Participatory Design Must Evolve

Design as Democracy / Island Press

Participatory design is “hands-on democracy in action,” argue the editors of the impressive new book Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity. Participatory design (also known as cooperative or co-design) is a process in which a designer actively involves all stakeholders in a design process. Unfortunately, many of the best-known techniques to enable this approach, which have been used for the past few decades, have become stale. This has led to complacency among designers, and less-than-ideal outcomes for communities that need their help. To revitalize the approach and achieve better results, the authors call for making participatory design “truly democratic.” Furthermore, it must become “contextual, open, experiential, substantive, and holistic.”

One can tell the many editors, who are all landscape architects and professors, wrestled with themselves and perhaps each other to come up with a new synthesis of this design approach. The hard work of David de la Pena; Diane Jones Allen, ASLA; Randolph T. Hester, Jr, FASLA; Jeffrey Hou, ASLA; Laura J. Lawson, ASLA; and Marcia J. McNally paid off: the book is a well-organized compendium of proven techniques designers can apply in their projects. Their collective voice is determined and impassioned, which really helps make their case.

The editors note up front that none of these techniques will work if designers don’t have the right mindset when they begin to engage a set of stakeholders. And the right mindset can only come from close examination of oneself — one’s own history, preferences, position in society, and hidden biases. One section is worth quoting at length:

“Once we are clear on who we are are, we can see our position in society relative to the cultural and economic context of the community in which we plan to work. This in turn equips us with empathy rather than sympathy. This distinction is important because designers can find themselves in communities with acute needs that have been repeatedly ignored. Although providing technical assistance to a community in need is a critical role of participatory design, responding with sorrow or pity hampers one’s effectiveness. Sympathy, even when its grounded in understanding, can subtly convey to residents that only the designer’s expertise counts. Another pitfall lies in creating a patronizing process that diminishes the community’s self-worth.” For the editors, only fully self-aware designers can succeed at this work. Furthermore, designers who come in as arrogant experts risk doing real damage.

The book flows through the design process — starting with tools to help a designer achieve self-awareness, and then moving through how to interact with and learn from communities, reach an accommodation between “expert” and local knowledge, “catalyze new visions and certainty about the best course of action,” co-generate designs and co-construct, evaluate and improve, and, finally, how to “exercise power to make community improvements” actually happen. Each section has a few well-chosen techniques selected by invited contributors, which are detailed, illustrated with a case story, and then further qualified with a reflection on how to best apply.

One technique that helps a designer assemble the right team at the beginning is called “What’s in it for us?” Julie Stevens, ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at Iowa State University, explained how she applied this tool to develop and manage a team for a landscape project at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW). Stevens said the assessment helped her think more comprehensively about who should be on the project.

Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) garden / Kim Gaspari Photography

“I nearly dismissed an application from a potential intern, because his essay did not express any compassion for the prison population. In terms of what he offered to the project, I recorded that he had experience with construction tools and equipment. In terms of what the project could do for him, I recorded that this young, white man might benefit from a summer working with women from much less privileged and much more racially diverse backgrounds, which could open up new worlds as he engaged people both informally and through design. His inclusion on the team was validated when I saw him give an incarcerated woman a high-five after completing a difficult retaining wall.”

In the section “Going to the People’s Coming,” which covers how to start engaging with and learning from a community, Chelina Odbert and Joe Mulligan, with Kounkuey Design Initiative, discuss an ingenious technique they call Community Camera: Piga Picha, a “photo activity that helps residents introduce their community to an outside project team, and in the process, to see familiar places through a new lens.” Using the approach in Kibera, large slum of Nairobi, Kenya, they gave 30 diverse community participants a disposable camera. When the residents then got the photos back, “it was clear they were seeing very familiar sites from a new perspective — as spaces worthy of design consideration.”

Members of the Piga Picha group / Kounkuey Design Initiative

The next chapter is on “Experting,” which focuses on how to “transfer the title of expert to members of the community” in order to further empower them and build their capacity to achieve goals. In one technique described by Kofi Boone, ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at North Carolina State University, cell phones are passed out to community members so they can be used to create video diaries. This way “community members can document their place-based stories independently, on their own time, in their own voices.” For a new park in the neighborhood of Chavis Park, a historically African American community, videos, which ranged from 30 seconds to 7 minutes, were geo-tagged to an interactive map.

