Unity Park Anchors Equitable Development in Greenville

Unity Park / MKSK Studios

New reconciliation parks in the South — like the Gathering Place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Red Mountain Park in Birmingham, Alabama — are explicitly designed to bring together previously-segregated communities. But the new Unity Park in Greenville, South Carolina, goes a step further: it will not only bridge communities but also actually merge two once-segregated parks. Meadowbrook Park, which was once white-only, and Mayberry Park, a smaller green space designated for African Americans, will come together in the new 60-acre Unity Park while still maintaining their distinct histories and identities. This inclusive, $40-million green space is expected to open in 2020.

According to Darren Meyer, ASLA, principal at Ohio-based MKSK Studios, an urban design and landscape architecture firm, the park comes out of a broader planning process for the Reedy River Development Area, an area just west of downtown Greenville. The goal for the city is to create more equitable downtown neighborhoods, with the new park at the center.

In an interview, Meyer said the park is only one component of a new “community character plan” for a 350-acre district that includes form-based code, mixed-use developments, affordable housing, and transportation. A ring of new affordable housing will be built around the park, in an attempt to prevent Unity Park from inadvertently becoming a gentrifying force that displaces the existing community.

According to Meyer, the city has increased investment into its affordable housing trust fund, which is also receiving private and philanthropic funds. The first round of affordable housing is now being built while work begins on the underlying park infrastructure.

Unity Park will include a 120-feet-tall observation tower, which will act as a beacon at night; a great lawn; nature and “destination” playgrounds; a gathering space and visitors center; and pedestrian bridge to improve connectivity.

Unity Park observation tower / MKSK Studios
Unity Park great lawn / MKSK Studios
Destination playground / MKSK Studios
Unity Park gathering space / MKSK Studios
Unity Park pedestrian bridge / MKSK Studios

The city brought an inclusive, community-based planning effort that won approval from African American communities along the park. Greenville News reports that “Mary Duckett, head of the traditionally low-income and African-American Southernside neighborhood association….has been satisfied that its voice was heard and that the park will be one that is welcoming for all.”

Meyer said the planning process was viewed as successful because project leaders “put a tremendous amount of effort into cultivating good relationships. They knew that is really the foundation of trust and a key part to inclusive decision-making.”

Unity Park / MKSK Studios

As part of neighborhood planning and outreach, the city brought in a fire truck that kids could play on; a mobile recreation vehicle, with sports play equipment; and hosted a cook-out for 300 community residents. “These were great events designed to build community.”

MKSK also coordinated planning and design community meetings, with the goal of collecting stories, including those about the African American minor league baseball team that plays in Mayberry Park, and incorporating them into an authentic design. That led to a temporary installation — a mosaic of names of baseball players set into steps leading to the baseball field.

Meyer said the park is not just about re-connecting once-segregated parks, but also about re-connecting the community to a lost river ecosystem. Some 2,000-feet of the Reedy River that runs through the park will be taken out of its concrete channel and become a showpiece of ecological restoration. MKSK will significantly widen the riparian corridor and treat the floodplain in the park as an ecological system.

Unity Park view of the wetlands and river / MKSK Studios

MKSK made the case to city leaders that “the health of the river is tied to the health of the community. There is a quantifiable public health benefit to bringing back the river and wetlands. Beyond the ecological uplift, there is also a great educational opportunity.”

Read more about the park in Greenville News.

To Survive Climate Change, Coastal Cities Need Strong Communities

Extreme Cities / Sierra Club

Ashley Dawson, author of Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change believes cities, which now hold 70 percent of the world’s population, are “ground zero” for climate change. This is because they contribute the largest amount of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and are also the most vulnerable to rising sea levels. Mega cities, which are mostly found in coastal areas, are not “adequately prepared for the floods that will increasingly menace their shores.” Instead, the pursuit of development-as-usual — with the seemingly-unending growth of luxury condos and insulated “live work play” communities — means many coastal cities have effectively stuck their heads in the sand. Efforts to bolster cities’ protections through resilient planning and design have largely been superficial and won’t protect the most vulnerable.

Despite the warning signs of impacts to come, like Hurricane Sandy in the Tri-state region, cities remain focused on growth, growth, growth. Dawson cites the economist David Harvey, who argues that a “‘healthy’ capitalist economy must expand at annual rate of 3 percent. If it ceases to do so, it goes into crisis, as it did in 2008.”

In our capitalist system, continuous growth has resulted in great gains, so the world is now “awash with ‘surplus liquity'” or excess capital. And all of that money needs a place to go: “Capital has turned to the city, where fixed plots of land promise to increase in value as more of the world’s population migrates to urban centers. Real-estate speculation provides a way for economies to grow as production declines. In other words, the city is a growth machine, and speculative real estate development functions as a sink for surplus capital. Sixty percent of global wealth today is invested in real estate.”

The resulting real estate boom, and rise in housing costs, can be seen everywhere from New York City to Rio de Janeiro, from Los Angeles to Shanghai. And for Dawson, it’s no accident that coastal cities are also the starting point for mass movements fighting inequality, like Occupy Wall Street, which began in NYC’s Zuccotti Park with its call to heed the “99 percent,” and the mass protests that began in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park.

Over-development in coastal cities has caused other problems beyond increasing social tensions and inequities. Market forces are driving development to “produce greater risk, vulnerability, and environmental disasters.” Cities are not only wrecking their immediate environments, but also causing deforestation, with their demand for commodities, and climate change, with their incredible heating and cooling needs, urban industries, and inefficient transportation systems. “As Mike Davis outs it, ‘city life is rapidly destroying the ecological niche — Holocene climate stability — which made its evolution into complexity possible.”

The “luxury city” — the most-elite slice of urban life — is even more destructive. In New York City, high-end condos are the most polluting. “In a report entitled Elite Emissions, the Climate Works for All coalition notes that ‘a mere two percent of the city’s one million buildings use 45 percent of all the city’s energy.”

