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).

Green Heart: First Major Clinical Study to Examine the Health Impact of Trees

Tree in parking area under “Spaghetti Junction” near corner of 8th and Main St. Louisville KY/ Randy Olson

Louisville, Kentucky, has some of the worst air in the country. Given the city is a transit hub, tens of thousands of planes, trucks, and trains pass through the city each year, not to mention all the cars. Louisville is also an industrial center where chemicals are manufactured. Heart disease, strokes, asthma and other conditions caused by excessive pollution are found at very high levels. Last year, the city received a failing grade from the American Lung Association in its annual report.

In order to see if trees can help combat the negative health impacts of the city’s deadly air pollution, University of Louisville Medical Center, the Nature Conservancy, Hyphae Design Laboratory and other organizations are coming together in the Green Heart project, the first clinical trial where “nature is the pharmaceutical.”

According to the Nature Conservancy, “this ambitious effort will conduct a first-of-its-kind medical study by planting trees in strategic locations across a cluster of Louisville neighborhoods and observing precisely how they impact residents’ health.” The study is financed by the National Institutes of Health and Louisville-based philanthropies.

Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar at the University of Louisville Medical Center and his colleagues, who essentially created the field of “environmental cardiology,” are doing a controlled experiment to test the impact of nature, as if it was a drug, on a neighborhood scale.

The challenge is “a neighborhood is not a laboratory, where variables are easily controlled. And this project would be far beyond the scale of prior research that identified connections between neighborhood greenness and health.”

Bhatnagar said: “there has never been a rigorous scientific study that quantified the health effects of urban greening. This will be the first attempt to understand, is nature a viable, replicable therapy?”

This past October, the project has its official launch, with a community workshop and the start of baseline data collection. “Temperatures, particulate matter levels, volatile organic compounds in the air will all be tracked by a network of more than 50 passive air monitors as well as more elaborate monitoring arrays mounted on towers and even an electric car.”

Starting next fall, some 8,000 trees, shrubs, and other plants will be planted in South Louisville, according to a map devised by the Nature Conservancy, based in data on where likely impacts will the greatest benefit. As has been noted, trees catch small particulate matter in their leaves, reducing nearby air pollution by a third in some cases; and, if planted near highways, they can act as a buffer, reducing pollution by up to 60 percent.

The Green Heart project is now recruiting 700 neighborhood residents to “participate in several rounds of medical tests, tracking the residual evidence of air pollution in their blood and urine.”

The Nature Conservancy writes that “different chemical signals will be monitored, including the presence of cortisol and adrenaline that are produced when the body is under stress. Participants’ physiological reactions to air pollution will be studied over five years, because some compounds appear within hours of exposure while others take months or years to emerge.” Residents are essentially “human environmental monitors,” said Ray Yeager, PhD, a researcher with the University of Louisville Medical Center lab.

At the end of the five year study, the researchers will have a set of data on residents’ health — looking at both before and after the trees were planted, and, for comparison’s sake, data from people who live nearby but didn’t get new trees. It will be interesting to see if five years is enough to test the benefits of trees — newly-planted, young trees would appear to have less capacity to catch particulate matter and serve as buffers than mature, fully-grown trees with broad canopies.

Unhealthy air is estimated to claim 4 million lives a year. If Dr. Bhatnagar and his colleagues discover medical benefits from the strategic tree placements, the results of this study could result in a new public health model that can help reduce urban pollution-related deaths. Yeager is confident: “what we learn in Louisville is going to affect people all over the world.”

If benefits are proven, the study could also positively affect Louisville, reducing health inequities. The Nature Conservancy refers to data showing that life expectancy in the “leafy suburbs” of the city is 13 years longer than in South and West Louisville neighborhoods with lower incomes and less access to nature, proving once again that “zip code is a reliable indicator of health.”

If the results show positive benefits from trees, the city government should first address inequities and partner with local community groups to build robust tree canopies in the neighborhoods that lack them. With solid data, the city could also further invest in the existing urban forest, which loses about 55,000 trees every year.