Cell phone diaries / North Carolina State University College of Design’s Downtown Studio

Smart, proven techniques cover how to encourage communities to prioritize efforts through fair and transparent voting processes using dots and tokens and create a shared vision through citizen-generated collages. Then, Design as Democracy delves into innovative ways to get to meat of these projects — and really co-generate designs and co-construct.

On a simple level, co-generating first involves breaking down the design process into easy-to-understand elements and options that community members can then manipulate and use to create design options. But as they create the design together, the community enters a process that “requires negotiation and sometimes creative compromise.” Through this process, the outside designer can then “actively nurture” multiple designers in the community, giving them agency and authority. Community design teams can also use green rubber stamps to quickly illustrate priorities, feast on a “design buffet” and “collect food (design ingredients)” that can result in a novel design, or place representative models on a mat as part of “animated visioning.”

Co-constructing, or building together, then lets everyone experience the “joy and energy of building,” which in turn “imbues a sense of accomplishment, pride, and ownership like nothing else can.” To avoid burnout from long visioning and co-design processes, the contributors in this section instead call for quick prototyping and making things spontaneously. The goal is to make sure the process doesn’t become a drag. “Making alleviates frustration, anger, and apathy from process without products.”

More powerfully, co-constructing with a community can be restorative in itself. In a project at the Rab Psychiatric Public Hospital, the Design/Build Service Learning Studio at the University of Washington redesigned 50 percent of the landscape as healing gardens and then co-constructed them with patients and staff. Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA, explains that despite the challenges, “the patients commented they found the act of building therapeutic. Many said they gained a sense of purpose, renewed self-confidence and self-esteem, and an appreciation for the garden work as a respite from the mandated intensive and exhausting therapies.”

Members of the design team socialize with a patient / Daniel Winterbottom

The editors conclude that “design is a political act.” And “participatory design is one of the most effective means in a democracy to create cities and landscapes that distribute resources and shape places to be sustainable, representative of diverse publics, well informed by local wisdom, and just.” But they seem to disagree on the extent to which participatory design should be used to actively fight injustice.

While landscape architects and planners should of course work with communities to map environmental injustices, should they engage in conflict to achieve their ends? For Randolph Hester, FASLA, professor emeritus of landscape architecture at University of California at Berkeley, “no truly transformative design occurs without confronting status quo powers.”

But going back to the beginning for a moment: What this book leaves out is basic guidance on to how to find and partner with existing community leaders who are seeking positive change, who have been fighting injustice. How can a planner or designer know they’ve found the right client in a community? What are the tools for evaluating whether to engage or not? And what does a designer owe a client if the client’s goals end up being different from the community’s?

Plus, grey areas around financing seem to be avoided. For example, many participatory design projects in developing countries are financed by government aid agencies, companies, and non-profits with their own agendas. How can an ethical, self-aware designer establish and finance projects in a transparent way that builds trust with a community?

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (January 16 – 31)

The Automotive Liberation of ParisCityLab, 1/19/18
“For all the attention Paris gets for its transportation woes—awful smog, endless strikes, traffic jams—the city’s remarkable shift away from the car arguably deserves more.”

Obama Center Plans Won’t Destroy Olmsted’s Park — They Should Be Improved, Not Rejected Chicago Tribune, 1/22/18
“As debate heats up over the wisdom of putting the Obama Presidential Center in historic Jackson Park, opponents are painting the project as a self-indulgent statement by former President Barack Obama — a land grab whose slant-walled 235-foot museum tower would blight a park co-designed by the great 19th century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.”

These Future Doctors Are Learning How to Influence Urban DesignNext City, 1/22/18
“A new university program in Philadelphia aims to train medical students to think like city planners.”

Drone Footage Captures Bustling Chicago Riverwalk One Year After Completion Dezeen, 1/28/18
“This drone footage shows the promenade along Chicago’s riverfront, a year after its transformation by firms Sasaki and Ross Barney Architects into a public space with fishing platforms and kayaking spots.”

