New ASLA Exhibition: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate exhibition / EPNAC

Across the country, landscape architects are stepping up to face the growing global climate crisis head-on. In 2018, ASLA’s interdisciplinary Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience issued a report that outlined policy recommendations and design best practices for creating resilient, sustainable communities.

The new Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Exhibition showcases 20 diverse case studies that illustrate the success these recommendations can have in harnessing natural systems, reducing carbon emissions, and improving communities’ resilience to climate change.

Some projects lower carbon emissions from transportation by improving access to bicycle lanes and sidewalks and limiting space for vehicles, like the Jackson Street Reconstruction Project in Saint Paul, Minnesota, by Toole Design Group.

Jackson Street Reconstruction, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design

Others show how we can restore natural systems and bring back biodiversity on previously-developed sites, like the Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects.

ASLA 2010 Professional Honor Award in General Design. Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona. Ten Eyck Landscape Architects. / Bill Timmerman

Some projects show how cities can design to prepare for worst-case flooding scenarios using natural systems, like the Buffalo Bayou Promenade in Houston, Texas by SWA Group.

ASLA 2009 Professional Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade, Houston, Texas. SWA Group / Bill Tatham

Others integrate renewable energy facilities into communities, like the Solar Strand project in Buffalo, New York by Hood Design Studio.

Solar Strand project in Buffalo, New York. Hood Design Studio / Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo

The exhibition is free and open to the public at ASLA’s Center for Landscape Architecture (636 I Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20001) every weekday from 10am to 4pm EST (excluding holidays) through May 1, 2020.

ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture / ASLA

There is also an expanded companion to the exhibition at the website: climate.asla.org.

To put on the Smart Politics for a Changing Climate Exhibition, ASLA was awarded an Art Works Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. “These awards, reaching every corner of the United States, are a testament to the artistic richness and diversity in our country,” said Mary Anne Carter, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Organizations such as the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) are giving people in their community the opportunity to learn, create, and be inspired.”

ASLA is also calling for the submissions of further case studies that show how landscape architects design for a changing climate. If you know of a project that fits the bill, please submit at the exhibition website.

Tracing Olmsted’s Journey Through the South

 

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide / Penguin Press

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide, a new book about Frederick Law Olmsted by journalist Tony Horwitz, is difficult to classify. It is popular history and a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, his America, and his writings. It is also reportage from rural America and a thoughtful reflection on our times.

In Spying on the South, Horwitz travels in the footsteps of Olmsted, who was himself a political journalist before becoming the father of American landscape architecture we’re most familiar with. It’s worth noting that Horwitz seems to have been put on to Olmsted by his friend Charles McLaughlin, founding editor of the Olmsted Papers Project.

This recreation of Olmsted’s journeys takes Horwitz through the American south and Texas, towns and regions “hollowed out by economic and social decay” as well as environmental degradation.

Horwitz begins the book in the run-up to the 2016 election, and ample connections are drawn to Olmsted’s own political reporting, which occurred in the years precipitating the Civil War. Olmsted’s writing was commissioned to serve as a window into southern society in a time of rising tensions. Spying on the South fills a similar niche.

The book holds obvious value to landscape architects, outside of those interested in dispatches from rural America. As landscape architects have become more self-aware and self-critiquing, we have logically looked to re-consider our heroes.

Frederick Law Olmsted, a paragon of American landscape designers, has been the subject of such re-consideration. Many have found him lacking for several reasons, including his friendly disposition towards the aristocracy and what we now recognize as some flawed urban design practices. Others, willing to see past Olmsted’s mistakes, ascribe them to the times in which he operated.

Horwitz seems to fall in the latter group, but has his reasons. Spying on the South’s most profound insight is that attitudes do not merely progress, but rise and fall. Horwitz describes Olmsted’s attitude towards slavery transforming from opposition on economic terms, to moral opposition, to righteous anger, to outright hatred of it and the society it supported. Unsurprisingly, these attitudes coincide precisely with escalation in the conflict between North and South.

