President Trump Continues to Bulldoze Environmental Regulations

President Trump holds up his overview of a federal infrastructure review process / Quartz

Amid the global outcry over President Trump’s remarks that sought to legitimize white supremacists at a press conference earlier this week, we almost missed the fact that Trump rolled-back Obama administration rules to improve the resilience of federally-financed buildings and infrastructure in flood-prone areas and to update important flood risk management standards. In 2015, President Obama required new infrastructure to be built two feet above the 100 year flood plain and three feet for critical infrastructure like hospitals and evacuation centers, and also updated standards that guide flood insurance rates. Beyond undoing these regulatory actions, President Trump announced a new effort to streamline environmental review processes for new infrastructure projects.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates flooding has caused some $260 billion in damages from 1980 to 2013. And in the past decade, flood insurance claims now total $1.6 billion annually, putting further pressure on the already deeply-indebted flood insurance system. As climate change increases both inland flooding and coastal sea level rise, scientists expect flooding to only worsen.

To address increased risks, the Obama administration required federally-financed projects to factor in climate change projections. Now, with a stroke of a pen, the Trump administration has not only put communities at greater risk, but likely reduced the lifespan of infrastructure in flood-prone areas, and their financial efficiency and effectiveness as well.

Former FEMA official Rafael Lemaitre, told Reuters the Obama-era rules were “‘the most significant action taken in a generation’ to safeguard U.S. infrastructure. ‘Eliminating this requirement is self-defeating; we can either build smarter now, or put taxpayers on the hook to pay exponentially more when it floods. And it will.'”

And in New Jersey, which was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy, there was disbelief. John Miller, New Jersey Association of Flood Plain Management, told NJ Spotlight the Obama-era rule was a “solid idea.” He added: “We are going to have worsening conditions. We have to build to future conditions.’’

According to Reuters, both the American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Home Builders praised the move to roll-back the flood risk management standards to the earlier version established by President Carter in 1977, arguing that the Obama-era rules on managing flood risk increased housing costs.

The Obama administration stated that the new standards would only raise housing costs by 0.25 to 1.25 percent, but Republican Congressman Ralph Abraham, from Louisiana, who sponsored legislation that would have blocked Obama’s flood standard, told The New York Times the new rules “would have increased the cost of a new home in Louisiana by 25 percent to 30 percent, because most of the state would be put in a federal flood plain.” The overall effect, however, may be to increase risk, as communities continue to live and build in flood plains not be characterized as risky, and then fail to qualify for federal assistance when disaster invariably strikes. 

In a new fact sheet on infrastructure that lays of the Trump administration’s vision for investing $200 billion in the 2018 budget, Trump administration officials took aim at what they describe as onerous environmental review processes for infrastructure projects. “The environmental review and permitting process in the United States is fragmented, inefficient, and unpredictable. Existing statutes have important and laudable objectives, but the lack of cohesiveness in their execution make the delivery of infrastructure projects more costly, unpredictable, and time-consuming, all while adding little environmental protection.”

At his shocking press conference, Trump said a complex highway project can take up to 17 years (but didn’t cite an actual example of this). He called the current approach a “disgrace.” His goal is to reduce environmental reviews for a project to two years and centralize management through a “one Federal review” in which one government agency takes the lead on a project.

Trump said: “It’s going to be quick. It’s going to be a very streamlined process. And by the way, if [a project] doesn’t meet environmental safeguards, we’re not going to approve it — very simple.”

According to BloombergPolitics, the new order “allows the Office of Management and Budget to establish goals for environmental reviews and permitting of infrastructure projects and then track their progress — with automatic elevation to senior agency officials when deadlines are missed or extended. The order calls for tracking the time and costs of conducting environmental reviews and making permitting decisions, and it allows the budget office to consider penalties for agencies that fail to meet established milestones.”

Environmental groups were uniformly opposed to the effort to streamline federal environmental reviews, arguing that a two-year time frame may result in more wasteful and risky projects with damaging environmental impacts.

Republicans argue that excessive regulations are holding up infrastructure projects, while Democrats may agree that some regulations could be streamlined, but, really, the primary issue is there isn’t enough public investment. ABC News reports that a Treasury Department report released earlier this year found “a lack of public funding is by far the most common factor hindering completion” of infrastructure projects.

In other federal environmental and climate news: Scientists from 13 federal agencies released a draft of the National Climate Assessment, which Congress mandates be updated every four years. The New York Times writes: “The study examines every corner of the United States and finds that all of it was touched by climate change. The average annual temperature in the United States will continue to rise, the authors write, making recent record-setting years ‘relatively common’ in the near future.” Perhaps the best that can be hoped for with this administration is the draft review process will be allowed to continue on auto-pilot without political interference.

At the department of interior, The Nation writes, a purge of climate experts is underway, while the word “climate” is being scrubbed from program titles.