After NYC Truck Attack, How Can We Go Beyond Reactionary Design Responses? Architect’s Newspaper, 1/29/18
“The recent terrorist attack has sparked calls to fortify the bike path against further incidents, and the state department of transportation, which oversees the bike path, is studying the issue.”

Design Competition: Make Renewable Energy Beautiful

Regatta H20, 2016 LAGI winner / LAGI

While solar power accounts for only 1.3 percent of global energy production, it grew 50 percent last year, due to a “sun rush” in China and the United States. In 2010, there was just 50 gigawatts (GW) of capacity; now there is 305 GW. Similarly, global wind power generation has also grown incredibly fast over the past decade, reaching 469 GW by the end of 2016 and is now nearly 4 percent of total power.

To further speed the transition to a clean energy economy and society, the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) believes solar, wind, and other renewable power must be more artfully incorporated into our public realm. They believe “renewable energy can be beautiful” — and, indeed, must be if we want green power to capture the imagination of the world. Every two years, LAGI organizes a global design competition to prototype clean energy-producing public art installations that can increase demand for these technologies in the future.

This year, LAGI hosts their competition in Melbourne, Australia, which is aiming for net-zero carbon emissions by 2020. Through the competition, LAGI hopes to answer the questions:

“How much of the clean energy infrastructure required to attain this goal will be implemented within urban areas, and what is the impact of these new installations on our constructed and natural environments? How can solar and wind energy be integrated into public spaces in ways that educate, inspire, and are responsive to the history, culture, and nature of place?”

LAGI invites landscape architects, artists, architects, scientists, engineers to form interdisciplinary teams to create proposals for “large-scale and site-specific public art installations that generate clean energy.”

Submit entries by May 6. Winners will be announced in October. The first place winner will receive $16,000 USD and the second place, $5,000 USD.

Check out winners from the 2016 competition in Santa Monica, California, and learn more about their ambitious plan for 2020, which aims to create “real net-zero energy infrastructure in twenty destination art sites (urban or rural), with combined annual capacity of approximately 140,000 MWh, or offsetting the energy needs of 20,000 homes.”

Also, the National Endowment for the Humanities is offering challenge grants, which cover “capital expenditures, such as the design, purchase, construction, restoration
or renovation of facilities and historic landscapes.” Apply by March 15.

The Case for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park

Eight months after former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama revealed their vision for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park, on the south side of Chicago, the Obama Foundation has released more detailed plans and designs, which they say are the result of thousands of comments. The new plans are perhaps also a response to criticism that the Presidential Center “confiscates” some 19 acres of the historic, Olmsted-designed 543-acre Jackson Park, and, therefore, a parking structure planned for the nearby Midway Plaisance would further undermine the park’s integrity. The Obama Foundation has since scrapped plans for the parking structure in favor of adding parking underneath the Center.

Amid new calls by park advocates and a faculty group at the University of Chicago to move the Presidential Center out of Jackson Park, the design team — which is led by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and includes Interactive Design Architects (IDEA), Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), Site Design Group, and Living Habitats — continues to move through the process, honing the plans and designs, with the goal of building the $500-million project by 2021.

Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, lead landscape architect on the project, told us criticism that the Obama Presidential Center destroys the landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. is incorrect. “There is a complete failure to recognize the history of the 19 acres in question, particularly with respect to Olmsted and Vaux. The Jackson Park — as designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. and Calvert Vaux — was never actually fully realized. Then, the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition came in, and Jackson Park was nearly destroyed. The design evolved with guidance from Olmsted Sr., but not Vaux. One of Olmsted’s successor firms, headed up by his sons, created a revised plan for the park in 1895, the same year FLO Sr. retired from practice. Olmsted Sr. kept the lagoons intact as did the sons in the 1895 plan. Many of FLO Sr’s big ideas persist in that version of Jackson Park, but given the history, you have to be misguided to argue the landscape between Cornell Drive and Stony Island Avenue is in any way an intact Olmsted Sr. landscape. Or that its current configuration and character is fundamental to our ability to appreciate Olmsted Sr’s. vision for a very large, very watery park.”

