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.

Landscape Architects Can Reduce the Pain of Climate Migration

Isle de Jean Charles
Satellite view of Isle de Jean Charles, / Google Earth

Climate change-driven migrations will occur more frequently. That was the message in a first-of-its kind session at reVISION ASLA 2020. Haley Blakeman, FASLA, a professor at Louisiana State University, said landscape architects can facilitate more successful migrations by acting as a conduit between scientists, planners, and the communities forced to migrate.

Blakeman explained her team’s efforts in helping to move the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribal community of Isle de Jean Charles, a small and increasingly submerged island in Terrebonne Parish, along the coast of Louisiana. The island has lost 98 percent of its landmass over the past 60 years.

“[Climate migration] is going to be happening in more and more places,” Blakeman said. Sea level rise is Isle de Jean Charles’ particular affliction. Elsewhere, drought, wildfires, and food insecurity will force movement.

Can landscape architects help lead these migration efforts? “Yes,” Blakeman said, but only by accepting their limitations and collaborating with migrating communities and a collective of multidisciplinary planning and design professionals.

In Blakeman’s case, this collective included geographer and resilience policy analyst Jessica Simms and sociologist Pamela Jenkins. Their expertise and knowledge of the Isle de Jean Charles community helped build a trusting relationship that has served the project well.

“It’s tricky business moving people from their home to another place,” Jenkins told attendees. “It is not an infrastructure project with a social component, but the other way around.”

Isle de Jean Charles is representative of many low-lying areas in Louisiana. The state thrives commercially on its proximity to the water. But between the oil and gas industry choking coastal wetlands and the incursion of the sea, Louisiana has lost over 1,900 square miles of coastal land in the last 90 years. Isle de Jean Charles has outpaced that trend, putting pressure on the islanders to secure their community’s future elsewhere.

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Upwards of 7.8 million people in the Gulf may be affected by sea level rise / Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Dan Swenson

The tribe worked with the State of Louisiana to secure federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the move. The project is the United States’ first community-scale climate change-driven resettlement. 38 of 42 households on Isle de Jean Charles are participating, and 34 of those are moving together to a 500-acre site called “The New Isle,” according to Simms.

Simms and her team vetted about 20 potential locations in Terrebonne for re-establishing the islanders, only examining sites that were safely above sea level. 20 sites were narrowed to three, with five configurations. Site preference surveys made rounds in the community as members visited the sites.

Eventually, the community settled on a site favored by approximately 80 percent of its members, an hour’s drive from Isle de Jean Charles. Blakeman, Jenkins, and Simms liaised between the islanders and design team in order to tailor The New Isle to the community’s needs.

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A rendering of The New Isle community. / Waggonner & Ball, courtesy of The State of Louisiana.

While this suggests a tidy process, Simms reminded the audience that forced migration is inherently traumatic. “Their identities are wrapped up in the island that is going away,” Simms said.

Most tribal members were born and raised on the island and are well attuned to the place. In a departure from previous policies, which barred those migrating from retaining ownership of their existing land, the islanders were allowed to maintain ownership and access to their land and homes, though not allowed to live there. This policy change was critical to achieving community buy-in.

This buy-in is critical to the success of any forced migration effort, Jenkins explained. She quoted a figure from Anthony Oliver-Smith, an academic in the field of disasters and their social impacts, saying 90 percent of such migrations fail. Existing social fault lines, poor communications between the community and the professionals involved, and a lack of available funds often doom climate migrations.

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Jenkins and Blakeman (far left) meet with community members to discuss issues related to their future home. / Haley Blakeman

And while the Isle de Jean Charles migration is heading towards success, all of the speakers emphasized that it does not represent a model. There are lessons to be learned from the effort, but each future migration undertaking must be community- and context-specific.

Construction on the homes of The New Isle began in May and will finish in 2021, according to Simms. The new community will sit 12 feet above sea level.

Kongjian Yu Wins 2020 Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award; Read His Full Speech

Kongjian Yu, FASLA / Turenscape

By Kongjian Yu, FASLA

I am honored to be chosen as this year’s recipient of the Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), the members of the nomination committee and the jury, and to everyone else who has made this possible.

It is especially gratifying to be recognized on the 120th anniversary of the birth of the man who established landscape architecture as “the mother of all arts”—Sir Jellicoe himself.

My Roots in the Village

I’d like to begin by talking a bit about my childhood, which ultimately had a profound influence on the way I’ve come to approach my work. I was born to a peasant family in Dong Yu village in southeast China’s Zhejiang Province. The village is located where White Sand Creek and the Wujiang River meet.

I swam in the creek during the summer and caught big fish when the monsoon season came. When I was small, I took care of a water buffalo, which grazed along the waterways and between the paddy fields. There were seven ponds, a patch of sacred forest and two big camphor trees in front of the village, under which many legendary stories about my ancestors were told.

The land was extremely productive. We planted three crops throughout the year, including canola, wheat, buckwheat, rice, sugar cane, peanut, sweet potato, corn, soybeans, carrot, turnip, radish and lotus.

Dong Yu Village in the 1980s / Kongjian Yu
Dong Yu Village in the 1980s / Kongjian Yu

The land and water were precious, but the weather could be unpredictable, so we had to design and manage our farm fields wisely, following nature’s cycle and wasting nothing, and adapting in order to make a living.

We worshipped the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, the legendary king who knew how to manage water and plan the land. We also worshipped our ancestors, who had the wisdom of adapting to nature and cultivating the land.

In all likelihood, I would have followed in the footsteps of my father, who taught me how to cultivate the land, manage water, and be a productive farmer.

But it was a difficult time. Although we were a peasant family, we had also been landowners. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, my family was labeled as members of the “landlord class.” Our land was seized and redistributed to communes, after which we collectively farmed it. More significantly for me, children from the landlord class were prohibited from attending school.

Kongjian Yu, FASLA, at far right, with his family / Kongjian Yu

But in 1978, an army veteran who came to teach in my village, Mr. Zhou Zhangchao, caught up with me one day while I was riding my water buffalo home. He told me that Deng Xiaoping had reversed the policies that barred the children of the landlord class from going to school. I immediately enrolled in school and began studying hard to catch up.

In 1980, after 17 years working on the commune, I passed the national university entrance examination. I was the sole lucky university entrant out of 300-plus students in our rural high school.

