Across the country, landscape architects are stepping up to face the growing global climate crisis head-on. In 2018, ASLA’s interdisciplinary Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience issued a report that outlined policy recommendations and design best practices for creating resilient, sustainable communities.
The new Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Exhibition showcases 20 diverse case studies that illustrate the success these recommendations can have in harnessing natural systems, reducing carbon emissions, and improving communities’ resilience to climate change.
Some projects lower carbon emissions from transportation by improving access to bicycle lanes and sidewalks and limiting space for vehicles, like the Jackson Street Reconstruction Project in Saint Paul, Minnesota, by Toole Design Group.
Some projects show how cities can design to prepare for worst-case flooding scenarios using natural systems, like the Buffalo Bayou Promenade in Houston, Texas by SWA Group.
Others integrate renewable energy facilities into communities, like the Solar Strand project in Buffalo, New York by Hood Design Studio.
The exhibition is free and open to the public at ASLA’s Center for Landscape Architecture (636 I Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20001) every weekday from 10am to 4pm EST (excluding holidays) through May 1, 2020.
There is also an expanded companion to the exhibition at the website: climate.asla.org.
To put on the Smart Politics for a Changing Climate Exhibition, ASLA was awarded an Art Works Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. “These awards, reaching every corner of the United States, are a testament to the artistic richness and diversity in our country,” said Mary Anne Carter, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Organizations such as the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) are giving people in their community the opportunity to learn, create, and be inspired.”
San Francisco is part of the California Floristic Province, which stretches from Baja into Oregon and is one of just 36 global hot spots for biodiversity. A hot spot is an area of extraordinarily rich flora and fauna, where there are high numbers of endemic species, which means they are found nowhere else on Earth. In this coastal region, there are some 7,000-8,000 native plants and more than 2,000 endemic ones.
According to the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, the California Floristic Province also has an amazing diversity of ecosystems, including: the sagebrush steppe; prickly pear shrubland; coastal sage scrub; chaparral; juniper-pine woodland; upper montane-subalpine, alpine, riparian, cypress, mixed evergreen, Douglas fir, sequoia, and redwood forests; coastal dunes and salt marshes.
In addition to the temperate climate, it’s this wondrous abundance of biodiversity that perhaps lures so many people to California. But over-development has put remaining wild places at risk — just a quarter of original ecosystems are in pristine condition.
Peter Brastow is the city’s biodiversity czar. As our tour bus wheezed its way up precipitous hills, he explained how the city recently formulated a biodiversity policy, formalized through a Board of Supervisors’ resolution, which gives extra support to his department’s efforts to coordinate biodiversity programs across the government and non-profits in the city.
The resolution bolstered the new urban forest plan, approved by city voters in 2016, which transferred ownership of the city’s 124,000 street trees from private property owners to the city’s public works department. San Franciscans saw this as important because the city falls way behind others in its total tree coverage at just 13.7 percent, far less than the nearly 30 percent found in Washington, D.C. The goal is to add another 50,000 trees by 2035, many of which will be native and support native insect and bird species.
The resolution also supports the city’s green connections program, which aims to get more San Franciscans into parks and educated about local biodiversity though a set of ecological guides, explained Scott Edmonston, San Francisco’s strategic sustainability planner, who co-organized the tour.
At our first stop, powerful blasts of cold wind greet us. This means it’s early summer at the Twin Peaks Natural Area, some 900 feet above sea level and near the center of the peninsula. The photogenic pair of hills are a remnant of the coastal shrubland ecosystem and home to the endangered Mission Blue butterfly, which relies solely on lupine plants. Brastow explained that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service re-introduced the butterfly on the peak with specimens from the San Bruno Mountain. The San Francisco parks and recreation department has been restoring the native shrubland and removing invasive plants.
Twin Peaks shows why the city has so much biodiversity, even in tiny pockets. Because of the city’s unique topography, the fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean covers some areas in moisture more than others. This results in micro-climates that in turn lead to unique micro-assemblages of plants. Hill tops, ridges, river bed landscapes introduce more complexity.