After the war, Olmsted’s attitude towards the south warmed, as did society’s at large. The south had atoned through suffering, Olmsted believed. A well-known landscape architect at this point, Olmsted was more than willing to do business there. This, despite the continued efforts of southern states to oppress their black populations.

Horwitz’s suggestion that our political beliefs are more tied to our zeitgeist than we know is a fascinating one. Of course, we ourselves inform the zeitgeist. Perhaps the best we can do is raise the bar as far as we can before falling back into complacency. The sort of achievement, for instance, Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had with Central Park.

Central Park, NYC / Wikipedia

Horwitz describes how Olmsted envisioned such a place long before he was in any position to deliver it, a vision informed by his travels in the south. Olmsted saw Central Park as an opportunity to showcase the democratic values he supported. The park, shared by the city’s inhabitants, would be a rebuke to the aristocracy of the American south and Europe, which were both economically and morally invested in keeping society stratified.

Olmsted saw himself, his brother, and his peers as social engineers, and wished to “get up parks, gardens, music, dancing schools, reunions, which will be so attractive as to force into contact the good & bad, the gentlemanly and rowdy.”

Again, some of the language Olmsted uses in describing his ideas would put off those of us who don’t equate poverty with moral deficiency. But one senses his heart was in the right place.

Despite Olmsted’s flaws, something he and posterity have in common is the value we place on Central Park. Vaux, in a letter to Olmsted late in life, calls it “the big art work of the republic.” And in many ways, the progressive values that shaped Central Park were the result of Olmsted’s travels in the south.

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

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A lagoon is planned for the southern end of LaSalle Park, Buffalo, New York / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

In the Hudson’s Image Urban Omnibus, 5/2/19
“Over the last two centuries, artists have painted, sketched and photographed the Hudson, while scientists, surveyors and others have mapped the river landscape as a first step to shaping it with human hands.”

For Colleges, Climate Change Means Making Tough Choices The Chronicle of Higher Education
“The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation’s awarding of $100 million to reinvent LaSalle Park and to complete a regional trail system represents the largest philanthropic gift ever in Western New York.”

Editorial: A Welcome Grand Vision for Transforming Lasalle Park The Buffalo News, 5/6/19
“The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation’s awarding of $100 million to reinvent LaSalle Park and to complete a regional trail system represents the largest philanthropic gift ever in Western New York.”

Smithsonian Readies $650M Initial Phase of South Campus Overhaul The Washington Business Journal, 5/6/19
“The Smithsonian Institution is inching closer to kicking off work on its massive renovation of its 17-acre South Mall campus, which includes the historic Smithsonian Castle.”

Curator Will Plant 299 Trees in a Stadium to Make Statement on Climate ChangeSmithsonian, 5/8/19
“A large-scale public art installation scheduled to go on view in the Austrian city of Klagenfurt this fall will ask viewers to imagine a world in which trees, like nearly extinct animals found only in zoos, thrive solely in specially designated spaces such as soccer stadiums.”

Debate: How to Spend $2 Trillion on Infrastructure

Jackson Street Reconstruction, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design

In a dark conference room in the heart of Washington, D.C., amidst the clink of glasses and silverware, an interdisciplinary panel of experts discussed the future of infrastructure policy in America.

“At the beginning of the week, I was optimistic,” said Roxanne Blackwell, Esq., Hon. ASLA, federal affairs director at the American Society of Landscape Architecture (ASLA). “For the first time the Democratic leadership went up to the White House to talk about infrastructure investment. Everyone comes out smiling, everyone using terms like ‘bigger,’ ‘bolder.’ Then by Wednesday or Thursday, we were just back to politics as usual.”

The panel, moderated by Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO and executive vice president of ASLA, was convened the day after landscape architects from all across the country descended on Capitol Hill for ASLA Advocacy Day 2019. Nearly 200 ASLA members attended 221 meetings with lawmakers and staff, urging them to steer federal dollars into much-needed infrastructure projects that promote resilience and sustainability.

Panelists from the American Planning Association (APA) and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) expressed optimism for change, citing encouraging sign of progress in Congress. But Calvin Gladney, President and CEO of Smart Growth America, brought the conversation to a somber note.

