Suburban Sprawl Increases the Risk of Future Pandemics

Suburban expansion into remnant habitat / La Citta Vita, Flickr

By Michael Grove, ASLA

The export of American culture is one of the most influential forces in our interconnected world. From Dakar to Delhi, American pop music, movies, and artery-clogging cuisine is ubiquitous. However, one of the most damaging exports is the American suburb. When the 20th century model for housing the swelling populations of Long Island and Los Angeles translates to 21st century Kinshasa and Kuala Lumpur, the American way of life may very well be our downfall.

In our pre-pandemic ignorance, most urbanists pointed to climate change as the most dangerous impact of our cherished suburban lifestyle. To be sure, the higher greenhouse gas emissions and rise in chronic health problems associated with living in subdivisions aren’t going away, but COVID-19 has exposed another threat we’ve chosen to ignore. The next pandemic may very well result from our addiction to—and exportation of—sprawl.

Vilifying Density and Disregarding Equity

The increasing traction of the anti-density movement in the wake of the current outbreak is alarming. Headlines proclaiming how sprawl may save us and that living in cities puts citizens at higher risk for contracting the novel coronavirus are deceptive.

Recent studies have debunked these myths, finding little correlation between population density in cities and rates of COVID-19, instead attributing the spread of the virus to overcrowding due to inequity and delays in governmental responsiveness.

Mounting evidence suggests that COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through close contact in enclosed spaces. Internal population density within buildings and, more specifically, within shared rooms inside buildings is what drives this, not the compact urban form of the city. In New York, for example, COVID-19 cases are concentrated in the outer boroughs, and suburban Westchester and Rockland counties have reported nearly triple the rate per capita than those of Manhattan.

The real issue is the systemic economic inequity that forces lower income people to live in overcrowded conditions, regardless of location. Innovative approaches to urban planning, equitable housing policies, and a reversal of over a century of environmental discrimination in our cities are absolutely necessary. Vilifying the city is counterproductive.

Moving out of dense cities into the open space and social distancing afforded by the suburbs is exactly the type of knee-jerk reaction that we must avoid. Cities are not at fault.

Habitat Fragmentation and Biodiversity Loss

In fact, cities are the answer if we plan them carefully. Among the many human activities that cause habitat loss, urban development produces some of the greatest local extinction rates and has a more permanent impact. For example, habitat lost due to farming and logging can be restored, whereas urbanized areas not only persist but continue to expand.

The Atlas for the End of the World, conceived by Richard Weller, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the best sources for documenting our collective risk. Mapping 391 of the planet’s terrestrial eco-regions, this research identified 423 cities with a population of over 300,000 inhabitants situated within 36 biodiversity hotspots. Using data modelling from the Seto Lab at Yale University, the Atlas predicts that 383 of these cities—about 90 percent —will likely continue to expand into previously undisturbed habitats.

Biodiversity hotspot map of the Indo-Burma ecoregion / Atlas for the End of the World

When we assault the wild places that harbor so much biodiversity in the pursuit of development, we disregard a significant aspect of this biodiversity—the unseen domain of undocumented viruses and pathogens.

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, meaning that they are transmitted to us through contact with animals. The initial emergence of many of these zoonotic diseases have been tracked to the parts of the world with the greatest biodiversity, both in the traditional and man-made sense. Traditional locations include tropical rainforests where biodiversity naturally occurs. Human-influenced conditions include places like bushmeat markets in Africa or the wet markets of Asia, where we are mixing trapped exotic animals with humans, often in astonishingly unsanitary conditions.

However, degraded habitats of any kind can create conditions for viruses to cross over, whether in Accra or Austin. The disruption of habitat to support our suburban lifestyle is bringing us closer to species with which we have rarely had contact. By infringing on these ecosystems, we reduce the natural barriers between humans and host species, creating ideal conditions for diseases to spread. These microbes are not naturally human pathogens. They become human pathogens because we offer them that opportunity.

This is already evident in the fragmented forests of many American suburbs where development patterns have altered the natural cycle of the pathogen that causes Lyme disease. When humans live in close proximity to these disrupted ecosystems, they are more likely to get bitten by a tick carrying the Lyme bacteria. When biodiversity is reduced, these diluted systems allow for species like rodents and bats—some of the most likely to promote the transmission of pathogens—to thrive.

This essentially means that the more habitats we disturb, the more danger we are in by tapping into various virus reservoirs. COVID-19 is not the first disease to cross over from animal to human populations, but it is likely a harbinger of more mass pandemics and further disruptions to the global economy. The more densely we build, the more land we can conserve for nature to thrive, potentially reducing our risk of another pandemic from a novel virus.

Increase of infected tick populations in fragmented forests / National Science Foundation, Nicolle Rager Fuller

Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary

In the United States, over 50 percent of the population lives in suburbs, covering more land than the combined total of national and state parks. Our urbanization is ubiquitous and endangers more species than any other human activity.

In 1979, Portland, Oregon offered a pioneering solution with the creation of an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). Devised by a 3-county, 24-city regional planning authority, the intent was to protect agricultural lands, encourage urban density, and limit unchecked sprawl.

Forty years into this experiment, Portland’s experience is a mixed bag of successes and missed opportunities. Investment in public transit and urban parks has certainly bolstered the city’s reputation as a leader in urban innovation, sustainability, and livability, with statistics to support its efforts.

