Racial Injustice and the Pandemic Are Inextricably Linked

Black Live Matter’s activist protest in Washington D.C. / Lenin Nolly, Sipa USA, AP Images

“I want to express my discomfort that we, as privileged white people, are discussing racial injustice without African American speakers on this panel. I want us to reckon with that,” said Allison Arieff, research and creative director at SPUR and op-ed contributor to The New York Times, during a plenary at the Congress for New Urbanism’s Virtual Gathering.

The non-diverse panel comprising Arieff, Emily Badger, a reporter for The New York TimesThe Upshot blog, and moderator Todd Zimmerman, principal at Zimmerman/Volk Associates, reached the conclusion that the twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustices are inextricably linked.

The pandemic and racial injustice protest movement are “exposing how poorly our systems work,” Arieff argued. As SPUR outlined in its recent Letter to White Urbanists, “the city is under strain because these places are not safe and healthy for everyone. White people are the problem and have to fix it.”

Badger, who covers all facets of urban policy for the Times, has been wrestling with a number of questions related to the pandemic when she realized the impacts of COVID-19 were connected with structural racism.

At first, she sought to answer big questions about the pandemic, such as: “Can we reconcile the benefits of density with its risks? Will a fear of density cause people to move to the suburbs? Will a fear of transit cause people to use cars more? Will transit agencies survive the collapse in funding? Will people working from home stay there permanently?”

With the understanding that racial inequalities in housing, education, transportation, land use are all connected, questions shifted to: “How does the police fit in with all of this? They are a part of this ecosystem of inequality and maintain racial segregation. What is their role? Why have segregation and poverty levels hardly budged since the 1960s? Why have income and racial inequalities become even worse? Should we spending more on housing than the police?”

Badger found that “COVID and race are not separate stories. Racial disparities and inequalities are feeding COVID and driving the protests.” Furthermore, COVID is likely to leave “lasting damage in the movement for racial equality,” as everything from deaths from the virus to evictions due to loss of jobs will be disproportionately higher in communities of color.

“Many of us working from home are protected and isolated. We don’t need to acknowledge how poorly the system works for most people,” Arieff said. “But the pandemic shows how fragile the social safety net is. Unemployment insurance doesn’t cover a huge set of workers. We can’t shut off evictions. Many didn’t realize schools feed a vast number of low-income students. Homeless people are now of interest because they could be carrying disease. All our structures are inadequate and need to be deeply rethought.”

One structure that many are calling for a total rethink is the police force. A recent analysis of police budgets in 150 cities by the Times found that police departments on average account for 8 percent of city budgets, and those numbers have gone up over the past 40 years even as crime has declined.

As police forces have grown, they have taken on more responsibilities. “They are now working with homeless populations and in schools. They have become mental health counselors and intervene in domestic abuse,” Badger explained. There is growing debate in many cities about taking away some of their responsibilities or defunding them. “Now that we know the jobs that they are doing, do we want them doing them?”

The ever expanding responsibilities of police forces is linked with the reduction in federal funds for social services and anti-poverty programs. Given there are no other groups mediating what is acceptable behavior in public spaces, “police have by default taken on the role,” Badger said. Instead, “community groups could take over some of the roles police are now playing.” Arieff commented that perhaps defund the police movement could be rebranded as “lightening the load.”

The debate turned to how the built environment professions — planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers — need to change how they work. Arieff said that “there is no easy, pat answer. Design is a top-down, white male-dominated field. But these issues aren’t limited to the design industry.”

The power structures in the built environment “controlled by white people have benefited them. White neighborhoods benefit from exclusionary zoning laws. Property values increase when there is no affordable housing near you,” Badger said.

Arieff argued that critical next steps are to “listen more and make greater effort to recruit panels of color for design conferences.”

To survive and grow, the design world needs to diversify. As an example, she pointed to Next City, a publication focused on cities, that changed the make-up of its editorial staff, significantly diversifying its team of writers. The result was that “readership massively diversified and grew.”

The conversation then veered to whether the concept of “eyes on the street,” and crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) in general, unjustly target people of color.

Arieff argued that “it’s not all or nothing. I’m not ready to dismiss the concept. There are different contexts and behaviors. We can’t homogenize all places. Different people of color use public space differently. We must be more open to how different cultures use public space.”

Zimmerman, the moderator, added that a once common description of a healthy city was that it was safe for a 7 year old. He thinks this should be changed to “safe for a 7 year old black child.”