“All of this optimism,” he sighed. “Let me take a more contrarian view.”

Gladney talked about what was wrong about the infrastructure conversation in Washington. “Right now, the conversation is about the number,” he said. “But the real conversation should be about what is the policy that underlies the number.”

“The number” Gladney is referring to is $2 trillion – the amount of infrastructure investment the U.S. needs, according to ASCE in their annual Infrastructure Report Card. ASCE assesses the current state of America’s roads, tunnels, ports, bridges, and other infrastructure, looks at current funding levels, and calculates the amount of investment needed to bring America’s infrastructure to an acceptable standard. Leaders in Congress and the White House have recently used that number as a benchmark for the amount of funding they’d like to see in a large infrastructure investment package that has yet to materialize.

But the number isn’t nearly as important as what lies behind it.

“If we’re going to make progress, we need to change the conversation,” said Thomas W. Smith III, secretary and executive director of ASCE. “Being car-centric is not going to solve the problems we have.”

When it comes to federal investment in sustainable projects, the availability of funding falls woefully short of demand. The Rails to Trails Conservancy found that nearly half of the projects that applied for federal funding through the Transportation Alternatives program in 2017 went unfunded. The program is meant to fund small-scale active transportation projects such as trails, pedestrian walks, and bike paths.

The Clean Water State Revolving Fund, meant to provide states and localities with money to upgrade and maintain water and stormwater management systems, has not been reauthorized in nearly thirty years. Out national park system has a $12 billion backlog of infrastructure projects, left undone due to lack of funds.

And those are just a few of the problems with fund availability for our current infrastructure. Panelists contend that if we want a new infrastructure bill to be successful, we cannot just look at the past — we must plan for the technologies of the future.

What we consider “infrastructure” also must change. “Broadband is infrastructure. Passenger rail is infrastructure,” said Gladney. “If we are gonna to do ‘new,’ let’s make it multi-modal. And let’s also expand what we consider infrastructure, so we’re building for the future.”

From electric cars to electric scooters and autonomous vehicles, technology is changing the face of infrastructure. Accommodating the people who use these technologies is an important part of infrastructure planning — and needs to be part of the conversation now.

“While technology changes at a rapid rate, investments in communities don’t,” said Kurt Christiansen, president of the American Planning Association (APA). “We need to start working new technology into our plans now. If we don’t, we’ll have more problems than we had before.”

Also lost in Washington’s obsession with numbers is the problem of equity. Research by the National Recreation and Parks Association found that people who live in low-income have lower access to parks and open spaces, which leads to a higher rate of negative health effects like obesity. These populations are often overlooked when infrastructure investments are planned.

“We have to make sure we don’t leave anyone behind,” said Smith, from ASCE.

And, of course, panelists pointed out that any future infrastructure investments must be planned with an eye toward resilience and sustainability in the face of climate change. All four panelists agreed that to be effective, federal funds in any new infrastructure initiative cannot simply go to rebuilding the infrastructure of the past.

“We need a paradigm shift,” said Blackwell. “Of course, at ASLA, we’d like to see all of the recommendations from our Smart Policies for a Changing Climate report to be implemented.”

But real change may not come in one sweeping package. Small, incremental steps may be the only way forward.

“I don’t see a lot of change happening big-and-bold,” said Christiansen. “But we’re starting to see glimmers.” If we continue to push for change together, bit by bit, our persistence and optimism can pay off.

ASLA Is Still In

U.S. Capitol Building / istockphoto

UPDATE: H.R. 9, the Climate Change Now Act, was passed by the House of Representatives on May 2, 2019, by a vote of 231-190. The final bill included amendment H.Amdt. 169 recognizing climate justice and environmental justice, which passed by a vote of 237-185.

ASLA applauds the House for taking bold steps in H.R. 9 to uphold U.S. commitments in the Paris Climate Agreement and for recognizing the importance of environmental justice in this process.

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This week, the House of Representatives will vote on H.R. 9, the Climate Action Now Act. This bill effectively blocks the president from withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement and requires the president to put forth a plan to achieve 26-to-28% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2025, as proposed by the U.S. under the agreement.

