ASLA Testifies Before Congress on Green Infrastructure

Kevin Robert Perry, FASLA, Senior Landscape Architect, Toole Design, and Principal, Urban Rain Design, testified on behalf of ASLA to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

His full testimony below:

Thank you Chair Napolitano, Ranking Member Rouzer, and Members of the subcommittee for the opportunity to testify on the valuable work being done by landscape architects in the water and stormwater management space.

My name is Kevin Robert Perry and I am a licensed landscape architect and an internationally recognized leader in successfully integrating stormwater management with high-quality urban design.

I work as a Senior Landscape Architect at Toole Design Group with a specific expertise in intertwining green infrastructure with innovative multimodal streetscape design. I am also the founder of Urban Rain Design, a small design studio based in both California and Oregon that specializes in using Tactical Green Infrastructure to rapidly implement simple, cost-effective, and beautiful public space stormwater projects.

I am here today on behalf of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), where I have been a Fellow since 2017.

ASLA believes that water quality is essential to our economy, communities, and environment. By working to protect it, our membership of landscape architects plays a critical role in community sustainability and public health.

Landscape architects address water quality through ecologically-based practices that help reduce or remove pollutants in urban, rural, and conservation areas. To help protect water quality and conserve valuable water resources, ASLA encourages planning, design management, and policies that are science-based, collaborative, creative, and equitable.

The Value of Green Infrastructure

Ample clean water supplies are necessary to help preserve health, sustain quality of life, support economic stability, and maintain environmental quality.

Unsustainable development practices, poorly designed infrastructure, population growth, and other factors continue to threaten water quality and emphasize the need for the wiser and more creative use of resources. Urban sprawl and the expansion of paved surfaces increases volume and speed of storm flows, carries pollutants into streams, prevents groundwater recharge, and drastically reduces the landscape’s ability to respond to everyday storm events, much less the current and future challenges of climate change.

In much of the country, especially in older cities and towns, stormwater is funneled into our wastewater systems. During intense rain events, these systems can become overwhelmed resulting in stormwater overflow being released into nearby waters — along with all of the untreated sewage, debris, pesticides, and anything else caught in the underground pipe system.

While the United States has generally had success in protecting water quality, EPA research has found that nonpoint source pollution, the type of water pollution I just described, remains the leading cause of water quality problems.

This is where landscape architects are stepping up and playing a key role. We are at the forefront of developing innovative design strategies that promote sustainability, resiliency, and a balanced vibrancy between our built and natural environment. By incorporating cost-effective and innovative green infrastructure methods into our projects, we plan and design landscaped-based systems that reduce the impacts of flooding, contain the movement of pollutants and other debris, help infiltrate stormwater on-site, increase biodiversity, and integrate these nature-based solutions seamlessly into our cities and towns.

SW Montgomery Green Street, Portland, Oregon / Kevin Robert Perry

In areas where drought and inadequate water supply is of top concern, green infrastructure may also be a viable solution, helping to replenish local groundwater reserves and recharging aquifers. We also promote and incorporate the use of sustainably-designed greywater systems and other water capture measures to help reduce the need for external water sources.

In general, the landscape architect’s multi-functional, multi-purpose design solutions allows for a less destructive human relationship with the natural environment.

Landscape architecture practices also provide a key equity and environmental justice solution. One such practice is performing meaningful community engagement during the design and planning process. Often, the communities that stand to benefit the most from our work are the low-income and racially diverse communities that have been damaged by years of underinvestment and disinvestment. This includes communities located in small towns, large cities, and all areas in between. ASLA and its members are committed to utilizing our trade to directly improve lives in underserved communities; and community engagement and green infrastructure can be important tools to aid in this effort.

Planned Green Street Improvements in Colma, California / Kevin Robert Perry

Green infrastructure also leads to job creation. According to Green For All, a national organization working to build an inclusive green economy, a $188.4 billion investment in stormwater management would generate $265.6 billion in economic activity and create close to 1.9 million jobs. Furthermore, green infrastructure is good for small businesses, as many landscape architects work for or run their own small firms, as I have for nearly a decade.

Green Infrastructure Across Scales

One of the greatest benefits of using green infrastructure is that it can be implemented across a wide range of scale and community contexts. Resilient coastlines/riverfronts, regional parks, and interconnected green transportation corridors can be realized at the large citywide-scale; while rain gardens, pervious paving, and a robust use of street trees can grace nearly any neighborhood-scale space.

With thousands of our schools, roads, parks, and other civic space infrastructure either breaking down or inefficiently designed, there is an incredible opportunity to boldly retrofit our built environment with long-lasting green infrastructure strategies.

Washington D.C. Green Street / Kevin Robert Perry

Tactical Green Infrastructure

One avenue of green infrastructure that is starting to take root on the West Coast is the concept of Tactical Green Infrastructure. While many infrastructure projects can take years to be fully implemented, Tactical Green Infrastructure is a specialized design-build methodology that allows professional design practitioners, students, and/or volunteers to work together to identify, design, and construct expedited green infrastructure projects at public schools, parks, and even some street locations. These small-scale projects convert either existing paved or underutilized green space into highly functional rain garden landscapes within a couple of months – and directly involve the local community through the process. This kind of low-cost, effective, and quickly built Green Infrastructure can be a simple national model but with near-term and tangible results realized at the neighborhood level. While conceived in both Oregon and California, we believe a coordinated Tactical Green Infrastructure approach, led by landscape architects, has immense potential to expand throughout the United States.