While he sprinkles in cases from Jakarta, New Orleans, Rotterdam, and other cities, Dawson mostly focuses on New York City, where he examines how the city’s leadership and communities have responded to increased vulnerability to climate change. He is largely critical of governmental efforts, but sees hope in how local community groups have formed to devise solutions, like the Sandy Regional Assembly, an alliance of forty groups that came together in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to create a more equitable city-wide resilience strategy.

He is particularly critical of PlaNYC, a comprehensive planning effort by the administration of mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007 to address climate change. It’s described as “an effort to promote an urban sustainability fix, a solution to capitalism’s periodic crises of accumulation that combines rampant real estate speculation with a variety of enticing yet relatively superficial greening initiatives.”

While the Bloomberg administration pushed for emissions reductions through PlaNYC — largely through energy-efficient buildings and switching from coal to natural gas — it also promoted waterfront development at a massive scale in Lower Manhattan, far west side, and in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg, DUMBO, Red Hook, Gowanus, and Coney Island. All this waterfront development had the unfortunate side effect of making coastal communities even more vulnerable.

Dawson argues that in reality, a serious climate plan “would involve moving people and buildings out of flood zones,” an approach the Bloomberg administration opposed as it ran counter to their “ambitious — and lucrative — plans for developing the city’s nearly 600 miles of waterfront.” Others called for the city to buy up waterfront property in order to prevent development — reserving these spaces as green buffers, which also failed to occur.

In later chapters, Dawson describes how environmental “blowback” is already having a major impact on coastal cities. As the estuaries upon which coastal megacities are built are being destroyed, it’s becoming even clearer the vital ecological role those underlying systems play.

Natural systems that once served as critical buffers to storm surges — like Jamaica Bay in Queens, New York — are degrading. And he argues “the transformation of devalued landscapes like Jamaica Bay’s marshes has also exposed nearby residents to even greater risk.” While restoration efforts are underway, there is no guarantee of success given the conditions of the area are shifting so fast with climate change.

In a chapter entitled “the Jargon of Resilience,” Dawson warns against the “utopian hopes of modern architects and urban planners,” particularly those associated with the Rebuild by Design program initiated by the Rockefeller Foundation, because they create a “false sense of security, leading people to build up risk in fundamentally unsustainable sites.”

He argues projects that came out of Rebuild by Design effort, like the Big U in Lower Manhattan, which will use parks made of berms and flood gates to protect the financial district and other neighborhoods, “actually increase risk rather than diminishing it.” Furthermore, the BIG U will just displace water to other places: “Where will the water that the BIG U turns aside go? It is likely to end up in adjacent communities with large poor populations such as Red Hook, where Hurricane Sandy hit public housing particularly hard.”

Dawson appreciates the ecological logic of the much-celebrated Living Breakwaters project by SCAPE Landscape Architecture but argues that it “confronts a number of intractable environmental problems that are likely to make it unsustainable in the long term.”

Dawson’s essential critique is that too much of the climate adaptation and resilience efforts of city governments in New York City and elsewhere have been top-down, without much real community input. He believes truly equitable resilience planning can only come if strong local communities make their voices heard. Socially-resilient communities can demand “radical adaptation” — “new forms of collective, democratic planning.” Empowered, informed communities can figure out the resilient plans and designs they need to protect themselves. And only these communities can survive the next storm and rebuild.

Waking up to the new realities requires getting a clear view of the risks — and even increasing exposure to them. For Dawson, landscape architects like Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, and educators like University of Pennslvania landscape architecture professor Anuradha Matur, and Harvard University planner Dilip da Cunha potentially have the answers, with their call for “soft” defenses that would buffer communities from storms but also be visible and integrated into the ecosystems of the coastal city.

The mega-city of the near future can build “more permeable borders, allowing for natural flux and for the flourishing of inter-tidal habitats such as wetlands and marshes.” This vision will require a re-balancing between city and nature, a retreat from high-risk areas, along with an end to luxury development on waterfronts.

Co-Designing with Kids

Blessed Sacrament playground tree planting / Craig Glover, London Free Press

Three case studies from an upcoming book on co-designing with children were presented at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) in Oklahoma City. An environmental designer, landscape architect, and landscape educator explained how kids — if properly motivated and trained — can lead planning and design processes. Working within a framework and with a motivated youth coordinator, kids of all ages can identify and solve design challenges.

Janet Loebach, an environmental designer based in Toronto, partnered with a group of mostly-immigrant kids at Blessed Sacrament school in London, Ontario, to create a new combined playground and garden. The school grounds were redesigned not only as a space for students and teachers but also as a park for the neighborhood.

The space is alongside a busy four-lane road that averages 30,000 cars a day, and where more than one car has plowed through the fence. Being so close to a busy arterial road is not only dangerous but also unhealthy for the kids — as exhaust fumes fill play spaces. With a $25,000 grant from the London Community Foundation, Loebach organized a project with students to create a green buffer of large trees for the new community space.

Over three months, a group comprised of 24 grade-8 students, aged 12-13 — that named themselves Green Direction — met for two hours a week over three months to create a design. They decided on “who’s doing what — the goals and processes. They were the primary researchers and designers.” Six groups of four students created designs, based in site measurements, inventory, and analysis; interviews with students and teachers; and activity and behavior mapping based on the age ranges of users.

The students created concept and bubble diagrams, scale drawings, and models; gave presentations and collected feedback; and undertook costing exercises. At the end of the process, Loebach synthesized the priority elements and refined the merged design.

Loebach said the process showed “youth benefit from authentic engagement and involvement in decision making around place-making. Kids can articulate needs and designs when they are given the proper tools.”

The resulting landscape had large shade trees, meandering paths, a pergola, and a vegetable garden. While used by all students, it has become especially useful for kids who are struggling, who need a “green time-out.” They are sent to water the garden for 15 minutes and benefit from the time in nature.