The House will also vote on an amendment to H.R. 9 that highlights the Paris Agreement’s commitment to environmental justice for vulnerable communities and for gender equity.

“In the Paris Agreement, the U.S. made a commitment to reduce our carbon emissions and start combating this growing threat to our communities. While some may want out, ASLA is still in,” said Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, Executive Vice President and CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects. “We applaud the House of Representatives for taking bold steps in H.R. 9 to uphold U.S. commitments in the Paris Climate Agreement – and for including an amendment addressing the need for environmental and climate justice in this process.”

ASLA is an official signatory of the “We Are Still In” declaration – a joint statement of support for the Paris Agreement signed by governments, academia, and the private sector. The bipartisan coalition includes over 3,500 representatives from all 50 states, collectively representing more than half of all Americans.

“Landscape architects design resilient and sustainable outdoor environments that can withstand the severe weather conditions and natural disasters exacerbated by climate change,” continued Somerville. “The threat climate change poses to our communities crosses party lines and affects people of all backgrounds.”

The House vote on H.R. 9 comes as ASLA leaders head to Capitol Hill for ASLA’s Advocacy Day 2019, where they will appeal to their elected officials for investments in climate-resilient, sustainable infrastructure.

“In 2016 and 2017, the transportation sector was the number one source of CO2 emissions in this country,” said Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, Esq., Director of Federal Government Affairs at ASLA. “If we’re going to meet the goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, we need more of the kind of policies our leaders are supporting this week, including active transportation projects, like Complete Streets, Safe Routes to School, recreational trails, and more.”

Background

Based on the scientific evidence about the causes and impacts of climate change, ASLA recognizes that global climate change presents a serious threat to humans and our environment. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its most recent report says the impact of a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in global temperatures will “disproportionately affect disadvantaged and vulnerable populations through food insecurity, higher food prices, income losses, lost livelihood opportunities, adverse health impacts, and population displacements.” Further, an internal report issued by thirteen federal agencies within the Trump Administration, stated that “Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth.”

In 2017, ASLA convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience to offer communities strategies for adapting to global climate change and its impacts on human health and the environment. Their report, Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, identified the following core principles, key planning and design strategies, and public policies that will promote healthy, climate-smart, and resilient communities.

The American Society of Landscape Architects is also an official signatory to the “We Are Still In” declaration. The bipartisan coalition includes over 3,500 representatives from all 50 states, spanning large and small businesses, mayors and governors, university presidents, faith leaders, tribal leaders, and cultural institutions. “We Are Still In” signatories represent more than half of all Americans and, taken together, $6.2 trillion of economic activity.

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

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Pier 35 on the East River waterfront / SHoP, Ken Smith Workshop

How Wildlife Bridges Over Highways Make Animals—And People—SaferNational Geographic, 4/16/19
“Bridges for bears and tunnels for tortoises have significantly reduced the number of wildlife-car collisions worldwide.”

Make America Graze AgainThe New York Times, 4/22/19
“Nashville’s Zach Richardson uses sustainable practices — and a flock of sheep — to clear overgrown landscapes.”

Design Center Unveils Land Bridge StudyNashville Post, 4/23/19
“There are many local urban place making experts and hobbyists alike who have often contended the single-greatest drawback to Nashville’s failure to maximize its most effective form and function is not limited to the city’s lack of comprehensive mass transit.”

Pier 35 Eco-Park and ‘Urban Beach’ Is Open to the Public6sqft, 4/23/19
“After years of anticipation, Pier 35 on the East River waterfront is officially open (h/t Curbed). The project, designed by SHoP with Ken Smith Workshop, consists of a new eco-park and an “urban beach” anchoring the northern flank of the East River waterfront esplanade and providing much-needed public space on the waterfront.”

Landscape Architect Pushes His Students to Serve Communities, Design For Greater Good The Daily Evergreen, 4/26/19
“Steve Austin, WSU Architecture professor and landscape architect, said he believes we need to hold open discussions on climate change.”