Tactical Green Infrastructure groundbreaking, led by landscape architects / Kevin Robert Perry

The Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2021

ASLA and its members appreciate the committee’s support for legislation promoting green infrastructure, including H.R. 1915 – the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2021, which would help states and local communities fund green infrastructure projects that protect water.

We are also appreciative of the committee’s support for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, and specifically the Green Project Reserve, which mandates that at least 10% of funds are used by states for green infrastructure projects. Since states and localities typically do not have their own funding mechanisms to keep their water infrastructure safe, up to date, and within the requirements of the Clean Water Act, many landscape architecture projects would not be possible without the help of this program.

For these reasons, ASLA is supportive of increased funding to the Clean Water SRF, as well as making the Green Project Reserve permanent and increasing its minimum percentage. To make projects even more sustainable and resilient, the Clean Water SRF should also be adjusted to allow for the funding of long-term maintenance projects as well.

Conclusion

With that, I thank the committee for inviting me to testify today. ASLA looks forward to working with you and your colleagues to ensure that Congress leverages the field of landscape architecture when striving for its climate adaptation and sustainability goals.

Earth Day Interview: Jennifer Toole Makes the Case for Better Bike Networks

Jennifer Toole, ASLA / Toole Design

Jennifer Toole, ASLA, is the founder and President of Toole Design and has over 30 years of experience planning and designing multimodal transportation systems. A certified planner with a degree in landscape architecture, Toole has a strong background in urban design. She has been involved in numerous projects of national significance for the Federal Highway Administration, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

In Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, bike infrastructure is identified as one of the top 80 solutions for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. The book finds that in 2014, 5.5 percent of urban trips worldwide were by bicycle. If that number grew to 7.5 percent by 2050, displacing some 2.2 trillion passenger miles completed by vehicles, some 2.2 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions could be avoided, realizing approximately $400 billion savings over the next 30 years. What are the most important steps cities and communities can take to rapidly grow bike use?

Most people just don’t feel safe bicycling, which is the greatest disincentive. We spent nearly a century in this country building a transportation system that essentially only caters to people who are driving motor vehicles. We have a system that fundamentally doesn’t support bicycling.

The best thing cities can do to incentivize bicycling is make it feel safer for people. This can be accomplished through interconnected networks of bike facilities separated from traffic that don’t end at major barriers.

Safe separated bike lane in Denver, Colorado / Trung Vo

That’s a big problem right now: we have a lot of bikeways that might get you part of the way to where you want to go, but then you get to a big intersection or an interchange with a highway and the bikeway ends.

We also need need to reduce motor vehicle speeds across the board, so that when bicyclists and motorists cross paths, it’s in a safe and controlled way. And we need to provide high-quality and secure places to park your bike once you get to where you’re going.

None of this is rocket science. If you look at countries that have successfully increased the percentage of people bicycling by even a few percentage points, it’s because they invested in infrastructure to make bicyclists feel safe — and, in fact, bicyclists are now safer in those places.

Drawdown also identifies e-bikes as a critical climate solution. While many bike-riders feel comfortable biking a few miles on flat surfaces, half of all trips are estimated to be 6.2 miles, which may be too far in the heat or if the route is hilly. E-bikes also better support riders who may be older or less able. What are some other ways cities and communities can incentivize e-bike use?

I am really excited about e-bikes because they eliminate another major disincentive to bicycling: hilly areas, with long, difficult uphill climbs. I live at the top of a really steep hill. Many times I have done that calculus in my head. Am I going to ride my bike? If I ride my bike, when I come home, I am going to have to come back up that hill.

When you look at a normal bike trip, it’s usually someplace between one to three miles in length. An e-bike trip is typically a little bit longer than a normal bike trip, because you don’t have to expend as much energy to make that trip.

The keys to incentivizing e-bike use are the exact same as they are for regular bikes. You’ve got to provide spaces where people feel safe riding their bike. E-bikes are a little bit faster than regular bikes, so that makes it even more evident that sidewalks are not the right place for them. E-bikes really need their own space. They need separated bike lanes. They need shared-use paths and bike boulevards. You have to feel like you have safe places to ride.

E-bike riders in Seattle, Washington / Kenneth Loen

Cities are also providing e-bikes through their bike share services, which gives people a way to check them out and realize how much fun they are to ride. It’s one of the reasons why e-bike sales are just soaring all around the country.

According to the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), researchers in the U.K. found that biking to work is associated with 45 percent lower risk of developing cancer and a 46 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, compared to commuting by car or public transit. UNEP also states: “daily exercise prolongs life expectancy by approximately 3.4 years. Regular cycling boosts physical health as an efficient way to prevent obesity.” How can we better promote the health benefits of biking to communities?

Those are some pretty incredible statistics I think that most people are not aware of.

It’s more about providing ways for people to introduce exercise into their normal, everyday life without even thinking about it. There are a lot of studies that show people are more active and healthy in places where walking and biking for everyday trips is common, so making sure that destinations in shopping areas and workplaces are in close proximity to home is really an important part of making sure that people take those everyday trips on foot and by bicycle.

We need to make bicycling the logical choice — the no-brainer choice — for a certain segment of short trips we make. When you go to The Netherlands and ask people why they are riding bikes, they almost never talk about the exercise or the environment. They are riding a bike, because it’s the most efficient way to get where they want to go.

Countries like The Netherlands have a lot of folks who bike well into their 70s and 80s, because they have provided places that feel safe for riding a bike. I have no doubt it contributes to a much longer lifespan.

Data also shows that the pandemic has resulted in a bike boom in many cities and communities. According to a report from Strava, a fitness tracking company, bike use in car-centric cities like Houston increased by 138 percent and in Los Angeles by 93 percent. The Rails to Trails Conservancy found that trail use increased threefold in March 2020 over 2019. Do you think bike use will continue to remain at high levels after we have all been vaccinated? What role do you think “slow streets” have played? And if the bike boom continues, will it result in greater investment in permanent bike infrastructure?

