The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), which just began in Scotland and will continue over the next two weeks, is the crucial moment where global leaders must commit to achieving a 65 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this decade. ASLA calls upon governments, particularly of nations with the largest historical emissions, to rapidly change course or risk breaching the 1.5C (2.7F) planetary warming limit established as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
A recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that countries are already failing to live up to their commitments as outlined in the Paris agreement. With current nationally determined contributions (NDCs), global greenhouse gas emissions are on track to increase by 16 percent by 2030, compared to 2010 levels. And earlier this year, the International Energy Agency warned that greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 are expected to total 33 billion tonnes, an increase of 4.6 percent over 2020, and the second largest annual jump on record.
Over the course of the next two weeks, ASLA and its Climate Action Committee will be closely monitoring progress of the negotiations in Scotland. ASLA will be working in coordination with its climate action partners – The International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), Climate Positive Design, Architecture 2030, We Are Still In, and The American Institute of Architects (AIA) — to share information in real time.
“We will be looking for more ambitious commitments – increased investments in nature-based approaches to sequestering greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change and more equitable climate actions that undo climate injustices. We are hopeful COP26 will result in progress on our key goals as outlined through our commitments with IFLA and Architecture 2030,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO.
ASLA also signed on to the Architecture 2030 1.5°C COP26 Communiqué, which calls for all governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent by 2030 and achieve zero emissions by 2040. The call, the most ambitious climate challenge ever issued by the built environment professions, accelerates the current timeline to achieve emission reductions outlined in the Paris Climate Accord by a decade.
“By working closely with our built environment partners, we can amplify the voice of landscape architects in these critically important climate discussions,” said Tom Mroz, FASLA, ASLA President. “We must all do our part to get on a path to achieving a 65 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.”
Landscape architects plan and design with nature to help all communities reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate. Landscape architects use climate positive design approaches that transform parks and open spaces into natural carbon sinks. They develop resilient nature-based solutions that reduce the impacts of extreme heat; coastal, ground, and inland flooding; sea level rise; pollution; and wildfires. They also increase biodiversity and protect and restore ecosystems, which underpin life on Earth. Learn more at: https://climate.asla.org
“The Anacostia River has divided Washington, D.C. for generations,” said Scott Kratz, vice president of Building Bridges Across the River, in a public update of the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C. over Zoom. When the 11th street bridge built in the 1960s reached the end of its lifespan a decade ago, then Mayor Vince Gray and others saw an opportunity to “save part of the bridge, its precious pilings,” to create a new bridge park that would bring both sides of Washington, D.C. together. Spanning three football fields, the new bridge park designed by OLIN, a Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm, and OMA, a Netherlands-based architecture firm, will achieve a range of “health, environment, social, and economic goals,” Kratz argued. The hope is the project will become “an anchor for more inclusive development” in D.C. and help communities on both sides of the Anacostia “re-engage with the river and reconnect with each other.”
The journey to create a new bridge park began in 2011. Building Bridges Across the River spent two years listening to the diverse and historically marginalized communities along the river during over 200 meetings. The team heard demand for a new environmental educational center, a kayak and canoe launch, urban agriculture, public art, a performance space, a 21st century playground, and restaurant — all of which have made it into the final design.
A global design competition was then announced, attracting 81 firms from around the world. Some three dozen local stakeholders met with finalist teams over an eight-month-long competition. After extensive community review, the OMA+OLIN team won the project with their innovative X-design for a new bridge park.
James Guinther, vice president with Baltimore-based engineering firm Whitman Requardt & Associates (WRA), said designs will be finalized by early 2022 and construction on the bridge park will run through 2025. The design and engineering process has been complex given the new 1,000-foot-long park will be larger and heavier than the vehicular bridge it replaces. The park will be heavier because of the addition of soils for the new trees, so new pilings will be set in the river to support the additional weight and ensure resilience to flooding.
According to Jason Long, a partner at OMA, the trails leading to the bridge park from either Capitol Hill and the Navy Yard on the west side and Anacostia from the east side will be fully accessible and no more than a 20 minute walk on either side from the Metro. As the design was further fleshed out, OMA+OLIN decided to move a proposed open-air amphitheater off the bridge park and instead set it on the Anacostia side landing. Curving paths and ramps around the amphitheater will take visitors up into the park. Amazingly, no slope in the landings or the park is more than a 5 percent grade.
The refined design also more closely fuses the adjacent local traffic bridge immediately to the north, creating multiple connection points between that bridge, which is accessible to vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians, and the new bridge park. A 16-foot-wide two-way bike and pedestrian path will be established to enable even better access to the bridge park as well. From there, visitors can gain entry to new picnic gardens and a hammock grove on the upper levels.