The Case for Climate-Smart Landscapes

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate / ASLA

“Humans have collective agency. We are driven, on an evolutionary basis, to collaborate and cooperate — to work together. This is what makes us the most advanced species on the planet. This also means we can collaborate to create an equitable, ecologically-sound future,” said landscape architect Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA president, in a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco.

Rinner was chair of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience, which met in 2017 and included a mix of landscape architects, urban planners, academics, and local government and foundation representatives. The discussions resulted in Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, a report with a set of planning and design solutions and policy recommendations.

Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO / Executive Vice President of ASLA, further explained the goal of the report: “Climate change is putting communities at risk. The standard development approach isn’t working. We instead need a new paradigm that incorporates natural systems in order to create healthy, climate-smart communities.”

The report outlines that new paradigm in five key areas: natural systems, community development, vulnerable communities, transportation, and agriculture. But, according to Rinner, what the report really describes is “one interactive system.”

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate is guided by a few concepts: “Collaborate, plan ecologically, maximize green, establish connections, seek multiple benefits, and secure multiple sources of funding.”

Maximizing the role of natural systems in the built environment is a particularly important concept. “When we ignore natural systems, you get the problems we have — drought, wild fires, flooding, etc”

Communities can scale up the incorporation of natural systems at the regional and urban levels. The Chesapeake Bay action plan is an example of an effective regional watershed plan because it crosses the political boundaries of six states and the District of Columbia to solve ecological problems.

Chesapeake Bay Watershed / NASA

At the urban level, coastal cities like Norfolk, Virginia, are moving towards becoming “‘sponge cities’ that not only absorb stormwater, but also enrich biohabitats with native vegetation.” In these communities, green infrastructure also acts as a “community development catalyst.”

Norfolk, which received a $120 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to improve its resilience to coastal flooding, has decided to invest heavily in green infrastructure to better manage flooding. The city created a model resilience strategy, resilience zoning code, and green infrastructure plan, as part of its 2030 comprehensive plan. Rinner, a former long-time resident of Norfolk, and participant in the city’s planning processes, said “collaborating through partnerships” was key to making that effort succeed.

Green infrastructure plan for Norfolk, VA / City of Norfolk

Ying-Yu Hung, FASLA, SWA Group managing partner in Los Angeles and a member of the blue ribbon panel, showed a few projects by her firm to further illustrate how resilient landscape projects can create multiple benefits.

The one-mile-long, 45-feet-wide Ricardo Lara Linear Park was created along the embankment of Highway 105, which bisects the mostly-Latino community of Lynwood, California. Hung said Lynwood is vastly underserved in terms of public green space. The community has just 0.5 acres acres of park per 1,000 people, whereas the city of Los Angeles on average has one acre per 1,000 people, and Malibu, one of the wealthiest areas, has 56 acres per 1,000 people.

Working with the non-profit From Lot to Spot, SWA Group designed a green strip along the highway, where some 300 trees catch some of the dangerous air pollution from vehicles passing by and bioswales and bioretention basins capture polluted runoff pouring off the highway. Further away from the highway, there is a trail and separate bicycle path, leading residents to community arts, fitness, and educational spaces, as well as a dog park. Ricardo Lara Linear Park builds community resilience to climate change by reducing the urban heat island effect and improving the health and well-being of Lynwood residents. The park is so beloved community volunteer groups maintain it.

Ricardo Lara Linear Park / SWA Group

In an example of how natural systems boost community resilience, Hung then described the 1.2-mile-long linear park, the Buffalo Bayou Promenade, which runs under freeways that cut through downtown Houston, Texas. SWA widened the slopes around the bayou, significantly increasing the amount of water it can contain when it floods. Some 14,000 new trees were planted to reduce erosion, provide wildlife habitat, and create an appealing social space for the 44,000 households who live within 10 miles of the park.

ASLA 2009 Professional Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade, Houston, Texas. SWA Group / Tom Fox

The park was purposefully designed to withstand the onslaught of severe flooding. When Hurricane Harvey hit the city and the bayou rose by some 40 feet, the Buffalo Bayou Conservancy had to remove 60 million pounds of sediment and re-plant 400 trees, but the essential infrastructure survived. “We designed the park for the worst-scenario possible.”