I think it will. Bike use will continue to remain at higher levels, because our travel patterns have been disrupted in ways that we’re only now just beginning to realize. There’s a whole segment of workers who will probably never go back to working in an office from 9:00 to 5:00 five days a week. The flexibility of being able to work from home will mean that our rush hour is going to look different in the future.

Why drag yourself out of bed to go and sit in the car for an hour longer than you really need to just to get to work at a certain time? A certain segment of workers are going to make that calculus and say, “I don’t need to go into the office to work. I can do it right here,” because they’ve been doing it for over a year, and it worked fine. Working from home is going to become much more accepted and prevalent and, with that change, people are going to continue to look for ways to use a bicycle for trips that originate from their homes.

Slow streets have really been great, because they gave people places to ride that feels safe. I’ve heard so many stories of slow street projects that had opposition in the beginning and now people are getting upset when cities remove their slow-street designation. From what we’re seeing, cities are looking for ways to have more permanent, connected networks of bike facilities, and that was starting well before COVID-19. It’s not something that was new; I just think COVID brought it home how much we needed more infrastructure.

Research also finds that low-income communities bike to work more often than other groups. The Chicago Tribune reports that the biggest group of Americans who bike to work are from households that earn less than $10,000. But a report from the League of American Bicyclists also found that Hispanic bike-riders had a bike fatality rate 23 percent higher, and Black riders had a fatality rate 30 percent higher than white riders. How can cities and communities make bike infrastructure more equitable and improve safety for historic marginalized and underserved communities?

We need to do a better job at providing better infrastructure in underserved areas of our cities. Often these are the same neighborhoods that have been impacted by highway construction, where we have widened roads so that suburban commuters can get to their jobs and downtown. It’s not a surprise those are the same places that have higher rates of crashes for Hispanic and Black riders. They need more attention than we’re giving them in terms of providing safer facilities.

Bicyclists in Columbus, Ohio / Catherine Girves

A lot of the work we do for cities is about adjusting that balance and giving more attention to neighborhoods that have been neglected when it comes to providing good places to not only to bike but also to walk. Among other things, we aim to reduce traffic speeds on those streets, which is not an easy thing because they were built for higher speeds.

Many of the projects we work on are focused on equity. For example, we are working on an expansion of the trail network in Fresno, California. We analyzed all the proposed trails the city has planned to build in the next 20 years using a tool that prioritizes equity factors. The city then selected four connecting trails segments in a community facing environmental injustices. It relied on a tool used in California that helps identify communities most affected by pollution and where people are often especially vulnerable to pollution.

The Biden administration just released a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which could result in much greater investment in complete streets, bicycle networks, trails. If you were somehow in charge of all the billions, how would you allocate it on bicycle infrastructure?

In many communities, they have already tackled their easier projects, the ones that weren’t difficult to build — streets that were overbuilt for the amount of traffic they’re carrying and required a road diet to reconfigure space.

The next phase of work is much harder. It’s closing the gaps between facilities. Imagine a trail that ends at a major intersection. It’s hard to get across that intersection in order to connect one part of town to another part of town where you have bike networks. You really need an overpass across the highway built for bike and pedestrian traffic. If I were in charge of that infrastructure investment, I would make it available for major infrastructure projects that close gaps in bike and pedestrian networks.

In South Bend, Indiana, your staff partnered with the administration of then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is now U.S. transportation secretary, to create an open space and smart streets plan to revitalize South Bend’s downtown. The plan resulted in the transformation of St. Joseph’s Boulevard to a green complete street. Secretary Buttigieg said the streetscape improvements led to $90 million in private investment by downtown businesses along the corridor. Can you tell us more about Secretary Buttigieg and his understanding of the connections between streetscape improvements and revitalization?

The most basic answer for how that revitalization led to all the private investment is that the design prioritizes the movement of people over cars. It was a very controversial approach to their downtown revitalization, and there were a lot of people who were worried that it wouldn’t work. To Secretary Buttigieg’s credit, he had a vision for making their downtown be a place where people felt comfortable walking everywhere.

Downtown South Bend, Indiana before image / City of South Bend
Downtown South Bend, Indiana after image / City of South Bend

The downtown businesses saw that it was going to be a place that was really special, which is what led to the investment. And it hasn’t stopped with downtown. The work we’re doing now in South Bend is going out like tendrils into the community. The city is systematically tackling their street network and prioritizing pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Secretary Buttigieg’s vision has continued to transform the city’s approach to transportation and it has clearly benefited the community.

Your firm is leading an interdisciplinary team working with the city of Atlanta’s Department of City Planning to re-imagine Peachtree Street as a shared space that blurs the lines between public space and streets. What are the benefits of these environments? How do you overcome safety or accessibility concerns?

Peachtree Street has long been Atlanta’s main street. The street receives a lot of traffic and is dominated by cars. The city is looking to change that dynamic and make it a destination for people. The benefit of making Peachtree Street a flush street — so all one level, no curbs — is that it really promotes that feeling that it’s a street where pedestrians are the highest priority. They don’t have to go to an intersection in order to cross the street. They can move freely across the street. It’s modeled on the types of streets that have been built really all over Europe, where there’s just one street surface.

Re-imagining Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia / Toole Design

Another benefit is that it slows everybody down. Cars can still travel down the street and park, but drivers don’t feel comfortable going fast down a flush street. Often there are fewer traffic signals or signs to direct traffic. This is due to a concept in traffic engineering: when you introduce an element of uncertainty, everyone slows down. It’s fundamentally about making sure motor vehicle traffic goes slower.