Read the full article at The Nature Conservancy.

In Boston’s Leading Hospitals, Nature Is Part of the Therapy

Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, roof terrace designed by Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects / Steinkamp Photography

In the 1980s, Roger Ulrich discovered hospital patients recover faster and request less pain medication when they have views of nature. Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, built on a former brownfield in Charleston’s Navy Yard, and MGH’s Yawkey Outpatient Center, both in Boston, seem to be guided by this essential finding.

At Spaulding, patients recovering from traumatic injury are rejuvenated by good medical care, but also sunlight, garden terraces, and views of the surrounding Charles, Mystic, and Chelsea Rivers. The hospital landscape is a multi-functional therapeutic space where therapists aid patients in the air and sun. In a tour of the 132-bed facility at the 2017 Greenbuild, Jeffrey Keilman, an architect with Perkins + Will and Sean Sanger, ASLA, principal at landscape architecture firm Copley Wolff Design Group explained how the facility heals, but is also one of the most sustainable and resilient hospitals in the country.

Spaulding picked this brownfield site in part because rehabilitating it would help tell the story of resilience to its patients. If a toxic place can become a place of healing, then a broken person can return to health stronger as well.

The LEED Gold-certified hospital — designed by Perkins + Will, with Copley Wolff Design Group and Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects — has all the usual green building features, but its the extra, humane elements that make it something special — the custom-made sinks so that a patient in a wheel chair can more easily wash their hands; the tall wall of windows in the main rehabilitation room that offer views of the river; the light and views every patient enjoys from their rooms; the garden terraces with horticultural therapy spaces, as well as the gardens just for staff; and the multi-functional therapeutic landscape.

Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, designed by Perkins + Will / Anton Grassl/Esto
Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, designed by Perkins + Will / Anton Grassl/Esto
Spaulding Rehabilitation Center employee terrace, designed by Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects / Anton Grassl/Esto

The landscape — which was ingeniously designed by Copley Wolff Design Group to significantly reduce the impact of flooding in a 500-year storm event — is both for patients and the public. Like the building, the landscape has small but thoughtful features that exemplify patient-centered design.

For example, there are small brass sculptures of animals spread throughout. While these can be enjoyed by visitors and the public, they are really there for patients recovering from traumatic brain injuries who search for them in scavenger hunts in order to rebuild cognitive abilities and memory.

Starfish at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, designed by Copley Wolff Design Group / Copley Wolff Design Group

A multi-functional space for physical therapy was designed for “active use.” Patients and caregivers didn’t just want “a space for respite and solitude. They wanted a space for activity, so they can get mentally and physically ready to re-enter society,” explained Sanger.

The space offers a “beginner’s walk,” with a slight grade and handrails. Throughout, there are benches, so patients can take a break.

Therapeutic landscape at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, designed by Copley Wolff Design Group / Luke O’Neill

Sculptural rock forms on poles are actually therapeutic tools for building upper body strength.

Therapeutic landscape at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, designed by Copley Wolff Design Group/ Luke O’Neill

Amid the gardens, there is also a ramp for teaching patients how to use a wheelchair.

Therapeutic landscape at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, designed by Copley Wolff Design Group/ Luke O’Neill

In warmer months, the hospital puts recumbent bikes on the waterfront harbor walk. Rails along the walk were specially designed so people in wheelchairs can use them to pull themselves up.

Our tour then moved over to MGH’s Yawkey Outpatient Center, where cancer and other patients are treated in downtown Boston in a maze of co-joined buildings. Here was a therapeutic landscape that feels like the opposite of the one at Spaulding: a small but impactful place of respite and restoration.

As you enter the roof garden, which was added later after the building had been built, the broad trees and gorgeous views of the Charles River momentarily awe. The space is a welcome surprise in the midst of the vast hospital complex.

Yawkey Outpatient Center garden / Boston’s Hidden Sacred Spaces

Designed by Robert Adams, ASLA, principal at Halvorson Design Group, the garden is well-loved by adults and children undergoing cancer treatment.

