A New Strategy for American Sustainability

The New Grand Strategy / St. Martin’s Press

Back in 2009, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael McMullen tasked his staff to create a “grand strategy” for the United States. That job fell to Navy Captain Wayne Porter and now-retired Marine Colonel Mark “Puck” Mykleby, who later turned the results from the multi-year research study into a book: The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security, and Sustainability in the 21st Century. At the Biophilic Leadership Summit at Serenbe, an agricultural community near Atlanta, Mykleby asserted that the United States is now deeply embedded in an “unsustainable global system” that makes it susceptible to shocks, particularly from climate change. In addition, we are stuck with a “20th century economic engine.” The way forward to future sustainability is found in walkable communities, regenerative agriculture, and greater resource productivity. “We need to rebuild our own strength and credibility by setting a new example.”

Mykleby — who was described by Serenbe founder Steven Nygren as a “gentle giant with a big heart who can kill you with two fingers” — outlined in drill sergeant mode all the things that make our current global system unsustainable:

First, there is the rapid inclusion of many new consumers around the world. As the planet heads towards 9 billion people, we can expect to see a middle class of around 3 billion people. If they are consuming as Americans and western Europeans do now, we will need 4.5 Earths to maintain them. Second, climate change and increasing ecosystem degradation will reduce our access to resources and increase our vulnerabilities. And, lastly, there is a growing “infrastructure resilience deficit” — infrastructure worldwide isn’t set up to accommodate the anticipated population growth or coming nature-driven shocks.

(Mykleby also argued that using gross domestic product (GDP) as the primary measure of progress is really enabling all this unsustainable global growth and needs to be replaced with a gross national happiness metric, like Bhutan’s. We’ve discovered in the United States that “more shit isn’t going to make us happier.”)

In addition to being embedded in an unsustainable global system, the U.S. is also stuck with an “obsolete 20th century economic engine,” defined by suburban sprawl, consumer spending, high-input agriculture, massive federal subsidies, and quarterly reporting and capital gains taxes. This engine is “extremely fragile.” Agricultural in particular is in a “perilous place,” given climate change. On top of all this, we have “political dysfunction.”

Walkable communities help rebuild American strength by increasing social ties, particularly inter-generational ones. As baby boomers downsize and want to age in place, they seek connections to others. Millennials can’t afford cars or don’t want them, so they are also want more walkable places. In fact, research shows “some 60 percent of the country seeks communities with the attributes of smart growth.” But given the market hasn’t met demand, people are still paying a premium to live in these places.

Food production will need to increase 60-70 percent in coming decades to meet the demand from a growing population, just as climate change accelerates and ecosystems are further degraded. The only way to achieve this is “100 percent regenerative agriculture. We need to restore our top soils.” (Mykleby didn’t further define regenerative agriculture in his talk, but we are assuming it involves permaculture, introducing perennial grain plants, and other sustainable farming practices).

Lastly, according to The Atlantic, some 70 percent of Indian cities have yet to be built. A similar number can be found for many developing world cities. And all our developed-world urban communities are in a continuous process of being rebuilt. As the global population heads toward 9 billion and concrete production already accounts for 5-10 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, we need “more advanced, resource-efficient, recycled building materials.”

If the U.S. “can get its ass in gear,” focusing on walkable communities, sustainable agriculture, and new housing materials will lead to a resurgence in jobs in the manufacturing, agriculture, construction, transportation sectors, and create the “economy of the future.” Mykleby also called for changing from a model of rampant material consumerism to an economy in which “we consume positive, meaningful experiences.”

While the path to sustainability is clear to him, sadly, the U.S. is now “doubling-down on the old economy. We are walking away from climate change, increasing inequality, and leaving international institutions.” As the supporters of the old business model hang on tight, they are setting us up to fail.

If you are unconvinced the U.S. is falling behind, Mykleby urges you to read China’s latest five-year plan, which aims to set the country on a “sustainable path, address social equity problems, and increase participation in international institutions.”

Showing Communities How to Live with Floods

DesignWeek Greenville winning team / NCSU master’s of landscape architecture student Rouqing Ke

Inland flooding caused by Hurricane Mathew wreaked havoc in many of eastern North Carolina’s communities. To bring attention to the issue and find new solutions, North Carolina State University (NCSU)’s landscape architecture program created a design competition focused on three towns most affected. Alongside town representatives and students and faculty from the University of North Carolina (UNC) department of city and regional planning and NCSU school of architecture, we worked with professionals from around the region, including leadership from North Carolina emergency management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Our interdisciplinary teams sought to address the impacts.

During the design competition, DesignWeek: Living with Floods, our team visited Greenville, where Hurricane Matthew brought the Tar River 11 feet higher than safe flood levels, the highest the river has been since Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

We spent the day with the Pitt County planning department learning about their methods for assisting impacted residents. We heard about families who purchased lots inside the 100-year floodplain, only to find themselves in turmoil when they learned the cost to elevate their new home is nearly half the price of the house itself. For families in our study area, the cost to elevate their home consumes 10-12 months of their household income, which averaged $23,500 in 2015. We heard stories about renters and owners without insurance who are left swimming in debt. We listened as county officials put the responsibility on their own shoulders.

We left Greenville understanding that dealing with floods has both social and environmental dimensions, and so the means for change are rooted in the physical and human landscape. We learned that what seemed from the outside like a wholly-environmental problem had layers of complexity related to social equity, historic demographics, land-use patterns, and community perceptions.

A few short days after visiting, teams had concrete ideas at hand. The winners for Greenville looked at how the current policy framework surrounding flood prevention and response could be improved to serve the public at a community scale. The team proposed a collaborative, bottom-up approach to help preserve community cohesion through the process of migration away from risk-prone areas. The new program framework called Community Scale Assisted Migration (CSAM) would build community unity (see image above).

