New Orleans’ Equity-driven Reforestation Plan

Surface temperatures in New Orleans (2019-2021) / Spackman Mossop Michaels

New Orleans experiences the worst urban heat island effect in the country, with temperatures nearly 9 F° higher than nearby natural areas. The city also lost more than 200,000 trees from Hurricane Katrina, dropping its overall tree canopy to just 18.5 percent.

The non-profit organization Sustaining Our Urban Landscape (SOUL) partnered with landscape architects at Spackman Mossop Michaels (SMM) to create a highly accessible, equity-focused reforestation plan for the city that provides a roadmap for achieving a tree canopy of 24 percent by 2040.

But more importantly, the plan also seeks to equalize the canopy, so at least 10 percent of all 72 neighborhoods are covered in trees. Currently, more than half of neighborhoods are under the 10 percent goal.

Tree canopy coverage by neighborhood / Spackman Mossop Michaels

Wes Michaels, ASLA, a founding partner at SMM, explained that some communities in the city are almost entirely concrete and asphalt and have canopies as low as 1 percent, while others, like the famous Garden District, have nearly 30 percent.

This causes an inequitable distribution of heat risks. “With Hurricane Ida, the foremost cause of death wasn’t flooding but heat. The storm knocked out electricity, so people were in their homes without air conditioning,” explained Emily Bullock, ASLA, a principal with SMM.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, trees and plants really do have a significant cooling benefit. “Trees and vegetation lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade and through evapotranspiration. Shaded surfaces, for example, may be 20–45°F (11–25°C) cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials. Evapotranspiration, alone or in combination with shading, can help reduce peak summer temperatures by 2–9°F (1–5°C).”

The New Orleans Reforestation Plan offers a new, more equitable model for reducing dangerous extreme heat — the number one climate killer — and flooding, while also lowering energy use.

“Conventional urban reforestation plans are focused on achieving an overall canopy percentage, and there is often an equity component. But this plan centers equity so that it frames all goals,” Bullock said.

Planting Cypress trees as part of New Orleans Redevelopment Authority’s alternative strategies for vacant lots program / Spackman Mossop Michaels

“The plans we reviewed from other cities were all similar, kind of boilerplate. We needed a plan that recognizes the unique neighborhoods of New Orleans,” said Susannah Burley, executive director of SOUL. “We wanted to find a local firm that understood the context of our city.”

Restoration of a vacant lot as part of New Orleans Redevelopment Authority’s alternative strategies for vacant lots program / Spackman Mossop Michaels

Burley, who has a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Louisiana State University (LSU), spearheaded the complex reforestation planning effort over the past two years.

With Traci Birch, a LSU professor and planner, SOUL organized four round table discussions with local stakeholders from the public, private, and non-profit sectors, and seven community meetings.

“Spackman Mossop Michaels was a stakeholder in those early conversations. We knew they were already invested in the plan and understood the steps taken,” Burley said.

The firm was then hired to analyze the complex GIS data gathered by SOUL, facilitate more meetings across the city, and develop the plan.

“Landscape architects know the challenges and how to intersect with utilities. We helped facilitate concrete conversations with stakeholders. We examined city regulations and came up with recommendations so that these systems can work a little better. The goal is to make planting trees a smoother, easier process,” Bullock said.

The firm’s community engagement experience also helped SOUL frame the conversations.

“Not everyone in the community is 100 percent behind planting more trees. Landscape architects know that trees = good, but we can also meet communities where they are. We heard concerns like: ‘what if a tree falls on my house or leaves clog up my gutters? What if their roots break up my driveway?'”, Michaels said.

Research shows that trees increase property values. But SMM didn’t hear concerns that more trees could lead to gentrification or displacement. “The questions were more about: ‘who will maintain the trees in rights of way? Where will the maintenance funds come from?,'” said Bullock.

In the historic Garden District, tree roots can transform sidewalks into jagged small hills, making them inaccessible. And in other older parts of the city, sidewalks are very narrow, leaving little room for trees. How will the city fit in more?

“We didn’t get into these kinds of issues, which were beyond the scope. We want to make sure we don’t repeat the current issues, including with overhead and underground utilities. The goal is to create a unified tree policy with stakeholders, including the utilities providing power, water, sewage. The idea is to create a new policy together,” Michaels explained.

The plan outlines detailed steps SOUL, other organizations, and the city can take to build capacity and ramp up tree planting to achieve the 2040 goal. But before scaling up, the plan calls for a full-year of community engagement. “This will help educate communities about the benefits of trees and lay the groundwork for the planting programs to come,” Michaels said.

Prior to tree planting, 2014 / Spackman Mossop Michaels
After tree planting, 2022 / Spackman Mossop Michaels

In five diverse, underserved neighborhoods, pilot tree planting efforts will be rolled out over coming years. In some of these neighborhoods, planting more trees will be fairly straightforward given there are open green spaces available. In other more difficult neighborhoods, which already have lower tree canopies, additional funds and support will be needed to break up and remove concrete rights of way.

According to Burley, the biggest barrier to implementing the plan is lack of funding. “In New Orleans, the Department of Parks and Parkways is extremely underfunded. The plan is an advocacy tool — it shows what can be done with additional funds and how to make it happen.”

Prior to tree planting, 2014 / Spackman Mossop Michaels
After tree planting, 2022 / Spackman Mossop Michaels

And this is why the team focused on making the plan so easy-to-understand. “Most reforestation plans I saw were missing the human component. Our plan is meant to be highly accessible, so it can be picked-up by any city government official or neighborhood association.”

