Landscape Architects May Be Liable for Climate Impacts

houston
Flooding in Houston after Hurricane Harvey / NOAA

When a neighborhood floods, who is at fault?

A class action lawsuit in Houston asks that question. The residents of a master-planned community that flooded during Hurricane Harvey are suing the engineering firm that designed the neighborhood’s stormwater management system.

While that suit targets engineers, it nonetheless represents the heightened risk landscape architects face from climate impacts on their projects.

In a panel discussion at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) director of environmental planning Deanna Moran and CLF attorney Elena Mihaly gave a crash course on the changing landscape of liability in the age of climate change.

“Climate impacts are becoming more and more evident,” said Moran. “What does that mean for us when we know these impacts exist? When there is more public recognition of them, but we aren’t addressing them or acknowledging them in a concrete way?”

“How might a design professional –– like a landscape architect –– expose themselves to legal liability for failing to account for and adapt to climate impacts?”

Moran and Mihaly have studied these and other questions, releasing their findings earlier this year in a report published by the CLF.

climate_liability_report
Climate Adaptation and Liability Report / Conservation Law Foundation

Moran said there are three factors contributing to climate liability risk for design professionals:

First, increased media coverage and general awareness of climate change means landscape architects are increasingly obligated to understand the climate-related risks that might apply to any given project.

“The more we talk about risks publicly,” the greater “the foreseeability of climate impacts,” increasing potential exposure to liability, Moran said.

Second, government agencies are investing in increasingly-powerful modeling tools to conduct vulnerability assessments and climate adaptation planning. Often, agencies make this information public and open-source.

“These tools are more sophisticated and accurate than they’ve ever been,” giving landscape architects access to high-quality modeling of potential impacts from climate change at a local level. With that increased access comes an increased expectation that designers and engineers will factor in potential climate impacts.

Finally, Moran argued the failure of previous litigation against major greenhouse gas emitters could lead to “a shift in focus on the design community as defendants” in the realm of climate change litigation.

Mihaly said the first two factors –– public awareness and readily-available data –– contribute to what is known as a “standard of care,” a key concept in negligence litigation.

The standard of care owed by a design professional is determined by the courts on a case-by-case basis. Courts will look at a number of different factors to determine the standard of care owed by a landscape architect in any given case, including specific contract language, applicable codes and regulations, industry customs, and the foreseeability of harm.

When it comes to knowledge of future events or the foreseeability of harm, Mihaly said: “it’s not just a question of ‘did you know this could happen?,’ but ‘should you have known that this could happen?”

Because of the growing awareness of climate impacts and access to models and data, the answer to that question will increasingly be “yes.”

boston_fema
2016 FEMA Flood Map, Boston / FEMA

Mihaly cautioned that the inherently uncertain nature of climate change is not a sufficient defense in a negligence lawsuit. “Even unprecedented events have been held, in courts of law, as being foreseeable due to modeling.”

She also warned that mere compliance with a jurisdiction’s building or zoning codes does not protect a designer from liability if the codes do not actually prevent the harm that the designer has a responsibility to avoid.

“Compliance alone isn’t necessarily a liability shield. The key question is: do those codes and standards actually contemplate the harm you are trying to prevent against?”

Industry standards and customs also offer scant protection. “A whole practice could be relying on an unreasonable behavior, and that doesn’t necessarily make it reasonable,” Mihaly said, referring to the 1932 case T.J. Hooper v. Northern Barge Corp.

In that case, a tugboat operator was found liable for cargo lost at sea because the operator did not use a radio system to receive advance warning of a dangerous weather system. At the time, it was not common industry practice for tugboat operators to use such systems, even though they were readily available.

Judge Learned Hand, writing for the court, held that while “a whole calling may have unduly lagged in the adoption of and available devices, there are precautions so imperative that even their universal disregard will not excuse their omission.”

It’s clear “the standard of care expected of a design professional is rising due to climate change and improvements in climate science. The threat of liability is real, and there is already litigation in this space,” Mihaly said, referring to the lawsuit in Houston.

“Design professionals are the target we’re seeing crop up more and more,” she added.

While this changing nature of liability in an age of climate change may appear threatening, Moran and Mihaly instead argued for a positive outlook. “Liability lawsuits are incredibly effective at shifting industry perceptions and behavior,” Moran noted.

“This could be an opportunity for the design community to really pioneer this space and use liability to proactive in the face of climate impacts,” added Mihaly. “The threat of liability can turn what is dreamed about into the standard.”

Hope and Doubt about the Future of Walkable Suburbia

suburban_remix_cover
Suburban Remix: Creating the Next Generation of Urban Places / Island Press

Yesterday’s suburbs have the potential to become tomorrow’s downtowns, according to Suburban Remix: Creating the Next Generation of Urban Places, a collection of essays and case studies edited by Jason Beske and David Dixon and published earlier this year by Island Press. Suburban Remix makes a compelling case for transforming the country’s aging suburban population centers into dense, walkable communities, but ultimately fails to demonstrate how broadly applicable that model may be. 

Suburban Remix’s central argument is the era of low-density suburban planning is over. In the book’s introduction, Dixon writes “the traditional suburban dream that built this world–promulgated widely in the decades following WWII–was about homogeneity represented by a growing middle class and symbolized by a single-family house with a white picket fence and car in the driveway.”

“That dream is dead. It simply no longer describes the places in which most North Americans aspire to live or for which they are willing to pay.”

The book’s contributors point to a number of different factors contributing to this dynamic, but none more compelling than the demographic forces that are reshaping the nation, ushering in changes that have big implications for housing, development, and land use.

“There is a new norm for the general US population,” Dixon writes. “Society is growing younger and older–and raising fewer children.” 

aging_society
The US population is predicted to grow both younger and older, with fewer school age children / Stantec graphic, courtesy Island Press

This new norm is reflected in some eye-catching numbers: “Between 2010 and 2030, people younger than 35 and older than 65 will account for more than three-quarters of US population growth,” Dixon says. People over 70 will be the fastest-growing demographic in the suburbs. Perhaps most startling, “two-parent households with children will represent only about 10% of all US households” by 2025.

