Barbara Wilks’ Dynamic Geographies

Dynamic Geographies / Barbara Wilks, ORO Editions

By Grace Mitchell Tada

Static. According to Barbara Wilks, FASLA, landscapes are too often designed with that operating assumption.

Even though humans have been around for the past 200,000 years, we still have a proclivity to design landscapes to remain the same for 20 to 50 years.

Wilks argues this is a problem that needs to change. Given the projected growth of cities and the challenges of a rapidly shifting climate, she asserts that dynamic landscapes are required for resilient, healthy urban communities.

She strives to create these landscapes at her firm, W Architecture & Landscape Architecture. Her ideas about landscapes emerge from decades of professional experience. In a new book, Dynamic Geographies, Wilks demonstrates how she centers natural processes through her designs. As most of her projects unfold in cities, this necessarily includes altering how humans perceive the landscapes around them.

Wilks defines dynamic geographies as complex systems that use non-anthropogenic forces for adaptation. For landscape architects to integrate these systems into projects, they must consider other species, the interconnectivity of various forms of life, and time as a landscape element. Landscape architects must design to larger and multiple time scales. They must gauge “what could be as opposed to what we want changed now.”

A key aspect to designing at various time scales involves transforming how we manage landscapes—and that includes the management of W’s projects. At present, they require humans to maintain. A truly sustainable landscape, Wilks asserts, can exist without humans, allowing “different flows and rates of change for different species.” As a result, W designs landscapes that welcome these processes: it’s these forms of maintenance that in the long run can yield diverse and sustaining landscapes.

The book divides W’s projects into three categories: “(In)visible Geographies,” “Layered Geographies,” and “Unleashing Geographies.” Each section builds on the other, and projects across these sections seek to illuminate landscapes’ dynamism and situate geographies within extended time scales. While Wilks doesn’t claim success in all her projects—“this book is a critical look back at our success and failures at W”—one can glean effective strategies to instill dynamism throughout projects.

In the first section, projects attempt to reveal aspects of sites often hidden, “making them manifest, so that urban dwellers have the opportunity to situate themselves in larger systems that transcend their immediate realities,” writes Alison Hirsch in the book’s introduction. Wilks is not nostalgic for us to return to previous time or to lost landscapes. “We can’t return to the past,” she writes, but “we can construct new relationships that bind us into the fabric of a place’s ongoing evolution.”

Through these new relationships, Wilks hopes communities can understand they are embedded in and not separate from nature. W’s projects facilitate this understanding in various ways. In Baltimore, a waterfront soap factory simultaneously reflects its location in the greater Chesapeake Bay region and in an industrial harbor. In Brooklyn, the off-kilter angles of the piers at the Edge project echo the turbulence of the East River into which they extend.

At West Harlem Piers Park in Manhattan, newly designed piers adopt the patterns of the Hudson River instead of the city grid. The site’s forms resemble sand dunes and the benches recall driftwood. The project, though, didn’t emerge solely of the designer’s ideas. In fact, the community spurned W’s initial conception of the project involving a “missing pier”—a field of piles in the Hudson—as too evocative of a ruin. In its place, New York City’s first reef ball structure was developed, which today serves as habitat to a diversity of aquatic life.

West Harlem Piers, New York, NY / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

The book’s second section, “Layered Geographies,” doubles down on integrating the social and ecological systems comprising urban spaces. The projects here demonstrate the relationships between communities and the place in which they’re embedded. Several projects were designed for communities in places destroyed by urban renewal or disregarded by infrastructure projects, including in St. Louis and Detroit.

Chouteau Greenway, St. Louis, MO / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

One such project is Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter in Tampa, Florida. The park was previously an African American neighborhood, which was demolished with the construction of a highway. A park was established in its place, from which the displaced community understandably felt estranged. W was brought in to work with them to develop a park that reflected what they wanted. Not only does the new park embody the community’s desires, but it weaves into the surrounding urban social fabric and allows the river ecology to flourish. Like many of W’s projects, this landscape necessitated considerations of many time scales — from the daily to the generational to the geological.

Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter, Tampa, FL / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO
Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter, Tampa, FL / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO
St. Patrick’s Island, Calgary, Alberta / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

The final section, “Unleashing Geographies,” further elevates nonhuman systems and their agency in shaping landscapes, especially over extended time scales. Wilks is interested in how their landscapes will evolve and how they can support all varieties of biophysical systems through this evolution. They are about humans letting go.

This objective is exemplified by W’s design at St. Patrick’s Island in Calgary, Alberta. W accentuated the shifting nature of the island, removing static water-protective barriers around the edge and welcoming water flows through the island. The design fosters the emergence of streams and wetlands, which will move over time while designating certain “fixed” areas for human activity. According to Wilks, perhaps expressing her ideal of a designed landscape, “it is a living landscape with smaller human-managed areas set within it.”

St. Patrick’s Island, Calgary, Alberta / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

Through their deference to natural systems, projects like St. Patrick’s Island achieve lasting change. These projects, Wilks insists, must enable new growth and development of adaptable systems—not just preservation of existing ones. As she points out, even small projects in this vein show how they can succeed on other sites, encouraging more such efforts to proliferate. Here, especially, the book may prove useful to other landscape architects and designers, who can glean inspiration from W’s projects.

As our climate shifts in increasingly surprising ways, the landscape architect’s challenge is to predict how and at what rate our world will change and to create designs that will adapt accordingly. Perhaps, like Wilks argues, allowing for nature’s agency is the key to effective adaptation.

Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, is with Hood Design Studio and PGAdesign and co-editor of the book Black Landscapes Matter.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (June 1-15)

Art in its nature state: visible invisible in Arkansas / Phoebe Lickwar, via Sightlines

Edible Cities: Landscape Architect Phoebe Lickwar on Post-pandemic Public Spaces and Urban Agriculture — 06/14/21, Sightlines
“Landscape architect Phoebe Lickwar thinks about how more food could be grown within cities — how agriculture should be a part of contemporary urban infrastructure. Sure, that means things like more community gardens where people can grow their own food. But even the practice of community gardens needs significant expansion and change.”