On the other hand, two of Oregon’s fastest growing cities are situated just beyond the boundary’s jurisdiction, underscoring the limitations of the strategy. Again, inequity rears its ugly head, with higher prices within the UGB caused, in part, by an inability to deregulate Portland’s low density neighborhoods. This has driven much of the regional population further afield to find affordable housing in the form of suburban sprawl beyond the UGB’s dominion and into even more remote areas.

Another consideration that was overlooked when the original plan was established was the adequate protection of remnant habitat within the UGB. This lack of a regional plan for biodiversity protection has underscored the need for a more ecologically-focused, science-based approach to inform planning decisions.

Suburban development approaching agricultural land and remnant forest in Portland, Oregon / Google Earth

Brisbane’s Bird Population

Unfortunately, anticipating outcomes of urbanization on species diversity is not as pervasive in urban planning agencies around the world as it should be. A lack of detailed modeling specific to individual regions and cities with clear recommendations for how to minimize ecological devastation is absent from planning policy around the world.

However, researchers in Brisbane, Australia have attempted to quantify which development style—concentrated urban intensity or suburban sprawl—has a greater ecological consequences. By measuring species distribution, the study predicted the effect on bird populations when adding nearly 85,000 new dwelling units in the city. Their results demonstrated that urban growth of any type reduces bird distributions overall, but compact development substantially slows these reductions.

Sensitive species particularly benefited from compact development because remnant habitats remained intact, with predominantly non-native species thriving in sprawling development conditions. These results suggest that cities with denser footprints—even if their suburbs offer abundant open space—would experience a steep decline in biodiversity.

This is a common outcome found in similar studies around the world that exhibit a comparable decline in the species richness of multiple taxa along the rural-urban gradient. Although biodiversity is lowest within the urban core, the trade-off of preserving as much remnant natural habitat as possible almost always results in greater regional biodiversity.

Common bird species in urban and suburban Brisbane, Australia / Paula Peeters

Helsinki’s Biodiversity Database

One of Europe’s fasted growing cities, Helsinki faces similar pressures for new housing and traffic connections as many other major metropolises. However, in Helsinki, geotechnical and topographic constraints, coupled with its 20th century expansion along two railway lines rather than a web of highways, created the base for its finger-like urban and landscape structure. Today, one-third of Helsinki’s land area is open space, 63 percent of which is contiguous urban forest.

In 2001, Finland established an open source National Biodiversity Database that compiles multiple data sets ranging from detailed environmental studies to observations of citizen scientists. This extraordinary access to information has allowed the city to measure numerous data points within various conservation area boundaries, including statistics related to the protection of individual sites and species.

Measured by several taxonomies, including vascular plants, birds, fungi, and pollinators, Helsinki has an unusually high biodiversity when compared to neighboring municipalities or to other temperate European cities and towns. Vascular plant species, for example, average over 350 species per square kilometer, as compared to Berlin and Vienna’s average of about 200 species. By embracing biodiversity within the structure of the city, not only is the importance of regional biodiversity codified into the general master plan, it is also embedded into the civic discourse of its citizens.

Figure-ground diagram of Helsinki’s green fingers / Schwarz Plan

When it comes to where the next virus might emerge, Wuhan isn’t really that different from Washington, D.C. If the American model of over-indulgent suburban sprawl is the benchmark for individual success, we all lose.

Now is the moment to put the health of the planet before American values of heaven on a half-acre. Land use policies in the United States have just as profound an impact on the rest of the world as any movie out of Hollywood.

If we shift American values toward embracing denser, cleaner, and more efficient cities that drive ecological conservation—instead of promoting sprawl as a panacea for our current predicament—that may very well be our greatest export to humanity.

Michael Grove, ASLA, is the chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki, a global design firm with offices in Boston and Shanghai.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 1-15)

Field Day campers / Jonathon Geels

A Virtual Landscape Architecture Camp Introduces Girls to Careers They Didn’t Even Know Existed — 05/13/20, Next City
“The eight-week camp covers key concepts in landscape architecture, from the meaning of ‘place’ to interpreting information about the environment, understanding the ways that different people use spaces, and the early stages of the design process.”

How the Virus May Change Your Next Home — 05/12/20, The New York Times
“After spending so much time indoors, having access to fresh air and nature at home is likely to become a priority.”

BIM in Landscape Architecture: Scenarios, Possibilities and Breakthroughs 05/11/20, ArchDaily
“For professional landscape designers, a greater effort is needed to understand how to behave within this new universe of intelligent modeling and how to contribute, through landscape architecture projects, to the multidisciplinarity that BIM brings.”

Architect of Sweden’s No-lockdown Strategy Insists It Will Pay Off – 05/07/20, The Financial Times
“Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist who devised the no-lockdown approach, estimated that 40 per cent of people in the capital, Stockholm, would be immune to Covid-19 by the end of May, giving the country an advantage against a virus that ‘we’re going to have to live with for a very long time.'”

A Schoolyard Fence Proposal for Greenwich Village Raises Questions about Creeping Privatization — 05/05/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“To screen or not to screen? That was the question before New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) on April 28, when panel members reviewed a seemingly innocuous proposal to permanently alter a chain-link fence surrounding a schoolyard in Greenwich Village.”

How Life in Our Cities Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic — 05/03/20, Foreign Policy
“The pandemic is transforming urban life. We asked 12 leading global experts in urban planning, policy, history, and health for their predictions.”

