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

Field Day campers / Jonathon Geels

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Lockdown, New Opportunities for Downtown Shopping Districts

Petoskey, Michigan / Robert Gibbs

By Robert Gibbs, FASLA

Since the earliest human settlements, the retail experience has evolved to meet the needs of the public. This evolution has taken us from rural markets to towns, cities, suburban shopping malls, big box mega stores, and, more recently, the Internet. But what will retail shopping look like once COVID-19 lockdowns are over and people return to the wild for their shopping experiences?

When all the dust settles, the post-lockdown era should provide a boost to downtown areas, in part due to newly unemployed but highly skilled restaurant and retail workers opening new businesses in downtowns where rent prices will trend downward.

The pandemic has left millions of highly skilled workers from the retail and food and beverage industries unemployed and eager to work. Many of these people are highly motivated to start their own businesses, creating an unparalleled pool of talent and potential entrepreneurial interest.

In a recent Forbes article, Bernhard Schroeder wrote: “27 million working-age Americans, nearly 14 percent, are starting or running new businesses. And Millennials and Gen-Z are driving higher interest in entrepreneurship as 51 percent of the working population now believes that there are actually good opportunities to start companies.”

Traditionally, fear of failure has held people back from starting a business, but with so many having their jobs swept away due to the pandemic, that fear is gone for many people, who realize they no longer want to rely on an employer for the rest of their careers, and instead want to take on the challenge of leading their own companies.

Downtown shopping districts will capture traffic from fading malls

Malls will struggle in the era of COVID-19. Being inside an enclosed bubble will not be the ideal situation for most shoppers for the foreseeable future. Morning Consult reports that 24 percent of U.S. consumers fear shopping in malls for at least the next six months due to the COVID-19 threat.

As an article about a newly reopened mall in Atlanta explains, the experience won’t be very welcoming in the near term. Play areas are roped off, water fountains covered, and stores are limiting the number of shoppers due to social distancing. Add in the inconvenience factor, and it’s clear why so many malls are facing a reckoning in the coming years.

As regional malls continue losing consumers due to changing shopping habits and fears of COVID-19, an excellent opportunity presents itself for villages, towns, and cities to regain their dominance as thriving centers for retail and entertainment.

Some factors to consider:

  • As Millennials and Empty Nesters seek to live, work, and shop in urban centers, medium-sized cities (100,000 to 200,000 population) are especially likely to benefit from this trend.
  • Small towns (10,000 to 20,000 people) located near large urban centers are also appealing to start-up retailers and restaurants that want to take advantage of their proximity to large, well-heeled populations and small towns’ affordable commercial storefronts.
  • New walkable town centers — planned with authentic urbanism and a variety of hospitality, employment and residential land use — can also ride the wave of Millennials, young families, and Empty Nesters who seek an exciting place to hang out.

Main Streets are already innovating

Main Streets have been reinventing themselves in a positive way during the past few decades, making them a more attractive alternative for retail shopping in the era of COVID-19.

These innovations include:

  • Updated master plans that undo blight caused by 1970s urban renewal plans.
  • Implementation of Downtown Development Districts, which offer marketing, promotions, special events, street cleaning, landscaping, flowers and private-sector levels of management.
  • Effective parking management, and construction of new parking lots and garages.
  • Investment in beautiful new streetscapes, public art, and street furnishings.
  • Reduction of crime, increased safety.
  • U.S. Main Street programs, which offers guidance to revitalize downtowns, and returns $36 for each $1 invested.

For Millennials, who seek more social experiences as opposed to the enclosed mall experience of their youth, Main Street experiences in their towns and cities are the perfect fit for their lifestyle.

While the larger portion of their income will go to experiences such as European travel or outdoor adventures, closer-to-home visits to a local brewpub or coffee shop in their town center make perfect sense.

Main Streets will provide new homes for mall stores

As malls close and online shopping grows, existing mall retailers will seek new locations near their former mall stores. In many instances, these venues include smaller downtown cores, which traditionally offer lower rents and, now, the safety of an open-air shopping experience.

