Finding Opportunity in Leftover Urban Spaces

Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities / (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

In Local Code, Nicholas de Monchaux pushes us to assign new value to forgotten pieces of our urban fabric – the dead-end alley, the vacant corner lot; infrastructure’s leftovers. While many cities deem vacant parcels as unusable remnants of development, Local Code makes the case for aggregating them to build urban resilience.

To visualize the opportunities, de Monchaux, an associate professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley, uses data on vacant public land in four cities – San Francisco; Los Angeles; Venice, Italy; and New York City. He then translates the data into a series of diagrams and drawings that show the scale and types of these dormant landscapes.

Flow diagram of proposed interventions, San Francisco case study / Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities, (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
Additional proposals, San Francisco case study / Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities, (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

In San Francisco, for example, what the city’s department of public works refers to as “unaccepted streets” – right-of-ways the city does not maintain — make up the equivalent surface area to Golden Gate Park (over 1,000 acres). New York and Los Angeles have “underutilized parcels.” Los Angeles also has space under billboards, while Venice has a “lagoon” of abandoned islands.

De Monchaux highlights what he calls the “institutional invisibility” of these spaces, showing how they coincide with higher levels of household poverty, urban heat islands, crime, and asthma. Then, de Monchaux shows how bioswales, drought-tolerant planting, and porous paving could help reduce these problem areas.

Intervention for vacant parcel, New York City case study / Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities, (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

The result is a multitude of diagrams and drawings that demonstrate a scope of opportunities, rather than predetermined results. By addressing sites where these issues are most acute, de Monchaux argues that cities can build a spatial network to improve environmental circulation and function of urban ecosystems, which can even help cities spend more wisely on public works.

Proposals also focus on intertwined social issues. In New York City, where as de Monchaux notes, there have been many resiliency-related rebuilding efforts since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but most of which haven’t focused on improving quality of life in low-income neighborhoods. De Monchaux writes: “Combining stormwater and heat-island mediation with the creation of shared public space, the investment proposed here is one equally focused on the everyday resilience of communities as in episodic resilience to disaster.”

Vacant alley at 1717 Lincoln Place, New York City case study / From Local Code: 3,659 Proposals About Data, Design & the Nature of Cities, (c) 2016 Nicholas de Monchaux, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Scattered between the case studies are essays about the lives and professional contributions of three key figures – artist Gordon Matta-Clark, urban theorist Jane Jacobs, and architect Howard Fisher. In recalling these stories, Local Code acknowledges the painstaking data collection efforts of visionaries in urban design before the instant gratification of geographic information systems (GIS), which makes possible the book’s 3,659 proposals.

These essays make up a substantial portion of the text and give Local Code a character-driven quality to an otherwise data-heavy book. De Monchaux acknowledges in the introduction that “an abundance of data is not knowledge.” To that end, the historical essays give context on how cities function and adapt in response to environmental and social change.

To fully grasp Monchaux’s planning and design proposals may require experience in design, or at least visual communication, but the historical essays speak to a broader audience interested in cities, as does the optimistic approach to vacant parcels. Ultimately, Local Code encourages us to read between the lines, or buildings, and see new opportunities in forgotten spaces.

New Ruralism: Solutions for Struggling Small Towns

Screamin Ridge farm, Vermont / Screamin Ridge

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

In many struggling small northeastern rural towns, the drug epidemic has ravaged communities already weakened by the loss of manufacturing jobs. But it’s clear there are also many using “creative economy” approaches to revitalize themselves. Through her organization, Hough has collected case studies of success stories in Vermont. The communities making themselves more resilient share some important values: “volunteerism, empowerment, ingenuity, creativity, cooperation, entrepreneurism, local ownership, and self-sufficiency,” Hough said, adding that “leadership is key.”

In Vermont, the farm-to-plate economy, a “state-wide but closed-loop” system, now accounts for $8.6 billion, up 24 percent since 2007. There are 7,300 farms, employing 61,000 farm workers, on 1.2 million acres of farmland. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) models have helped farms like Screamin’ Ridge Farm flourish (see image above). Screamin’ Ridge turns left-over imperfect vegetables, which are often discarded as food waste, into soups that are served in schools, hospitals, and other institutions. “They aren’t serving the metro areas.”