On the Shoulders of Giants

By chance, I was chosen to enroll in Beijing Forestry University as one of 30 students in the entire nation to study gardening, which had been cancelled for ten years during the Cultural Revolution. I was fortunate to have some of the best landscape gardening professors in the nation as my mentors, including Wang Juyuan, the founder of the Landscape Gardening Program at the Beijing Forestry University; Chen Youming, my Master’s thesis advisor; and Sun Xiaoxiang and Chen Junyu.

In a certain sense, leaving the dusty countryside to make beautiful gardens in the city was a dream for me and my parents.

But when I finished college and was starting my career of teaching and making beautiful gardens for the city, I returned home to find that my village had been destroyed. The sacred forest and the camphor trees had been cut and sold off. The creek itself had become a gravel quarry, and the fish disappeared.

I began to ask myself: Was there something more I should be doing? What about my village and my fellow villagers? What about the land beyond the garden walls and beyond the city walls—where, at the time, almost three-quarters of a billion Chinese lived?

At this same time, I began looking abroad to learn more. In 1992, I was accepted at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. I spent the next four years working with Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, along with landscape ecologist Richard Forman and GIS and computing expert Stephen Ervin. I would often encounter Ian McHarg, Michael Van Vulkenburgh, FASLA, Peter Rowe, and others in the hallways.

For me, it was a tremendously exciting time. It was a chance to meld the village-level concepts of the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, from my childhood, with the ideas of the great Chinese “gardening” masters—and some of the best minds in the West.

The concepts of landscape and urban ecology, people-oriented urbanism, landscape perception and revolutionary anthropology, landscape and architectural phenomenology, etc., enlightened the left side of my brain. Design works by contemporary masters including Peter Walker, FASLA, Laurie Olin, FASLA, Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Richard Haag, FASLA, Maya Lin, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Peter Latz, Bernard Tschumi, and so on, inspired the right side of my brain.

It happened to be a time of great debate within academia, and I found myself fascinated by the tensions between design as political procedure versus design with nature, and art versus ecology.

I was captivated by two questions, which have subsequently driven my entire career:

Conservation vs. Development: Spatial planning based on the idea of balance –when land and space are limited, how can we balance ecological protection with development?

Sustainability vs. Beauty: The creation of Deep Form — what is the relationship between sustainability and beauty, how can we unite ecology and art?

After graduating, I was recruited by SWA in Laguna Beach, California. There, I was able to work with Richard Law, FASLA, on luxury properties, new urban development, and projects in the booming Asian market. Life on the beach was pretty good.

But while I was happily designing luxury properties and imagining the grandeur of new cities, I found that the land at home was under assault. Old buildings were torn down; hills were leveled; lakes and wetlands filled and polluted; rivers channelized and dammed; and public squares and boulevards were built at gargantuan size. It was the opposite of everything I had learned about how to create livable cities and landscapes.

And it turned out to be a national-scale challenge. Over 80 percent of Chinese cities suffer air pollution, which kills 1.2 million people each year. Flooding causes some US$ 100 billion in damage. Four hundred of 662 cities suffer water shortages. Seventy-five percent of the nation’s surface water is polluted, and 64 percent of cities’ groundwater is polluted. 50 percent of wetlands have disappeared in past 50 years, resulting in tremendous losses of wildlife habitat.

Meeting the challenges

(1) Start with Education and a New Identity

I landed at Peking University as a professor in 1997 and was immediately joined by my lifelong friend Li Dihu. Together we started the landscape architecture program in the Department of Geography. We hoped to help an important new profession establish a foothold across a vast landscape. But we had humble beginnings: We started with a grand total of 3 students. (Today, we have 200 students enrolled, with more than 600 graduates.)

But people still tended to see me simply as “a gardener,” with no relation to urban development, land and water management, flood control, or ecological restoration.

In China, there’s a legend about “The Land of Peach Blossoms,” a magical realm of peace, a sort of Shangri-La. To a certain extent, I have always thought of Dong Yu village, where I grew up—with the two big camphor trees under which I heard the stories of my ancestors and the sacred forest where they rest–as the Land of Peach Blossoms. And landscape architecture, to me, seemed a way to recover the lost Land of Peach Blossoms.

So I felt compelled to reclaim the importance of landscape architecture itself and began describing it as “The Art of Survival.” In doing this, I was inspired by Ian McHarg’s pugnacious call to arms: “Don’t ask us about your garden. Don’t ask us about your bloody flowers …. We’re going to talk to you about survival.”

We launched a new magazine, Landscape Architecture Frontiers, to promote our new approach. We brought in top thinkers in the field to lecture and held over 15 landscape architecture conferences to educate a young generation and begin creating a consensus.

(2) Trying to reverse the damage and inspire policy change

We felt that immediate action had to be taken to reverse the damage, so we launched the concept of “Inverse Planning” (反规划 fǎn guīhuà), which emphasizes the protection of existing natural functions and prioritizes what is not built—what should be protected instead.

I also realized that the only way to reverse the damage caused by conventional planning procedure was to convince decision makers to change the policies. So I kept writing and talking and lecturing to decision makers, from top authorities to township leaders. I delivered over 300 lectures to municipal decision makers and ministers.

In 2006, I made a proposal to then-Premier Wen Jiabao that, to my surprise and gratification, initiated the process of national security pattern planning and ecological red line regulation.

These two concepts help identify and protect critical landscapes to safeguard natural, biological, cultural and recreational values and functions, thus securing this wide range of ecosystems services essential for sustaining human society. The State Council has since issued four state regulations to safeguard national ecological security.

China ecological security plan / Turenscape

(3) The “Big Foot” Revolution

I also realized that bad decisions were being made simply because of a misguided mentality about civilization and misguided aesthetic sensibilities. For thousands of years, the “civilized” urban elite worldwide has insisted on the privilege of defining civilization, beauty, and good taste. Bound feet, deformed heads, and twisted bodies are only a few such expressions of cultural practices that, in trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural bumpkins, have rejected nature’s inherent principles of health, survival, and productivity.

In China, for more than a thousand years, young girls were forced to bind their feet in order to be able to be considered beautiful enough to marry urban elites. Natural, “big” feet were considered rustic and rural. The obsession with “little feet” sacrificed function and dignity for ornamental value.

Today, landscaping and city building, by far, are the most visible and extensive manifestations of the folly of civilization and aesthetic standards defined from above—what I think of as “little foot” urbanism and the “little foot” aesthetic.

On one hand, the “manicured little foot” grey infrastructure simply lacks resilience and is a waste of energy and materials. On the other hand, urban elites with “little foot” aesthetics trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural peasants have rejected nature’s inherent goals of health and productivity.