To Contain COVID-19, Cities and Counties Need More Support

Bruce Gutnick with the EMS service of the NY Fire waits for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is distributing meals at EMS Station 4 in lower Manhattan in celebration of International Firefighters’ Day, May 4, 2020. / Anthony Behar, Sipa USA, via AP Images

Many of the challenges managing the pandemic in the U.S. are due to the loss of 50,000 local public health jobs since 2008. Federal funding for local public health through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been cut each year. The result is that “we didn’t build a health ecosystem, and we simply respond crisis by crisis,” argued Matt Chase, CEO of the National Association of Counties, during a session at the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference @ Home. He called for providing more direct funding to thousands of county and municipal governments, our “critical first responders,” to finance the “three T’s: testing, tracing, and treatment.”

The impact of the coronoavirus across the U.S. has been swift. There are now a million cases, which have doubled in two weeks, and 61,000 people have died. “The virus is now the 7th or 8th leading cause of death — it passed suicide, kidney failure, and the flu, and will soon pass diabetes.”

In just a few weeks, some 30 million people have lost their jobs. In comparison, during the 2008 Great Recession, some 15 million became unemployed over 18 months. The unemployment rate went from 3.8 percent to probably “over 20 percent” now.

After the 2008 recession, approximately one-fourth of U.S. counties never recovered. These are the places that have record high rates of “opioid, heroine, and other substance abuse.” As a result, it’s critical that the pandemic doesn’t further reinforce the existing divide between have and have-not communities.

Chase outlined the components of aid packages that have passed on Capitol Hill. In late March, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided $2 trillion in support, with $150 billion in a relief fund for state and local governments. In late April, CARES Act 3.5 added supplementary funds to CARES programs and provided $25 billion for testing. CARES 3.5 was supposed to include additional funds for state and local governments but that was dropped.

The National Association of Counties estimates some $144 billion in lost revenue for counties over the next 18 months. “That’s a big number given that all county budgets together total $600 billion.” Furthermore, these estimates don’t include cuts in state aid or property tax revenue.

With all this lost local revenue, how will counties continue to provide crucial services, like answering 911 calls, keeping buses running, and delivering meals to the elderly? How will they hire the many thousands of people needed to trace exposure?

Clarence Anthony, CEO of the National League of Cities, which counts 2,000 cities of all sizes as members, said that “some 88 percent of city leaders polled expect to face revenue shortfalls.” Already, Cincinnati, Ohio has furloughed 1,700 city workers, Detroit, Michigan has cut hours for 2,000 workers, and Dayton, Ohio has cut 24 percent of its city workforce. The National League of Cities anticipates a job loss of 1 million municipal workers in the coming year.

Anthony stated that it’s important to make aid decisions based on data. African Americans are 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for 33 percent of COVID-19 cases. “We need to get money to where the impact is.” He was concerned that not all cities are “disaggregating data based on race or ethnicity.”

He added that the public overwhelming prefer information on COVID-19 from local elected officials. City, county, village, and other community government websites are the most visited destinations for up-to-date news on guidelines, testing centers, transportation routes, financial relief, and treatment options. So it’s critically important that local government are able to maintain high levels of service.

Some other key points from their talk:

Local influencers such as chambers of commerce and non-profits need to make their voices heard about the additional support cities and counties need, Chase argued. “We need an all-community approach,” particularly in the area of human services, such as domestic and substance abuse services. “Many non-profits in this arena are seeing their funding sources drying up.”

Urban planners can help by mapping federal funding sources against local needs. County and municipal governments must continue to document all their costs to get federal aid.

A major concern is that in an effort to cut costs, too many government services are becoming only available online or via apps. The issue is not everyone has a smart phone, generous data plan, or access to wi-fi or broadband. Anthony said “we need to provide free wi-fi hotspots in disadvantaged communities.” He envisioned buses loaded with wi-fi systems parked in communities that need access the most.

“People are now demanding open space. They are craving parks and recreation areas.” Anthony believes that more cities will follow the lead of Oakland, California, which plans to open 74 miles of its streets to pedestrians and bicyclists. Just a few weeks after Oakland’s move, New York City made a similar pledge to open 40 miles of streets by the end of May and 100 miles in total.

Over the long term, cities may never be the same, given density is now a disadvantage. “Rural and suburban communities will likely see an increase in interest,” Anthony said. “These communities can provide more safe space for kids.”

The pandemic will “lead to changes in how we plan and design cities. The focus will now be on safety. We used to love density. The pandemic has changed all of us.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (April 1-15)

Slow streets in Oakland, California / Oakland department of transportation, via Streetsblog

Eyes on the Street: A Quick Look at Oakland’s “Slow Streets”Streetsblog, 04/14/20
“The plan is to eventually open 74 miles of Oakland streets for local residents to go for a walk, bike, jog and generally avoid going stir crazy, all while maintaining six feet of distance from one another.”

Your Maps of Life Under LockdownCityLab, 04/15/20
“CityLab recently invited readers to draw maps of their worlds in the time of coronavirus. Already, nearly 150 of you have responded to our call with an incredible range of interpretative maps, submitted from all over the world.”

Burning Man 2020 Won’t Go Ahead After All, Moves OnlineThe Architects’ Newspaper, 04/13/20
“The virtual version of the ‘Playa,’ VBRC, will be available to access for a fee—and participants still need to reserve tickets—and Burning Man organizers have estimated that they’ll see attendance around 100,000 this year as a result. ”

Even Parks Are Going Online During the PandemicNext City, 04/09/20
“Shortly after schools closed indefinitely in New York City, the Department of Parks and Recreation pushed out their ‘Parks at Home’ initiative — an online portal virtually bringing environmental education and recreation to viewers, from the comfort of their homes.”