Rebecca Colbert, a landscape architect with MIG’s Denver office, explained how lottery funds in Colorado have been set aside for Great Outdoors Colorado, a program to preserve and protect natural resources and also improve children’s connection with nature. A $14 million grant program required applying communities to form diverse coalitions and undertake a collaborative planning process that is “youth-led or driven.” Initial planning grants of $75,000-100,000 led to implementation grants for the winners.

In Garfield county, Colorado — a struggling area an hour west of Vail with a “boom bust extraction economy” that includes the towns of Silt, Rifle, and New Castle — Colbert served as a youth engagement consultant with a coalition putting together a grant application. The team’s members included representatives from non-profits and state education, health, parks, and wildlife departments. A youth advisory council was formed, in which each high school student was paid a stipend of $1,000 over 9 months, all coordinated by an adult liaison.

Garfield county flattops / Colorado State University

The youth council undertook a multi-stage process, starting with team building, tours of places where children could better connect with nature, and outreach to other students. At libraries, they created a visioning process and mapped the barriers to accessing nature. They were creative about bringing other kids into the process: smaller children were asked to draw their favorite things in nature, and gamers at home were reached via an online survey in English and Spanish.

The process identified key goals for activity in nature, which included: team sports, cycling, walking and biking, nature play, camping, rock climbing, stand-up paddle boarding, archery, and horse-back riding. The youth group also found the obstacles preventing deeper engagement with these activities: “not having the right gear or know-how, or lack of access or funds.”

The youth council presented their recommended projects and programs to decision makers. The team ended up winning a $1.5 million grant, which has gone to an outdoor classroom featuring nature play, wilderness skills training, expeditions for kids along the Colorado River, and mentorship programs for outdoor jobs. Colbert said the experience for the youth council members was a “good learning experience — their voices were heard and they made an impact as citizens.”

Lastly, Patsy Eubanks Owens, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at University of California at Davis, explained how the Reach Youth Coalition, a group of 12-16 year-olds in Vacaville, California, came together to turn an abandoned railroad, which they had been using as a shortcut to get to school, into a safe, paved pathway for the community.

With financing from the Sierra Health Foundation, the group, assisted by a youth coordinator, started a campaign to improve the 3/4-mile Rocky Hill trail. “They were concerned that it was hard to navigate — it was so muddy they had to wear grocery bags on their feet to go to school. And it was unsafe — there were gang fights, and drug needles could be found near the homeless encampment.” Students traveling along the trail at all hours knew to go with a friend.

The coalition surveyed some 1,700 middle school students who use the trail, yielding short-term and long-term goals. According to Owens, a video produced by the coalition was critical to gaining support. “The video was a turning point. Before, the mayor didn’t even know the trail existed.” After the city council watched the video, they voted to allocate $75,000 to build a new trail.

In 2016, eight years after the coalition was formed, a new trail was finally dedicated. Neighbors and a church along the trail organized a clean-up, and new community gardens were planted. To date, some $230,000 was raised by the team, with in-kind support from neighbors and residents. Currently, only some areas are lit, but the entire length will be soon.

“Youth leadership changed the opinions of leaders. There is now a real pride in participation and place,” Owens said.

Can the 11th Street Bridge Park Slow Gentrification in DC?

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

Scott Kratz is attempting something very difficult.

He’s walking backwards on a busy Capitol Hill sidewalk, straining to be heard over traffic as he leads a group of eager residents on a walking tour to the future site of the 11th Street Bridge Park in southeast Washington, D.C.

The park, which has been in development since 2011, will one day span the Anacostia River, connecting the well-to-do neighborhoods west of the river and the historically African American neighborhoods to the east.

More difficult than walking backwards, however, is Kratz’s larger goal of ensuring that the creation of this new landmark public space, designed by Philadelphia-based landscape firm OLIN and Dutch architecture firm OMA, does not unleash the waves of gentrification that are already lapping at the Anacostia’s western shore.

“We’re three or four years away from opening, but we’ve already had the park appear in real estate ads without permission,” he told me as we walked back towards Capitol Hill after the tour. “We had to send some gentle cease-and-desists.”

This illustrates both the reality of the gentrification threat posed by the park’s construction and the measures that Kratz, who is director of the project, and his team at the Congress Heights-based non-profit Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR) are taking to mitigate it.

“First and foremost, this is a park for the local residents,” Kratz said, explaining how that basic principle has caused BBAR to take a much more expansive view of their role in the park’s development. “There’s the site of the park, but we have to be thinking about the larger systems we’re engaging with. What are the policies that can ensure local residents thrive in place?”

anacostia
OMA and OLIN’s design features a unique “X” shaped structure of interlocking trusses / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

This broad approach has led to what he called a “deep and sustained” relationship with the surrounding community.

“Before we engaged a single architect, landscape architect, or engineer, we had over two-hundred meetings with faith leaders, business owners, ANC commissioners, civic associations — with anybody who would have us.”

“And we didn’t just go out and say ‘what color should the chairs be,’” but instead asked more fundamental questions: “Should we do this? Does the community want this?”

This initial round of dialogue helped to bridge what Kratz called a “deep, real, and justified” trust-deficit in nearby communities, especially those east of the river.

That same level of community involvement carried through to the design competition process. Program requirements for the park were decided through a series of charrettes with community members. BBAR then created a community-led design oversight committee that reviewed the final design brief and met with the competing design teams multiple times during the design process to provide feedback and input.

“We didn’t know if it would work,” Kratz told me, “but at the end, each one of the design teams said it was the most valuable part of the process.”

“It was incredibly helpful,” said Hallie Boyce, ASLA, who led the design team for OLIN. “What it allowed us to do was to quickly develop a deeper knowledge of the place, both from a natural systems standpoint but also a cultural-systems standpoint.”

Boyce pointed out some members of the committee have lived in the area for twenty-five or thirty years. “You just can’t beat that kind of knowledge of a place.”

At the end of the competition, the design oversight committee ranked the submissions and made a recommendation to the competition jury. “The jury ultimately could have overruled the community recommendation,” Kratz said, “but as it turned out, both the jury and the design oversight committee were unanimous” in their decision.