Also, a flush street is inherently more accessible. You can imagine people on wheelchairs don’t have to go to the corners to find a place to cross. People pushing baby strollers can easily move about. But you do need special accommodations for people who are blind or have low vision, because they need to know how to navigate down that street. They often use a curb line as a guide.

Fortunately, there are new ways to help people who are blind to navigate. A different type of pavement treatment with raised grooves can help guide a person with a cane down a street. These have been used in train stations and other places where there is a need to navigate through plazas and other open areas.

Landscape architects integrate safe, accessible pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure with green infrastructure. In St. Paul, Minnesota, your firm designed the Jackson Street Reconstruction Project, which transformed an outdated avenue into a truly multi-modal corridor that features two-way protected bike lanes, wider pedestrian walkways protected by green buffers that manage storm water. How is this project a model? How do you make the case that communities should spend the extra money for the green infrastructure?

Jackson Street is just such a great example of the way we should be designing streets in this country.

It’s important to think about what the street looked like before to understand the opportunity it represents for many other streets in this country. Jackson Street was as wide as six lanes, a classic example of an overbuilt street. Somebody at some point in the past decided that the road needed to have four lanes. The street didn’t have the traffic volume to support those lanes.

We were able to take up to two travel lanes off the road, which gave us 20-plus more feet of space to work with to provide a wider sidewalk, a two-way separated bike lane, and generous rain gardens between the bikeway and the road. We were able to use the green infrastructure to provide that much needed separation between the bikeway and the street. The bikeway itself is built from pervious pavement. The runoff from Jackson Street is directed into those rain gardens.

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

St. Paul is a city concerned about water pollution, runoff, and flooding. It’s on the banks of the Mississippi, so this type of street design is logical. There are so many cities around the country that are increasingly concerned about flooding and need to find ways to let stormwater seep into the ground instead of run off into nearby waterways. Cities are feeling the impact of major flood events and the financial cost of those events, which is why they are looking at these streetscape projects as an opportunity to rethink the way that water flows in their city.

There are generations of work for landscape architects to fix all these streets and make them greener by providing vegetation in the streetscape on a scale that we’ve never done before. We were sort of stuck in the past with these tiny tree boxes. That was the conventional way of providing green in the landscape. This new way of designing streets is going to give us so much more room to work with different types of plants and soils. It’s a really exciting time to be a landscape architect.

Positive Impact in Rapid Time: AARP Community Challenge Grants

AARP is once again offering its Community Challenge Grants, which range from a few hundred dollars up to tens of thousands, to non-profit organizations and local governments. AARP seeks to fund permanent or temporary small-scale projects that can be designed and implemented in just a few months. This year, the focus is on projects that support community equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts.

Landscape architects and designers, please take note: AARP is prioritizing projects that “improve open spaces, parks, and access to other amenities; and deliver a range of transportation and mobility options that increase connectivity, walkability, bikeability, wayfinding, access to transportation options, and roadway improvements.” They are also interested in projects that support community recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Since 2017, AARP’s program has awarded 560 grants totaling $6.1 million, which have resulted in rapid-fire actions that improve community livability for all ages — not just older adults. 60 percent of grants have gone to 501(c)(3), 501(c)(4), and 501(c)(6) nonprofits, and the rest to local governments. 42 percent of grants have gone to urban communities, 38 percent to rural areas, and 20 percent to suburban areas.

According to AARP, 45 percent of grants have had a catalytic impact, helping grantees gain additional funds and support from public and private organizations. And 81 percent of grants helped grantees “overcome policy barriers and advance change.”

Applications are due April 14, 2021, and all projects must be completed by November 10, 2021.

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

Terraced pocket park in Chinatown, Los Angeles / AHBE | MIG

Terraced Pocket Park Takes Shape in Chinatown — 01/28/21, Urbanize
“Landscape architecture firm AHBE | MIG designed the project and uses staircases and multiple terrace levels to account for its hillside location. The stepped levels, which provide three entrance points along Ord Street and Hill Place, will include landscaping, seating areas, viewing platforms, and exercise equipment.”

Frank Gehry Teases Plans to Build Raised Parks over the Los Angeles River — 01/28/21, Dezeen
“Concrete stilts would support deep, soil-filled concrete troughs of earth planted with plants and trees, perched four metres above the lip of the concrete-walled channel.”

The Battle Lines Are Forming in Biden’s Climate Push — 01/26/21, The New York Times
“The president is moving rapidly to address global warming, with unlikely allies backing him and huge hurdles, some from his own party, directly ahead.”

Everything We Liked (and Didn’t Like) at Buttigieg’s Transportation Secretary Confirmation Hearing — 01/25/21, Transportation for America
“‘It’s very important to recognize the importance of roadways where pedestrians, bicycles, vehicles, any other mode can coexist peacefully. And that Complete Streets vision will continue to enjoy support from me if confirmed,’ Buttgieg said.”

Turin Turned an Abandoned Tramway into a Linear Park — 01/22/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“‘Precollinear Park’ was supposed to be a temporary reuse of a dead streetcar line. Instead, it became the Italian city’s newest green space.”

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

25 Cottage Street, Brookline, Massachusetts / Brookline Preservation Commission, via The Architect’s Newspaper

H. H. Richardson and John Charles Olmsted Homes Get Temporary Reprieve from the Wrecking Ball — 12/31/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Brookline’s Green Hill historic district reflected an ‘extraordinary confluence’ of design talent […] Frederick Law Olmsted, John Charles Olmsted, and H. H. Richardson ‘worked within yards of one another, shaping Nineteenth and early Twentieth-Century architecture and landscape design in ways that continue to reverberate today.'”