Location Data Says It All: Staying at Home During Coronavirus Is a LuxuryThe New York Times, 04/03/20
“It has been about two weeks since the Illinois governor ordered residents to stay at home, but nothing has changed about Adarra Benjamin’s responsibilities. She gets on a bus nearly every morning in Chicago, traveling 20 miles round trip some days to cook, clean and shop for her clients, who are older or have health problems that make such tasks difficult.”

Interview with Kate Orff on Earth Day 2020: The 50th Anniversary

Kate Orff, FASLA

Kate Orff, RLA, FASLA, is the founder and principal of SCAPE and also director of the Urban Design Program and Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). In 2017, Orff was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and, in 2019, SCAPE received the National Design Award in landscape architecture from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans, which at that time was some 10 percent of the population, took to the streets during the first Earth Day, demanding greater protections for the environment and decisive action to improve human health and well-being. 50 years later, the movement is now global, with an estimated one billion participating each year. What role does collective action play in solving today’s climate and ecological crises? What role do landscape architects play?

Earth Day is a chance to pause, take stock of the planet that sustains us, and think and act beyond ourselves to reach the scale of the globe and all its inhabitants. Landscape architects are largely concerned with the “middle scale,” but Earth Day forces us to conceive of the planetary landscape, and what our role is in retrieving the Earth from its climate emergency status.

Our book Toward an Urban Ecology describes the potential of collective action at a landscape scale and gives many examples of digging in, showing up, ripping out, and gardening with your neighbors. At the same time, it’s important to keep focus on the more radical, insidious challenges in our carbon-intensive economy mapped out at a national scale in Petrochemical America, which depicts the American landscape as a machine for consuming oil and petrochemicals with profound impacts on ecosystems and communities.

I guess the lesson here is that on an individual level, we have to consume less. At a neighborhood level, we can work together to repair the landscapes in our immediate environs through community oyster gardening or invasive species removal in a patch of forest. And at a global scale, we have to radically and equitably decarbonize our economy and rebuild the wetland and intertidal landscapes disappearing before our eyes. Our installation at the Venice Biennale called Ecological Citizens bridges these scales of thought and action. Plenty to do!

What connections do you see between the COVID-19 pandemic and our climate and ecological problems? How are environmental and human health connected?

COVID 19 shines a spotlight on our health care system and existing social inequity. The pandemic is truly playing out as a human tragedy on so many levels. It also reveals the incredible and irreversible harm we are inflicting upon non-human species and our extreme interdependence on each other and the natural world.

Whether the virus was transmitted through a bat or pangolin, it’s a parable about the exploitation of “the other” that must stop. This April, 25 tons of pangolin scales were seized in Singapore, taken from nearly 40,000 of these endangered creatures. An estimated 2.7 million are poached every year. It boggles the mind.

On a positive note, one can imagine our “stay at home” behavior, which is intended to curb the pandemic, has the unintended consequences of lowering our personal carbon footprints; and leading us to care for each other more, make time to mend the landscapes in which we live, and prioritize the basics of happiness and survival — food, shelter, clean water, clean air, neighbors, family, and the core of what matters to you.

You founded SCAPE in 2007. Your office’s stated mission is to “enable positive change in communities through the creation of regenerative living infrastructure and public landscapes.” What is regenerative living infrastructure and why do communities need it?

Today’s society faces compounding risks: a climate emergency, increasing social and income stratification, and a biological apocalypse termed “the sixth extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert in her 2014 book of the same name. Together, these forces are rapidly tearing at the fabric of our entangled social and natural worlds. In every SCAPE project, we identify the capacity of design to repair that fabric and regenerate connections over time.

The aim is to not just deliver built work, but envision a program that begins to generate new ties between communities working in, living in, understanding, and loving the landscapes that sustain them. This could take the form of unlocking sediment trapped upstream to nourish protective bay landscapes and cushion the impacts of extreme weather and sea level rise.

ASLA 2019 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Public Sediment for Alameda Creek, Alameda County, California / SCAPE and Public Sediment team

It might manifest as the integration of a state-certified science curriculum with an offshore reef rebuilding project, or reclaiming a forgotten canal and retrofitting it as a public park and water treatment system in partnership with a community-based organization devoted to its stewardship.

The Gowanus Lowlands, Brookyln, New York / SCAPE

For decades, infrastructure has been constructed as “single-purpose,” often designed by engineers to isolate one element of a system and solve for one problem. For example, on Staten Island, during Superstorm Sandy, a levee designed to keep water out was overtopped, resulting in a “bathtub effect” of trapping water inside a neighborhood rather than keeping it out. People perished because of this catastrophic failure. In many places, metal bulkhead walls are being raised in anticipation of sea-level rise only to block drainage during major rain events, flooding adjacent blocks.

Regenerative landscape infrastructure helps to maintain the structure and function of ecosystems embedded in the built environment, accounting for complex systems. This has been the organizing mission of SCAPE: to bring holistic, landscape-driven, and time-based thinking into the places we inhabit.

Through Living Breakwaters in Tottenville, on Staten Island in New York, SCAPE created a layered approach to ecological and social resilience, including oyster habitat restoration on a series of near-shore breakwaters. Working with communities in Boston, SCAPE has developed visions for a more resilient Boston Harbor and Dorchester neighborhoods. What are the benefits of these resilient landscape approaches?

