Landscape Architect Left Distinct Mark on City — 05/28/20, The Republic
“The memory of a nationally known landscape architect who died earlier this month will live on in his major projects in Columbus. John ‘Jack’ Curtis, 77, died May 2 of COVID-19 complications in Easton, Connecticut, near where he led his firm of Jack Curtis + Associates for more than three decades.”
Domino Park Introduces Social Distancing Circles to Adapt to the COVID-19 Crisis — 05/25/20, ArchDaily
“While all public spaces around the world are trying to innovate and implement safety measures to open during the coronavirus pandemic, Domino Park has introduced a series of painted social distancing circles. This strategical urban design intervention ensures that people are “following proper social distancing procedures recommended by the CDC and government”.
Last Piece of Brooklyn Bridge Park Approved by Landmarks Preservation Commission — 05/21/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“At a virtual public hearing on Tuesday, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a small but consequential section of Brooklyn Bridge Park that will be located directly at the foot of the 137-year-old landmarked bridge’s eastern tower; the eponymous Brooklyn Bridge Plaza.”
Amazon and other e-commerce sites have seen record sales in the past few months. Brick-and-mortar stores are closing at higher rates. The transition to online and omni-channel retail will change how shopping areas are planned and designed. During a session at the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference @ Home, a group of planners outlined how this shift to e-commerce may play out.
According to Rick Stein, an urban planner and founder of Urban Decision Group, there have been 30,000 store closures in the past five years. In just the first few months of 2020, 2,000 more stores have shut their doors, with another 15,000 expected this year.
While recent closures are due to the pandemic, the underlying issue is “U.S. retail is overbuilt.”
Comparing retail space per capita in the U.S., Canada, Australia, UK, France, and elsewhere, the U.S. tops the charts with 24 square feet of retail space per capita and $14,614 in per capita sales annually. While incomes have increased 11 percent since 2009, the amount Americans spent shopping each year has increased by 37 percent in the same time frame.
Stein outlined four types of brick-and-mortar shopping centers, which total 6.2 billion square feet of retail space and generate $2 trillion in revenue annually: strip malls, neighborhood centers, community centers, and malls. There are 70,000 strip malls, which account for $300 billion in revenue; 32,000 neighborhood centers that total $750 billion; 10,000 community centers that generate $620 billion in sales; and 1,200 remaining malls, which are “rapidly shrinking” as a retail type, that account for $325 billion in retail sales.
In-store retail sales in the U.S. have been declining since the early 2000s, with sales now less than $325 per square foot. The pandemic is accelerating this decline in sales. “Some 60-70 percent of retail stores are now closed,” with an estimated $1 trillion in lost revenue.
Most shopping centers were built in the suburbs because land was cheap. But within suburbia, there are different levels of risk.
Stein argued that locally-owned shopping centers — the community and neighborhood centers — are likely more stable. Malls, which are mostly owned by large corporations, are at greater risk of closure.
E-commerce, which increased by 25 just last year to reach 12 percent of all sales, is now putting pressure on all types of purely brick-and-mortar retail stores. Large grocery stores aren’t safe either: e-commerce now also accounts for 8 percent of all grocery sales.
In the future, “the winners will be omni-channel retailers, which are not purely e-commerce,” Stein argued. Stores like Target and Walmart that successfully leverage brick-and-mortar with e-commerce are the new model other stores need to follow.
Stein sees more retailers like Kohl’s partnering with Amazon as distribution and return centers. These brick-and-mortar stores can leverage their prime locations in local markets to become part of a “hub and spoke” distribution system that makes it easier for customers to pick up or return purchases (see image above). More relationships will form to maximize the benefits of the “last mile” — being close to the consumer.
Stein surveyed some 500 retailers from mid-March to mid-April and found that 80 percent will be moving to an online or omni-channel approach. Included in the survey responses was some bleak news: “40 percent of apparel retail may never re-open. And 1 in 5 restaurants may never re-open.”
“30 percent of what is purchased online is returned. 15 percent of what is purchased never makes it into customers’ hands. What does this mean for local traffic?,” asked Lisa Nisenson, a vice president at WGI, an engineering and transportation consultancy. “Deliveries have spiked. Will this stick?”
She thinks the pandemic will lead to changes in how goods are transported, bought, and sold. With social distancing, now is the time for technology-based delivery companies to perfect their approach. Many are ramping up tests to facilitate same-day delivery in more places across the country.
Proposed delivery solutions for rural, suburban, and urban areas are different. There are cargo bikes and terrestrial delivery drones of all sizes for dense urban areas, vans that can launch drones in suburban residential communities, and aerial drones for long-range delivery of medical supplies in rural areas.