As the single-family homes of formerly child-rearing baby boomers flood the market, they will find a paucity of young families lining up to buy. According to one estimate, “the United States already had more single-family suburban housing in 2010 than it would need to meet projected demand in 2030,” Dixon says. 

Compounding the issue, tastes are shifting away from automobile-dependent sprawl and toward denser, walkable communities, particularly among retiring baby boomers and the educated millennials who are taking their place in the workforce.

reston
Aerial view of Reston, Virginia, an example of incorporating density into a conventional suburban plan / La Citta Vita under CC BY-SA 2.0, courtesy Island Press

As proof of this shift, Dixon points to an analysis carried out by Richard Florida, who found that urban housing prices rose 60 percent faster than those of suburban housing from 2000 to 2015. “Urban places are now viewed as healthier and more environmentally responsible places to live and work,” he explains.

The implications of these changes are clear: the market for suburban single-family housing is on shaky ground. The end of the suburbs could be a result of economic forces as much as cultural ones.

Despite these challenges, the authors of Suburban Remix are optimistic about suburbia’s future.

“Without damaging a single blade of grass on a single lawn, suburbs across North America can seize opportunities to transform tens of millions of ‘grayfields’–outmoded predominantly single-use shopping centers and office parks–into a new generation of compact, dense, walkable, mixed-use–urban–places that accommodate multiple dreams,” argues Dixon.

roanoke
Before and after images of a proposal to create a walkable mixed-use development to replace a shopping mall parking lot in Roanoke, VA / Stantec, courtesy Island Press

In fact, it is the abundance of these large grayfield sites in suburban areas that the authors see as one of suburbia’s greatest strengths. Thanks to grayfields, “developers in suburbs will be in a far better position to assemble large, contiguous sites with a single or a few owners to create vibrant new districts.”

Suburban Remix is at its strongest when it is framing this broad argument about the demographic, economic, and social trends driving the future of the suburbs. The bulk of the book, however, consists of case studies of communities at various stages of this transformation, including the Washington D.C. region; Dublin, Ohio; and Bellevue, Washington.

Tysons
Lane markings in Tysons, Virginia, one the areas included in Suburan Remix‘s case studies / Andrew Wright

These studies undoubtedly represent valuable research, but suffer from a lack of geographic diversity. Three of the eight chapters are dedicated to Washington D.C. or Northern Virginia; two are in Ohio. The American southeast and southwest–regions where the lessons from this book are arguably most urgently needed–are notably absent.

Another glaring omission is the lack any meaningful discussion of the social implications of the suburban densification that the book’s authors extoll. Affordable housing, for example, is scarcely mentioned. Moderate- to low-income suburbs that fail to densify are at one point described as “probable slums,” a disturbing prediction that deserves far more attention than the three paragraphs it receives.

Finally, the authors fail to acknowledge the deep-seated cultural foundations of the suburbs, an urban form that is – for better or worse – deeply embedded in the American psyche and whose roots extend much further back than the housing boom of the post-war era.

The authors present strong evidence that this may be changing, but this argument rests, to a certain extent, on the assumption that recent trends are a reliable predictor of future outcomes.

In depicting the death of the suburban dream as a fait accompli, Suburban Remix fails to reckon with the stubbornness of the cultural attitudes that have historically driven demand for suburban development.

In fact, none other than Richard Florida has sounded the alarm about what appears to be, at the very least, a pause in America’s love affair with dense, urban places. “In the last two years the suburbs outgrew cities in two-thirds of America’s large metropolitan areas,” he wrote late last year in an op-ed for the New York Timesattributing the trend to rising crime, impossibly expensive real estate, shifting political winds, and the fact that “many Americans still want space.”

Despite these shortcomings, Suburban Remix represents a valuable resource for policymakers, planners, and designers engaged in large-scale re-imagining of what a suburb can be.

The case studies are models for how to create dense, walkable communities in a present-day context, and the authors’ overarching argument for doing so is a strong one. In giving reasons to be hopeful about the future of the suburbs, however, they also reveal reasons to doubt.

New Report: US Cities Already Feeling Impacts of Climate Change

Flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Port Arthur, Texas / Wikipedia

According to a new report from the Alliance for a Sustainable Future, some 95 percent of 158 American cities surveyed have experienced a “change related to at least one climate impact in the past five years.” A vast majority of cities — some 76 percent — have seen more damage from heavy rain events or inland flooding. 65 percent saw greater impacts from heat waves; 51 percent noted changing drought conditions; and 18 percent stated that wildfires were growing more destructive. Some 5 percent of cities have relocated populations due to extreme weather.

The Alliance for a Sustainable Future, a joint effort of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), polled some 158 small, medium, and large U.S. cities in both red and blue states that represent some 50 million Americans. The group presented their findings at an event at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

To address changing impacts, the report stated that 60 percent of cities have “launched or significantly expanded a climate initiative or policy in the past year.”

Most common climate-smart policies and programs include:

  • Bus transit (94 percent)
  • Bike lanes (92 percent)
  • Promoting bicycle commuting (81 percent)
  • Greenhouse gas emission tracking (75 percent)
  • Energy efficiency policies for existing municipal buildings (72 percent)
  • Routine energy audits for municipal buildings / operations (71 percent)
  • Energy efficiency policies for new municipal buildings (70 percent)
  • Purchasing renewable electricity for city operations (65 percent)

Some 83 percent of cities also seek to increase their partnerships with businesses in order to achieve their goals for renewable energy, building energy efficiency, and sustainable transportation.

At the event hosted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and C2SE in San Francisco, C2SE president Bob Persciasepe, who was deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Obama administration, said cities must dramatically scale up their partnerships with the private sector, especially given the absence of any meaningful federal action on climate change.