This plan also offers an approach other landscape architects can apply. “Reforestation plans are in landscape architects’ wheelhouse. These plans are at the intersection of ecology, culture, and public health. It’s not just about overall tree canopy numbers. But how to plant the most trees in places where they are needed, and in the shortest amount of time, with limited resources,” Michaels said.

Landscape Architects as Activists

ASLA 2020 Professional Analysis and Planning Award of Excellence. Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture (RICA). Bugesera, Rwanda, Africa / MASS Design Group

A growing number of landscape architects are running mission-driven practices meant to advance social, equity, and political goals through planning and design work. For landscape architects who take this approach, the questions often are: “How do we decide to take a position? What does that look like?,” said Gina Ford, FASLA, founder of Agency Landscape + Planning, at the Oberlander Prize Forum II on Landscape Activism, organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in Dallas, Texas.

For Sierra Bainbridge, ASLA, senior principal and managing director at MASS Design Group, making these kinds of decisions needs to be both rooted in “the head and the heart.” To get to the right position, “you have to ask the right questions, and you have to ask together with your client — what is the mission of this project?”

Bainbridge said MASS seeks out projects in Rwanda and elsewhere that can help shift policies and create structural change. “Our goal is to always hire locally, source regionally, invest in training, and uphold dignity.”

“Landscape is a way of seeing natural and cultural environments. Landscape architecture can be used to unlearn, disrupt assumptions, spark creativity, and catalyze innovations,” said Maura Rockcastle, principal and co-founder of Ten x Ten. “It’s an open-ended process.”

Too many communities have been impacted by the “slow violence of erasure, racism, injustices, fear, and intergenerational traumas.” Designers need take a compassionate approach, which requires more time, but it’s necessary to build trust in damaged communities.

ASLA 2021 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Indian Mounds Cultural Landscape Study and Messaging Plan. Saint Paul, Minnesota. Quinn Evans, Ten x Ten, Allies, Inc. / Quinn Evans

Landscapes that are described as free, inclusive, and accessible often aren’t in reality, said Chelina Odbert, ASLA, CEO and co-founder of the Kounkuey Design Collaborative (KDI), which won the Cooper Hewitt 2022 National Design Award for landscape architecture. “Landscapes are often intimidating, exclusionary, and inaccessible for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQIA+ communities.”

This is a significant issue, because communities that either can’t access public space or don’t feel comfortable doing so experience real health impacts. “Just look at Los Angeles: In Malibu, California, which has a healthy public realm, the average life expectancy is 90 years old; in Watts, it’s 75. That’s a difference of 15 years of life. We need to do long-range planning to ensure the future is inclusive.”

How do you know if your projects are advancing your goals, Ford then asked.

“You have to start small and then leverage well. In communities with a legacy of broken promises, there is success in getting a single project done. Then you can leverage individual projects to do more,” Odbert said.

ECV Shade Equity, Oasis, California / Kounkuey Design Collaborative

In a similar vein, Bainbridge argued that success is building long-term local capacity. In Rwanda, MASS Design Group has been planning and designing projects for more than a decade, and success has taken the form of local networks and organizations who can move the work forward.

For Rockcastle, success has been about “creating multiple conversations through a multiplicity of projects. We have started to get at the bigger conversations.”

Driving forward mission-based work can lead to burn-out. “How do you maintain your energy?,” Ford wondered.

“There is a joy in committing to things. There’s also a responsibility that comes with collaboration. I’m learning all the time,” Rockcastle said.

“You have to be comfortable with struggle. Dissension and discord is part of the process. But it can push you towards your goal,” Odbert said.

“We need to resist physical, structural, and cultural violence; it’s not a choice. Resistance is a fuel. We have to keep pushing — just for some people to live. If we don’t resist, we can’t move forward.”

The Oberlander Prize Forum II on Landscape Activism began with a powerful keynote from Jane Edmonds, a co-founder of Jane’s Way and former Massachusetts Secretary of Workforce Development and Chair of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

In her talk, Edmonds relayed how she was inspired by Mel King and the Tent City movement he led to protest gentrification and displacement in Boston’s South End in 1968. In what was a prime example of “landscape activism,” King demonstrated the “power of presence,” a tactic that would later be adopted by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

She called on all landscape architects to “cultivate an activist’s mind and perceive and acknowledge all the truths.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 1-15, 2022)

Franklin Park, Boston, Massachusetts / Sahar Coston-Hardy, Affiliate ASLA, courtesy of Reed Hilderbrand

Mayor Wu Announces Release of Franklin Park Action Plan – 12/13/2022, City of Boston
Developed by a design team led by landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand along with Agency Landscape + Planning and MASS Design Group, “the Action Plan is a comprehensive vision for the future of the 527-acre park, widely considered landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s crowning achievement and the conclusion of a trilogy of great parks that includes Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.”

Palm Beach Town Council To Review Plans for Phipps Ocean Park Redesign – 12/10/2022, Palm Beach Daily News
“[The Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach] underwrote the $160,000 cost for a phased master plan for the project, and is working closely with Miami-based landscape architect Raymond Jungles, Inc. on design development.”

New York City’s Popular Online Tree Map Gets a Big Update – 12/9/2022, Bloomberg News
“The online tool now shows granular, tree-level data that highlights the public health benefits and economic contributions of urban trees.”

LA County Board Adopts Updated Park Needs Assessment – 12/6/2022, Spectrum News 1
“The LA County Board of Supervisors Tuesday unanimously adopted a countywide assessment of park needs identifying priority areas for development of recreational facilities, and calling for efforts to transform ‘degraded lands’ such as landfills and oil fields into open spaces, especially in lower-income communities.”