And at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): the agency is now implementing national ambient air quality standards, rules created by the Obama administration in 2015, after 15 states and a number of leading organizations sued. Still, there are other worrying developments: Administrator Scott Pruitt’s agenda to reduce regulations and cut staff is largely happening in secret. But that may change: the California attorney general just sued the EPA in attempt to force them to explain how Pruitt will handle conflicts of interest with the fossil fuel industry.

Best Podcasts for Landscape Architects

And the best way to listen to podcasts


Over the past decade, podcasts have emerged as a popular storytelling platform and captivating way to learn more about the world around us.

Podcasts offer a source of inspiration for designers exploring other disciplines and seeking fresh perspective within their own. For landscape architects, podcasts reveal new opportunities and ways of thinking about the way we design space.

The podcasts on this list seeks to capture the range of topics that influence the field — from interviews with leading landscape architects, to stories on cities, urban planning, communities, and sustainability, as well as insight from creative people in other professions.

All of these podcasts are available on iTunes and Stitcher

99% Invisible: Roman Mars and his team at 99% Invisible pull together seemingly disparate pieces of information to weave compelling stories of why things are the way they are. While not landscape-specific, this podcast is a must-listen for anyone interested in places, people, and design.

Recommended episodes: “Making Up Ground” is all about cities built on constructed land and the modern day implications of reclamation. 22 minutes

American Planning Association: The APA produces a series of podcasts that focus on everything from the people behind plans, to disruptive transportation technologies, to planning for public health and for public space. Together, the podcasts offer a good way to keep up with all things planning.

Recommended episode: In “Planning for Parks in Washington D.C.’s NoMa,” APA’s Mike Johnson interviews Robin-Eve Jasper and Stacie West, who are shaping the future of a D.C. neighborhood where, in an era of rapid development, almost no land was set aside for public parks. 23 minutes

Design Matters: If you’re in the design world and don’t know how Debbie Millman is, this podcast is a great introduction. Her podcast, Design Matters, has been around since podcasts about design have been a thing. She has interviewed influential people from a multitude of creative industries. Their stories are inspiring for designers in any field.

Recommended episode: Interview with architect Pierluigi Serraino about what creative people have in common. 28 minutes

Infinite Earth Radio: This weekly podcast explores solutions for a more sustainable world. Hosts Mike Hancox and Vernice Miller-Travis interview people — from government officials to local entrepreneurs — who are working to advance more equitable, resilient communities.

Recommended episode: “Bottom Up Water Solutions” talks about freshwater, keeping our streams clean, and smart growth in the face of climate change. 28 minutes

The Landscape Architect Podcast: This podcast, which is focused on landscape architecture, broadens the discourse within the profession by talking to leaders from all areas of the field. Host Michael Todoran with co-host Margaret Gerhart hold candid discussions with professionals in landscape architecture, as well as writers, researchers, and innovative thinkers influencing the future of the profession.

Recommended episode: “Feng Shui & Landscape Architecture” discusses movement and the environment with landscape architect Shelley Sparks as she analyzes Feng Shui for homes, business, and gardens. 53 minutes

Placemakers: Slate is a major hub for podcasts, and their Placemakers is a story-driven show about urban design and planning. Host Rebecca Sheir and the producers at Slate explore how innovative communities are tackling environmental and social issues.

Recommended episode: “The Greatest Misallocation of Resources in the History of the World” is an episode about an agricultural approach to tackling suburban sprawl. 29 minutes

Roots of Design: This podcast is by landscape architects for landscape architects. Produced by the New York Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), hosts Frank Varro and a variety of co-hosts discuss the breadth of opportunity in the profession through interviews with leaders in the field. It fills a crucial need for a landscape architecture-exclusive podcast and raises awareness of an often misunderstood field.

Recommended episode: Their first, “The Birth of Central Park and Landscape Architecture,” is a great place to start — and really any number of their interviews thereafter. 13 minutes

The Urbanist: For a global perspective, listen to Monocle’s The Urbanist. Host Andrew Tuck covers everything from urban policy to environmentalism to art. This podcast packs a variety of topics in each 30-minute episode, providing a well-rounded but thorough update on urban developments each week.

Recommended episode: “River crossing” on how rivers and bridges can both connect and divide urban areas. 26 minutes

What did I miss? Comment below and share your favorite podcasts.

Soon We’ll Be Able to Swim in the Chicago River

Chicago River / Pinterest

Take a dip in the Chicago River? Those familiar with its history might think twice.

The Chicago River has a notoriously waste-filled past. Originally, the 150-mile-long waterway was used to fuel booming industry in the Midwest city. Little attention was paid to its environmental and civic value. By the turn of the century, it was contaminated with sewage and factory waste. When a storm cause the Chicago River to overflow, it would spill into Lake Michigan, the source of the city’s drinking water, posing such an acute risk to residents’ health that in 1900 the city turned it around, reverse-engineering its flow and diverting wastewater away from Lake Michigan and out of the region to the Mississippi. The reversal was crucial to protecting thousands of Chicagoans a year from waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera.

By 1930, after legal complaints from cities downstream, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Chicago to address the pollution problem. Since then, efforts have been ongoing to clean up the waterway. Recently, the city has stepped up those efforts again with hopes of increase activity along and in the river, including swimming.