The delivery model is also changing. In the past, goods moved from the factory to the distributor to the store where consumers made purchases. With the expanding same day delivery model that calls for a highly-local approach to distribution, goods are moving from the distributor to either stores or local sorting centers that then enable in-store picket, local deliveries, or access to delivery lockers, like you find with Amazon lockers in Whole Foods stores. Goods distribution is moving closer to where consumers are.
That model could further evolve if there is growth in the use of autonomous delivery drones. Distributors and warehouses will become even more local. Niesenson even envisions “micro-warehouses” in neighborhoods.
The configuration of all those retail hubs with acres of parking has become outdated. “Dwell times in stores could drop from 40 minutes to 2 minutes,” really just enough time for picking up or returning items. “Or if the store also has a coffee shop, dwell times could increase to 1.5 hours.” What is clear is that these retail hubs needed to be redesigned to become more flexible and allow for a higher number of consumers visiting for a few minutes to handle pick ups and returns.
According to Jason Sudy, national lead on transportation technology planning at HDR, many companies are trying to expand the use of aerial and terrestrial autonomous drones for deliveries.
Wing, an aerial drone company of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has partnered with Walgreens to deliver medications to customers in Virginia. They have seen a surge in drone deliveries since the COVID-19 crisis began. The drone drops packages in backyards, so only lightweight deliveries under 5-10 pounds are allowed. At The Villages, a retirement community near Orlando, Florida, UPS and CVS are also testing drone deliveries of medications. To apply the technology in rural areas, the company Zipline is running long-range drones in Ghana that can make deliveries of up to 70 pounds.
Sudy imagines parts of streets and neighborhoods reconfigured for aerial drone launch zones, and new permits to allow vans to launch drones into suburban neighborhoods.
Demand for deliveries by terrestrial drones could mean re-imagining how space on streets is allocated. “Are drones deployed from the public right of way or private property?” There are many zoning (and privacy) implications.
Solutions will need to be crafted for different types of communities — rural, suburban, or urban — creating new work for planners, transportation engineers, urban designers, and landscape architects.
Given autonomous drones are continuously collecting data about their surroundings, they need to be integrated into the built environment in a way that protects privacy.
In the Q&A, discussion veered towards Main Streets and downtown shopping districts. Stein believes that “Main Streets will have a tough time over the next 18 months until a vaccine is discovered, but over the long-term, they will be extremely important. Main Street retail is most likely to survive this great disruption.”
Nisenson added that with the rise of online deliveries, people will crave “experiential retail” that offers more meaningful and social shopping experiences. With so many people seeking community and connection, stores that offer a safe coffee shop or outdoor social space may be ahead of the curve.
Architect of Sweden’s No-lockdown Strategy Insists It Will Pay Off – 05/07/20, The Financial Times
“Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist who devised the no-lockdown approach, estimated that 40 per cent of people in the capital, Stockholm, would be immune to Covid-19 by the end of May, giving the country an advantage against a virus that ‘we’re going to have to live with for a very long time.'”
Since the earliest human settlements, the retail experience has evolved to meet the needs of the public. This evolution has taken us from rural markets to towns, cities, suburban shopping malls, big box mega stores, and, more recently, the Internet. But what will retail shopping look like once COVID-19 lockdowns are over and people return to the wild for their shopping experiences?
When all the dust settles, the post-lockdown era should provide a boost to downtown areas, in part due to newly unemployed but highly skilled restaurant and retail workers opening new businesses in downtowns where rent prices will trend downward.
The pandemic has left millions of highly skilled workers from the retail and food and beverage industries unemployed and eager to work. Many of these people are highly motivated to start their own businesses, creating an unparalleled pool of talent and potential entrepreneurial interest.
In a recent Forbes article, Bernhard Schroeder wrote: “27 million working-age Americans, nearly 14 percent, are starting or running new businesses. And Millennials and Gen-Z are driving higher interest in entrepreneurship as 51 percent of the working population now believes that there are actually good opportunities to start companies.”
Traditionally, fear of failure has held people back from starting a business, but with so many having their jobs swept away due to the pandemic, that fear is gone for many people, who realize they no longer want to rely on an employer for the rest of their careers, and instead want to take on the challenge of leading their own companies.
Downtown shopping districts will capture traffic from fading malls
Malls will struggle in the era of COVID-19. Being inside an enclosed bubble will not be the ideal situation for most shoppers for the foreseeable future. Morning Consult reports that 24 percent of U.S. consumers fear shopping in malls for at least the next six months due to the COVID-19 threat.