Boston City Hall Plaza Reopens – 12/6/2022, World Landscape Architect
Sasaki partnered with Shawmut Design and Construction and Skanska to implement the City of Boston’s vision of an inclusive, welcoming front yard for downtown Boston.”

Nations Must Link Climate and Nature Crises, or Risk Failing to Address Both – 12/5/2022, American Progress
“As the U.N. conference on biodiversity begins, participating nations must do what those at the recent climate change conference failed to accomplish: acknowledge the link between the climate and nature crises, setting up governments to take bold action on both.”

Trust is the Foundation of Milwaukee’s Equitable Playspace Program

Dream Build Play community engagement / Milwaukee Recreation

“Milwaukee, Wisconsin is the most segregated city in the U.S. One third of Black residents face extreme poverty. It also has the one of the highest rates of Black incarceration,” explained Pamela Zimmerman, FASLA, who runs the Dream Build Play program with Milwaukee Recreation, at the ASLA 2022 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Francisco.

As part of the innovative Dream Build Play program, playground and playfield renovation projects were selected from a data-driven equity map that identified the most underserved communities. The city found that 62 percent of its public play spaces were either in “fair or poor” condition — and all of these were in communities that had experienced a history of redlining and predatory lending. Worst-off play spaces were put first in line for renovation.

Ensuring Equitable Access to Milwaukee’s Playfields / Milwaukee Recreation
Map of historic redlining in City of Milwaukee / courtesy of Milwaukee Recreation

“We are tackling playgrounds in communities with high levels of poverty and crime, with growing populations that are adding pressure to schoolyards,” Zimmerman said.

In their tours of the sites, Zimmerman and her team found many of the fair-to-poor sites had no shade and cracked asphalt. “We can’t do our programs, can’t feed kids in these spaces.”

Six years ago, Milwaukee initiated Dream Build Play with a budget of just $1.8 million; today, that’s up to $49 million in completed and in-progress projects.

“We now have four full-time landscape architects, work with 37 landscape architects in six firms, initiated 73 community engagements, completed seven renovation projects, and have eight in the works.”

Dream Build Play community engagement / Milwaukee Recreation
Dream Build Play community engagement / Milwaukee Recreation

Looking back on the first years of the redesign effort, Zimmerman also relayed one core lesson: “it’s hard to build credibility but easy to lose it.”

For example, one mailing error for a community engagement flyer meant that community members didn’t receive word until two weeks after the public hearing happened. Zimmerman walked for 10 miles one weekend, going door to door with new flyers to rebuild trust.

She also opened new lines of communication, hiring additional staff to answer phone calls and listen to concerns from community members.

These conversations often go beyond playgrounds. “In a community dealing with trauma from violence, schoolyard renovations become a much different situation.”

Her engagement is also personal: a number of community members Zimmerman has collaborated and engaged with have been murdered in shootings.

Amid the many struggles these communities are facing, “it’s important to keep building something positive,” she said.

Site design group, ltd., a Chicago-based landscape architecture firm, has been designing many of the updated playgrounds for Milwaukee.

ALBA School, one of the first projects from 2017, included a “vivid painted play surface,” explained Brenda Kiesgen, a project manager with the firm.

ALBA School, Milwaukee / Milwaukee Recreation

“While simple and low-cost, it has been successful.” Parents and students participated in the design process, and students use it to play a range of games, Zimmerman said.

For Greenbay Playfield, which was redeveloped in 2019, Zimmerman’s team ramped up community engagement efforts. “We had 125 people in person and showed images of alternatives. We asked the community which they preferred. We found ways to connect and listen.”

Greenbay Playfield, Milwaukee / Scott Shigley, courtesy of site design group, ltd.

As the pandemic started, community involvement in the planning and design process was re-envisioned to ensure equitable engagement. “We were on the phone, used the Internet; we re- crafted our approach.”

At the same time, with the growth in the program’s budget, schoolyard renovations became increasingly more sophisticated, weaving in more equipment, adding texture and materials, and stormwater management systems.

In one instance, community engagement involved back-tracking to maintain that community trust.

The community-approved design for the Carmen Playfield originally included a basketball half-court, splash pad, playground, and a Tuj Lub court.

Carmen Playfield, Milwaukee / site design group, ltd

Some of the community had wanted a half-court because of concerns about illegal gambling that could come with a full court. But later, other community members argued that a full court was needed for it to be a positive, inclusive space. “So we pivoted and redid the design,” Kiesgen explained.

Worth noting: the renovated public spaces includes Milwaukee’s first court for Tuj Lub, a 5,000-year-old sport played by the Hmong immigrant community. “It is kind of like shuffleboard with hard plastic tops. It had no precedent in Minneapolis. We talked to tons of suppliers and explored samples.”

“People ask us: why so much public work?,” said Bradley McCauley, ASLA, managing principal at site design group, ltd. “We want to do something for communities. But we have to do a lot of public projects to make it work.”

The firm, which was founded by Ernie Wong, FASLA, is focused on sustainable and equitable public spaces. “It’s important that a community loves what we do, because if they don’t, it won’t last.”

This focus on bottom-up design is particularly important with communities that have experienced purposeful disinvestment. Involving these communities can help create a sense of identity and positivity.

McCauley said his firm seeks to “design artful play spaces that weave in exploratory learning,” natural materials, and stormwater management systems.