Other efforts to boost self-sufficiency: the Thetford Home Energy Action Team (HEAT), a community-based group that trained 50 volunteers from the Thetford community and sent them out to educate other homeowners about weatherization and solar energy options. And on Water Street in the town of Northfield, the community undertook “flood recovery at the neighborhood scale.” A cooperative of 100 homeowners banded together to elevate the most-affected homes and turn the worst-flooded areas into a park.

Thetford Home Energy Action Team (HEAT) project in Vermont / Vital Communities

Lynne Seeley, a community planning consultant, detailed positive bottom-up efforts in mostly-forested, half-uninhabited Maine, the “least dense state east of the Mississippi.” In Grand Lake Stream, a town of just 109 souls, a land trust was formed in 2001 to protect the renowned outdoor recreation areas where people come to fish for salmon. Some 370,000 acres of lakeshore, forest, and wildlife habitat was protected. Seeley said the trust, which has had a tough time raising money, sees their future selling their forest’s carbon credits in cap and trade programs.

Great Lake region. Downeast Lakes Land Trust / Conservation Alliance

In Lubec, a town of 1,350, which is the easternmost community in the U.S., and also the poorest in all of Maine, there’s a new community outreach center where 110 volunteers (nearly 10 percent of the whole town) provide some 1,100 hours of community service a year. An associated food bank serves 20 percent of the community. And in Deer Island, which has 1,975 people, there’s the 12th largest employee-run coop in the country, which now runs three stores, including the local hardware store. CEI helped organize the financing. “This is rugged New Ruralism,” Seeley said.

In New Hampshire, Jo Anne Carr, director of planning and economic development for the town of Jaffrey, highlighted the work of the Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network (WREN), founded in 1984, which has grown from a pilot with 12 low-income women and now has 1,400 members. In Bethelem, WREN got the Omni hotel to create a gallery featuring artists in their network. Downtown, there’s a retail marketplace with some 300 vendors. If a woman wants to become a “WRENegade,” they have to “agree to put themselves out there and become a vendor at a market.” WREN also launched a new maker space in the city of Berlin where women can access “WiFi, latops, CNC machines, laser cutters and printers.”

WREN Makers’ Studio / NHPR

The Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative (PAREI) adapted the age-old concept of a community barn-raiser to create an “energy raiser” in which members volunteer two-to-three times a year at residential solar installations, in turn learning new skills. As volunteers do the installation, they also lower the costs for the homeowner. PAREI has completed 35 energy raisers in 11 towns, including one for the local homeless shelter, which saved the organization $5,100 in annual energy costs.

Lastly, Monadnock at Home, a program for a 10-town region, provides service for 90 elderly households “aging in place,” including helping them avoid frauds and scams, providing transportation to appointments, and organizing social events to help reduce isolation. The organization has pre-screened 100 service providers that can provide small jobs around the house.

Carr reiterated that New Ruralism is really driven by “community leadership, volunteerism, and creative financing.”

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

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“Houston Bridges,” designed by SWA Group / Godofredo A. Vasquez, Houston Chronicle

The Next Trend in Luxury Apartments Is Having Personal Rooftop Farms for Residents Business Insider, 5/3/17
“The farm-to-table movement is taking hold at a luxury New York City condo complex.”

How the Obama Presidential Center Could Reshape Jackson Park Curbed Chicago, 5/3/17
“The Obama Foundation has finally taken the wraps off of the preliminary design for the upcoming Obama Presidential Center for Chicago’s Woodlawn community.”

The High Line Conundrum Slate, 5/9/17
“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A city in the throes of rapid demographic change, where rents are going through the roof, wants to convert an overgrown freight railway into a selfie-ready linear park.”

Making Houston Freeways a Little Less Ugly The Houston Chronicle, 5/9/17
“Billboards notwithstanding, nothing installed along the freeway can be too distracting, the Texas Department of Transportation mandates. It’s a safety issue.”

NYC’s Awards for Excellence in Design Winners Emphasize Resilience Post-Hurricane Sandy Curbed New York, 5/11/17
“The projects this year were lauded for their sustainable designs, for the attention they paid to enhancing the community, and their detail to preserving historic elements (where it mattered).”