The design of the bridge park has been modified in other ways. The width of the bridge park has been reduced by 15 feet overall, and now the ends have different widths, creating a more dynamic trapezoidal shape. At the Capitol Hill and Navy Yard side on the west, entry to the park will be a mere 30 feet wide, while at Anacostia, on the east side, the landing is now 127 feet wide. This also puts into form the equity goals of the project — there is a clear focus on ensuring easy access by Anacostia residents and providing greater benefits to those long-underserved communities.
Either ends of the upper levels of the X-shaped park will offer lookouts to both Capitol Hill and Anacostia communities. In between the great lawns on these upper levels is a central plaza where the upper levels join the lower levels.
Back on the ground, the Anacostia landing of the park will include a new environmental educational center, a new home for the Anacostia Watershed Society; a kayak and canoe launch; and the amphitheater. An outdoor classroom and playground will be found near the educational center, while a new community restaurant with affordable options, and a large porch for markets and other events will be further up the slope from the east side. At the western entry point, OMA+OLIN will plant rain gardens that lead to the hammock grove.
Hallie Boyce, FASLA, a partner with OLIN, explained that her firm and OMA have been working closely on all aspects of the project. “OLIN and OMA are very much an integrated team, and we have studied the entire bridge park together both over structure and on terra firma. There has been much overlap and collaboration between us towards a holistic design.”
While OMA has focused more on the architectural design of the new environmental center, restaurant and porch space, and central plaza, OLIN has been focused more on the amphitheater, lawns, play areas, and hammock grove. OLIN seeks to ensure a “richly layered landscape” with abundant color and vibrancy in all seasons, Boyce explained. On both the bridge park and landings, “there will be a lot of fall color and ample shade during the summer.” All of the new tree and plant life will also be supported by “advanced stormwater systems,” including bioretention basins and cisterns, which will capture stormwater for reuse in irrigation.
Returning to the landscape design of the new amphitheater space on the east side, Boyce said that the space will be a “large woodland meadow with wetlands at its edges.” Native and adapted species will be planted to achieve biodiversity goals established with the Anacostia Watershed Society. There will also be urban agriculture plots for use by the community.
To highlight the role mussels play in filtering and cleaning the water, OLIN+OMA designed a charming “Mussel Power” playground that features these bivales with custom shell-shaped play elements that kids can hide in and run through. “The play area dovetails with the environmental education program,” Boyce said.
All the planning and design work on the bridge park is the result of a broader equitable development plan for the communities surrounding park, particularly in Ward 8 on the east side of the river. Given the rampant gentrification and displacement that has occurred in D.C. over the past two decades, there was real concern among nearby communities that a new bridge park would only accelerate these trends. 11th Street Bridge Park has rightfully been recognized as a model of inclusive and responsible development, setting the bar high for other cities seeking to make major public space investments in underserved communities.
Vaughn Perry, director of equity for Building Bridges Across the River, said the priority is to ensure that long-term residents of Washington, D.C.’s Ward 8 can “thrive in place” — and the bridge park must serve that goal. He noted there is a significant gap in wealth among the communities on the east and west sides of the Anacostia River, with home values on the east side an estimated $450,000 less. Growing and protecting community wealth in Ward 8 is therefore a key focus of his organization and takes the form of programs that encourage home ownership, provide job training, and build cultural equity.
Over the past decade, as part of the equitable development plan, the organization has founded a community land trust that is meant to “ensure permanent affordability for residents” and now includes 220 non-profit-owned units. The group has organized tenant’s rights workshops and home buyers’ clubs, helping nearly another 100 residents purchase homes. On the job training front, the organization has held 20 training sessions for construction jobs on the bridge park and placed 81 people in positions. “These folks are gainfully employed right now,” Perry said. In terms of enhancing local arts and culture, Building Bridges has organized the Anacostia River Festival, which brings 8,000-10,000 people each year and include training programs to build empowerment. Total community investments to date have been around $77 million, which is almost the cost of the bridge park itself.
Brooklyn Bridge Park, which pre-Covid boasted 5 million visitors a year, was the first major park to be created in Brooklyn since Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s Prospect Park in the late 19th century. Five flat, concrete piers were re-imagined as sports fields, gardens, and playgrounds, all connected through interwoven green spaces and paths. A new berm reduced noise from the nearby Brooklyn Queens Expressway, an elevated highway that once produced a deafening “roar,” so much so that it was difficult to talk.
The first public meeting for the master plan of the park was way back in 1998. In just a few months, the final segment — Emily Warren Roebling Plaza — will open. A video with Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, from 2009, as construction begins, offers a sense of his enduring passion for this transformative, two-decade-long project:
MVVA explains that the original “idea for the park came from Brooklynites, who live in the NYC borough with the least amount of park space.” Communities around the site couldn’t access the waterfront when it was a shipping terminal owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. More than a decade of advocacy by local community groups finally convinced elected leaders to stop the Port Authority’s plans to transform the defunct terminal into a profit-generating mixed-use development and instead created a city and state-financed public park.