Edmonston said the problem for those restoring assemblages is that climate change may cause fog patterns to change. So the city and its partners can’t just restore ecosystems to what they were previously; they must instead plant what can survive a changing climate. “There is a lot of uncertainty now. The plant palletes we use now are much drier-loving. We really just need to restore more of nature, so she can be more resilient.”
For Brastow, the city needs to better identify the value of ecosystem services provided by remaining habitats and use those to push for reincorporating nature into more of the city. “That’s the frontier that can guide restoration ecology, landscape architecture, and urban design.”
The bus struggled mightily trying to reach the Sutro native plant nursery found at the top of a sheer slope at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center. There, volunteers have grown more than 6,000 plants from 150 native species, which are being planted in 30 restoration sites in the 61-acre Mount Sutro area that includes UCSF’s campus. “The goal is to improve native plant diversity,” Brastow said.
For many in San Francisco, truly restoring native plant diversity on a broader scale means removing the groves of towering non-native Eucalyptus trees. But others are very protective of the Tasmanian trees and efforts to remove them have led to major protests. “For generations, Californians grew up smelling the trees — and they love it.” (A recent article in The Atlantic provides more context: “The Bay Area’s Great Eucalyptus Debate.”) There is one important reason to support their removal: “they are highly flammable.” And as the city gets drier with climate change, “some day we will have a big fire here.”
Amid the hills of the Sunset neighborhood that rest on ancient sand dunes, we come across a derelict hilltop right-of-way alongside staircases that was transformed into a native plant park and habitat for the Green Hairstreak Butterfly. In neighborhood rights-of-way, parks, and other green spaces, the city finds local site stewards, small non-profits, to manage upkeep.
Last stop was the Presidio, the only U.S. national park that gets 30 percent of its budget from renting out its restored U.S. Army military housing. There, we saw the results of the U.S. department of defense’s base realignment and closure (BRAC) environmental restoration program. A deep ravine that was once a garbage dump was transformed back into a native shrub habitat, thanks to a multi-million-dollar restoration effort and countless National Park Service volunteer hours.
As we drove back to the Moscone Convention Center, Brastow pointed out the ubiquitous London Planetrees that line Market Street. While not native to San Francisco, they are a cultivar related to the Sycamore tree.
Canyons are the natural home of the Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly. Market Street appears to them like a canyon formed by tall buildings on either side. London planetrees are close to their host Sycamores, and there is water in fountains along the street, so these insects have made a home there. “This is an example of how nature is also adapting to the city.”
Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide, a new book about Frederick Law Olmsted by journalist Tony Horwitz, is difficult to classify. It is popular history and a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, his America, and his writings. It is also reportage from rural America and a thoughtful reflection on our times.
In Spying on the South, Horwitz travels in the footsteps of Olmsted, who was himself a political journalist before becoming the father of American landscape architecture we’re most familiar with. It’s worth noting that Horwitz seems to have been put on to Olmsted by his friend Charles McLaughlin, founding editor of the Olmsted Papers Project.
This recreation of Olmsted’s journeys takes Horwitz through the American south and Texas, towns and regions “hollowed out by economic and social decay” as well as environmental degradation.
Horwitz begins the book in the run-up to the 2016 election, and ample connections are drawn to Olmsted’s own political reporting, which occurred in the years precipitating the Civil War. Olmsted’s writing was commissioned to serve as a window into southern society in a time of rising tensions. Spying on the South fills a similar niche.
The book holds obvious value to landscape architects, outside of those interested in dispatches from rural America. As landscape architects have become more self-aware and self-critiquing, we have logically looked to re-consider our heroes.
Frederick Law Olmsted, a paragon of American landscape designers, has been the subject of such re-consideration. Many have found him lacking for several reasons, including his friendly disposition towards the aristocracy and what we now recognize as some flawed urban design practices. Others, willing to see past Olmsted’s mistakes, ascribe them to the times in which he operated.