Greenbay Playfield, Milwaukee / Milwaukee Recreation
Stormwater management systems at a renovated playfield / Milwaukee Recreation

“Universal access is also a focus. We design for children on the spectrum so they have places of reprieve and get away from the activity. For children who have been traumatized by violence, it’s also important they have a place to go.”

Greenbay Playfield, Milwaukee / Scott Shigley, courtesy of site design group, ltd

The Q&A brought up a question about how to manage the emotional toll of work in communities grappling with violence and poverty.

“If a community engagement doesn’t work, try something else. What is important is to have relationships in the community,” Zimmerman said.

“Keep the focus on the end goal — the change you are making — or it can rip your heart out. Self care is good,” McCauley added.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 16-30, 2022)

Ellinikon Metropolitan Park. Athens, Greece / Sasaki

Abandoned Greek Airport To Be Transformed Into a 600-Acre Coastal Park – 11/28/2022, CNN
“Designed by US architecture firm Sasaki, the design aims to provide much-needed green space to the Greek metropolis.”

Hood Design Studio Creates an Inhabitable Landscape for NVIDIA’s Campus in Santa Clara – 11/28/2022, The Architect’s Newspaper
“We wanted to move away from an ornamental function to create more usable space connected to the daily practice of work,” explained studio director and principal Alma Du Solier, ASLA.

Snøhetta Brings Fresh Air into a 1980s Landmark – 11/25/2022, Architectural Record
“The Snøhetta team, which included landscape architect Michelle Delk, ASLA, was inspired by Manhattan’s small pocket parks that are integrated with the urban fabric but act as welcome retreats from it.”

Surfacedesign Introduces a Lush Garden with Native Vegetation to an Underused Backyard in San Francisco – 11/18/2022, The Architect’s Newspaper
“’More and more, there is a move away from tamed, manicured landscapes towards something more connected to a larger ecological condition,’ Surfacedesign partner Roderick Wyllie, FASLA, told AN.”

Voters Pass Historic Climate Initiatives in ‘Silent Surprise’ of US Midterms – 11/18/2022, The Guardian
“While the economy and abortion rights drove momentum behind the midterm election this year, voters in cities and states across the US also turned out to pass a number of climate ballot initiatives.”

Best Books of 2022

American Urbanist: How William H. Whyte’s Unconventional Wisdom Reshaped Public Life / Island Press

Over the holidays, delve into new books on history, design, and the environment that inform and inspire. Whether you are looking for the perfect gift for your favorite designer or something to read yourself, explore THE DIRT’s 12 best books of 2022:

American Urbanist: How William H. Whyte’s Unconventional Wisdom Reshaped Public Life
Island Press, 2022

Richard K. Rein, a reporter and founder of the weekly newsletter U.S. 1, delves into the life and ideas of William H. Whyte, the urbanist, sociologist, journalist, and famously close observer of people in public spaces. Whyte’s articles and books, including The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and City: Rediscovering the Center, led to a renewed focus on human-centered design, a greater understanding of the value of public space, and influenced generations of landscape architects around the world.

Beatrix Farrand: Garden Artist, Landscape Architect / The Monacelli Press
Garden as Art: Beatrix Farrand at Dumbarton Oaks / Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

Beatrix Farrand: Garden Artist, Landscape Architect and Garden as Art: Beatrix Farrand at Dumbarton Oaks
The Monacelli Press, 2022 and Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2022

With Beatrix Farrand: Garden Artist, Landscape Architect, Judith Tankard, a landscape historian, has provided the definitive biography of Farrand, filled with gorgeous photography. And in Garden as Art: Beatrix Farrand at Dumbarton Oaks, Thaïsa Way, FASLA, director of landscape and garden studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., has revealed the magic of Farrand’s masterpiece, with an essay from Thomas Woltz, FASLA, and evocative images from photographer Sahar Coston-Hardy.

Beyond the Garden: Designing Home Landscapes with Natural Systems / Princeton Architectural Press

Beyond the Garden: Designing Home Landscapes with Natural Systems
Princeton Architectural Press, 2022

Dana Davidsen, a landscape designer at Surface Design in San Francisco and former ASLA intern, has curated a beautiful collection of 18 urban, suburban, and rural residential landscapes in U.S. and U.K. that advance ecological design. In an introduction, Timothy A. Schuler, a contributing editor at Landscape Architecture Magazine, explains how deeply sustainable residential projects can help re-set our relationship with the land.

The Comprehensive Plan: Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Communities for the 21st Century / Routledge

The Comprehensive Plan: Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Communities for the 21st Century
Routledge, 2022

“The planning practices of the past are inadequate for today’s challenges,” explains David Rouse, ASLA, a landscape architect and planner, who co-authored this book with Rocky Piro, executive director of the Colorado Center for Sustainable Urbanism and former planning director of Denver. After reviewing hundreds of comprehensive plans, they offer a new model for 21st century planning rooted in sustainability, resilience, and equity. Read more.

Experiencing Olmsted: The Enduring Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted’s North American Landscapes / Timber Press

Experiencing Olmsted: The Enduring Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted’s North American Landscapes
Timber Press, 2022

For the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF); Arleyn A. Levee, Hon. ASLA, a landscape historian; and Dena Tasse-Winter, a historic preservationist, have created a welcome overview of more than 200 public, educational, and private landscapes by Olmsted, his firm, and his successors. Well-curated images, including stunning full-page plans and drawings by Olmsted, show the remarkable work behind his vision of democratic public spaces.