The winning team for the Kinston effort put forward a town master plan that bundled different scales of interventions into a cohesive approach. Their solutions would boost flood prevention, help Kinston’s citizens better understand the causes of flooding, and increase economic development through improvements in livability and recreation.

DesignWeek Kingston winning team/ NCSU master’s of architecture student Giti Kazerooni

In Windsor, the Cashie River runs through the center of town and recurrently floods the main streets and shops, causing structural damage and blocking the main road. Town leaders have considered an option to relocate the entire downtown away from the river, but the winning team’s design solution scaled out to the larger region of eastern North Carolina, offering an approach for upstream retention using “leaking dams” downstream that would create a windrow effect. Also, constructed islands would combat storm surge and multi-functional levees would protect the highest-risk areas.

Each of the design teams created interdisciplinary and innovative solutions that inspired local, state, and federal representatives to see their challenges through new lenses and look at different scales.

Although DesignWeek is over for the students, the ideas now serve as the beginning of a larger response to inland flooding in eastern North Carolina. Faculty from NCSU college of design will continue to work with Windsor, Kinston, Greenville, and state and federal representatives to marshal the power of design in large-scale problem solving.

Increasingly, landscape architects are taking flight far above our traditional scale of practice, and approaching sites as pieces of larger, interconnected systems where the needs and desires of our clients must be weighted against potential impacts to surrounding networks of humans and nature. More than ever, landscape architects are employing principles and tools from landscape ecology, urban planning, social sciences, systems engineering, and data visualization. This transformation in the role of the landscape architect, however real, has not yet captured the public eye and, thus, the value of our profession is more misunderstood than ever.

This guest post is by Adam Walters, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.

ASLA Outlines Infrastructure Priorities

Queens Plaza in Queens NYC, 2012 / Sam Oberter

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) urges policy makers and stakeholders to support an infrastructure plan that not only addresses today’s crumbling infrastructure, but also creates tomorrow’s resilient systems. ASLA recommends that the infrastructure plan includes the following:

Fixing Our Nation’s Water Infrastructure

ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award Recipient. Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park. Thomas Balsley Associates and Weiss/Manfredi / Wade Zimmerman

Our nation’s deteriorating drinking water and wastewater systems require extensive maintenance and repairs—more than $655 billion in investments, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Less-costly green infrastructure solutions designed by landscape architects naturally absorb stormwater runoff—the major contributor to water pollution and unsafe drinking water.

ASLA urges policy makers to support a comprehensive infrastructure package that:

  • Increases funding for the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds. These funds provide critical resources to states, localities, and water systems to improve water treatment infrastructure and help implement green infrastructure projects.
  • Reinforces EPA’s green infrastructure and low-impact development programs and policies, such as the Green Infrastructure Collaborative, Soak Up the Rain, Campus Rainworks, G3, and others, which provide communities with tangible, cost-effective solutions to address water management needs.

Upgrading to a Multimodal Transportation Network

ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Award of Excellence Recipient. Portland Mall Revitalization. ZGF Architects LLP / ZGF Architects LLP

Our nation’s roads and bridges are crumbling and in need of repair. Using expert planning and design techniques, landscape architects are helping to create less costly, more convenient transportation systems that also include walking, bicycling, and public transportation options.

To meet the demands of today’s transportation users, ASLA urges policy makers to support a comprehensive infrastructure package that:

  • Supports active transportation programs, like the Transportation Alternatives Program, Safe Routes to School, and Recreational Trails programs. Together, these programs are providing much-needed, low-cost transportation options for individuals, families, and communities across the country.
  • Enhances the Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants program, which, with increased funding, will successfully assist more states and local communities with building multimodal projects that address congestion, improve safety, and expand economic opportunity.
  • Invests in transit and transit-oriented development to meet the growing demand for expanded public transportation and intercity passenger rail systems across the country. Transit-oriented development is also critical to jump-starting local economic development.

Recognizing Public Lands, Parks, and Recreation as Critical Infrastructure

America’s national resources / istockphoto

America’s natural infrastructure should be protected, preserved, and enhanced. Our public lands are also economic drivers and support critical jobs, tourism, and other economic development, yet there is a $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog of projects. Landscape architects design parks, trails, urban forests, and other open spaces that enhance communities and augment the value of other types of infrastructure.

ASLA urges policy makers to support an infrastructure plan that:

  • Invests in our nation’s public lands, including providing for construction, maintenance, and restoration projects at the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service.
  • Increases funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which provides critical assistance to urban, suburban, and rural communities for local park projects. Community parks are essential infrastructure that address stormwater, air quality, heat island effect, and public health issues.
  • Bolsters USDA’s Urban and Community Forestry program, which focuses on the stewardship of communities’ natural infrastructure and resources.

Designing for Resilience

ASLA 2016 Ohio Chapter Award of Excellence Recipient. Scioto Greenways.
MKSK / Randall Schieber

Communities are increasingly faced with addressing hurricanes, tornadoes, severe flooding, wildfires, and other natural disasters. Landscape architects have the education, training, and tools to help these places rebuild homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure in a more resilient manner.

ASLA urges policy makers to support an infrastructure plan that:

  • Employs a sound planning and design process that incorporates disaster planning, which could greatly enhance a community’s resilience to extreme weather, sea-level rise, and other natural events.
  • Provides adequate funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to continue efforts that help communities adapt to and mitigate coastal hazards.
  • Expands the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild by Design competition for additional regions affected by natural disasters. The Rebuild by Design competition is a multistage planning and design competition that uses the expertise of multidisciplinary design teams to promote resilience in the Hurricane Sandy-affected region.

