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.”

Debate: How to Spend $2 Trillion on Infrastructure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASLA Is Still In

U.S. Capitol Building / istockphoto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Background

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

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

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

Trump Signs Major Public Lands Bill, Ensuring LWCF’s Future

Black Rock Sanctuary / KMS Design Group

In a huge win for conservationists, President Trump has signed into law the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. Negotiated over the past few years, the bipartisan legislation permanently re-authorizes the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which finances important and popular federal and state conservation and park projects. The legislation puts into law the Every Kid in a Park program, which gives 4th graders and their families free passes to national parks for a year. The bill also protects an additional 1.3 million acres of wilderness out West through the expansion of eight national parks and the creation of three new ones. And hunters and anglers applauded their new, expanded access to public lands.

The LWCF is funded from fees and royalties from offshore oil and gas. The fund is capped at $900 million a year, but Congress typically funds it to the tune of $300-500 million annually. According to Daniel Hart, ASLA government affairs manager, who has lobbied for the bill on Capitol Hill in recent years, “some 40 percent of LWCF funds go to purchasing land that shores up national parks; another 40 percent goes to state and local governments to conserve land and water and create new parks and recreation facilities; and the remaining 20 percent of spending is discretionary.”

Since its inception in 1965, LWCF has made $3.9 billion in state grants to 40,000 projects, protecting and restoring some 2.37 million acres. ASLA has been a dedicated, long-term advocate for permanent re-authorization of the LWCF because so many landscape architects around the country have greatly benefited from the program, using the funds to restore and enhance natural landscapes and build new parks and recreation facilities.

Carl Keleman, FASLA, founder of KMS Design Group in Pennsylvania, is one of those landscape architects.

He said a $300,000 grant of LWCF funds for the 119-acre Black Rock Sanctuary, a wetland restoration project in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, “allowed the project to go forward.” His efforts transformed contaminated pools associated with a “slack canal system” that once conveyed barges carrying coal to Philadelphia into a meadow wetland preserve that sustainably manages stormwater (see image at top). Piecing together financing from various foundations for interpretive trails and habitat development, Keleman still needed funds to create upland meadow wetlands.

With LWCF support, Keleman created 30 new acres of wetlands and enhanced another 17 acres. The impressive results, which are outlined in a Landscape Performance Series case study, included tripling the bird count in the area and increasing the number of bird species by two-thirds.

Black Rock Sanctuary / KMS Design Group

In Sitka, a rural community found in the rainforest of southeast Alaska on the Pacific Coast, landscape architect Monique Anderson, ASLA, founder of Anderson Land Planning, also received the support her project needed from LWCF.

With the help of a grant of $220,000, the community was able to move forward with the much-needed Sitka Community Playground at Crescent Harbor Park. “The grant from LWCF was really important early on, as it inspired the state and local governments to open their purse; they realized the project was a real thing that was happening.”

Anderson said the $1 million project was driven by a “volunteer group of moms” who saw the need for a new space for their kids. The LWCF frequently funds playground and park development projects in both large and small communities across Alaska.

Sitka Community Playground at Crescent Harbor Park / Anderson Land Planning, Patrick Schneider photography

Sitka Community Playground at Crescent Harbor Park / Anderson Land Planning, Patrick Schneider Photography

For New Orleans-based landscape architect Dana Brown, FASLA, two LWCF grants of $150,000 also made possible Riverside and Tuten Parks in the City of Lake Charles, Louisiana.

According to Brown’s firm, the 17-acre Riverside Park used to be known as Fitzenreiter Park but it had fallen into such a state of disrepair because of vandalism and illegal dumping that it needed a new name. As part of the $850,000 project, Dana Brown & Associates restored the park’s ecosystem and wetlands; created new paths, trails, docks, and fishing boardwalk; and remedied security problems.

And in Tuten Park, also in Lake Charles, Brown’s team undid the havoc created by Hurricane Rita, which damaged or destroyed 80 percent of the park’s trees. Along with a new master plan, “a resource management plan was created to aid in the ecological maintenance and continued recovery of the park.” Paths and trails take visitors through a restored, revitalized park with a playground that cost some $650,000.