As an article about a newly reopened mall in Atlanta explains, the experience won’t be very welcoming in the near term. Play areas are roped off, water fountains covered, and stores are limiting the number of shoppers due to social distancing. Add in the inconvenience factor, and it’s clear why so many malls are facing a reckoning in the coming years.
As regional malls continue losing consumers due to changing shopping habits and fears of COVID-19, an excellent opportunity presents itself for villages, towns, and cities to regain their dominance as thriving centers for retail and entertainment.
Some factors to consider:
As Millennials and Empty Nesters seek to live, work, and shop in urban centers, medium-sized cities (100,000 to 200,000 population) are especially likely to benefit from this trend.
Small towns (10,000 to 20,000 people) located near large urban centers are also appealing to start-up retailers and restaurants that want to take advantage of their proximity to large, well-heeled populations and small towns’ affordable commercial storefronts.
New walkable town centers — planned with authentic urbanism and a variety of hospitality, employment and residential land use — can also ride the wave of Millennials, young families, and Empty Nesters who seek an exciting place to hang out.
Main Streets are already innovating
Main Streets have been reinventing themselves in a positive way during the past few decades, making them a more attractive alternative for retail shopping in the era of COVID-19.
These innovations include:
Updated master plans that undo blight caused by 1970s urban renewal plans.
Implementation of Downtown Development Districts, which offer marketing, promotions, special events, street cleaning, landscaping, flowers and private-sector levels of management.
Effective parking management, and construction of new parking lots and garages.
Investment in beautiful new streetscapes, public art, and street furnishings.
Reduction of crime, increased safety.
U.S. Main Street programs, which offers guidance to revitalize downtowns, and returns $36 for each $1 invested.
For Millennials, who seek more social experiences as opposed to the enclosed mall experience of their youth, Main Street experiences in their towns and cities are the perfect fit for their lifestyle.
While the larger portion of their income will go to experiences such as European travel or outdoor adventures, closer-to-home visits to a local brewpub or coffee shop in their town center make perfect sense.
Main Streets will provide new homes for mall stores
As malls close and online shopping grows, existing mall retailers will seek new locations near their former mall stores. In many instances, these venues include smaller downtown cores, which traditionally offer lower rents and, now, the safety of an open-air shopping experience.
The writing is on the wall for mall store operators, all of which leads to an economically-friendly, Main Street setting:
Malls depend on department stores to attract almost 50 percent of their shoppers and cannot operate without them, which is problematic for many reasons.
Many mall retailers have lease options allowing them to break their leases and leave the mall should key department stores close.
Department stores are losing market share, from a peak of 50 percent of all retail sales in the 1950s to 5 percent today.
Since the heyday of malls in 1992, department store sales have dropped from $230 billion to $140 billion and many department stores are close to bankruptcy.
Over 50 percent of regional malls are forecast to close by 2025 (Credit Suisse).
Retail and Office Space Will Move to Town Centers
The online shopping boom has made nearly obsolete many of the conventional large power center retailers offering products such as books, electronics, office supplies, sporting goods, and toys. The end result is the expected closing of millions of square feet of retail space.
Often, these centers cover typically 20-50 acres of prime real estate, which presents an opportunity. They can be converted into mixed-use town centers with medium density residential and commercial occupants.
The same can be said of suburban office parks, as even centers in blue-chip locations are facing high vacancies and declining rents as many major corporations are moving into city centers to attract top talent. Millennials find the suburban office parks boring, preferring to live and work in downtowns. These large office parks have an abundance of land and parking that can be retrofitted into walkable mixed-use town centers.
Challenges and opportunities for downtown shopping districts
When a national brand relocates from a mall environment to a town or city, they may initially receive a cold shoulder from city leaders and the community, who fear popular brands will end up killing their beloved Main Street’s unique charm.
Looking back at history, though, this thinking is inaccurate, as downtown shopping districts were filled with leading retailers and large department stores during their 1950s heyday. For long-term sustainability, a downtown should always offer the goods and services desired by its residents and workers, which may include popular brand names.
Zoning is another key battle. Cities must offer flexible form-based zoning to allow for medium-to-high densities of residential and commercial to be developed as walkable neighborhoods and business districts. Development standards should focus on requiring quality design and materials, rather than arbitrary minimal units per acre densities, minimal parking ratios, or suburban building setbacks.
Parking needs to be reconfigured to allow shoppers to pickup goods curbside.
Downtowns and open-air town centers are seen as safer from the pandemic than enclosed malls, because they offer:
Less-enclosed spaces, with more fresh air and direct sunlight.
The ability to walk on other side of street or block.