From the Ground Up: Local Efforts to Create Resilient Cities / Island Press

From the Ground Up: Local Efforts to Create Resilient Cities
Island Press, 2022

In her review, Grace Mitchell Tada, ASLA, writes: “From activists and community organizers, landscape architects and city planners, policy makers and city officials, Sant’s cast of characters demonstrate the complexity and nuance that go into creating urban change. It’s the details from her interviews that make this book a valuable tool. Seeing how change is made allows readers to understand how, in their own communities, they too might be able to forge fruitful relationships to dismantle racist histories in favor of equity while equipping their city to handle climate change.” Read the full review.

Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America / Liverlight

Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America
Liverlight, 2022

Oxford University historian Pekka Hämäläinen’s latest book is a vital addition to new histories of Native Americans, such as The Dawn of History: A New History of Humanity and The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. Instead of focusing on Colonial America, he tells the story of Indigenous America, which began in 10,000 BCE and has been defined by the incredible diversity, resilience, and agency of Native peoples over millennia.

Landscape Architecture for Sea Level Rise: Global Innovative Solutions / Routledge

Landscape Architecture for Sea Level Rise: Global Innovative Solutions
Routledge, 2022

Galen Newman, ASLA, professor and head of the department of landscape architecture and urban planning at Texas A&M University, and Zixu Qiao, a master’s of landscape architecture candidate there, have edited a fascinating look at global landscape architecture-based solutions to sea level rise, with practically-minded case studies from Kate Orff, FASLA, Alex Felson, ASLA, Haley Blakeman, FASLA, Kongjian Yu, FASLA, Amy Whitesides, ASLA, and many others. Smart diagrams in the final chapter transform the book into a toolkit that can help landscape architects sort through the pluses and minuses of natural and hard design elements for different ecological, economic, and social conditions.

Landscapes of Exclusion: State Parks and Jim Crow in the American South / Library of American Landscape History

Landscapes of Exclusion: State Parks and Jim Crow in the American South
Library of American Landscape History, 2022

Reviewing the new edition of this book by William E. O’Brien, a professor of environmental studies at Florida Atlantic University, Glenn LaRue Smith, FASLA, states “anyone exploring landscape, planning, and public space history will find the book interesting. O’Brien has crafted an intensively researched history of the political, social, racial, and environmental implications of Jim Crow practices and the unfair distribution of parks in the southern United States.” Read the full review.

Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Well-Being, Equity, and Sustainability (2nd Edition) / Island Press

Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Well-Being, Equity, and Sustainability (2nd Edition)
Island Press, 2022

This fully-updated book will help any landscape architect, planner, or community leader make a stronger case that public green spaces and streets really are part of our healthcare system. The latest research on health and community design has been woven into this new edition, which was edited by Howard Frumkin, senior vice president at the Trust for Public Land; Andrew L. Dannenberg, a professor at the University of Washington; and Nisha Botchwey, dean of the school of public affairs at the University of Minnesota; and also includes a chapter on designing for mental health and well-being by William C. Sullivan, ASLA, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and an essay from Mitchell Silver, Hon. ASLA, former NYC Parks Commissioner.

Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening / HarperCollins, via DouglasBrinkley.com

Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening
HarperCollins, 2022

Douglas Brinkley, one of the country’s leading historians, explores the history of the modern American environmental movement and activists like Cesar Chavez, Coretta Scott King, and Rachel Carson, who laid the groundwork for the Environmental Protection Agency, Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Acts, the Endangered Species Acts, and Limited Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. In the “long decade” of the 1960s and early 70s, these leaders made significant change happen, and their successes can inspire designer-activists pushing for systemic climate action today.

Buying these books through THE DIRT or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs.

Community Empowerment Is at the Heart of Climate Resilience

From the Ground Up: Local Efforts to Create Resilient Cities / Island Press

By Grace Mitchell Tada, ASLA

“This book is a call to action.”

It is that invocation from Alison Sant that propels the narratives in her book — From the Ground Up: Local Efforts to Create Resilient Cities. She presents how people in cities across the U.S. are creating equitable communities that can withstand the changes wrought by climate change. Sant features places and projects that depend on community-grounded efforts to realize their outcomes, though she notes strong grassroots activism and community involvement can’t affect change alone. The most successful examples she relates “bring together the energy of community activists, the organization of advocacy groups, the power of city government, and the reach of federal environmental policy.” And, importantly, they do so in ways suited to their city.

Sant is a partner and co-founder of the Studio for Urban Projects, and its interdisciplinary interests are apparent in the various project types, organizations, and individuals included in her book. From activists and community organizers, landscape architects and city planners, policy makers and city officials, Sant’s cast of characters demonstrate the complexity and nuance that go into creating urban change. It’s the details from her interviews that make this book a valuable tool. Seeing how change is made allows readers to understand how, in their own communities, they too might be able to forge fruitful relationships to dismantle racist histories in favor of equity while equipping their city to handle climate change.

The book is organized into four sections, each tackling a different domain of the built environment. “Reclaim the Streets” showcases cities that are re-imagining streets to accommodate more than vehicular traffic. “Tear up the Concrete” highlights places that are embracing their role in their watersheds, whether by removing concrete or installing green infrastructure. In “Plant the City,” Sant presents how cities are encouraging tree planting. And “Adapt the Shoreline” illustrates how rising sea levels are altering cities’ relationships to their waterfront. The common thread throughout the sections: the understanding that any change striving for equity within our urban environments must be rooted in its community.

In New York, that community rootedness was critical when introducing Citi Bike to Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The neighborhood, where the majority of residents are Black and have household incomes below NYC’s median, has few public transit options, yet most residents initially did not use the bike share program.