The enclosed entry pavilion, with expansive glass windows, is open year round. Cancer patients often have a terrible, metallic taste in their mouth, so any metal fittings were painted over so as to not remind them. A journal is available for patients to write in. A giant urn is filled with rocks. Patients take the rocks to keep as touchstones; and survivors often bring back stones from their journeys, replenishing the urn, which has a “most sacred” duty, Adams said.

Yawkey Outpatient Center garden / Anton Grassl/Esto

And the garden itself, with its simple shade-covered walking loop, benches facing the river, and sculptures, is open in warm months. “You’ll often see patients with their IV in tow walking the loop.”

Yawkey Outpatient Center garden / Anton Grassl/Esto
Yawkey Outpatient Center garden / Anton Grassl/Esto

For Adams, the only wrinkle is the garden has become so popular staff can no longer easily access. Before, staff were eating lunch there and visiting often. This is a sign that “staff need open spaces, too.” As author Clare Cooper Marcus described in a recent interview, over-worked and stressed doctors and nurses means more deadly medical errors. Just a 15-minute break for these critical workers outdoors can help boost their cognition and lower stress.

Why aren’t more hospitals creating restorative spaces not only for patients but also for their staff? Spaulding and Yawkey, two of the best hospitals in the country, offer models for how to bring nature into healthcare environments that other facilities can learn from.

Building Community Through Inclusive and Equitable Parks

Hayden Plaza, New Orleans / Design Jones LLC

New parks can become agents of gentrification if they are not planned with all of the community. Often, the unintended consequence of a bright, shiny new park planned with only part of the community can be a change in community identity, so parts of the existing community no longer recognize their own neighborhood. Improved park amenities can also also spur new development, higher rents, and, eventually, displacement. But “there are also projects that can break the sequence of negative outcomes,” explained Janelle Johnson, ASLA, a landscape architect with Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, at the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. “Whose change and what change — these are questions that landscape architects can help communities answer.” If done well, new parks can instead act as agents of community building, forging new connections that help break down racial and class barriers.

Bridging Communities Through a New Park in New Orleans

Landscape architect Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, explained how she helped bring together multiple communities in central city New Orleans to re-imagine Hayden Plaza, a linear park found at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.

The neighborhood has evolved over the years. First settled by Jewish, Italian, and German immigrants, it became an African American community, and one of the few places African Americans could shop during the segregated 1930s, 40s, and 50s. As the immigrant shop owners who served African American patrons moved elsewhere, the stores were taken over by African Americans, who “didn’t get enough business,” and commercial activity declined.

In the 1960s civil rights movement, the neighborhood was a hub for protests. Artist Frank Hayden created an abstract sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the era when there “wasn’t community engagement.” The community had wanted a figurative sculpture, but Hayden delivered an abstract one instead. “The community wasn’t happy.” (Another figurative sculpture was later added).

Post-Hurricane Katrina, “new development came in, as black merchants lost property. A new merchant’s association made capital improvements,” such as a new jazz market, with a bar and theater, and an old school was revamped as a stall market. “They were bringing money in, but pushing the community out.” New development became a “sign of gentrification;” there was even a “Jane Jacobs walk.”

But every March, the Recreating the Emotional Ability to Live (REAL) protest march, led by a black empowerment group, works its way down through the neighborhood to the plaza, which demonstrates how this “space is still contested.” Working with the client — the merchant’s association — there was a “chance to educate and design for both those who go on the Jane Jacobs walk and those pushing for empowerment. A symbolic design would be inclusive and not take space away for the empowerment group.” The new landscape design “acknowledges the future, while honoring the past” (see image above).

Both communities — the African Americans and the new-comers — are now part of the future of the neighborhood, Jones Allen said. They came together in community planning and design charrettes held in the jazz market.