Riverside Park / Dana Brown & Associates

Tuten Park / Dana Brown & Associates

Beyond protecting LWCF, the Natural Resources Management Act includes the Every Kid in a Park program, one of ASLA’s priorities, which introduces children to the beauty and benefits of the natural world.

The program, which started as an initiative under the Obama administration, gives 4th graders and their families free access to all national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, and forests for a year, an $80 value. The National Park Service in partnership with the National Park Foundation also provides transportation grants and educational materials to schools.

Every Kid in a Park program / National Park Service

The legislation creates six new national monuments, including the site of the St. Francis Dam Disaster in California; Jurassic, Utah; Medgar Evers Home in Mississippi, home to the civil rights activist; and Mill Springs Battlefied and Camp Nelson in Kentucky.

Medgar Evers Home / Wikipedia

Five national parks — Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park in California and Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefied Park, Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park, and Fort Frederica National Monument in Georgia — have been expanded. And no mining will be permitted in 370,000 acres surrounding Yellowstone National Park in Montana and North Cascades National Park in Washington.

Joshua Tree National Park / Wikipedia

Some 1.3 million acres of land in California, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah are now designated wilderness, meaning no roads or motorized vehicles are allowed. 650 miles of rivers, such as the Rogue River in Oregon, which provides important salmon breeding grounds, will remain wild and scenic, protected from damming or other development. And some 380 bird species will receive habitat protections.

Lastly, the legislation is a boon for hunters and anglers — bow hunters can now bring their bows through national parks when trying to reach areas where they can legally hunt. And unless designated otherwise, all federal land will be open to hunting, fishing, and shooting.

Faced with Climate Impacts, Communities Turn to Green Infrastructure

Shelby Country Resilience planning / Sasaki

Climate change is causing seas to rise, flooding to worsen, and hurricanes and wildfires to become more destructive, all of which puts our infrastructure at greater risk. On top of that, America’s current infrastructure received a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in their latest scorecard. Increased risk from climate events and the massive backlog of maintenance projects means that our infrastructure has never been more vulnerable.

But for some forward-thinking communities, vulnerability means opportunity. For these communities facing climate impacts, the best way to protect themselves has been to move beyond the grey infrastructure of the past and transition to green infrastructure.

In the Neoclassical Rayburn building on Capitol Hill, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and Environment and Energy Study Institute (EESI) hosted a briefing for over a hundred Hill staffers to explain how communities and landscape architects are using green infrastructure to help communities become more climate-resilient.

Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO of ASLA, said infrastructure should be created or remodeled to work “in tandem with natural systems.”

As outlined in the report Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, which was the result of ASLA’s blue ribbon panel on climate change and resilience, green infrastructure — such as “green roofs, streets, and corridors; tree canopies; parks and open spaces; and wetlands and wild lands” — leverages the benefits of nature to soak up excess stormwater and protect against flooding. These innovative projects also provide many other benefits, such as improved water and air quality, cooler air temperatures, and psychological and cognitive benefits for people.

“The risks of coastal, riverine, an urban flooding are increasing,” said Mark Dawson, FASLA, managing principal at Sasaki, one of the leading landscape and urban design firms in the U.S., which incorporates green infrastructure into all its community resilience projects.

His firm is now working with flood-inundated Shelby County in Tennessee, which won a national disaster resilience grant of some $60 million, to protect itself from persistent, destructive riverine flooding. Sasaki mapped the extent of current and expected future flooding and developed comprehensive plans with the impacted communities. In one especially hard-hit low-income community, there was serious conversation about selling and relocating but planning turned towards how to use parks and reconfigured residential lots with floodable zones to better protect homes. A new green infrastructural park now in development will accommodate an expanding and contracting flood plain (see image at top).

Montgomery county, Maryland, has also gone all-in on using green infrastructure to improve community resilience to climate change. Adam Ortiz, director of environmental protection for the county, said the county government is focused on bringing green infrastructure to previously under-served communities in order to spread the benefits to everyone.