“If we’re really about community engagement, then we need to let the community have the decision-making authority,” Kratz said, adding that members of the design oversight committee are now working with OLIN and OMA as they refine their winning concept, providing a real time, community-driven feedback loop. “That level of agency is critical.”

theater
The park will include an amphitheater for performances, community events, or for watching the regattas that are frequently held on the Anacostia river / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

With the design selected and pre-construction underway, the team is now working to ensure the park doesn’t end up displacing the very community that has brought the project this far.

In 2015, BBAR released an Equitable Development Plan which outlined how it would achieve this goal. The plan makes recommendations for addressing workforce development, small businesses, and housing. BBAR will soon be releasing an updated version of the plan that adds strategies for cultural and political equity.

Remarkably, BBAR has so far been able to muster more in financial support for the Equitable Development Plan than it has for the park itself. The park will cost $50-60 million to construct, of which roughly half has been committed to by the city, private donors, and other sources. Meanwhile, philanthropic contributions to the equitable development arm of the project already exceed $50 million.

While the park itself is still a few years off, the impact from the Equitable Development Plan is already being felt. A newly-created Ward 8 Homebuyers Club has so far helped sixty-one Ward 8 residents purchase their own home. For renters, “we have started monthly tenant rights workshops, working in collaboration with Housing Counseling Services.” And the newly-created 11th Street Park Community Land Trust is close to acquiring its first property, a 65-unit apartment complex in Ward 8 that would be managed as affordable housing in perpetuity.

The park is also making its presence felt in other ways. Since 2014, BBAR has organized the annual Anacostia River Festival, which last year brought more than 9,000 residents to the site of the future park.

Then there is the park’s burgeoning urban agriculture program, which boasts seven urban farms providing fresh produce to a variety of businesses, residents, and non-profits in the area. Nearby residents can even sign up for a CSA.

“We’re not waiting until we open. We want to make sure that we’re testing and piloting these programming ideas before we launch.”

cafe
The intersecting trusses create sheltered space for amenities such as food kiosks and a café, which will feature businesses from the surrounding area / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

The cumulative effect of these efforts is a strong sense of community ownership. He told me a story to illustrate this point.

“We were having a public meeting a year ago, and I was talking about the equitable development plan. Someone raised their hand and said, ‘So, with all the money that’s coming in, you’re starting a community land trust, you’re doing tenants’ rights workshops, you’re doing workforce development training. Do you need to build the bridge?'”

“And it totally floored me! I was a little speechless. Then someone from the community stood up and said: ‘He better build that bridge! We designed that bridge – this is our bridge!'”

According to Kratz, that level of ownership comes from sustained relationships, shared experiences, and leadership of the decision making process.

Boyce echoed that sentiment, saying the community-led design process and the scope of the Equitable Development Plan have built trust in the community, allowing residents to become invested in the long-term success of the project.

“We have multiple champions now. That’s what it’s going to take.”

playspace
The park will also feature a new playground on southeastern end of the bridge. / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

Construction on the park should begin in 2020, with an opening date in 2022 or 2023. BBAR is already looking ahead to understand how its role will change at that juncture.

BBAR is exploring ways to help demystify the planning process for local residents, so they are empowered to shape those decisions that will in turn shape their neighborhoods.

“Sometimes when we have these larger conversations about displacement and gentrification, there’s a feeling of inevitability. We reject that. The reason we’ve been living in segregated cities is because of a series of intentional decisions. We now need to make a series of intentional decisions to undo that disinvestment.”

“We’re increasingly looking at what is our role to help move the needle on some of those larger policy questions,” he added.

As an example of that expanding scope, BBAR has now begun advising other Washington, D.C. neighborhoods as they create their own equitable development plans. They’ve even met with officials from Los Angeles, Dallas, and St. Louis to discuss how the 11th Street Bridge model can be applied in those cities.

“We had no idea that this could have such an influence across the United States. But we’re the nation’s capital. We often talk about being the template for how we should do things. Sometimes we’re successful, sometimes not so much. This is a chance to actually get it right.”

11th Street Bridge Park walking tours continue throughout the summer.

To Create a Sense of Belonging, Embrace Cultural Diversity

Brazilian festival in Herter Park / Herter Park Facebook

While designers of the built environment only improve at creating sustainable, technologically-savvy, and beautiful places, they aren’t succeeding at “creating belonging,” a feeling of “respectful co-existence in shared space,” argued Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental planning at Tufts University. More “culturally-competent” planners, landscape architects, architects are needed to create more just places.

In a keynote speech at the Congress for New Urbanism in Savannah, Georgia, Agyeman said “there is an equity deficit in the sustainability movement. The green movement is socially unjust.” Agyeman believes that in many cities “the old red-lining of neighborhoods have been replaced by green exclusionary zones — just a new form of socio-economic segregation.” Instead, true sustainability “involves justice — and equity in recognition, process, procedure, and outcomes.”

With true sustainability, it isn’t possible to have “spatial injustice,” in which life chances are not distributed in a fair way geographically. (Sadly, in the vast majority of countries, your zip code determines everything from your income to your life expectancy).

With true sustainability, public spaces are for everyone. He held up Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia as an example of a “space of respect, engagement, and encounter.” Agyeman wondered whether we can design places like this anymore?

Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia / Pinterest

Too often public spaces labeled as sustainable aren’t just. While the contemporary Complete Street movement is lauded as a way to make transportation systems more equitable — by providing equal access for pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars — complete streets that remove street vendors and spruce up public spaces with new amenities can end up killing the cultural and social lives of streets.

“Places have no fixed meaning; they are social as much as physical entities. Complete streets can disconnect streets from the social, structural, symbolic, discursive, and historical realities of a place.” Agyeman asked: “Who gets to say what a complete street is anyhow? They can’t be complete if they fail to include the livelihoods and economic survival of vendors.”

Park planning and design needs to be re-thought in terms of boosting cultural diversity, instead of just ecological diversity.