Landscape Architecture and Industrial Design Feature in UNSW Sydney’s Varied Student Show — 12/23/20, Dezeen
“Landscape design that explores urban nature and an ergonomic chair designed for musicians are among the varied student projects exhibited in part two of the UNSW Sydney’s school show.”

Op-Ed: How to Fix a National Register of Historic Places That Reflects Mostly White History — 12/22/20, The Los Angeles Times
“Less than 8% of sites on the National Register are associated with women, Latinos, African Americans or other minorities. The César E. Chávez National Monument, established just eight years ago, was the first unit in the National Park System commemorating any aspect of modern Latino history.”

Nominee Buttigieg Vows To Dismantle ‘Racist’ Freeways — 12/22/20, Streetsblog
“President-elect Biden’s path breaking pick for Transportation Secretary says he’ll reverse decades of discriminatory planning by expanding public transit and, most important, dismantling urban freeways that were built to destroy Black communities and led to decades of health and wealth inequity.”

City of Boston Is Working with Architectural Firm to Rethink Copley Square — 12/16/20, The Boston Globe
“’We have a much-loved square which hasn’t seen any updates since the late ’80s and wasn’t designed for the kind of traffic it now gets in the 21st century,’ said Kate Tooke, a landscape architect at Sasaki, a Watertown-based global design firm that has been hired by the Walsh administration to design upgrades for the square.”

Interview with Pamela Conrad: Climate Positive Design

Pamela Conrad, ASLA

Pamela Conrad, ASLA, is a principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, California, and founder of Climate Positive Design. She is recipient of the 2018 Landscape Architecture Foundation Fellowship for the development of the award-winning Pathfinder landscape carbon calculator app and the Climate Positive Design Challenge.

A year ago, you launched Climate Positive Design in an effort to help landscape architects design and build projects that can become climate positive, meaning that over their lifespan they sequester more greenhouse gas emissions than they embody or produce. You also put out a major challenge to the community, stating that if all landscape architects and designers took a climate positive approach, they could sequester an estimated one gigaton of greenhouse gases by 2050. What motivated you to start this effort?

First, I had to dig in and understand all the science and policy. I made a conscious effort to understand the Paris Climate Accord, and more recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report calling for limiting global temperature increase to 1.5 °C (2.7 ˚F).

I was shocked to find out that according to the IPCC, we have less than ten years to prevent catastrophic events from happening to human lives, and that those who have the least, particularly in the global South, will likely be impacted the most.

A few years back, I read the book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. It was the first time climate solutions were broken down and made accessible. I realized that 20 percent of the outlined solutions are land-based and can be part of landscape architects’ everyday work.

Out of curiosity, I began analyzing case study projects from our work at CMG. I realized it is relatively easy to improve the carbon impacts of our projects without reducing the quality or performance.

I started to grasp that what we do as designers can make a big difference when we scale up all of our work around the world. It was with this understanding that I launched the Climate Positive Design Challenge.

Since launching the Pathfinder app, a tool that helps landscape architects, developers, and property owners design to a carbon positive state, nearly 1,500 projects have been submitted, totaling more than 43,000 acres. In addition to other climate-friendly practices, these projects are expected to plant 777,000 trees, which, in ten years, will result in 1.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases being sequestered. What have you learned from this first set of projects? What patterns are you seeing?

Within the first year, we’ve seen a gradual improvement in the years-to-positive scores across project sites. This is being achieved by a continuous reduction in greenhouse gas emissions through the embodied carbon and materials and operational carbon in landscapes, and an increase of carbon sequestration. It’s looking at that overall equation for a landscape carbon impact.

In the first few months, we saw a lot of academic projects being logged. It seems that the Pathfinder is being widely used as a teaching tool, which is great! Since realizing that, we’ve added in a feature, so those studies can be used as an academic resource, but their data will be excluded from the overall impact numbers.

The current average years-to-positive is 21 years for urban landscapes like plazas and streetscapes, and the target is 20 years to positive, so we’re really close to reaching our goal. We will perhaps make it more challenging going forward.

For parks, gardens, and campuses — inherently greener projects – the years to positive target is five years. The average of all the projects received to date is nine years to positive, so we’re not quite there yet. We need to keep pushing, which is the point of a challenge.

Climate Positive Design case study (before) / CMG Landscape Architecture
Climate Positive Design case study (after) / CMG Landscape Architecture

We’ve also seen that the projects across the board have over three times more sequestration than emissions, which is fantastic. This would put us on track to meeting our overall goals.

One of the helpful things about the data we have collected over this past year is that we can see the average emissions and sequestration per square foot. That information will be used in the upcoming landscape carbon SITES and LEED pilot credits. We’re now able to take this data, transform it, and relate it to other rating systems, which will hopefully increase exposure and awareness of Climate Positive Design and other rating systems.

What are the top five things all landscape architects should be doing now in their projects to sequester more carbon and get to climate positive? What things have the biggest bang for the buck, in terms of the climate?

I like to keep things simple. Otherwise, it’s too easy to become overwhelmed and not change our practices.

The top five things to remember are: plant more; pave less; use materials with lower embodied carbon; update your specifications to meet the highest sustainability performance standards, specifically your concrete specifications by using cement substitutions. The fifth is to create operations and maintenance manuals that limit the use of fossil fuels to operate the equipment to maintain landscapes — so use organic fertilizers rather than fertilizers made from fossil fuels.