Over the course of more than 400 public meetings while planning and designing the project, MVVA heard a few key messages: the park should “feel democratic,” and in order to accomplish that, should offer “many programs within its whole,” including desperately-needed space for recreation. The park should also feel friendly and accessible — “a space for everyday life, a place to relax.”
Brooklynites also wanted more than just views; they wanted to feel immersed in a restored natural environment along the East River – “to step into the water, smell the breeze, and feel surrounded by the landscape.” To bring those benefits to multiple surrounding neighborhoods, MVVA created a plan that “stretched both ends of the park” beyond its originally conceived boundaries.
The park itself is a model of urban reuse. Instead of tearing down the pier infrastructure, MVVA found ways to reuse both the stronger and weaker parts of it, arranging park uses on the surface based on the piers’ structural capacity. Some piers had piles that would only support limited weight so any programs on the surface had to be “light and relatively thin.” Pier 1 had the strongest supports, so it became possible to build up new land forms.
Within the park itself, yellow pine wood from a demolished factory was reused as site furniture; piles and pier structures became playground and park elements; granite was broken up and became rip rap; and bulk fill from a subway tunnel extraction was used to build up land. A shed found on Pier 2 shed was also reimagined as a shade structure for basketball courts, and a pile field at Pier 1 was kept to protect a new salt marsh.
MVVA carved out land forms within the site, creating sweeping lawns and gardens down to the waterfront that also act as a resilient flood basin during storm surges. More than 3,000 trees were planted along with a rich understory of native plants, all guided by an ecological approach. As in nature, the trees and plants compete for resources and adapt over time, instead of being isolated specimens like in a typical urban park. Plants were also selected to “support human comfort, wind shelter, and shade.”
“If you ask a hundred different people why they come to Brooklyn Bridge Park, you could easily get a hundred different answers. Sports are interspersed with epic views, social spaces, natural beauty, and quiet moments,” Van Valkenburgh explains.
The Rose Barba prize jury also honored another innovative space: Parques del Río Medellín in Medellín, Colombia, designed by Sebastian Monsalve Gomez and Juan David Hoyos Taborda. The park, also decades in the making, creates new access to the Medellín River and partly de-channelizes the river and restores its ecosystem.
The Rosa Barba International Landscape Prize included an award of €15,000 ($17,439). The prize jury included Esteban Leon, UN-Habitat; Cristina Castelbranco, a landscape architect and professor at the University of Lisbon; Kongjian Yu, FASLA, a leading Chinese landscape architect and founder of Turenscape; James Hayter, a landscape architect and president of the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA); and Julie Bargmann, a landscape architect, professor at the University of Virginia, and winner of the first Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize.
Landscape Architects Unite in Advance of Key United Nations Climate Change Conference
ASLA announced it will join a global coalition of 70,000 landscape architects in 77 countries in committing to limiting planetary warming to 1.5°C (2.7 °F). This is the largest coalition of landscape architecture professionals ever assembled to advance climate action.
IFLA’s Climate Action Commitment will be issued to sovereign nations at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will be held in Scotland, October 31 – November 12.
ASLA has committed to the six goals outlined in the IFLA Climate Action Commitment:
1) Advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)
ASLA and its member landscape architects and designers will accelerate efforts to protect and repair ecosystems.
2) Attaining Global Net Zero Emissions by 2040
ASLA and its members will dramatically reduce operational and embodied carbon emissions produced by projects, increasingly harness the unique capacity of landscapes to draw down carbon dioxide, and continue to advocate for low-carbon multi-modal transport systems.
3) Enhancing Capacity and Resilience of Livable Cities and Communities
Implementing green infrastructure approaches, ASLA and its members will increase efforts to mitigate the urban heat island effect and reduce climate impacts associated with fire, drought, and flooding.
4) Advocating for Climate Justice and Social Well-Being
ASLA and its members will maintain our priority on equity and equality and ensure the right to nearby green spaces and clean water and air.
5) Learning from Cultural Knowledge Systems
ASLA and its members commit to respecting and working with indigenous communities and honoring cultural land management practices to mitigate climate change impacts and continue work towards reconciliation.
6) Galvanizing Climate Leadership
Landscape architects are uniquely positioned to lead the built environment community’s response to the climate crisis. ASLA will continue to collaborate with clients, suppliers, and allied professions to champion climate positive landscapes, which involves planning and designing landscapes that sequester more greenhouse gas emissions than they emit.
“ASLA is proud to be joining forces with IFLA and the global community of landscape architects in advancing our climate action goals,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO, ASLA. “We speak as one voice, globally, when it comes to advancing climate action.”
“As landscape architects we can make a tremendous difference to climate change and to climate action through our work, so thinking globally but acting locally is critical,” said IFLA President James Hayter.