These kinds of “little foot” grey infrastructure and aesthetics are not only expensive, but also wasteful and unsustainable. China’s carbon emissions in 2017 accounted for 28 percent of the world total. And according to 2018 figures from the World Economic Forum, China consumes 59 percent of the world’s cement and 50 percent of its steel and coal.

So I began advocating for what I call a Big Foot Revolution. This movement begins with questioning some of the basic values I have mentioned above, and my hope is that it will mirror an earlier revolution in the way Chinese thought about their own bodies and culture.

In the early 20th century, The New Cultural Movement was launched by teachers and students at Peking University, and ultimately led to the rejection of foot binding and a re-embracing of the natural beauty of the human form.

I believe the Big Foot Revolution will happen at three levels of action:

  1. Planning the Big Feet (planning ecological infrastructure across scales)
  2. Creating Working Big Feet (creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom)
  3. Making Big Feet Beautiful (new aesthetics to create deep forms).

“Planning the Big Feet” or planning ecological infrastructure across scales, is critical for securing ecosystems services, and weaving green infrastructure together with grey infrastructure. Inspired by the ancient concept of sacred landscape—and by modern game theory¬—I developed the concept of the Landscape Security Pattern, which focuses on protecting the critical landscape patterns needed to ensure that natural processes can continue.

“Creating working Big Feet” means creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom, particularly from agriculture. We have developed replicable modules based on traditional farming techniques of terracing, ponding, diking, and islanding to address climate change and related problems at a massive scale in a cost-effective manner.

In China, all rivers are dammed and channelized with concrete flood walls. China has more than half of the world’s dams greater than 15 meters in height. More than US $20 billion is invested to control flooding each year, but US $100 billion is lost and 10 million people are affected every year. We need to accept and embrace flooding as a natural phenomenon, and turn grey infrastructure into green to help temper the damage of inevitable floods.

Due to the monsoon climate, over 62 percent of Chinese cities suffer from urban flooding. How much more flooding could be managed better if nature-based solutions were implemented nationwide? Using sponge city concepts would greatly increase water resilience.

In China, 75 percent of surface water is contaminated. Globally, 85 percent of sewage goes untreated. But the landscape can be a living system to clean water. Terraced, constructed wetland can be used to remove nutrients through biological processes.

We have already incorporated many of these ideas at several parks throughout China. In Zhejiang Province’s Taizhou City, we redesigned the Yongning Park as a “floating garden” with ecological embankments that can reduce peak flood flow by more than half, and create a seasonally flooded natural matrix of wetland and natural vegetation that sustains natural processes. This park demonstrates an ecological approach to flood control and stormwater management, while also educating people about new and forgotten solutions to flood control beyond engineering.

ASLA 2006 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Floating Gardens — Yongning River Park, Taizhou City, Zhejiang Province, China. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

In Zhejiang’s Jinhua City, water-resilient terrain and planted vegetation were designed to adapt to monsoon floods. A resilient bridge and path system was designed to adapt to the dynamic flows of water and people. The river currents, the flow of people, and the gravity of objects are all woven together to form a dynamic concord. This is achieved through meandering vegetated terraces, curvilinear paths, a serpentine bridge, circular bioswales, planted beds, and curved benches.

In Harbin, in the far north, we turned the Qunli Stormwater Park into a “green sponge” that filters and stores urban stormwater while providing other ecosystem services, including the protection of native habitats, aquifer recharge, recreational use and aesthetic experience, which together help foster sustainable urban development.

ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. A Green Sponge for a Water-Resilient City: Qunli Stormwater Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

At Dong’an Wetland Park on Hainan Island, off the coast of southern China, creating a green sponge in the center of the urban environment was an essential adaptation strategy for increasing resilience to climate change, particularly in an area where tropical storms can easily overwhelm conventional drainage systems.

In this case, a heavily polluted 68-hectare site was filled with non-permitted buildings and illegally dumped urban debris. Inspired by the ancient pond-and-dike systems and islanding techniques in the Pearl River Delta, and using simple cut-and-fill methods, a necklace of ponds and dikes was created along the periphery of the park that catches and filters urban runoff from the surrounding communities.

In the central part of the park, dirt and fill were used to create islands that are planted with banyan trees to create a forested wetland. Both ponding and islanding will dramatically increase the water-retention capacity of the park and increase the eco-tones between water and land to speed up the removal of nutrients. The constructed wetland can accommodate 830,000 cubic meters of storm water, dramatically reducing the risk of urban inundation.

Along the Huangpu River in Shanghai, we designed Houtan Park as a regenerative living landscape on a former industrial brownfield. The park’s constructed wetland, ecological flood control, reclaimed industrial structures and materials, and urban agriculture are integral components of an overall restorative design strategy to treat polluted river water and recover the degraded waterfront in an aesthetically pleasing way. The 10-hectare park, which is 1,700 meters long, filters phosphorous and other nutrients from 2,400 cubic meters of water per day, which is enough water for 5,000 people.

ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Shanghai Houtan Park: Landscape as a Living System. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

The Meshe River in Haikou has suffered flooding due to the monsoon climate and water pollution caused by sewage and non-point source pollution from urban and suburban runoff. The river had been channelized with concrete for the sole objective of flood control, which destroyed its ecological resilience.

We used nature-based solutions to create resilient green infrastructure that has revived the river. The concrete flood walls have been removed and the river was reconnected to the ocean so that tides could once again enter the city. Wetlands and shallow river margins were reconstructed so that mangroves could be restored. A terraced mosaic of wetlands along the banks of the river was designed as natural water-treatment facilities that catch and cleanse nutrient-laden runoff, and a significant amount of wildlife habitat has been recovered in the dense city center.

The Mangrove Park in Sanya City, on the island of Hainan, is another example of nature-based climate resilience. To mitigate urban flood risk caused by climate change, it was critical to restore mangrove along the waterways and coastal shorelines. One of the key challenges was finding an efficient and inexpensive method to reestablish the mangrove habitat that had been extensively destroyed due to rapid urban development. To that end, fill composed of urban construction debris and concrete from the demolition of the flood wall was recycled on site.

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Deep Form of Designed Nature: Sanya Mangrove Park / Kongjian Yu

Cut-and-fill techniques were subsequently used to create a gradient of different riparian eco-tones for diverse fauna and flora, particularly different species of mangroves. An interlocking-finger design was used to lead ocean tides into the waterways, while also attenuating the impact of both tropical storm surge and flash floods originating in the urban and upland area upstream, both of which can harm establishment of mangroves. This also maximized habitat diversity and edge effects, which increase the interface between plants and water; this, in turn, enhances ecological processes such as nutrient removal from the water.