Cornelia Oberlander, a Farsighted Landscape Architect, Dies at 99 — 06/09/21, The New York Times
“Her acclaimed modernist but naturalist designs recognized the fragility of the climate and the social effects of parks and playgrounds.”

When Monuments Go Bad — 06/08/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“The Chicago Monuments Project is leading a city-wide dialogue in search of ways to resolve its landscape of problematic statues, and make room for a new, different kind of public memorial.”

Explore the Modernist Landscapes of Washington, D.C., with This New Illustrated Guide — 06/08/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Now, D.C.’s modernist landscapes are taking center stage with a new illustrated guide produced by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in partnership with the National Park Service. Titled D.C. Modernism, the handheld device-optimized, GPS-enabled city guide is the 18th of its kind to be produced by TCLF as part of the What’s Out There series.”

With New Law, Las Vegas Water Agency Bets on ‘Aggressive Municipal Water Conservation Measure’ to Remove Decorative Turf, Conserve Colorado River Supply — 06/08/21, The Nevada Independent
“Over the past two decades, Lake Mead, which holds nearly all of Las Vegas’ water, has dropped more than 100 feet amid drought and overuse. In response, federal regulators expect to declare the first-ever shortage for the Colorado River next year, triggering cuts to Arizona and Nevada’s allocations.”

Lower Merion Suddenly Has a Walkable Riverfront, Thanks to Pencoyd Landing Development — 06/07/21, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“By incorporating bits and pieces from the ironworks into the design, the project becomes more than just another generic development. History is made visible in the steel outline of the former complex.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 16-31)

Swing Time by Höweler + Yoon Architecture, Boston / via Bloomberg CityLab

Teen Girls Need Better Public Spaces to Hang Out — 05/28/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Basketball courts, skate parks and playgrounds overlook an important demographic: teenage girls. A burgeoning design movement is trying to fix that.”

D.C. Retakes Top Spot in Annual Survey of Nation’s Best Parks; Arlington at No. 4 — 05/27/21, The Washington Post
“The survey, released Thursday by the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group, ranks the nation’s 100 largest cities on park access, acreage, investment, amenities — and, for the first time this year, ‘park equity.'”

Anna Halprin, Teacher and Choreographer Who Embraced Improvisational Style, Dies — 05/25/21, The Washington Post
“Mrs. Halprin [wife of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin] made a bold statement by making California her base. ‘I’m accused of being touchy-feely,’ she once said. ‘Well, I am. California is a very sensual place, and its landscape has become my theater. I’ve found much inspiration in the way nature operates.'”

An Open Space Plan for Cultural Landscapes, Resilience, and Growth in the Coastal Southeast — 05/25/21, Planetizen
“The Beaufort County Greenprint Plan, completed in 2020, offers an innovative model of open space planning integrated within a larger planning framework.”

Canadian Landscape Architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Dies at 99 — 05/24/21, The Architect’s Newspaper 
“German-born Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, who revolutionized mid-20th century urban play spaces and cleared the path for women in the profession, has died in Vancouver, British Columbia, just weeks ahead of what would have been her centenary on June 20.”

A New $260 Million Park Floats on the Hudson. It’s a Charmer — 05/20/21, The New York Times
“Signe Nielsen, a co-founder of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, designed everything green and flowering that visitors will see, smell, lay a blanket on and walk past.”

What Could Be Next for Biden’s Infrastructure Plan

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park Phase II: A New Urban Ecology. Long Island City, NY, USA. SWA/BALSLEY and WEISS/MANFREDI with ARUP

Congressional debate on the massive new infrastructure legislation President Joe Biden has proposed is a “big glorious mess,” said Jason Jordan, director of public affairs at the American Planning Association, during their virtual national conference.

President Biden’s infrastructure proposal, which is called the American Jobs Plan, calls for spending $2.2 trillion over the next 8 years. Some $620 billion would go to funding improvements to roads, bridges, public transit, rails, ports, waterways, and new electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure. $115 billion of that would go to modernizing 20,000 miles of highways, roads, and main streets, along with another $20 billion for road safety. $100 billion would be for improving water infrastructure.

The plan defines infrastructure much more broadly than just roads and bridges and includes social, technological, educational, and economic infrastructure. Biden asks for another $400 billion for home care services and workforce development, $300 billion for manufacturing, $213 billion for housing, $100 billion for broadband infrastructure, $100 billion for new schools, $180 billion for research and development, and $100 billion for workforce development. To pay for these priorities, Biden calls for increasing the corporate tax from 21 percent to 28 percent and setting minimum corporate taxes.

Jordan asked a panel he assembled tough questions like: “Will budget reconciliation be used to fund the infrastructure investments? Will Biden’s infrastructure proposals be bound up in transportation legislation re-authorization? Will the financing mechanisms for these infrastructure proposals be increased corporate taxes, user fees, or gas taxes?”

Sam Mintz, a transportation reporter with Politico, said “there’s a high level of uncertainty around infrastructure, because there are unprecedented and vast policy changes proposed.”

“Republicans have made a much smaller counter-proposal that would just focus on transportation, water, and broadband infrastructure. They would finance this investment with increased infrastructure user fees rather than corporate taxes,” he explained.

The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which passed in 2015, and then was extended through this year, adds another element to Congressional deliberations on transportation. A number of bills are being developed in committees to replace the FAST Act. “Biden may bounce off the baseline re-authorization of transportation spending or spend more on top of this bill,” Mintz said.

He also believes that budget reconciliation, which is a way to get past the 60 votes required for legislation in the Senate, is likely to be used given the “progressive climate components” of Biden’s infrastructure plans.

For Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, director of federal government affairs at ASLA, the debate on transportation infrastructure is personal. “I grew up in West Baltimore, a once vibrant working-to-middle class community, which is now called an underserved community. Like many former industrial cities, Baltimore encountered some severe challenges — from the loss of factories and their blue collar jobs, to white flight, urban decay, and so called ‘urban renewal,’ and increased crime.” West Baltimore now has “rows of abandoned houses, vacant lots, food deserts, deserted and decrepit playgrounds and parks, ineffective public transit — and yes – a highway to nowhere – that replaced blocks and blocks of homes and Black families.”

Equity and climate change now guide ASLA’s advocacy efforts. Recently, the organization has sent its comprehensive set of policy recommendations to the Biden-Harris administration, relevant departments and agencies, and Congressional committees. ASLA then sent a second set of transportation recommendations to Capitol Hill on re-authorizing the FAST Act.

According to Blackwell, landscape architects are focused on increasing equitable access to safe pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, such as Complete Streets; transit-oriented development; and green infrastructure. “We also strongly believe that parks are infrastructure, and have not been elevated in the conversation as much as they should be. Parks are a critical part of the social fabric.”

She called for a broad-based collaboration between planning and design organizations and local community groups to transform inequitable elevated highways — which destroyed diverse urban communities as part of “urban renewal” — into green, surface-level boulevards. “This is a no brainer and something the nation needs to do. It can be the first step in atonement.”

And this is where Blackwell believes the resurgence of Congressional earmarks presents a real opportunity. Congressional committees are being more inclusive in their earmark review process and asking for proposals directly from community groups. “So this is not just about capital investment but also about community engagement. These community groups — and our grassroots network of landscape architects — can now advocate for specific projects in specific places. It’s a huge opportunity for our members to address environmental injustices.”

There may also be new opportunities on climate change-related measures in Biden’s proposals. “While the terminology may be different — the Democrats say climate change, and the Republicans talk about resilience — the message is the same and there is a new willingness to work on these issues. Climate change, and nature-based solutions, are now part of the conversation,” Blackwell said.

Mintz said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who was determined to make President Barack Obama a one-term president, can be expected to be recalcitrant towards any new major investments on mitigating or adapting to climate change. Biden’s infrastructure proposal is “probably the only climate bill we will get — it’s the chance for climate action before the mid-term elections next year.” He added that “climate change may be used as a cudgel” by Republicans in the mid-terms.

Blackwell argued that senators and representatives need to “listen to their constituents who have been flooded, seen their backyard on fire, or experienced drought. There will be a political price to pay for more theater.”

Democrats and Republicans are still far apart on EV infrastructure. “Republicans see this as giving a big gift to China, as EV batteries are produced there, and there isn’t a domestic U.S. battery industry,” Mintz said. But he noted that President Biden has been talking about 500,000 EV charging stations since the very early days of his campaign so is not expected to compromise on this policy area.

Blackwell said that ASLA is focused more on building out safe, accessible bike and pedestrian infrastructure so as to reduce the number of short trips taken in vehicles. “We need complete streets for everyone.”

Moakley Park: The Inclusive, Resilient Park That Prepares South Boston for the Future

Stoss Landscape Urbanism, led by Chris Reed, FASLA, has produced a fascinating 40-minute video about their new design for Moakley Park in South Boston, which vividly conveys how to create next-generation waterfront parks in the era of sea level rise, social and environmental injustices, and COVID-19.

Through Stoss’ inventive resilience plan and landscape design, which was created in partnership with a range of community groups, Moakley Park will be transformed into an inclusive, resilient, biodiverse, and accessible recreational hub for diverse nearby neighborhoods, including the predominantly Black Roxbury and Dorchester communities.

Stoss states that updates to the 60-acre park, which were just approved by agencies in Boston, present “a rare opportunity to address pressing climate change needs while also prioritizing social, cultural, economic and environmental equity.”

Stoss led a large multi-disciplinary team for the project. Their design builds in climate resilience by creating multi-layered solutions for coastal flooding, stormwater, and extreme heat. The planning and design team proposed a landscape berm that will help protect the park and surrounding neighborhoods from a “predicted sea level rise of 21-40 inches in the next 50-60 years.” Constructed coastal marshes, tree orchards, and stormwater meadows help with both stormwater management and storm-related inundation from the coast. Some 500 new trees will help cool the space.

The video makes the science very clear — it models where sea level rise, exacerbated by heavy storms, would inundate the park and surrounding neighborhoods. This is planning and design rooted in the Boston city government’s latest climate projections.

Petra Geiger with Stoss, who produced and narrated the video, explains how Stoss and its team, which includes local Boston landscape architecture firm Weston & Sampson, delved into the complex legacy of the park. She explains Moakley Park’s rich history — from a garbage dump in the early 20th century to the site of protests against racial injustice in the mid-1970s.

Stoss also reframes the site — as a node in a larger waterfront Harborwalk network; as part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, his grand system of parks; as part of a new coastal bulwark against seal level rise; and as a crucial recreational space for nearby communities that are expected to double in population over coming decades.

The new park is designed to increase public health and well-being, and therefore social resilience. As a first step, Stoss and team analyzed all the physical and non-physical barriers to access. A highway, busy streets, and dangerous rotaries that surround Moakley Park all prevent older residents and those with disabilities from accessing the space. Some 55 percent of the current park is dedicated to sports, which is great, but there aren’t many alternatives for people who want to just enjoy nature or take an interesting walk.

Given the predominant sports focus, “the park is largely dormant in winter,” explained Amy Whitesides, ASLA, director of resilience and research at Stoss. And while Carson Beach is just over the other side of William J. Day Boulevard, which bounds the eastern edge of Moakley Park, relatively few go there because they can’t see it and it is difficult to access.

The planning and design team’s strategy for building climate and social resilience is to layer in an amazing set of multi-functional amenities. In an effort to create a more inclusive and equitable recreational center, there will be even more sports areas, including for basketball, skateboarding, and street hockey.

But the park will not just be about sports any longer. Amid the fields and courts are relaxing (and resilient and biodiverse) green spaces filled with native plants, playgrounds, picnic and BBQ areas, and more. All of these are made much more accessible through new safe routes into the park.