Also, see a PDF version of the proposal.

Clean Water for Everyone Who Lives in a City

Water Infrastructure / Columbia University Press
Water Infrastructure / Columbia University Press

Water Infrastructure: Equitable Deployment of Resilient Systems is an important, timely book. Synthesized from discussions leading up to Habitat III, the United Nations conference on housing and sustainable urban development, held in Quito, Ecuador last October, the book explains how to better provide clean water to everyone in the world’s cities by making water systems more equitable and resilient to shocks. A perfunctory foreword by Kate Orff, ASLA, demonstrates how refreshingly unpretentious this book is: lines crammed together, a minor typo halfway through, as if to say, who cares about formatting? Get the ideas out there.

With that, Water Infrastructure, written by Columbia University professors S. Bry Sarte and Morana Stipisic, hits the ground running. What threatens the sources of clean water in cities? The authors offer a highly-visual drive-by tour of the risks: water pollution, sea level rise, terrestrial flooding, drought, and failing infrastructure. The tremendous speed of urbanization increases the risks and leaves us in need of better solutions.

Water Infrastructure doesn’t offer sure-fire solutions, but does provide exciting real-world innovations. These innovations aren’t just technological, but fall into the realms of ecology, finance, and equity. All share a similar DNA: they’re decentralized, adaptable, and rational.

The book diagrams which innovations can be applied to specific risks. Confronted with aging infrastructure? Integrated micro-infrastructure centers (IMICs) could help. These are modular water systems that can stand alone or complement aging infrastructure. They can be tailored to local conditions and mitigate damage in case of a centralized system’s failure. IMICs are an ideal response to aging infrastructure, but one can see how they could help reduce water pollution by reducing the overall load on a system.

emory-waterhub
Emory University’s IMIC reduces the load on public water infrastrucuture / Water Infrastructure

Landscape architects will be familiar with the ecological innovations Water Infrastructure touts. “The integration of high performance ecology in an urban context” (the unartful name of one innovation) covers both hard and soft coastal buffers, floodable parks and public spaces, and methods for reducing the urban heat island effect. It’s a concern, though, that these items are considered innovations, with the edginess that label connotes, and not standard practice. But one should consider that 20 years ago, at the time of the Habitat II conference, these ideas were fringe at best. Resilient and sustainable landscape design has come a long way.

What constitutes a financial innovation? New ways of sourcing money, and new sources of said money. This section is a bit light. And some of the innovations’ intent could be compromised through privatization. The authors make two useful suggestions: encourage community-based implementation of water infrastructure, akin to Grameen Bank’s model, and use public health benefits to drive funding for these systems.

Innovations in equity, leadership, and governance pick up where these community-centric ideas leave off. The authors’ key policy suggestions here include designing legal and financial systems for community ownership of water infrastructure. The authors write that the “personality of a community can be expressed by the choice of infrastructure and its implementation.” More than that, communities would hold a vested interest in that infrastructure, which would likely lead to greater appreciation and upkeep.

A noteworthy recommendation is leveraging infrastructure’s “cool factor” to create more of it. This is an astonishing comment on the state of things, that plumbing can be art. Any yet it’s increasingly the case, with examples such as Google’s data Center in Douglas County, Georgia, and Ned Kahn’s Cloud Portal in San Francisco.

google-pipes
Google’s data center in Georgia uses recycled water for cooling operations. / Georgia Globe Design News

Leveraging coolness in a project isn’t always possible. And this recommendation, while alluring, shouldn’t overshadow the book’s other solid and potentially transforming ideas. But its inclusion shows that the authors and participants of Habitat III have considered all aspects of water infrastructure and are excited to share their findings.

New Competition: Bay Area Resilient by Design Challenge

Flooding near the Bay Bridge / KQED
Flooding near the Bay Bridge / KQED

The Rockefeller Foundation announced a $4.6 million grant for a new design competition for the San Francisco bay area. Modeled after the Hurricane Sandy Rebuild by Design competition, the Bay Area: Resilient by Design Challenge will support the creation of resilient infrastructure that can withstand “growing climate change-related threats and seismic, housing, and income disparity challenges.”

The competition is a partnership with the San Francisco Planning Department, and there are a host of bay area organizations involved, such as: Seedbank; Santa Clara Water Valley District; San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission; California Coastal Conservancy; Bay Area Council; Bay Area Regional Collaborative; SPUR; San Francisco Estuary Institute; the Cities of Richmond, San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose; and other local community groups.

Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, explained why the competition is needed: “the San Francisco Bay Area is very vulnerable to sea level rise. High tides today cause flooding on some key highway ramps in Marin County, and king tides cause waves to wash into the Embarcadero in downtown San Francisco. With only 16 inches of sea level rise, sections of the main highway connecting San Francisco to Silicon Valley would flood, near the Facebook and Google headquarters. So we know it’s happening, and that our region faces major risks.

We also know our infrastructure for sewage treatment and stormwater drainage is at risk from seawater flooding and rising groundwater tables. Several low income areas will be affected early in the flooding process, making our social equity problems worse. And the coastal wetlands that have been restored through several generations of environmental activism will disappear unless they are expanded and augmented with additional sediment to raise their elevation. The Bay’s ecosystems are very much at risk.”

In a release, Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities at the Rockefeller Foundation, said the new competition will “build on the three Bay Area resilience strategies that have been produced so far – in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco – and will be an important step for the resilience of the region moving forward.”

According to the foundation,  the competition will have two phases. In the first phase, teams will conduct research and engage communities for three months in order to develop initial design concepts for specific locations. (It’s not clear whether those sites will be pre-determined). Teams will “organically form themselves” and be comprised of planners, engineers, landscape architects, ecologists, architects, and others from around the world. In the second phase, teams will undertake a five-month intensive design process, partnering with residents, businesses, community groups, and politicians. The goal is to create “detailed, replicable and implementable infrastructure projects.”