You note that deciduous trees store a bit more carbon than evergreens. Are there particular species of trees and shrubs that are carbon-sequestering powerhouses?

This is perhaps the most frequently asked question. There is no one perfect tree for sequestering the most carbon. The best tree to plant is the one that will grow the fastest, live the longest, and get the biggest. This is the tree that is going to sequester the most carbon in the region your project is located.

Carbon is directly correlated to biomass. A redwood tree — a massive tree that lives a very long time — is going to sequester much more carbon than a small, understory redbud tree. This is just as an example where size does matter.

Another interesting example is bamboo. It is a rapidly renewable, woody species that can be converted into building products, such as flooring, furniture, even structures. It’s incredibly strong and actually a grass, so the carbon within its root system can stay in the soil for thousands of years. It is a super sequesterer, but it should be used with caution, because it can be an invasive species.

How can we ensure that plants selected to store carbon also support local ecosystems and provide habitat for pollinators and wildlife?

Bamboo demonstrates how we need to be mindful that we don’t cause more problems than we had before. We must be mindful of not planting invasive species that will take over native plant communities and reduce biodiversity.

I would recommend anyone to refer to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) global standard for nature-based solutions, which outlines ecosystem-based approaches that are specific to geographic locations and address societal changes, supporting human well-being, and include biodiversity benefits.

We can use native species to sequester more carbon where they’re appropriate, increasing biodiversity and reducing water usage at the same time. Native plants are one way to ensure we support local ecosystems.

How can landscapes architects partnering with historically-marginalized and underserved communities, which experience higher climate risks and impacts, use your tool to address climate injustices?

This is one of our biggest challenges to overcome as a profession. I do not have all the answers. But I will say that from my experience, really listening to people and meeting them where they are is a start.

If people say what they really need most are jobs, then don’t give them a skate park. Think about how we can partner in non-traditional ways to create jobs that might also improve quality of life and be part of climate solutions – like community jobs programs supporting tree-planting initiatives. The results of something like this can be measured in local school programs through the app for free.

It’s my hope that things like this can give the next generation hope that there are solutions out there. We just need to work together on them.

What models or innovations that aren’t widespread today could speed up the carbon sequestering abilities of plazas and streets with large areas of hardscape?

There are definitely innovative products coming out that capture carbon, such as Carbon Cure. But I challenge us not to rely wholly on new models or fancy innovations, and instead step back and think about simplifying things.

This is an opportunity for us to rethink how we design, to do more with less. Let’s rethink the typical plaza. Maybe it doesn’t have to be all concrete. Maybe it can have large trees in a field of stabilized, crushed stone paving, as many historic plazas around the world.

Ferry Building Plaza design proposal (before) / CMG Landscape Architecture
Ferry Building Plaza design proposal (after) / CMG Landscape Architecture

This is my challenge to the profession: let’s think about things differently. Let’s turn this into an opportunity to make a statement that we believe in climate-positive landscapes. We’re taking a stance on climate change, and that’s something that many of our clients will get behind.

What needs to happen in the landscape architecture product marketplace to further accelerate climate positive design? How are you seeing product manufacturers respond to the climate crisis?

Over the past decade, in other disciplines, architecture in particular, product manufacturers have been increasing the transparency of their material and product development processes and revealing associated emissions. Product manufacturers are providing this information through an environmental product declaration (EPD). The data manufacturers provide — the CO2e emissions related to Global Warming Potential (GWP) — is what is used in the Pathfinder calculations.

We hope this increased transparency in the architecture field will migrate to the landscape products space. We must ask landscape product manufacturers to provide EPDs so we can make informed decisions about which product or material to choose.

Vestre, a Norwegian landscape product manufacturer, is currently working with Climate Positive Design to include their products into the app. They’re going to be providing their EPDs for use in the Pathfinder. They do not want us be exclusive, but rather encourage other product manufacturers to provide the same level of transparency and include their products as well, which says a lot about their values.

Vestre

I hope that everyone will jump onboard, because this is an opportunity at a global scale to reduce the impact of these products.

The latest version of your app, Pathfinder 2.0, includes a bunch of new features. What improvements were made? And what do you hope to tackle next?

New features include the ability to compare design alternatives; analyze existing conditions; and understand site impacts, like grading, tree removal, or reused soil imports and amendments. There is also improved data that covers the replacement of materials over time, and more data transparency in the way of pop-ups and information icons.

As I mentioned, we’ll be adding products into the app soon. But we’re also hoping to expand the sequestration data for ecosystem restoration projects. Forest restoration is coming up next. Then, we’re hoping to get financial support, in the form of donations, to expand to coastal wetlands, kelp, mangroves, grasslands, etc.

The goal remains to keep the app free, open, and accessible for all to use and make a difference in projects. This is a commitment I have made.

I believe there is an incredible opportunity for landscape architects to re-imagine landscapes so they are not only wonderful places for people, but also help solve the climate crisis.

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

Spotfire training at the Oklahoma State University / T. Johnson, via The Architect’s Newspaper

Friendly Fire: It’s Time for Designers to Embrace Fire as the Ecological and Cultural Force That It Is — 10/29/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“In Tulsa, Oklahoma, controlled burns will soon be part of the maintenance regime for a massive urban wilderness preserve master-planned by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA).”

“Once-in-a-Generation Project”: Memphis Landscape Architect Honored for Big River Crossing — 10/27/20, Commercial Appeal
“Four years after it opened, the landscape architects who helped design Big River Crossing have won a statewide design award for the project, receiving praise for the way the project ties into the area’s relationship with the river.”

