Berms Aren’t Enough: NYC Shifts Course on “Big U” Resilience Plan

East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government

To protect against future super storms and long-term sea level rise, New York City proposed creating a set of landscaped berms around the southern tip of Manhattan, a plan deemed the “Big U.” The city secured some $330 million from the U.S. department of housing and urban development (HUD)’s Rebuild by Design competition in 2014 to kick start the project. After four years of intensive community engagement, the city suddenly switched gears last fall, throwing out those plans in favor of raising the first proposed segment of the Big U — the waterfront park between 25th street and Montgomery Street on the east side — by 10 feet. Instead of berms, the existing 60-acre East River Park will be buried under landfill and its new higher edge will become a wall holding back the East River, which is expected to rise with the Altantic Ocean by 2.5 feet by 2050.

In conjunction with retractable flood gates set within neighborhoods, the park will provide flood protections up to 16 feet above current sea level, protecting 100,000 residents along the east side and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Drive.

At a Dumbarton Oaks symposium on landscape, sport, and environment, landscape architect Simon David, ASLA, a founder of OSD|Outside and former director of the project for Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), explained the facets of the $1.5 billion project, which he said provides both “recreation and resilience in the era of climate change.”

The East River Park revamp is a central component of the East Side Coastal Resilience Project (ESCR), just one piece of what will be wall, gate, and park infrastructure that run down the east side, around the financial district, and up the west side of Manhattan. The east side design team includes Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), AKRF, One Architecture, and Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA).

The area near this first segment has an interesting history. Famous (and infamous) city builder Robert Moses cleared the area of “slums” in order to create the FDR Drive (then the East River Drive) highway and to its west, affordable housing complexes. To the east of the drive, the shoreline was built up over landfill into the East River, creating new park space and sports fields for the complexes’ residents, who now cross a less-than-ideal caged bridge over FDR Drive to get there.

David called the park itself a “gallery of fences,” separating the various sports areas, with few pleasant green spaces. Salt water intrusion has killed off a number of the trees. And the ones that remain are “reaching the end of their lives.”

East River Park / Wikipedia

The new vision released by the city last fall has been controversial. According to The New York Times, elements of the community feel like they weren’t consulted on the new sea wall approach approved by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.

To raise the entire park up, what’s there now will be covered in landfill, which upsets some long time residents, particularly because the city just spent $3 million to renovate it. There are also concerns about the increased project costs. The original plan with the berms would have cost $765 million, while the new raised park will cost nearly $1.5 billion. Carlina Rivera, a councilwoman from the East Village, told The New York Times: “The new plan represents a fundamental departure from anything the City had discussed. The mayor’s office has failed to provide detailed analyses on why the cost increase is necessary.”

NYC parks and recreation commissioner Mitchell J. Silver told The Times that raising the park up is the only way to save it from sea level rise. City representatives have also said they are moving forward on an accelerated planning and design schedule in order to begin construction next year. They have to or will forfeit the $330 million from HUD.

Flood protections are expected to be in place by 2022. But in a compromise with the community, the city will stagger construction so as to reduce impact on the community that depends on the park and all the vehicle drivers who rely on FDR Drive.

The challenge for the design team has been to integrate the sea wall, retractable inland gates, pedestrian bridges, sports facilities, and social spaces bisected by a highway into one cohesive design.

In the latest and nearly final designs, the team widened the important Delancey Street Bridge and created a continuous, accessible pathway across FDR Drive to the park.

Delancey Street Bridge / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC government

The city and design team kept soccer and football fields, basketball courts, tennis courts, but also added an amphitheater, open lawns, and a playground near the north end. “We created more green space in between the fields, creating parks for non-sports people,” said David. Those green spaces will include more than 50 species of trees, much more than the three species there now, including water-friendly black tupelos and cypresses.

East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government
East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government
East River Park / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government
Nature playground / Bjarke Ingels Group, NYC Government

Green infrastructure will be incorporated throughout to manage stormwater coming in from the city and FDR Drive. To accommodate major storm events, the park will also include a cistern with a 40-million gallon capacity. “This is for the super storm that happens once every 50 years.”

Caren Yglesias, Affil. ASLA, a landscape historian and author, now based at the University of Maryland, asked David: “what will happen when the sea levels rise and don’t come back down? What will happen after 2050?”