“In a year marked by historic flooding in Europe and China and deadly wildfires and heat waves in the United States, it’s clear we’re running out of time to start healing a century’s worth of harm done to our Earth and its atmosphere,” said Tom Mroz, FASLA, ASLA President.
“I am gratified that Climate Positive Design has been incorporated into the global Commitment,” said Pamela Conrad, ASLA, Founder of Climate Positive Design, Principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, and IFLA Climate Change Working Group Vice Chair. “All landscape architects must rapidly scale up their work transforming designed landscapes into natural carbon sinks.”
The IFLA Climate Action Commitment is the second major coalition ASLA has joined this year. ASLA also signed on to Architecture 2030’s 1.5°C COP26 Communiqué, calling for built environment industries to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.
Landscape architects plan and design with nature to help all communities reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate. Landscape architects use climate positive design approaches that transform parks and open spaces into natural carbon sinks. They develop resilient nature-based solutions that reduce the impacts of extreme heat; coastal, ground, and inland flooding; sea level rise; pollution; and wildfires. They also increase biodiversity and protect and restore ecosystems, which underpin life on Earth.
“Landscape architects are already helping communities adapt to climate impacts. We are having a particularly big impact on reducing dangerous urban temperatures, saving many lives in the process,” said Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA President and ASLA representative to the IFLA Climate Change Working Group.
A new report from The Trust for Public Land (TPL) makes a compelling case for transforming underperforming, paved public schoolyards into green oases for the entire community. While the benefits for schools and their educational communities are clear, TPL sees an opportunity to open up these facilities to surrounding neighborhoods after school hours, on weekends, and when school is out. If all 90,000 public schools in the country had a “community schoolyard,” more communities could tackle the persistent park equity issue — in which too few communities, particularly undeserved ones, enjoy access to nearby high-quality public green spaces. TPL argues that opening up all schoolyards, essentially turning them into part-time all-access community hubs, would “put a park within a 10-minute walk of nearly 20 million people — solving the problem of outdoor access for one-fifth of the nation’s 100 million people who don’t currently have a park close to home.”
TPL found that “only a tiny fraction” of current public schoolyards met their criteria for a community schoolyard. While some communities have been greening their schoolyards — adding trees, gardens, and stormwater management systems — and others have opened their schoolyards to the public after hours, very few have done both. TPL calls for massively scaling up efforts to revamp schoolyards and make them more accessible through more federal funding and support through their organization and others.
Community schoolyards are the result of planning and design efforts, most often led by landscape architects and designers, to transform “overheated, vacant, and uninspired” places into green healthy ones. These spaces include trees, which provide ample shade and cool the air; gardens that increase biodiversity and provide environmental educational opportunities; stormwater management systems that help reduce flooding; and tracks, fields, and play equipment that offer space for exercise and building social skills and community engagement.
These shade-producing spaces, designed to cool and clean the air, offer benefits to any surrounding community, but help some even more. Research from TPL found that nationwide, “36 percent of the nation’s 50.8 million public school students attended school in a heat island, which is defined as 1.25 degrees warmer or more, on average, than the surrounding town or city. Among that group, 4.1 million students to a school in a severe heat island of 7 degrees ore more, while 1.1 million attend school in an extreme heat island of 10 degrees or more. In some communities, the heat anomaly exceeded 20 degrees.”
Income is correlated with exposure to heat risks. Average household incomes in the communities with more dangerous heat islands were estimated to be $31,000 less than the income in the coolest parts of communities. Some of the discrepancies can be explained by the enduring and dangerous legacy of racist urban planning. A study published in 2020 in the journal Climate found that communities that experienced redlining and disinvestment are 2.6°C (4.6°F) hotter than neighboring communities that didn’t. This is because that legacy resulted in a lack of street trees and public green spaces. Indeed, in the 100 largest cities, neighborhoods where people predominantly identify as people of color have access to an average of 44 percent less park acreage that predominately white areas.
One case study demonstrates the great gains that can be made by investing in public schools in historically marginalized and underserved communities. In Newark, New Jersey, a new half-acre green schoolyard at the K-8 Sussex Avenue School, co-designed by third and fourth graders and Heidi Cohen, ASLA, a landscape architect with TPL, resulted in a new turf field and running track, trees and flowering shrubs, a drinking fountain (for the first time), and an outdoor classroom space.
The investment in students’ health and well-being resulted in noteworthy benefits: “Average daily attendance climate from 90 percent to 96 percent almost immediately after the renovation. Disciplinary actions declined, while test scores went up among the school’s 500 students, 95 percent of whom qualify for a free or reduced lunch.”