In 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Metropolitan Planning Council announced the Great Rivers Chicago effort, a city-wide “visioning process” to develop a long-term plan to clean up and reintegrate into city life the three rivers of the Chicago system – the Chicago, Calumet, and Des Plaines Rivers.

The vision, released last year, lays out a series of goals that aim to make the river “inviting, productive and living” with benchmarks at 2020, 2030, and 2040. Ultimately, the city wants to draw more people to a river front that’s safer and more engaging with improve water quality.

And by 2030, they hope to make the river swimmable.

But despite reversing the Chicago River, the city’s combined sewage and stormwater system is still inundated during large storm events and can overflow into the rivers, canals, and Lake Michigan. According to The Chicago Tribune, 18.2 billion gallons of pollution entered the river last year. Chicago plans to eliminate the system’s overflows through green infrastructure and  completing the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, known as the Deep Tunnel project, which started in 1975 and the city hopes to complete by 2029.

For recreation purposes, the rivers need to achieve the “primary contact” water quality standards set for them by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, which would allow for safe swimming, paddling, and fishing.

Each year, 1.5 million Chicagoans and tourists flock to the popular Riverwalk, a 1.25 mile pedestrian walkway that runs from Lake Shore Drive to Lake Street on the south bank of the Chicago River in the city’s downtown. A new $108-million segment designed by the landscape architecture firm Sasaki, Ross Barney Architects, and Collins Engineers that just saw its official opening has generated even more interest in the river.

Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki
Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki
Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki

Paddling is already happening on the river. And a floating museum, or barge-turned moveable entertainment center, which launched this week, will travel along the Chicago River through August, eventually landing at Navy Pier.

New cleanup efforts are happening right alongside all the activity. Last month, the city tested a trash skimmer to collect garbage pooling along the Riverwalk. According to The Chicago Tribune, the floating dumpster is an $11,000 pilot program running through the fall that “sucks in the bacteria-laden water and uses a mesh screen to catch oil pollutants and floating garbage.”

Some residents are ready to take the plunge now, but getting much of the public past the initial “ew factor” of swimming in infamously-polluted waters may take time. Regardless, beyond swimmable urban waterways, this aspiring scheme could offer a unique way of looking at a role of a river can play in connecting a city.

Renewable Energy Is Soaring, but Debate Rages on How Far It Can Take Us

Wind farm in Guazhou, China / Carlos Barria, Reuters via National Geographic

Renewable energy is gaining momentum. Within a quarter of a century, one third of global electricity generation will be supplied by wind and solar, according to a report from Bloomberg Renewable Energy Finance (BNEF) released this month.

BNEF, which produces long-term forecasts on the global energy sector, says wind and solar will make up nearly half of installed capacity and 34 percent of electricity generation globally by 2040, a significant increase from today’s 12 percent and 5 percent respectively. The plunging cost of renewable energy is making it cheaper than coal generation in many countries. The cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels will fall by 66 percent and onshore wind, by 47 percent. The report predicts a $7.4 trillion investment, approximately $400 billion per year, in new renewable energy generation globally by 2040.

Meanwhile, the United States just hit a renewable energy milestone. Last week, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced for the first time wind and solar made up over 10 percent of the nation’s electricity generation in the month of March.

This record-breaking share was aided by low demand, common in the spring and fall months, longer days with more sunlight, also typical of spring months, and higher winds in parts of the country like Texas and Oklahoma. Wind and solar will likely hit double-digits again in April before dipping in the summer.

Some experts argue the U.S. could run solely on renewable energy by mid-century – and that’s caused some controversy among the scientific community.

Last week, a group of over 20 researchers published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) assessing the feasibility of that 100 percent target. The assessment is a response to a 2015 paper, also published by PNAS and led by Mark Jacobson, a professor at Stanford University, which argued that wind, solar, and hydroelectric power could meet U.S. electricity needs affordably and without risk to grid stability between 2050 and 2055.

Jacobson’s report has been both popular and contentious. It has been supported by many environmental organizations and touted by public figures, like former presidential candidate and U.S senator Bernie Sanders.

Now, researchers led by Christopher Clack, founder of Vibrant Clean Energy, are taking issue with Jacobson’s paper, arguing this week in PNAS that its analysis “involved errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions.” The rebuttal contends that Jacobson’s paper does not make a sufficient argument against previous analysis holding that a diverse set of technologies beyond wind, solar, and hydroelectric power are needed in the transition to a low-carbon future, and that a target of 80 percent is more feasible renewable power generation goal.

Jacobson fired back with a counter response, also published in PNAS, and in an interview with the MIT Technology Review, he called into question his critics’ motives. “They’re either nuclear advocates or carbon sequestration advocates or fossil-fuels advocates,” Jacobson told the online publication. “They don’t like the fact that we’re getting a lot of attention, so they’re trying to diminish our work.”