ASLA seeks to facilitate open, respectful dialogue in its public forums. Opinions expressed in the comments section are not necessarily those of ASLA. By participating in ASLA’s websites, blogs, and social media accounts, the user agrees to the Terms of Use.

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

Kate Orff, FASLA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gowanus Lowlands, Brookyln, New York / SCAPE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Columbia University urban design studio in Pune, India / SCAPE

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

The Value of Access

Rural farmers in Ethiopia grow green beans for sale in Europe / Wikipedia

“Accessibility is about how many near or far things you can reach. Mobility is about speed across the network,” argued David Levinson, a professor of transport engineering at the University of Sydney, at the Transforming Transportation conference held at the World Bank Group in Washington, D.C. “Access is opportunity: employment, shops and restaurants, healthcare, and the outside world.”

Levinson has analyzed over 80 cities, mostly in Europe and North America, to determine how many people can access jobs by foot, bicycle, car, or public transit in 30 minutes. He found that “city form varies by continent.” The European Union (EU) has higher walking access to jobs than North America. New Zealand and Australia are somewhere between the U.S. and Europe — they are denser but not as dense as Europe. The U.S. has better auto access to jobs than Europe but not as good as some European cities. For example, Amsterdam has better car access than Los Angeles. He concluded that larger cities have better access to jobs than smaller cities, and the EU has highest access overall.

The challenge for many cities in developing countries is where to focus resources to improve access: land-use development (new nearby neighborhoods or employment centers) or investment in public transit to reduce travel time between destinations. There are also questions of equity and distribution: to simplify, “is it better that two people can access one million jobs or one person can access two million jobs?” Still, the goal in most cities is higher levels of access, which explains why rent in Manhattan is many times more than rent in Winnipeg. “The theory is more access equals greater productivity.”

Conversations at Transforming Transportation, which drew 1,200 attendees over two days, then broadened the definition of access.

For Dagmawit Moges, minister of transportation in Ethiopia, the issue is access to markets. The country has a population of 100 million spread over 1.1 million square miles. 80 percent of Ethiopians live in rural areas. Many of the rural areas aren’t connected by roads to centralized markets. “Our country is very fertile. Farmers grow once a year, but they could be growing four times a year if they had access.”

Through the universal rural road access program, Ethiopia has connected 12,000 out of 15,000 rural districts. Some $2.7 billion in contributions in both cash and labor came from the rural communities themselves. “The collaboration was very high, but we still have disconnected pockets. We still have to import grain from other countries.”

For Etienne Krug, director of the department for management of noncommunicable diseases, disability, violence and injury prevention at the World Health Organization (WHO), true accessibility will only be achieved when road deaths, which now average 1.35 million annually, are zero.

“Half of road deaths are from people using vehicles; the other half are people who accidentally got in the way. The number of road deaths for young children and adolescents is growing, but hardly anyone talks about it.” He called for safety to be a criteria in the planning and design of every transportation project. “And good public transit is the way forward.”

Pamela Smith, executive director of the Society and Disability (SODIS) based in Peru, said getting accessible public transportation systems built in developing countries can be a real challenge given the lack of understanding of the issues facing the disabled. For a new bus rapid transit system (BRT) in Peru, Smith’s group and others participated in a comprehensive public review process. Unfortunately, the resulting system had feeder buses with inadequate safety measures for wheelchair users. Only when a video of woman BRT rider falling out of her wheelchair spread did they update seat belts. “Accessibility impacts people on a daily basis.”

Furthermore, she argued that even if a station is accessible, the area surrounding a station may not be, so investment needs to be made at a system scale.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) line in Lima, Peru / Multiple Cities

Lake Sagaris, a journalist and urban planner based in Chile, made an impassioned case for increasing access to walking and biking through complete streets around the world. In developing countries, “highways are an aberration; people walk or bike way more than they use cars. The basic building block of any transportation system must be the neighborhood; you can’t segregate walking and biking from vehicles.” What’s needed are streets with safe, accessible sidewalks and clear intersections with working traffic lights.

She imagined a woman living in a rural or suburban area who must walk half a kilometer to a transit stop, with children and groceries. That woman “needs an ecology of transit modes: walking, biking, bus; an inter-modal system, not a multi-modal one.” For Sagaris, bike share in developing countries could be the missing link.