“From 1850 to 1999, we put 1,000 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. From 2000 to 2018, we put in 500 gigatons. We can only put in 300 more gigatons before we start to see catastrophic effects. That means we can put in 30 tons a year for the next 10 years. We don’t have much time. We must increase our ambitions. We must build more partnerships so we can go faster.”

Mayors then highlighted a few partnerships between city governments and businesses that demonstrate how to achieve a carbon-neutral economy and society:

Mayor Jackie Biskupski from Salt Lake City, Utah, explained how her city partnered with Rocky Mountain Power to create a plan for achieving 100 percent clean energy for all municipal operations, including Salt Lake City airport, by 2032. As part of their agreement the city, Rocky Mountain Power expanded their WattSmart communities program, which offers incentives and discounts for energy upgrades in homes and businesses, and promised to spend $10 million on electric vehicle infrastructure, including a new e-bus charging complex.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said Iowan governments at all levels are partnering with MidAmerican Energy to achieve 100 percent renewable power for the entire state. The company has invested $7.5 billion in Iowan wind farms since 2004.

And Mayor John Mitchell from New Bedford, Massachusetts, said his old whaling city is now a port for the giant wind turbines that will soon be installed off the coasts of Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Vineyard Wind, a company established by Danish off-shore wind firms, is already using New Bedford to launch a $2.2 billion wind farm off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard with turbines approximately double the size of ones found on land.

Mayor Mitchell said the US offshore wind market is on the “cusp of a rapid expansion” and could potentially overtake the capacity installed in Europe’s North Sea. “Millions of square miles of the east coast have already been leased by renewable energy companies.” He also sees opportunities for state and local governments to partner with offshore wind companies in California, Hawaii, and elsewhere.

Urban Planners Mobilize for Climate Action

“Horizontal berm” from ouR-Home proposal / Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge

All cities need robust plans for mitigating and adapting to climate change. But according to Robert Kelew with UN-Habitat, the vast majority of the world’s urban communities still don’t.

At an event organized by the American Planning Association (APA) at SPUR in San Francisco, a group of urban planners, led by the APA’s Jeff Soule, discussed what’s needed to mobilize the world’s urban planners to take more effective action on the climate.

Kelew said a primary obstacle to more widespread urban climate planning is simply the lack of planners in developing countries. For example, “there are 38 accredited planners per 100,000 people in the United Kingdom, but just 0.23 per 100,000 in India,” and even fewer in Sub-Saharan Africa. Also, there are only 553 schools that teach urban planning worldwide.

To help speed up assistance to the developing world, a group of national planning associations and educators formed Planners for Climate Action, which launched at a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting last November. Planners for Climate Action aims to create a “global repository of syllabi and map the state of climate change planning in cities,” issuing regular updates.

For Andrew Potts, a land-use attorney who represented the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), planners also need to do a better job of bringing historic preservation allies into the fight. There are clear overlaps between historic preservation and planning, but all the associated “heritage professionals” — scientists, planners, architects, landscape architects — haven’t been adequately included. In the US alone, “we can mobilize tens of thousands of heritage professionals to join the fight for climate action.”

Potts believes cultural heritage, including what UNESCO deems “intangible heritage,” has the potential to be a great motivating force for climate action. If what is special about a city or community is directly threatened by climate change, there will be a call to create a plan or project to protect that. Heritage professionals, who are used to working over long-time horizons, can also help communities make the connections between heritage preservation and climate change. “Every place with heritage has a climate story.”

Michael Boswell, head of the city and regional planning department at California Poly San Luis Obispo and a representative from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ASCP), has been studying what cities with successful climate action plans are doing and has authored a UN-Habitat-sponsored report to help planning departments ramp up efforts in their cities.

The most important success factor in these cities is having a “climate champion — a mayor, community activist with authority, or municipal planning staff,” so this person or group of people needs to be either identified and supported or grown locally. Climate-smart cities also lead by example by reducing emissions from their own government operations first; communicate the multiple benefits of climate action, such as the benefits of biking for health or electric vehicles and renewable energy in reducing air pollution; engage the public through direct communications efforts; build partnerships; assemble “green teams” in mayors’ offices; and institutionalize action.

Sandy Mendler, a principal at Mithun, who participated in the Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge through the ouR Home team, believes that planners must be focused on forging truly equitable city-wide development plans that don’t push out vulnerable populations. She argued that even in San Francisco, which has been a leader in climate action, the Bay area’s comprehensive plan through 2040 fails to meet affordable housing needs or further prevent gentrification of vulnerable areas. “The goal is zero displacement of existing communities. Without the plan, there would be a 20 percent increase in displacement through 2040; with the plan, there would still be 9 percent. That’s our best plan, and it’s not solving the problem.”

She said climate plans must also take into better account the unintended consequences of good intentions. For example, in California, the carbon cap and trade system has resulted in increased air pollution in low-income urban areas, because “power plants in high-value neighborhoods were cleaned up first, which meant that dirtier power generation was running longer in low-income communities.” California Global Warming Solutions Act from 2006 was just re-authorized last year, but this time with a companion bill (AB 197), environmental justice legislation that will dedicate a quarter of the funds from cap and trade to the the communities hit hardest by its effects.

Mendler also said cities must put “priority resilience areas,” which can protect communities through the use of green infrastructure, ahead of “priority development areas,” like the ones identified in the Plan Bay Area 2040.

The problem is many of the areas the bay area city governments have deemed ripe for future redevelopment are in flood zones, filled with brownfields, and inhabited by already-vulnerable populations. All of those brownfields are “time bombs” because if sea level rise causes them to permanently flood, they will spread toxins into the water supply. Brownfields must instead be redeveloped as green infrastructure — “permeable sponges” or “horizontal berms” that can reduce storm impacts, boost community and ecological resilience, and support biodiversity.