Horwitz seems to fall in the latter group, but has his reasons. Spying on the South’s most profound insight is that attitudes do not merely progress, but rise and fall. Horwitz describes Olmsted’s attitude towards slavery transforming from opposition on economic terms, to moral opposition, to righteous anger, to outright hatred of it and the society it supported. Unsurprisingly, these attitudes coincide precisely with escalation in the conflict between North and South.
After the war, Olmsted’s attitude towards the south warmed, as did society’s at large. The south had atoned through suffering, Olmsted believed. A well-known landscape architect at this point, Olmsted was more than willing to do business there. This, despite the continued efforts of southern states to oppress their black populations.
Horwitz’s suggestion that our political beliefs are more tied to our zeitgeist than we know is a fascinating one. Of course, we ourselves inform the zeitgeist. Perhaps the best we can do is raise the bar as far as we can before falling back into complacency. The sort of achievement, for instance, Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had with Central Park.
Horwitz describes how Olmsted envisioned such a place long before he was in any position to deliver it, a vision informed by his travels in the south. Olmsted saw Central Park as an opportunity to showcase the democratic values he supported. The park, shared by the city’s inhabitants, would be a rebuke to the aristocracy of the American south and Europe, which were both economically and morally invested in keeping society stratified.
Olmsted saw himself, his brother, and his peers as social engineers, and wished to “get up parks, gardens, music, dancing schools, reunions, which will be so attractive as to force into contact the good & bad, the gentlemanly and rowdy.”
Again, some of the language Olmsted uses in describing his ideas would put off those of us who don’t equate poverty with moral deficiency. But one senses his heart was in the right place.
Despite Olmsted’s flaws, something he and posterity have in common is the value we place on Central Park. Vaux, in a letter to Olmsted late in life, calls it “the big art work of the republic.” And in many ways, the progressive values that shaped Central Park were the result of Olmsted’s travels in the south.
In the Hudson’s Image– Urban Omnibus, 5/2/19
“Over the last two centuries, artists have painted, sketched and photographed the Hudson, while scientists, surveyors and others have mapped the river landscape as a first step to shaping it with human hands.”
For Colleges, Climate Change Means Making Tough Choices– The Chronicle of Higher Education
“The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation’s awarding of $100 million to reinvent LaSalle Park and to complete a regional trail system represents the largest philanthropic gift ever in Western New York.”
Surrounded by water along 144 miles of shoreline, Norfolk is highly vulnerable to sea level rise. The city is the second largest in Virginia, with a population of 250,000. It’s home to the world’s largest naval base, which hosts 100,000 federal workers and function as a city within the city. Its port is the third busiest in the country. The core of the city is the employment center for a region of 1.5 million people. All of this is under significant threat.
At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, we heard about Norfolk’s recent efforts to live with with water while protecting vulnerable low-income areas, revitalizing and creating new urban centers, and ceding some parts of the city back to the ocean.
According to Martin Thomas, vice mayor of Norfolk, the question is: “how do we create a high quality of live given we are facing rising waters?” The answer involves creative economic, social, and environmental solutions that will lead to a transformed city.
Thomas said 30-40 percent of the regional economy is dependent on federal funding, “so we are diversifying the local economy.” There are disconnected communities with concentrated levels of poverty, so the city is investing in mixed-income redevelopment projects. There is recurrent flooding that can result in 2-3 feet of water rise, so the city is creating the “designed coastal systems of the future.”
An example of what Norfolk is dealing with is the highly vulnerable area of Willoughby Spit, which is 3 miles long and 3 blocks wide and where thousands of residents live. This area is a chunk of the local tax base, but “it won’t exist in a few decades.”