The resilience benefits of these projects are clear. We can’t just look at one facet of the future: We have to synthesize how climate shocks and stressors compound each other. Extreme heat will increase drought and poverty. Extreme hurricanes will increase long-term rainfall projections used as a base for design efforts. How will these shocks and stressors combine to impact people and shape our future?

Robust, intact landscapes can’t do everything, but they can absorb a range of intersectional challenges and create immense protective value. Part of SCAPE’s approach is to begin to address the “sixth extinction” in the intertidal zone, restoring landscapes and habitats for marine critters that could be a lifeline to the future. We not only envisioned the Living Breakwaters project. Over many years, we navigated a federal, state, and local regulatory and budget environment to make it happen. We have a unique perspective on how to advance these kinds of projects despite many roadblocks and challenges.

Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NY / SCAPE
Resilient Boston Harbor Vision, Boston, Massachusetts / SCAPE

Our team just completed a long-term vision for the rapidly eroding Barataria Basin in Louisiana with an array of collaborators. This project combines marsh creation with bottomland reforestation, sediment diversions, and related landscape restoration and job creation strategies. A healthy and bountiful landscape means better economic opportunities for a wider range of people, rebounding shellfish and fisheries, and a coastal landscape that can absorb and adapt to a range of climate risks on the immediate horizon.

Your firm is also now planning a linear network of greenways and blueways along the Chattahoochee River, which spans 100 miles across the Metro Atlanta region. How does planning and design focused on rivers improve ecological and community resilience? With the risk of flooding increasing, how can communities better live with their rivers?

The Chattahoochee RiverLands is a vision to reconnect Metro Atlanta to its seminal river, building on a decades-long legacy of community planning in collaboration with the Trust for Public Land, Atlanta Regional Commission, Cobb County, and the City of Atlanta. It’s a radical effort to stitch together a historically fragmented public realm along a primary conduit – 125 miles of trail winding along the Chattahoochee that showcase the river’s ecology, history, and link into ongoing restoration and education efforts.

Rivers have such power to bring people together, link up disjointed places, and bring life and mobility into cities. For this project, we cut through red tape, charting a path of access through a mosaic of public and private lands. The overall vision was grounded in over 80 stakeholder and community sessions and events like “river rambles,” educational outings for focus groups to provide hands-on learning experiences.

Public engagement session for the Chattahoochee RiverLands greenway study, Atlanta, Georgia. / SCAPE

Beyond its physical footprint, the goal of the RiverLands is to raise public awareness, improve connections and access, address a long legacy of environmental racism, expand mobility for underserved communities, and build on a strong regional legacy of water resource conservation and protection.

This effort is a testament to open and inclusive design processes structured to empower residents and to shift from conceiving design as a “master” plan to a method of workshopping and co-creating with constituents. Advanced floodplain warning systems and sensors can be integrated into these linear landscapes to ensure public safety.

Lastly, you are also a Professor at Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP), where you are director of the Urban Design program. What have you learned from your students – the next generation of leaders – about how to solve our challenges? What new ideas have really astounded you?

Over the past five years, I’ve done a series of studios focused on Water Urbanism – global studios to uncover how water, climate, and migration patterns combine to shape the future of cities. I’ve learned so much from this endeavor and working alongside my incredible co-teachers Geeta Mehta, Dilip Da Cunha, Thaddeus Pawlowski, Julia Watson, and others. We’ve traveled to Amman and Aqaba, Jordan; Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil; Can Tho, Vietnam; and four cities in India: Kolkata, Madurai, Varanasi and Pune, among others.

From our collaborators and students, I’ve learned that excellence emerges in the space between people – in open dialogue, hard work, and collaboration among people with diverse and international backgrounds with a shared purpose.

Columbia University urban design studio in Pune, India / SCAPE

A few years back, I hosted “Water and Social Life in India,” a panel at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture with Geeta, Dilip, and Alpa Nawre. This session captured some of the big lessons for me. Over the years, we have learned water is not an abstract “issue” to be solved. To embrace a water-resilient future, we have to learn from past practices and small communities managing and communicating with each other. Designing with water is not just about adapting to changing conditions – it is also crucially about fostering forms of social life, maintenance, and care.

How Can We Design with Communities While Apart?

Video can be a reciprocal tool for designers and community members to document observations and share posts for discussions. This media was explored by Nicky Bloom, a Mithun landscape designer, in her University of Washington College of the Built Environment thesis called “Tideflat Tales.” / Nicky Bloom

By Deb Guenther, FASLA

In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, do we wait for social distancing to end or start experimenting and adapting our community outreach models?

Public agencies, design teams, and communities face uncharted territories, not without risk. Our ability to advance projects relies on the insights and magic that emerge from interactive, person-to-person community gatherings.

Can we successfully forge camaraderie and casual interaction online? What are the real and perceived barriers to equitable access to online interaction and how can they be addressed?

Does the pandemic actually present an opportunity to widen audiences and level the playing field?

As we adjust our short- and long-term approaches, here are a few considerations:

Put equity front and center

Do we really know what we think we know? Assumptions about the digital divide – who has Internet access and who doesn’t – can be misunderstood, as reported by the Center for Internet Society. Remember this mantra about the importance of a community input: “nothing about us, without us, is for us.”

It is critical to hear directly from the community what the barriers are. This takes more time. Some of the barriers include English as a second language; childcare and eldercare at a time when health issues are even more pressing; and a lack of or limited Internet access and associated support.

There are many relatively inexpensive solutions such as free webcams, hot spots, or phone data top ups. Filling the gaps identified by community members can help support advisory councils and allow community informed work to continue.