Those questioning a fully renewable-power U.S. electricity system say some nuclear and carbon capture and storage as well as continued use of some fossil fuel-based sources are also needed, because of the intermittent nature of wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, and, as of yet, there is insufficient storage capacity.

The Trump administration is among critics who say a large-scale conversion to renewable energy could be destabilizing to the U.S. electric grid. Energy Secretary Rick Perry is expected to release a report in the next month reviewing federal regulations to determine whether policies supporting renewable energy, like the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, have made the national electricity grid less reliable. Anticipating the department of energy analysis, two industry organizations released their own report this week, finding that wind and solar have not threatened the reliability of the grid.

It’s no secret President Trump supports the coal industry. Earlier this month he announced plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, making good on a promise he reiterated throughout his White House bid and isolating the U.S. from the 194 other countries supporting global carbon reduction efforts. Previously, he ordered Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt to scrap the Clean Power Plan, which was expected to reduce power sector emissions by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Regardless, the U.S. will come close to achieving those power sector emission reductions even without the federal policy. According to the BNEF report, the U.S. is expected to reduce emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. And renewable energy sources are giving coal and fossil fuels a run for its money. The BNEF report also predicts that by 2040 coal consumption will have dropped 51 percent and be replaced by cheaper renewables and natural gas.

President Trump Seeks to Pull U.S. out of Paris Climate Accord

“A tiny, tiny amount,” said President Trump, referring to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions he believes will be reduced by the Paris climate accord, during a speech at the White House / Mashable

Last week, President Trump initiated the process of taking the U.S. out of the United Nations’ 2015 Paris accord, in which 195 countries have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to stave off the dire effects of climate change. Under President Obama, the U.S. committed to reducing American emissions by 26-28 percent by 2030 through raising vehicle emissions standards and phasing out coal-powered electrical generation, and then further ratcheting up emissions reductions by 2050. President Trump believes Obama’s plans would have a negative impact on U.S. competitiveness and job creation and pledged to ignore his predecessor’s targets. Starting the process to take the U.S. out of the agreement, a lengthy undertaking that won’t conclude until November 2020, Trump argued the Paris accord is a bad deal for American workers.

In his speech in the Rose Garden, Trump stated: “The Paris climate accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries, leaving American workers — who I love — and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.”

Meanwhile, 70 percent of Americans support staying in the agreement, 45 percent now worry “a great deal” about climate change, and an impressive and growing coalition of states, cities, and major companies and organizations have committed to following the terms of Obama’s commitment, regardless of Trump’s stance.

Here are three key arguments in Trump’s speech, as well as counter-arguments.

First, his primary argument is the accord is bad for the U.S. economy. “Compliance with the terms of the Paris Accord and the onerous energy restrictions it has placed on the United States could cost America as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025, according to the National Economic Research Associates. This includes 440,000 fewer manufacturing jobs — not what we need — believe me, this is not what we need — including automobile jobs, and the further decimation of vital American industries on which countless communities rely. They rely for so much, and we would be giving them so little. According to this same study, by 2040, compliance with the commitments put into place by the previous administration would cut production for the following sectors: paper down 12 percent; cement down 23 percent; iron and steel down 38 percent; coal — and I happen to love the coal miners — down 86 percent; natural gas down 31 percent. The cost to the economy at this time would be close to $3 trillion in lost GDP and 6.5 million industrial jobs, while households would have $7,000 less income and, in many cases, much worse than that.”

Critics dispute the methodology used in March 2017 study by NERA, which was financed by the American Council for Capital Formation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, both vocal critics of U.S. involvement in the Paris accord. They argue that it doesn’t properly estimate the new jobs created by the shift to renewable energy.

The New York Times editorial board in turn took apart Trump’s economic case: “As alternative realities and fake facts go, that argument is something to behold. For one thing, it fails to account for the significant economic benefits of reducing greenhouse gases, avoiding damage to human health and the environment. And it ignores extensive research showing that reducing carbon emissions can in fact drive economic growth. Partly because of investments in cleaner fuels, partly because of revolutionary improvements in efficiency standards for appliances and buildings, carbon dioxide emissions in this country actually fell nearly 12 percent in the last decade, even as the overall economy kept growing. Under Mr. Obama’s supposedly job-killing regulations, more than 11.3 million jobs were created, compared with two million-plus under Mr. Bush’s anti-regulatory regime.”

Also, the coal industry is in decline, but not because of a regulatory onslaught. “It’s true that the coal industry is losing jobs, largely a result of competition from cheaper natural gas, but the renewable fuels industry is going gangbusters: Employment in the solar industry, for instance, is more than 10 times what it was a decade ago, 260,000 jobs as opposed to 24,000.”

Second, Trump states the agreement is unfair, as he believes it privileges developing countries: “For example, China will be able to increase these emissions by a staggering number of years — 13. They can do whatever they want for 13 years. Not us. India makes its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from developed countries. There are many other examples. But the bottom line is that the Paris Accord is very unfair, at the highest level, to the United States.”