At the end, ASLA CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, was invited to provide comments. She argued that focusing on the multiple social and environments benefits of climate action and maintaining a “laser focus on equity” are key. But she cautioned that the “balkanized” approach to climate change taken within many city governments is a major obstacle holding back more ambitious action.

ASLA Announces 2018 Professional Awards

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn, New York. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Image

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) proudly announces the 25 winners of the ASLA 2018 Professional Awards. Selected from 368 entries, the awards recognize the best of landscape architecture in the general design, analysis and planning, communications, research and residential design categories from the United States and around the world.

The winners will receive their awards at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting and EXPO in Philadelphia on Monday, October 22, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

The September issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM) features the winning projects and is available for free.

Winning projects are designated as either an honor award or an award of excellence, which is the highest possible distinction.

General Design Category

Award of Excellence
Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation, Brooklyn, New York
by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (Brooklyn, New York) for Brooklyn Bridge Park

Honor Awards
Chicago Riverwalk | State Street to Franklin Street, Chicago
by Sasaki (Watertown, Massachusetts) and Ross Barney Architects (Chicago) for the Chicago Department of Transportation

Iqaluit Municipal Cemetery, Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada
by LEES+Associates (Vancouver, B.C., Canada) for the City of Iqaluit

Legacy and Community: Juxtaposing Heritage and Invention for Duke University’s West Campus, Durham, North Carolina
by Reed Hilderbrand LLC Landscape Architecture (Cambridge, Massachusetts) for Duke University

Longwood Gardens Main Fountain Garden, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
by West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture (Rotterdam, Netherlands) for Longwood Gardens Inc.

Re-Envisioning Pulaski Park, Northampton, Massachusetts
by STIMSON (Cambridge, Massachusetts) for the City of Northampton

Tippet Rise Art Center, Fishtail, Montana
by Oehme, van Sweden | OvS (Washington, D.C.) for Tippet Rise Art Center

Tongva Park and Ken Genser Square, Santa Monica, California
by James Corner Field Operations LLC (New York) for the City of Santa Monica

Walker Art Center Wurtele Upper Garden, Minneapolis
by Inside | Outside + HGA (Minneapolis) for the Walker Art Center

Analysis and Planning Category

ASLA 2018 Professional Analysis and Planning Award of Excellence.
A Colorado Legacy: I-25 Conservation Corridor Master Plan, Douglas County, Colorado. Design Workshop (Aspen, Colorado) for The Conservation Fund / Image

Award of Excellence
A Colorado Legacy: I-25 Conservation Corridor Master Plan, Douglas County, Colorado
by Design Workshop (Aspen, Colorado) for The Conservation Fund

Honor Awards
Extending Our History, Embracing Our Future, Madison, Wisconsin
by SmithGroup (Ann Arbor, Michigan) for University of Wisconsin-Madison

From Pixels to Stewardship: Advancing Conservation Through Digital Innovation, Austin, Texas
by Andropogon Associates Ltd. (Philadelphia) for the Shield-Ayres-Bowen Family

Iowa Blood Run Cultural Landscape Master Plan, Madison, Wisconsin
by Quinn Evans Architects (Madison, Wisconsin) for Iowa Department of Natural Resources (Todd Coffelt, Michelle Wilson, John Pearson, Frank Rickerl, Pat Schlarbaum, and Kevin Pape), State Historical Society of Iowa (Jen Bancescu, Doug Jones, Susan Kloewer, and Steve King), Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist

Willamette Falls Riverwalk, Oregon City, Oregon
by Snøhetta (New York) for Project Partners: Oregon Metro, City of Oregon City; Clackamas County; State of Oregon; PGE Falls Legacy LLC

Communications Category

ASLA 2018 Professional Communications Award of Excellence. 100 Years of Landscape Architecture at The Ohio State University. Landscape Architecture Section, Knowlton School, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio / Image

Award of Excellence
100 Years of Landscape Architecture at The Ohio State University
by Landscape Architecture Section, Knowlton School, The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio)

Honor Awards
Homeplace: Conversation Guides for Six Communities, Rebuilding After Hurricane Matthew
by NC State University Coastal Dynamics Design Lab (Raleigh, North Carolina) for the Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Resilience Initiative (HMDRRI)

Marnas: A Journey through Space, Time, and Ideas
by Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA

VanPlay: Plan to Play
by Design Workshop Inc. (Denver) for the Vancouver Park Board

Research Category

Honor Awards
Atlas for the End of the World – Atlas for the Beginning of the Anthropocene
by Richard Weller, ASLA, University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia)

Design with Dredge: Resilient Landscape Infrastructure in the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore, Maryland
by Mahan Rykiel Associates (Baltimore, Maryland) for the Maryland Port Administration

Urban Aquatic Health: Integrating New Technologies and Resiliency into Floating Wetlands, Baltimore
by Ayers, Saint, and Gross (Baltimore) for the National Aquarium

Residential Design Category

ASLA 2018 Professional Residential Award of Excellence. Balcones Residence, Austin, Texas. Word + Carr Design Group (formerly known as Mark Word Design) / Image

Award of Excellence
Balcones Residence, Austin, Texas
by Word + Carr Design Group (formerly known as Mark Word Design) (Austin, Texas)

Honor Awards
Sustaining A Cultural Icon: Reconciling Preservation and Stewardship in a Changing World, Newport, Rhode Island
by Reed Hilderbrand LLC Landscape Architecture (Cambridge, Massachusetts) for Dorrance Hill Hamilton

Yard, Portland, Oregon
by 2.ink Studio (Portland, Oregon) for the Key Development Group

The Landmark Award recognizes a distinguished landscape architecture project completed between 15 and 50 years ago that retains its original design integrity and contributes significantly to the public realm of the community in which it is located.