No elevators or escalators.
Fewer doors to enter.
Curbside pick-up of goods.
People enjoy visiting towns and cities to socialize and experience parks, urban life, including storefronts.
They visit to have an experience they cannot get through online shopping. And while visiting downtowns for entertainment and fun, many will walk by store fronts and be tempted to make impulse purchases from Main Street retailers.
Towns and small city landlords typically offer much cheaper rents than suburban malls, often more than 50 percent less, and also offer flexible lease terms: no minimum hours and less rigorous storefront and merchandising standards than mall leases. This type of accommodation will be more attractive to new entrepreneurs created from this pandemic.
The savings also are appealing to national retailers facing declining sales and mall leases that are too expensive.
How downtown Main Streets can ensure success
As we look to the future, and the economic recovery that will come once a vaccine is created and herd immunity is established, all signs point to the re-emergence of Main Street as the place people will want to do their retail shopping.
A new generation of entrepreneurs will be eager to start a new chapter in their life, and the suburban shopping centers are not going to attract them.
Well-designed town centers, with the type of social interaction sought by Millennials, young families, and Empty Nesters will be the new home for the boom in the years to come.
A few best practices for downtowns to apply:
Create a marketing strategy for a post-pandemic campaign.
Beautify the public realm through landscape, lighting, parking lots-garages, signage, streetscape, and storefront improvements.
Explore temporary commercial street closures to allow for open air dining and shopping spaces.
Modify zoning to allow first floor office and service business.
Require store fronts to maintain large clear glazing, sign bands, operating doors, and ceiling heights to allow for future retail or restaurant use.
Remove or reduce minimum retail and restaurant parking requirements in downtowns and new mixed-use developments.
Include generous 10-minute parking spaces to accommodate curbside pickups for restaurants and retailers.
Devise market-based business recruitment plans and resources to identify and attract new retailers and restaurants into the downtown.
Seek a balance of local, regional, and national retailers.
Apply flexible zoning to promote medium-density and high-density multi-family residential.
Implement market based master plans, form-based codes, and zoning flexibility to allow for retrofitting of underutilized shopping centers and office parks.
Robert Gibbs, FASLA, is president of the Gibbs Planning Group, which has advised and planned commercial areas in some 500 town centers and historic cities in the U.S. and abroad. Gibbs is a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, a lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, author of Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development, and co-author of eight books.
Many of the challenges managing the pandemic in the U.S. are due to the loss of 50,000 local public health jobs since 2008. Federal funding for local public health through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been cut each year. The result is that “we didn’t build a health ecosystem, and we simply respond crisis by crisis,” argued Matt Chase, CEO of the National Association of Counties, during a session at the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference @ Home. He called for providing more direct funding to thousands of county and municipal governments, our “critical first responders,” to finance the “three T’s: testing, tracing, and treatment.”
The impact of the coronoavirus across the U.S. has been swift. There are now a million cases, which have doubled in two weeks, and 61,000 people have died. “The virus is now the 7th or 8th leading cause of death — it passed suicide, kidney failure, and the flu, and will soon pass diabetes.”
In just a few weeks, some 30 million people have lost their jobs. In comparison, during the 2008 Great Recession, some 15 million became unemployed over 18 months. The unemployment rate went from 3.8 percent to probably “over 20 percent” now.
After the 2008 recession, approximately one-fourth of U.S. counties never recovered. These are the places that have record high rates of “opioid, heroine, and other substance abuse.” As a result, it’s critical that the pandemic doesn’t further reinforce the existing divide between have and have-not communities.
Chase outlined the components of aid packages that have passed on Capitol Hill. In late March, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided $2 trillion in support, with $150 billion in a relief fund for state and local governments. In late April, CARES Act 3.5 added supplementary funds to CARES programs and provided $25 billion for testing. CARES 3.5 was supposed to include additional funds for state and local governments but that was dropped.
The National Association of Counties estimates some $144 billion in lost revenue for counties over the next 18 months. “That’s a big number given that all county budgets together total $600 billion.” Furthermore, these estimates don’t include cuts in state aid or property tax revenue.
With all this lost local revenue, how will counties continue to provide crucial services, like answering 911 calls, keeping buses running, and delivering meals to the elderly? How will they hire the many thousands of people needed to trace exposure?
Clarence Anthony, CEO of the National League of Cities, which counts 2,000 cities of all sizes as members, said that “some 88 percent of city leaders polled expect to face revenue shortfalls.” Already, Cincinnati, Ohio has furloughed 1,700 city workers, Detroit, Michigan has cut hours for 2,000 workers, and Dayton, Ohio has cut 24 percent of its city workforce. The National League of Cities anticipates a job loss of 1 million municipal workers in the coming year.