Revitalizing a Symbol of Integration in Birmingham, Alabama

Eric Tamulonis, ASLA, a partner with OLIN, explained how Birmingham, was long known as the “Pittsburgh of the south,” because of its iron ore mines in the Red Mountains, which were part of the US Steel empire. Down in the mines, African American and white miners toiled together since the late 1800s. “The mines were a magnet for African Americans given the great demand for workers.”

But back on the surface, there was “deep segregation.” A racist zoning map created red zones — or “danger zones” — the only places African Americans could live. Many of these places were actually dangerous — one was called “Dynamite Hill.” Jim Crow laws and regulations codified segregation. “There was a municipal law that African American and white children couldn’t play together.”

As de-segregation of all public schools, facilities, and transportation systems slowly became national policy in the 1950s and 60s, Birmingham’s city government fought it as much as they could. “They closed parks instead of integrating them.” While African Americans made up 40 percent of the city, they had only been given a few small parks. When those were shut down, “kids played in the streets.”

Now with a new 4.5-mile-long Red Mountain Park on land US Steel donated to the community, we are “building community in the park. It’s a bridge across the divide.” A new walking bridge called the “walk of unity” will end in a mine, where visitors can learn about the cultural history of the industry. “Noble mining structures are being restored, and there are reforestation efforts.” Throughout, there will be educational moments, including recordings of oral histories conducted with miners. Tamulonis worked on the community planning effort while at WRT, and said the Red Mountain Park Commission is “committed to equitable development.”

ASLA 2012 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Red Mountain / Green Ribbon — The Master Plan for Red Mountain Park, WRT / WRT
ASLA 2012 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Red Mountain / Green Ribbon — The Master Plan for Red Mountain Park, WRT / WRT

Birmingham is also trying to move beyond its racist park history through the creation of other inclusive public spaces. Tom Leader Studio’s Railroad Park is a “symbol of re-unity.” And a city task force has been laying the ground work for using Olmsted brothers’ 1925 equitable greenways plan, which was never implemented, as the basis for “future land use.”

Scaling up Inclusive and Equitable Park Development

Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA, former NYC parks department head and now senior vice president at the Trust for Public Land (TPL), explained how urban parks can lead to greater equity.

TPL along with the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and the National Parks and Recreation Assocation (NRPA) created a campaign to promote the idea that everyone in a city should live within a 10 minute walk of a park. Already, 134 mayors have signed on, including Mayor Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, where only 50 percent of the population meet the campaign’s goals.

While the “federal government won’t do anything for urban parks” in the foreseeable future, cities are using tax increment financing, property tax increases, and business improvement districts to improve the quality of parks across all communities. In Minneapolis, which already tops the nation in TPL’s Park Score rating system, some $250 million will be invested in parks, particularly in underserved communities. “They asked themselves hard questions and are focused on areas of poverty.”

More cities also better understanding the consequences of new park development without an equitable development plan — what has been called the “High Line effect.” For example, Bozeman, Montana, a small city of 30,000 people, is now creating their first large central park on a 60-acre site. Some 8 acres around the park will be set aside for a community center and affordable housing. “This project shows we can’t just focus on parks. It’s our problem to fix equity, too.”

Story Mill community park / Trust for Public Land

And the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C. — which seeks to bring together the majority-white Capitol Hill neighborhood, and racially-mixed, gentrifying Lincoln Park and Hill East on the west side of the Anacostia River and majority African American Anacostia, Barry Farm, Fairlawn, and Woodland, and Fort Stanton neighborhoods on the east side of the river through one park — represents the “future of equitable park development.”

11th Street Bridge Park equitable development plan / 11th street bridge park

The leaders of the park and landscape architects at OLIN forged an equitable development plan with the communities along the Anacostia River, which includes a small business and workforce plan that will boost local employment in the park, and a new land trust, which is designed to insulate neighborhoods around the park from speculative real estate development.

Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge Announces 10 Design Teams

San Francisco Bay Area / ESA

The Rockefeller Foundation together with other organizations have brought their Rebuild by Design design competition to the San Francisco Bay Area. Like the original competition set up in the tri-state area after Hurricane Sandy, the Bay Area Challenge identified a set of teams that will go out into communities and devise conceptual designs for reducing exposure to the harmful impacts of climate change. The goal is to “lay out a blueprint for resilience in our region and communities around the world.”