The Landmark Award

ASLA 2018 Landmark Award. From Weapons to Wildlife: The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Management Plan. Douglas County, Colorado. Design Workshop Inc. (Denver, Colorado) / Image

From Weapons to Wildlife: The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Management Plan (Douglas County, Colorado)
by Design Workshop Inc. (Denver, Colorado)

The professional awards jury included:

  • Mark A. Focht, FASLA, Chair, New York City Parks and Recreation, New York City
  • Gerdo Aquino, FASLA, SWA Group, Los Angeles
  • Anita Berrizbeitia, ASLA, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Christian Gabriel, ASLA, U.S. General Services Administration, Washington, D.C.
  • Terry Guen-Murray, FASLA, Terry Guen Design Associates, Chicago
  • Dale Jaeger, FASLA, WLA Studio, Athens, Georgia
  • Sam Lubell, Journalist, New York City
  • Patrick Phillips, Urban Land Institute, Washington, D.C.
  • Barbara Wilks, FASLA, W Architecture + Landscape Architecture LLC, New York City

For the selection of the Research Category, the jury was joined by M. Elen Deming, FASLA, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina, for the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and Ashley Steffens, ASLA, College of Environment and Design, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia for the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA).

The Big Impact of Small Cell Infrastructure

Small cell photo simulation / City of Gaithersburg, Crown Castle

Autonomous vehicles, augmented reality, smart cities, the internet of things – these and other emerging technologies will require wireless connectivity, and lots of it. In response, wireless service providers are working to bolster their wireless networks by deploying low-power miniature antennas called small cells, which supplement larger cell towers and can deliver lightning-fast 5G service.

Small cells might seem innocuous enough. They are, after all, much smaller than a standard cell tower. However, because their range is limited, small cells must be deployed in dense networks to provide continuous service. By some estimates, providers will need to install small cells every 250 to 300 feet to provide adequate coverage. And since each provider has their own network, full scale deployment of small cell infrastructure could result in the installation on thousands of new antennas on city streets and rights-of-way.

The challenge posed by small cell infrastructure was laid bare at a recent U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) meeting, where National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) staff planner Michael Bello gave a talk on small cell deployment in Washington, D.C.

Bello indicated that small cell infrastructure could, in many cases, be mounted on existing infrastructure such as telephone poles, street lights, or bus stops. Still, the sheer number of antennas required all but guarantees the deployment of small cells will have a visual impact on the public realm.

“I want to underscore that the implementation of this technology could result in thousands of small cell antennas and related equipment across the city, and it may result in several per block,” said Bello.

austin
A small cell installation in Austin, Texas / Crown Castle

Small cells could result in “impacts to our viewsheds, historic character, access and circulation, and potential for more streetscape clutter.”

The Washington, D.C. department of transportation (DDOT) – the agency with permitting jurisdiction for right-of-way infrastructure – has already entered into master license agreements with multiple cell service providers for small cell deployment on DC streets.

Bello said that the NCPC is working with DDOT, along with a number of other agencies, to develop design guidelines for this new infrastructure.

“The guidelines will address various aspects of placement and design, including general design specification, spacing between small cell poles, distance from tree boxes and root systems, accessibility, the number of poles per block, and the poles design and finish.”

Public comments indicated that, for some residents, these guidelines may not be enough. Georgetown ANC Commissioner Joe Gibbons and Citizens Association of Georgetown board member Elsa Santoyo both voiced concern about the impact of small cells could have on the historic character of Georgetown and urged that small cell installations be subjected to a formal design review process, something not required by DDOT’s existing agreement with service providers.

DDOT manager Kathryn Roos said her agency’s agreement with service providers did not preclude such oversight. “The master license agreement is explicit in saying that the small cell companies must get whatever approval that is needed.”

“DDOT’s role in this is really as a facilitator. We saw that this was a particularly sensitive program, and so we reached out to our partners at NCPC, CFA, and SHPO (State Historic Preservation Office) to help facilitate a conversation.”

CFA Commissioner Toni Griffin pushed back against that characterization of DDOT’s role: “To the extent this can be viewed as privately-operated public infrastructure, I think we’re going to need a public owner and advocate — and not just a facilitator.”

In other jurisdictions, legal battles have broken out between state and local governments over who has the right to decide how cell service providers can deploy small cell technology – and how much they have to pay for the right to do so on publicly controlled rights-of-way.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, twenty states have passed laws intended to facilitate small cell deployment. Many of these laws achieve this goal by limiting local regulation of the deployment process. These efforts are often backed by the CTIA, a trade organization that represents the wireless communications industry.

The federal government has also begun to take note of the issue. Earlier this summer, Senator John Thune (R-SD) introduced the STREAMLINE Small Cell Deployment Act (S. 3157), which would require local agencies to process small cell applications within 60 to 90 days and limit the amount that municipalities can charge service providers for the use of the public right of way. And in March, the the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to adopted rules intended to reduce regulatory hurdle to small cell deployment.

Local leaders, for their part, have argued that local regulations are not a major obstacle to deployment. In a letter to the FCC ahead of the commission’s March meeting, three dozen mayors and local leaders insisted that “our communities strongly desire more options for high quality internet access, and we are happy to work collaboratively with any Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are willing to provide such opportunities. However, our residents and businesses appropriately balk at the placement of a 100-foot monopole on their lawn with no recourse, or to having their local government’s hands tied when it comes to the public recovering just compensation for the use of the public’s right of way.”

Small cell photo simulation / Montgomery County, Crown Castle

At the CFA meeting, Commissioner Griffin envisioned a more creative approach to the issue. “Maybe we should ask the service providers to sponsor a design competition to help us bring more voices to the table and solve the problem. Design guidelines will get us some of the way, but not all the way.”

Intriguing Findings from the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA)

The Solar Settlement in Schlierberg, Freiburg, Germany / Wikipedia

In Oklahoma City, a unique mix of landscape architects and designers, educators, and technologists revealed the results of their explorations into the world of environmental design. Drawing attendees from around the globe, the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) offered thought-provoking, sometimes challenging takes on the human and environmental forces shaping our communities.