Jackson Park aerial view / Chicago Construction News

Furthermore, Van Valkenburgh argued, the Obama Foundation’s plans will yield usable new landscape. “With the new Presidential Center, we will remove the 6-lane Cornell Drive, which, today, horrendously cuts off part of the park where the OPC is proposed, leaving it as an isolated triangle. The removal of Cornell Drive is a major restoration of the 1895 plan— and makes connections through Jackson Park towards the adjacent Lagoon and on to Lake Michigan. Also, the OPC will create accessible new park land, as part of the MVVA site strategy that embeds two of the new buildings entirely under new landscape on the east and south sides towards Jackson Park.” The design team contends there will be a net-gain in park land.

Cornell Drive and proposed site of Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park / The Chicago Tribune

Van Valkenburgh believes the landscape design realizes the goals of the Obamas: to make the Center as green and open as possible, so the entire experience feels like an urban public park. “Again, the organizing idea was to cluster the three Center buildings and embed two of them in park land, so we can keep the amount of paved surfaces to under a couple of acres.”

Obama Presidential Center embedded in the landscape / Obama Foundation, DBOX

The Obama Foundation and the design team want to create a new woodland walk, sledding hill, playground, athletic center, lawns, and community vegetable garden for school kids to grow and eat fresh produce. The garden helps continue “Mrs. Obama’s mission of food and wellness.” These new features are set within a landscape designed to sustainably manage water.

Woodland Walk / Obama Foundation, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Sledding hill / Obama Foundation, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Playground / Obama Foundation, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

“The Obamas were married in the park. And they lived a few blocks away from it for years. They are committed to opening up the Center into the civic and public realm.”

For more perspective, read the take of Blair Kamin, The Chicago Tribune‘s architecture critic, who largely supports the approach of the design team, but calls for the designs to further evolve, that of Jackson Park Watch, which calls for slower and more comprehensive planning with deeper community involvement, and that of Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), who calls for moving the Center out of the park (and also disagrees with Kamin). Lastly, read more on demands that the Obama Foundation sign a community benefits agreement, which they have so far refused to do.

To Become More Resilient, Boston Takes a “Landscape First” Approach

East Boston flood scenarios / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss

Instead of simply responding to catastrophe, Boston is getting out front on climate change. As part of its Climate Ready Boston plan, the city of 670,000 aims to act fast and protect two coastal neighborhoods most vulnerable to rising sea levels and storms: East Boston and Charlestown. New plans for these neighborhoods explain how a simple fix like creating a temporary flood wall at the coastal end of the East Boston Greenway, at a cost of just $100,000, would protect 4,300 residents, 70 businesses and critical infrastructure, and result in $17 million in benefits.

But perhaps the most important statement in the plan is: “more extensive measures combining green and gray infrastructure and new open space can be built and expanded over time to address risks from 1 percent annual chance floods with over 36 inches of sea level rise (by the 2070s).” In other words, landscape-based solutions are the answer for long-term protection and resilience. The plan calls for making $142-262 million of these investments over the next few decades, netting $644-751 million in benefits.

East Boston plan, near and long-term projects / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss
Charlestown plan, near and long-term projects / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss

An inter-departmental city government team lead the effort, which was conducted by engineers at Kleinfelder, landscape architects at Stoss landscape urbanism, and architects with ONE architecture. The district-level coastal resilience plan came out of the recently-completed Climate Ready Boston process and Imagine Boston 2030, the first comprehensive planning effort in 50 years, and resulted from the efforts of Boston Harbor Now and other non-profits.

In a phone interview, Chris Reed, ASLA, founder and principal at Stoss landscape urbanism, said East Boston and Charlestown were the focus of the first plans and conceptual designs in a series that will look at all vulnerable Boston neighborhoods. “The rationale was to look at the places that will flood first and also help disadvantaged neighborhoods threatened with displacement and gentrification.” An analysis of South Boston, including Seaport, is also underway, and more neighborhood analyses will be coming over the next few years.