For example, the Dennis Avenue green street, found in an “under-invested” neighborhood, is not only a “beautiful upgrade” but cleans and infiltrates stormwater runoff and protects against flooding. These projects aren’t just good for the environment and property values, they also create economic benefits. According to Ortiz, “green infrastructure projects have contributed $130 million to the local economy,” spurring the creation of county businesses that offer well-paying green jobs.

Dennis Avenue green street / Montgomery County department of environmental protection

It’s worth reiterating that some communities need green infrastructure more than others, because some communities have borne “environmental insults” far longer. Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome with the Kresge Foundation argued that environmental justice considerations should guide who gets much-needed resilient green infrastructure. She said low-income “black and brown” communities are often more vulnerable to climate impacts because they are already dealing with so many contemporary issues and the legacy of past injustices. “First, you take institutional racism, then throw climate change on top of that, and it makes things only worse.”

White-Newsome said anyone working on these projects should seek to use good local science; conduct a comprehensive environmental justice analysis before starting a project; remove barriers to “education, access, and financial decision-making;” and empower local communities as part of the process. Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange and Earth Economics are helpful organizations for communities seeking to finance their own plans and projects.

In the past few years, there has been progress on Capitol Hill in incentivizing more resilient infrastructure, but not nearly enough. Ellen Vaughn, director of public policy for EESI pointed to the Disaster Recovery Reform Act; the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act; Defense appropriations around climate resilience; and the recently-passed Natural Resources Management Act, which provides permanent financing for the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). And Somerville noted that ASLA has been promoting the Living Shorelines Act and hopes it will be re-introduced this Congress.

But more must be done at the federal level to spread the protective benefits of next-generation resilient infrastructure to more communities. Somerville said: “what is needed is dedicated federal funding for green infrastructure.”

ASLA Statement on the Green New Deal

Green New Deal launch on Capitol Hill / WIkipedia

Significant Overlap Seen Between ASLA’s Report, Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, and Many Provisions of the Green New Deal Resolution

A wide-ranging proposal for a Green New Deal (GND) was introduced on February 7 in the House of Representatives in the form of a resolution sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), with a companion resolution introduced in the Senate by Sen. Edward Markey (Mass.).

Although the current GND resolution is largely aspirational and includes few specific policies, it contains a commitment to core principles of urgent transformational change that are fully compatible with ASLA’s positions, and mirror the recommendations the Society already put forward in our Blue Ribbon Panel report, Smart Policies for a Changing Climate.

Like our report, the GND resolution calls for widespread, immediate action that will ensure clean air and water; climate and community resiliency; access to nature; and a sustainable environment. We also strongly back calls for a national commitment to environmental justice for all Americans, especially for those from underserved, vulnerable, and neglected groups that have historically borne the brunt of the ill-effects of environmental calamities. ASLA supports the underlying principles of the GND resolution that relate specifically to climate change and resilience, and we are pleased that it has served to stimulate public debate about the accelerating climate crisis.

We note that in addition to climate-related policies, the resolution also contains several recommendations about social and economic issues that are beyond the scope of the Society’s mandate and existing policies, matters about which we can take no formal position.

ASLA members can be assured that when the GND is translated into formal legislative proposals to reduce carbon emissions, make transformational changes to infrastructure, and create a robust 21st-century clean-energy economy, ASLA will be at the forefront of the fight to enact them into law. We firmly believe that landscape architects must take a leadership role in planning and designing sustainable, resilient communities and ASLA, without question, will do its part to bring the climate principles of the Green New Deal to fruition.

ASLA is pleased that the Green New Deal resolution has significantly expanded the scope and intensity of the dialogue about climate change and we are extremely gratified that the Society’s report mirrors its major climate and infrastructure goals and we look forward to the legislative proposals that will stem from it.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Turns to Nature

Cover
Engineering with Nature: An Atlas / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

“We rely on natural processes and landscapes to sustain human life and well-being. Our energy, water, infrastructure, and agricultural systems use these processes and landscapes to satisfy our most basic human needs. One motivation, therefore, for protecting the environment is to sustain the ecosystem goods and services upon which we depend. As we emerge from the sixth decade of modern environmentalism, there is a growing international awareness of opportunities to efficiently and effectively integrate natural and engineered systems to create even more value.”