Moakley Park / Stoss Landscape Urbanism
Moakley Park / Stoss Landscape Urbanism
Moakley Park / Stoss Landscape Urbanism

Stoss and team have also forged a greater connection with Carson Beach, better integrating the park and beach into the Harborwalk and surrounding neighborhoods. There are now more accessible pathways under the boulevard that take visitors back and forth between the park and beach.

Moakley Park / Stoss Landscape Urbanism

In the video, the design team reiterates how “deep community engagement,” including open houses, in-person and web-based surveys, virtual tours, free movie night events, and countless interviews with residents of the area informed the planning and design process. Stoss and team also worked closely with community advocacy groups and even hired an equity consultant.

Reed said: “the goal has been to create a safe place for everyone.” Everything from the protective coastal berm, to the safer street-level access points, to the trees, which help cool the air, help achieve that mission. “This is what a new 21st century park looks like.”

The video was released as part of the American Planning Association (APA)’s virtual national conference.

Utility-Scale Solar Energy Could Need Land the Size of Connecticut

Combining solar and ecological restoration at Purdue University, Indiana / Great Plains Institute

The U.S. is headed towards a renewable energy future. Over the coming decades, some mix of mostly wind and solar power will spread across the landscape. With the growing cost competitiveness of utility-scale solar power plants, we can expect 583 gigawatts to be in production by 2050. That’s ten times the current amount. At approximately 7 acres per megawatt, that means an area larger than the state of Connecticut could be used for solar energy production.

Through thoughtful planning and design, these future solar power plants can be well-integrated into communities and provide many co-benefits — water quality improvements, ecological restoration, and pollinator habitat, among many others. Renewable energy creates enormous opportunities for landscape architects and planners working in rural, suburban, and urban areas.

At the American Planning Association (APA)’s virtual national conference, Megan Day, a senior energy planner with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado, said that utility-scale power plants, which are very large-scale solar facilities, are needed to achieve our climate and energy goals.

Utility-scale solar now accounts for 60-70 percent of all solar energy in the U.S. This is because the cost of energy from utility-scale solar is approximately “one third to one-fourth the cost of residential solar.” The market is further heading in the direction of big solar power facilities.

Daly said “these numbers don’t speak fully to value though.” Utility-scale solar creates far fewer green jobs than rooftop solar. 1 megawatt of clean energy could be generated through a single utility-scale power plant or approximately 100 rooftops. While the capital costs of the utility approach would be about $1 million less, there would also be much fewer local green jobs created. “This is because you need a lot more people to install 100 rooftop systems.” (Not to mention utilities offer fewer resilience benefits: Any centralized power plant can go down in a hurricane, storm, or wildfire).

Day said the vast majority of new solar power facilities use tracking systems that rotate photovoltaic (PV) panels to face the sun over the course of each day. While these tracking systems increase the amount of solar energy that can be captured, it also means these power plants require more space so as to avoid over-shadowing other tilting panels. “These panels cast shadows east west, so they need more land.” Combined with ecological site design that avoids existing wetlands, rivers, streams, and forests, these kinds of renewable energy power plants aren’t the most compact. “In fact, compact isn’t the best.”

The trend is for solar power facilities to go bigger and bigger. In 2010, she said, a large solar power plant had a 15 megawatt capacity. Today, there are 75-250 megawatt systems and even larger. “With more land, you can achieve greater economies of scale.”

Showing interactive models NREL can create through its fantastic State and Local Planning for Energy (SLOPE) tool, Day indicated where in the continental U.S. solar energy could be developed. If all land suitable for solar development was used, the country would have 59,000 times more energy than it consumes on an annual basis. “That gives you a sense of the incredible potential.” In contrast, if all suitable roofs in the U.S. were covered with PV panels, they would only meet 45 percent of energy needs.

While California and Texas are currently leaders in renewable power generation because they have invested in transmission capacity, many other states across the country can easily expand their solar energy capacity.

According to Sarah Davis, a planner who founded her own firm, “large-scale solar is coming” to every community. As the U.S. de-carbonizes its energy systems, there an opportunity for “authentic and meaningful community participation” in planning and designing a clean energy future.

Planning new utility-scale solar facilities involves typical development activities — incorporating developments into long-range comprehensive plans, creating enabling regulations, and permitting actual projects. These projects include utilities, developers, landowners, federal and state regulators, residents, and the end-users of the energy generated.

Using NREL’s SLOPE tool, Davis helps communities identify, at a county level, what areas would be ripe for solar development; what areas should be avoided because of existing cultural, scenic, or environmental resources; and where solar developments could provide the most co-benefits.

She outlined a few examples: In Butte county, California, Davis worked with stakeholders to create a vision statement that outlines a set of guiding principles and design and development guidelines. In Stearns, Minnesota, an agricultural community integrated renewable energy into the agricultural section of their comprehensive plan. “PVs need land and can use grazing areas.” But the new policies also required beneficial ground cover amid the solar facilities and enabled laying new transmission cables. And renewable energy planning can even be done in small rural communities. In Gold Hill, Colorado, she worked with an isolated community of 200-300 residents to devise a plan for a micro-grid and distributed household solar systems.

Another theme running through the session was the importance of maximizing the co-benefits of solar energy. Brian Ross, a vice president at the Great Plains Institute in Minnesota, made the case: “if sited and designed appropriately, large-scale solar can provide local benefits to communities. If you can restore watershed functions, diversify agriculture, or protect wildlife habitat and drinking water supplies, does it matter if it’s a solar farm?”

“Solar development is also development, and development means jobs, rents, and tax revenue,” Ross argued. The benefits of utility-scale solar development projects are increased local property tax incomes, increased local power generation, and reduced environmental and climate risks.

Communities should first figure out where to site their large-scale solar power facilities, then determine how the facility should function as a land use. “When planning and designing these projects, it’s important to look for synergies.” If there are valuable natural areas, watersheds, or scenic areas, “don’t put the solar developments in those places.” Instead, use solar farms as a way to fix existing environmental issues.