Then the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, a community-based organization, and other partners collaborated with Citi Bike, creating communications campaigns that spotlighted residents of colors who rode the bikes. Within a year, Citi Bike trips in the neighborhood ballooned, as did membership. “Bike share only became relevant to the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant once it was shaped by the community intended to use it,” Sant writes.

Bike share riders in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood / Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, courtesy of Island Press

The same can be said about green infrastructure. Sant recounts how various cities are shifting to become “sponges for stormwater.” In New Orleans, community leaders are teaching their neighborhoods to add green infrastructure—rain garden and bioswales, street trees and permeable paving. But there’s more to it: “What is most important to me is to make sure that people had tangible assets on their property and for them to understand its functionality…the pumps, the drains, and the canals,” said Angela Chalk, executive director of Healthy Community Services. “By understanding this, we can take charge of ourselves.”

Mami Hara, ASLA, CEO at U.S. Water Alliance, writes in a contributing essay that “without community support and effective supporting policies and practices, green infrastructure can be an agent of displacement.”

The boon of tree planting has long been a part of American history. Benefits of urban tree planting have become further understood over time. From creating beauty, reducing noise pollution, mitigating the urban heat island effect, and increasing groundwater infiltration, urban trees have myriad benefits. Yet, Sant points out, like other urban amenities, trees, too, do not have equitable dispersal. Less affluent neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color do not have as many trees.

Sant chronicles efforts in Washington, D.C., and New York City to increase their urban tree canopies, which span community activists’ efforts, public-private partnerships, and public investment in street trees and public parks. Baltimore, too, is working to grow the city’s canopy, but perhaps more novel, however, is Baltimore’s use of urban wood. “Utilizing dead trees is as important as tending live ones, especially in the context of climate change,” Sant writes. Trees are usually seen as waste and sent to landfills where they release carbon.

To alleviate this issue, the U.S. Forest Service and local partners have established the Baltimore Wood Project. The program offers living-wage jobs to residents—many formerly incarcerated—who work to deconstruct some of the thousands of abandoned buildings in the city while salvaging their materials. It’s met success, both in its extremely low recidivism rate, and in its environmental impact. As a result, Baltimore’s sustainability plan emphasizes workforce development programs like this one.

In East Baltimore, wood from abandoned row houses is being reclaimed / Doug Kapustin, courtesy of Island Press

In the book’s final section, Sant addresses three cities—San Francisco, New York, and New Orleans—built atop former wetlands. As sea levels rise, each must brace themselves for a much wetter future—especially because those buffering wetlands are no longer present to lessen incoming tides and storm surges. The projects Sant compiles here, too, are based in robustly leveraging community support.

In San Francisco, like in many other cities, the communities most at risk of flooding are low-income, and often neighborhoods of color. Sant details the community processes leading to Hunters Point Shoreline Park and India Basin Shoreline Park, which included landscape architects with RHAA Landscape Architects and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, respectively. Both are in Bayview–Hunter’s Point, a historically Black waterfront neighborhood, and it was critical that their designs reflected its community while making space for rising waters. Jacqueline Flin, a Bayview native who now works for APRI, said involving the community throughout the process ensures that the park “is being grown from within and that the community takes ownership of it.”

In San Francisco, designers of waterfront parks prioritize working with communities. Here, at Candlestick Point Park, the Literacy for Environmental Justice youth group restores wetland habitat / Victor Leung/Literacy for Environmental Justice, courtesy of Island Press

On the opposite coast, the Billion Oyster Project, which strives to grow one billion water-filtering oysters in the New York–New Jersey Harbor Estuary, also necessarily demands the public’s assistance, from monitoring reef structures to putting them together. SCAPE’s post-Superstorm Sandy project, Living Breakwaters, which employs oyster restoration practices, has furthered public understanding about how nature-based strategies can mitigate the effects of sea-level rise.

Living Breakwaters model, Staten Island, NYC / SCAPE Landscape Architecture and Urban Design

“The only way to adapt, while keeping the biodiversity of estuaries and oceans intact, is by adopting radically anticipatory methods based on mimicking natural processes,” writes University of California at Berkeley professor Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, in a guest essay. “When that doesn’t work, managing retreat is a better strategy than building rigid defenses that create exacerbated risks of catastrophic failure.”

In Louisiana, efforts are being made to protect land through efforts such as marsh creation, like here at the Pelican Island dune and intertidal marsh restoration project in Plaquemines Parish / Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, courtesy of Island Press

Sant wrote this book during the earlier days of the Covid-19 pandemic, and during the racial reckoning that arose following the murder of George Floyd. She writes of the changes that we witnessed in cities, such as the “new ways of making streets for people.” Despite all the awfulness of 2020, there was a moment when it seemed the world would be irrevocably different: certainly we would more equitably, and more sustainably, inhabit cities moving forward.

The Shared Spaces Program created public space in San Francisco’s Mission district during the Covid-19 pandemic / Alison Sant, courtesy of Island Press

National expert on the built environment and equity Tamika L. Butler speaks to that hope in her contributing essay: “It feels like we might be building something new, from the ground up.” Yet she also expresses the hesitancy that many of us likely feel now as we watch the world slip back into pre-2020 habits: “But what if it is all a façade? What if we build something up just to fortify the foundation of White supremacy that was already there?”

And this is the call to action: May the anger and the grief, the state of emergency of the pandemic, and the work that Sant so carefully describes prompt us to act—toward true change.