Reed explained that Kleinfelder, Stoss, and ONE only proposed “flood control measures that have social, environmental, and economic benefits.” Flood control infrastructure takes the form of landscape berms, wildlife habitat, waterfront promenades, play areas, and strategic walls. Using evaluation criteria established in the report, the planning and design team settled on a layered approach with back-up defenses. In most instances, walls were minimized in favor of other kinds of multi-use infrastructure that enable access to and recreation on the waterfronts.

East Boston landing: a landscape-first approach / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss
Ryan playground in Charlestown / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss

The team also crafted a “development toolkit,” with new regulations to guide private developers and better leverage public-private infrastructure investments. For example, currently, new developments on the waterfront must have 50 percent open space. Reed explained that through new regulations, these open spaces can be better coordinated to maximize resilience. “The city can now gang up and locate protective open spaces strategically.” With the toolkit, the city can also now move beyond a “site by site approach” and scale up its resilient development efforts.

Recommendations are rooted in different flooding scenarios. Reed said the tricky part was “you can have a storm surge on top of sea level rise.” Instead of using outdated FEMA data, Boston is basing its analyses in dynamic models created by Woods Hole Group, University of Massachusetts Boston, and the Barr Foundation. Models project out to 2070, but purposefully stop there. “We just can’t project to 2100.”

Reed said funds have already been allocated to projects, including the coastal end of the East Boston Greenway and raising Border Street. But it’s not clear how Boston will pay for the billions it may actually need to spend on resilience, when all neighborhood analyses are said and done.

What is clear to Reed is that “there is an absolute need to address climate change.” And in our new age of resilience, what’s needed is a “landscape first strategy for city-making.”

In fact, Reed thinks these district-scale resilience plans return us to the era of Frederick Law Olmsted, when landscape served as a basis for urban planning. “People are re-discovering cities are part of the environment and impacted by nature and temperature change.”

Read the executive summary or full report (large PDF).

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (January 1 – 15)

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A view of the Obama Presidential Center campus shows a proposed promenade along the Lagoon at the east side of the campus with the Museum Building and the Museum of Science Industry beyond. / Obama Foundation

The Fraught Future of Monuments Co.Design, 1/2/18
“Let’s get this out of the way: Public space is, and always has been, political. Public spaces are the sites of protest–the places we exercise democracy.”

Dallas Is Finally Talking About Bicycles The Dallas Morning News, 1/2/18
“The other day, I once again found myself discussing dockless bike share. Someone said the only thing anyone in Dallas is talking about is bikes.”

Atlanta’s Piedmont Park Slated for $100 Million Expansion The Architect’s Newspaper, 1/2/18
“Late last month, Mayor Kasim Reed announced that the city will kick in $20 million to expand Piedmont Park and the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, which sit just east of the city’s Ansely Park neighborhood.”

Top Trends in Parks and Recreation for 2018National Recreation and Parks Association Blog, 1/8/18
“Several years ago, what started as a lighthearted look at new, interesting and even controversial trends in the field of parks and recreation for the coming year, has now become an annual New Year tradition.”

Can Oman Build a Better Planned City?CityLab, 1/10/18
“The petro-states of the Persian Gulf do not lack for outlandish and ambitious urban projects: See the man-made islands of Dubai, a supertall curved skyscraper in Kuwait, or the enormous clock tower in Mecca that’s the size of six Big Bens.”

An Obama Tower in an Olmsted Park? Yes, But Design Still Needs RefinementThe Chicago Tribune, 1/13/18
“During his White House years, Barack Obama did not shy away from big, provocative political issues. The aesthetic instincts of the former president, who once wanted to be an architect, are proving no different.”

Fog That Doesn’t Obscure

Fog Garden at the Fountain of the Fairs, Queens, NY / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

What can be done with a 10-acre series of three derelict reflecting pools in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, New York? Instead of restoring them at great expense, resulting in excessive water and energy use, landscape architects with New York-based Quennell Rothschild & Partners had an ingenious idea. Turn them into a amphitheater, water play space, and a “fog garden,” which will generate a four-foot-high field of fog, or if the NYC parks department so chooses, “waves of fog,” with a fraction of the water used by the typical splash park.