For example, in one Indiana agricultural community, nitrate run-off from farms was negatively impacting water quality, including groundwater recharge areas and the drinking water supply. The community decided to transform a 33-hectare area of contaminated farmland into land just used for solar power generation.

The new solar facility enabled the farmers to still earn income from the land while also reducing water quality impacts. This is a prime example of the co-benefits of utility-scale solar: “co-locating solar power plants with agriculture is a way to diversify farmers’ incomes and provide buffers for watersheds, including groundwater and surface water,” Ross said.

Solar power plants can not only just serve as buffers that reduce other impacts downstream, they can also be ecologically beneficial themselves. Acres of PV panels can be arranged amid native grassland restoration projects that can yield a three-fold increase in pollinators and a two-third increase in carbon sequestration through the landscape. Furthermore, these native grassland projects can increase sediment retention by 95 percent and water retention by 15 percent.

Engie solar, Vermont / courtesy of Fresh Energy, Rob Davis
Denison University, Ohio / courtesy of Fresh Energy, Rob Davis
Perdue solar headquarters / courtesy of Fresh Energy, Rob Davis

In Indiana, Purdue University’s extension programs worked with conservation, agriculture, and energy stakeholders to create state-wide standards for ground cover in solar power plants. This approach has been included in a model solar ordinance created by Indiana University and codified in an innovative ordinance that requires beneficial ground cover over the lifespan of a solar facility, which is 25 to 30 years. The ordinance ensures that solar energy developers just don’t plant once and then forget to maintain the landscape. Some solar power facilities are even in layering in sheep grazing, vegetable farming, and bee hives. Solar power plants can become multi-functional green infrastructure.

Urban Heat Islands Are Increasingly Dangerous, But Planners and Designers Have Solutions

A Case-Only Study of Vulnerability to Heat Wave–Related Mortality in New York City (2000–2011) / Jaime Madrigano, Rutgers, State University of New Jersey; Kazuhiko Ito, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; Sarah Johnson, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; Patrick Kinney, Columbia University

Global temperatures are rising. 2020 was tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record. Since the 19th century, the planet has warmed by 2° Fahrenheit. Within the built environment, which is too often formed of glass, steel, asphalt, and concrete, dangerous urban heat islands are increasing the risks of heat stress. Underserved communities are particularly at risk, given they often lack trees and green spaces to mitigate the effects.

According to Devanshi Purohit, associate principal of urban design at CBT Architects, who led a session at the American Planning Association (APA)’s virtual national conference, extreme heat is the number-one climate killer in the U.S., accounting for more deaths than sea level rise, flooding, drought, and other impacts. But, strangely, extreme heat doesn’t get the focus it deserves. Reducing urban heat islands should be a central focus of the planning and design professions.

In three cities — New York City, Copenhagen, and Abu Dhabi — new approaches have been designed to both reduce urban temperatures and help communities adapt to a hotter world.

In NYC, there is a Mayor’s office of resilience, and Daphne Lundi is deputy director for social resilience. Lundi seeks how to leverage communities’ support systems to lower risks to climate impacts.

Lundi said on average cities can be up to 22° F hotter than surrounding natural areas. Furthermore, apartments and homes without air conditioners can be 20° F warmer than the outside. This is why each year in New York City, more than 1,100 people are hospitalized for heat stress and more than 100 die.

Heat risk levels vary by neighborhood. Through the Heat Vulnerability Index, which was created in partnership with Columbia University, the city government now understands that 3.4 million NYC residents are highly vulnerable (see image at top). “Risk is based in environmental factors, such as the amount of green space but also tied to poverty and race,” Lundi explained. Her department has identified low-income and older Black residents as at the greatest risk of falling ill or dying from extreme heat.

In 2017, NYC launched its Cool Neighborhoods plan, its first plan to combat extreme heat, and allocated $100 million for targeted investments in green infrastructure and tree plantings in higher risk neighborhoods.

NYC Department of Environmental Protection has installed thousands of green infrastructure projects in the public right-of-way, which have replaced sections of sidewalk with rain gardens. / NYC Department of Environmental Protection

Those most at risk are the home bound who have physical and mental issues. So as part of the effort, the city is focused on increasing risk preparedness by educating home health aids who assist older adults, helping them to identify “the early signs of early heat stress and illness.”

NYC also launched the Be a Buddy campaign, which aims to provide support for the most hard-to-reach New Yorkers. According to Lundi, during heat waves, the program leverages “long-existing bonds” and activates a system in which people check in on neighbors who may be home bound. “The system leverages trusted messengers. It was also used during the pandemic.”

Be a Buddy / NYC Mayor’s Office of Resilience

The city is painting roofs on city-owned property white in order to reflect more heat back into the atmosphere. They have improved access to cooling centers. And they have purchased air conditioners for low-income, heat vulnerable residents. To date, the city has installed 74,000 air conditioners in residents’ homes and also created a utility assistance program, which offers a subsidy of $30 month during warmer months, to ensure those new air conditioners are actually used.

Moving to Copenhagen, Denmark, Rasmus Astrup, design principal and partner at SLA, a landscape architecture and urban design firm, explained that cities, with all their warming surfaces, are actually part of the climate problem — amplifying the heat impacts and creating more heat. “Cities, as they are planned and designed now, are super dumb and creating many new problems.”

Nature, which is self-sufficient and resilient, offers the best strategies for addressing extreme heat. “Nature is the most clever, so we need to re-think cities and make them more ecological.”

He noted that he said ecological and not just green, because climate change is also adversely impacting biodiversity, which underpins all life on Earth. Ecological urban solutions are needed to not only combat heat islands but to also support biodiversity.

Astrup focused on SLA’s Bryggervangen and Sankt Kjeld’s Square in Copenhagen, as a solution for tackling multiple climate issues at once: heat, flooding, and biodiversity loss. In just a few decades, “Copenhagen will have a climate similar to Barcelona, Spain,” so Astrup believes more places like this are urgently needed.