Anthony stated that it’s important to make aid decisions based on data. African Americans are 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for 33 percent of COVID-19 cases. “We need to get money to where the impact is.” He was concerned that not all cities are “disaggregating data based on race or ethnicity.”
He added that the public overwhelming prefer information on COVID-19 from local elected officials. City, county, village, and other community government websites are the most visited destinations for up-to-date news on guidelines, testing centers, transportation routes, financial relief, and treatment options. So it’s critically important that local government are able to maintain high levels of service.
Some other key points from their talk:
Local influencers such as chambers of commerce and non-profits need to make their voices heard about the additional support cities and counties need, Chase argued. “We need an all-community approach,” particularly in the area of human services, such as domestic and substance abuse services. “Many non-profits in this arena are seeing their funding sources drying up.”
Urban planners can help by mapping federal funding sources against local needs. County and municipal governments must continue to document all their costs to get federal aid.
A major concern is that in an effort to cut costs, too many government services are becoming only available online or via apps. The issue is not everyone has a smart phone, generous data plan, or access to wi-fi or broadband. Anthony said “we need to provide free wi-fi hotspots in disadvantaged communities.” He envisioned buses loaded with wi-fi systems parked in communities that need access the most.
Over the long term, cities may never be the same, given density is now a disadvantage. “Rural and suburban communities will likely see an increase in interest,” Anthony said. “These communities can provide more safe space for kids.”
The pandemic will “lead to changes in how we plan and design cities. The focus will now be on safety. We used to love density. The pandemic has changed all of us.”
Lithuanian Capital to Be Turned into Vast Open-air Cafe — The Guardian, 04/28/20
“Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, has announced plans to turn the city into a vast open-air cafe by giving over much of its public space to hard-hit bar and restaurant owners so they can put their tables outdoors and still observe physical distancing rules.”
NYC Will Open up to 100 Miles of Streets to Pedestrians — Curbed, 04/27/20
“Under an agreement with the City Council, the de Blasio administration will open up at least 40 miles of streets in May, with the ultimate goal of 100 miles in the coming months. The undertaking will also roll out temporary bike lanes and expand sidewalks, he said.”
These tweets appeared on the Regional Transit Authority (RTA), New Orleans, and NOLA Ready Twitter feeds:
“The following routes will suspend service beginning March 29th: 2- Riverfront Streetcar, 5-Marigny-Bywater, 11-Magazine, 15-Freret, 45-Lakeview, 48-Canal-City Park Streetcar, 51-St. Bernard/St. Anthony, 60-Hayne, 65-Read-Crowder Express, 90-Carrollton, 101-Algiers Point, 106-Auror. Starting tomorrow, April 19, the 39-Tulane will suspend overnight service between 12:00 am to 4:00 am. There is a delay on 62 – Morrison Express. Apr 21 #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 114 – General DeGaulle-Sullen. Apr 20 #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 28 – M.L.King. #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 65 – Read-Crowder Express. Apr 19 #RTAServiceAlert There is a delay on 57 – Franklin.”
These messages bring to light the nightmare of those who depend on transit in order to maintain a steady job. They are facing a double crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are some of us who have easy access to work, because we do it from home at our laptops, but most aren’t so lucky. Many citizens must ride the bus or take other mass transit to earn a basic living. These are often the essential and frontline workers, those working in grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals, supplying important city services such as trash collection and utility maintenance, and even bus drivers.
Many of these people are already located in Transit Deserts — areas with high transit demand and limited or no access. With bus services cut, people are crowded on to fewer buses. The current situation — which is not only limiting but also eliminating transit service — is exaggerating the existing transportation inequities in already underserved areas. The COVID-19 crisis is exposing how particular segments of our society are more at risk due to historical and structural inequality in many areas, including housing and employment but certainly transportation access.
The current responses to the pandemic also reveal ways to address transit access and some of the inequities this crisis has exposed. I have noticed more people walking and biking in parks and along streets. With the reduction of travel by automobile, this means fewer cars on the road and reduced carbon emissions, creating several health benefits, including cleaner air.
Importantly, the current situation also strengthens the argument that given certain conditions, increased numbers of people will readily give up car travel if they had alternatives or had to, or at least use them less, even in a place as automobile dependent as Texas, where I am making these observations.
It is most likely that once more people are again traveling to work, there still will be a need for social distancing, presenting a major concern for traveling on buses and other forms of mass transit.