The writing is on the wall for mall store operators, all of which leads to an economically-friendly, Main Street setting:

  • Malls depend on department stores to attract almost 50 percent of their shoppers and cannot operate without them, which is problematic for many reasons.
  • Many mall retailers have lease options allowing them to break their leases and leave the mall should key department stores close.
  • Department stores are losing market share, from a peak of 50 percent of all retail sales in the 1950s to 5 percent today.
  • Since the heyday of malls in 1992, department store sales have dropped from $230 billion to $140 billion and many department stores are close to bankruptcy.
  • Over 50 percent of regional malls are forecast to close by 2025 (Credit Suisse).

Retail and Office Space Will Move to Town Centers

The online shopping boom has made nearly obsolete many of the conventional large power center retailers offering products such as books, electronics, office supplies, sporting goods, and toys. The end result is the expected closing of millions of square feet of retail space.

Often, these centers cover typically 20-50 acres of prime real estate, which presents an opportunity. They can be converted into mixed-use town centers with medium density residential and commercial occupants.

The same can be said of suburban office parks, as even centers in blue-chip locations are facing high vacancies and declining rents as many major corporations are moving into city centers to attract top talent. Millennials find the suburban office parks boring, preferring to live and work in downtowns. These large office parks have an abundance of land and parking that can be retrofitted into walkable mixed-use town centers.

Challenges and opportunities for downtown shopping districts

When a national brand relocates from a mall environment to a town or city, they may initially receive a cold shoulder from city leaders and the community, who fear popular brands will end up killing their beloved Main Street’s unique charm.

Looking back at history, though, this thinking is inaccurate, as downtown shopping districts were filled with leading retailers and large department stores during their 1950s heyday. For long-term sustainability, a downtown should always offer the goods and services desired by its residents and workers, which may include popular brand names.

Zoning is another key battle. Cities must offer flexible form-based zoning to allow for medium-to-high densities of residential and commercial to be developed as walkable neighborhoods and business districts. Development standards should focus on requiring quality design and materials, rather than arbitrary minimal units per acre densities, minimal parking ratios, or suburban building setbacks.

Parking needs to be reconfigured to allow shoppers to pickup goods curbside.

Downtowns and open-air town centers are seen as safer from the pandemic than enclosed malls, because they offer:

  • Wider spaces.
  • Less-enclosed spaces, with more fresh air and direct sunlight.
  • The ability to walk on other side of street or block.
  • No elevators or escalators.
  • Fewer doors to enter.
  • Curbside pick-up of goods.

People enjoy visiting towns and cities to socialize and experience parks, urban life, including storefronts.

They visit to have an experience they cannot get through online shopping. And while visiting downtowns for entertainment and fun, many will walk by store fronts and be tempted to make impulse purchases from Main Street retailers.

Inviting storefront that provides a unique shopping experience in Nantucket, MA / Robert Gibbs
Ralph Lauren shop in Southhampton, NY / Robert Gibbs
Shoppers in Naples, Florida / Robert Gibbs

Towns and small city landlords typically offer much cheaper rents than suburban malls, often more than 50 percent less, and also offer flexible lease terms: no minimum hours and less rigorous storefront and merchandising standards than mall leases. This type of accommodation will be more attractive to new entrepreneurs created from this pandemic.

The savings also are appealing to national retailers facing declining sales and mall leases that are too expensive.

How downtown Main Streets can ensure success

As we look to the future, and the economic recovery that will come once a vaccine is created and herd immunity is established, all signs point to the re-emergence of Main Street as the place people will want to do their retail shopping.

A new generation of entrepreneurs will be eager to start a new chapter in their life, and the suburban shopping centers are not going to attract them.

Well-designed town centers, with the type of social interaction sought by Millennials, young families, and Empty Nesters will be the new home for the boom in the years to come.

King Street in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia / Robert Gibbs

A few best practices for downtowns to apply:

  • Create a marketing strategy for a post-pandemic campaign.
  • Beautify the public realm through landscape, lighting, parking lots-garages, signage, streetscape, and storefront improvements.
  • Explore temporary commercial street closures to allow for open air dining and shopping spaces.
  • Modify zoning to allow first floor office and service business.
  • Require store fronts to maintain large clear glazing, sign bands, operating doors, and ceiling heights to allow for future retail or restaurant use.
  • Remove or reduce minimum retail and restaurant parking requirements in downtowns and new mixed-use developments.
  • Include generous 10-minute parking spaces to accommodate curbside pickups for restaurants and retailers.
  • Devise market-based business recruitment plans and resources to identify and attract new retailers and restaurants into the downtown.
  • Seek a balance of local, regional, and national retailers.
  • Apply flexible zoning to promote medium-density and high-density multi-family residential.
  • Implement market based master plans, form-based codes, and zoning flexibility to allow for retrofitting of underutilized shopping centers and office parks.