Hill hopes some truly innovative projects will come out of the process: “Since we don’t have hurricanes, the competition should allow us to look at some very cool options for how to live in a wetter landscape, like new housing that accommodates flooding by floating above it on water-displacement foundations. Those foundations are actually an advantage in a seismically active region like ours. We can create housing that creates room via pond systems and canals to store freshwater floodwaters, which will continue to come from tributaries to the Bay and urban runoff. These are all alternatives to turning the Bay Area into a set of walled cities like New Orleans, slowly sinking below sea level and become more vulnerable to sea level rise as it sinks.”

The organizers are a bit vague at this stage about the timeline. Anyone interested in participating can contact the organizers.

Book Review: Nature and Cities

Nature and Cities / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
Nature and Cities / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

It’s been 20 years since the publication of Ecological Design and Planning, the collection of essays that established ecological design as the defining innovation of 20th century landscape architecture. Not only has this mode of design informed all thinking about landscape since Ian McHarg first championed it, but designs eschewing this approach have risked irrelevance.

The ensuing two decades since Ecological Design and Planning’s publication have seen two major global changes. First, climate change has emerged as a force that will shape our future. Second, cities have grown to such an extent that their populations account for half of the Earth’s total. The world has not stood still, but, as Nature and Cities: The Ecological Imperative of Urban Planning demonstrates, neither has landscape architecture.

Nature and Cities, edited by Frederick Steiner, FASLA, George Thompson, and Armando Carbonell, was intended to be Ecological Design and Planning’s successor, Steiner said. It follows a similar formula: A collection of essays from both well-established and up-and-coming landscape architects with big ideas and projects that showcase them.

Steiner believes Nature and Cities can entice readers outside the fields of landscape and planning, despite its niche topic. The book is handsome and visually rich, and the essays are warmer than they are academic. They vary in subject matter. Richard Weller, ASLA, examines urban forms and formation; Kate Orff, ASLA, and Kongjian Yu, FASLA, explore aqueous landscape design. Several of the most thought-provoking essays make valiant attempts at applying to design our growing understanding of systems, resilience, and the myth of ecological equilibrium.

If these issues don’t interest you, you can use the book to check in on the state of the “landscape architecture: science or art” debate. Nature and Cities offers several worthy contributions to it. Of course, it’s not a question of either or, but as James Corner, ASLA, writes in his essay, there’s a tendency to allow science to govern our designs to the exclusion of the subjective and aesthetic. In our current design atmosphere, improvisation and beauty strain under the yoke of performance metrics. Corner argues that more honest applications of biophilic design would incorporate the errant, much as real ecosystems do, as a means of enrichment.

The Mill River Park and Greenway, ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. An example of the successful introduction of nature into a city's fabric / Nature and Cities, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
The Mill River Park and Greenway, ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. An example of the successful introduction of nature into a city’s fabric / Nature and Cities, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

Let’s not forget metrics are good for business, Laurie Olin, FASLA, points out in his essay. And if you can put an exclamation point on those metrics with a beautiful design, all the better. His firm accomplished this with a designed marsh on Yale’s campus. Students enjoyed it so much they added fish, leading to a richer ecosystem and indirectly saving the purchase of an additional 1.8 million liters of water per year. Social buy-in can occur when sustainable design is made evident.

“The more I understand the dynamics associated with global climate change and urbanization, the more I want to make sense of it all with other human beings,” writes Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, in her essay. It’s for this reason, Hill argues, that designers should create aesthetic experiences that address this rapid and destabilizing change. Rising sea levels and water scarcity can be frightening, but new aesthetic experiences can help us better understand those threats.

Part of Nature and Cities’ purpose, Steiner said, is to showcase the contributions that landscape architects have made to our cities and environment. “When Susannah Drake, ASLA, and her colleagues want to clean up the Gowanus Canal, that’s heroic,” Steiner said, referring to her essay. “And that they’ve made as much progress as they have is quite remarkable.”

gowanus-sponge-park
Gowanus Canal Sponge Park / DLANDstudio

Sizable ambition certainly shines through the successes touted in the book, but reading about them, one wonders if these efforts are adequate in scope to the environmental challenges we face. Adequate or not, isn’t it great that landscape architecture has something to say about it all?

Read the book.

An Opportunity to Reinvent Infrastructure

Self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh / The Washington Post
Self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh / The Washington Post

With President-elect Trump coming into office vowing to raise $1 trillion for infrastructure, many cities and states see a potential bonanza for high-speed rail development, bridge and highway repair, and, hopefully, urban transportation networks. As former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell noted at The Atlantic‘s summit on infrastructure, the Republican agenda is to let localities decide — and that should hold true for their infrastructure priorities as well, even if it means bike lanes, which a number of Republican Congressional lawmakers have come out against. At the summit, experts called for using this investment opportunity to create smarter, more resilient infrastructure, unleash new technologies, and move to more equitable approaches for long-term financing.

Brendan Shane, regional director at C40 Cities, argues that with any new federal infrastructure investment, there is an opportunity to make infrastructure low-carbon and resilient. Complete green streets enable all forms of travel, but especially climate-friendly ones like walking and biking. The national energy grid is woefully outdated and could be updated to be more energy-efficient. Water systems could be made more cost-effective and resilient through the use of green infrastructure. However, he cautioned that “$1 trillion won’t go very far. Los Angeles just approved $120 billion in projects, and that was just one city.”