To Stop Adding to the Problem, Use Climate Positive Design

Climate Positive Design

Let’s be frank: landscape architecture projects can add to the climate crisis. If projects aren’t purposefully designed and built with their carbon footprint in mind, they may be contributing more greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere than they can sequester over their lifespan. Projects can incorporate too much concrete and other carbon-intensive materials, too few trees and shrubs, or require industrially-produced fertilizers or gas-powered mowers or pruners for long-term maintenance, running up long-term emissions.

Instead, landscape architects can design and build projects that are not only meant to be carbon neutral, but go further and become “climate positive,” meaning that over their lifespan they sequester more greenhouse gas emissions than they embody or produce.

To help landscape architects reach this goal, Pamela Conrad, ASLA, a principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, has created an inventive new platform: Climate Positive Design.

She has also thrown down the gauntlet with a new challenge: if all landscape architects and designers use the approach, they could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere by 1 gigaton by 2050. That would put landscape architecture well within the top 80 solutions found in the Project Drawdown report.

Climate Positive Design

According to Conrad, Climate Positive Design “is not only an opportunity to re-imagine how we design our world from every aspect, but a responsibility.”

Using the site’s Pathfinder tool, landscape architects and designers can establish and then ratchet up specific sequestration and emission reduction targets for their own projects. “A target of five years is suggested to offset carbon footprints for greener projects like parks, gardens, campuses, and mixed-use developments. For more urban projects that require a greater amount of hardscape to accommodate programming, twenty years is the targeted offset duration.”

Through her research, which includes illustrative and useful case studies produced with CMG, Conrad found that “targets could be met without changing the program or reducing the quality – the projects merely became greener.”

Case study / Climate Positive Design

The website offers a design toolkit that not only shows landscape architects how to incorporate more trees and shrubs and preserve carbon in soils, but also how to replace carbon-intensive materials used in pathways, walls, fences, and furnishings with low-carbon alternatives. Conrad makes it easy to find sustainable options.

A few details about the process: Landscape architects or designers who log a project in the app are asked to input the sources of carbon, which could include “approximately eighty different types of materials used in landscape projects such as paving, walls, fences etc. and their associated ‘embodied carbon’ from extraction, manufacturing, transportation, installation, use/maintenance and replacement. The data is derived from the Athena Impact Estimator.”

Then designers are asked to add in data about the carbon sinks they are incorporating, which could include: “trees, plants, wetlands and certain types of meadows/lawns capture CO2 from the atmosphere and sink carbon into the soil.” Conrad notes that “all data used for calculating sequestration and decomposition for trees and shrubs is obtained from the U.S. Forest Service.”

Lastly, landscape architects and designers can add in the “carbon costs,” which “represent emissions associated with mowing/pruning performed using machinery and fertilizer use for trees and shrubs. These emissions occur regularly over the lifespan of the project and are often referred to as ‘operational carbon.'”

Once this information is submitted, landscape architects will receive a Climate Positive score that indicates how long it will take to offset the carbon embedded in the project or expended through maintenance operations. The website will then send design recommendations for reducing emissions and increasing sequestration much faster. And each project has a dedicated page that can be re-visited and re-evaluated or shared.

Climate Positive Design

Data collected through the app will be reviewed by advisory partners including
the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), and the Landscape Architecture Canada Foundation (LACF).

Conrad formulated the system during her Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) fellowship. It’s also the result of years of research and collaboration with Atelier Ten.

Go to Climate Positive Design.

Also, check out ASLA’s guide to climate change mitigation and landscape architecture and series of sustainable residential design guides.

More Climate Surprises Expected

Sargassum seaweed in the Gulf of Mexico / NASA, Michael Stein

After the White House suppressed his Congressional testimony on climate change and national security, Dr. Rod Schoonover, a scientist and analyst with the State Department’s bureau of intelligence and research, resigned in protest. Nearly three weeks after his resignation, Schoonover discussed the substance of his testimony with Andrew Light, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute (WRI). His primary conclusions: the U.S. and other countries can expect more “climate-linked surprises;” climate change will cause much more than weather-related impacts, and combined with environmental, social, and political events will become a national security “threat multiplier.”

In a June briefing, the White House allowed Dr. Schoonover to give oral testimony, but blocked the submission of his written testimony drafted on behalf of the bureau into the permanent Congressional record. In internal administration emails uncovered by The New York Times, the reasoning for this was the testimony included science that didn’t correspond with White House policy views. The White House called the testimony part of the “climate alarmist establishment.”