Through its Vision 2100 process, Norfolk mapped its most valuable assets, which included the Naval base, airport, botanical gardens, and the historic downtown core. Through comprehensive public meetings, city policymakers, planners, and residents created a map of where flooding is expected to worsen, where investments in hard protections and green infrastructure will be focused, and where the “future urban growth of the city will be built.”
The vision organizes the city into four zones: red, yellow, green, and purple.
Red areas on the map are vital areas that will see “expanded flood protection zones; a comprehensive 24-hour transportation network; denser mixed-use developments; diversified housing options; and strengthened economic options.” These include the naval base, universities, ports, shipyards, and medical facilities that can’t be moved. Future housing and economic growth will be steered into these areas, which will be made denser. The red zone will receive priority levels of investment in both hard and green resilient infrastructure while maintaining access to the water.
The yellow zone will be where the city helps Norfolk residents adapt to rising waters and where it also cedes land back to the water. Programs there will aim to “exploit new and innovative technologies to reduce flood risk to the built environment; focus infrastructure investments on improvements that extend resilience; educate current residents about the risks of recurrent flooding; develop mechanisms to enable property owners to recoup the economic value lost to sea level rise; and develop a solution for sea level rise adaptation in historic neighborhoods.” Here, the focus is on more resilient housing, raised 3-feet above flood levels, and the widespread incorporation of green infrastructure.
The green zone features communities already on higher ground, safe from flooding, where Norfolk will create new transit-oriented development and resilient urban centers that can accommodate future growth.
The purple zone is where Norfolk will create the “neighborhoods of the future,” improving connections to key assets, creating affordable housing, and redeveloping under-performing residential and commercial areas. According to Vision 2100, the city found that 40 out of 125 neighborhoods were deemed assets and therefore not subject to major “transformation” — a euphemism for redevelopment or letting them be subsumed by rising waters. In many of these historic neighborhoods, which are found in the purple zones, small-scale improvements will be made to improve the quality of life — more parks, sidewalks, libraries, and community centers.
Norfolk’s 2030 comprehensive plan, green infrastructure plan, and resilience zoning code are the primary ways in which the city is moving towards this vision.
George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director, said that zoning requirements are a “blunt instrument” that they tried to make more flexible through a “resilient zoning quotient,” a system that developers and property owners can use to accumulate points to meet requirements. The zoning system itemizes “must do’s, should do’s, and nice to do’s (bonuses) for developers.”
Requirements differ depending on the expected level of risk to water rise, but must-do’s include green infrastructure for stormwater management, risk reduction through raising homes by 3-feet above flood levels, and energy self-sufficiency. The zoning ordinance seems critical to achieving the city’s ambitious green infrastructure plan, which also fits together with the vision and 2030 plan.
Back-up power generation is not only required for the usual places like hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities, but also important community utilities like pharmacies, grocery stores, banks, and gas stations.
Vlad Gavrilovic with EPK, planning consultants to Norfolk, further explained that the new zoning code built off of existing neighborhood, landscape, and building design standards, the “pattern language” so critical to informing neighborhood character.
Homewood believes “climate change and sea level rise are very real to the folks who suffer from recurrent flooding.” But rolling-out the new, more complex zoning ordinance hasn’t been without its challenges, and the city planning department is on their fourth round of tweaks to address “unintended consequences.” Perhaps that is to be expected given it’s the “first, most-resilience focused zoning ordinance in the country.”
In a later conversation, Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA president and long-time resident of Norfolk, who was deeply involved in these planning efforts for decades, said that Old Dominion University in downtown Norfolk was key to kick-starting the multi-decade-long effort to make Norfolk more resilient. “Back in 2010, the university started an initiative to prepare Norfolk for sea level rise, asking Larry Atkinson in the oceanography department to lead a cross-disciplinary effort and create a coalition with the community that exists to this day. That was many years ago, but it was then that the seeds were planted for the approach we see today.” That approach, Rinner said, uses public-private partnerships and creates bottom-up, community-driven solutions that transcend politics. “Environmental issues are so close to people in Norfolk and Hampton Roads; it doesn’t matter if you are Democrat or Republican.”