A standard roundabout in a neighborhood with very little nature was transformed into a forested area, but one that “traffic engineers can also love,” given SLA integrated bike lanes and tram lines.

Bryggervangen and Sankt Kjeld’s Square in Copenhagen / SLA
Bryggervangen and Sankt Kjeld’s Square in Copenhagen / SLA

Astrup described the project as a “blue green climate adaptation,” which created a biodiverse landscape that ably reduces heat and manages stormwater. “Every pocket now has green space.”

Bryggervangen and Sankt Kjeld’s Square in Copenhagen / SLA

Another result is a new sense of place for this community in Copenhagen. This is a climate adaptation project people can connect to.

Bryggervangen and Sankt Kjeld’s Square in Copenhagen / SLA

Kishore Varanasi, principal of urban design with CBT, then took the audience to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. He made the case for evidence-based design to tackle heat challenges.

“We’re feeling hotter, but what strategies can we use to solve the problem? Buildings, cars, asphalt all make communities hotter, so we need a layered strategy to address sources of heat.” There are shading, evaporation, convection, and conduction-based approaches.

For Varanasi, the Universal Thermal Climate Index is a useful tool for measuring environmental heat and its impact on us. “We can handle up to 30° C (86° F) comfortably but not much hotter than that.”

In Abu Dhabi, summer temperatures can already be extreme by late morning, past humans’ comfort zones. To reduce heat stress, CBT has been working with city stakeholders to create “cool paths and cool zones.”

Given there isn’t enough water to grow large shade trees in Abu Dhabi, CBT designed architectural shade structures that offer “intermittent shading.” For example, a pedestrian walking down a pathway would be in the shade for one minute and then direct sun for one minute. “People can handle a minute in high heat.” The structures are also angled in order to provide shade at different times of the day.

Varanasi said the spaces between buildings can be transformed into passive cool zones without a great deal of effort. Vertical shading, green walls, and reflective paving, along with misters help create thermally-comfortable zones that can also be “delightful at night.”

The panel concluded that while climate change is a global problem, solutions to extreme heat must be local. “You have to understand the environmental and socio-economic context,” Varanasi said.

Lundi noted that new developments are often designed to be climate resilient, but cities are made up of mostly old stocks of buildings. “We also need to bring our older neighborhoods into the future.”

Also worth checking out is a recent comprehensive report from the Urban Land Institute: Scorched: Extreme Heat and Real Estate, which outlines regional impacts and solutions in the U.S. in more detail.

ASLA Testifies Before Congress on Green Infrastructure

Kevin Robert Perry, FASLA, Senior Landscape Architect, Toole Design, and Principal, Urban Rain Design, testified on behalf of ASLA to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

His full testimony below:

Thank you Chair Napolitano, Ranking Member Rouzer, and Members of the subcommittee for the opportunity to testify on the valuable work being done by landscape architects in the water and stormwater management space.

My name is Kevin Robert Perry and I am a licensed landscape architect and an internationally recognized leader in successfully integrating stormwater management with high-quality urban design.

I work as a Senior Landscape Architect at Toole Design Group with a specific expertise in intertwining green infrastructure with innovative multimodal streetscape design. I am also the founder of Urban Rain Design, a small design studio based in both California and Oregon that specializes in using Tactical Green Infrastructure to rapidly implement simple, cost-effective, and beautiful public space stormwater projects.

I am here today on behalf of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), where I have been a Fellow since 2017.

ASLA believes that water quality is essential to our economy, communities, and environment. By working to protect it, our membership of landscape architects plays a critical role in community sustainability and public health.

Landscape architects address water quality through ecologically-based practices that help reduce or remove pollutants in urban, rural, and conservation areas. To help protect water quality and conserve valuable water resources, ASLA encourages planning, design management, and policies that are science-based, collaborative, creative, and equitable.

The Value of Green Infrastructure

Ample clean water supplies are necessary to help preserve health, sustain quality of life, support economic stability, and maintain environmental quality.

Unsustainable development practices, poorly designed infrastructure, population growth, and other factors continue to threaten water quality and emphasize the need for the wiser and more creative use of resources. Urban sprawl and the expansion of paved surfaces increases volume and speed of storm flows, carries pollutants into streams, prevents groundwater recharge, and drastically reduces the landscape’s ability to respond to everyday storm events, much less the current and future challenges of climate change.

In much of the country, especially in older cities and towns, stormwater is funneled into our wastewater systems. During intense rain events, these systems can become overwhelmed resulting in stormwater overflow being released into nearby waters — along with all of the untreated sewage, debris, pesticides, and anything else caught in the underground pipe system.

While the United States has generally had success in protecting water quality, EPA research has found that nonpoint source pollution, the type of water pollution I just described, remains the leading cause of water quality problems.

This is where landscape architects are stepping up and playing a key role. We are at the forefront of developing innovative design strategies that promote sustainability, resiliency, and a balanced vibrancy between our built and natural environment. By incorporating cost-effective and innovative green infrastructure methods into our projects, we plan and design landscaped-based systems that reduce the impacts of flooding, contain the movement of pollutants and other debris, help infiltrate stormwater on-site, increase biodiversity, and integrate these nature-based solutions seamlessly into our cities and towns.

SW Montgomery Green Street, Portland, Oregon / Kevin Robert Perry

In areas where drought and inadequate water supply is of top concern, green infrastructure may also be a viable solution, helping to replenish local groundwater reserves and recharging aquifers. We also promote and incorporate the use of sustainably-designed greywater systems and other water capture measures to help reduce the need for external water sources.

In general, the landscape architect’s multi-functional, multi-purpose design solutions allows for a less destructive human relationship with the natural environment.

Landscape architecture practices also provide a key equity and environmental justice solution. One such practice is performing meaningful community engagement during the design and planning process. Often, the communities that stand to benefit the most from our work are the low-income and racially diverse communities that have been damaged by years of underinvestment and disinvestment. This includes communities located in small towns, large cities, and all areas in between. ASLA and its members are committed to utilizing our trade to directly improve lives in underserved communities; and community engagement and green infrastructure can be important tools to aid in this effort.