Lastly, Armando Carbonell, senior fellow and chair of the department of planning and urban form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, also a blue ribbon panel member, delved into the impact of climate change on low-income communities, as well as “the extremely difficult subject of relocation and retreat.” Climate change is deeply unfair in its impacts — it will have “disproportionate impact on low-income people who live in flood zones,” increasing the risk of their displacement.

According to Carbonell, in Latin America, city governments have been picking up and re-locating whole neighborhoods deemed at-risk to the far edges of cities. “The suspicion in these communities was the government had another agenda — they wanted to re-develop the land; and that’s true more often than not.”

In Staten Island, New York City, 23 people died when Hurricane Sandy hit the community of Oakwood Beach. A relocation effort there also generated suspicions about motives, despite the fact that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) rules dictate that any vacated land would become a permanent easement. Community members wondered: “If we vacate our property, how will it be used? Will our land become condos for rich people? Who’s benefiting?”

In Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, relocation has been particularly wrenching. In the late 1800s, the Indian Removal Act forced a group of Native Americans to this narrow strip of land in Terrebonne Parish. Given this place is the end of the Trail of Tears for the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, “there is a level of resistance” to moving and abandoning their homeland and burial ground. “They’ve been pushed to the edge; they can’t be pushed further.”

Isle de Jean Charles / Isle de Jean Charles.com

Unfortunately, due to rising sea level and the destruction of ecosystems, which has caused land subsidence, this community has lost 98 percent of its 22,000 acres, leaving the remaining tribe members in “absolute vulnerability” on just 320 constantly-flooding acres. Dissatisfied with the terms of relocation set by the state government, 30 plus members of the tribe have refused to leave.

Carbonell said some two million people in coastal Louisiana are now at risk of relocation due to rising sea levels. In coastal Bangladesh, which is similar in size and scale, there are some 14 million facing the same end. “The challenge ahead is daunting.”

Learn more in the Lincoln Institute’s report: Buy-in for Buyouts: The Case for Managed Retreats from Flood Zones.

A Solution to the Health Crisis: Prescribed Time in Neighborhood Parks

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Awards. Re-Envisioning Pulaski Park, Northampton, Massachusetts. Stimson / Ngoc Doan

The average American now spends 90 percent of their life indoors. Some 40 percent of adults no longer engage in any leisure physical activity at all. Some 90 percent of healthcare costs go to treating the 132 million Americans who suffer from treatable chronic diseases such as diabetes, depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure. There are now 78 million obese adults and 12 million obese kids. Furthermore, the trends seem to only be heading in the wrong direction.

How can we turn this around? For John Henderson, executive director of Park Rx America, a key solution is getting people outdoors and active again.

At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, Henderson explained that exposure to nature reduces the damaging impacts of chronic stress and improves mood and cognition. And exercising in nature amplifies the many health benefits of physical activity.

Given Americans experience 90 percent of their exposure to nature in their neighborhood, it’s important to provide “meaningful” opportunities for healthy nature engagement through high-quality local parks.

But with Americans spending so little time outside, even in their own neighborhoods, who’s going to get people to actually go outside to exercise?

The answer may be doctors and nurses, who have some of the highest levels of trustworthiness and credibility among any professions.

There are now more than 100 “Park Rx” programs in which doctors and nurses prescribe activities in neighborhood parks as treatment for a range of medical conditions. Washington, D.C.-based Dr. Robert Zarr has been credited with spearheading this growing nature-based healthcare movement.

Instead of detailing doses of pharmaceuticals in a conventional prescription, doctors in Park Rx programs prescribe doses of the “nature pill” — time spent in green spaces — including directions about how often and how long to do various activities there. Instead of sending a prescription to a pharmacy near the patient’s house, they send the patient to a park near their home.

Doctors and patients can use Park Rx America’s “Find a Park” web tool to identify parks near them. The tool enables users to filter parks that have been deemed safe and accessible by available amenities. According to Henderson, the number one question doctors ask about local parks is: “Are they safe?”