Out of 51 teams that submitted proposals, 10 multi-disciplinary teams of landscape architects, climate scientists, architects, engineers, and artists have been selected to engage communities over the next nine months. Half are led by a landscape architecture firm, and almost all include landscape architecture firms. Also, each team includes at least one firm from the Bay Area, while some teams are made up of all local firms and experts.

The 10 teams:

Next, the teams will head out into the community for three months on collaborative research tours. Local experts and community groups will identify “locations vulnerable to sea level rise, severe storms, flooding, and earthquakes.” In November, each team will present 3-5 project design opportunities. And then in December, one project will be selected for each team.

The design work will then begin early next year. Teams will be expected to form close partnerships with state and local governments and community groups in order to achieve implementation.

San Francisco Bay wetland / Save the Bay blog

Also, Resilient by Design is partnering with Y-PLAN, an educational platform developed by University of California, Berkeley that enables “young people to tackle real-world problems in their communities through project-based civic learning experiences.” Alongside the Bay Area Challenge, Y-PLAN will lead students through a similar planning and design effort, empowering them to “dream big and envision a more resilient Bay Area grounded in equity, and providing sources of inspiration for future college and career readiness for young aspiring resilience planners.”

Watch a kickoff video and see a calendar of upcoming public events.

A Powerful New Therapy: Climbing Trees

Dr. John Gathright climbs a tree with students, as part of the TreeHab program / John Gathright, Tree Climbing Japan


Climbing trees isn’t just for able-bodied children and adults. Dr. John Gathright believes it can be an inclusive form of therapy with the power to foster positive emotions in people of all physical and mental abilities. 

Gathright is the founder of Tree Climbing Japan, an organization that uses tree climbing as rehabilitation for physically-challenged people to overcome pain while improving well-being, mobility, and strength.

“I believe that trees are our friends, teachers, and doctors,” Gathright said at annual conference of the International Society of Arboriculture in Washington, D.C.

The inspiration for his new therapeutic approach for people with disabilities came from a 57-year-old woman named Hikosaka Toshiko. Gathright met her before he was involved in field of tree climbing at a signing event for a book he wrote about achieving your dreams. She is physically challenged and uses a wheelchair. She told him her dream was to climb the world’s tallest tree and asked for his help. Gathright agreed and, in 2000, after three years of preparation, Toshiko was ready to take on a 250-foot tall giant sequoia. It took her over an hour to get a quarter of the way up.

“She had the goal of reaching the top of the tree, and it took her three and a half hours to get half way,” he said, recalling her reaction when, after over five hours, she made it to the top. “She said, ‘I’m here. I’m not a cripple. I’m a challenger. Thank you, tree. Thank you, everybody.’”

Gathright wanted to then empower others with physical and mental disabilities. Through his work with Toshiko, Gathright developed TreeHab, a set of adaptive, therapeutic tree-climbing techniques.

“People said climbing had physiological and social benefits, that when they climbed trees they didn’t feel pain. The people who were depressed and had anxiety changed in our programs,” Gathright said, relaying testimonials from people who climbed.

But there was a lack of research on the subject, so Gathright went back to school to get his PhD at Nagoya University to prove the science behind the program. He conducted a study monitoring subjects’ brain waves and stress hormones as they climbed a live tree compared to when they climbed a concrete tower in the same forest.

“We wanted to know how people’s bodies changed with the trees,” he said. “We discovered climbing a tree and a concrete tower in the same forest produced very different and measurable physical and physiological results.”

He found that tree climbing had a masking effect on internal pain, and that positive emotions were enhanced while negative emotions were decreased in subjects climbing live trees, but not when climbing the concrete tower.

His program has helped children to cope with mental and physical trauma by creating a connection to nature and allowing trees to tell their story when they cannot. Gathright also uses the program to educate climbers about tree health and forests and turn them into advocates for forests.