Intelligence experts argue that any scientific analysis included in a risk assessment is by nature objective and rooted in mainstream, peer-reviewed findings. The White House’s actions constituted a “suppression of factual analysis by a government intelligence agency.” And According to The Times, the State department’s bureau of intelligence and research is viewed as one of the most “scrupulous and accurate” in the federal government.

In his conversation with Light, Dr. Schoonover said the U.S. intelligence community has been testifying on the coming impacts of climate change since at least the late 90s, so “this is not new territory.”

National security policy decision making is increasingly of a “technical nature.” Therefore, to give policymakers the best analyses, the intelligence community must incorporate the latest science. The intelligence community doesn’t generate the science, but must interpret it objectively. “We need scientists in the U.S. government to stay current. We need scientists to help us understand nuclear, infectious disease, near space objects, and climate change.”

Light said it has been 12 years since the Center for Naval Analysis and the Military Advisory Board published National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, which identified climate change as a threat multiplier. “Since then, the attribution science, isolating the degree to which climate change has an impact, has only improved.” Another study published in 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) linked climate change, drought, and the onset of civil war in Syria. And in a recent worldwide threat assessment presented to Congress, now-former director of national intelligence Dan Coats identified hot spots where climate change could create conflict, such as Egypt and Sudan.

Dr. Schoonover, who gave up a tenured position teaching complex systems at California Polytechnic State University to work at the federal government, made a few key points that he wasn’t able to elaborate in his abridged Congressional testimony:

The U.S. and other countries should expect more “climate-linked surprises,” which are events with low probabilities but high impacts. For example, no one could have predicted that deforestation in Brazil would lead to fertilizer runoff in the Atlantic Ocean to mix with warming oceanic currents and create massive Sargassum seaweed blooms that would then cover the beaches of the small island nations in the Caribbean. Tons of seaweed now wash up on beaches across the Caribbean every day. “For these countries, Sargassum is a national security threat, as it impacts tourism and economic vitality, strangling their resources.” This is an example of a “surprise element that came out of nowhere. Very rapid changes could occur with dramatic impacts.”

Non-weather climate stressors also create national security risks. He called for moving past a “weather-centric” approach that solely focuses on sea level rise, drought, wildfires, and extreme heat. Peer-reviewed scientific studies find that climate change will also impact ecological food webs and cause mass extinctions and biodiversity loss, which will negatively impact human food systems. Climate change will also impact human health by changing the ranges of infectious disease vectors like mosquitoes. Like with Syria, there is the risk that weather-related climate impacts, such as drought, will cause political and social instability and increase violence.

A final important point: “the bundle of issues is what’s important. Climate change together with environmental degradation and social and political instability is the threat multiplier.”

5G Is Coming to a Street Near You

Small cell installation on top of a street light in Charlotte, North Carolina / Crown Castle

5G wireless data networks are coming, but there still are important questions about their equitable implementation and energy consumption and their implications for our data privacy. Both the complexities and promises of 5G were discussed by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner Geoffrey Starks and senior vice president of public policy for Samsung John Godfrey in The Transformative Power of 5G, a panel at Transformable: Cities, a Washington Post Live event exploring how technology is altering cities.

A 5G network looks a lot different than previous cell service infrastructure. Rather than 200-foot-tall towers scattered throughout a large area, 5G will need small cell towers placed frequently in order fully carry its data capacity. Some estimates claim a small cell tower will need to be placed every 500 feet to achieve maximum bandwidth.

The increase in data capacity and speed is related to the bandwidth of the frequency used to carry wireless data. Without drilling into the technical details of the different spectra, there are three frequency bands being proposed: low, medium, and high. The low bandwidth can travel the farthest distance and pass through trees and some other obstacles, but has the lowest data rate. Conversely, the high band can only travel shorter distance, but carries the most data. Optimized networks use all three spectra.

5G towers can be easily attached to existing infrastructure, like street lights in cities, but can be intrusive in neighborhoods and implausible in rural areas due to the distance between properties. Commissioner Starks was sensitive to the disparity, concerned that “those with much are getting more while everyone else is left behind.” He went on to cite an FCC report stating 19 million Americans do not have access to broadband, let alone 4G.

Godfrey echoed this concern, but added that low band was going to be rolled-out across the U.S. and it is uncertain if the medium and high frequency will be as widespread in rural areas as it will be in urban areas. Both panelists agreed that all three bandwidths will be necessary to realize a 5G network as advertised.