One might understandably think this was written by a landscape architect, or excerpted from somewhere on the ASLA website. In fact, it comes from the forward of Engineering with Nature: An Atlas, a new book by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Engineering with Nature (EWN) team, led by environmental scientist Dr. Todd Bridges. 

Over the last eight years, Bridges has quietly built the EWN initiative out of the Army Corps’ Vicksburg, Mississippi headquarters, working with a team of engineers, environmental scientists, and ecologists to develop pilot projects that prove the viability of engineering large-scale infrastructure in partnership with natural systems. 

Now, after successfully completing dozens of projects across the U.S., Bridges is pushing to take EWN to new heights. The initiative’s 2018-2023 strategic plan envisions an expanded portfolio of engineering strategies and project types, deeper interdisciplinary and community engagement, and heightened public awareness of EWN goals, activities, and success stories.

To that end, Engineering With Nature: An Atlas documents more than 50 engineering projects completed in recent decades that exemplify the EWN approach. The projects are grouped according to typology, including chapters on beaches, wetlands, islands, reefs, and rivers. Reflecting the collaborative approach of the EWN initiative, only half of the case studies profiled were carried out by the Army Corps. The remainder were executed by partner NGOs in the US and government agencies in England, The Netherlands, and New Zealand, countries which have made substantial investments of their own in innovative coastal and water-based engineering.

Sand_motor
The Sand Motor, The Netherlands / Zandmotor Flickr

A key theme of the book is the beneficial re-use of dredged material. While conventionally viewed as a waste product, the EWN initiative seeks to find and develop beneficial uses for the material, such as in wetland restoration, habitat creation, and beach nourishment. And because the Corps is required to maintain the navigability of all federal waterways, the EWN team has a ready supply of dredged material to work with.

One example of this strategy can be seen in Texas’ Galveston Bay, where the Corps partnered with Houston Audubon to create the 6-acre Evia Island, which today is populated with herons, egrets, terns, and brown pelicans. 

Evia_island
Evia Island / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Other projects take advantage of erosion and sediment flux to catalyze beneficial outcomes. In Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River, the Corps placed dredged material in strategic upriver locations to create a 35-hectare island that is “self-designed” by the river’s flow. And at Sears Point, in the northern San Francisco Bay, the Sonomoa Land Trust and Ducks Unlimited restored 1,000 acres of tidal marsh by puncturing a levee, allowing water from the Tolay Creek to flow into a field of constructed sediment mounds. The mounds slowed the water’s rate of flow, stimulating land growth within the project area.

dredge
Dredging in the Atchafalaya River / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

These approaches have considerable overlap with recent research in the field of landscape architecture, particularly the work of the Dredge Research Collaborative, which advocates for ecological and watershed-scale approaches to the management of sediment and dredged material and has collaborated with the EWN initiative in recent years.

An Atlas also includes projects that retrofit conventional infrastructure to provide ecological benefits, such as creating nesting habitat for terns on top of breakwaters in Lake Erie, or efforts in the Netherlands to redesign coastal reinforcements to serve as habitat for marine plants and animals. Reminiscent of SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters project off the southern coast of Staten Island, these projects demonstrate an increasing interest in designing infrastructure that provides multiple benefits.

tern_nest
Decoy terns at the Ashtabula Harbor Breakwater Tern Nesting Habitat / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Despite its title, At Atlas does not contain any maps or diagrams to orient the reader–an unfortunate omission that makes it difficult to grasp the scale of the presented projects. Instead, the projects are depicted using solely perspective and aerial photos.

While these photos are informative, the book would have greatly benefited from the development of a graphic language to more clearly and visually communicate the impacts of the presented projects and the issues they seek to address.