Park Rx America map of spaces in Washington, D.C. / Park Rx America

Once patients are assigned a park, they can use a smartphone app to keep track of their progress in following a nature activity prescription. They can send their medical provider a text message and geo-tagged marker from the park, proving they’ve completed tasks. This data also helps inform the provider about the efficacy of different prescriptions.

Park Rx shows that a nascent healthcare infrastructure for doctors and patients is forming. But what about the other side of the equation — providing widespread access to high-quality neighborhood parks with lots of amenities?

Also on the panel at APA was a team from Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburban county outside Washington, D.C. that is being strategic about using its limited funds to create local parks, plazas, and trails with the biggest bang for the buck, health-wise.

The county has a population of one million and includes small cities like Wheaton, Silver Spring, and Germantown. Montgomery County already leads on national health indicator rankings but government leaders realized the county has much more to do to make green space accessible to everyone.

Christina Sassaki, a planner in charge of the county’s “energized public spaces (EPS)” program, explained how they recently forged an EPS master plan, which is the result of an exercise to map gaps in green space along with public surveys measuring demand for various amenities, such as playgrounds, trails, dog parks, and outdoor exercise equipment.

Energized Public Spaces master plan / Montgomery County

The team found that “parks and public spaces are not equal” across the county. Some neighborhoods enjoy larger parks, say 2-3 acres, while others in denser urban areas have smaller ones at an acre or less. But they found park size wasn’t the only determinant of park quality — it’s also about what amenities are available. “We decided to measure neighborhood access to different types of experiences instead of acres,” Sassaki said.

Through a systematic GIS analysis, Montgomery County analyzed all green public spaces in terms of their ability to provide contemplative experiences where residents can re-connect with nature; active recreational experiences with sports and exercise facilities; and social gathering experiences where residents can feel welcome and comfortable. GIS Manager Christopher McGovern then plotted all the amenities that enable these experiences on a grid covering the entire county.

The EPS plan identified the top 12 “deficit clusters,” mostly in the mixed-use centers, the downtowns where there are high concentrations of populations and multi-family apartment buildings. In these denser deficit areas, “there was particularly a shortage of contemplative and active experiences,” Sassaki said.

The plan focuses on improving the range of experiences found via amenities in smaller parks and creating new parks and plazas in underserved areas. The county has also been piloting revamps of public spaces — all of this with the goal of packing in more amenities groups like Park Rx America can then offer to nature-savvy doctors and patients.

Your Chance to Comment: The Latest Georgetown C&O Canal Designs

C&O Canal in Georgetown / James Corner Field Operations

Last November, landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations presented ambitious designs for the 1-mile segment of the 182-mile-long C&O Canal that passes through Georgetown. The goal then seemed to be to throw a bunch of bold ideas out there to see what sticks. Six months later, at a public comment meeting in Georgetown sponsored by the National Park Service (NPS) and Georgetown Heritage, a non-profit group financing the planning and design process, Field Operations offered a pared-back plan more respectful of historic preservation concerns. Sarah Astheimer, ASLA, a principal at Field Operations, said the latest design concepts are “smarter, more incisive, and more responsive to the site.”

NPS said they can either take no action other than immediate repairs or maintenance to this highly-popular national park, or they can design and build the “alternative design” approach, which for the purposes of public evaluation is separated into two options.

NPS, Georgetown Heritage, and Field Operations clearly listened to community concerns that the original proposals would be too radical a shift in the laid-back feel of the canal. Responding to over 350 comments from the public, power point slides in the presentation now highlighted the “historic significance” and “informal charm” of the linear park beloved to many D.C. residents and tourists.

An important discussion in this review focused on whether to expand the width of the narrow towpaths that limit access along parts of the canal. But instead of long, cantilevering pathways that were offered last November, Field Operations now proposes widening the paths slightly and only at key “pinch points,” a more strategic solution. Astheimer imagined new linear platforms as contemporary equivalents of the wooden decks that once lined the canal.