Grace Mitchell Tada, ASLA, is with Hood Design Studio and PGAdesign and co-editor of the book Black Landscapes Matter.

Revealing Seneca Village, the Black Community Displaced by Central Park

Map of Seneca Village / NYC Municipal Archives, via NY1

Seneca Village was an important community. It was 40 acres, two-thirds African American, and had a church and school,” explained Sara Zewde, ASLA, founder of Studio Zewde and assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, during a session at the ASLA 2022 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Francisco.

The 225 residents of Seneca Village were displaced by the New York City government in the mid 1800s to make way for Central Park, which is considered one of the masterpieces of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux.

Today, the history of the community, which once existed near Tanner Spring on the west edge of the park, is being reinterpreted. Efforts are underway by the Central Park Conservancy to commemorate the community and its evicted African American landowners.

Central Park takes up more than 800 acres in the midst of Manhattan. As Zewde and others have explained through the Conversations with Olmsted series as part of Olmsted 200, Olmsted saw Central Park as a way to realize his ideals about democratic urban parks.

The park was designed to provide broad access to the healing benefits of nature. It was also meant to show what free Northern cities could accomplish through transformative public infrastructure, and how slave-owning Southern communities, with their lack of shared spaces, could evolve.

Central Park, New York City / Orbon Alija, istockphoto.com

And while the decision to move Seneca Village predated Olmsted’s involvement, “how do we square this with his legacy? One has to wonder how Olmsted felt about Seneca,” Zewde said.

According to Christopher Nolan, FASLA, chief landscape architect at the Central Park Conservancy, a primarily Black community took root in Seneca Village in the early 1800s because it was not only an escape from the bustle of downtown but also next to a reservoir.

There are no remaining photos of the community, but plans and birds-eye views show a “cohesive property,” with two-story wood homes, an AME Zion Church, and other central buildings.

The community navigated an early Manhattan landscape filled with schist hills. The landscape they experienced largely remains, including Summit Rock, which is one of the dominant features in the park at 140 feet above sea level.

Summit Rock, Central Park, New York City / Central Park Conservancy

While planning Central Park, Olmsted and Vaux examined the geological layers and “didn’t modify the existing landscape that much,” Nolan argued, only adding roads, a reservoir, and lake. Outside of their park, Manhattan’s landscape had been flattened to make way for the relentless grid of the contemporary city.

Apparently Olmsted wasn’t overly fond of the site chosen by NYC government for the park. The long rectangle hemmed him in and “didn’t fit with his idealized landscape,” Nolan said. His goals were later perhaps better realized through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which provided more opportunities for a naturalistic landscape.

As Central Park evolved since the late 1800s, more than 20 playgrounds were added, including one at the heart of what was once Seneca Village.

A restoration management plan was created in 1995 that emphasized Olmsted’s original vision. A few years later, the New York Historical Society held the first exhibition on Seneca Village.

Since then, the Conservancy has grappled with how to process new information about Seneca Village and continue its restoration program. The goal is for these efforts to converge in a new commemoration of Seneca Village rooted in deep community engagement and a restored natural landscape.

For John T. Reddick, director of community engagement projects at the Conservancy, there are a range of nearby precedents for this commemoration work, including a memorial to Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, in Riverside Park; a memorial to Duke Ellington on Riverside Drive; and the Frederick Douglass Circle in Harlem, at the northwestern edge of Central Park.

Ralph Ellison Memorial, New York City / Riverside Park Conservancy
Duke Ellington Memorial, New York City / NYC Department of Design and Construction, via Twitter
Frederick Douglass Circle, New York City / NYC Parks

Reddick also pointed to Strawberry Fields, the memorial to John Lennon, who was murdered outside the Dakota building along Central Park. The simple ground-level mosaic with the word “Imagine,” referring to Lennon’s song, became the center of a broader landscape restoration effort funded in part by Yoko Ono. “The landscape became Strawberry Fields. Before, it was a run-down place. It took a major effort to transform that into something special.”

Strawberry Fields, Central Park, New York City / Ingfbruno, CC BY-SA 3.0

In 2001, the Conservancy added a sign about Seneca Village but that was really “just the beginning of research.” Recent efforts have included inviting artists, historians, and musicians to “animate stories” of Seneca Village for the public. “They have helped us understand what life there may have been like.”

Reddick said the goal for the future is to represent the displaced community in Central Park not through a plaque or statue but an interpretation of the landscape. “We want to use the land to tell their stories.”

This mission to tell a more holistic story about the park and its history is line with “a broader definition of stewardship,” Nolan added. Olmsted was a social reformer, and this approach is part of the DNA of landscape architecture.

Learning about Seneca Village has also opened Zewde’s eyes to the possibilities of reinterpretation. “Communities and their histories aren’t erased; they are hiding in plain sight. Seneca Village is not history. We can use our narrative lens now. Through engagement, we can educate and amplify.”

“Parks are vehicles. The existence of a park doesn’t mean we have a functioning society and democracy. We have to use the space, navigate it as people.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 1-15, 2022)

ASLA 2022 Professional Urban Design Honor Award. Midtown Park. Houston, TX, USA. Design Workshop, Inc. / Brandon Huttenlocher courtesy of Design Workshop, Inc.

ASLA Unveils Framework for Achieving Zero Emissions by 2040 Through Practice, Equity, and Advocacy – 11/15/2022, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) used its annual large-scale gathering to unveil what’s perhaps the most consequential goal-based agenda to be produced by the professional association in its 123-year history: a comprehensive Climate Action Plan.”