Given climate change is increasing the dangers of already hot, and unfairly hot, urban heat islands, future investment in high-quality public schoolyards is now a climate justice issue. TPL cites a study in NYC that found a correlation between rising temperatures and test scores. Another study by the Harvard Kennedy School, the College Board, and others offered “evidence that cumulative heat hurts cognitive development.” While a community schoolyard can’t solve all problems, they can improve health and educational outcomes for students. The health benefits of access of green space are increasingly well-understood, and a growing body of research shows that views of green spaces can improve cognition, mood, and learning. “By virtue of their shade, Community Schoolyard projects could help students improve their test scores,” TPL argues. Shaded areas can be up to 50 degrees cooler than a similar area in full sun.
The report also covers the many climate resilience benefits of community schoolyards. Like other sustainable landscapes, they can effectively manage stormwater using green infrastructure. TPL’s community schoolyards in NYC are estimated to capture 19 million gallons of stormwater a year; and in Philadelphia, these schoolyards capture 17 million gallons annually. “Installing green infrastructure at public schools reduces flood risk throughout the neighborhood.” Planting and maintaining school rain gardens also provides environmental education opportunities for students of all ages.
ASLA announces the 2021 Professional Award winners. The 40 winning projects exemplify the highest level of achievement in the profession, and the professionals themselves will be honored at ASLA’s Conference on Landscape Architecture, Nov. 20 in Nashville, TN.
Winners each year are chosen by a jury panel representing a broad cross-section of the profession, from the public and private sectors, as well as academia. The 40 winners were chosen from 486 submissions from around the world. Award categories include: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, and Research. In addition, one Landmark Award is also selected each year.
“This year’s winners demonstrate how landscape architects are increasingly leading the planning and design of healthy and resilient communities for all,” said Torey Carter- Conneen, CEO of ASLA. “Landscape architects are advancing communities’ diversity, equity, and inclusion goals in significant ways.”
Professional Award recipients, their clients, and advisors will be honored in-person at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, TN on Saturday, November 20th, at 6pm ET.
ASLA announces the 2021 Student Award winners. The 35 winning projects exemplify the highest level of achievement by future landscape architect professionals. The students themselves will be honored at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture, Nov. 20 in Nashville, TN.
Winners each year are chosen by a jury panel representing a broad cross-section of the profession, from the public and private sectors, as well as academia. The 35 winners were chosen from 440 submissions of projects from around the world. Awards categories include: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, Student Collaboration, and Community Service.
“This program not only honors the tremendous creativity and passion of these future landscape architect leaders, it also highlights the extraordinary contributions they will make to communities upon graduation,” said Torey Carter- Conneen, CEO of ASLA.
Studio-MLA won the 2021 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for landscape architecture. The firm, which has been led by Salvadorian-born landscape architect Mia Lehrer, FASLA, for 25 years, seeks to “integrate landscape architecture, urban design, and planning to create places that inspire human connection, unite communities, and restore environmental balance.” The firm’s staff of 45, based in Los Angeles and San Francisco, includes landscape architects, planners, ecologists, and botanists.
On winning the award, Lehrer said: “we’re indebted to our collaborators, in particular our visionary clients, non-profit partners, and design teams for their commitment to building places that create social justice and equity, and projects that tell the stories layered within places — stories of people, neighborhoods, hope and conflict, water, air, ecology, and empowerment.”
The firm’s design philosophy is focused on creating broader impact: “Through our projects, pro bono efforts, and strategic relationships, we advocate by design. For over twenty years, our role as catalyst has educated and empowered people to translate ideas into culturally-relevant and climate-appropriate places.”
In an interview with ASLA, Lehrer, who has been an advocate for climate action and restoring ecosystems, said: “I didn’t grow up in the U.S., but my parents were community activists. We all don’t have a choice but to be engaged and educated about the dire situation we’re all in.”
Studio-MLA is known for taking on highly complex large-scale landscape planning projects that involve navigating layers of government jurisdictions. They often use legacy infrastructure as an opportunity to address climate impacts, restore ecosystems, and reconnect underserved and immigrant communities. In particular, the firm has led large-scale landscape planning efforts that re-imagine outdated river infrastructure, so these systems become more ecological and accessible. The firm’s goal is to create healthier human-ecological systems at all scales.
The firm recently won a major landscape planning and design project — the River-Side Gateway Project Suite in Riverside, California, which includes a series of nine sites along seven-miles of the Santa Ana River. The project seeks to “create access to water and recreation for citizens while also designing solutions for stormwater mitigation, threatened habitat, and air quality impacts,” explained Matt Romero, ASLA, landscape designer at Studio-MLA.
Another recent landscape planning project is the Upper Los Angeles Rivers & Tributaries Revitalization Plan, which proposes imaginative ways to transform the “heavily channelized waterways that meander eastward through the San Fernando Valley.” To develop the plan, Studio-MLA “mapped spatial obstacles and constraints including, but not limited to, government jurisdictions, land use, park access, pollution load, ecological habitat, water quality, flood risk, safe access, and connectivity.” This information enabled them to examine existing economic, environmental, and social impacts, and create a new equitable framework for reconnecting communities to more natural rivers and tributaries.