Despite these omissions, the breadth and scope of projects presented in Engineering with Nature: An Atlas makes a considerable impression, presenting a range of strategies for designing infrastructure with ecological, social, and cultural benefits at multiple scales.

Perhaps most significantly, An Atlas suggests there is great potential for meaningful interdisciplinary collaboration between the Corps and landscape architects. As landscape architects increasingly seek to broaden the field’s scope to include the planning and design of large-scale systems and ecologies, this collaboration may prove vital. Engineering with Nature: An Atlas begins to paint a picture of what such a collaborative practice may look like.

Learn more about the Engineering with Nature initiative and download Engineering With Nature: An Atlas.

A Model Plan for Protecting Vital Coastal Habitats

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Conserving California’s Coastal Habitats / The Nature Conservancy

Sea level rise is coming, and its impacts will be far reaching. For the state of California, the threat of sea level rise may prove existential. More than two-thirds of its population lives in the states’ 21 coastal counties, which are responsible for 85 percent of the state’s GDP.

However, sea level rise will not just impact human activity. Rising tides will also drastically alter, and in some cases destroy, important coastal habitats. Conserving California’s Coastal Habitats, a new report from The Nature Conservancy, provides a startling analysis of the future of California’s coast and charts a path forward for coastal conservation efforts.

The California coast represents the most biodiverse region in the country’s most biodiverse state, lending nationwide significance to coastal conservation efforts there. “The state of California has been a leader in environmental policy for over a century,” say the report’s authors, praising the state’s “legacy of coastal conservation.”

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California’s coastline / Sue Pollock, The Nature Conservancy

However, current policy and decision-making frameworks have been “developed to reflect static existing conditions and are not well suited for the dynamic needs of adapting to sea level rise,” the authors warn.

At risk are “nesting areas along global migrations for diversity of species, as well as nesting and pupping habitat, nursery habitat, and important feeding grounds critical to populations of many species, some which are found nowhere else in the world.”

Sea level rise threatens areas of human settlement and activity, too. The conversion of land to tidal and subtidal coastline will reduce the size of natural buffers, providing less protection to human settlements in coastal flooding events. Saltwater intrusion will impact agriculture. According to the Conservancy, sea level rise and the flooding this will cause could damage or destroy nearly $100 billion worth of property along the California coast by 2100.

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Coastal infrastructure is at risk from sea level rise / Thomas Dunklin

The report’s authors used GIS to identify and map the coastal habitats, ecosystems, and infrastructure most at risk from sea level rise. They based their projections on two and five feet of sea level rise, which they say are in keeping with projections issued by the California Coastal Commission. The authors then developed metrics to measure the potential impact of sea level rise on a given area and the area’s vulnerability and ability to adapt.

Their findings are worrying. “As much as 25 percent of the existing public conservation lands within the analytic zone will be lost to subtidal waters,” they warn. Habitats for eight imperiled species will be completely inundated. Large portions of other significant coastal habitats are “highly vulnerable,” including 58 percent of rocky intertidal habitats, 60 percent of upper beaches, and 58 percent of regularly-flooded estuarine marshes. “At least half of the documented haul-outs for Pacific harbor seals and Northern elephant seals, and nesting habitats for focal shorebirds like black oystercatchers, are also highly vulnerable.”

Maps show that habitats in the San Francisco Bay Area are particularly at risk. There, vulnerable landscapes and habitats–such as 87 percent of the state’s regularly-flooded estuarine marsh–will be trapped between rising seas on one side and human development on the other. “The built environment–including roads and other infrastructure–creates barriers that prevent coastal habitats from moving inland,” while “dikes, levees, and other water control features negatively impact the health and function” of these threatened landscapes.

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California Coastal Conservation Assessment / The Nature Conservancy

The Conservancy finds that sea level rise could adversely affect public access to California’s coast. “Sea level rise will diminish coastal access opportunities throughout the state by reducing beach widths, submerging rocky intertidal areas, and flooding coastal beach infrastructure.”