A brief recap of short lectures, highlighting interesting research:

“What makes homeowners adopt sustainable practices? How do we reach the mainstream homeowner?,” asked Marina Murarolli, a professor of languages at the University of Missouri. Studying the psychological traits of 209 homeowners across the U.S., which she said constitutes a national sample, she found early adopters of green residential practices — like adding solar panels and buying energy-efficient appliances — were largely driven by “altruistic and biospheric motivations.” An altruistic mindset will cause someone to take action for “the sake of doing good.” Someone motivated by biospheric concerns is guided by a sense of interconnection of living things, the ecology of the planet. “It’s a hippie, granola way of thinking.”

Despite the reputation of Americans as being highly egocentric, that motivation didn’t register in her findings. Green homeowners aren’t buying Energy Star dish washers and hybrid cars to save money or show off to their neighbors.

And this conclusion may be frustrating to marketers everywhere: “We can’t profile green homeowner early adopters, other to say they are wealthier than the general population. There are inconsistent demographic results.”

Still, Murarolli thinks “any American could become an adopter.” And the research tells her potential adopters are more motivated by altruism and the planet’s health than looking cool.

Science museums with LEED-accredited facilities get millions of visitors each year, but not all teach the public about sustainability. The culture and political ecosystem of the museum influences how much or how little they address the topic, said Georgia Lindsay, a senior instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Laura Cole, assistant professor at the University of Missouri.

Lindsey said science institutions in the Midwest must be finely attuned to the politics of climate change and sustainability. “Science museums are publicly funded so they can’t grand stand.” Instead, they use less inflammatory language to tell their story or avoid that aspect all together.

At the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, Kansas, which focuses on educating the public about the prairie ecosystem, there was a concerted effort to teach Kansans about sustainability — but in terms they can relate to. Roof gardens, a native plant walk, and biomimetic design, and natural features help integrate the building with its landscape. But the museum uses the language of “cowboy sustainability — the words ‘natural resources’ and ‘conservation’ instead of sustainability.” Conservatives respond better to neutral terms like conservation and stewardship.

Flint Hills Discovery Center / VernonJohnson

The St. Louis Science Center offers “no bad news, nothing on climate change. They have to tread carefully as they have a mixed audience.” They don’t use their green building in their pedagogy. The sentiment is: “that is not our mission.”

Health impact assessments (HIAs) have been conducted in Europe and New Zealand for more than 30 years. Relatively recently, they have taken off in the U.S., explained Debarati “Mimi” Majumdar Narayan, with the Health Impact Project, a partnership of the Pew Charitable Trust and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. To date, there have been some 400 HIAs conducted; 100 by the Health Impact Project alone.

An HIA is a tool, a research method for examining whether a plan or project will adversely impact the health of a community. In contemporary America, where communities once red-lined now suffer from extreme health disparities, and zip codes can determine life spans, HIAs can help reduce further inequalities by exposing potential health impacts before they have a chance to do damage.

For example, an HIA conducted on a proposed Baltimore-Washington Rail Intermodal facility in the low-income communities of Morrell Park and Violettville in Baltimore found already “high rates of morbidity and disease” would be exacerbated by the “increased light exposure, high particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, traffic congestion, noise, and reduced property values” that would result from the facility. The project would have “created an inequity” for the people who had to live near it. “That facility didn’t move forward; the community used the HIA to advocate and organize themselves.”

HIAs can be used to explore a range of social and mental health issues, too. Planners of the Englewood Line Trail in Chicago used an HIA to discover the proposed route, which could bring much-needed green space and access to food gardens to an underserved African American community, could also “create a lack of social cohesion.” And they discovered the city had not investigated potential mental health outcomes — positive or negative — of the trail.

Englewood Line Trail / Streetsblog

Lastly, Sahera Bleibleh, a professor at United Arab Emirates University, said Palestinians strive to preserve memories associated with home in the Jenin refugee camp in West Bank, Palestine Authority. In Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, the Israeli army invaded the camp to fight terrorists, killing more than 50 Palestinians, and occupying it for 10 days, leaving 2,500 families homeless. Entire neighborhoods of the 70-year-old, UN-designed camp, which housed 13,000 Palestinians, were destroyed. In the aftermath, a $27 million donation to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) financed a camp improvement program that created new neighborhoods but didn’t restore the structure and feel of the original, dense, intimate neighborhoods, which the Palestinians had built over the years. Israelis said those old neighborhoods, with their network of alleys, more-easily allowed terrorist to find safe shelter.

UNRWA worked with a committee organized by the camp leadership to create an urban design that resulted in “totally new single-family households,” much different from the multi-family households of the old camp. “The widths of roads were increased so it would be easier for Israelis to re-invade. And the camp was re-invaded multiple times during reconstruction.” But Bleibleh said streets were also widened to make the camp more accessible to residents with cars. “Before, you walked in the camp; now everyone has a car.” Bleibleh admitted “some like the new plan — that you can drive in.”

Jenin refugee camp / © 2015 UNRWA Photo by Dominiek Benoot

Given the more sprawling, car-friendly urban design, not all of the 2,500 displaced families could return to their original camp neighborhood. They were displaced once again. “In the new camp, there are no memories. Displacement is a struggle of feelings. The goal is to make people feel weaker — kill them, kill their houses.” While the intention of the design was to create “no social spaces,” the community fashioned a memorial and built a monument — a horse made of pieces of metal from destroyed cars.

In the Batture, Living with Constant Risk Increases Safety

Home in the Batture, New Orleans / Curbed NOLA

The Batture, a historic squatter community nestled between the levee and the Mississippi River in New Orleans is an unconventional model of a resilient community. But as climate change forces more coastal communities to deal with greater risks, their approach offers some important lessons.