As an example, he pointed to a local park in Bristol, Massachusetts. At great expense, the park managers created a wildflower meadow in order to increase biodiversity. But the new garden had the effect of driving away Caribbean immigrants who used to spend time in the park. “They have a residual fear of places that could harbor snakes.” Aygeman said “if someone in the parks department was Caribbean, they would have known.” The question in instances like this is: “do we drop the cultural or social diversity or respect the cultural side?”

Given urban communities are evolving, we must better engage new immigrant communities in the planning and preservation of park systems.

In Boston, many immigrants “aren’t connecting with the old parks created by Frederick Law Olmsted. They just don’t resonate with them — and these groups, which are growing, could be deciding the future of Boston’s parks.”

Immigrant groups instead yearn for landscapes that remind them of home. In Boston, Herter Park draws immigrants from Latin and South America, because it provides spaces for extended family gatherings by a river, which feels familiar to them (see image at top).

Aygeman thinks landscape architects must intentionally design for immigrants and encourage encounters between ethnicities.

In Supekilen Park in Copenhagen, Denmark, teams of designers with BIG, Topotek 1, and Superflux, created a “controversial park” in a highly-diverse immigrant neighborhood where ethnic groups “could see themselves in the space,” but also encounter other communities. Each ethnic group in the neighborhood around the park had a designated space meant to reflect some aspect of their cultural identity.

Superkilen Park, Copenhagen, Denmark / Jens Lindhe

Parks-for-all like Superkilen may just be the start. Aygeman foresees a future in which landscape architects first do “deep ethnographic research to really understand a community before they get started.” Landscape architects trained in “cultural competency” then eliminate disparities in access to public space, creating true urban commons. “More diverse professionals who know what these new societies think” will partner with diverse communities to “co-design and co-create more just places.”

The result could be something like Medellin, Colombia, where a participatory approach rooted in the philosophy of “social urbanism,” led to the “urban transformation of the century,” in which the poor were given equitable access to all the city has to offer — parks, libraries, museums, and transit.

Growing Movement: Age-Friendly Communities

Where we live / AARP

“By 2030, there will be more than 75 million older Americans aged 65 and up,” said Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities at AARP, in a session at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) in Savannah, Georgia. This older population will need more livable, age-friendly communities that can meet their needs by offering affordable housing where they can age in place, accessible mass transit and walkable neighborhoods, and daily sources of civic and social engagement and meaning.

AARP recently released comprehensive new survey data, the first major data set in four years. They found that 8 out of 10 older adults want to stay in their home as they age. However, only 46 percent believe they can actually age in place because of accessibility, affordability, and lifestyle issues.

Arigoni thinks communities need to work much harder to keep older residents in their communities. “Older adults are an asset — they are the ‘experienced class’ who add value with their purchasing and voting power. They volunteer their expertise and are entrepreneurial.”

So what can communities do to better keep older adults? Arigoni said diversifying the housing stock is important.

In too many places, when an older person can no longer drive, it’s like a “receiving a serious medical sentence.” Being stuck at home means isolation, which has the health impact of “smoking about 15 cigarettes a day.” The health impacts are particularly acute for older adults.

Home sharing is a way to solve this problem. Some 15 percent of older adults already do this in order to get help with transportation, but also for companionship or economic reasons.

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs), sometimes described as “granny flats or mother-in-law suites,” which are independent units on the lot of a single family detached home, are another way to provide nearby support. Some one-third of older adults would consider building an ADU or living in one, but only 7 percent do, in part because “lots of regulations prevent them.”

8 out of 10 older adults want safe streets, which is why AARP has been supporting walkability audits and pursuing complete street policies at the state and local levels.

84 percent of older adults drive themselves, while 38 percent walk and 10 percent use ride share. Some 43 percent have used Uber, Zipcar, Lyft, and the like; some 55 percent are not likely to use. “What’s preventing them? 50 percent cited safety and privacy issues. Another cohort lacked the technology or knowledge. And 17 percent had disability concerns.”

Arigoni thinks the vast majority of accessibility issue with ride sharing can be resolved. “We have to solve the disability component — the last few feet of ride sharing.”

To promote livable communities, particularly for older adults, AARP has put its considerable advocacy muscle behind Measure M in California, a $120 billion bond for public transit, which subsequently passed.

And they partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) to create the AARP Network of Age-friendly States and Communities, which 246 communities and two states have joined. In 2017, AARP gave 90 communities grants to undertake a 5-year age-friendly community planning process designed to result in a concrete action plan.

In Macon-Bibb, Georgia, which was the first city to sign onto the network, the age-friendly planning process was a “catalyst for things we wanted to accomplish,” said Myrtle Habersham, a consultant and AARP executive committee member.

Macon-Bibb assembled a 28-person age-friendly council, went out into the community, and identified priorities, like redesigning the city’s 2nd street corridor, creating new bus routes and mixed-income housing. The team also invested in revitalizing decrepit parks. “At the beginning of the process, we started with 30 volunteers and now there are 200,” said David Pilgrem, with AARP who was involved in the effort.

Why Smart Urban Design May Save Us from Natural Disasters and Address Social Justice


The stories of loss and destruction that have emerged from extreme weather events and natural disasters illustrate the catastrophic damage that American families are dealing with today.

The numbers are staggering. Last summer, Hurricane Harvey alone caused an estimated 32,000 to lose their homes in the metropolitan Houston area and as many as 82 deaths. Damages are expected to cost between $70 and $108 billion.

Yet not all families suffer equally from these calamities. In Louisiana, those seeking affordable living spaces find them in lower elevations. Low-lying areas are seen as less desirable and, therefore, less expensive. A prime example is New Orleans, which is almost entirely below sea level. When Hurricane Katrina pummeled the city in 2005, the lowest elevations received the most damage. And—no surprise—lower-income minorities lived there and saw the most damage.

Cities like Seattle and Atlanta are becoming more popular places to live, and the price of living there continues to increase. Poorer families, by necessity, get pushed to the outskirts of such cities — outskirts that happen to be located in vulnerable areas often close to industrial lands and cut off from the rest of the community. Physical barriers, which include highways and buildings, create a divide between the wealthier city areas and the poorer areas on the outskirts.