Improving resilience is the primary focus of Norfolk, Virginia, said Christine Morris, the chief resilience officer of this coastal city. Norfolk, which hosts the largest naval base in the U.S., just finalized its Vision 2100, which creates a road map for resilience and adaptation to both land subsidence and flooding from sea level rise. She said “resilient cities don’t wait for someone to save them, they move forward and find partners.”

Morris was optimistic the department of defense and federal government will continue to invest in making the base and the city that houses it more resilient. Norfolk plans on creating a layered system of defenses with wetlands, green infrastructure, berms, and gates. “The federal government wants to keep and protect national assets.”

Gabe Klein, co-author of Start-up City: Inspiring Public and Private Entrepreneuriship, Getting Projects Done, and Having Fun, and Niki Christoff, head of government affairs for Uber, called for using new technologies to improve urban transportation infrastructure. Klein said the department of transportation’s smart cities challenge was brilliant at leveraging $40 million in prize money to create “$500 million in strategic planning” on how to use technology to reduce congestion and pollution and improve safety and efficiency. 

He said second-tier cities like Pittsburgh — the site of Uber’s self-driving ride-share experiments — are great places to test new transportation technologies, “as they can get things done faster.” 

Klein sees a mix of driven and autonomous vehicles for “a long time,” with a painful transition period over the next 20 years. Eventually, with the explosion of automated ride-share vehicles, 90 percent of cars in dense urban cores will go away, freeing up space for housing and parks.

Christoff noted that one of the biggest obstacles for automated vehicles are potholes, which cause confusion for the computers. She said Uber may eventually share the data automated vehicles collect on potholes with local transportation departments. If they are fixed, it would be a win-win for the private and public sectors. 

Klein said cities can also turn to the public for help in fixing potholes, asking them to identify and submit information. In D.C., when he was transportation commissioner, he created Pot-hole-palooza, a crowd-sourcing effort, and then sent out an “auto pothole killer.”

While Trump aims to use some mix of private and public funds for infrastructure, there was discussion on what happens long-term after the money has been spent. The federal gas tax hasn’t been increased since the 1972. One innovative model piloted by Oregon last year finances road and highway investment through a usage fee, a tax for miles traveled, instead of the usual federal gas tax. Some 5,000 cars participated in the pilot.

Instead of privileging the low-gas use of hybrid vehicles, the system, which involves adding a small USB-like device into cars’ speedometers, treats all miles traveled the same. “It’s more equitable, and the payment system is transparent. At the end of the month, you receive a bill like you do for water or cell phone service,” explained Richard Geddes, with the American Enterprise Institute. As part of the scheme, there are rebates for any gas taxes. 

In a poll from last year, Oregonians were split on the idea of replacing the federal gas tax with a mileage based approach. Still, the idea of charging vehicle owners based on how much they actually use and wear down roads seems more direct, understandable, and fair. 

Interview with Mitchell Silver on NYC’s Game Changing Park System

Mitchell Silver / NYC Parks and Recreation
Mitchell Silver / NYC Parks and Recreation

Mitchell Silver is commissioner of the New York City Departments of Parks and Recreation. Silver is past president of the American Planning Association (APA) and an award-winning planner with 30 years of experience.

In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the Community Parks Initiative, which aims to improve historically underfunded parks in densely populated and growing neighborhoods with higher than average concentrations of poverty. Some $285 million has been set aside for this effort, which will lead to the full re-imagining of 67 parks. Your department has broken ground in some 35 parks. What do communities want most for their new spaces after all those years of deferred maintenance? What are some common elements in these new places?

First, they want the asphalt gone. Most of these parks were just play spaces with asphalt. They want trees and green space. Even if it’s synthetic turf, they want a softer surface. Second, they want multi-generational spaces. We have an aging population and want make sure we have seating areas, gathering spaces, so it isn’t just a playground. And then, people want fitness equipment, or adult play equipment, which is a big trend right now. People want to come out and be healthy. And spray showers, because, if you have a pool, you can only use it a few months a year. With spray showers, you can still play on the same surface in the winter. In the summertime, they’re self activated, you can just cool off and enjoy without getting fully wet. Those were some of the primary ones, but number one is people want the asphalt gone. They want to go from gray to green.

Another exciting initiative you’re leading: Parks Without Borders. Some $50 million will be spent on improving park access through “opening sight lines, beautifying edges, adjusting furnishings.” Part of this will include lowering all those tall chain-link fences, unappealing gates, and fixing the sidewalks lining the parks. Can you talk about the connection between a park and it surrounding streets? Why focus on the borders? Why are they so important?

Frederick Law Olmsted once said the sidewalk adjacent to the park is the outer park. If you look at Prospect Park and Central Park, the sidewalk is part of the park. When I came on board, I recognized that in our city charter, the parks department not only oversees the parks, but the sidewalks adjoining the parks. The park doesn’t end at the fence line or the wall, it actually ends at the curb and beyond.

The second point is park land represents 14 percent of the city’s footprint. Streets and sidewalks represents another 26 percent. So in other words, 40 percent of New York City is within the public realm. We own it, yet the average citizen does not know where the parks department property ends and the department of transportation property begins. And guess what? They don’t care. They want a seamless public realm.

That gave birth to the Parks Without Borders. Parks aren’t just islands of green space; they’re connected to our entire public realm. Parks Without Borders help us create a more seamless experience at the edges, entrances, and adjacent park spaces. We don’t have to buy new land; we own it. We just have to program it differently, so we provide a better experience.

Parks without Borders / NYC Parks and Recreation
Parks without Borders / NYC Parks and Recreation

Are you concerned about security when you lower all those fences?

We’re always concerned about security. But here’s the good thing about Parks Without Borders: We met with our police department and they fully support the effort. Why? Because when you lower the fences, it increases natural surveillance. There are now more eyes on the park. We’re also removing landscaping and vegetation and other obstacles that block views. People who want to do bad things do not want to be seen. By removing the obstacles, improving the lighting, and increasing the sight lines into the park, we can actually make parks safer. Part of Parks Without Borders is also a public safety campaign.