The dynamic aquatic environment that follows the rise and fall of tides and provides several aquatic species with the daily water-level fluctuation they need for survival. Terraces between city streets and the river have been augmented with bioswales to catch and filter urban stormwater runoff. In just three years, an area of lifeless land fill within a concrete flood wall in the center of the city was transformed into a lush mangrove park. This type of mangrove rehabilitation can be implemented at a large scale efficiently.

In China, 60 percent of urban soil is contaminated, and conventional remediation is usually very expensive. In Tianjin’s Qiaoyuan Park, I wanted to show how we can let nature do the work, by using nature-based soil remediation techniques. Through regenerative design and by sculpting land forms and collecting rainwater, the natural process of plant adaptation and community evolution was introduced to transform a former shooting-range-turned-garbage-dump into a low maintenance urban park. The park provides diverse nature-based services for the city, including retaining and purifying storm water to regulate pH, providing opportunities for environmental education and creating a cherished aesthetic experience.

Making Big Feet Beautiful means promoting the new aesthetics to create deep forms. In this, I was inspired by Anne Whiston Spirn’s New Aesthetics that “encompasses both nature and culture, that embodies function, sensory perception, and symbolic meaning, and that embraces both the making of things and places and the sensing, using, and contemplating of them.”

The timeless interdependence of culture and nature is most visible in the bond between peasants and their farmlands, and practices such as cut and fill, irrigate and fertilize, frame and access, grow and harvest, recycle and save — all of which embody some of the principles of new aesthetics that inspired my design.

In Qinhuangdao, I put a ribbon on the river to frame and transform the messy nature into an ordered urban park. Winding through a background of natural terrain and vegetation, the “red ribbon” spans five hundred meters and integrates lighting, seating, environmental interpretation and orientation. This project demonstrates how a minimal design solution can dramatically improve the landscape, while preserving as much of the natural river corridor as possible during the process of urbanization.

ASLA 2007 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Red Ribbon – Tanghe River Park, Qinhuangdao City, Hebei Province, China. Turenscape and Peking University Graduate School of Landscape Architecture, Beijing, China / Kongjian Yu

China has 20 percent of the world’s population, but only 8 percent of the world’s arable land—10 percent of which has been lost in the past 30 years due to urban development. Our project on the Shenyang Jianzhu University Campus uses rice paddies to simultaneously define the structure of the landscape design and introduce a productive landscape into the urban environment. It is a demonstration of a method to resolve the tension between urban development and food production in today’s developing world.

In Quzhou’s Luming Park, we embraced the concept of agricultural urbanism. On a site surrounded by dense new urban development, we created a dynamic urban park by incorporating the agricultural strategy of crop rotation and a low-maintenance meadow. An elevated floating network of pedestrian paths, platforms and pavilions creates a visual frame for this cultivated swath and the natural features of the terrain and water. Using these strategies, a deserted, mismanaged landscape was dramatically transformed into a productive and beautiful setting for urban living, while preserving the natural and cultural patterns and processes of the site.

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

I have also tried to show the possibilities of reusing and recycling. While China has been on an incredible building boom, it has also demolished large parts of its cities. In 2003, for instance, some 325 million square meters of new buildings were constructed, while 156 million square meters was demolished. Thousands of villages and factories were wiped out.

The Zhongshan Shipyard Park near Guangzhou, inaugurated in 2002, was an effort to show that existing building and other structures can be incorporated into new development. The park reflects the remarkable 70-year history of socialist China and has been lauded as a breakthrough in Chinese landscape architecture. The original vegetation and natural habitats were preserved and only native plants were added. Machines, docks, and other industrial structures were retained not only for functional purposes, but also to educate and because of their aesthetic appeal. The park demonstrates how landscape architects can create environmentally-friendly public places full of cultural and historical meaning on sites not previously designated for attention and preservation. Its design supports use by the common people, as well as the environmental ethic that “weeds are beautiful.”

Zhongshan Shipyard Park / Turenscape

For over 20 years, we have tested and built over 500 projects in 200-plus cities and showcased numerous replicable models for healing and transforming our land at various scales.

Looking back, I have a better understanding of how my village-level landscape experiences, melded with modern concepts of landscape and urbanism, sustainability and aesthetics, which were developed by my many teachers and mentors, have helped me to address some of the common challenges that our profession is facing today.

I find myself thinking often of my roots in Dong Yu village. I think of King Yu the Great, who had the vision of healing the earth and living with nature. I think of the peasants who transform the landscape in which they live with their own hands. And I want to think like a king, but act like a peasant.

This is an incredibly sobering time to contemplate the relationship between humans and the natural world. The global pandemic is a powerful reminder that any belief in the conquest of nature is pure folly. We are all living in a new era of humility.

Yet I also believe that the pandemic—together with climate change—is also highlighting how important it is to create landscapes that can not only heal bodies and minds, but also the planet itself.

It is such a great honor to be in the company of the many great and thoughtful landscape architects who come together under the banner of IFLA. As former IFLA president Martha Fajardo said in 2005: “Landscape architect is the profession of the future.”

Thank you, and I wish everyone the best in collectively keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.

Reducing Wildfire Catastrophies Is About Common Responsibility, Not Mismanagement

A home destroyed by wildfires in Mill City, Oregon / AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus

By Rob Ribe, FASLA, PhD

I recently joined with landscape architecture faculty colleagues Bart Johnson, David Hulse, and Chris Enright, along with other scientists, in a study of wildfire risks in the southern Willamette Valley of Oregon. Our National Science Foundation project employed complexity science to simulate prospective landscape change and wildfire scenarios over fifty years. We simulated landscape change scenarios many times across an actual large area. The factors that influenced the simulations were different climate projections, consequent vegetation changes, likely behaviors landowners told us they would engage in, and fire behavior.

Very few of our numerous 50-year simulations suggested the likelihood of as many simultaneous, intense, and extensive wildfires as were seen in western Oregon in the first two weeks of September. This suggests the incidence of large and severe wildfires in the West is not linearly related to advancing climate change, as we and others have thought. With a warming climate, there may be more of an exponential, but still variable, growth in the incidence of large, and often simultaneous, very costly wildfires.