For her, Norfolk’s resilience plans and codes are a true model for other communities because they show what can happen after years of effort — “major change seems to coalesce all of the sudden.”
Make America Graze Again – The New York Times, 4/22/19
“Nashville’s Zach Richardson uses sustainable practices — and a flock of sheep — to clear overgrown landscapes.”
Design Center Unveils Land Bridge Study – Nashville Post, 4/23/19
“There are many local urban place making experts and hobbyists alike who have often contended the single-greatest drawback to Nashville’s failure to maximize its most effective form and function is not limited to the city’s lack of comprehensive mass transit.”
Pier 35 Eco-Park and ‘Urban Beach’ Is Open to the Public – 6sqft, 4/23/19
“After years of anticipation, Pier 35 on the East River waterfront is officially open (h/t Curbed). The project, designed by SHoP with Ken Smith Workshop, consists of a new eco-park and an “urban beach” anchoring the northern flank of the East River waterfront esplanade and providing much-needed public space on the waterfront.”
The average American now spends 90 percent of their life indoors. Some 40 percent of adults no longer engage in any leisure physical activity at all. Some 90 percent of healthcare costs go to treating the 132 million Americans who suffer from treatable chronic diseases such as diabetes, depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure. There are now 78 million obese adults and 12 million obese kids. Furthermore, the trends seem to only be heading in the wrong direction.
How can we turn this around? For John Henderson, executive director of Park Rx America, a key solution is getting people outdoors and active again.
At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, Henderson explained that exposure to nature reduces the damaging impacts of chronic stress and improves mood and cognition. And exercising in nature amplifies the many health benefits of physical activity.
Given Americans experience 90 percent of their exposure to nature in their neighborhood, it’s important to provide “meaningful” opportunities for healthy nature engagement through high-quality local parks.
But with Americans spending so little time outside, even in their own neighborhoods, who’s going to get people to actually go outside to exercise?
The answer may be doctors and nurses, who have some of the highest levels of trustworthiness and credibility among any professions.
There are now more than 100 “Park Rx” programs in which doctors and nurses prescribe activities in neighborhood parks as treatment for a range of medical conditions. Washington, D.C.-based Dr. Robert Zarr has been credited with spearheading this growing nature-based healthcare movement.
Instead of detailing doses of pharmaceuticals in a conventional prescription, doctors in Park Rx programs prescribe doses of the “nature pill” — time spent in green spaces — including directions about how often and how long to do various activities there. Instead of sending a prescription to a pharmacy near the patient’s house, they send the patient to a park near their home.
Doctors and patients can use Park Rx America’s “Find a Park” web tool to identify parks near them. The tool enables users to filter parks that have been deemed safe and accessible by available amenities. According to Henderson, the number one question doctors ask about local parks is: “Are they safe?”
Once patients are assigned a park, they can use a smartphone app to keep track of their progress in following a nature activity prescription. They can send their medical provider a text message and geo-tagged marker from the park, proving they’ve completed tasks. This data also helps inform the provider about the efficacy of different prescriptions.
Park Rx shows that a nascent healthcare infrastructure for doctors and patients is forming. But what about the other side of the equation — providing widespread access to high-quality neighborhood parks with lots of amenities?
Also on the panel at APA was a team from Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburban county outside Washington, D.C. that is being strategic about using its limited funds to create local parks, plazas, and trails with the biggest bang for the buck, health-wise.
The county has a population of one million and includes small cities like Wheaton, Silver Spring, and Germantown. Montgomery County already leads on national health indicator rankings but government leaders realized the county has much more to do to make green space accessible to everyone.
Christina Sassaki, a planner in charge of the county’s “energized public spaces (EPS)” program, explained how they recently forged an EPS master plan, which is the result of an exercise to map gaps in green space along with public surveys measuring demand for various amenities, such as playgrounds, trails, dog parks, and outdoor exercise equipment.