We need fences for children to play and for certain recreation, but, for the most part, we don’t really need them. Without fences, we can create a more seamless experience.

Parks Without Borders is about making parks more welcoming, open, turning them into the living rooms of the city. It’s about removing all of these tall fences where young people feel, “Why are you imprisoning me in this public space?” We’re no longer in the ’80s and ’90s anymore. Parks are safe.

Another part of Parks Without Borders is bringing free Wi-Fi to city parks. New York City parks and recreation has partnered with AT&T. You’ve piloted benches that enable you to recharge your phone via solar panel while browsing on Wi-Fi. But aren’t parks meant to be an escape from technology in urban life? Doesn’t time spent downloading apps diminish time enjoying Central Park?

We carefully look at the demographics. From the Greatest generation, to the Boomer generation, and the X, Y, Z generations, people experience parks in different ways. Years ago in Bryant Park, there would be couples using the movable chairs, enjoying their public space. Today, people go by themselves with their smartphones. The smartphone is the most necessary device. It connects people to the world. I’m totally fine with that. Some people go to parks purposely to read a book, but they can also be alone with their smartphone.

People may want to look for something within the park, download a map to see where they’re going, meet up with a friend, or pull out their phone and take photographs and selfies and tweet them out. We want to encourage those activities.

Soofa Charging Bench / NYC Parks and Recreation
Soofa Charging Bench / NYC Parks and Recreation

For me, technology and parks go together. I love taking pictures of people taking pictures in parks. Very often, you know you have a popular park when someone pulls out their phone and they start taking selfies.

We’ve put in charging stations at beaches. Who knows? Maybe you may can meet your future husband or wife getting your phone charged on the beach. I don’t see any disconnect: Technology and parks definitely go together.

Beach Charging Station / NYC Parks and Recreation
Beach Charging Station / NYC Parks and Recreation

You said the newly-rebuilt 5.5 mile Rockaway Boardwalk is a part of New York City’s “first line of defense against climate change.” The boardwalk features “multiple layers of protection” with six miles of planted dunes backed by concrete retaining walls. When the next super storm hits, how is that reconstructed shoreline expected to perform? And how do you know?

Super Storm Sandy established a new reality for New York City. We never thought we were that vulnerable. In New York City, we have 520 miles of coastline and 155 miles are within parks. So in each neighborhood, we’re looking at a different approach of how to address risks, but there’s no question our parks are now the first line of defense.

In the Rockaway, we worked with our landscape architects and engineers. We did beach replenishment. We put in dunes. We use concrete as opposed to piles of wood. What we’ve built will do a much better job at saving life and property. What we’ve built is stronger and better.

Rockaway Beach Protective Dunes / NYC Parks and Recreation
Rockaway Beach Protective Dunes / NYC Parks and Recreation

And that’s our goal moving forward. Solutions will vary between different neighborhoods, but the Rockaway shows one example of a very vulnerable neighborhood that now has a concrete boardwalk that’s reinforced with dunes on both sides.

Clearly we’re going to be tested one day. We hope not soon.

Parks, plazas, even playgrounds, can be part of a city’s system for protecting itself against storms and floods. As the Big U, the set of parks that double as berms, take shape in Lower Manhattan, your city is showing the way forward on how to create protective infrastructure that doubles as public parks. How do roles and responsibilities change when you have a $350 million dollar piece of public multi-use infrastructure charged with protecting billions of dollars of real estate in Lower Manhattan? Are you creating a governance model for this system that other cities can use?

Under our previous mayor and current mayor, the Mayor’s Office for Resiliency, Recovery and Resiliency has been the overarching coordinating agency that works with all the relevant agencies, such as parks, environmental protection, and transportation. They take the lead role, even though all the resilient infrastructure is placed in the park. The Big U is not just about green infrastructure but also acts as a protective infrastructure to protect life and property.

ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Rebuild by Design, The Big U / BIG and Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners
ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Rebuild by Design, The Big U / BIG and Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners

We need to be a resilient city. Sea levels are increasing over time, and New York City is a coastal city. We recognize we have to plan for change now. All these projects are also taking into account sea level rise in a city that is basically an island, except the Bronx, which is part of the mainland.

The Office of Recovery and Resiliency is a model that other cities should emulate. They have designers, engineers, planning professionals, and policy makers that focus on resiliency efforts throughout the world.  They focus on this day in and day out. Parks will then bring in their experience because we know plant material, horticulture. We know how to plan for different type of environments in our city and how to protect the environment. But an overarching agency that spends all of their time focused on recovery and resiliency is a good coordinating mechanism.

You told The New York Times that part of your Sunday routine is to visit a park you’ve never been, a new one out of the whopping 1,700 parks in five boroughs you oversee. You see who is visiting, take photos, document issues. What have your Sunday adventures taught you about the park system that you couldn’t read in a briefing book?

Taking these surprise visits, I’ve learned that our parks are cleaner than I thought. I get a lot of reports about people complaining how filthy our parks are. That is not the case. There were a couple of instances, but our parks are a lot better maintained than I would believe just by doing these spontaneous visits.

Second, New Yorkers love parks. I spend a lot of time watching where people are sitting, what they’re doing. On a hot sunny day, a spot under a tree is a very popular spot.

People enjoying the shade under a tree at Sunset Park / Mitchell Silver
People enjoying the shade under a tree at Sunset Park / Mitchell Silver

I look at how different generations are using the spaces, what seniors and families are doing.