Robert Gibbs, FASLA, is president of the Gibbs Planning Group, which has advised and planned commercial areas in some 500 town centers and historic cities in the U.S. and abroad. Gibbs is a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, a lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, author of Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development, and co-author of eight books.

Are We Ready to Restore the Planet?

Ancient Norse farms in southwest Greenland / David Moreno-Mateos

The United Nations has declared the next 10 years the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. This builds on the European Union’s recent commitments to biodiversity protection, including the restoration of 15 percent of its ecosystems. The New York Declaration on Forests — which is a result of the United Nation’s 2014 Climate Action Summit and has been endorsed by 200 governments and other groups — aims to restore 350 million hectares of forests by 2030. Another initiative is the 30 by 30 forests, food, and land challenge, which calls for reforestation on a global scale, also by 2030.

In a Zoom lecture sponsored by Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), David Moreno-Mateos, a restoration ecologist and an assistant professor of landscape architecture at GSD, asked: “Are we ready to restore the planet?”

The trends on global biodiversity aren’t good. As humans degrade or destroy an increasingly large share of the Earth’s ecosystems, extinction rates have tripled in the past 100 years. “Vertebrate populations have declined 58 percent in the last 40 years,” Moreno-Mateos explained. Furthermore, local species richness has declined by 40 percent in most developed countries over the past 150 years.

Moreno-Mateos believes nature itself is a thing of great value. Nature provides an estimated $125 trillion of benefits in the form of food, water, medicine, and other resources through its ecosystems. Biodiversity is critical to ensuring the function and resilience of these ecosystems. To connect the dots: biodiversity is then central to clean air and water and the preservation of our food sources through seed banks, pollinators, and fisheries.

The challenge is that “ecosystem restoration is a long-term process.” In a review of scientific studies on some 3,000 restored ecosystems, research has shown that after 150 years, restored ecosystems are 70 percent less diverse and 40 percent less functional than undisturbed ecosystems.

Land-based ecosystems are made up of a diversity of animal, insect, fungi, and plant species, with specific carbon, soil, and water characteristics. There are specific levels of nutrients, including phosphorous, organic matter, and nitrogen. These elements all interact in particular ways. Given all the complexity, “ecosystem restoration has limited effectiveness.”

So this was perhaps the key message of Moreno-Mateos’ talk: the best approach is to not degrade incredibly complex ecosystems. There is still too much about their functions we don’t understand, and it’s nearly impossible to recreate their dense networks of interactions.

But if an ecosystem has been disturbed, Moreno-Mateos sought to find out: what happens over the long-term? What can be done?

Species diversity results in community composites. Think of a meadow, a community of plants that thrives together. There are interaction networks within those communities and between communities. A resilient meadow has a greater abundance of network interactions, with a higher number of “strong links” — “that is species that interact more strongly.” The same is true below ground. Amid soil communities, “the higher the complexity, the higher the functionality, and, likely, the resilience.”

For his own research, Moreno-Mateos started with the assumption that ecosystem degradation reduces genetic diversity. In southwest Greenland, Norse farmers settled two sites some 650 years ago. Archeologists discovered each village had about 100 people who farmed hay for cattle. To Moreno-Mateos, this seemed to be the perfect place to study the long-term impacts of ecological disturbance.

Examining an undisturbed site and a disturbed, former agricultural site, and looking at their above ground plant communities and below ground soil communities, Moreno-Mateos found “both sites had a similar amount of plant communities (35 species in the disturbed site and 34 in the reference site), but the compositions were totally different. In the disturbed site, one plant community dominated.” Moreno-Mateos also discovered the former agricultural sites had more nutrients because the Norse would add manure to the hay fields, which meant more nitrogen and phosphorous.

David Moreno-Mateos samples soils in Greenland / David Moreno-Mateos

There was another key finding: the original, undisturbed site had more “mutualistic interactions.” The degraded site had more “pathogenic interactions.” This fit his hypothesis: “loss of biodiversity means more pathogens” and loss of function and resilience.

This was proven through the very different network interactions between plants and fungi in the soils in each site. In the formerly agricultural landscape, there were 15 plant species and just 37 fungi species, creating 62 links. In contrast, in the ecologically-healthy, undisturbed site, there were 12 plants and 76 fungi that created 148 links. This means networks in disturbed sites are more vulnerable to change.