Cantilevered pathways onto the Canal / James Corner Field Operations

At mile-marker zero, the beginning of the 182-mile-long trail, Field Operations proposes intelligent fixes to improve pedestrian and bicycle connectivity and make the marker more of a destination. One option includes fun “habitable nets,” where people can lounge over the water, a feature now seen in other urban waterfront parks.

Current view at Mile Marker Zero / James Corner Field Operations

Mile Marker Zero area conceptual design / James Corner Field Operations

The proposal for the area they call Rock Creek Confluence, where the canal meets the creek, is also sensible, opening up views to the creek and the sequence of locks through a viewing platform set in pollinator-friendly meadows. A new pedestrian bridge will make both sides of the canal more accessible.

Rock Creek Confluence / James Corner Field Operations

Rock Creek Confluence design concept / James Corner Field Operations

The Mule Yard design options feature more trees and expanded visitor infrastructure. Heading west towards Wisconsin Avenue, a busy corridor lined with coffee shops, restaurants, and stores, they propose a few alternatives to improve accessibility. Where the canal flows under Wisconsin Avenue, there are a few configurations with stairs and an elevator; and on the south side of the canal, a new boardwalk.

Market plazas area design option / James Corner Field Operations

Further west down the canal, at Potomac Street, one of the central commercial hubs of Georgetown, where crowds come hear a jazz trio at Dean & Deluca on the weekends, an overlook has been transformed either into a “sky deck” or terraced seating. The designers propose opening up views across the canal here by clearing old trees along the south side of the canal. Elevators and Americans with Disabilites Act (ADA)-accessible ramps would make the canal, which can only be reached via steep stairs, far easier to traverse. These proposals would likely increase activity here and help bring more people down to the canal and perhaps the Georgetown Waterfront Park a few blocks to the south.

Market areas design concept / James Corner Field Operations

Lastly, the aqueduct and stone yard segments, the points in the plan furthest out from downtown Georgetown, are proposed as new destinations. The Stone Yard area could be left alone, but Field Operations proposes adding a platform or outdoor seating nooks there.

At the old aqueduct, which is now an interesting, graffiti-covered ruin, Corner’s team proposes heavily redeveloping the space — either as zig-zagging overlook platform or as a structure covered in a trestle, with a kiosk. This is the remaining ambitious piece perhaps most reminiscent of the High Line in New York City, which Corner’s firm also designed.

Aqueduct design proposal / James Corner Field Operations

Astheimer seemed to understand what many community members conveyed in the first public review: that the C&O Canal is a “respite in a time when we are all overstimulated.” The new design concepts largely help preserve that vision while improving access and safety. Perhaps the community will find the final designs can be even more surgical, so as to further limit impacts on this historical landscape.

Review the designs and submit your comments by May 11.

Coming next this spring: NPS, Georgetown Heritage, and Field Operations will finalize the plan, and then present design concepts before the Old Georgetown Board and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) in the coming year.

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

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Jewel Changi Airport / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

City and Aps Launching a Pilot Program to Turn School Lands into Public ParksThe Sarasota Report, 4/1/19
“Atlanta can greatly add to public green space and parks by partnering with the Atlanta Public Schools to open up school property to the public.”

Why You Should Start a Pocket Prairie in Your YardHoustonia, 4/8/19
“Durham believes that prairie grass is the key to maintaining a more cost-efficient yard while also contributing positively to our flood-prone environment.”

How Better Urban Planning Can Improve Gender EqualityBehavioral Scientist, 4/9/19
“In the mid-1990s, public officials in Vienna found something surprising when they studied who was using their public parks: girls were much less likely to use parks after age nine, while boys continued using them into their teens.”

Mission 66: The Controversial Plan That Brought National Parks into the Modern EraUSA Today, 4/11/19
“Spurred by a comprehensive program known as Mission 66, these new additions were built to address problems plaguing the parks, including outdated buildings that could not accommodate the expected 31 million increase in visitors by 1966.”

Singapore’s $1.3 Billion Airport Expansion Is Half Botanical Garden, Half Mega-Mall Fast Company, 4/12/19
“Jewel Changi is not an airport, nor an amusement park, nor is a retail hub–it’s something in between.”