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Sea level rise threatens access to California’s beaches and coastal public lands / Sylvia Busby

In the face of these potentially-devastating impacts, the report presents a suite of strategies for conservation in the era of climate change. Habitat managers need to “conserve and manage for resilience.” This includes maintaining the conservation status of existing conserved lands and identifying and protecting resilient coastal landscapes that are not vulnerable to sea level rise.

The Nature Conservancy recommends managing for resilience through the use of sediment augmentation and sand placement. “The majority of highly vulnerable conservation lands in need of managing in place for resilience are found in the San Francisco Bay Delta,” an observation that speaks to the importance of landscape-led initiatives such as the recent Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge.

The Conservancy also calls for conserving nearly 200 square kilometers of potential future habitat areas and adapting the built environment “with more natural coastal processes in mind” – in effect, giving the coastline room to change.

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California’s coastline / Taylor Samuelson, California State Coastal Conservancy

“As sea levels rise, California’s coast will erode and evolve, and habitats will need to shift. Our current conservation efforts and land use management decisions must focus on further supporting these natural processes and enabling the transition and movement of coastal habitats as sea levels rise. Conservation in the face of sea level rise requires an adaptive process that embraces the reality of a dynamic coastline.”

The reports’ recommendations and strategies are “spatially explicit,” with specific proposals for areas, depending on their vulnerability and adaptive capacity. There are detailed high-resolution maps that illustrate the location, distribution, and severity of risks as well as opportunities.

“The results of this spatially explicit assessment provide a foundation of information to support immediate action to conserve habitats and biodiversity in the face of sea level rise,” the Conservancy argues. “With so much of California’s coastal habitats, imperiled species, and managed lands at risk from sea level rise, immediate collective action is necessary to conserve these natural resources into the future.”

Download the full report and maps.

UN Climate Conference: New “Rule Book” for Measuring Carbon Emissions

UN Climate conference in Poland / UN News

During the latest United Nations climate conference, which just concluded in Katowice, Poland, some 190 countries reached agreement on next steps to move forward the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement. After days of intense negotiation, countries agreed to a “rule book” for measuring their annual carbon emissions, including transparency guidelines that enable all countries to understand how emissions numbers and future commitments are calculated.

The Paris climate agreement calls for limiting the rise in global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The framework essentially asks countries to make voluntary agreements to lower their emissions and uses global peer pressure to spur them to ratchet up their commitments every five years. The new system for measuring and communicating these reductions provides a platform for greater future commitments.

However, there were also some failures at the conference. According to The Guardian, disagreements over the future of carbon markets and “how countries can gain credits for their efforts to cut emissions and their carbon sinks, such as forests” were punted down the road. Brazil was seen as a spoiler on this effort, because their new leadership demanded “wording that critics said would allow for double counting of credits and undermine the integrity of the system.”

Brazil recently-elected Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing leader who has promised to shut down Brazil’s environment ministry. He has come out against Brazil’s previous pledges to reserve 12 percent of the Amazon — a vitally-important rainforest that serves as the world’s lungs — for indigenous groups. He instead seeks to build highways through the forest, creating easier access for agri-businesses, and also build more dams. Bolsonaro has called the global scientific consensus on climate change “dogma” that ignores “evidence,” using language similar to that of US President Donal Trump, who has called global warming a “hoax” or “con-job.” Bolsonaro has also pulled out of hosting the next UN climate summit, all but erasing the moral leadership on climate change just exhibited in the Rio Olympics in 2016. And Brazil’s new foreign minister Ernesto Araújo recently said climate change is a “Marxist plot” by the Chinese to increase their competitiveness at the expense of Western economies.

The UN conference in Poland created necessary governance infrastructure, but the hard work on ratcheting up emission reduction targets will happen at the critical 2020 meeting, some five years on from Paris. There, countries must commit to incredibly-ambitious goals if we are going to stave off the worst effects of a global temperature rise. Meanwhile, 2018 will likely prove to be the hottest year on record, and greenhouse gas emissions increased by nearly 3 percent this year due a resurgence in oil and gas use.