Fog Garden at the Fountain of the Fairs, Queens, NY / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

Mark Bunnell, ASLA, a partner with Quennell Rothschild, said their new design, which will replace the reflecting pool at the Fountain of the Fairs, respects the historic park’s existing layout and even enhances it with an Art Deco paving pattern. The Fountain of the Fairs occupies a central axis connecting the iconic Unisphere with the Fountain of the Planets, created for the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs.

1939 World’s Fair / Pinterest
1939 World’s Fair / Pinterest

The fog will be created by 500 nozzles spread through the 300-foot-long and 50-foot-wide (17,300 square feet) space, set in a 1.7-acre garden. In a system Quennell Rothschild designed with Delta Fountains, there are nine pumps that enable the park managers to control the nozzles, so that the fog can appear like a field or roll-down in waves. Each nozzle emits approximately 3 gallons per hour, but not all are in use at any given time.

The fog will only reach four feet off the ground. If there are any concerns about safety or transparency, “they can use the waves,” creating gaps in the mist. The fog will also dissipate quickly, barring “atmospheric conditions.”

Alongside the fog garden, Quennell Rothschild is replacing “massed Yew trees” with a landscape of grasses, low evergreens, and maples that will open up views.

Fog Garden at the Fountain of the Fairs, Queens, NY / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

Later phases will turn the segment of the reflecting pool east of the fog garden into an amphitheater and then, farthest east, into a water playground.

Fountain of the Fairs, Queens, NY / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

Construction on the $4.3 million garden begins in April.

Most Popular DIRT Posts of 2017


As we look forward to covering new stories on the built and natural environments this year, here’s a look back at the 10 most popular DIRT posts of 2017. Coverage of conferences, including the American Planning Association (APA), Greenbuild, Earth Optimism Summit, and Biophilic Leadership Summit, attracted the greatest interest. And news on the health benefits of nature and the fate of Modernist landscapes were widely read.

Always worth mentioning: We are looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners, on topics that inspire you. If interested, please email us at

1) DesignIntelligence 2017 Landscape Architecture Program Rankings

DesignIntelligence recently announced its 2017 landscape architecture graduate and undergraduate program rankings. For the third year in a row, Louisiana State University (LSU) was deemed the best undergraduate landscape architecture program. And for the 13th consecutive year, Harvard University retained its dominance as the best graduate program, in the annual survey conducted by DesignIntelligence on behalf of the Design Futures Council.

2) Best Podcasts for Landscape Architects

Over the past decade, podcasts have emerged as a popular storytelling platform and captivating way to learn more about the world around us.
Podcasts offer a source of inspiration for designers exploring other disciplines and seeking fresh perspective within their own. For landscape architects, podcasts reveal new opportunities and ways of thinking about the way we design space.

3) New Ruralism: Solutions for Struggling Small Towns

New Urbanism is a well-known movement that aims to create more walkable communities. Less known is New Ruralism, which is focused on the preservation and enhancement of rural communities beyond the edge of metropolitan regions. Small towns now part of this nascent movement seek to define themselves on their own terms, not just in relation to nearby cities. These towns are more than “just food sheds for metro areas,” explained Peg Hough, Vermont, planner and environmental advocate with, at the American Planning Association (APA) annual conference in New York City. Representatives from three northeastern states — Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire — explained how the principles of New Ruralism can help suffering communities.

4) Harnessing the Power of Nature to Improve Our Cities

People feel happier, healthier, and more social when they engage with nature. Their cognitive abilities go up and stress levels go down. So why is nature so often thought to be found only “out there” in the wilderness, or perhaps suburbia? For Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia, nature should be found everywhere, but especially in cities. Cities must remain dense and walkable, but they can be unique, memorable places only when they merge with nature. If well planned and designed, a city’s forests, waterfronts, parks, gardens, and streets can make out-sized contributions to the health and well-being of everyone who lives there. In his latest excellent book, the Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, Beatley brings together all the established science, the important case studies, the innovative code and design practices from around the world in one place. Even if you think you already know a lot about how best to incorporate nature into cities, there will be some interesting new facets in this book for you to explore.