The extensive intensity of increasingly frequent wildfires promises to consume ever more forests, lives, and property in out-of-control ways, overpowering conventional wildfire prevention, amelioration, and suppression measures.

Outbreaks of multiple hazardous and simultaneous wildfires happen when several regional factors converge to produce “blowtorch” conditions. These can include extremely dry fuels (after months of drought), high temperatures, very low humidity, high winds, accumulated fuel loads, and forests stressed by advancing diseases and mortality. The resulting wildfires often exceed those of historically natural ones. Those natural wildfires tended to foster forest health because they often burned with less intensity, more variable intensity across landscapes, and less average overall acreage.

The only effective long-term solution is to reverse climate change, which will not slow down in the near term. But in the meantime, forests can be managed to be more resilient to fire.

Fuels reduction is the only known option to increase forests’ resilience. Prescribed portions of young or smaller trees, dead wood, and shrubs could be reduced in hundreds of millions of acres in the American West, and again, later on, in the forests of the eastern states. This is happening at a growing pace, but piecemeal, wherever funding and political support coalesce. It’s not enough to meet the larger challenge.

Sporadic projects tend to occur near suburban or exurban areas where risks are appreciated due to recent wildfires. In national parks, legal mandates promote the restoration of native, low-fuel ecosystems by prescribed fire, another method of fuels reduction. Badly burned forests must be replaced by more fire-adapted forests, but this is rare.

The implementation of an adequately extensive forest fuels reduction program is beset by ideological blame-shifting and politically prohibitive costs. There is also a shortage of well-trained professionals dedicated to this task, who can manage risks and build support for projects by sensitively and creatively engaging with local landowners and communities.

Conservatives deflect blame to scientific managers and conservationists by asserting that most forests have been “mismanaged” because they have not been freely and widely commercially thinned and harvested for wealth production at no cost to taxpayers. Ecologically-oriented environmentalists deflect blame to conservatives by asserting that most forests have been “mismanaged” because they have not been managed to emulate natural processes, like prescribed fire, as opposed to ecologically-destructive management geared only toward short-term profits. Everyone else is to blame in such incendiary partisan narratives: No one takes responsibility to fix the problems or bear the costs.

This broad, divisive notion of “mismanagement” is vexing. People dealing with real forests in real places can rarely identify a simple and obviously correct management approach. There are always questions of what, why, where, and when in decisions about budgets, biological systems, interacting and conflicting goals, alternative techniques, public and logger safety, wildlife, amenities, and the politics of local and regional stakeholders. Fuels reduction must be a major goal, but the best way to achieve this must be carefully tailored to each forest in its social and ecological context.

Learning about forest fuels in an Oregon forest / Rob Ribe

Learning about forest fuels in the Oregon forest / Rob Ribe

There will be forests where commercially profitable fuels reduction is appropriate, but there are many where this will be impossible, because costs exceed the value of marketable products.

There will be forests where prescribed fire is appropriate and efficient, but not everywhere. Numerous homes have been built within many forests. This makes prescribed fires more difficult to execute. Homeowners are often averse to perceived or actual risks, the intentional production of smoke, and changes to landscape amenities.

Climate change is also reducing the frequency and duration of weather conditions and fuel moisture levels required for safe prescribed fires. Prescribed fire is also difficult to safely control in increasing areas of forest with many weak or dead trees. If poorly planned, fuels reduction can impose risks to long-term forest health, net carbon sequestration, wildlife habitats, soils, biodiversity, and long-term sustainability of local timber or recreation economies; and it can’t be universally implemented.

A national program of extensive, well-planned forest fuels reduction and increased carbon sequestration would be very costly. Forest landowners are already shouldering growing insurance costs. It would require bipartisan, constructive, sustained, and large investments in public forest capital.

A complete, valid, and public GIS database of forest conditions in all western states must be rapidly created and maintained.

A private-public partnership with a clear mandate to foster forest health and resilience would need to award funds and coordinate and enable work across states, localities, landowners, and agencies. New, well-crafted rules would need to set fuels reduction and carbon sequestration goals with strong performance standards. These must clarify how projects must not be cheap and quick, but locally-appropriate to produce long-term forest health and beautiful, diverse forests.

Professional local planning, public participation, honest environmental reviews, and carefully proficient implementation would all be imperative.

Rob Ribe, FASLA, is professor and director of the master’s of landscape architecture program in the department of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon. He holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture and a PhD in land resources. Ribe was a lead scientist in studying the social acceptability of timber harvests and forest planning in the Pacific Northwest following the spotted owl controversy. He has also studied private landowners’ forest management choices.

ASLA Announces 2020 Professional and Student Award Winners

ASLA 2020 Professional Award of Excellence in Urban Design, Dilworth Park. OLIN | Photo by OLIN / Sahar Coston-Hardy

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) announces the 2020 Professional and Student Award winners. The ASLA Awards represent the highest honor in the profession of landscape architecture.

Chosen from 567 submissions, this year’s 31 Professional Award winners represent the best of landscape architecture in the General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, and Research categories. In addition, a single Landmark Award is presented each year.

A full list of this year’s Professional Award winners can be found at: www.asla.org/2020awards

ASLA 2020 Student Award of Excellence in Analysis & Planning. West Oakland: From T.O.D to F.O.D. Huiwen Shi, Student International ASLA; Lide Li, Student Affiliate ASLA | Photo credit: Lide Li, Student Affiliate ASLA

Chosen from 560 submissions, this year’s 35 Student Award winners represent a bright and more inclusive future of the landscape architecture profession in the General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Research, Communications, Student Collaboration, and Student Community Service categories.

A full list of this year’s Student Award winners can be found at: https://www.asla.org/2020studentawards

“ASLA’s Professional and Student Awards programs celebrate the best of our profession today, and the brightest hope for the future,” said ASLA President Wendy Miller, FASLA.

“From making sure Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) as well as other underserved individuals and communities prepare for the many challenges of the climate crisis – this year’s projects clearly demonstrate how landscape architects are designing a future that addresses the biggest problems facing our world.”

All Professional and Student Award recipients, their clients, and advisors will be honored at the awards presentation ceremony held virtually this fall.

Background on the ASLA Awards Programs

Each year, the ASLA Professional Awards honor the best in landscape architecture from around the globe. Winners of these prestigious awards are chosen by a jury that represents the breadth of the profession, including private, public, institutional, and academic practice, and exemplify diversity in professional experience, geography, gender, and ethnicity. Submissions are judged blind.