Destination Crenshaw in Los Angeles is also an exciting large-scale effort that demonstrates the firm’s inclusive planning and design approach. A new “community-inspired” 1.1-mile-long, outdoor museum along Crenshaw Boulevard, where a new Metro line and stations will surface, will become a “living celebration of Black Los Angeles” in the “heart of the largest black community west of the Mississippi River.” Studio-MLA, along with Perkins+Will, Raw International, and Gallagher & Associates is imagining the urban and landscape design for the project, which will include community-driven public art.
Throughout Lehrer’s projects, there is a commitment to inclusive engagement, particularly with underserved and immigrant communities. In an ASLA interview, she said that through a planning process, “you can embolden people, allow them to feel comfortable that it’s their right to communicate, not necessarily demand, but to be part of a dialogue. It’s education, creating a set of tools, and allowing people to understand they can be advocates for their own needs.”
The firm’s built community and residential projects are also characterized by a deep respect for water and native plants. A prime example is the 10-acre Vista Hermosa Natural Park in Los Angeles, which was carefully designed to capture 95 percent of the precious rainwater that falls on the site through an interconnected system of “permeable paving, green roofs, grassy meadows, vegetated swales, and a 30,000-gallon cistern that supplies irrigation.” The park was designed with native plants to educate visitors about the Southern Californian landscape.
“In nature, creeks and streams collect rain that falls on the mountains and hillsides. Trees and vegetation soak up the water, shade the soil, and drop leaves that decompose to become habitat, a protective layer of mulch, and eventually soil. The soil acts like a sponge, holding water for long enough periods of time for native plants to make it through the summer. You can mimic nature at home by reducing impermeable surfaces, grading to keep rainwater on site, planting climate-appropriate shade trees and plants, and adding a thick layer of mulch to conserve soil moisture.”
While often working at the scale of miles, Lehrer seems to say no site is too small to make a positive impact.
On a clear fall day in 2005, a group of friends and collaborators from the art collective Rebar commandeered an 8-foot-wide by 20-foot-long metered parking space in downtown San Francisco. This two-hour guerilla art installation evolved into Park(ing) Day, a global public art and design activism event that has been celebrated every year since. In 2009, Rebar and other design studios were approached by the City of San Francisco to prototype a more permanent version of Park(ing) Day. In response, we created one of the world’s first parklets in San Francisco (we called our version walklet), and through the diligent efforts of Andres Power in the Mayor’s Office and City Planning, San Francisco’s pioneering parklet program was born.
By early 2020, San Francisco had created 70 parklets in every corner of the city, and the city’s parklet program, now part of Groundplay SF, had become a model for cities around the world.
And then came the pandemic.
After the initial period of lockdown restriction, data emerged that anything we could be doing outdoors, we should be doing outdoors. Communities around the country then began to look to outdoor spaces and the public right-of-way to accommodate outdoor dining, pick-up and drop-off, exercise, socialization, and play. Outdoor dining programs like the City of San Francisco’s Shared Spaces and the City of Oakland’s Slow Streets were launched across the country.
The proliferation of outdoor dining spaces was mind-boggling. In San Francisco alone, there are more than 2,000 outdoor dining platforms (don’t call them parklets — parklets are by definition public spaces). All over the country, almost overnight, parking spaces and streets have been transformed into places for people. While many of these spaces have succeeded in their original intended purpose of supporting local businesses and accommodating public health guidelines regarding social distancing, it may now be that they have outlived their useful lives. While many cities are making the move to make the outdoor dining spaces permanent, due the rapid nature of their creation, only a handful of these spaces live up to the original ideals of the parklet program to contribute something meaningful to the public realm.
Communities around the country are grappling with the future of these temporary outdoor spaces. To tackle this question, I have been in conversation with peers in Oakland, Seattle, Vancouver and other cities. My original thinking was that by default — because these spaces occupy precious curbside public right-of-way — the best outcome is that they all become parklets — that is public space, accessible during the city’s standard public space operating hours.
Parklets, by definition, are publicly accessible and open to all. They work best when their design cues create an invitation for many types of uses — from eating takeout from the adjacent restaurant or cafe, to bike parking, or simply taking a pause on a busy commercial street for a chat with friends. In fact, during the pandemic, when many of our more traditional venues of social infrastructure like schools and libraries have been closed, these smaller spaces have become that much more critical for supporting the everyday casual encounters that are the basis of social cohesion and community building.
But what I’ve learned in the course of my conversations with peers from across the country has resulted in an evolution of my previous thinking, and here’s why.
Lessons from the “Emerald City”
Inspired by San Francisco’s parklet program, businesses in Seattle became interested in building parklets and approached the city in 2011. Today, Seattle has both a parklet program and a streatery program. Seattle’s parklets are much like those in San Francisco where a local sponsor designs, builds, and maintains the space, and the city government issues the permit and ensures adherence to design standards. The streatery model is unique in that they provide commercial cafe seating during business hours as well as public access after business hours.