Smart urban design policies can help bring people together as one community—and protect their communities during times of calamity.

Relocating families to safer areas is one option. But it isn’t always the optimal choice. We must respect the deep and historic ties people have with their communities. Relocation would mean taking them away from their established homes.

One of the best solutions is rebuilding neighborhoods through sustainable design. We can use landscape architecture and creative urban design to adapt vulnerable areas to the natural habitat and changing climate conditions.

A great example are the 100 houses built in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. These homes were built by the nonprofit Make It Right in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was hit the worst by Katrina due to its geographic location. Through innovative, resilient design, families were able to return to live in safe housing in their already established communities.

Make It Right Foundation home / MusicforGood.tv

Areas not redeveloped for housing can be turned into parks or natural areas that also protect against natural disasters. To make either of these changes happen, communities need to call on their legislators and members of Congress. They can work with landscape architects to turn these locations into a bridge to bring together wealthy and low-income residents. This kind of unification will help us create a sustainable population.

Over the long term, something called “transactive design thinking” needs to take place—when citizen scientists, or community members who know the area the best, work with lawmakers to get an outcome that is appealing to everyone. Lawmakers must enact laws to create more sustainable areas. To come full circle, citizen scientists must be receptive to these changes and provide feedback to ensure their voice is being heard. They and their fellow community members must also agree with the reconstruction of their green spaces in order for it to be successful.

Recently, I had the pleasure of collaborating on a project to rebuild and transform land damaged during Hurricane Katrina and never restored. I worked with the Sankofa Community Development Corporation (SCDC), a local nonproject, to build the Sankofa Wetland Park.

Sankofa Wetland Trail and Nature Park / Sankofa CDC

SCDC founder Rashida Ferdinand, who is committed to creating an environmentally sustainable community, received a grant from New Orleans to transform two acres of a deteriorated natural area in the Lower Ninth Ward into an educational assimilated wetland park. This site provides the area with many environmental benefits, including restoring habitat for plants and animals as well as cleaning stormwater runoff. In time, we hope that the city sees the benefits of creating this wetland and will allow Ferdinand to expand her project into the intended full 40 acres of vacant land.

As the landscape architect, I visited the proposed site as the first step of our project. A citizen scientist from the neighborhood accompanied me–John Taylor, who has lived in the area his entire life. He not only helped me navigate through the land, but also showed me an underground water channel that I would have never known existed had he not been there.

This is a prime example of why landscape architects need to work with the local residents, who share their extensive knowledge of the area. Their voices ensure we build and rebuild in a way that’s not only right from an environmental and social equity perspective, but that’s also respectful of longstanding local communities.

Natural disasters may be increasing in frequency, but it’s not the number of disasters we should worry about. Instead we should focus on how each disaster continues to get more costly. Families are facing life-changing disasters and despite contrary belief, there are actions we can take to mitigate some of the damages that they face. We must call on policy makers, landscape architects, and communities that are affected the most to enact change.

To this end, the American Society of Landscape Architects has convened a Blue Ribbon Panel to get a jump start on making these changes a reality. In the first quarter of 2018, the panel will release comprehensive public policy recommendations for using resilient design to combat social injustices that occur when natural disasters hit. These recommendations are just the first step with many more to go. Learn more about how we’re developing policy recommendations to safeguard our cities and natural resources for the future.

This guest post is by Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, who has 30-plus years of experience in professional practice focusing on land planning and varied scales of open space and park design, including community development work. Jones Allen is currently the program director for landscape architecture at the college of architecture planning and public affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington. She participated in the American Society of Landscape Architects’ Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience held September 21-22, 2017.

Google Gets It Right with New Community-friendly Campus

Google Charleston East / BIG, Thomas Heatherwick Studio, Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture

In contrast with Apple’s hermetically-sealed “space ship” headquarters, which critics have complained perpetuates an outdated, car-centric approach to the corporate campus, recently-released plans for Google’s new offices in Mountain View show a campus that is open and accessible, walkable and bikeable, and are as much an asset for the company as they are for the surrounding community.

Designed by architects at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and Thomas Heatherwick Studio, along with landscape architects at Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture, Google Charleston East purposefully brings the neighborhood into the campus. In their brief submitted to the Mountain View City Council, the design team illustrated their smart approach, which feels like the next generation of suburban corporate community.

The brief shows a luscious new park in the middle of the campus, which connects corporate buildings on the east and west ends of the space. A “green loop” — which goes through the park, then through the center of the building, and then follows a “riparian habitat” — links Google employees and the community to the campus, shops and retail, and welcoming outdoor spaces. Adjacent to the park is a protected burrowing owl habitat.

Google Charleston East’s Charleston Park / BIG, Thomas Heatherwick Studio, Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture

According to the design team, the connecting pathways within the campus were designed to make access roads feel safe and easy to cross.

Google Charleston East’s accessible streets / BIG, Thomas Heatherwick Studio, Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture

Landscape is used to draw in the neighbors. And in keeping with Google’s mission to support local ecosystems, they write: “our plans for the indoor and outdoor spaces include native habitats and vegetation designed to support local biodiversity and create educational opportunities for the community.”

Google Charleston East’s biodiverse plantings / BIG, Thomas Heatherwick Studio, Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture
Google Charleston East’s community spaces / BIG, Thomas Heatherwick Studio, Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture
Google Charleston East’s community spaces / BIG, Thomas Heatherwick Studio, Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture

The building itself is designed to connect Google to the neighborhood. The ground level offers events spaces, cafes and restaurants, while the upper level will use clerestory windows to bring in light. The bird-friendly building will feature a tent-like roof that will be embedded with photovoltaic panels.