The FCC, the government agency responsible for regulating radio, television, and telephone companies in the U.S., put forth rules limiting the price local governments could charge telecom companies to $270 per small cell installation. Furthermore, they required local municipalities to approve or deny new build requests within 60 days. Both of these changes prompted 24 cities to file three law suits against the FCC, which are currently working their way through the courts.

While the lawsuits are pending, local governments have to comply with the FCC’s 5G streamlining plan. In Washington D.C., where regulatory boards oversee changes to the built environment, there was push back on the design of the small cells. For cities without regulatory boards, 5G is coming, and it is coming fast.

Both Godfrey and Commissioner Sparks said the experience you will have with your phone will be different in five years time. Godfrey expanded the changes beyond phones to include any number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, including “every cow in a dairy herd,” to laughs from the crowd. But it wasn’t a joke: in the UK, dairy cows have 5G collars, collecting biofeedback data and relaying it to milking robots.

Real-time feedback is possible with 5G, paving the way for autonomous vehicles and increasingly data intensive objects. Commissioner Starks is concerned about what this means for future data privacy: “The amount of data that is coursing through these devices is something we are going to be intentional about — how data is handled, managed, and secured.”

Starks’ privacy concern and Godfrey’s enthusiasm about 5G as a potential for innovation revolve around the IoT, and the enormous amount of data these products use and produce. Both panelists expected to see an explosion of new connected products, such as smart refrigerators and wearable devices, as 5G becomes widespread.

The coming tsunami of data will inundate data centers, creating the demand for more, a point not mentioned by either panelist. Data centers now contribute 0.3 percent of greenhouse emissions, but the entire network of information and communications technology (ICT) accounts for 2 percent of global emissions, the equivalent of the airline industry.

While data centers account for only a small portion of the total emissions, nearly all of their growth has been within the past decade and is expected to exponentially increase. Some models predict data centers could account for 20 percent of the world’s energy consumption by the time a child born today becomes a teen.

Google_Data_Center,_The_Dalles.jpg
Transformer Station outside Google data center in The Dalles, Oregon / Wikipedia

Many tech giants are aware of this, and have promised to use renewable energy to power their data centers. In a 2017 report on how green internet companies are, Greenpeace found Google uses 66 percent clean energy, Facebook uses 76 percent, while Amazon and Netflix use 43 percent.

Companies are making strides to keep their commitment to clean power in the face of incredible data growth. Hopefully, they can outpace the predicted tripling of their energy consumption in the next decade.

Democratizing New Urbanism

Cover Image
Building Local Strength / Congress for New Urbanism

New Urbanism has been around for nearly 30 years. The movement promotes the neighborhood as a livable unit, prioritizes walkability in communities, and seeks to end sprawling suburbs. With these goals, new urbanists have developed entirely new communities with multiple types of residences, shops, and cultural centers. Lots of money is needed to develop these projects, which often results in a high cost of living, fueling criticism that the movement is only able to serve the social and economic elite.

A new report, Building Local Strength: Emerging Solutions for Inclusive Development, produced by the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU), highlights eight projects across the country that seek to improve existing communities that are economically disadvantaged. The methods explored in the report focus on “smaller, more gradual change,” allowing the character of the existing neighborhood to remain intact.

Through the examination of eight projects, CNU identifies fourteen tools to implement New Urbanist policies, which include: acquiring and aggregating vacant land, respecting local history, creating philanthropic funds, using tactical urbanism, promoting incremental development, and creating an active and beautiful public realm. Each of the strategies is explained in detail, followed by a matrix at the end of the report showing what tools each project used.

The group calls for a holistic approach to revitalization. As the report notes: “A well-functioning neighborhood requires that employment and recreation opportunities, neighborhood-serving retail, schools, public gathering space, and affordable housing are all available within a walkable transit-oriented environment.” In the report, refurbishing existing housing or developing new homes are the primary medium for revitalization (Grow DeSoto Market Place in DeSoto, Texas being the exception).

All of the projects have merit, but two stood out:

The Anacostia neighborhood sits across the Potomac river from the Navy Yards in Washington, D.C. The predominately African-American neighborhood has been economically disadvantaged for years and is now facing a gentrification threat from the development of the new 11th Street Bridge Park, which will span the Anacostia River where the 11th street bridge stands. The nonprofit organization creating the park, Building Bridges Across the River, led the creation of an equitable development plan, which aims to help renters within a one-mile radius of the park buy their homes at a discounted rate, limiting displacement. If they choose to sell at any point, homeowners agree to return 75 percent of the equity earned on the house to the trust. This will help ensure the trust’s longevity and homeowners create wealth.