Trump to Strip Protections from Tongass National Forest, One of the Biggest Intact Temperate Rainforests — 10/27/20, The Washington Post
“President Trump will open up more than half of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to logging and other forms of development, according to a notice posted Wednesday, stripping protections that had safeguarded one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests for nearly two decades.”

Cities Are Pledging to Confront Climate Change, but Are Their Actions Working? — 10/22/20, Brookings Institution
“A team of scholars organized by the Brookings Institution has built and analyzed one of the most comprehensive statistical evaluations of just what’s happening in a cross section of diverse cities on emissions reductions.”

The Little-Known Women Behind Some Well-Known Landscapes — 10/21/20, The New York Times
“‘Women have literally shaped the American landscape and continue to today,’ said Charles A. Birnbaum, president and chief executive of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, ‘but their names and contributions are largely unknown.’”

Landscape Architects Unveil Plans to Save the National Mall’s Tidal Basin – 10/21/20, NPR
“Five landscape architects unveiled proposals Wednesday to save the sinking Tidal Basin on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The plans run the gamut from a conservative approach to radical reimaginings.”

Thanks to a Design Coalition with Community Ties, Philadelphia’s Graffiti Pier Will Live on as a Public Park — 10/19/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The proposal from Studio Zewde walks a tightrope: Make the area accessible to a wider public and protect it from climate change, but don’t erase the pier’s offbeat spirit in the process.”

Bakari Sellers: “We Need to Leave Our Silos”

Bakari Sellers / SUNY Oswego

In a general session during the Urban Land Institute (ULI)’s virtual fall meeting, Bakari Sellers, author of the memoir My Vanishing County and commentator on CNN, called for Americans to get out of their bubbles and become more empathetic towards others with different identities and beliefs. He challenged everyone to spend a week watching Fox & Friends, then a week watching Morning Joe, and then a third week watching New Day. “It may be difficult for some, but afterward sit back and have some conversations.”

In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests, possibly the largest protest movement in U.S. history, Sellers said we need to ask ourselves: “Where do we go from here?” But before we can answer that, we must also ask: “How far have we come?”

Sellers then spent the early part of his talk walking the online audience through the life story of his father Cleveland Sellers, a professor and civil rights activist.

His father grew up in rural Denmark, South Carolina, a predominantly Black town. After enrolling at Howard University, Sellers met Stokely Carmichael and joined the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG). In the mid-1960s, he became one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was sent to Mississippi to register voters, where he was met with intense racism.

In 1968, while in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Sellers was arrested during campus protests against the segregation of a local bowling alley. The protest became known as the Orangeburg Massacre because police shot and killed three Black protesters. Sellers and others were accused of being “outside Black Power agitators.” While the nine policemen accused of using excessive force were acquitted, Sellers was convicted and sentenced to year in jail for inciting a riot. Sellers went on to receive a degree from Harvard University and became the director of African American studies at the University of South Carolina; twenty-five years after Orangesburg he received a full pardon.

Sellers explained his father’s history in detail to remind the audience of “difficult times in the past” and relay the importance of “leaving our silos” and seeing history from another perspective.

Back in the present day, Sellers returned to discussing Denmark, South Carolina, and other rural Black communities in the South that have been left behind. There, local businesses and the hospital have shut down. The schools are in the “‘corridor of shame,’ and students walk through mud to get to classes held in trailers.”

With the pandemic, the lack of access and opportunity has only gotten worse. “People feel anxious and suffocated.” Many in the community feel like they are “on the floor,” and there is no further they can drop. Their ability to “emerge from that soil and become an example has gotten so much tougher.”

Sellers brought up Denmark to explain that there is an “empathy deficit in America.” He said “Black people are in a constant state of grieving.” To help, “we can all do our part, take the time, do the introspection. We have made a lot of progress, but there is still so much farther to go. We need to dream with our eyes open and re-imagine the possibilities.”

Those who are developers, planners, and designers of the built environment have an important role to play in re-imagining the country. One of the first major pieces of civil rights legislation — the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — was about “real estate development.”

Before the legislation, redlining, which significantly reduced home ownership in Black and Latinx communities, was pervasive. Redlining also hampered equitable education reform. Equal access to purchasing of a home is essential to growing local tax bases, which play a large role in funding schools.

Today, much of local property taxes come from commercial properties and new development. Here lies the Catch-22: “you can’t improve schools without bringing in business and development, and you can’t bring in business and new development without better schools.”

Sellers applauded the legislation signed into law by President Trump to create opportunity zones. There are now more than 8,700 zones in the U.S. where low-income communities are seeing an influx of direct investment. In return, developers receive significant tax benefits.

But Sellers also called for a greater focus on “race-based policies to address race-specific issues.” These policies can help undo inequities in access to education, health care, transportation, and other areas.

He said even with all the new investment in opportunity zones, Black people in the U.S. are still far behind whites and other groups in wealth accumulation, in large part because of the legacy of redlining, which denied prospective Black homeowners the ability to take out a mortgage. “If white people stopped making any money now, it would still take Black folks 228 years to catch up.”

When asked by an audience member what white and other allies can do to help, Sellers said: “bringing humility and honesty, and really listening is more important than speaking out.” But then he added that “Black people aren’t the ones who are going to cure racism in this country.”

And then when asked what is holding up further change — a lack of knowledge about racism or denial? — Sellers responded: “it’s partly due to willful ignorance, and partly due to a piss-poor educational system.”

Returning to his theme of breaking down racial and partisan silos, he offered a message of solace and determination: “it’s a courageous thing to love your neighbor, even when they don’t love you back. You have to re-dedicate yourself, even when they don’t love you. For some of us, that’s an awesome responsibility.”