Moreno-Mateos’ research could have implications for global ecosystem restoration. He believes restoration ecologists must “first understand how the complexity of ecosystems re-assembles over hundreds of years, and then find species that play critical structural and functional roles in the assembly process and use them in the restoration process.”

To increase the resilience of restored ecosystems at a more rapid rate, Moreno-Mateos called for sequencing whole genomes of species in recovering populations to understand their adaptation potential. This process would help identify populations of target species whose genomes have the best chance to adapt to ongoing global change.

The idea is to select species with critical ecological roles that come from populations with the highest adaptation potential and strategically insert them into recovering ecosystems. This process would involve finding populations of species in a landscape with high-functioning genomes and using those seeds to help restore ecological balance elsewhere.

Moreno-Mateos envisioned designing assemblages of high-performing plant communities and targeting them for tough environments in cities or for recovering forests or other ecosystems at a landscape scale.

Adaptation modules / David Moreno-Mateos

“We need to imagine what landscapes will look like in 400 years.” Our future ecosystems must be “resilient to climate change, biodiverse, self-sustaining, provide ecological services, and last forever.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (April 16-30)

Rendering of Carpenter Park, Dallas / Hargreaves Jones Landscape Architecture

Landscape Planner: Post-pandemic World Could Be “a Little bit Slower and a Whole Lot Greener”The Houston Chronicle, 04/30/20
“Kinder Baumgardner is especially attuned to space, how people use it and what public places can do to unite even in isolation. He is managing principal for the Houston office of SWA, an international design firm.”

First Look: The Redesign of Downtown Dallas’ Carpenter ParkD Magazine, 02/29/20
“Hargreaves Jones, the New York-based award-winning landscape architecture firm involved in developing the 2004 Dallas Parks Master Plan and downtown’s Belo Garden, is behind Carpenter Park’s redesign.”

Lithuanian Capital to Be Turned into Vast Open-air CafeThe Guardian, 04/28/20
“Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, has announced plans to turn the city into a vast open-air cafe by giving over much of its public space to hard-hit bar and restaurant owners so they can put their tables outdoors and still observe physical distancing rules.”

NYC Will Open up to 100 Miles of Streets to PedestriansCurbed, 04/27/20
“Under an agreement with the City Council, the de Blasio administration will open up at least 40 miles of streets in May, with the ultimate goal of 100 miles in the coming months. The undertaking will also roll out temporary bike lanes and expand sidewalks, he said.”

Extensive Renovation of South Los Angeles’s Magic Johnson Park Moves ForwardThe Architect’s Newspaper, 04/20/20
“Last week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved funding that will bring the proposed master plan of Magic Johnson Park in Willowbrook, California, one step closer to reality.”

COVID-19: An Opportunity for More Equitable Public Transportation

Photo by taken by bus driver Valerie Jefferson / Valerie Jefferson for WWNO article by Tegan Wendland, April 22, 2020

By Diane Jones Allen, FASLA

These tweets appeared on the Regional Transit Authority (RTA), New Orleans, and NOLA Ready Twitter feeds:

“The following routes will suspend service beginning March 29th: 2- Riverfront Streetcar, 5-Marigny-Bywater, 11-Magazine, 15-Freret, 45-Lakeview, 48-Canal-City Park Streetcar, 51-St. Bernard/St. Anthony, 60-Hayne, 65-Read-Crowder Express, 90-Carrollton, 101-Algiers Point, 106-Auror. Starting tomorrow, April 19, the 39-Tulane will suspend overnight service between 12:00 am to 4:00 am. There is a delay on 62 – Morrison Express. Apr 21 #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 114 – General DeGaulle-Sullen. Apr 20 #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 28 – M.L.King. #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 65 – Read-Crowder Express. Apr 19 #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 57 – Franklin.”

These messages bring to light the nightmare of those who depend on transit in order to maintain a steady job. They are facing a double crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are some of us who have easy access to work, because we do it from home at our laptops, but most aren’t so lucky. Many citizens must ride the bus or take other mass transit to earn a basic living. These are often the essential and frontline workers, those working in grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals, supplying important city services such as trash collection and utility maintenance, and even bus drivers.