The proposed 11th Street Bridge Park will span the Anacostia River in southeast Washington, D.C. / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

A million dollar grant given by JP Morgan will go towards growing small businesses on either side of the Anacostia River, further helping to strengthen the neighborhoods. The combination of efforts to ensure residents can stay within their homes — and in many cases own them — along with the development of the local economy is crucial to improving the quality of life of residents of the neighborhood.

Anacostia_w_st
A typical home in Anacostia / Wikipedia

In Portland, Oregon, Jolene’s First Cousin, developed by Guerilla Development, is a mixed-use project with a social mission. Construction has already begun, with completion scheduled for 2019. Combining retail space and housing, the project includes single occupancy rooms that are meant for the recovering homeless population. There are nearly 4,000 people on the streets of Portland on any given night. Oregon ranks second for the highest percentage of unsheltered people, behind California, according to a 2018 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report.

The development was partially crowdfunded by pools of smaller investors. In this case, $300,000 was raised by 43 investors, which built upon an additional $1.5 million construction loan. Many of the investors were from Portland, “showing a strong market for this type of investing,” writes CNU. The report leaves out that many of these investors had invested in a previous project by Guerilla Development, Fair-Haired Dumbell, which was already producing returns. Still, crowdfunded opportunities give everyday people a stake in the success of a neighborhood.

Guerrrila Development first crowd funded
The first Guerilla Development crowdfunded project, One + Box / Guerilla Development Company

Many of the strategies outlined in the report focus on the economic side of sustainable urban development. While these are important, they are only one part of the holistic approach CNU calls for.

The report highlights strategies for producing positive incremental change in underprivileged communities — approaches also designed to prevent displacement. This is an important step in eliminating CNU’s elitist reputation.

Wildfires Are a Land Use Problem

Satellite view of Camp fire / Wikipedia

The Camp Fire that tore through the communities of Concow and Paradise in Northern California in 2018 was the deadliest and costliest in Californian history. Some 150,000 acres burned, causing 50,000 people to flee, 20,000 structures to be destroyed, and some $16.5 billion in damages. 85 people lost their lives.

Strangely, amid all this destruction, which was sparked by downed electrical lines owned by PG&E, the state’s power utility, some homes survived. Why?

Those property owners likely obeyed defensible space laws and used Firewise landscape strategies to protect themselves from wildlife.

At a session at the American Planning Association in San Francisco, wildfire experts explained how to use these approaches as well as the broader importance of land use, community planning, and landscape design in fire safety.

According to Edith Hannigan, with the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, Concow and Paradise and many other communities across the west are at high-risk because they formed in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), which the U.S. Forest Service describes as places where “humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel.” On top of the intrinsic risk of simply existing in the WUI, these communities must now contend with the effect of years of drought, bark beetles onslaughts on surrounding forests, and climate change, which create increasingly dangerous and untenable living conditions.

Living in the WUI raises risks for all property owners, but lot locations, sizes, layouts, and topography impact risk levels. To provide “meaningful reduction of risks for specific situations,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) created a land-use planning program, with two fire chiefs and ten local fire captains, that “reaches out to communities and provides technical assistance,” meeting the goals of the state’s recent strategic fire plan.

For retired Cal Fire captain David Shew, who oversaw the creation of the program and is now a consultant, wildfires “aren’t a fire department problem”; they are really a land use and community design problem. The solution is to respect natural systems and stop developing communities in the WUI. For those communities already there, it’s important to incorporate better planning and design approaches to reduce the danger.

California, like Greece, Australia, Sweden, and other parts of the world, has a “natural fire environment” in which wildfire has evolved an important role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem. Native Americans lived with the natural wildfire cycle for centuries, but the settlers moving across the West in the 1800s were unnerved by constant small wildfires. As settlers formed communities that in turn suppressed fired, the natural fire state ended. It turns out it was “the hubris of mankind to think we can control Mother Nature.” Over the decades, dead plant material that hasn’t been allowed to burn naturally has accumulated, so now when it does burn, the wildfires are larger and more destructive.

Mother Nature has recently made her voice louder. California sees more wildfires than ever before — and now they occur throughout the year. “There is no longer a fire season.” 9 out of 10 of the most destructive fires occurred since 2013. In 2018 alone, there were some 5,800 fires that consumed 1.3 million acres. And greater dangers loom: there are 100 million dead trees in the Sierra Nevada area that will fall over and create more fuel for fires. Shew said: “We have disrupted evolution and the result will be devastating wildfires.” (One solution to prevent this may be controlled or prescribed burns).