China, which is the now the world’s biggest source of carbon pollution, has stated its emissions will climb until 2030, as it continues to modernize its economy, and then decline. But China has already begun to speed up its progress. For the fourth year in a row, Chinese emissions have been flat or fallen 1 percent. And China’s long-term emissions reduction targets are even more ambitious than those promised by President Obama. According to BBC News, “China aims to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65 percent by 2030, from 2005 levels. China also aims to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in its primary energy consumption to about 20 percent by 2030.”

President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leadership have stepped up, re-committed to their pledges, cancelled 100 new coal-powered energy plants, and reached out to European and Californian leaders to build on progress. And India, which does require support as it has hundreds of millions of poor people, is aggressively shifting to a clean-energy economy ahead of schedule. India also hit back against Trump’s claims that it was just looking for extra foreign aid.

Lastly, Trump argued the Paris agreement wouldn’t have made much of a difference on global emission reductions anyhow: “Even if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a two-tenths of one degree — think of that; this much — Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100. Tiny, tiny amount. In fact, 14 days of carbon emissions from China alone would wipe out the gains from America — and this is an incredible statistic — would totally wipe out the gains from America’s expected reductions in the year 2030, after we have had to spend billions and billions of dollars, lost jobs, closed factories, and suffered much higher energy costs for our businesses and for our homes.”

According to The New York Times, Trump misrepresented the MIT study he cited in his speech. Writing about the authors of the study, The Times reports: “In an updated 2016 analysis, they found that current climate pledges would result in global average temperatures rising between 2.7 and 3.6 degrees by the end of the century, compared with between 3.3 and 4.7 degrees if no action were taken, a difference of nearly a degree. And the aim of the Paris agreement is to improve those pledges over time.”

Amid the anger many feel with Trump’s action, state, city, and corporate leaders have pledged to move towards a clean economy and society, which, as many have noted, would also have major public health benefits. Within hours of Trump’s announcement, California, which alone is the world’s 6th largest economy; New York; and Washington state announced the launch of the bipartisan United States Climate Alliance, with the goal of achieving Obama’s climate pledge. Since the group’s formation, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Puerto Rico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia have joined, bringing the total to 12 states and one territory. Six other states, including Colorado, Maryland, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, as well as Washington, D.C. may join.

Leaders of 246 cities, who call themselves the “Climate Mayors” and represent 56 million Americans, have also pledged to uphold the U.S. commitment, as many set worthy targets — 50, 75, even 100 percent renewable power by 2030. 170 university and college presidents have signed on. Major corporations have taken leadership positions. Apple, Tesla, General Electric, Disney, and others have led the charge, but even major oil companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron have lent their support.

Some believe Trump pulling out the U.S. out of the accord will only accelerate the shift to renewable energy among the private sector, as even traditional firms like Walmart set goals that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. The market shift in the U.S. is already well underway. Still, Trump’s move is very dangerous, as it can undermine serious action in other countries where there are similar debates as to whether it’s worthwhile to put the laws and regulations in places to shift to a clean energy economy. It will be up to California, the European Union, and China to lead the way and apply pressure on other countries for at least the next four years.

ASLA Statement on President Trump’s 2018 Budget

Hikers enjoying a trail in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, which was protected through LWCF funds.

ASLA is extremely concerned with President Trump’s proposed federal budget, which makes draconian cuts at a time when our country should be making increased investments in the resilience and health of our communities.

The President’s recommendation to slash the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) by nearly 85 percent from current funding levels—from $400 million to $90 million—is devastating. Such a reduction decimates the nation’s most important conservation and outdoor recreation program that landscape architects access to plan and design community parks.

We are extremely concerned about the proposed 31 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget. It is the most dramatic rollback in the agency’s 47-year history. The proposal purports to allocate $2.3 billion to the Clean Water and Drinking Water state revolving fund programs, a $4 million increase. However, the budget also eliminates $498 million from the Department of Agriculture’s Water and Wastewater loan and grant program and instead recommends that rural communities access EPA’s State Revolving Funds, thus leaving State Revolving Funds with a $494 million reduction in funding.

The Trump administration’s budget proposal includes significant cuts to key climate change programs and activities across all agencies, including ceasing all payments to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund and eliminating the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Analysis Program.

ASLA and its members call on Congress to reject this budget proposal and protect programs and resources that protect our nation’s infrastructure and environment. As the long legislative process continues, we will continue to advocate on behalf of our members and their stewardship of the natural environment.

Our recent actions include the May 15 submittal of a letter signed by nearly 2,000 landscape architects and other supporters urging EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to change course and work to continue federal carbon reduction programs and regulations, fund scientific research and make it accessible to the American people, and honor the United States’ commitment to the Paris Agreement.

This post is by American Society of Landscape Architects’ (ASLA) Executive Vice President and CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA.

Visions for the Next Generation of American Infrastructure

Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, 2007 / AP Photo, Morry Gash via Wired

In March, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its infrastructure report card, the first in four years. After crunching the data, they gave the U.S. a D+, explained Tom Smith, executive director, ASCE, at the American Society of Landscape Architect (ASLA)’s mid-year board meeting. “We have a lot of infrastructure at the end of its useful life. And we have a $2 trillion infrastructure investment gap over the next decade.”