David said the “park will be effective for a period of time, and many lives will be improved.” But the city and team have really only planned for 2050. “Things are changing rapidly. This buys us more time. There is no great solution.”

Wildfires Are a Land Use Problem

Satellite view of Camp fire / Wikipedia

The Camp Fire that tore through the communities of Concow and Paradise in Northern California in 2018 was the deadliest and costliest in Californian history. Some 150,000 acres burned, causing 50,000 people to flee, 20,000 structures to be destroyed, and some $16.5 billion in damages. 85 people lost their lives.

Strangely, amid all this destruction, which was sparked by downed electrical lines owned by PG&E, the state’s power utility, some homes survived. Why?

Those property owners likely obeyed defensible space laws and used Firewise landscape strategies to protect themselves from wildlife.

At a session at the American Planning Association in San Francisco, wildfire experts explained how to use these approaches as well as the broader importance of land use, community planning, and landscape design in fire safety.

According to Edith Hannigan, with the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, Concow and Paradise and many other communities across the west are at high-risk because they formed in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), which the U.S. Forest Service describes as places where “humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel.” On top of the intrinsic risk of simply existing in the WUI, these communities must now contend with the effect of years of drought, bark beetles onslaughts on surrounding forests, and climate change, which create increasingly dangerous and untenable living conditions.

Living in the WUI raises risks for all property owners, but lot locations, sizes, layouts, and topography impact risk levels. To provide “meaningful reduction of risks for specific situations,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) created a land-use planning program, with two fire chiefs and ten local fire captains, that “reaches out to communities and provides technical assistance,” meeting the goals of the state’s recent strategic fire plan.

For retired Cal Fire captain David Shew, who oversaw the creation of the program and is now a consultant, wildfires “aren’t a fire department problem”; they are really a land use and community design problem. The solution is to respect natural systems and stop developing communities in the WUI. For those communities already there, it’s important to incorporate better planning and design approaches to reduce the danger.

California, like Greece, Australia, Sweden, and other parts of the world, has a “natural fire environment” in which wildfire has evolved an important role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem. Native Americans lived with the natural wildfire cycle for centuries, but the settlers moving across the West in the 1800s were unnerved by constant small wildfires. As settlers formed communities that in turn suppressed fired, the natural fire state ended. It turns out it was “the hubris of mankind to think we can control Mother Nature.” Over the decades, dead plant material that hasn’t been allowed to burn naturally has accumulated, so now when it does burn, the wildfires are larger and more destructive.

Mother Nature has recently made her voice louder. California sees more wildfires than ever before — and now they occur throughout the year. “There is no longer a fire season.” 9 out of 10 of the most destructive fires occurred since 2013. In 2018 alone, there were some 5,800 fires that consumed 1.3 million acres. And greater dangers loom: there are 100 million dead trees in the Sierra Nevada area that will fall over and create more fuel for fires. Shew said: “We have disrupted evolution and the result will be devastating wildfires.” (One solution to prevent this may be controlled or prescribed burns).

Dead trees in the Sierra National Forest / Wikipedia

Wildfires themselves often don’t cause homes to go up in smoke; “it’s flying embers that cause most fires.” Wood fences and gutters often catch first, spreading to homes. Building and landscape “materials are really important, but where a structure sits on the landscape, and where and how homes cluster, also are.”

Michelle Steinberg, director of the wildfire division with the Natural Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) — creator of codes and standards state and local governments use to protect communities and the Firewise USA program, which includes some 1,500 sites — got into the details on how to use smart codes designed for different community types. The codes provide rules for crucial evacuation zones, the materials and layout of residential structures themselves, and the landscape around a home and community, including common spaces.

The residential landscape is re-imagined by NFPA as the “home ignition zone (HIZ),” a concept developed by retired U.S. Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen in the late 1990s, following “some breakthrough experimental research into how homes ignite due to the effects of radiant heat.” The HIZ has three zones: 0-5 feet from the house, which is the immediate zone; 5-30 feet away, the intermediate zone; and 30-100 feet, and out to 200 feet, the extended zone.

In the immediate zone, there can be no trees and vegetation and all materials need to be fire-proof. In the intermediate zone, lawns need to be trimmed, debris cleared, and trees need to be well-spaced and set within small clusters. In the extended zone, all dead trees and plants need to be removed.