Landscape Architecture Gets Its Rightful Due in Exhibit, Book The Chicago Tribune, 5/12/17
“Landscape architecture is all too often viewed as a stepchild of architecture — a mere adornment rather than an integral part of the environment that shapes how we live.

Visions for the Next Generation of American Infrastructure

Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, 2007 / AP Photo, Morry Gash via Wired

In March, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its infrastructure report card, the first in four years. After crunching the data, they gave the U.S. a D+, explained Tom Smith, executive director, ASCE, at the American Society of Landscape Architect (ASLA)’s mid-year board meeting. “We have a lot of infrastructure at the end of its useful life. And we have a $2 trillion infrastructure investment gap over the next decade.”

Given America’s infrastructure is nearly failing, how should we rebuild? And where do we find the money?

In a panel moderated by ASLA CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, Smith argued “we can’t just rebuild our grandparent’s infrastructure. We can’t just add more lanes to the highways. We need to focus on land-use planning, sustainability, and resilience. Autonomous vehicles will also be huge.”

Patrick Phillips, Global CEO, Urban Land Institute (ULI), said compact transit-oriented development could “reduce the need for infrastructure.” He believes infrastructure in the future needs to be more smartly targeted to achieve economic development goals but also improve equity. A focus on inclusiveness can lead to new possibilities and a fairer future.

Rachel Minnery, senior director of sustainability policy at American Institute of Architects (AIA) wants to see new infrastructure investments help deal with climate challenges by improving our resilience. “We have a vast stock of existing buildings” that must be made more resilient. “We need a new era of visionary planning.”

“Parks and green infrastructure should be an investment priority,” said David Rouse, ASLA, research director at American Planning Association (APA), echoing APA’s official position on infrastructure. “Green infrastructure creates jobs. We can’t just recreate grey infrastructure.”

And Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, director of federal government affairs, ASLA, agreed, arguing that more investment is needed in “parks and national lands, which are also infrastructure.” National parks in particular are “overburdened,” said Smith, who noted that parks went down in the latest ASCE infrastructure report card. He added: “treating parks as infrastructure is an idea that resonates with people.”

Blackwell also made the case for increasing investments in “active transportation,” a term for infrastructure such as sidewalks and bike lanes, arguing that any major infrastructure investment must be comprehensive, and not just be about repairing highways and bridges.

So how to pay for the many trillions required for new infrastructure?

While states — even red ones — have raised gas taxes, the federal government hasn’t in decades and isn’t likely to in the future. President Trump has called for an increase in private investment in infrastructure through public-private partnerships (PPPs), but Somerville noted that PPPs usually privilege communities that can easily attract private investment. A private-sector led approach can then be expected to be leave poorer communities farther behind.

Phillips said there is “no silver bullet. We need a mix of private and public funds. Other countries are more effective at PPPs than us. Infrastructure can unlock opportunities in poorer neighborhoods. But, if poorly structured, a PPP doesn’t help.”

Minnery thinks the market will shift development and infrastructure investment patterns. Already the credit ratings of cities on coasts, which are most vulnerable to rising seas and storms, are taking a hit. As climate refugees increase in number and head inland, those cities will face pressure to increase development. “We have to think holistically as a nation about what this means.”

And, lastly, President Trump wants to speed up the process of building infrastructure. He is considering a new rule to requires states to start projects within 90 days of receiving federal funding. Is this possible?, Somerville asked.

Minnery said there’s often a delay at the state level, because of a lack of resources in planning departments. These departments have huge stacks of projects awaiting review. “Planning departments never recovered from cuts after the 2008 recession.” Rouse also noted that if the planned EPA cuts go through, “that stack of project reviews will get even higher.”

He said “successful infrastructure projects are rooted in local visions and strong regional planning.” To move projects forward quickly, communities must have planning infrastructure in place.

Blackwell wondered if more infrastructure project review responsibilities could be devolved to states. Through the FAST Act, federal lawmakers enabled California, Florida, Ohio, Texas and Utah to conduct their own National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews on behalf of the federal government. The Hill reports that Ohio saved $4.6 million in the first three months of doing the reviews itself.

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.