Dead trees in the Sierra National Forest / Wikipedia

Wildfires themselves often don’t cause homes to go up in smoke; “it’s flying embers that cause most fires.” Wood fences and gutters often catch first, spreading to homes. Building and landscape “materials are really important, but where a structure sits on the landscape, and where and how homes cluster, also are.”

Michelle Steinberg, director of the wildfire division with the Natural Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) — creator of codes and standards state and local governments use to protect communities and the Firewise USA program, which includes some 1,500 sites — got into the details on how to use smart codes designed for different community types. The codes provide rules for crucial evacuation zones, the materials and layout of residential structures themselves, and the landscape around a home and community, including common spaces.

The residential landscape is re-imagined by NFPA as the “home ignition zone (HIZ),” a concept developed by retired U.S. Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen in the late 1990s, following “some breakthrough experimental research into how homes ignite due to the effects of radiant heat.” The HIZ has three zones: 0-5 feet from the house, which is the immediate zone; 5-30 feet away, the intermediate zone; and 30-100 feet, and out to 200 feet, the extended zone.

In the immediate zone, there can be no trees and vegetation and all materials need to be fire-proof. In the intermediate zone, lawns need to be trimmed, debris cleared, and trees need to be well-spaced and set within small clusters. In the extended zone, all dead trees and plants need to be removed.

Home Ignition Zone / NFPA, US Forest Service

Wildfires are a major problem elsewhere in the U.S. Molly Mowery, with Community Planning for Wildlife (CPAW) in Colorado, a joint partnership between Headwaters Economics and Wildfire Planning International, explained how she is helping communities across the country assess risks and apply planning and design solutions to reduce their exposure to wildfire.

For example, working with Summit, Colorado, CPAW helped spur the development of new regulations and zoning that require defensible space zones in subdivisions, prohibit the planting of flammable juniper trees within 30 feet of homes, and require non-combustible fencing and safer firewood storage within 5 feet of homes. Mowery said many communities struggle with seemingly-insignificant things like fences, but they are often the cause of property-destroying conflagarations.

Download a free APA resource — Planning the Wildland Urban Interface, which was partly financed by the U.S. Forest Service. Check out the case for prescribed burns to reduce wildfire risk. And see how landscape architects at Owen Dell and Associates design Firewise gardens.

New ASLA Exhibition: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate exhibition / EPNAC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture / ASLA

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

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

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

Norfolk Forges a Path to a Resilient Future

Norfolk flood zones in orange / Norfolk Vision 2100

Surrounded by water along 144 miles of shoreline, Norfolk is highly vulnerable to sea level rise. The city is the second largest in Virginia, with a population of 250,000. It’s home to the world’s largest naval base, which hosts 100,000 federal workers and function as a city within the city. Its port is the third busiest in the country. The core of the city is the employment center for a region of 1.5 million people. All of this is under significant threat.

To better prepare for a changing future, Norfolk has undertaken an impressive set of resilience planning efforts, which have culminated in Vision 2100, a comprehensive 2030 plan, a new green infrastructure plan, and, finally, a new resilience zoning code approved last year. These efforts were supported by Dutch government water experts through a series of “dialogues,” the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, and a $115 million grant from the National Disaster Relief Competition, a program organized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to build resilience in the Ohio Creek watershed, which encompasses the Norfolk State University campus and the low-income Chesterfield Heights neighborhood.

At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, we heard about Norfolk’s recent efforts to live with with water while protecting vulnerable low-income areas, revitalizing and creating new urban centers, and ceding some parts of the city back to the ocean.

According to Martin Thomas, vice mayor of Norfolk, the question is: “how do we create a high quality of live given we are facing rising waters?” The answer involves creative economic, social, and environmental solutions that will lead to a transformed city.

Thomas said 30-40 percent of the regional economy is dependent on federal funding, “so we are diversifying the local economy.” There are disconnected communities with concentrated levels of poverty, so the city is investing in mixed-income redevelopment projects. There is recurrent flooding that can result in 2-3 feet of water rise, so the city is creating the “designed coastal systems of the future.”

An example of what Norfolk is dealing with is the highly vulnerable area of Willoughby Spit, which is 3 miles long and 3 blocks wide and where thousands of residents live. This area is a chunk of the local tax base, but “it won’t exist in a few decades.”