Many of these people are already located in Transit Deserts — areas with high transit demand and limited or no access. With bus services cut, people are crowded on to fewer buses. The current situation — which is not only limiting but also eliminating transit service — is exaggerating the existing transportation inequities in already underserved areas. The COVID-19 crisis is exposing how particular segments of our society are more at risk due to historical and structural inequality in many areas, including housing and employment but certainly transportation access.

The current responses to the pandemic also reveal ways to address transit access and some of the inequities this crisis has exposed. I have noticed more people walking and biking in parks and along streets. With the reduction of travel by automobile, this means fewer cars on the road and reduced carbon emissions, creating several health benefits, including cleaner air.

Importantly, the current situation also strengthens the argument that given certain conditions, increased numbers of people will readily give up car travel if they had alternatives or had to, or at least use them less, even in a place as automobile dependent as Texas, where I am making these observations.

It is most likely that once more people are again traveling to work, there still will be a need for social distancing, presenting a major concern for traveling on buses and other forms of mass transit.

Walking on the sidewalk in Arlington, Texas, April 24, 2020 / Diane Jones Allen

Social distancing, brought on by the pandemic crisis, may be key to a solution for increasing transit in a catalytic fashion. If fewer people can be on a bus, then there must be more buses on each route just to maintain the base level of public financed mobility. More buses on a line means greater frequency and less wait time. Less wait time is proven to be a factor in increasing ridership.

While doing research for my book Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access, and Suburban Form, I interviewed several people in a Baltimore neighborhood that lived in walking distance to a bus line that would have taken them directly downtown to their place of work.

When asked why they didn’t take the bus, given it took them straight to work, the majority responded that they didn’t want to wait at the bus stop. I then asked: if the bus came frequently would they take it? The reply was overwhelmingly yes, even if it meant transferring to another frequent line. This is true in most dense urban areas.

Most people are even willing to endure a longer ride time, if the wait time at the point of access is reduced. It can be reduced with frequently arriving buses that also prevent the overcrowding that usually happens, thus allowing people to maintain a safe distance apart. In my view, it is a win win, particularly if the medical cost of maintaining social distances is added on to the funding source for more public transit.

The severity of the Coronavirus pandemic means that things won’t ever get back to “normal.” For those who care about the environment and those in it, it is a time to rethink how we live and move about the urban landscape.

We can create mobility solutions that are equitable, environmentally sound, and protect our health. Of course, it only starts with putting more buses on the line. There is now an opportunity for creative thinking.

Maybe we can invest in on-demand vans, or “VIA” type services, which is a pay-on-demand van service that runs on a fixed route; and other smaller multi-passenger vehicles that are publicly subsidized and capture residents in neighborhoods and connect to frequent larger vehicles on major routes.

There is now an opportunity when people are appreciating the opportunity to take a walk and ride a bike and be healthy, adjusting to not being in cars so much of the time, appreciating clean air and the ability to just breath, and willing to make sacrifices for their neighbors, community, and country.

During times like these, those of us who are moved by problem solving must think outside of the limits of traditional transportation and step up to the challenges of creating an equitable society where there is mobility choice — and everyone has equal access to work, play, and the pursuit of life.

Dr. Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, is professor of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is co-founder and principal at DesignJones, LLC, author of Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access, and Suburban Form (Routledge, 2019), and co-editor of Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity (Island Press, 2017).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate Orff, FASLA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gowanus Lowlands, Brookyln, New York / SCAPE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Columbia University urban design studio in Pune, India / SCAPE

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

From Shopping Mall to Urban Lagoon

Tainan Spring / Daria Scagliola, MVRDV

In Tainan, a city of 1.8 million on the southwest coast of Taiwan, a defunct shopping mall has been transformed into Tainan Spring, an urban lagoon park. This ingenious new public space, which reuses remnants of the mall’s concrete parking garage, is at the heart of an ambitious effort to bring people and nature back to the waterfront of Taiwan’s oldest city. Commissioned by the urban development bureau of the Tainan city government, the new 581,000 square foot (54,000 square meter) landscape forms a green axis with a kilometer-long stretch of Haian Road that has been redesigned for pedestrians.