That’s right, it’s a hybrid public space. But how well does this work in practice? Do people use the streateries as public parklets after business hours? Has the city run into any issues regarding liability, or challenges with illicit behavior happening in the streateries when there is no one around to keep their “eyes on the street”?
According to my peers in Seattle, following an extensive community survey, they have concluded the following: Streateries perform well from an economic development perspective and have fulfilled a need in the city for outdoor dining, adding vibrancy to Seattle’s streets. They do provide a public benefit in terms of creating vibrant streets bustling with activity. (The city enforces strict design guidelines for streateries such as a 42-inch height maximum for surrounding enclosures that must be 50 percent transparent.) On the downside, streateries have not been perceived by the public as public space. The public amenities and invitation for use after business hours have been limited at best.
Seattle has some important lessons to share. First, private outdoor dining patios, like streateries, can contribute to economic development, social infrastructure, and create the public benefit of vibrant, safer streets when they adhere to basic good design principles. Second, the hybrid private / public space model sounds good in theory, but in practice it’s hard for an average member of the public to navigate unless there are strong design cues in either direction. In other words, don’t expect your thriving commercial district’s outdoor dining spaces to fulfill a public space need such as public gathering spaces or non-commercial community seating.
But what can we learn from the Queen of the Northwest? As a social democracy, everything is better managed and more beautiful in Vancouver, Canada, so it’s no surprise that this city is leading the way for all of us regarding the future of outdoor public and private spaces. Vancouver’s parklets are very different from San Francisco’s or Seattle’s in that they are designed, funded and built by the city. This has been good for adherence to design standards and ensuring high quality and beautiful parklets. The downside is that due to limited city funding and staff capacity, there were only a handful of parklets created each year.
In response to a growing demand from restaurants and cafes, Vancouver also created a curbside patio program for commercial outdoor dining. Prior to the pandemic, six patios had been approved by the city. When the pandemic hit, the city created a temporary expedited patio permit process. Since June 1, 2020, the city has approved over 400 temporary patios on private and city property.
Following the initial success of the parklet program, but acknowledging the inherent obstacles of city-led parklets, the city stopped accepting new conventional parklet applications and instead focused their energy on a pop-up plaza program in partnership with local business districts, which has resulted in the creation of 20 nicely-designed plazas with broad public support. Vancouver found that for about the same amount of time and money as a parklet, they could create much more generous and useful pop-up plaza spaces. The second initiative is a community focused parklet program, created in partnership with social service organizations in underserved neighborhoods like the Downtown Eastside. These parklets are designed and built by the city and programmed and managed with a dedicated community partner to offer such programs as health clinics and safe injection sites.
What this means is that as a citizen of Vancouver navigating the city’s streets you have lots of choices. You can choose to pay for seating and experience the buzz and vibrancy of the commercial outdoor dining happening in one of the city’s 400 patios, or you can walk a bit further down the street and hang out at the free public seating in a city-sponsored pop-up plaza or a parklet.
From my point of view, this is the right balance of public and private use of the curb lane in the public right-of-way. We all want thriving, economically-vibrant commercial districts AND we want meaningful investment in high-quality and well-maintained public spaces in our neighborhoods. The role of the Vancouver municipality has been to be the referee — to ensure that in any given neighborhood or commercial district there are both public and private seating options.
So while my original view was that outdoor dining should be redesigned and converted to public parklets, I now see the powerful and important role that well-designed patios can play in adding to the social and economic vibrancy of our streets. What I don’t support is trying to force these tiny curb lane spaces to be all things for all people. Attempting to saddle commercial patios with public seating or public-use requirements both dilutes their ability to serve their primary commercial purpose and sends confusing signals to the public.
Nor do I support continuing to allow the free-for-all use of the curb lane that has occurred during the pandemic and which has resulted in the proliferation of low-quality, poorly designed, and potentially dangerous commercial outdoor dining platforms. Many of these spaces feel opaque and claustrophobic, blocking visual access to ground floor retail and obstructing city sidewalks.
Businesses who want to use curb lane space for commercial outdoor dining must recognize the immediate benefit of the use of the public right-of-way for their businesses and compensate cities for the use of the space. By pricing the curb appropriately, cities can generate revenue to support and invest in public realm improvements and city staff time to manage their outdoor space programs. Also, patios must adhere to basic good design principles like 42-inch height maximum for surrounding enclosures; 50 percent transparent walls; and a direct, accessible connection to the adjacent sidewalk in order to generate the public benefit of vibrant, lively streets.