The health crisis could push the landscape architecture profession to make initial outreach about barriers to access commonplace.

Build a welcoming atmosphere

Create personal connections, stimulate creativity, and support trust. In order to achieve these goals, consider the context of our revised daily lives: localized experiences; more free time for some, less for others; individualized experiences as well as more multi-generational interaction; interpersonal tensions and mental health challenges; more time outside for some and more time inside for others.

How can we adapt our familiar community engagement goals – diverse communication style choices, interaction between residents, reporting back to the group – to the new normal?

Some ideas include self-care and personal experience check-ins; self-guided walking tours; scavenger hunts; general gamification of activities; sharing on-site design team and community member smart phone videos; and prompting storytelling through video, written or illustrated media.

There are exciting possibilities for video analysis, which builds on the power of emotion in a way traditional analysis does not.

An exploration of site analysis through accessible media of video and audio suggests these tools can create more emotive connections and understanding of sites. “Tideflat Tales” / Nicky Bloom
Temporary art by local students installed along shared public trails raise spirits and awareness and builds pride around community participation. / Mithun

Remain flexible and appreciative

Plan the first meeting and adapt with the next. It’s hard to anticipate right now what will matter. Each community is having collective and unique experiences that will influence their priorities going forward. Keep the outlines broad and any necessary expectations clear. Reflect on those expectations to ensure they are truly the basic ones.

Share back what was heard and confirm the value of participation. Constantly tailor the process to the audience interests and needs to influence how the interaction occurs and how it is curated.

Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic can be the advent of a much more inclusive process.

Design intentional, substantive participation experiences

Establish stipends for community ambassadors and residents who co-create with the design team and bring the expertise of their lived experience to the project. Ask what types of leadership and mentorship opportunities could be built into the process to provide career opportunities during uncertain times.

This is where diversity, equity, and inclusion considerations meets design – where designed process outcomes are much broader and long lasting than the physical design itself.

An intentional process in this pandemic-conscious world could also result in valuable policy input and revisions as agencies scramble to keep their work meaningful and valuable to constituents. Building in opportunities to inform policy helps people connect with the democratic process, which is increasingly critical when chaos is also an opening for autocracy.

There is opportunity for this health crisis to accelerate democratic, community-driven design.

Be alert. Create space for true narrative

A silver lining of disruption is that previously unheard narratives can emerge and provide a more holistic picture of our world. In public settings, social norms tamp down sharing of difficult stories. But difficult stories are the foundation of racial reconciliation and transparency. It leads us to acknowledge we operate in a gray world, not black and white.

Challenging stories are the foundation of building trust. As research demonstrates, compelling stories stick with people. We can create safe space by consistently providing a venue to share those stories, celebrating the sharing of stories and their impact, and curating them to create a constructive environment.

Repeating the invitation to share stories in multiple meetings communicates this is a deep desire, not a superficial request, and will prompt different results in different times and settings among people.

The pandemic could result in greater listening – the ability to hear another person’s story, one that may be in conflict with your own beliefs or assumptions.

With thoughtful outreach, but acknowledgement that we will make mistakes, we can bring our design creativity to a community-informed design process. Much can emerge from this crisis that will improve business as usual.

Let’s keep sharing the many ways to accelerate relationship building apart and together. We look forward to hearing the collective wisdom.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Deb Guenther, FASLA, is a design partner at Mithun, an interdisciplinary firm focused on design for positive change and located in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles. She is working with community members, utility districts, and transit agencies to shape city infrastructure together.

During Life under Lockdown, City Parks Become Sanctuaries

Central Park, New York City / Wikipedia

In these stressful and uncertain times, parks have become even more central to our physical and mental health, and safe access to them must be maintained. That was the key message from a packed webinar organized by the City Parks Alliance with brave and exhausted city park leaders from New York City, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco.

Mitchell Silver, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, said that New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., is allowing people to use parks and exercise outside if they follow social distancing guidelines, but the department has closed sports fields and playgrounds. “Solitary exercise is OK but not group exercise.”

Silver said the situation is changing “hour by hour and day by day,” and they are following the latest guidance from the health department, which is in the lead on setting rules.

That is not to say that NYC Parks and Recreation hasn’t made their voice heard in internal city government discussions. They have repeatedly made the case for keeping parks open so people can get “fresh air and access to green space, which are critical to mental health and boosting immune systems.”

“All indoor and outdoor programs have ended,” explained Phil Ginsburg, general manager with San Francisco Recreation and Parks. Large parks are still open, but the city has closed smaller parks, playgrounds, and play structures where it’s impossible to maintain social distancing.

The San Francisco parks department is very focused on equity issues, as a portion of the city’s population relies on programs and services at their recreational centers. Many of those facilities have have been converted into childcare centers for the children of front line healthcare workers. Children can get three meals a day there.

The pandemic shows why cities need green open spaces. “Parks are more important than they have ever been. Before, they were a nice-to-have, but now we’re seeing heavier park use than we’ve ever seen.”

San Franciscans are by and large complying with social distancing guidelines. “But the problem is that they are all complying at the same time. We tell people not to gather, to find their own space in parks.”

Crissy Field, San Francisco / Hargreaves Jones

“Park use is up and social media use in parks is also up,” said Jayne Miller, President & CEO of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, a non-profit that works in conjunction with the city’s parks department and is active in 22 parks throughout the city. She said parks are open for running, walking, bicycling, or sitting 6 feet apart from others.