Fair Trade – 11/08/2022, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Landscape architecture design studio Terremoto addresses labor exploitation in its industry.”

It’s Official: Climate Reparations Are on the Agenda at This Year’s UN Climate Conference – 11/07/2022, Grist
“After dodging the issue for more than 30 years, wealthy nations face calls to address the ‘loss and damage’ created by climate change at COP27.”

Are Trees Talking Underground? For Scientists, It’s in Dispute. – 11/07/2022, The New York Times
“From Ted Lasso to TED Talks, the theory of the ‘wood-wide web’ is everywhere, and some scientists argue that it is overblown and unproven.”

Planning Commission Pushes for Bolder One Seattle Plan Re-Envisioning City Streets – 11/07/2022, The Urbanist
“In a set of recommendations submitted to the city, the commission calls for revised land use and transportation policies that reclaim public space from cars and shift focus away from vehicle throughput to more pedestrian-oriented uses.”

How One Indiana Park Restored the Landscape to Its 19th Century Glory – 11/02/2022, Fast Company
“The Swamp Act of 1850 erased millions of acres of swampland from the U.S. In Westfield, Indiana, landscape architects are bringing one waterway back to life.”

Landscape Architects Aim for Zero Emissions by 2040

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Award. Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park Phase II: A New Urban Ecology. Long Island City, NY. SWA/BALSLEY and WEISS/MANFREDI with ARUP / copyright Vecerka/ESTO, courtesy SWA/BALSLEY and WEISS/MANFREDI

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Announces New Industry-wide Benchmarks to Address Climate Change and Biodiversity Crises

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) announced today that it has set new goals for the profession. Together the ASLA Climate Action Plan and the Climate Action Field Guide for ASLA Members chart a pathway for landscape architects to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions in their projects and operations and increase carbon sequestration by 2040.

The Climate Action Plan was developed by a high-profile Task Force of five landscape architects chaired by Pamela Conrad, ASLA, founder of Climate Positive Design, and a 17-member Advisory Group. It outlines a bold vision for 2040 and a set of 71 actions to be taken by 2025.

By 2040, all landscape architecture projects will simultaneously:

  • Achieve zero embodied and operational emissions and increase carbon sequestration
  • Provide significant economic benefits in the form of measurable ecosystem services, health co-benefits, sequestration, and green jobs
  • Address climate injustices, empower communities, and increase equitable distribution of climate investments
  • Restore ecosystems and increase and protect biodiversity

“Landscape architects are already helping communities achieve this vision. As we increasingly experience the impacts of the climate and biodiversity crises, we know we need to act faster. We are the only design professionals who bring all the pieces together to plan and design what communities need to prepare themselves for a changing world,” said ASLA President Eugenia Martin, FASLA.

“ASLA has developed its first Climate Action Plan in the spirit of great optimism. We envision communities becoming healthier and economically stronger because they have committed to drawing down carbon, restoring ecosystems and increasing biodiversity, and reducing reliance on vehicles – all while ensuring everyone in their community has equitable access to these benefits,” said ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen.

The ASLA Climate Action Plan is based in science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found humanity can only put a maximum of 340 more gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere if we want a good chance of only increasing temperatures by 1.5° C (2.7° Fahrenheit), instead of 2° C (3.6° Fahrenheit). To advance the goal of keeping warming to 1.5° C, ASLA signed on to the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) Climate Action Commitment in 2021. The commitment was presented at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland and is supported by 70,000 landscape architects in 77 countries.

The ASLA Climate Action Plan is rooted in the three goals (practice, equity, and advocacy) and six initiatives of IFLA Climate Action Commitment.

The ASLA plan will direct all ASLA programs and investments through 2025. Goals will be advanced through 21 objectives and 71 actions. Goals and actions will be revisited and updated in 2025 and every five years until 2040 and beyond.

To accomplish the plan, ASLA, as a mission-driven association, has also committed to achieving zero emissions in its operations by 2040. ASLA is calculating baseline Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions for its 2022 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Francisco and headquarters operations in Washington, D.C. and has committed to reducing its overall emissions by 20% by 2024. ASLA will use its own journey to zero as a learning opportunity for its members, EXPO exhibitors, and partner organizations.

A companion to the plan – the Climate Action Field Guide for ASLA Members – provides best practice guidance, toolkits, and resources for ASLA members and their firms and organizations, along with corporate partners, to achieve the 2040 vision.

ASLA 2016 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. The Restoring of a Montane Landscape. Rocky Mountains, Colorado. Design Workshop, Inc. / D.A. Horchner, Design Workshop, Inc.

The Field Guide features six toolkits covering 18 strategies, with guidance on how to:

  • Design Climate Positive Landscapes
  • Design Pedestrian, Cyclist, and Public Transit-Centric Communities
  • Reduce Energy Use and Support Renewables
  • Help Communities Adapt to Climate Impacts
  • Explore Pathways to Financial Sustainability with Communities
  • Protect and Increase Biodiversity
  • Learn from Indigenous Communities Through Collaboration
  • Build Climate Coalitions

“Landscape architects are uniquely qualified to understand and manage complex, multi-disciplinary challenges and design sustainable, world-changing solutions. We are committed to following the science, and through this Climate Action Plan we will rapidly scale up Climate- and Biodiversity-positive solutions in the U.S. and, through our partnership with IFLA, the world,” said Pamela Conrad, ASLA, Chair of the Climate Action Plan Task Force.

Conrad will represent ASLA and highlight the vision and goals of the ASLA Climate Action Plan at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.