completed his renovation of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden lobby in Washington, D.C.”

Faced with Climate Impacts, Communities Turn to Green Infrastructure

Shelby Country Resilience planning / Sasaki

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.

Dennis Avenue green street / Montgomery County department of environmental protection

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.”