5) Serenbe’s New Wellness District Features a Food Forest

Deep in the woods southwest of Atlanta, Serenbe is a unique designed community — a mixed-use development, with clusters of villages comprised of townhouses and apartments fueled by solar panels and heated and cooled by geothermal systems, and vast open spaces with organic farms, natural waste water treatment systems, and preserved forests. A leader in the “agrihood” movement, which calls for agriculture-centric community development, Serenbe is now moving into wellness with its new development called Mado.

6) What We Still Don’t Know about the Health Benefits of Nature

We know that connecting with nature is good for us, but there are still many questions that need to be answered through more credible scientific research: What is the ideal “dose” of nature? What health conditions do these doses actually help with? Does duration and frequency of dose matter? How long do the benefits last? Does who you are and where you live impact how beneficial exposure to nature will be? And how does technology help or interfere with our connection to nature?

7) Are Modernist Landscapes Worth Saving?

As our cities evolve, and what people want from their public spaces changes, should Modernist parks, plazas, and streets be saved? For lovers of Modernism, the answer is always yes. But, in reality, if the public, and their representatives, choose to keep these spaces, many will need to better respond to contemporary expectations. The question then is how can they be “respectfully honored and adapted?,” asked Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, in an event at the National Building Museum at Washington, D.C.

8) The Biophilic Design Movement Takes Shape (Part 1)

While green infrastructure is needed to manage stormwater and cool the air in our cities, these systems, as currently designed, aren’t enough. In the future, they must also boost biodiversity and help forge richer connections between humans and nature, argued a set of policymakers, academics, planners, and landscape architects, who are part of the nascent biophilic design movement. At the Biophilic Leadership Summit, which was hosted at Serenbe, an agricultural community outside of Atlanta, and organized by the Biophilic Institute, the Biophilic Cities Project, and Serenbe founder Steven Nygren, the main themes of biophilic urban planning and design were explored in an effort to achieve greater definition. Much work, however, still needs to be done to codify, measure, and popularize the strategies discussed.

9) Lessons Learned from the First Generation of Net-zero Communities

The first generation of net-zero communities, which were designed to add no carbon to the atmosphere, are entering their second decade. Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) in London is about 15 years old now; and the first phase of Dockside Green in Victoria, Canada, is now 10 years old. In a session at the 2017 Greenbuild in Boston, Steven Dulmage with Urban Equation and Justin Downey at RNWL outlined lessons learned from these early sustainable communities and how they informed second-generation developments, such as Zibi in Ottawa, Canada, and Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

10) Reasons to Be Optimistic about the Future of the Environment (Part 1)

“It’s easy to be cynical or pessimistic” about the the state of the global environment, said David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian, at the opening of the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C. “We’re not blind to the realities, but if organizations and individuals work together, obstacles can be overcome.” Over three days, an audience of 1,400 heard one inspiring environmental success story after another. While no one forgot that climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem degradation have created a global environmental emergency, there was a concerted effort to change the narrative — from one of relentless anger and despair to one of progress and a cautious optimism about the future. The goal was to highlight was is working today and figure out the ways to replicate and scale up successes.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 16 – 31)

A resident walking at the Cottages at Hickory Crossing, Dallas / Skylar Fike, via CityLab

Halprin’s Heritage Park Plaza in Texas Will Receive Complete Restoration The Architect’s Newspaper, 12/19/17
“Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin loved cities, so it was only fitting that his cliffside Fort Worth, Texas, commission, Heritage Park Plaza (HPP), was the first-ever item on the National Register of Historic Places designated solely as landscape architecture.”

Preparing Trees to Go From Green Pastures to the Concrete Jungle The Washington Post, 12/19/17
“The rolling hills of the Casey Tree Farm in Clarke County, Va., seem a million miles and a distant age from the real estate bustle of the District of Columbia and its constant reinvention, but these pastures offer the city future relief in a climate-changing century.”

Urban Planning Has a Sexism ProblemNext City, 12/19/17
“Take a moment to look around you. Really look. See the city — the streets, the buildings, the spaces between them — and realize for a moment that virtually everything you see has been designed and shaped by men.”

Community Leaders Skeptical About New Obama Center Garage DesignThe Chicago Tribune, 12/21/17
“A revised design for the Obama Presidential Center’s controversial parking garage is getting a thumbs-down from some community leaders who attended a closed-door meeting at which the plan was unveiled.”