Social distancing, brought on by the pandemic crisis, may be key to a solution for increasing transit in a catalytic fashion. If fewer people can be on a bus, then there must be more buses on each route just to maintain the base level of public financed mobility. More buses on a line means greater frequency and less wait time. Less wait time is proven to be a factor in increasing ridership.
When asked why they didn’t take the bus, given it took them straight to work, the majority responded that they didn’t want to wait at the bus stop. I then asked: if the bus came frequently would they take it? The reply was overwhelmingly yes, even if it meant transferring to another frequent line. This is true in most dense urban areas.
Most people are even willing to endure a longer ride time, if the wait time at the point of access is reduced. It can be reduced with frequently arriving buses that also prevent the overcrowding that usually happens, thus allowing people to maintain a safe distance apart. In my view, it is a win win, particularly if the medical cost of maintaining social distances is added on to the funding source for more public transit.
The severity of the Coronavirus pandemic means that things won’t ever get back to “normal.” For those who care about the environment and those in it, it is a time to rethink how we live and move about the urban landscape.
We can create mobility solutions that are equitable, environmentally sound, and protect our health. Of course, it only starts with putting more buses on the line. There is now an opportunity for creative thinking.
Maybe we can invest in on-demand vans, or “VIA” type services, which is a pay-on-demand van service that runs on a fixed route; and other smaller multi-passenger vehicles that are publicly subsidized and capture residents in neighborhoods and connect to frequent larger vehicles on major routes.
There is now an opportunity when people are appreciating the opportunity to take a walk and ride a bike and be healthy, adjusting to not being in cars so much of the time, appreciating clean air and the ability to just breath, and willing to make sacrifices for their neighbors, community, and country.
During times like these, those of us who are moved by problem solving must think outside of the limits of traditional transportation and step up to the challenges of creating an equitable society where there is mobility choice — and everyone has equal access to work, play, and the pursuit of life.
Your Maps of Life Under Lockdown — CityLab, 04/15/20
“CityLab recently invited readers to draw maps of their worlds in the time of coronavirus. Already, nearly 150 of you have responded to our call with an incredible range of interpretative maps, submitted from all over the world.”
Burning Man 2020 Won’t Go Ahead After All, Moves Online — The Architects’ Newspaper, 04/13/20
“The virtual version of the ‘Playa,’ VBRC, will be available to access for a fee—and participants still need to reserve tickets—and Burning Man organizers have estimated that they’ll see attendance around 100,000 this year as a result. ”
Even Parks Are Going Online During the Pandemic — Next City, 04/09/20
“Shortly after schools closed indefinitely in New York City, the Department of Parks and Recreation pushed out their ‘Parks at Home’ initiative — an online portal virtually bringing environmental education and recreation to viewers, from the comfort of their homes.”
Location Data Says It All: Staying at Home During Coronavirus Is a Luxury — The New York Times, 04/03/20
“It has been about two weeks since the Illinois governor ordered residents to stay at home, but nothing has changed about Adarra Benjamin’s responsibilities. She gets on a bus nearly every morning in Chicago, traveling 20 miles round trip some days to cook, clean and shop for her clients, who are older or have health problems that make such tasks difficult.”
Kate Orff, RLA, FASLA, is the founder and principal of SCAPE and also director of the Urban Design Program and Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). In 2017, Orff was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and, in 2019, SCAPE received the National Design Award in landscape architecture from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum.
On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans, which at that time was some 10 percent of the population, took to the streets during the first Earth Day, demanding greater protections for the environment and decisive action to improve human health and well-being. 50 years later, the movement is now global, with an estimated one billion participating each year. What role does collective action play in solving today’s climate and ecological crises? What role do landscape architects play?
Earth Day is a chance to pause, take stock of the planet that sustains us, and think and act beyond ourselves to reach the scale of the globe and all its inhabitants. Landscape architects are largely concerned with the “middle scale,” but Earth Day forces us to conceive of the planetary landscape, and what our role is in retrieving the Earth from its climate emergency status.
Our book Toward an Urban Ecology describes the potential of collective action at a landscape scale and gives many examples of digging in, showing up, ripping out, and gardening with your neighbors. At the same time, it’s important to keep focus on the more radical, insidious challenges in our carbon-intensive economy mapped out at a national scale in Petrochemical America, which depicts the American landscape as a machine for consuming oil and petrochemicals with profound impacts on ecosystems and communities.
I guess the lesson here is that on an individual level, we have to consume less. At a neighborhood level, we can work together to repair the landscapes in our immediate environs through community oyster gardening or invasive species removal in a patch of forest. And at a global scale, we have to radically and equitably decarbonize our economy and rebuild the wetland and intertidal landscapes disappearing before our eyes. Our installation at the Venice Biennale called Ecological Citizens bridges these scales of thought and action. Plenty to do!