Given America’s infrastructure is nearly failing, how should we rebuild? And where do we find the money?

In a panel moderated by ASLA CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, Smith argued “we can’t just rebuild our grandparent’s infrastructure. We can’t just add more lanes to the highways. We need to focus on land-use planning, sustainability, and resilience. Autonomous vehicles will also be huge.”

Patrick Phillips, Global CEO, Urban Land Institute (ULI), said compact transit-oriented development could “reduce the need for infrastructure.” He believes infrastructure in the future needs to be more smartly targeted to achieve economic development goals but also improve equity. A focus on inclusiveness can lead to new possibilities and a fairer future.

Rachel Minnery, senior director of sustainability policy at American Institute of Architects (AIA) wants to see new infrastructure investments help deal with climate challenges by improving our resilience. “We have a vast stock of existing buildings” that must be made more resilient. “We need a new era of visionary planning.”

“Parks and green infrastructure should be an investment priority,” said David Rouse, ASLA, research director at American Planning Association (APA), echoing APA’s official position on infrastructure. “Green infrastructure creates jobs. We can’t just recreate grey infrastructure.”

And Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, director of federal government affairs, ASLA, agreed, arguing that more investment is needed in “parks and national lands, which are also infrastructure.” National parks in particular are “overburdened,” said Smith, who noted that parks went down in the latest ASCE infrastructure report card. He added: “treating parks as infrastructure is an idea that resonates with people.”

Blackwell also made the case for increasing investments in “active transportation,” a term for infrastructure such as sidewalks and bike lanes, arguing that any major infrastructure investment must be comprehensive, and not just be about repairing highways and bridges.

So how to pay for the many trillions required for new infrastructure?

While states — even red ones — have raised gas taxes, the federal government hasn’t in decades and isn’t likely to in the future. President Trump has called for an increase in private investment in infrastructure through public-private partnerships (PPPs), but Somerville noted that PPPs usually privilege communities that can easily attract private investment. A private-sector led approach can then be expected to be leave poorer communities farther behind.

Phillips said there is “no silver bullet. We need a mix of private and public funds. Other countries are more effective at PPPs than us. Infrastructure can unlock opportunities in poorer neighborhoods. But, if poorly structured, a PPP doesn’t help.”

Minnery thinks the market will shift development and infrastructure investment patterns. Already the credit ratings of cities on coasts, which are most vulnerable to rising seas and storms, are taking a hit. As climate refugees increase in number and head inland, those cities will face pressure to increase development. “We have to think holistically as a nation about what this means.”

And, lastly, President Trump wants to speed up the process of building infrastructure. He is considering a new rule to requires states to start projects within 90 days of receiving federal funding. Is this possible?, Somerville asked.

Minnery said there’s often a delay at the state level, because of a lack of resources in planning departments. These departments have huge stacks of projects awaiting review. “Planning departments never recovered from cuts after the 2008 recession.” Rouse also noted that if the planned EPA cuts go through, “that stack of project reviews will get even higher.”

He said “successful infrastructure projects are rooted in local visions and strong regional planning.” To move projects forward quickly, communities must have planning infrastructure in place.

Blackwell wondered if more infrastructure project review responsibilities could be devolved to states. Through the FAST Act, federal lawmakers enabled California, Florida, Ohio, Texas and Utah to conduct their own National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews on behalf of the federal government. The Hill reports that Ohio saved $4.6 million in the first three months of doing the reviews itself.

D.C. Becoming More Sustainable, But Not Everyone Benefits

Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane / Over the Bars in Wisconsin

It has been four years since Washington, D.C. released its ambitious sustainability plan, which called for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent; increasing the share of trips made via walking, biking or transit to 75 percent; and making 100 percent of the district’s waterways fishable and swimmable — all by 2032. Since then, the district government has accomplished 72 percent of the things it set out to do. And it has made solid progress on the toughest goals. Already, greenhouse gas emissions are down 24 percent, based on 2006 levels, despite four consecutive years of economic and population growth.

At the launch event of Sustainable DC 2.0, district department of the environment and energy director Tommy Wells, outlined the top 10 achievements made by the city since 2013:

#10: Over 100 partners have pledged to help reach the Sustainable DC goals, including all universities in the district and nearly 100 embassies.

#9: The city now have 80 miles of bike lanes and 420 Capitol bike share stations. Some 16.7 percent of the populace now walks or bikes to work. D.C. is tied with Boston for 4th place in this regard, but Wells is confident D.C. will eventually beat Beantown. “I mean, we have much better weather.”

#8: The East Capitol Urban Farm, a three-acre facility that offers access to healthy food and job training. The district has a total of eight urban farms, more than 60 community gardens, and 120-plus school gardens. These efforts and others have helped make 82 percent of the district population food secure.