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

Statue of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and soldiers before installation at the Eisenhower Memorial / Washington.org

Tuskegee University Receives $100,000 Gift to Advance Young Black Architects — 08/15/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Tuskegee is one of only seven accredited architecture degree programs, which collectively account for approximately half of all African American graduates in architecture.”

LA’s Chief Resilience Officer on Pandemic’s ‘Reveal’ of City’s Vulnerabilities — 08/11/20, The Planning Report
“Having a more reliable energy and water system is important, and not only because it’s more efficient, but it’s more equitable. When the power is cleaner and we’re putting less pollution into the air, it leads to better outcomes for those who are more vulnerable right now.”

Bogotá Is Building its Future Around Bikes — 08/10/20, Bloomberg CityLab
“In February, López announced that the city’s development plan for the next four years would add a total of 280 additional kilometers of bike lanes to the existing 550-kilometer network.”

The New Eisenhower Memorial Is Stunning, Especially at Night. But Is This the Last of the ‘Great Man’ Memorials? — 08/05/20, The Washington Post
“It is unlike any other memorial in Washington, or the world. The design was largely dictated by the awkward site, a four-acre patch of land just south of Independence Avenue, opposite the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.”

Trump Signs Landmark Land Conservation Bill — 08/04/20, The New York Times
“President Trump signed into law the Great American Outdoors Act, a measure with broad bipartisan support that guarantees maximum annual funding for a federal program to acquire and preserve land for public use.”

The ADA at 30: The Battle for an Accessible and Inclusive Future Continues

UC Berkeley protest in the 1970s / Photo by Raymond Lifchez. From his book “Design for Independent Living,” co-authored with Barbara Winslow.

By Alexa Vaughn-Brainard, Assoc. ASLA

July 26 marks the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA grew out of the collective activism of the widely diverse American disabled community, which fought a long and often exhausting battle for access to public space, education, accommodations, transportation, and more. Today, their battle is still ongoing.

As a Deaf woman and as a landscape designer, I have experienced public space in the post-ADA era both personally and professionally. I believe it’s time to examine whether, after three decades, both the ADA and the design professions have done enough to guarantee our right to fully access the public realm.

For architects and landscape architects, the main design guide for access is the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. The most recent version of the standards was released in 2010 and has not been updated since, and, significantly, was not created directly by disabled people. The most recent version of standards were created and are enforced by the Department of Justice under the advisory and maintenance of the U.S. Access Board, which does include disabled members.

A major deficiency of the ADA Standards is that it does not address the broad spectrum of disabilities. It focuses primarily upon physical disabilities (predominantly wheelchair users) and blindness. For example, the standards largely ignore Deaf and hard-of-hearing people or autistic and neuro-divergent people.

Additionally, the guide applies principally to architecture and interiors, rather than for the larger public landscape that disabled people must navigate every day. Today, landscape architects often refer to the Landscape Architectural Graphic Standards. Although these standards contains specific guidelines for outdoor facilities, it takes directly from the ADA Standards and remains a set of baseline minimum requirements lacking in diverse design opportunities.

Despite the legal obligations under the law and the application of ADA Standards, the design professions often operate within the dominant medical model worldview, which infers that disabled people are the problem and that they must “fix” themselves in order to fit seamlessly into our society. And far too often, designers and planners treat ADA standards as an afterthought, a hindrance to creativity, or a headache in construction.

Instead, designers need to switch to a social worldview and recognize that the built environment itself is the real problem, preventing disabled people from being able to fully access and enjoy public spaces. Designers and planners have been directly responsible for the creation of barriers that hinder the estimated one billion people globally who experience some form of disability from being able to comfortably use public space. We can no longer consciously (or sub-consciously) choose to exclude disabled people in our designs. We need to fix and cure the built environment itself, not the people who use it. Access to public space is meant to be a civil right, not a privilege.

Dilworth Plaza in Philadelphia, designed by OLIN / Sahar Coston-Hardy

Universal design is, by definition, flexible and has the capacity to help shape livable and usable cities for everyone, yet it is still not treated as common sense. This is likely due to a reluctance to think about accessibility requirements outside of the narrow legal obligations of the ADA. We need to recognize that although a primary goal of universal design is to provide access to the built environment for disabled people, its benefits go far beyond the disabled community and extend to the broader population. The key is its provision of flexibility and a plethora of options for each user.

Legible Sydney, Sydney, Australia / City of Sydney

Despite the ADA Standards’ limitations, designers and planners have the chance to rethink access and what it means in the public realm. We must open our minds to understand the needs of a large diversity of people and tap into our creativity to think outside the box of the formal standards. ASLA has taken a step in the right direction through its guide to universal design, which sets out principles for the creation of an inclusive public realm that is accessible to as many people as possible.

Today, universal design applications require more thought, practice, and trial (and error), but they must be developed in direct partnership with disabled stakeholders and disabled design experts. We must learn to treat disabled people’s lived experiences as expertise and to trust their needs over our assumptions and intuition.

If we choose to open our minds to universal design’s potential, not only will we honor the ADA on its thirtieth anniversary, but we will take it a step further into a more accessible and inclusive future. We can then begin to dare to dream of a world where disabled people are honored, accepted, and embraced by designers, planners, and the cities they call home.

Alexa Vaughn-Brainard, Assoc. ASLA, is a landscape designer at OLIN in Los Angeles. As a Deaf woman, she has chosen to use identity-first language when talking and writing about disabled people. She feels that claiming a disabled identity is empowering and portrays the disabled community as a distinct and valuable community, worthy of recognition and pride.