Google Charleston East building with burrowing owl habitat in the background / BIG, Thomas Heatherwick Studio, and Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture

Hargreaves Jones propose removing the few Redwood trees from the site — which aren’t “locally native” to the area and “possess many traits that make them undesirable when planted in urban areas outside their historic range” — and replacing them with locally-native trees and plants that will help re-establish “mixed riparian forest and oak woodland” ecosystems that once existed in the area. Part of this effort will include a “re-Oaking initiative” designed to bring back the lost ecology of the Santa Clara Valley. Furthermore, the landscape architects argue their approach will help the nearby burrowing owls, as there will be fewer perches for predatory falcons. Green infrastructure, including permeable pavements, will ensure all run-off is captured via the landscape.

And just a few miles down the road from Charleston East, Google is proposing a 1-million-square-foot campus in Sunnyvale. Also designed by BIG, but this time in partnership with landscape architects at OLIN, the building will feature 5-story buildings with rooftops made accessible via zig-zagging ramps.

Proposed Sunnyvale Google complex / BIG, Olin

One of Bjarke Ingels’ first designs — the 8HOUSE in Copenhagen — featured fun green ramps on its roof. This takes that up a notch.

Participatory Design Must Evolve

Design as Democracy / Island Press

Participatory design is “hands-on democracy in action,” argue the editors of the impressive new book Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity. Participatory design (also known as cooperative or co-design) is a process in which a designer actively involves all stakeholders in a design process. Unfortunately, many of the best-known techniques to enable this approach, which have been used for the past few decades, have become stale. This has led to complacency among designers, and less-than-ideal outcomes for communities that need their help. To revitalize the approach and achieve better results, the authors call for making participatory design “truly democratic.” Furthermore, it must become “contextual, open, experiential, substantive, and holistic.”

One can tell the many editors, who are all landscape architects and professors, wrestled with themselves and perhaps each other to come up with a new synthesis of this design approach. The hard work of David de la Pena; Diane Jones Allen, ASLA; Randolph T. Hester, Jr, FASLA; Jeffrey Hou, ASLA; Laura J. Lawson, ASLA; and Marcia J. McNally paid off: the book is a well-organized compendium of proven techniques designers can apply in their projects. Their collective voice is determined and impassioned, which really helps make their case.

The editors note up front that none of these techniques will work if designers don’t have the right mindset when they begin to engage a set of stakeholders. And the right mindset can only come from close examination of oneself — one’s own history, preferences, position in society, and hidden biases. One section is worth quoting at length:

“Once we are clear on who we are are, we can see our position in society relative to the cultural and economic context of the community in which we plan to work. This in turn equips us with empathy rather than sympathy. This distinction is important because designers can find themselves in communities with acute needs that have been repeatedly ignored. Although providing technical assistance to a community in need is a critical role of participatory design, responding with sorrow or pity hampers one’s effectiveness. Sympathy, even when its grounded in understanding, can subtly convey to residents that only the designer’s expertise counts. Another pitfall lies in creating a patronizing process that diminishes the community’s self-worth.” For the editors, only fully self-aware designers can succeed at this work. Furthermore, designers who come in as arrogant experts risk doing real damage.

The book flows through the design process — starting with tools to help a designer achieve self-awareness, and then moving through how to interact with and learn from communities, reach an accommodation between “expert” and local knowledge, “catalyze new visions and certainty about the best course of action,” co-generate designs and co-construct, evaluate and improve, and, finally, how to “exercise power to make community improvements” actually happen. Each section has a few well-chosen techniques selected by invited contributors, which are detailed, illustrated with a case story, and then further qualified with a reflection on how to best apply.

One technique that helps a designer assemble the right team at the beginning is called “What’s in it for us?” Julie Stevens, ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at Iowa State University, explained how she applied this tool to develop and manage a team for a landscape project at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW). Stevens said the assessment helped her think more comprehensively about who should be on the project.

Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) garden / Kim Gaspari Photography

“I nearly dismissed an application from a potential intern, because his essay did not express any compassion for the prison population. In terms of what he offered to the project, I recorded that he had experience with construction tools and equipment. In terms of what the project could do for him, I recorded that this young, white man might benefit from a summer working with women from much less privileged and much more racially diverse backgrounds, which could open up new worlds as he engaged people both informally and through design. His inclusion on the team was validated when I saw him give an incarcerated woman a high-five after completing a difficult retaining wall.”

In the section “Going to the People’s Coming,” which covers how to start engaging with and learning from a community, Chelina Odbert and Joe Mulligan, with Kounkuey Design Initiative, discuss an ingenious technique they call Community Camera: Piga Picha, a “photo activity that helps residents introduce their community to an outside project team, and in the process, to see familiar places through a new lens.” Using the approach in Kibera, large slum of Nairobi, Kenya, they gave 30 diverse community participants a disposable camera. When the residents then got the photos back, “it was clear they were seeing very familiar sites from a new perspective — as spaces worthy of design consideration.”

Members of the Piga Picha group / Kounkuey Design Initiative

The next chapter is on “Experting,” which focuses on how to “transfer the title of expert to members of the community” in order to further empower them and build their capacity to achieve goals. In one technique described by Kofi Boone, ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at North Carolina State University, cell phones are passed out to community members so they can be used to create video diaries. This way “community members can document their place-based stories independently, on their own time, in their own voices.” For a new park in the neighborhood of Chavis Park, a historically African American community, videos, which ranged from 30 seconds to 7 minutes, were geo-tagged to an interactive map.

Cell phone diaries / North Carolina State University College of Design’s Downtown Studio

Smart, proven techniques cover how to encourage communities to prioritize efforts through fair and transparent voting processes using dots and tokens and create a shared vision through citizen-generated collages. Then, Design as Democracy delves into innovative ways to get to meat of these projects — and really co-generate designs and co-construct.

On a simple level, co-generating first involves breaking down the design process into easy-to-understand elements and options that community members can then manipulate and use to create design options. But as they create the design together, the community enters a process that “requires negotiation and sometimes creative compromise.” Through this process, the outside designer can then “actively nurture” multiple designers in the community, giving them agency and authority. Community design teams can also use green rubber stamps to quickly illustrate priorities, feast on a “design buffet” and “collect food (design ingredients)” that can result in a novel design, or place representative models on a mat as part of “animated visioning.”