#7: A new zero waste plan. A comprehensive study now underway will help the city reduces its waste output, which is where the Economist Intelligence Unit said D.C. need to show the greatest progress five years ago. Wells said there are now composting facilities in every ward.

#6: District sustainability awards. Each year, the district government honors those who are leading partners in the effort to achieve the city’s goals. In 2016, American University, Atlas Brew Works, Compost Cab, and others won.

#5: The district now has the most energy star-certified buildings and the most LEED buildings  in the nation on a per capita basis. And for the first time, D.C.’s new comprehensive plan includes a sustainability section.

#4: D.C. is ahead of its goals in planting enough trees to reach a 40 percent tree canopy by 2032. The District is now at 38 percent, up 2 percent in the past year when 14,000 trees were planted, which together would cover 800 football fields or two National Malls. Wells gave a shout-out to Casey Trees, ASLA, and American University for helping to accelerate progress.

#3: The Anacostia River is now cleaner than it has been in years, in part due to the 2.7 million square feet of green roofs that help keep stormwater out of the river. Wells was confident the Anacostia can be swimmable and fishable by 2032, “maybe even 2025.”

#2: Sustainable DC ambassadors and volunteers. The district department of energy and the environment has trained over 125 people to go out into their communities and help make the case for sustainability.

#1: D.C. now gets 125,000 megawatts hours from regional wind power sources and 11 megawatts from rooftop solar facilities. 100 percent of D.C. government is now powered by renewable sources. The goal is for 50 percent of the entire district to be powered by wind and solar by 2032; the city’s now at 13.6 percent.

While D.C.’s renewable energy goals take us in the right direction, Hawaii has announced it will aim for 100 percent renewable energy, and Vermont, 75 percent. Portland, Oregon, also recently announced its intention to reach 100 percent renewable. Maybe it’s time for D.C. to up its game a bit?

In a panel after Wells’ announcement, Greater Greater Washington founder David Alpert moderated a panel with former D.C. planning director Harriet Tregoning, Nature Conservancy urban conservation director Khalil Kettering, and Black Women Bike founder Veronica O. Davis, exploring how sustainability relates to resilience, inclusiveness, and health and well-being, and where D.C. needs to go next.

Tregoning said a key issue was D.C. and other big cities are no longer “producing middle class jobs; they are just creating jobs at the high-end — knowledge workers — or at the low-end in restaurants or retail.” She has a plan to resolve this: “If 5 percent of D.C. buildings were retrofitted each year, that would create more middle class jobs and grow the housing and construction economy.” Efforts like these are needed more than ever, particularly given the U.S. shed 89,000 retail jobs since the beginning of the year, and cities like D.C. are “automating the low-end jobs that used to be done by people.”

Davis focused on the need more thoughtful inclusiveness efforts, arguing that educational programs aimed at encouraging African Americans in Ward 7 and 8 to use Capitol bike share have been patronizing. “We’ve been doing bike share for years. It’s called: ‘Let me hold your bike while you go into the store.'” She also said training and education on sustainability isn’t needed in many instances, because African American residents in D.C. are really already living in a sustainable manner, walking or biking to work, or using the Metro.

And Kettering zoomed out to look at the systems-scale, arguing that when looking at sustainability, cities need to look at human health and well-being, housing, and transportation together. The relationship between all of the elements that go into sustainability are “constantly evolving. There are layers of issues and benefits” changing in tandem.

D.C. still has many challenges to overcome in its effort to become truly sustainable. According to a recent report, it’s the 17th most segregated city in the country. In 2013, some 18.9 percent of the population lived below the poverty line, putting D.C. among the top six states and territories of the country with the highest concentrations of poverty. And the poverty rate east of the Anacostia got even worse after the recession.

For Tregoning, the problem is that the federal government, even prior to the Trump administration, has told basically told cities “you are on your own,” so there is even “less federal support.” Given the market “doesn’t create fairness and equity,” cities have to be deliberate in creating policies that can. Mayor Muriel Bowser has increased investments in affordable housing, but some argue the city’s efforts don’t go far enough.

Ending poverty on the east side of the Anacostia will take a sustainability plan that delivers on new green jobs. Sustainability and equality must be considered two sides of the same coin.

A New Strategy for American Sustainability

The New Grand Strategy / St. Martin’s Press

Back in 2009, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael McMullen tasked his staff to create a “grand strategy” for the United States. That job fell to Navy Captain Wayne Porter and now-retired Marine Colonel Mark “Puck” Mykleby, who later turned the results from the multi-year research study into a book: The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security, and Sustainability in the 21st Century. At the Biophilic Leadership Summit at Serenbe, an agricultural community near Atlanta, Mykleby asserted that the United States is now deeply embedded in an “unsustainable global system” that makes it susceptible to shocks, particularly from climate change. In addition, we are stuck with a “20th century economic engine.” The way forward to future sustainability is found in walkable communities, regenerative agriculture, and greater resource productivity. “We need to rebuild our own strength and credibility by setting a new example.”