Planned Green Street Improvements in Colma, California / Kevin Robert Perry

Green infrastructure also leads to job creation. According to Green For All, a national organization working to build an inclusive green economy, a $188.4 billion investment in stormwater management would generate $265.6 billion in economic activity and create close to 1.9 million jobs. Furthermore, green infrastructure is good for small businesses, as many landscape architects work for or run their own small firms, as I have for nearly a decade.

Green Infrastructure Across Scales

One of the greatest benefits of using green infrastructure is that it can be implemented across a wide range of scale and community contexts. Resilient coastlines/riverfronts, regional parks, and interconnected green transportation corridors can be realized at the large citywide-scale; while rain gardens, pervious paving, and a robust use of street trees can grace nearly any neighborhood-scale space.

With thousands of our schools, roads, parks, and other civic space infrastructure either breaking down or inefficiently designed, there is an incredible opportunity to boldly retrofit our built environment with long-lasting green infrastructure strategies.

Washington D.C. Green Street / Kevin Robert Perry

Tactical Green Infrastructure

One avenue of green infrastructure that is starting to take root on the West Coast is the concept of Tactical Green Infrastructure. While many infrastructure projects can take years to be fully implemented, Tactical Green Infrastructure is a specialized design-build methodology that allows professional design practitioners, students, and/or volunteers to work together to identify, design, and construct expedited green infrastructure projects at public schools, parks, and even some street locations. These small-scale projects convert either existing paved or underutilized green space into highly functional rain garden landscapes within a couple of months – and directly involve the local community through the process. This kind of low-cost, effective, and quickly built Green Infrastructure can be a simple national model but with near-term and tangible results realized at the neighborhood level. While conceived in both Oregon and California, we believe a coordinated Tactical Green Infrastructure approach, led by landscape architects, has immense potential to expand throughout the United States.

Tactical Green Infrastructure groundbreaking, led by landscape architects / Kevin Robert Perry

The Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2021

ASLA and its members appreciate the committee’s support for legislation promoting green infrastructure, including H.R. 1915 – the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2021, which would help states and local communities fund green infrastructure projects that protect water.

We are also appreciative of the committee’s support for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, and specifically the Green Project Reserve, which mandates that at least 10% of funds are used by states for green infrastructure projects. Since states and localities typically do not have their own funding mechanisms to keep their water infrastructure safe, up to date, and within the requirements of the Clean Water Act, many landscape architecture projects would not be possible without the help of this program.

For these reasons, ASLA is supportive of increased funding to the Clean Water SRF, as well as making the Green Project Reserve permanent and increasing its minimum percentage. To make projects even more sustainable and resilient, the Clean Water SRF should also be adjusted to allow for the funding of long-term maintenance projects as well.

Conclusion

With that, I thank the committee for inviting me to testify today. ASLA looks forward to working with you and your colleagues to ensure that Congress leverages the field of landscape architecture when striving for its climate adaptation and sustainability goals.

Our Vanishing Coasts, Pictured

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Alex MacLean Impact / Birkhäuser

Impact: The Effect of Climate Change on Coastlines, aerial photographer Alex MacLean’s latest book, captures our Atlantic and Gulf coastal communities at their most vulnerable. Even in a media environment inundated with images of climate change, MacLean’s photos have the ability to shock.

Trained as an architect, MacLean is well-known for his decades-long work photographing landscapes from above. A cursory review of MacLean’s aerial photography shows a fixation with the seams and stitches at the edge of our built environment. Those interstitial zones offer valuable insight into our relationship with rising sea levels. Impact’s photos show us pristine lawns and asphalt driveways grafted on to lagoons, mansions pinned to subsiding cliffs, and suburban housing divisions encircled by tumultuous waves.

Impact’s photos are endowed with an instant nostalgia. Knowing that sea level rise is in the process of re-configuring the pictured landscapes, Impact feels similar to a yearbook, freshly published. “Remember when,” one might find themselves saying while flipping through the images years from now. Remember when Casino Pier extended proudly from the boardwalk at Seaside Heights in New Jersey? The Jet Star roller coaster perched on top, not crumpled in the water like it was found after Hurricane Sandy?

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Casino Pier post-Sandy / Birkhäuser

MacLean dedicates a portion of his book to the documentation of hurricane devastation, showing what high winds and flood waters can do to the built environment. But we’ve seen these photos before, haven’t we? And after Superstorm Sandy humbled Seaside Heights, Casino Pier was rebuilt, complete with a new roller coaster, Hydrus. So what lessons does Impact have for us that we haven’t already declined to learn? That depends on the reader, but MacLean’s photos will leave an impression, regardless.

Impact’s most sublime photos are those that maximize nature in the frame. It’s easy to cover the strip of land shown in some if his images with a hand, giving the page over to ocean. MacLean has captured the radical flatness of his coastal environments, where buildings and people are co-planar with the sea.

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In his photos, aerial photographer Alex MacLean captures the radical flatness of the Atlantic coastline. / Birkhäuser

MacLean expresses slight repulsion at the opulence on display at some of the beachfront communities he photographed. The recreational boating, the ostentatious architecture. He seems to desire that nature be re-grafted back over the development.

It’s tough to argue with him given the glut of development MacLean photographs. Faux-Italian villas situated on barrier islands seems comical. So do the beachfront homes supported by more stilts than there is likely lumber in the house’s frame. MacLean cuts any humor though with images of the aftermath of devastating storms. Stilts remain upright, but there’s hardly a house left to support.

What many of us know and have come to accept is that our foothold in coastal areas is precarious. Most would acknowledge our coasts receding and anticipate our structures drowning. But we count on insurance recouping us. We may even choose to rebuild in hazard zones. Whether these two latter statements remain true, this stance underestimates the willful endangerment we’ve engaged in at the coast.

Perhaps Impact’s most striking photo is of the Sabine Pass liquified natural gas production facility in Louisiana, sitting directly in the path of future hurricanes. When critical infrastructure, energy, and waste facilities are impacted by sea level rise, we will be left with very different, less desirable memories than we hoped for.