What connections do you see between the COVID-19 pandemic and our climate and ecological problems? How are environmental and human health connected?
COVID 19 shines a spotlight on our health care system and existing social inequity. The pandemic is truly playing out as a human tragedy on so many levels. It also reveals the incredible and irreversible harm we are inflicting upon non-human species and our extreme interdependence on each other and the natural world.
Whether the virus was transmitted through a bat or pangolin, it’s a parable about the exploitation of “the other” that must stop. This April, 25 tons of pangolin scales were seized in Singapore, taken from nearly 40,000 of these endangered creatures. An estimated 2.7 million are poached every year. It boggles the mind.
On a positive note, one can imagine our “stay at home” behavior, which is intended to curb the pandemic, has the unintended consequences of lowering our personal carbon footprints; and leading us to care for each other more, make time to mend the landscapes in which we live, and prioritize the basics of happiness and survival — food, shelter, clean water, clean air, neighbors, family, and the core of what matters to you.
You founded SCAPE in 2007. Your office’s stated mission is to “enable positive change in communities through the creation of regenerative living infrastructure and public landscapes.” What is regenerative living infrastructure and why do communities need it?
Today’s society faces compounding risks: a climate emergency, increasing social and income stratification, and a biological apocalypse termed “the sixth extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert in her 2014 book of the same name. Together, these forces are rapidly tearing at the fabric of our entangled social and natural worlds. In every SCAPE project, we identify the capacity of design to repair that fabric and regenerate connections over time.
The aim is to not just deliver built work, but envision a program that begins to generate new ties between communities working in, living in, understanding, and loving the landscapes that sustain them. This could take the form of unlocking sediment trapped upstream to nourish protective bay landscapes and cushion the impacts of extreme weather and sea level rise.
For decades, infrastructure has been constructed as “single-purpose,” often designed by engineers to isolate one element of a system and solve for one problem. For example, on Staten Island, during Superstorm Sandy, a levee designed to keep water out was overtopped, resulting in a “bathtub effect” of trapping water inside a neighborhood rather than keeping it out. People perished because of this catastrophic failure. In many places, metal bulkhead walls are being raised in anticipation of sea-level rise only to block drainage during major rain events, flooding adjacent blocks.
Regenerative landscape infrastructure helps to maintain the structure and function of ecosystems embedded in the built environment, accounting for complex systems. This has been the organizing mission of SCAPE: to bring holistic, landscape-driven, and time-based thinking into the places we inhabit.
Through Living Breakwaters in Tottenville, on Staten Island in New York, SCAPE created a layered approach to ecological and social resilience, including oyster habitat restoration on a series of near-shore breakwaters. Working with communities in Boston, SCAPE has developed visions for a more resilient Boston Harbor and Dorchester neighborhoods. What are the benefits of these resilient landscape approaches?
The resilience benefits of these projects are clear. We can’t just look at one facet of the future: We have to synthesize how climate shocks and stressors compound each other. Extreme heat will increase drought and poverty. Extreme hurricanes will increase long-term rainfall projections used as a base for design efforts. How will these shocks and stressors combine to impact people and shape our future?
Robust, intact landscapes can’t do everything, but they can absorb a range of intersectional challenges and create immense protective value. Part of SCAPE’s approach is to begin to address the “sixth extinction” in the intertidal zone, restoring landscapes and habitats for marine critters that could be a lifeline to the future. We not only envisioned the Living Breakwaters project. Over many years, we navigated a federal, state, and local regulatory and budget environment to make it happen. We have a unique perspective on how to advance these kinds of projects despite many roadblocks and challenges.
Our team just completed a long-term vision for the rapidly eroding Barataria Basin in Louisiana with an array of collaborators. This project combines marsh creation with bottomland reforestation, sediment diversions, and related landscape restoration and job creation strategies. A healthy and bountiful landscape means better economic opportunities for a wider range of people, rebounding shellfish and fisheries, and a coastal landscape that can absorb and adapt to a range of climate risks on the immediate horizon.
The Chattahoochee RiverLands is a vision to reconnect Metro Atlanta to its seminal river, building on a decades-long legacy of community planning in collaboration with the Trust for Public Land, Atlanta Regional Commission, Cobb County, and the City of Atlanta. It’s a radical effort to stitch together a historically fragmented public realm along a primary conduit – 125 miles of trail winding along the Chattahoochee that showcase the river’s ecology, history, and link into ongoing restoration and education efforts.