The Conservancy is blasting out public safety messages to align with city-issued rules and guidelines. They have also suggested new activities people can do from the safety of their home, like virtual environmental education webinars, and videos. To reach all audiences young and older, they are creating graphics, memes, FAQs, and emails.

Frick Park, Pittsburgh / Pittsburgh Park Conservancy

Nancy Goldenberg, co-chair of the board at the City Parks Alliance, asked each park leader how parks departments are coordinating with health departments.

Silver said that the parks department is assisting with contigency planning with the city’s operational center during the crisis. The park has 3,200 essential workers who are still coming into the office. If one essential worker comes into contact with someone with the virus or is infected themselves, they have policies for disinfecting work spaces and then unaffected staff returning to work.

In San Francisco, there is an integrated command structure that became operational under the state of emergency. A city-wide policy group meets every week.

“The health department is now in charge and issuing directives that we then implement. They are prioritizing health with every decision.” But he said the parks department continues to make the case that “parks are an essential part of maintaining physical and mental heath and well-being.”

The parks department also wanted more streets closed to cars to create more walkable open space but the health department didn’t support the proposal. They worried the move would create a sense of “over-exuberance and bring too many people outside.”

Another question related to how city parks are helping vulnerable populations in a time when fewer programs and services can be offered.

In San Francisco, Chinese speaking park rangers have been assigned full-time to public spaces in Chinatown where they urge residents “not to gather or conduct business as usual,” Ginsburg said.

He was concerned that many smaller parks and playground where they can’t guarantee social distancing guidelines are being closed. Dense urban communities rely on these tiny parks. “Many are living in small, cramped apartments but we have to be mindful. There are trade-offs.”

He is worried that low-income residents will have fewer places to go outside. Those with a car or who live near Golden Gate Park or the Marin headlands have access to vast outdoor spaces that low-income residents won’t be able to get to. “I have some angst about that.”

In New York City, many schools, even while closed, are offering three meals a day to children of families that rely on those meals. Senior populations are also being delivered meals.

One final question was about the financial implications of COVID-19 on city parks.

Ginsburg indicated that their three primary revenue streams — fees from park-owned spaces, permits, and taxes from home sales — have all plummeted to nearly zero. “Resources were already stretched thin. Looking three months out, the budget consequences are dire.”

NYC’s annual parks budget, which is much higher than San Francisco’s, is also facing major challenges. Silver said “everything is now on hold. It’s not looking good.”

More money from state governments will be needed to keep parks, which are vital social and public health infrastructure, open during the crisis.

In São Paulo, A Street Becomes an Urban Living Room

All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko

How can a street encourage people to explore, play, and hang out? How can art, plants, and furniture be combined to create a sense of place? In São Paulo, Brazil, a design collaboration between Brazilian firm Zoom Urbanismo Arquitetura e Design and furniture designers at LAO Engenharia & Design shows how. All Colors Sidewalk draws people in with its funky, organic charm.

In ArchDaily, the firms tell us that most streets in this mega-city, with a population of 12 million, are “very narrow, with irregular or no maintenance, and present many obstacles that discourage the circulation of pedestrians through the city.”

Through their re-imagining of the street landscape, the firms sought to show what an accessible space rich with layers would look like.

Along the 4,500-square-foot street, what grabs attention first is the flexible, wood street bleachers, which offer seating at street level and then perches above. The firms arranged them to create different views for people sitting, and flexible options for groups hanging out. At certain points, the bleachers rise up and form an arbor; at others, they become aerial structures for plants.

All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko

To eliminate flooding, which is a common problem in São Paulo, the design team married permeable pavers with street rain gardens. But they also made sure stormwater management didn’t impede accessibility. The team selected a permeable paver that is even and poses no obstacle for wheelchair users.

Furthermore, tactile signals in the pavement complement accessible signage, making the space open to blind pedestrians or those with low vision. There is also a map of the local transportation system and nearby points of interest.

All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko

To break up the monotony of the long wall lining the street, the design team incorporated crocheted “graffiti” and hung leaves with words knitted in them, which adds to the homemade feel of the place.

All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko
All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko

The project succeeds in creating a fresh landscape, a new sort of linear park. “We created the concept of [an] Urban Living Room: a furnished space where people are invited to sit, talk, wait, and rest — a living space in the middle of the city.”

All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 1-15)

Everglades Restored / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Miami Is the “Most Vulnerable” Coastal City Worldwide — 2/4/20, Scientific American
“Several major tourist attractions, including the Everglades, Biscayne National Park, and Miami Beach, are largely situated on land less than three feet above the high-water mark and may become permanently submerged by the end of the century.”

OLIN Receives Design Approval for D.C. Desert Storm Memorial — 2/6/20 The Architect’s Newspaper
“Once the site was secured (a location just north of the Lincoln Memorial and west of the Vietnam War Memorial) adjustments needed to be made to the design. The new design has lower walls that meld into the ground and includes a central water feature, which symbolizes a desert oasis as well as the international coalition that participated in the operations.

National Indigenous Landscape Architecture Award Announced — 2/9/20, Architecture & Design
“Planning for the [National Arcadia Landscape Architecture Award for Indigenous Students] has been in progress for almost twelve months, but the recent [Australian] bushfires brought a renewed focus on how Indigenous knowledge and traditional land and fire management practices can prevent fire damage and enable the return of healthy landscapes and ecosystems.”

Educator and Historian John Beardsley Selected to Curate Inaugural Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize — 2/11/20, Archinect
“The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) has named arts curator and landscape educator John Beardsley as the inaugural curator for the forthcoming Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize.”