I knew we lacked capital investment and, so, going into certain parks, I knew we had to focus on finding a way for some of our lesser known parks to get an infusion of capital. That has became obvious to me.

There are certain parks that did have some maintenance issues, but I realized staff did not have the proper equipment. I didn’t go into these parks to whack staff. I want to find out what I need to give them to do their jobs better. Now we have a whole new approach to make sure the service for our equipment is better and staff have the tools they need to maintain this park.

I live in Brooklyn, I grew up in Brooklyn. I had no idea we had such an incredible park system. I was blown away by parks I’d never heard of. I just came from Bowne Park in Flushing, Queens, which is beautiful. I’m going to parks and saying, “I cannot believe I’m in New York City.” I had a chance to take a canoe down the Bronx River and I was transported to another place.

I want to go on my own, unannounced without staff, just to be free to explore and see how people are using spaces. I love photography, so enjoy taking pictures of some of my favorite moments in these parks.

Lastly, given Mayor de Blasio’s focus on creating One City in NYC, what role do you think public spaces like parks, greenways, playgrounds play in reducing inequality? Can they reduce poverty?

Parks are free. They’re democratic spaces. Regardless of your race, income, age, parks are accessible to everyone.

We do have our quality regional parks — Central Park, High Line, Prospect Park — open to everyone. But we want to take that a step further: Every neighborhood deserves to have a quality space. We want everyone to be within a ten minute walk to a park. But it’s not just the proximity, we want that park to be a quality park.

We launched the Community Parks Initiative because we believe parks are places where people connect, get healthy, and relax. Having that in every neighborhood addresses inequality. We want to make sure we’re fair about how we invest in our parks, and all young kids have a chance to enjoy green spaces and get healthy.

I can’t say parks address poverty per se, but they certainly address inequality. Everyone deserves a quality space in New York City, where density and open space go together. You cannot have one without the other. You don’t just want to have affordable housing. You want to have a quality neighborhood with adequate public space.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 16 – 30)

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Freeway Park, Seattle, Washington by Lawrence Halprin / Photograph © Aaron Leitz, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

New Hudson River Park Will Be on Man-Made Island  The Wall Street Journal, 11/16/16
“Plans for a new park in Manhattan call for lush plants, towering trees, walking paths and a theater, all set on a rolling section of waterfront property.”

Diana Balmori, Landscape Architect With a Blending Philosophy, Dies at 84The New York Times, 11/17/16
“Diana Balmori, a landscape architect whose ecologically sensitive designs integrated buildings and the natural environment in projects ranging in scope from urban rooftop gardens to South Korea’s new administrative capital, Sejong City, died on Monday in Manhattan.”

From Penguin Watching to Healing Gardens, See the Best Australian Landscape Architecture from 2016 The Architect’s Newspaper, 11/21/16
“The Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) has presented this year’s National Landscape Architecture Awards. The winners span an eclectic mix of typologies ranging from penguin viewing platforms to waterfall trails and healing gardens.”

The Landscape Architect Who Helped Invent Modern City Parks Curbed, 11/22/16
“An urban public park that runs above a highway; a master plan for an oceanfront community that’s both sustainable and resilient: these typify today’s progressive contemporary visions for landscape architecture.”

The Best New Public Design Projects in NYC, According to the CityFast Company, 11/23/16
“The Public Design Commission (which was called the Municipal Art Commission until it was renamed in 2008) decided that it needed to actively promote design, creativity, and innovation in civic projects to incentivize better work and recognize the efforts of the ambitious municipal agencies behind the projects.”

The Art of Survival: Turenscape Creates Green Infrastructure Through Resilient Wetland Parks Architizer, 11/30/16
“How can you find an artful way to clean the soil? How can you find an artful way to manage the storm-water? I call this the art of survival. Because we are facing the problem of survival.”

A Progress Report from the Cutting Edge of Resilient Design

Resilient Bridgeport / Rebuild by Design
Resilient Bridgeport / Rebuild by Design

“We don’t know what resilience policy will look like in the new administration. There are lots of unknowns, but we can take solace in what we do know,” said Amy Chester, director of Rebuild by Design, at an event in Washington, D.C. that provided updates on how the six teams devising novel resilient designs in the tri-state area are doing two years into planning and design.

Rebuild by Design, a unique cross-sector initiative supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Initiative, and numerous non-profit organizations, was created by President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which hit the east coast in 2012 and damaged or destroyed 650,000 homes across 13 states. 148 teams submitted proposals to create new layers of defenses that could also be beautiful public amenities. 6 teams went onto receive nearly $1 billion in public financing.

Each team provided a brief update:

Bridgeport, Connecticut (see image above): David Kooris, with the Connecticut state government, explained how his team received $10 million from Rebuild by Design to create a comprehensive plan to make the low-lying, vulnerable South End more resilient to flooding. The funds, which are much less than what they’ve asked for, gave them extra capacity to plan. From that effort, they learned transit-oriented development, combined with surge protection, green infrastructure, and micro-grids should be core of their approach. They have since received another $54 million from HUD’s national resilience competition. Those funds will be split between implementing the project and developing a “state-wide policy” that can guide other coastal Connecticut resilient projects.

Alan Plattus at Yale University, who is involved in the research side of the project, explained how their plan will link two Olmsted-designed parks, Seaside Park, which is already tasked with surge protection duties, and Beardsley Park, at the mouth of the water system. Plattus thinks Olmsted’s original vision was to connect them. Bridgeport will begin implementation in 2019. Learn more.

Hudson River and Meadowlands, New Jersey: Hoboken, the 4th most dense city in America, received $230 million to control flooding. Alexis Taylor, New Jersey state bureau of flood resilience, explained how a network of berms and gates will be created to protect the vast majority of the city during storms. All the infrastructure will be created in public right-of-ways:  alleys, plazas, and parks. An undulating sea wall will be aligned towards the interior of the city, rather than the coast. Vital infrastructure is protected. A network of green infrastructure also helps reduce inland flooding.