Professional Awards are presented in seven categories: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, and the Landmark Award. In each of the first five categories, the Jury may select one Award of Excellence and any number of Honor Awards. It is not guaranteed that an Award of Excellence will be selected each year, as it is up to the jury’s discretion. Only one Landmark Award is presented each year.

This year’s Professional Jury included: Jose Alminana, FASLA (Chair); Jane Berger; Ujijji Davis, ASLA; Mark Hough, FASLA; Mark Johnson, FASLA; Kathleen John-Alder, FASLA; Mia Lehrer, FASLA; Tanya Olson, ASLA; and Robert Rogers.

Student Awards are presented in eight categories: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Research, Communications, Student Collaboration and Student Community Service. Like the Professional Awards, the jury may select one Award of Excellence and any number of Honor Awards. It is not guaranteed that an Award of Excellence will be selected each year, as it is up to the jury’s discretion.

This year’s Student Jury included: Terry Guen-Murray, FASLA (Chair); Adam Arvidson, FASLA; Lucia Athens, ASLA; Cermetrius L. Bohannon, ASLA; Jonathon Geels, ASLA; Rikerrious Geter, Associate ASLA; Luis Gonzalez, ASLA; Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA; Ernest C. Wong, FASLA.

Emerging Landscape Architecture Leaders Focus on Social Justice

LAF Innovation and Leadership Fellows. Clockwise from top right: Nicholas Jabs, Jeff Hou, Pierre Bélanger, Liz Camuti, Diana Fernandez-Bibeau, and Hans Baumann

The pandemic didn’t stop this year’s Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) fellows in innovation and leadership from presenting the results of their year-long investigations. In an online symposium attended by more than a thousand people, six emerging leaders in the field of landscape architecture explained how design can help create a more just world. Each fellow received a $25,000 grant from LAF to travel, conduct research, and build their leadership skills.

Liz Camuti: Bad RFPs Set Back Resilience Planning Efforts

Liz Camuti, ASLA, a landscape designer at SCAPE (and we are proud to say, a former ASLA communications intern) told the story of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, the homeland of the tribe of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians. More than 98 percent of the tribe’s lands have been lost due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. In 2016, the state of Louisiana received $48 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) to resettle the Isle de Jean Charles community.

Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana / Liz Camuti

After finding their concerns were ignored during federal and state planning processes, the community eventually decided to forgo resettlement. Camuti blamed the “so-called design solution handed down through the request for proposal (RFP).” This led her to examine the “centuries of problems with RFPs” issued by federal and state governments, and the awful position many planners and landscape are forced into of simply obeying the forms and “checking the boxes.” She called for communities and landscape architects to “uncheck the box” and push back against poorly-conceived RFPs.

As part of the RFP development process, all communities, and particularly indigenous ones, should be better consulted on how they want to be identified. Public participation processes, which are often a requirement, should be designed to air conflicts instead of minimizing them. Ample time should be given to establishing community ownership of a project through the creation of working groups and steering committees. Instead of coming in as experts, landscape architects need to reframe their relationship with communities with which they work and become much more humble about what they don’t know.

Diana Fernandez-Bibeau: Diverse Communities Need Heterogeneous Landscapes

“We design places for diverse species of plants and animals. Why not design spaces for diverse people?,” asked Diana Fernandez-Bibeau, ASLA, a senior associate at Sasaki. By studying ecology, which explores species diversity, and anthropology, which delves into human diversity, landscape architects can partner with communities to design places defined by “landscape heterogeneity.” This process involves weaving diverse social, cultural, linguistic, and environmental systems into a place.

Heterogeneous places are much needed, because there are already “too many homogenized public spaces in the U.S. that were not designed for people of color,” Fernandez said. “Landscapes are not neutral ground but poignant expressions of power.” Homogenized spaces are created by a colonizing power that minimizes difference.

As far as a process for creating heterogeneous landscapes, Fernandez argued that there is “no formula,” and what matters most is having a “state of consciousness” that is based in the “acceptance of the other.” She said diverse communities are more than capable of defining themselves. She pointed to the community design process for the new Frederick Douglass Memorial in Boston, in which an African American spoken word artist helped create a safe space for community sharing and spiritual growth.

Spoken word artist during community sharing process / Sasaki

Frederick Douglass Memorial design concept / Sasaki

Nicholas Jabs: Climate Change Is an Opportunity to Revitalize Middle America

“Middle America is too often ignored,” argued Nicholas Jabs, a designer with PORT Urbanism in Philadelphia, who gave a centuries-spanning overview of the region, from the Ice Age, which resulted in rich soil deposits, to the establishment of indigenous tribal communities, and the rise of fur traders. Communities like St. Louis, Chicago, and Minneapolis formed on rivers, because rivers were the major transportation system, but by the mid-1800s, railroads began to dominate and manufacturing spread.

Over the next few decades, middle American cities were transformed from “vertically organized” communities in which manufacturing co-existed with housing to “factory warehouse cities” characterized by the rise of “horizontal, specialized manufacturing zones” separated from housing. This led to urban and suburban sprawl, corporate campuses, and science parks. An ensuing multi-decade decline in American manufacturing was in part halted in the 00s by “flexible and urban” manufacturing that creates “high-quality crafts on demand.”

Climate change offers an opportunity for middle America. With its legacy infrastructure, resources, and manufacturing and distribution know how, middle America is poised to play a leading role in the mass mobilization of people and resources to reduce emissions and adapt communities. As communities address climate impacts, “we’re going to need to make and fix lots of things.” Middle America can lead with “craft, cultivation, community, and care,” which can transform the region once again.

Photovoltaic (PV) panel trees in middle America / Nicholas Jabs

Jeff Hou: A New Network to Grow Design Activists

Amid the grave environmental, health, and social justice issues facing the world, how can landscape architects make a difference? Jeff Hou, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, formed a design activism working group across universities and landscape architecture organizations, which resulted in a 50-page framework of action based in a set of principles. There are now 800 professors and students sharing ideas in a collaborative online community.

Principles include: politicize, which calls for “understanding that the built environment is a result of a political process;” hybridize, which involves increasing cross-disciplinary collaboration; and “glocalize,” a new word combining globalize and localize as a way to encourage intercultural learning and connection. Other key principles are: improvise; problematize, which means to re-evaluate complex, interconnected issues; authentize; re-organize; and democratize, which is a call for “re-examining our systems of justice.”