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Sabine Pass LNG Terminal in Cameron Parish Lagoon, Louisiana. / Birkhäuser

Landscape Architecture Firms Adapt to the COVID Recession

Breaking ground on the Wilmington Waterfront Promenade, Port of Los Angeles / Sasaki

The pandemic has created a global economic crisis, leading to a recession in some countries and a depression in others. While the U.S. is no longer facing a depression, like it did this spring, the country is now in the midst of the COVID recession, and landscape architecture firms are learning to adapt. In a session during reVISION ASLA 2020, firm leaders with Sasaki, SWA Group, and Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA) explained steps they are taking and their outlook for the coming year.

According to Michael Grove, FASLA, chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki, a multi-disciplinary architecture, planning, and landscape architecture firm based in Massachusetts, the firm is focused on “putting people over profits.” To ensure the firm can meet payroll for its 250-300 staff, Sasaki is holding larger cash reserves while cutting pay for its partners, in the form of profits, by 20 percent.

Sasaki is also re-investing in its own capabilities. The firm has increased both internal staff training and investment in research and development (R&D). This enables the firm to “capture higher fees from thought leadership and research,” Grove said. The higher investment in research also allows the firm to benefit from federal and state R&D tax benefits.

Being multi-disciplinary has its benefits as well. “The diversity of our practice helps in different markets.” In China, which is now experiencing an economic recovery, Sasaki is a “known entity,” with an office in Shanghai, so can benefit from growth there.

But Grove cautioned there is worse to come in the U.S. “Design firms are usually impacted 6-12 months after a shift in economic conditions.” The firm is now seeing higher education clients put projects on hold, as universities and colleges rethink the use of their campuses in an increasingly hybrid in person-virtual world. In the commercial sector, some clients accelerated design and construction through the summer, but that is no more given “ongoing angst in commercial markets.” There has been a jump in civic or public projects in China, but in the U.S., “municipal budgets are now stretched thin” without additional fiscal stimulus.

Sasaki is now planning for a “decline projected by the end of the year.” To prepare for this, they are cutting travel and marketing expenses in order to keep cash and profits up.

SWA Group, a multidisciplinary firm that focuses on landscape architecture, planning, and urban design, has also benefited from being diversified. René Bihan, FASLA, managing principal in the firm’s San Francisco office, said SWA Group, which has some 250 employees and is 100-percent employee owned, is organized more like a starfish than a spider.

A socially-distanced tour of SWA Group’s Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park in Queens, New York / SWA Group

“If you cut off a spider’s head, it’s game over.” In the same way, in a spider-like organization, there is a “pyramidical hierarchy that suffers when leadership goes down.” In contrast, a starfish has multiple legs that can continue to live and regenerate on their own. An organization organized like a starfish doesn’t have a head. In the case of SWA Group, each of its eight studios spread around the world act somewhat independently and have their own cultures.

For example, their San Francisco office is mostly focused on policy and large-scale sites and has some technical experts. Other offices are known more for project design and construction. With their flexible structure, the firm can move staff and resources from one studio to another as markets grow or shrink.

SWA Group also purposefully keeps a diverse client portfolio. “Right now, 52 percent of our work is international,” with the bulk of those projects in China, Mexico, and the Middle East. Another 20 percent is public projects.

In adapting to the new normal, SWA has altered how it seeks out new business. “We do very few cold calls or RFPs. Instead, about 80 percent of business comes from repeat clients,” Bihan explained. “There is a familiarity. We continually check in with them, find out what they are up to, and look for ways to help them.”

Social media, books and blog posts, public engagement, and word of mouth are other “huge ways to get business,” he said. SWA has even leveraged pro-bono work, including parklets and neighborhood volunteer projects, to find new clients. “These projects can be launch pads.”

MNLA, a landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm based in New York City, has a staff of 32 and is mostly focused on projects in the public realm. According to Molly Bourne, ASLA, a principal at the firm, MNLA has been investing in a more resilient structure for the past few years. With improvements in IT infrastructure, they were able to transition to all staff working from home relatively easily. “We are so thankful we invested in this transition.” It also helped a great deal that the office went paperless a few years ago, moving to all digital record keeping.

The firm purposefully maintains a balance between public and private projects. “We never go past a certain margin,” Bourne said. “With a diversity of revenues, we never put our eggs in one basket.”

The firm takes on a mix of conventional federal, state, and local government projects, along with projects that result from federal stimulus funds. The firm is also pre-approved for New York City and state “on-call” projects that can be “small and undefined, but can serve as survival work.”

At the same time, MNLA is being as transparent as possible about where things stand with staff, asking people to pitch in where needed. So far, “2020 is good and bad. We’re bobbing along, grappling with uncertainty, and remain very busy.”

Construction of Pier 55 in Chelsea, NYC, designed by Thomas Heatherwick and MNLA / Tectonic, via NYC Yimby

Bourne said working during the first few months of the pandemic in NYC was particularly difficult. “It was an emotional time for staff. It was either very quiet or ambulance sirens.” MNLA continues to put staff well-being first. “Staff are our greatest asset.”

Conversation then turned to what the job market is like for landscape architecture students who just graduated or will be in coming months. This is one of the most challenging times to find an entry-level position, at least since ASLA has been keeping records. According to the latest survey, 65 percent of graduating students received no offer this year. Of those who received an offer, more than 40 percent saw the terms or location of their position change.

The speakers recommended job seekers leverage and grow their networks. Most jobs are found through contacts. “Folks mostly hire people they already know can provide value,” Grove said. “They want to hire from a known entity, or get a referral from a trusted source.”

Some more advice: stay flexible and be open to a range of possibilities. Be competitive; make yourself indispensable. Do informational interviews, which are low-pressure. Undertake contract work, which can turn into more permanent positions. Look beyond landscape architecture firms: the government, construction, facilities management — places where a landscape architecture education will be of benefit.