The team found that “parks and public spaces are not equal” across the county. Some neighborhoods enjoy larger parks, say 2-3 acres, while others in denser urban areas have smaller ones at an acre or less. But they found park size wasn’t the only determinant of park quality — it’s also about what amenities are available. “We decided to measure neighborhood access to different types of experiences instead of acres,” Sassaki said.
Through a systematic GIS analysis, Montgomery County analyzed all green public spaces in terms of their ability to provide contemplative experiences where residents can re-connect with nature; active recreational experiences with sports and exercise facilities; and social gathering experiences where residents can feel welcome and comfortable. GIS Manager Christopher McGovern then plotted all the amenities that enable these experiences on a grid covering the entire county.
The EPS plan identified the top 12 “deficit clusters,” mostly in the mixed-use centers, the downtowns where there are high concentrations of populations and multi-family apartment buildings. In these denser deficit areas, “there was particularly a shortage of contemplative and active experiences,” Sassaki said.
The plan focuses on improving the range of experiences found via amenities in smaller parks and creating new parks and plazas in underserved areas. The county has also been piloting revamps of public spaces — all of this with the goal of packing in more amenities groups like Park Rx America can then offer to nature-savvy doctors and patients.
Last November, landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations presented ambitious designs for the 1-mile segment of the 182-mile-long C&O Canal that passes through Georgetown. The goal then seemed to be to throw a bunch of bold ideas out there to see what sticks. Six months later, at a public comment meeting in Georgetown sponsored by the National Park Service (NPS) and Georgetown Heritage, a non-profit group financing the planning and design process, Field Operations offered a pared-back plan more respectful of historic preservation concerns. Sarah Astheimer, ASLA, a principal at Field Operations, said the latest design concepts are “smarter, more incisive, and more responsive to the site.”
NPS said they can either take no action other than immediate repairs or maintenance to this highly-popular national park, or they can design and build the “alternative design” approach, which for the purposes of public evaluation is separated into two options.
NPS, Georgetown Heritage, and Field Operations clearly listened to community concerns that the original proposals would be too radical a shift in the laid-back feel of the canal. Responding to over 350 comments from the public, power point slides in the presentation now highlighted the “historic significance” and “informal charm” of the linear park beloved to many D.C. residents and tourists.
An important discussion in this review focused on whether to expand the width of the narrow towpaths that limit access along parts of the canal. But instead of long, cantilevering pathways that were offered last November, Field Operations now proposes widening the paths slightly and only at key “pinch points,” a more strategic solution. Astheimer imagined new linear platforms as contemporary equivalents of the wooden decks that once lined the canal.
At mile-marker zero, the beginning of the 182-mile-long trail, Field Operations proposes intelligent fixes to improve pedestrian and bicycle connectivity and make the marker more of a destination. One option includes fun “habitable nets,” where people can lounge over the water, a feature now seen in other urban waterfront parks.
The proposal for the area they call Rock Creek Confluence, where the canal meets the creek, is also sensible, opening up views to the creek and the sequence of locks through a viewing platform set in pollinator-friendly meadows. A new pedestrian bridge will make both sides of the canal more accessible.
The Mule Yard design options feature more trees and expanded visitor infrastructure. Heading west towards Wisconsin Avenue, a busy corridor lined with coffee shops, restaurants, and stores, they propose a few alternatives to improve accessibility. Where the canal flows under Wisconsin Avenue, there are a few configurations with stairs and an elevator; and on the south side of the canal, a new boardwalk.
Further west down the canal, at Potomac Street, one of the central commercial hubs of Georgetown, where crowds come hear a jazz trio at Dean & Deluca on the weekends, an overlook has been transformed either into a “sky deck” or terraced seating. The designers propose opening up views across the canal here by clearing old trees along the south side of the canal. Elevators and Americans with Disabilites Act (ADA)-accessible ramps would make the canal, which can only be reached via steep stairs, far easier to traverse. These proposals would likely increase activity here and help bring more people down to the canal and perhaps the Georgetown Waterfront Park a few blocks to the south.
