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

cover
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.”

coast
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.

bridge
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.

maps
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.”

beach
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.

hikers
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.

Kongjian Yu: To Save China’s Environment, Educate the Leaders

Letters to the Leaders of China / Terreform

Many have called Kongjian Yu, FASLA, president of Turenscape, the Frederick Law Olmsted of China. And with his new book Letters to the Leaders of China: Kongjian Yu and the Future of the Chinese City, one understands why. This collection of letters to Chinese president Xi Jinping and provincial governors, essays, interviews, and other advocacy pieces reveal how much Yu has invested in promoting his ecological, water-centric “sponge city” approach. His book demonstrates that every landscape architect can become a leader and a powerful force for improving environmental and human health in their community.

Yu connects the professed communal and environmental aspirations of the Communist Party leadership with his own goals — healthy places for people and well-functioning ecosystems. But he also believes there has been some deviation from the original goals of the Communist revolution, with the pursuit of Western-style, car-based development; isolated, residential skyscrapers; and widespread environmental degradation.

He submits typical contemporary urban design in China to a kind of criticism study session, asking mayors and governors to re-examine their own motivations and re-align themselves with the true needs of the Chinese people and the environment.

He takes aim at the Chinese version of the western City Beautiful movement that has been carried out “aimlessly and autocratically,” damaging both the civil realm through the development of highways that split communities, giant soulless plazas, and parks filled with non-native plants; and the natural environment, through the country-wide pollution of air and water. His core argument: to mindlessly ape Western development models — and profit from these destructive approaches — is fundamentally un-Chinese and certainly not Communist.

In one compelling essay directed to mayors, he writes: “contemporary movements to build the ‘City Beautiful’ and the ‘eco-city’ are short-sighted. It is wrong to raze old homes downtown to erect a paved concrete square; wrong to demolish natural features to build ‘parks’ stuffed with exotic plants; wrong to cut down forests that meander along riverbanks, only to line those rivers with concrete; wrong to take productive rice fields that are over a thousand years old and cover them up with lawns of imported grass — all to inflate and publicize a mayor’s false achievements.”

He seeks to grow a new stock of governors and mayors who can change the status-quo urban planning paradigm in China. He wants them to adopt a “negative planning” approach in which important ecologies are purposefully protected from development. Instead of running population growth estimates and then creating a development plan based in standardized land requirements per person, Yu wants urban planners to preserve and enhance undeveloped land — hence the “negative” or zero planning or development approach — that provide vital ecosystem services. With negative planning, China can then build “landscape security patterns,” which form out of “strategic locations and linkages” that are “extremely important to the maintenance and control of ecological processes.”

ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

In a country that has become a toxic brownfield, landscape security could provide the stable foundation for the renewed sustainability and resilience of the country.

He calls for using a number of ambitious strategies for achieving landscape security, and bringing nature back to the cities in a real, not fake “eco-city” manner. Historic and cultural preservation, as well as agriculture, are woven through the ideas, too:

  • “Maintain and strengthen the overall continuity of the landscape pattern.
  • Establish and protect the city’s diversity of habitat.
  • Maintain and restore the natural configuration of rivers and shorelines.
  • Restore and protect wetland systems.
  • Integrate rural windbreaks into urban greenways.
  • Build greenways for pedestrians and cyclists.
  • Establish green cultural heritage corridors.
  • Improve urban green spaces by making them more permeable and accessible to the public.
  • Dissolve parks into the city’s matrix.
  • Dissolve the city, protect and integrate productive farmland as an organic element of the city.
  • Establish native plant nurseries.”
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

Amid the essays and lectures, Letters to the Leaders of China intermingles actual letters written by Yu to provincial governors, mayors, and Chinese president Xi Jinping himself. They give an insight into the opportunities and limits of Yu’s role as a leading intellectual and critic and the preeminent landscape architect in China. Unfortunately, though, Yu doesn’t provide any of their responses back to him, so these sections feel like a one-sided conversation. One doesn’t know the results of his lobbying.

Still, one letter to Wen Jiabao, premier of the state council, calling for a “vernacular heritage landscape network” — essentially, a national system of cultural landscapes that could also provide ecosystem services — is a particularly creative, efficient policy proposal that even includes specific governmental and regulatory changes to make his proposal happen. The letter shows an understanding of how the government is structured and what needs to change.

Through the letters, essays, and lectures, one gets a sense of how much Yu cares — and how driven he is to undo the unsustainable development patterns that repeat the same destructive errors made in the West over the past 50 years. He is trying to respectfully guide the leadership of China towards a more ecological, humane approach, and he works every angle he can find.

At the end of the book, there is a transcription of an interview with Chinese contemporary artist Ai Wei Wei. Ai presses Yu on his ideas, forcing him to justify his arguments. Yu states that China’s rustic, vernacular, “low culture” is what’s key to achieving sustainability — not the imported Western ideas of development, architecture, and landscape or bourgeois Chinese traditions. To achieve social and environmental reform, China must raise up what is considered low today — the wetland that functions, the productive aesthetics of the humble farm, the clean river.

ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. Framing Terrain and Water: Quzhou Luming Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu
ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. Framing Terrain and Water: Quzhou Luming Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

And so he seeks to educate China’s many mayors on the beauty of what is plain, which is why his works of landscape architecture are “consciously educational.”

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.