Hudson River / NJ DEP
Hudson River resilience project / NJ DEP

Taylor said about “85 percent of the city will be on the dry side, but this benefits 100 percent of the population because Hoboken will no longer be an island cut-off when it floods. All evacuation routes will be dry. This plan strikes the right balance.” Learn more in this presentation. Alternative 3 was finally selected by New Jersey’s government after much community input. Balmori Associates and SCAPE Landscape Architecture are the landscape architects.

Separately, the Meadowlands project received $150 million, which is far less than the $850 million they requested for the 9 miles of flood protection measures needed. As a result, the team is created a set of modular flood protection systems on streets, a “kit of parts, pre-cast, that can be easily scaled or replicated, and enables prototyping.” Pretty smart. MIT CAU, ZUS, and URBANISTEN are the landscape architects and planners on the team. Learn more.

Meadowlands / MIT CAU, Zus, Urbanisten
Meadowlands / MIT CAU, Zus, Urbanisten

Staten Island, New York City: Alex Zablocki, New York governor’s office of storm recovery introduced Pippa Brashear, ASLA, SCAPE Landscape Architecture, and their project, Living Breakwaters, which will result in a “necklace of breakwaters” off the Staten Island coast that will attenuate the impact of storm surges, build back beaches, create habitat for millions of oysters and fish, and “reconnect people with the shoreline.” SCAPE modeled the shoreline with their engineering team and tested specially-designed concrete that will enable biogenic build-up. Working with the One Billion Oyster Project, they are collecting literally tons of shells from restaurants to reuse in their breakwater reefs and educating the public about their mission. Brashear said the citizens advisory group was critical to the process, as was going out into neighboring communities to “show progress,” and make public events fun, through the use of virtual reality headsets and games.

Living Breakwaters / SCAPE Landscape Architecture
Living Breakwaters / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Final designs will be ready in 2018. They are now working on schematic designs and environmental assessments before partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on implementation. Learn more.

Long Island, New York: Nassau County received some $125 million, less than the $1 billion they asked for, said Laura Manufo, New York governor’s office of storm recovery. A layered solution will focus on integrated stormwater management along a greenway corridor that follows the Mill River, and preventing flooding and storm surge impacts from the bay through “strategically deploying protective measures like constructed marshes and dikes, which in turn will improve water quality and the bay ecology.”

Living with the Bay / Rebuild by Design
Living with the Bay / Rebuild by Design

Given the team received far less funds than they hoped, they needed to re-scope, explained Michael Bomar with Tetra Tech. “We narrowed the focus to low and middle income neighborhoods. One thousand acres is more manageable.” But, still, the team is dealing with 45 separate municipal and other stakeholders. An extensive team includes landscape architects H+N+S. Learn more.

Manhattan, New York: The Big U, which received the lion’s share of the Rebuild by Design financing, with $355 million, is designed to numerous communities and billions of real estate along the tip of Manhattan. The Big U will create an integrated system of compartments that can be closed in storms. The first phase to be built will protect the Lower East side, ranging from Montgomery Street up to 23rd Street in Stuyvesant Town, explained Carrie Grassi, City of New York. Most of the infrastructure will overlay the 2.4-mile-long East River Park. New berms accessible via bridges and a series of gates will protect critical infrastructure and communities. Protective measures average 8-9-feet-tall but reach up to 16 feet in some places.

The Big U berms / BIG
The Big U berm in park / BIG

Travis Bunt with One Architecture, a member of the team led by BIG, which also includes Starr Whitehouse landscape architects and Mathews Nielsen landscape architects, said the preliminary design work is done, but now details must be refined. Construction is expected to begin in early 2019.

Hunt’s Point, South Bronx: Jessica Colon, City of New York, said Hunt’s Point has suffered from years of disinvestment and bad planning decisions. It’s a mile from Manhattan, but feels like a world away. Hunt’s Point has a major market, which is one of the key food distribution hubs in the tri-state area, an industrial area, and a smaller residential area. The South Bronx team asked for $800 million but only received $20 million, so they decided to invest that in more planning. Through that process, the community decided to focus on coastal and energy resilience. They have received another $125 million to prototype projects. One realization that came out of their research: critical facilities are not the biggest worry; the “problems are more at the building level.”

Hunts Point Lifelines / Penn Design / OLIN, via Rebuild by Design
Hunts Point Lifelines / Penn Design / OLIN, via Rebuild by Design

Colon said the South Bronx is now at the “vanguard of adaptation. They’ve been ignored by the government for so long. They’ve been to hell and back. They can survive.” Design and construction on prototype projects begins in 2018. OLIN and PennDesign are the planners and landscape architects. After hearing from the teams, Jessica Grannis at the Georgetown Climate Center shared findings from her research into how “public officials overcame challenges to make these projects happen.” She offered a summary of key take-aways, which included:

  • Create a long-term vision to drive policy and regulatory change. Create regional coordinators, as many issues cross jurisdictional boundaries.
  • Design berms with benefits. Coastal defenses can offer multiple social and environmental benefits.
  • Coordinate the layers of authority involved in nature-based coastal resilience projects. In inter-tidal areas, the federal government, state, and local governments will all have a say. Involve regulators early on in a coordinated way.
  • Leverage public right-of-ways to avoid permitting and ownership issues.

For Grannis, if Rebuild by Design is successful, the projects will not only influence state and federal policy-making for public projects but also for private development.

And she thinks all of this work should have bipartisan support: “Resilience is more important than ever. If you are a Democrat or Republican, you want safe and prosperous communities.”