Good Design Is a Public Good CityLab, 12/26/17
“If you asked 100 random people or even 100 designers, ‘What is design?’ you would get approximately that many different answers. In the most positive sense, this explains the pervasiveness of designers working in and touching every imaginable aspect of our lives.”

Miami Puts It All on the Line with New Park Project Travel Weekly, 12/27/17
“When Miami unveils the first three of its 10 planned linear miles of parks and trails in 2020, the Underline will join the ranks of New York’s Highline, Atlanta’s Beltline, Houston’s Buffalo Bayou and Chicago’s 606.”

Lessons Learned from the First Generation of Net-Zero Communities

BedZED / Wikipedia

The first generation of net-zero communities, which were designed to add no carbon to the atmosphere, are entering their second decade. Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) in London is about 15 years old now; and the first phase of Dockside Green in Victoria, Canada, is now 10 years old. In a session at the 2017 Greenbuild in Boston, Steven Dulmage with Urban Equation and Justin Downey at RNWL outlined lessons learned from these early sustainable communities and how they informed second-generation developments, such as Zibi in Ottawa, Canada, and Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

According to Dulmage, BedZED, which has 82 homes, “didn’t hit net-zero carbon projections.” While the project successfully reduced emissions from transportation — as more residents walk, bike, or take mass transit — the biomass plant built onsite didn’t work out. It ran for a few years and then was discontinued. “It wasn’t economic to run, so they converted to gas. The business case for the biomass plant wasn’t well-thought through.”

Dockside Green in British Columbia, which has 26 buildings that house 2,500 people, was “built up at the front end during the recession, which was very painful for the developers,” explained Downey. While the developers used a phased approach to development, Downey seemed to say the roll-out of those phases was too aggressive. “They didn’t wait for absorption,” meaning they didn’t build to the pace of tenants buying apartments.

Dockside Green / Times Colonist

Also mentioned: One Brighton in the UK, built in 2009, was the first major development built using the One Planet Living framework. While the development reduced carbon emissions by 70 percent in comparison with the average neighborhood development, that’s not 100 percent. Still, homes there sell for a 10 percent premium over comparable real estate because of their inherent sustainability and resale value. There are also other benefits: residents who move there sell their cars as they can walk and bike everywhere. No cars means much less spent on transportation and fewer carbon emissions.

One Brighton / Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

The latest generation of net-zero communities have learned from these first models and may have greater success reaching environmental goals.

Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh, which is now under development and will transform 178-acres of old industrial property along the Mononogahela River, could achieve net-zero by using onsite renewable energy for 40 percent of energy needs and a “geothermal field” connected to the river for the rest, explained Downey. “It’s a smart design concept — the ambient geothermal loop and renewable technologies can get us to 100 percent.”

Mill 19 at Hazelwood Green / Business Journals

The Zibi in Ottawa, another community now in development, is using very ambitious sustainability goals to “find synergies among stakeholders,” Dulmage said. While developers are often conservative and “reluctant to invest in sustainability strategies, ” at Zibi, “sustainability is instead used as an alignment tool to reduce risk.” The developers are pursuing a thermal distribution pipeline using waste heat from a nearby Ottawa Hydro facility, with a 50/50 split on the cost and savings for the system between the district energy company at Zibi and the utility. The developers are also using “values-based procurement.”

Zibi, Ottawa / Zibi

As for the future of net-zero communities, Downey sees developers now dictating hard energy performance requirements. For example, in a recent RFP for a new building, Hunter College put in a 100 kwh per square meter performance target.

The conclusion seemed to be getting net-zero, or, really, near net-zero communities, right is still a challenge, but a worthy one given “we can only add 600 more gigatons to the atmosphere before the planet hits dangerous levels of warming. We are going to max out emissions by 2025.”

Sadly, the public may or may not care about these numbers. But if these developments are sold from a human health and happiness perspective, they may be more likely to succeed. The average BedZED resident knows 19 of their neighbors, which is four times the UK average, said Dulmage. On that front alone, this early sustainable development sets a model all its successors should follow.