Hans Baumann: The Value of Immersion in the Culture of Indigenous Peoples

Hans Baumann, an independent landscape architect in Santa Monica, California, spent his fellowship with the Torres-Martinez Indians, whose 22,000 acre reservation is adjacent to the Salton Sea, California’s largest body of water. The sea is expected to lose a third of its volume within a decade because of climate change and agricultural water use, with major impacts for the cultural and spiritual practices of the tribe.

The Salton Sea is found within the footprint of the much larger prehistoric Lake Cahuilla. The Torres-Martinez have long had a deep cultural connection to the sea and the lands around it. Baumann partnered with the tribe on a series of slow creative projects, including community workshops and other landscape interventions with the goal of building relationships and trust with the tribe.

Landscape intervention at Lake Cahuilla / Hans Baumann

After two months of coordination, the tribe and Baumann were able to organize a kayaking event for tribal youth out on the sea, so that young people could create a “more positive relationship with the water.” Surveys showed that the tribal youth changed their perspective of the sea to “cool, fun, and awesome” after the event. He concluded that he invested in long-term relationship building and is purposefully not leading the way. “I don’t have the solution.” Baumann encouraged landscape architects to research the many tribes in the U.S., their historic homelands, and get involved, but to also recognize that “work is already being done in communities.”

Tribal youth kayaking on Lake Cahuilla / Hans Baumann

Pierre Bélanger: A Call for Accountability to Indigenous Peoples

Pierre Bélanger, a landscape architect, urban planner, and “settler scholar” who founded the non-profit organization Open Systems Landscape Architecture Lab, turned his screen black and read from an email he wrote to Brad McKee, the editor in chief of Landscape Architecture Magazine. He exhorted the audience to take greater responsibility for their historical impacts on communities and the environment. “Who are we — landscape architects — accountable to?,” he asked.

Bélanger called for greater accountability to indigenous peoples and an end of “settler capitalism,” which he argued still persists. “Since every square inch of land in the U.S. and Canada is treaty land, I wrote ‘No Design on Stolen Land‘ in Architectural Design Magazine earlier this year with a group of close colleagues that I had been working with over the past decade: Ghazal Jafari, Pablo Escudero, Hernan Bianchi Benguria, Tiffany Kaewen Dang, and Alexandra Arroyo.” He explained that “the article may seem foolishly polemical or unnecessarily provocative, or totally impractical as some have shared, but at a time when profound structural and systemic change is needed, we as practitioners and educators can no longer afford to ignore, let alone deny, the inseparable nature of climate change and colonialism to change the present.”

Where Will Climate Migrants Go?

Urban farm in Braddock, Pennsylvania / iStock Images

We are living where we shouldn’t be living. In more communities across the U.S., climate change is causing flooding, wildfires, extreme heat, and sea level rise. According to a group at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU)’s Virtual Gathering, one solution is for communities threatened with climate impacts to move to “receiver cities.” The hollowed-out “legacy” cities and small towns of the Midwest could become new homes for displaced climate migrants because they have solid infrastructure, many open lots and empty homes, access to water, and lower risks of climate change-driven weather impacts.

Still, more planning is certainly needed to ready receiver cities for an influx of migrants from coastal communities like Miami, which are experiencing rising sea levels and flooding, and desert communities in the Southwest, which are battling drought and reduced water supplies.

Legacy cities are former industrial communities that have fallen on hard times. Dan Baisden, a midwest urban planner, said these mid-sized cities in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, have experienced population declines, job losses, and increased concentrations of poverty. “Braddock, Pennsylvania has seen a 90 percent drop in population, and Johnstown, Ohio, a 70 percent drop.” While these legacy cities may be good places for climate migrants, they also aren’t “fully ready to accept them.” Through the CNU Legacy Labs project, he is helping these cities devise climate adaptation plans that “build density and social structures.”

There are other planning efforts underway to help guide migrants to safer places. Scott Bernstein, founder and director emeritus of innovation at the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), is developing a series of urban climate action plans, mapping instances of extreme heat, drought, and flooding. He has located the places with the highest and lowest frequencies of severe weather, heavy water events, and bearing winds. His goal is to identify the communities with the lowest risk of climate dangers.

Similarly, architect and urban designer Dhiru Thadani is examining development patterns of 120 communities in the U.S., including dozens of small towns, to determine which could best expand to handle population growth and a large influx of climate migrants. He noted that the U.S. population is expected to grow by 100 million by 2050.

With new urbanists Andrés Duany and Paul Crabtree, Korkut Onaran, principal of PEL•ONA Architects & Urbanists is writing a book on “directives for enabling adaptation” aimed at federal and state policymakers. The book calls for a new federal policy-making framework, an Adaptation Enabling Act in the vein of the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act of 1924 and the Standard City Planning Enabling Act of 1928, which devolved powers to local communities to zone and plan. The proposed Adaptation Enabling Act would give states and local governments the power to generate climate adaptation and migration plans.

Large influxes of climate migrants could happen sooner than expected. Patty Steinschneider, president of Gotham Design & Community Development, asked us to envision 100,000 people moving north from Brooklyn, New York, in the immediate aftermath of some major natural disaster like Superstorm Sandy. Communities near Brooklyn need to plan for emergency receivership as well as a potential long-term permanent influx. Just as many who have fled cities because of COVID-19 will not return, not all climate migrants will be able to or want to return to their original communities.

Baisden noted for a community like Toledo, Ohio, which has a very small planning staff that is already overrun with existing responsibilities, planning for a rapid influx of, say, just 100 families would be very challenging. “They have no long-term planning capacity. We instead need to work directly with communities on the ground.” Onaran said communities could possibly designate “receiving zones.”

For Jesse Carpentier with ICLEI USA, there is a lack of long range climate adaptation planning because its value hasn’t been sold well. “People act on emotions rather than logic. Immediate gratification will always be more appealing than long-term benefits.” So these planning efforts, which have a multi-decade horizon, need to bolster stakeholders through short-term incentives like awards, recognition, and certificates, “which really do work.” Adaptation efforts must also have “tangible co-benefits” for communities in the form of economic gains and aesthetic improvements.

So what can potential receiver communities do to prepare for both climate change and incoming climate migrants? Recommendations included creating comprehensive policies that incentivize migration, developing plans for reusing and adapting existing community assets, and investing in green infrastructure and planting thousands of trees. Communities can also let others know they are open and welcoming of climate migrants.

Prisca Weems, a founding partner with interdisciplinary firm Future Proof, noted that climate migrants will not just be an issue within the U.S. A 2018 report from the World Bank finds that 143 million people are now already migrating in-country each year.