Rivers have such power to bring people together, link up disjointed places, and bring life and mobility into cities. For this project, we cut through red tape, charting a path of access through a mosaic of public and private lands. The overall vision was grounded in over 80 stakeholder and community sessions and events like “river rambles,” educational outings for focus groups to provide hands-on learning experiences.
Beyond its physical footprint, the goal of the RiverLands is to raise public awareness, improve connections and access, address a long legacy of environmental racism, expand mobility for underserved communities, and build on a strong regional legacy of water resource conservation and protection.
This effort is a testament to open and inclusive design processes structured to empower residents and to shift from conceiving design as a “master” plan to a method of workshopping and co-creating with constituents. Advanced floodplain warning systems and sensors can be integrated into these linear landscapes to ensure public safety.
Lastly, you are also a Professor at Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP), where you are director of the Urban Design program. What have you learned from your students – the next generation of leaders – about how to solve our challenges? What new ideas have really astounded you?
Over the past five years, I’ve done a series of studios focused on Water Urbanism – global studios to uncover how water, climate, and migration patterns combine to shape the future of cities. I’ve learned so much from this endeavor and working alongside my incredible co-teachers Geeta Mehta, Dilip Da Cunha, Thaddeus Pawlowski, Julia Watson, and others. We’ve traveled to Amman and Aqaba, Jordan; Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil; Can Tho, Vietnam; and four cities in India: Kolkata, Madurai, Varanasi and Pune, among others.
From our collaborators and students, I’ve learned that excellence emerges in the space between people – in open dialogue, hard work, and collaboration among people with diverse and international backgrounds with a shared purpose.
A few years back, I hosted “Water and Social Life in India,” a panel at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture with Geeta, Dilip, and Alpa Nawre. This session captured some of the big lessons for me. Over the years, we have learned water is not an abstract “issue” to be solved. To embrace a water-resilient future, we have to learn from past practices and small communities managing and communicating with each other. Designing with water is not just about adapting to changing conditions – it is also crucially about fostering forms of social life, maintenance, and care.
In Tainan, a city of 1.8 million on the southwest coast of Taiwan, a defunct shopping mall has been transformed into Tainan Spring, an urban lagoon park. This ingenious new public space, which reuses remnants of the mall’s concrete parking garage, is at the heart of an ambitious effort to bring people and nature back to the waterfront of Taiwan’s oldest city. Commissioned by the urban development bureau of the Tainan city government, the new 581,000 square foot (54,000 square meter) landscape forms a green axis with a kilometer-long stretch of Haian Road that has been redesigned for pedestrians.
According to project designer MVRDV, a Dutch architecture and urban design firm that led a multidisciplinary team including Taiwanese landscape design firm The Urbanists Collaborative, Tainan’s network of waterways have enabled the city’s marine and fishing industries since the 17th century. But in the 1980s, the city began to over-develop its waterfront. The ChinaTown Mall was constructed on top of the old harbor next to the Tainan Canal. Decades later, as the abandoned shopping center became a “drain on the vitality of downtown,” the city developed plans to turn it into a destination park.
The Tainan city government required that the old mall be deconstructed and its concrete “meticulously recycled.” Given the embodied carbon in concrete, the decision was made to also reuse a level of the underground parking garage as part of the structure of the $4.7 million sunken park.
Concrete structures have been mostly integrated with a new pedestrian promenade that loops the park. Below the promenade, nooks have formed that will soon host small shops and restaurants.
MVRDV created multiple layers to create a sense of history and place. Within the curvilinear lagoon, pillars of the garage structure jut out, creating a shopping mall-version of a Roman ruin.
Remnants structures provide watery play spaces and shade. One part of the park contains a glass floor that offers a glimpse deep into the old infrastructural layers below.
The lagoon is planted with multiple layers of plants and trees, which are expected to grow over the next few years into a stylized jungle. The plant life will cool and shade gathering areas, playgrounds, and a performance stage.
The lagoon itself is also designed to be responsive to the environment. “Water levels within the lagoon rise and fall in response to the rainy and dry seasons,” MVRDV states. During Tainan’s steamy summer, mist sprayers will help reduce ambient air temperatures.
“People can bathe in the overgrown remains of a shopping mall. Children can swim in the ruins of the past,” said Winy Maas, founding partner of MVRDV. “How fantastic is that?”
The team’s renovation of Haian Road reduced traffic to one lane in each direction. The new road uses pavers to create a uniform identity and incorporates more of the jungle plant palette. Maas added that “Tainan is a very grey city. With the reintroduction of the jungle every place possible, the city is reintegrating into the surrounding landscape.”