Willougby Spit / Pinterest

Through its Vision 2100 process, Norfolk mapped its most valuable assets, which included the Naval base, airport, botanical gardens, and the historic downtown core. Through comprehensive public meetings, city policymakers, planners, and residents created a map of where flooding is expected to worsen, where investments in hard protections and green infrastructure will be focused, and where the “future urban growth of the city will be built.”

The vision organizes the city into four zones: red, yellow, green, and purple.

Vision 2100 map / Norfolk city government

Red areas on the map are vital areas that will see “expanded flood protection zones; a comprehensive 24-hour transportation network; denser mixed-use developments; diversified housing options; and strengthened economic options.” These include the naval base, universities, ports, shipyards, and medical facilities that can’t be moved. Future housing and economic growth will be steered into these areas, which will be made denser. The red zone will receive priority levels of investment in both hard and green resilient infrastructure while maintaining access to the water.

The yellow zone will be where the city helps Norfolk residents adapt to rising waters and where it also cedes land back to the water. Programs there will aim to “exploit new and innovative technologies to reduce flood risk to the built environment; focus infrastructure investments on improvements that extend resilience; educate current residents about the risks of recurrent flooding; develop mechanisms to enable property owners to recoup the economic value lost to sea level rise; and develop a solution for sea level rise adaptation in historic neighborhoods.” Here, the focus is on more resilient housing, raised 3-feet above flood levels, and the widespread incorporation of green infrastructure.

The green zone features communities already on higher ground, safe from flooding, where Norfolk will create new transit-oriented development and resilient urban centers that can accommodate future growth.

The purple zone is where Norfolk will create the “neighborhoods of the future,” improving connections to key assets, creating affordable housing, and redeveloping under-performing residential and commercial areas. According to Vision 2100, the city found that 40 out of 125 neighborhoods were deemed assets and therefore not subject to major “transformation” — a euphemism for redevelopment or letting them be subsumed by rising waters. In many of these historic neighborhoods, which are found in the purple zones, small-scale improvements will be made to improve the quality of life — more parks, sidewalks, libraries, and community centers.

Norfolk’s 2030 comprehensive plan, green infrastructure plan, and resilience zoning code are the primary ways in which the city is moving towards this vision.

George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director, said that zoning requirements are a “blunt instrument” that they tried to make more flexible through a “resilient zoning quotient,” a system that developers and property owners can use to accumulate points to meet requirements. The zoning system itemizes “must do’s, should do’s, and nice to do’s (bonuses) for developers.”

Requirements differ depending on the expected level of risk to water rise, but must-do’s include green infrastructure for stormwater management, risk reduction through raising homes by 3-feet above flood levels, and energy self-sufficiency. The zoning ordinance seems critical to achieving the city’s ambitious green infrastructure plan, which also fits together with the vision and 2030 plan.

Green infrastructure plan for Norfolk, VA / City of Norfolk

Back-up power generation is not only required for the usual places like hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities, but also important community utilities like pharmacies, grocery stores, banks, and gas stations.

Vlad Gavrilovic with EPK, planning consultants to Norfolk, further explained that the new zoning code built off of existing neighborhood, landscape, and building design standards, the “pattern language” so critical to informing neighborhood character.

Homewood believes “climate change and sea level rise are very real to the folks who suffer from recurrent flooding.” But rolling-out the new, more complex zoning ordinance hasn’t been without its challenges, and the city planning department is on their fourth round of tweaks to address “unintended consequences.” Perhaps that is to be expected given it’s the “first, most-resilience focused zoning ordinance in the country.”

In a later conversation, Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA president and long-time resident of Norfolk, who was deeply involved in these planning efforts for decades, said that Old Dominion University in downtown Norfolk was key to kick-starting the multi-decade-long effort to make Norfolk more resilient. “Back in 2010, the university started an initiative to prepare Norfolk for sea level rise, asking Larry Atkinson in the oceanography department to lead a cross-disciplinary effort and create a coalition with the community that exists to this day. That was many years ago, but it was then that the seeds were planted for the approach we see today.” That approach, Rinner said, uses public-private partnerships and creates bottom-up, community-driven solutions that transcend politics. “Environmental issues are so close to people in Norfolk and Hampton Roads; it doesn’t matter if you are Democrat or Republican.”

For her, Norfolk’s resilience plans and codes are a true model for other communities because they show what can happen after years of effort — “major change seems to coalesce all of the sudden.”