This tiny community of now only 12 homes, which has fought eviction by the city government for generations, is constantly exposed to flood risk. But living right on the banks of the Mississippi has given the community a deeper understanding of the river’s ebbs and flows. The residents of the Batture are always watching the weather, know when flooding will occur, and are therefore better prepared for disaster. By constantly living with risk, the community has in turn become more adaptable and safer.

In a talk at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) in Oklahoma City, Carey Clouse, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the Batture is an important contrast to other communities in New Orleans that were separated from the river by the levee — communities that literally couldn’t see the river, canals, or other water bodies. With the great risk posed by the Mississippi and other water bodies out of view, these communities became “overconfident” about the safety of the levee system.

In reality, many communities were made even more vulnerable because they didn’t know what was coming. As the levees failed, the result of Hurricane Katrina was some 400,000 were displaced and 100,000 homes were destroyed. “Sadly, vulnerable people had no awareness of where they were in regards to sea level. The Army Corps of Engineers and insurance companies obscured the risks. 400,000 people were blind to topography.”

But the Batture, a “self-sufficient, resilient, and adaptive community, suffered almost no damage in the Katrina flooding.”

In the liminal space between the river and the embankment, the Batture was created through “Do-It-Yourself (DIY) urbanism, a homesteader’s approach.” Clouse spent time researching the community and found it was a “hidden landscape, filled with self-built structures” on pylons. The river is ever present. “It’s 50 feet away from houses but can pass right below their feet during storms.” Each resident has created homemade protections against floating debris.

Clouse believes residents of the Batture are “more secure having taken risk into their own hands, rather than relying on the city government.” In this “quirky, escapist, anti-urbanist community,” there is “great toughness and resilience,” rooted in a deep connection to place and the river.

The Batture began in the early 1900s as a squatter community for people who worked in fishing and other marine trades. In the Great Depression, the Batture swelled to hundreds of homes, becoming a Hooverville on the river. Settlers built homes out of driftwood, creating a “ramshackle shanty town.” There was a tiny school and church, but no roads, water, or electricity. In the 1990s, the New Orleans government came in removed many of the homes.

Early Batture settlement / New Orleans Public Library, from Oliver Houck’s book Down on the Batture, via NPR

Today, there are just 12 homes left, from “the humble to the post-modern.” Batture residents can’t legally buy or sell their own properties, have no access to insurance or protection by the city or state, but they do have now access to “city fire, water, electricity, and P.O. boxes.” A local lawyer has sued the residents, claiming to own the entire Batture and is trying to remove the last remaining residents, but judges have recognized the rights of the existing tenants. “Many believe they deserve to stay.”

For Clouse, the lesson of the Batture is that “with incremental exposure to risk, communities can alter their landscapes and lifestyles to manage that risk.” Levees, with their air of safety and permanence, may actually “invoke crises.” But in communities like the Batture, where people live in close contact with nature and risk, “they can cope, thrive; they can take matters into their own hands.”

In an Era of Roll-Back and Repeal, the Case for Environmental Regulation

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) / New America

“Let’s talk about toasters!” Thus began Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) keynote remarks at last week’s symposium, The War on Regulation, organized by the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards and hosted by Georgetown Law School. Sen. Warren went on to share a personal anecdote about flame-engulfed bread to explain how the lowly toaster has become a safer consumer product, which was in large part thanks to good federal regulations.

“Back in the 1970s, our toaster oven had an on-off switch and that was it,” said Warren. “And on meant on, which meant it was possible to leave toast under that little broiler all day and all night until the food burned, the wiring melted, and the whole thing burst into flames.”

Around the same time, Ohio’s heavily polluted Cuyahoga River was also famously prone to ignite. When it did so in 1969, it captured the nation’s attention. Dramatic photos published in TIME helped galvanize the environmental movement, leading to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, landmark laws that established the environmental regulatory framework under which the country operates today.

Fire on the Cuyahoga River, 1956 / Pinterest

According to Sen. Warren, this regulatory framework is under attack by corporate interests, a Republican-controlled congress, and the Trump administration. “In agency after agency in the federal government, powerful corporations and their Republican allies are working overtime to roll back basic rules that protect the rest of us,” aiming “to insulate big corporations from accountability and responsibility.”

Sen. Warren reserved her heaviest criticism for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, saying “corruption oozes out of his office,” and the costs of his proposed regulatory repeals will be “measured in hospital admissions and funeral bills.”

In a later panel, 30-year EPA veteran Betsy Southerland provided context for Sen. Warren’s comments. “Right now, Scott Pruitt has in place sixty-six public health and safety repeals,” which were made “without any input from the EPA scientists, engineers, or economists who in most cases worked eight to ten years” to create them and “without any evidence that those rules have any technical or procedural flaws.”

Southerland said that these repeals will have three major impacts. First, they “abandon the polluter-pays principle which underlies every environmental statute, transferring the costs of dealing with pollutants to the downwind, downstream public.”

“This makes absolutely no economic sense,” because “the costs of treating pollution at the source are always orders of magnitude less than treating those pollutants once they’ve been dispersed into the environment.”

Second, Southerland said that environmental repeals will “ensure our communities are going to be exposed to ongoing pollution that would have been prevented back in 2015 or 2016,” warning that “there’s a much higher chance today of an environmental crisis with serious public health implications because so many of these rules are under repeal.”

And third, Southerland said the repeals have eliminated regulatory certainty. “It actually penalizes the environmentally responsible companies that moved out quickly to come into compliance with these rules. And it rewards the recalcitrant companies who used their resources to either argue for exemptions or to litigate those promulgated rules.”

Ironically, it is this last point – regulatory certainty – that Pruitt has repeatedly used to justify his agenda at the EPA.

“The purpose of the regulatory reform effort is to provide certainty to those that we regulate,” Pruitt said in a recent interview with Fox News’ Ed Henry. “What we’ve seen in the last several years among several sectors of our economy is tremendous uncertainty,” he claimed, “and almost a weaponization of the agency against certain sectors of our economy, which has caused low growth.”