With the revenue generated from commercial outdoor dining patio permit fees, cities can then invest in the parklets and pop-up plazas that can continue to fulfill a crucial role for everyday, informal social encounters that form the basis of social bonding and community cohesion. Parklets and pop-up plazas work well when there is a dedicated sponsor or steward — like a community organization, or an adjacent sponsor which has an established take-out business model like an ice cream shop or cafe — who is in charge of daily maintenance and programming of the space. Public space is a verb, not a static object. Public spaces must be cultivated and maintained to flourish and grow so that they are best able to contribute meaningfully to a city’s social infrastructure and a diverse, inclusive, resilient public realm.
Landscape architects and urban designers have a crucial role to play in shaping the future of the use of outdoor spaces. As upholders of design quality, we can ensure that the next generation of commercial outdoor dining patios are well-designed and contribute to a high-quality and vibrant public realm.
As stewards of public space and the public realm, we can ensure that in any given neighborhood or commercial district, there are beautifully-designed public spaces, with generous public seating and lively programming, to create invitations to all city residents to socialize and spend time together.
John Bela, ASLA, is an urban strategist and designer based in San Francisco. Bela co-founded Rebar, the creators of Park(ing) Day. A founding partner and design director at Gehl San Francisco, he left Gehl in 2021 to form his own design advisory and consulting practice: Bela Urbanism + Design. He is a licensed landscape architect in California.
Through a new framework plan, the 317-acre Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee is being re-imagined as an accessible, equitable educational center that tells the story of the incredible biodiversity of Tennessean landscapes. Once a drive-through arboretum, Reflection Riding is poised to become an important model for ecological restoration and wildlife conservation, with expanded enclosures for wolves and eagles. As part of a six month planning process, SCAPE Landscape Architecture developed a proposal that will re-orient and create new buildings, offer a new entry sequence and visitor center, prioritize restoration areas, and expand a forest school and kindergarten, canopy walks and trails, and a native plant nursery.
“We are fortunate we can work with clients that align with our ethos and values. Reflection Riding is focused on some of our key priorities: access, education, and conserving and restoring natural landscapes. This is what landscape architecture in the 21st century should be,” explained Nans Voron, senior associate at SCAPE, in a phone interview.
The framework plan celebrates the vision and legacy of John A. Chambliss, who founded the arboretum in the early 20th century. SCAPE and the arboretum sought to maintain Chambliss’ core values, rooted in “his deep love and respect for the landscape.” But they also sought to make the arboretum more accessible and equitable through a more welcoming entry sequence and expanded educational programs geared towards underserved communities that live nearby.
In its first few decades, the arboretum was designed as a drive-through loop. Later, once cars were excluded, horses became a means of exploring the landscape. With the new ecological restoration goals, the horses stabled on site will eventually be phased out.
“My impression is that many people who live near Reflection Riding don’t know it exists,” Voron said. This could be a result of the gates that limit access at the entrance; the horse-back riding in the arboretum, which may be viewed as exclusive; and confusion about the arboretum’s connection to a neighboring national park.
With a redesigned entrance, SCAPE hopes more visitors will feel the arboretum is also a place for them. A new visitor center will make all the educational options more easily understood. The existing forest school and kindergarten will approximately double in size and be moved closer to the entrance, where an expanded native plant nursery, which offers plants for sale to the public, will also be located.
Trails throughout the arboretum and nature center will be made ADA accessible, and a new “Braille trail” for blind and low vision users is being considered. SCAPE proposes a series of learning stations along shorter loops organized around themes such as geology, hydrology, and the role of this landscape in the Civil War.
While the framework plan is rooted in a comprehensive analysis of the many complex natural systems found within the arboretum, which range from creeks and streams to meadows, wetlands, and forests, Voron said SCAPE focused in on some key restoration opportunities in the wetlands around Lookout Creek and the many small streams that feed into it. “There are currently two artificial ponds; we instead propose restoring the wetland and tidal landscapes so they can create more wildlife habitat and also better accommodate more water in the wet season.”
Elevated canopy walks now exist in the arboretum but will be extended into the restored wetlands and redesigned to offer greater flexibility, a lighter footprint, and a higher elevation to accommodate for climate change. “The new canopy walks will be more resilient and offer a different experience,” Voron contends.
In forested parts of the arboretum, there have been continual efforts to remove invasive plants. New plans to scale up the native plant nursery create opportunities to accelerate the restoration of the natural landscapes and make the arboretum a showcase for restorative design. Another goal is to invite researchers to study ecological change, making the arboretum a true learning laboratory.
New enclosures for the animals protected in the arboretum’s wildlife center won’t function like a typical zoo. “While the animal enclosures will be accessible to the public during business hours, Reflection Riding won’t be caging animals in small pens. You may or may not see the wolves and raptors when you visit.”
Voron explained that the new plan for the wildlife center was challenging, because “each species has many requirements, and some couldn’t be adjacent to others.” Different species of native eagles and other raptors will be carefully separated from various kinds of native wolves. “The goal was to limit disturbances to each species.”