A Native Plant Guru’s Radical Vision for the American Yard — 2/12/20, The Washington Post
“The idea of planting gardens for wildlife and shrinking the lawn isn’t new, but [entomologist Doug Tallamy] wants to enlist every home garden in the battle to address the loss of biodiversity. The need has never been more urgent, he says.”

Franklin Park Is Poised for $28 million in Upgrades — and the City Wants Ideas on How to Spend the Money — 2/12/20, Boston.com
“Legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted crafted the ‘country park’ … that completes the Emerald Necklace. Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson once lived in a small cabin on Schoolmaster Hill before Olmsted’s vision would arrive at the site decades later. Now, city officials want ideas to shape its future.”

Abandoned Amusement Park to Gain New Life as a Nature Park in Suzhou — 2/13/20, Inhabitat
“In Suzhou, China, an abandoned amusement park is being transformed into a 74-hectare nature park that will include a decommissioned roller coaster transformed into a habitat for birds. … Named ‘Shishan Park’ after its location at the foot of Shishan (Chinese for ‘Lion Mountain’), the urban park will provide a variety of family-oriented recreational amenities to cater to a rapidly growing, high-tech hub.”

A Daughter’s Disability. A Mother’s Ingenuity. And the Playground That’s Launching a Revolution — 2/14/20, Palo Alto Weekly
“Magical Bridge was inspired by [Olenka] Villarreal’s daughter, Ava, who has developmental disabilities, and by the utter lack of safe, public play spaces suited to Ava and others like her. Tucked in a corner of Mitchell Park, the brightly colored Magical Bridge includes a wheelchair-usable spinner and slides, swings that keep a user upright and fastened in, wheelchair-friendly surfaces, a wheelchair-usable treehouse and a stage — features that are friendly to people with visual impairments, autism and cognitive disabilities.”

Don’t Exclude: Ending Transportation Barriers for People with Disabilities

Transportation is central to employment and economic development. Unfortunately, people with disabilities often face major disadvantages in accessing transportation options, which reduces their ability to find and hold jobs and participate in community life. The issues go way beyond the lack of accessible ramps. Barriers include poor vehicle design; lack of accessible curbs, crosswalks, and sidewalks; the absence of elevators; and non-existent or inaccessible signage and wayfinding.

At a session at the Transforming Transportation conference in Washington, D.C., Charlotte McClain Nhlapo, global disability advisor for the World Bank Group and a wheelchair user, said that “1 billion people worldwide have some form of disability, and adults with disabilities make just 73 percent of the trips that abled people make.”

She led a conversation into what is holding back more inclusive transportation in developing countries:

“There is a staggering difference between the developed and developing worlds in terms of access. If you get around many developing countries, you’ll see there are often no sidewalks,” said Jamie Leather, chief of the transport sector at the Asian Development Bank. Just imagine wading into busy streets to get around, then imagine the greater dangers for a wheelchair user, or deaf or blind pedestrian.

For Nite Tanzar, a development consultant, a critical issue is that many developing countries don’t have an accurate numbers of how many disabled people there are and how many are using transportation systems. “There is a real lack of empirical evidence,” which is holding back policy and regulatory change. Policymakers simply don’t understand the scale of the issues.

People can be temporarily or permanently disabled. But both types of disabilities often result from car crashes. Mohammed Yousuf, a program manager with the U.S. Federal Highways Administration, said that globally, car crashes cost up to 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) when you add in lost wages and medical expenses.

According to James Bradford, with the European Road Assessment Programme (EuroRAP), global vehicle crash data mostly comes from police reports, which don’t measure the full economic and social impact of the loss of life, injury, or disability caused by the accident.

He pointed to the Transportation Accident Commission (TAC) in New South Wales, Australia, which insures all vehicles and collects data on crashes and their outcomes. Analyzing some 120,000 insurance claims, TAC found that 68 percent of crash victims were still on long-term disability care two years later; a quarter also had severe brain injuries. “There is a huge social cost to road accidents, not just economic.”

The conversation then turned to the key drivers of more inclusive transportation. As McClain Nhlapo noted, the goal is to “enable everyone to live independently.”

Daniela Bas, director of the UN’s department of economic and social affairs’ division for inclusive social development, who is also a wheelchair user, said the most important step is to “change the mindset of people with disabilities: they must become agents of change and lead new processes.” She added that “disabled people are often poor because they have no access” but that can change with a sense of new empowerment.

Daniela Bas / Twitter

Tanzar stated that in too many countries “there is a stigma associated with disabilities. These people are invisible, actively hidden, and viewed as shameful. We must get at that.”

Policies and regulations that lead to Vision Zero, which calls for an end to road deaths, can only help create a more universally-accessible transportation system, Leather believes.

Market-based incentives can also provide solutions. McClain Nhlapo said that in the Philippines, there are “special access taxis” to meet the needs of people with disabilities. In South Africa, the government has incentivized owners of informal buses and vans with the “nudge method: the owners get a major discount if they replace their old bus with a new, more accessible one.”

A number of panelists called for “disaggregating local data by disability” so that better policy-making and regulatory processes can happen. “We need to show a cost-benefit analysis for accessible transportation and show how the benefits are better,” Bradford argued. McClain Nhlapo called for using that data to make the case for “embedding accessibility requirements into development projects from the beginning.”

Major global events like the Olympics can also be designed to be universally-accessible, as they help “stimulate thinking” in countries about needed changes. “You can show people what fully accessible transportation looks like,” Bas said.