Beyond Japan, Gathright believes there’s great opportunity for this form of therapy worldwide.

“I think it will be huge,” he said. “Look at the demographics: in America alone, 57 million people have a disability. Anxiety disorders — another forty million adults.”

Engagement by Design

Staten Island Living Breakwaters Community Meeting / Rebuild by Design

It’s been just over three years since the winners of the Rebuild by Design competition were announced. Since then, there have been almost 400 meetings with communities around each of the seven project sites in the New York metro region. The competition, launched by President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, called for large-scale, cross-sector, hybrid solutions to make communities more resilient to future storms.

Long before construction begins, teams in charge of design and implementation are helping community stakeholders visualize the project, the goal being to stimulate dialogue. At each step, community feedback is integrated into plans and designs.

Staff of Rebuild by Design — a research and design organization that was formed after the competition — attended public meetings held by every design team, where they have catalogued the most effective community engagement practices. Engagement by Design, an event put on by the organization at New York University, showcased them:

Living Breakwaters, which was presented by Nans Voron, SCAPE Landscape Architects, and Victoria Cerullo, Living Breakwaters Citizens Advisory Committee, is an innovative project off the coast of Staten Island that will use constructed offshore oyster reefs to attentuate waves in future storms and reduce shoreline erosion. In addition, the project will increase biodiversity and social resiliency by providing educational and stewardship opportunities and increased access to the shoreline.

Living Breakwaters is unusual for an urban landscape design, in that much of it is underwater and over 500 feet offshore. This proved to be a challenge when it came to communicating the project to the public. “Even though we were producing renderings to try to envision the future, at the end of the day it’s still very hard to communicate the experience a boater, a swimmer, or even an oyster will have next to one of the breakwaters,” said Voron.

The team began to use virtual reality (VR) goggles to help the public visualize the project. Voron believes VR offers the opportunity for a more visceral and immersive understanding of the effects of climate change. When classic flood maps fall short in their ability to communicate urgency, VR has the potential to create a deeper emotional impact.

Hoboken, a city hit especially hard by hurricane Sandy, recently released the draft Environmental Impact Statement for an urban water management strategy with four components: Resist, Delay, Retain and Discharge. Most of the Rebuild by Design competition funding is going to the “resist” features, which keep storm surges out of the city. The resist features morph into various forms depending on surroundings, so the team decided to make a flyover animation to give context and scale to this complex infrastructural intervention.

Alexis Taylor, outreach team leader for the New Jersey department of environmental Protection, narrated as a flyover animation of the current preferred design for the urban water management plan played. The animation followed the path of the resist feature through city, as it changed from a berm with a serpentine path and integrated recreational spaces to a floodgate closure and then a way-finding device.

At certain points, Taylor interjected to tell the audience that features had been added or amended based on community recommendations. The absence of a fixed audio narrative for the animation allows anyone presenting it to describe the project in their own voice — whether they are a city official or a Hoboken community member.

All teams admitted the engagement process is not without conflict. Angela Tovar, The Point Community Development Corporation (CDC) in the Bronx, urged project teams to be patient with the “planning fatigue” of community members reticent to participate, especially in under-served communities such as the Bronx. For decades, these communities have been subjected to broken promises by city officials, discriminatory housing policies, and environmental injustices, so promises of improved quality of life can be met with justified skepticism.

For David Kooris, director of Rebuild by Design & national disaster resilience for Connecticut, community engagement is not a necessary evil, but critical to evaluating the progress of the project: “I would be very nervous to follow just the bare minimum standards, and once every few months go to a public hearing not having any idea what people were going to show up and say.” By meeting with the stakeholders in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on a near-weekly basis, “I know what all the issues are. I know the ones we can address and the ones we can’t, and we can tweak the project in response to them.”

“I think the most important thing is to arm people with information,” explained Taylor. “Whether or not they are going to come out in support or opposition is fine, at least we are giving them the tools to communicate.”

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, landscape designer at SWA/Balsley in New York City.