How Will the Pandemic Impact the Built Environment?

Campus Martius Park, Detroit / Compuware

Throughout the Congress for New Urbanism’s Virtual Gathering, landscape architects, planners, architects, and developers struggled to figure out how the pandemic is impacting communities and the built environment — and tried to foresee what changes are coming in the near future.

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities will experience disproportionate negative impacts in the form of higher mortality rates, illnesses, bankruptcies, and evictions. Some also foresee a significant decrease in public financing for affordable housing developments.

There is also the fear that people are retreating to their cars, which are now viewed as “armored bubbles,” and to the suburbs — a trend that could lead to greater suburban sprawl, increasing transportation costs, and a steep rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

A few optimists argued that dense cities and communities, along with affordable and subsidized housing, multi-family housing, and transit-oriented development, will weather the storm. People will still be drawn to walkable communities and being near one another. Resilient communities will find a way, like during other recessions.

Low-income Communities Are at Greater Risk

In a session that looked at low-income neighborhoods in cities, Kit McCullough, an urban designer and lecturer at the University of Michigan, emphasized the need to protect and invest in communities where hospitality and restaurant workers live — places where COVID-19 is already exacerbating existing economic strain.

Small affordable housing property owners facing financial problems are increasingly at risk of being bought out by large Wall Street-backed development firms. This would result in more “wealth extraction in low-income communities” in the form of higher rents and increased evictions.

Many people who used to rely on transit to get to work must now use a car, which is a more expensive transportation option and “adds economic pressure.”

John Sivills, lead urban designer with Detroit’s planning department, added that “if you can decamp from the city, that says something about your income level.” In Detroit, the community has “rediscovered the value of public spaces” given most don’t have the funds to leave.

COVID-19 Requires New Urban Models

In another session, Mukul Maholtra, a principal at MIG, focused on how COVID-19 is impacting BIPOC communities much more than others.

“Black Americans die from COVID-19 at three times the rate of white Americans.” In tribal lands in New Mexico and elsewhere, “there are much higher fatality rates among Native Americans.” He called for investing in “healthy density” that works for everyone.

Christopher Leinberger, a land use strategist, developer, and author, said correlations between COVID-19 and metropolitan area density are “spurious and unproven.” He said “walkable urbanism has been through this before — crime, terrorism, and now the pandemic.”

There are three challenges to a rebound in cities: “lost jobs in the ‘experience economy’ — retail, restaurants, sports, and festivals — which is what makes ‘walkable urbanism’ special; transit safety; and land costs.”

He blames zoning and not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) forces for skyrocketing land costs and gentrification in cities like Washington, D.C. The answer is allowing greater density where land prices are high and making walkable, mixed-use development legal in more places.

Public Financing Will Be Increasingly Unavailable

Andrés Duany, an architect, planner, and one of the most influential New Urbanists, said a total “rethink of New Urbanism is needed,” because the public funds that make many walkable developments possible have disappeared.

The pandemic is expected to have a negative impact on city and state budgets into the near future, which means far less public funds available for transit, affordable and subsidized housing, transit-oriented development, and the public portions of public-private partnerships. “Everyone is broke. There will be no capital budget and no tax credits anymore.”

Demand for walkable communities as currently defined will decrease. “Home deliveries are way up because neighborhood ‘third places‘ [such as coffeeshops, book stores, grocery stores, etc] have become toxic. And transit now equals death.”

Duany also foresees a rise in social instability in the U.S., and perhaps gangs of “marauders.” This is because “110 million Americans have no savings” and are facing rising healthcare costs and unemployment and failing social safety nets.

He proposed rapidly expanding mobile home communities, given they are subject to fewer regulations and therefore lower cost. Abundant and cheap old shipping containers could be used as the base of new modular mobile home reached via a staircase.

Well-designed Places Still Matter

In contrast, Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of urban design at Georgia Tech and author of Designing Suburban Futures, seemed a bit more optimistic.

Through her research into 2,000 suburban developments that have been retrofitted for other uses, she has found that “urbanism is the new amenity.”

In the suburbs, people increasingly want walkable, mixed-use developments that offer “experiential retail.” Dead malls have meant growth for small town main streets. Dead strip malls are being reused as offices or healthcare centers. Big box stores have been converted into markets with small vendors.

“The pandemic could mean more urbanites return to the suburbs. Office parks could be refilled, instead of infilled. There could also be more experimental suburban public spaces.” In this scenario, the car is an “armored bubble” that offers a sense of safety in a world filled with dangerous viruses.

But ultimately, she thinks the pandemic will mean walkable places will become even more valuable. If you can live and work from anywhere, “the quality of place will matter even more.”

Demand for Different Residential Amenities

In a session focused on how home design may change with COVID-19, Paul Whalen, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, said with many people cooped up at home, “visual and audio privacy, cross-ventilation, and multiple rooms that provide space for extended family” are becoming more important.

Homeowners and renters also now want separate spaces for making the transition from street to home, a “clear entrance where they can change out of clothes and take off shoes.”

Interior designer Kiki Dennis sees a changing relationship between public and private spaces within homes. Home offices are becoming semi-public domains that co-workers can see on Zoom, so they are being expanded and re-configured.

There is also much greater demand for residential outdoor spaces. “Underused outdoor spaces are being converted.”

“Ultra-luxe residential fixtures” like automatic sliding doors, face and hand readers, and personal elevators may trickle down to the masses, said Brian O’Looney with Torti Gallas + Partners. In some buildings in the Middle East, when an elevator is in use, it is locked and can’t be accessed by others in the building. This technology could become more widespread in denser cities.

Bill Gietema, a developer with Arcadia Realty Corporation, said people are buying homes online without seeing them in person.

“People want double ovens so they can bake more, expanded kitchens, home offices, workout spaces, and porches.” Some are simply lifting their garage doors to create a porch-like environment.

Multi-family housing complex designs are also shifting to include much more outdoor space and larger balconies.

A recent survey of developers that create large-scale community developments found that 16 percent are adding more shade; 22 percent, more parks; 23 percent, more trails; 57 percent, more bike lanes; and 42 percent, more playgrounds, which are now incorporating natural materials rather than steel and plastics. “There is a new desire to create a sense of community.”

In the end, though, Whalen believes many people who have fled cities will return to them. “People all want to be together. That’s why people live in cities.”

Once a vaccine has been developed, “there will be a joy in coming out of this together.”