This oft-repeated talking point – that regulation stifles growth – was repeatedly and emphatically rejected at the symposium. Sen. Warren argued instead that regulations “provide the framework for commerce to flourish” and create a level playing field for economic competition.

Southerland pointed out that a recent report published by the Office of Management and Budget found for regulations promulgated from 2006 to 2016, “the benefits far exceed the costs.”

“Furthermore,” she said, “there was no discernable effect on jobs or economic growth.”

Heidi Shierholz, policy director of the Economic Policy Institute and former chief economist at the Department of Labor, quantified the argument, saying federal regulations promulgated under the Obama administration contributed a net benefit of $100 billion per year to the economy. Other studies have come to similar conclusions, she added.

“The backdrop of this conversation is heated rhetoric saying that regulations are incredibly costly, they’re destroying the economy, they’re destroying jobs – and it is such a surreal backdrop, because it is so at odds with the evidence.”

Georgetown Law professor Lisa Heinzerling said focusing on costs alone ignores legislative intent. After all, “if Congress cared solely about regulatory costs, it wouldn’t pass regulatory statutes.”

Heinzerling’s point raises questions about the legal standing of the Trump administration’s actions in pursuit of deregulation thus far. Heinzerling claimed the administration, in its rush to deregulate, is now brazenly violating the Administrative Procedure Act, the law that governs the regulatory rule-making process. Such violations could expose the administration to legal challenge.

The event concluded with a panel of citizens whose lives had been directly affected by weak regulations and now advocate for regulatory reform. Penny Dryden of Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice said her neighborhood was less than a mile from forty-eight brownfield sites and four Superfund sites, plus ongoing pollution from the nearby Delaware Memorial Bridge, Port of Wilmington, and other nearby industrial facilities.

“Deregulation makes it even harder for our communities to get the protection we need from polluters and industry bad actors,” she said. “The events that are taking place here in Washington, D.C. in the Environmental Protection Agency are outright unjust.”

To Create a Sense of Belonging, Embrace Cultural Diversity

Brazilian festival in Herter Park / Herter Park Facebook

While designers of the built environment only improve at creating sustainable, technologically-savvy, and beautiful places, they aren’t succeeding at “creating belonging,” a feeling of “respectful co-existence in shared space,” argued Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental planning at Tufts University. More “culturally-competent” planners, landscape architects, architects are needed to create more just places.

In a keynote speech at the Congress for New Urbanism in Savannah, Georgia, Agyeman said “there is an equity deficit in the sustainability movement. The green movement is socially unjust.” Agyeman believes that in many cities “the old red-lining of neighborhoods have been replaced by green exclusionary zones — just a new form of socio-economic segregation.” Instead, true sustainability “involves justice — and equity in recognition, process, procedure, and outcomes.”

With true sustainability, it isn’t possible to have “spatial injustice,” in which life chances are not distributed in a fair way geographically. (Sadly, in the vast majority of countries, your zip code determines everything from your income to your life expectancy).

With true sustainability, public spaces are for everyone. He held up Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia as an example of a “space of respect, engagement, and encounter.” Agyeman wondered whether we can design places like this anymore?

Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia / Pinterest

Too often public spaces labeled as sustainable aren’t just. While the contemporary Complete Street movement is lauded as a way to make transportation systems more equitable — by providing equal access for pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars — complete streets that remove street vendors and spruce up public spaces with new amenities can end up killing the cultural and social lives of streets.

“Places have no fixed meaning; they are social as much as physical entities. Complete streets can disconnect streets from the social, structural, symbolic, discursive, and historical realities of a place.” Agyeman asked: “Who gets to say what a complete street is anyhow? They can’t be complete if they fail to include the livelihoods and economic survival of vendors.”

Park planning and design needs to be re-thought in terms of boosting cultural diversity, instead of just ecological diversity.

As an example, he pointed to a local park in Bristol, Massachusetts. At great expense, the park managers created a wildflower meadow in order to increase biodiversity. But the new garden had the effect of driving away Caribbean immigrants who used to spend time in the park. “They have a residual fear of places that could harbor snakes.” Aygeman said “if someone in the parks department was Caribbean, they would have known.” The question in instances like this is: “do we drop the cultural or social diversity or respect the cultural side?”

Given urban communities are evolving, we must better engage new immigrant communities in the planning and preservation of park systems.

In Boston, many immigrants “aren’t connecting with the old parks created by Frederick Law Olmsted. They just don’t resonate with them — and these groups, which are growing, could be deciding the future of Boston’s parks.”

Immigrant groups instead yearn for landscapes that remind them of home. In Boston, Herter Park draws immigrants from Latin and South America, because it provides spaces for extended family gatherings by a river, which feels familiar to them (see image at top).

Aygeman thinks landscape architects must intentionally design for immigrants and encourage encounters between ethnicities.

In Supekilen Park in Copenhagen, Denmark, teams of designers with BIG, Topotek 1, and Superflux, created a “controversial park” in a highly-diverse immigrant neighborhood where ethnic groups “could see themselves in the space,” but also encounter other communities. Each ethnic group in the neighborhood around the park had a designated space meant to reflect some aspect of their cultural identity.

Superkilen Park, Copenhagen, Denmark / Jens Lindhe

Parks-for-all like Superkilen may just be the start. Aygeman foresees a future in which landscape architects first do “deep ethnographic research to really understand a community before they get started.” Landscape architects trained in “cultural competency” then eliminate disparities in access to public space, creating true urban commons. “More diverse professionals who know what these new societies think” will partner with diverse communities to “co-design and co-create more just places.”

The result could be something like Medellin, Colombia, where a participatory approach rooted in the philosophy of “social urbanism,” led to the “urban transformation of the century,” in which the poor were given equitable access to all the city has to offer — parks, libraries, museums, and transit.