Mykleby — who was described by Serenbe founder Steven Nygren as a “gentle giant with a big heart who can kill you with two fingers” — outlined in drill sergeant mode all the things that make our current global system unsustainable:

First, there is the rapid inclusion of many new consumers around the world. As the planet heads towards 9 billion people, we can expect to see a middle class of around 3 billion people. If they are consuming as Americans and western Europeans do now, we will need 4.5 Earths to maintain them. Second, climate change and increasing ecosystem degradation will reduce our access to resources and increase our vulnerabilities. And, lastly, there is a growing “infrastructure resilience deficit” — infrastructure worldwide isn’t set up to accommodate the anticipated population growth or coming nature-driven shocks.

(Mykleby also argued that using gross domestic product (GDP) as the primary measure of progress is really enabling all this unsustainable global growth and needs to be replaced with a gross national happiness metric, like Bhutan’s. We’ve discovered in the United States that “more shit isn’t going to make us happier.”)

In addition to being embedded in an unsustainable global system, the U.S. is also stuck with an “obsolete 20th century economic engine,” defined by suburban sprawl, consumer spending, high-input agriculture, massive federal subsidies, and quarterly reporting and capital gains taxes. This engine is “extremely fragile.” Agricultural in particular is in a “perilous place,” given climate change. On top of all this, we have “political dysfunction.”

Walkable communities help rebuild American strength by increasing social ties, particularly inter-generational ones. As baby boomers downsize and want to age in place, they seek connections to others. Millennials can’t afford cars or don’t want them, so they are also want more walkable places. In fact, research shows “some 60 percent of the country seeks communities with the attributes of smart growth.” But given the market hasn’t met demand, people are still paying a premium to live in these places.

Food production will need to increase 60-70 percent in coming decades to meet the demand from a growing population, just as climate change accelerates and ecosystems are further degraded. The only way to achieve this is “100 percent regenerative agriculture. We need to restore our top soils.” (Mykleby didn’t further define regenerative agriculture in his talk, but we are assuming it involves permaculture, introducing perennial grain plants, and other sustainable farming practices).

Lastly, according to The Atlantic, some 70 percent of Indian cities have yet to be built. A similar number can be found for many developing world cities. And all our developed-world urban communities are in a continuous process of being rebuilt. As the global population heads toward 9 billion and concrete production already accounts for 5-10 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, we need “more advanced, resource-efficient, recycled building materials.”

If the U.S. “can get its ass in gear,” focusing on walkable communities, sustainable agriculture, and new housing materials will lead to a resurgence in jobs in the manufacturing, agriculture, construction, transportation sectors, and create the “economy of the future.” Mykleby also called for changing from a model of rampant material consumerism to an economy in which “we consume positive, meaningful experiences.”

While the path to sustainability is clear to him, sadly, the U.S. is now “doubling-down on the old economy. We are walking away from climate change, increasing inequality, and leaving international institutions.” As the supporters of the old business model hang on tight, they are setting us up to fail.

If you are unconvinced the U.S. is falling behind, Mykleby urges you to read China’s latest five-year plan, which aims to set the country on a “sustainable path, address social equity problems, and increase participation in international institutions.”

A Joint Call to Action to Promote Healthy Communities

ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. Mill River Park and Greenway. OLIN / Olivier Kpognon

Where we live, work and play can directly impact our physical and mental health. To more aggressively combat negative health factors such as obesity, diabetes, asthma, and anxiety, leaders of the nation’s built environment and public health organizations today pledged their support to promote greater collaboration to advance healthier, more walkable communities.

The “Joint Call to Action to Promote Healthy Communities,” brings together 450,000 professionals who recognize that the built environment — the way a community is designed and built from its buildings and public spaces to how we travel between communities — is a key determinant of health. Working together will create new momentum towards the common objective of creating and sustaining healthy buildings and spaces.

Providing options for how residents want to move around as well as encouraging physical activity can be achieved through a variety of ways. Solutions may include multi-use pathways for walking and biking, Complete Streets policies, equitable and affordable transportation and transit-oriented communities, implementation of green infrastructure, more efficient land, water and resource use, expanded tree canopies, and access to buildings with health-promoting indoor environments.

Improving community health also has a direct economic benefit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report 86 percent of health care spending in 2010 was for people with one or more chronic medical conditions.

“Public health is at the very heart of the landscape architecture profession,” said Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects. “ASLA salutes this collaborative call to action and has committed to working with our partners to inspire positive change in the design of the built environment that can yield greater health benefits.”

The “Joint Call to Action to Promote Healthy Communities” specifically addresses four key points:

  • Creating and fostering partnerships that advance health;
  • Building an understanding of health data and establishing measurable health objectives for plans and projects;
  • Advancing policies, programs, and systems that promote community health, well-being and equity; and
  • Communicating the importance of health.

Read the full Joint Call to Action.

Organizations supporting today’s call to action include:

  • American Institute of Architects
  • American Planning Association
  • American Public Health Association
  • American Society of Civil Engineers
  • American Society of Landscape Architects
  • National Recreation and Park Association
  • U.S. Green Building Council
  • Urban Land Institute