Co-constructing, or building together, then lets everyone experience the “joy and energy of building,” which in turn “imbues a sense of accomplishment, pride, and ownership like nothing else can.” To avoid burnout from long visioning and co-design processes, the contributors in this section instead call for quick prototyping and making things spontaneously. The goal is to make sure the process doesn’t become a drag. “Making alleviates frustration, anger, and apathy from process without products.”

More powerfully, co-constructing with a community can be restorative in itself. In a project at the Rab Psychiatric Public Hospital, the Design/Build Service Learning Studio at the University of Washington redesigned 50 percent of the landscape as healing gardens and then co-constructed them with patients and staff. Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA, explains that despite the challenges, “the patients commented they found the act of building therapeutic. Many said they gained a sense of purpose, renewed self-confidence and self-esteem, and an appreciation for the garden work as a respite from the mandated intensive and exhausting therapies.”

Members of the design team socialize with a patient / Daniel Winterbottom

The editors conclude that “design is a political act.” And “participatory design is one of the most effective means in a democracy to create cities and landscapes that distribute resources and shape places to be sustainable, representative of diverse publics, well informed by local wisdom, and just.” But they seem to disagree on the extent to which participatory design should be used to actively fight injustice.

While landscape architects and planners should of course work with communities to map environmental injustices, should they engage in conflict to achieve their ends? For Randolph Hester, FASLA, professor emeritus of landscape architecture at University of California at Berkeley, “no truly transformative design occurs without confronting status quo powers.”

But going back to the beginning for a moment: What this book leaves out is basic guidance on to how to find and partner with existing community leaders who are seeking positive change, who have been fighting injustice. How can a planner or designer know they’ve found the right client in a community? What are the tools for evaluating whether to engage or not? And what does a designer owe a client if the client’s goals end up being different from the community’s?

Plus, grey areas around financing seem to be avoided. For example, many participatory design projects in developing countries are financed by government aid agencies, companies, and non-profits with their own agendas. How can an ethical, self-aware designer establish and finance projects in a transparent way that builds trust with a community?

To Become More Resilient, Boston Takes a “Landscape First” Approach

East Boston flood scenarios / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss

Instead of simply responding to catastrophe, Boston is getting out front on climate change. As part of its Climate Ready Boston plan, the city of 670,000 aims to act fast and protect two coastal neighborhoods most vulnerable to rising sea levels and storms: East Boston and Charlestown. New plans for these neighborhoods explain how a simple fix like creating a temporary flood wall at the coastal end of the East Boston Greenway, at a cost of just $100,000, would protect 4,300 residents, 70 businesses and critical infrastructure, and result in $17 million in benefits.

But perhaps the most important statement in the plan is: “more extensive measures combining green and gray infrastructure and new open space can be built and expanded over time to address risks from 1 percent annual chance floods with over 36 inches of sea level rise (by the 2070s).” In other words, landscape-based solutions are the answer for long-term protection and resilience. The plan calls for making $142-262 million of these investments over the next few decades, netting $644-751 million in benefits.

East Boston plan, near and long-term projects / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss
Charlestown plan, near and long-term projects / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss

An inter-departmental city government team lead the effort, which was conducted by engineers at Kleinfelder, landscape architects at Stoss landscape urbanism, and architects with ONE architecture. The district-level coastal resilience plan came out of the recently-completed Climate Ready Boston process and Imagine Boston 2030, the first comprehensive planning effort in 50 years, and resulted from the efforts of Boston Harbor Now and other non-profits.

In a phone interview, Chris Reed, ASLA, founder and principal at Stoss landscape urbanism, said East Boston and Charlestown were the focus of the first plans and conceptual designs in a series that will look at all vulnerable Boston neighborhoods. “The rationale was to look at the places that will flood first and also help disadvantaged neighborhoods threatened with displacement and gentrification.” An analysis of South Boston, including Seaport, is also underway, and more neighborhood analyses will be coming over the next few years.

Reed explained that Kleinfelder, Stoss, and ONE only proposed “flood control measures that have social, environmental, and economic benefits.” Flood control infrastructure takes the form of landscape berms, wildlife habitat, waterfront promenades, play areas, and strategic walls. Using evaluation criteria established in the report, the planning and design team settled on a layered approach with back-up defenses. In most instances, walls were minimized in favor of other kinds of multi-use infrastructure that enable access to and recreation on the waterfronts.

East Boston landing: a landscape-first approach / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss
Ryan playground in Charlestown / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss

The team also crafted a “development toolkit,” with new regulations to guide private developers and better leverage public-private infrastructure investments. For example, currently, new developments on the waterfront must have 50 percent open space. Reed explained that through new regulations, these open spaces can be better coordinated to maximize resilience. “The city can now gang up and locate protective open spaces strategically.” With the toolkit, the city can also now move beyond a “site by site approach” and scale up its resilient development efforts.

Recommendations are rooted in different flooding scenarios. Reed said the tricky part was “you can have a storm surge on top of sea level rise.” Instead of using outdated FEMA data, Boston is basing its analyses in dynamic models created by Woods Hole Group, University of Massachusetts Boston, and the Barr Foundation. Models project out to 2070, but purposefully stop there. “We just can’t project to 2100.”

Reed said funds have already been allocated to projects, including the coastal end of the East Boston Greenway and raising Border Street. But it’s not clear how Boston will pay for the billions it may actually need to spend on resilience, when all neighborhood analyses are said and done.

What is clear to Reed is that “there is an absolute need to address climate change.” And in our new age of resilience, what’s needed is a “landscape first strategy for city-making.”

In fact, Reed thinks these district-scale resilience plans return us to the era of Frederick Law Olmsted, when landscape served as a basis for urban planning. “People are re-discovering cities are part of the environment and impacted by nature and temperature change.”

Read the executive summary or full report (large PDF).