In other climate change news:

The World Bank announced it will invest some $200 billion in climate change mitigation and adaptation through 2025. The funds will go towards boosting renewable energy production, helping 100 cities adapt to climate change, creating early warning systems for climate impacts, and improving “landscape management” of 120 million hectares of forests in 50 countries.

Some 415 investors managing $32 trillion in assets called on nations at the UN climate change conference to “achieve the goals of the Paris climate agreement; accelerate private sector investment in the low-carbon transition; and continue to improve climate-related financial reporting.”

A new study published in Science Advances found that natural solutions, including rural and urban reforestation, better forest and grassland management, and wetland and peatland restoration, could reduce US annual carbon emissions by 21 percent, an amount approximately equal to taking all cars off the road.

Thirteen federal agencies in the U.S. released the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which states that climate change could reduce US economic output by 10 percent by the end of the century if emissions aren’t cut fast. In comparison with the third report published four years ago, the new assessment concludes that total impacts from wildfires, drought, flooding, extreme heat, sea level rise, and spreading tropical diseases will be more severe and widespread. According to an analysis of the 1,600-page report by The New York Times, the report puts actual numbers on the expected cost of the coming impacts: “$141 billion from heat-related deaths, $118 billion from sea level rise, and $32 billion from infrastructure damage by the end of the century.” Additional frightening conclusions: “American exports and supply chains could be disrupted, agricultural yields could fall to 1980s levels by mid century, and fire season could spread to the Southeast.”

The report, which was released by the Trump administration on Black Friday in an likely effort to bury the findings amid the holiday shopping spree, calls for putting a price on carbon, taxing companies that release carbon emissions, and increasing investment in clean energy technologies. The fourth national assessment also makes the case for increasing “proactive” adaptation measures at all scales — from the community to national levels — and incorporating equity, justice, cultural heritage, health, and national security considerations into these approaches. But while the number of adaptation projects has greatly increased since the launch of the third national assessment in 2014, “adaptation implementation is still not commonplace.”

Read the summary of the fourth national assessment and ASLA’s report: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, which offers recommendations on mitigation, adaptation, and resilience.

ASLA Condemns Administration Proposal to Weaken Protections of Wetlands and Waterways

Little Blue Heron in a wetland / Getty Images

A statement by ASLA Executive Vice President and CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, regarding the proposed rule issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to alter the definition of “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act in such a way that severely threatens the quality of drinking water and community health and well-being nationwide:

The Trump administration’s proposed rule redefining the term “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) within the Clean Water Act is a direct assault on the health and well-being of American communities nationwide. The proposed definition severely limits which waterways and wetlands are protected from pollutants, and could have catastrophic effects on the quality of the nation’s water, human health, the economies of communities, and the viability of wildlife populations.

ASLA supports having one clear and consistent definition of WOTUS that balances the need to have safe, healthy bodies of water with commerce and sound development practices. The proposed rule change significantly alters that balance, endangering communities and ecosystems while allowing polluters to adversely affect communities and ecosystems well beyond the boundaries of their property.

The fact is, clean water is good business and polluted water is not. A WOTUS Rule should ensure healthy drinking water, reduce adverse health consequences, bolster communities reliant on tourism and recreation, and facilitate place-making for coastal communities. This irresponsible rule change will undermine those goals.

It is particularly regrettable that this rule would go into effect at a time when climate change is already wreaking havoc with fragile environments, particularly those in flood-prone areas. Increasingly frequent and intense storms will, by definition, affect the dry riverbeds and isolated wetlands that this new rule would exempt from protection. This rule would make a bad situation even worse.

Landscape architects work at the nexus of the built and natural environments and are at the forefront of planning and designing water and storm-water management projects that help to protect and preserve our nation’s water supply and enrich the lives of communities. The administration’s replacement rule would be a drastic step backward from the commitment to clean water for all Americans that is at the heart of the original Clean Water Act and the WOTUS rule, and ASLA will work to oppose this proposal.