According to project designer MVRDV, a Dutch architecture and urban design firm that led a multidisciplinary team including Taiwanese landscape design firm The Urbanists Collaborative, Tainan’s network of waterways have enabled the city’s marine and fishing industries since the 17th century. But in the 1980s, the city began to over-develop its waterfront. The ChinaTown Mall was constructed on top of the old harbor next to the Tainan Canal. Decades later, as the abandoned shopping center became a “drain on the vitality of downtown,” the city developed plans to turn it into a destination park.

The Tainan city government required that the old mall be deconstructed and its concrete “meticulously recycled.” Given the embodied carbon in concrete, the decision was made to also reuse a level of the underground parking garage as part of the structure of the $4.7 million sunken park.

Tainan Spring / Daria Scagliola, MVRDV

Concrete structures have been mostly integrated with a new pedestrian promenade that loops the park. Below the promenade, nooks have formed that will soon host small shops and restaurants.

Tainan Spring / Daria Scagliola, MVRDV

MVRDV created multiple layers to create a sense of history and place. Within the curvilinear lagoon, pillars of the garage structure jut out, creating a shopping mall-version of a Roman ruin.

Tainan Spring / Daria Scagliola, MVRDV

Remnants structures provide watery play spaces and shade. One part of the park contains a glass floor that offers a glimpse deep into the old infrastructural layers below.

Tainan Spring / Daria Scagliola, MVRDV

The lagoon is planted with multiple layers of plants and trees, which are expected to grow over the next few years into a stylized jungle. The plant life will cool and shade gathering areas, playgrounds, and a performance stage.

Tainan Spring / Daria Scagliola, MVRDV

The lagoon itself is also designed to be responsive to the environment. “Water levels within the lagoon rise and fall in response to the rainy and dry seasons,” MVRDV states. During Tainan’s steamy summer, mist sprayers will help reduce ambient air temperatures.

Tainan Spring / Daria Scagliola, MVRDV
Tainan Spring / Daria Scagliola, MVRDV

“People can bathe in the overgrown remains of a shopping mall. Children can swim in the ruins of the past,” said Winy Maas, founding partner of MVRDV. “How fantastic is that?”

The team’s renovation of Haian Road reduced traffic to one lane in each direction. The new road uses pavers to create a uniform identity and incorporates more of the jungle plant palette. Maas added that “Tainan is a very grey city. With the reintroduction of the jungle every place possible, the city is reintegrating into the surrounding landscape.”

How Can We Design with Communities While Apart?

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

By Deb Guenther, FASLA

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

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

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

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

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

Put equity front and center

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

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

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

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

Build a welcoming atmosphere

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

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

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

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

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

Remain flexible and appreciative

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

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

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

Design intentional, substantive participation experiences

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

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

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

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

Be alert. Create space for true narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (March 16-31)

MARABAR by Elyn Zimmerman / Courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

National Geographic Headquarters Plaza Redesign Threatens Historically Significant Sculpture3/31/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“In 1984, the scientific and educational organization, the National Geographic Society commissioned Elyn Zimmerman—a then up-and-coming New York-based artist—to produce a sculpture within the modernist plaza of its Washington, D.C., headquarters.”

How COVID-19 Is Affecting Architecture Students and Educators on an Emotional Level — 3/31/20, Archinect
“Archinect asked for responses from its global community via the ongoing survey How is your school dealing with the coronavirus outbreak? to learn how students and educators in the architecture field were dealing with the transition.”

How Essential Is Construction During the Coronavirus Pandemic? — 3/30/20, Curbed
“While some cities and states are shutting construction down, others are granting exceptions, particularly where it relates to the nationwide housing shortage. Meanwhile, industry groups are pushing for federal-level designation of construction as an essential business.”

D.C. Planted Nearly 80 Trees a Day to Reach a Canopy Target. It’s Running out of Space —3/27/20, The Washington Post
“Midway through a years-long tree campaign, the same economic successes that ushered in new residents and transformed neighborhoods across Washington are threatening to stymie the city’s woodland progress.”

Here’s What Our Cities Will Look Like After the Coronavirus Epidemic — 3/26/20, Kinder Institute for Urban Research
“The threat of infectious disease is likely to ramp up urban design as a solution — perhaps, for example, by creating more separation in public spaces like restaurants and parks.”

Is COVID-19 Making You Stay at Home? Turn Your Home Into a Healing Space — 3/24/20, University of Arizona News
“’A few simple interventions can turn your home from a stressful space into a healing one,’ says Esther Sternberg, who holds the Andrew Weil Chair for Research in Integrative Medicine.”