Lastly, the aqueduct and stone yard segments, the points in the plan furthest out from downtown Georgetown, are proposed as new destinations. The Stone Yard area could be left alone, but Field Operations proposes adding a platform or outdoor seating nooks there.
At the old aqueduct, which is now an interesting, graffiti-covered ruin, Corner’s team proposes heavily redeveloping the space — either as zig-zagging overlook platform or as a structure covered in a trestle, with a kiosk. This is the remaining ambitious piece perhaps most reminiscent of the High Line in New York City, which Corner’s firm also designed.
Astheimer seemed to understand what many community members conveyed in the first public review: that the C&O Canal is a “respite in a time when we are all overstimulated.” The new design concepts largely help preserve that vision while improving access and safety. Perhaps the community will find the final designs can be even more surgical, so as to further limit impacts on this historical landscape.
Coming next this spring: NPS, Georgetown Heritage, and Field Operations will finalize the plan, and then present design concepts before the Old Georgetown Board and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) in the coming year.
How Better Urban Planning Can Improve Gender Equality — Behavioral Scientist, 4/9/19
“In the mid-1990s, public officials in Vienna found something surprising when they studied who was using their public parks: girls were much less likely to use parks after age nine, while boys continued using them into their teens.”
International airports are in fierce competition for passengers and regularly one-up each other with new wow-factor amenities, shops, and restaurants. But Singapore decided to raise its game by going another direction: a plant-filled haven, a gateway consistent with its moniker — “the city in a garden.” The result is an inventive model other airports should copy, if not in form, then certainly in spirit.
The new Jewel Changi airport features a 6-acre indoor forest, walking trails, and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. This restorative mecca filled with 2,500 trees and 100,000 shrubs not only revitalizes weary international travelers but is also open to the public.
Over the past six years, Safdie Architects has led a team that included PWP Landscape Architecture, Atelier 10, WET, Burohappold, and ICN International to create this bar-raising travel experience.
Jewel Changi provides that nearby natural respite with a 5-story-tall forest encased in a 144,000-square-foot steel and glass donut structure. During rain storms, water pours through an oculus in the roof — creating the 130-foot-tall Rain Vortex, a mesmerizing waterfall sculpture that can accommodate up to 10,000 gallons per minute at peak flow. Stormwater is then recycled throughout the building.
According to Adam Greenspan, ASLA, a partner at PWP, there is a “forest valley” and a “canopy park.” Throughout, the firm used stone and wood to create winding paths that immerse visitors in nature.
The valley is organized into terraces, like you would find in a shade-covered coffee or tree plantation, and features three types of trees: Terminalia, a native to Madagascar; Agathis Borneensis, which is native to Malaysia and Indonesia; and Agathis Robusta, which is native to Australia. Terraced planters are faced with Indonesian lava stone that epiphytic and and other plants can climb.
Amid the canopy park, PWP planted a number of species of wide-spreading Ficus trees that will eventually create shade and a comfortable environment. Up on the fifth level, there’s a topiary walk and horticultural gardens, and an event space for up to 1,000 people.
Throughout the biosphere-like terminal, PWP selected some 200 species of mostly-highland plant species, calibrating them to the giant torus’ unique conditions where temperatures and humidity levels are slightly cooler than outside. “Air movement, humidity, and natural light have all been balanced.”
In addition to hosting some 300 shops and restaurants and a transit hotel, the terminal connects to the city’s public bus system. Pedestrian bridges and an inter-terminal train link passengers and visitors to the airport’s many gates.
With Jewel Changi, Singapore has reinvented what an airport can be, just as they re-imagined what a hospital can be with Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, which is not only a medical facility but also a green hub open to the community. Now let’s hope Singapore’s biophilic design culture spreads around the world, like the planes that leave its terminals.