Home Ignition Zone / NFPA, US Forest Service

Wildfires are a major problem elsewhere in the U.S. Molly Mowery, with Community Planning for Wildlife (CPAW) in Colorado, a joint partnership between Headwaters Economics and Wildfire Planning International, explained how she is helping communities across the country assess risks and apply planning and design solutions to reduce their exposure to wildfire.

For example, working with Summit, Colorado, CPAW helped spur the development of new regulations and zoning that require defensible space zones in subdivisions, prohibit the planting of flammable juniper trees within 30 feet of homes, and require non-combustible fencing and safer firewood storage within 5 feet of homes. Mowery said many communities struggle with seemingly-insignificant things like fences, but they are often the cause of property-destroying conflagarations.

Download a free APA resource — Planning the Wildland Urban Interface, which was partly financed by the U.S. Forest Service. Check out the case for prescribed burns to reduce wildfire risk. And see how landscape architects at Owen Dell and Associates design Firewise gardens.

New ASLA Exhibition: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate exhibition / EPNAC

Across the country, landscape architects are stepping up to face the growing global climate crisis head-on. In 2018, ASLA’s interdisciplinary Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience issued a report that outlined policy recommendations and design best practices for creating resilient, sustainable communities.

The new Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Exhibition showcases 20 diverse case studies that illustrate the success these recommendations can have in harnessing natural systems, reducing carbon emissions, and improving communities’ resilience to climate change.

Some projects lower carbon emissions from transportation by improving access to bicycle lanes and sidewalks and limiting space for vehicles, like the Jackson Street Reconstruction Project in Saint Paul, Minnesota, by Toole Design Group.

Jackson Street Reconstruction, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design

Others show how we can restore natural systems and bring back biodiversity on previously-developed sites, like the Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects.

ASLA 2010 Professional Honor Award in General Design. Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona. Ten Eyck Landscape Architects. / Bill Timmerman

Some projects show how cities can design to prepare for worst-case flooding scenarios using natural systems, like the Buffalo Bayou Promenade in Houston, Texas by SWA Group.

ASLA 2009 Professional Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade, Houston, Texas. SWA Group / Bill Tatham

Others integrate renewable energy facilities into communities, like the Solar Strand project in Buffalo, New York by Hood Design Studio.

Solar Strand project in Buffalo, New York. Hood Design Studio / Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo

The exhibition is free and open to the public at ASLA’s Center for Landscape Architecture (636 I Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20001) every weekday from 10am to 4pm EST (excluding holidays) through May 1, 2020.

ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture / ASLA

There is also an expanded companion to the exhibition at the website: climate.asla.org.

To put on the Smart Politics for a Changing Climate Exhibition, ASLA was awarded an Art Works Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. “These awards, reaching every corner of the United States, are a testament to the artistic richness and diversity in our country,” said Mary Anne Carter, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Organizations such as the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) are giving people in their community the opportunity to learn, create, and be inspired.”

ASLA is also calling for the submissions of further case studies that show how landscape architects design for a changing climate. If you know of a project that fits the bill, please submit at the exhibition website.

Norfolk Forges a Path to a Resilient Future

Norfolk flood zones in orange / Norfolk Vision 2100

Surrounded by water along 144 miles of shoreline, Norfolk is highly vulnerable to sea level rise. The city is the second largest in Virginia, with a population of 250,000. It’s home to the world’s largest naval base, which hosts 100,000 federal workers and function as a city within the city. Its port is the third busiest in the country. The core of the city is the employment center for a region of 1.5 million people. All of this is under significant threat.

To better prepare for a changing future, Norfolk has undertaken an impressive set of resilience planning efforts, which have culminated in Vision 2100, a comprehensive 2030 plan, a new green infrastructure plan, and, finally, a new resilience zoning code approved last year. These efforts were supported by Dutch government water experts through a series of “dialogues,” the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, and a $115 million grant from the National Disaster Relief Competition, a program organized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to build resilience in the Ohio Creek watershed, which encompasses the Norfolk State University campus and the low-income Chesterfield Heights neighborhood.

At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, we heard about Norfolk’s recent efforts to live with with water while protecting vulnerable low-income areas, revitalizing and creating new urban centers, and ceding some parts of the city back to the ocean.

According to Martin Thomas, vice mayor of Norfolk, the question is: “how do we create a high quality of live given we are facing rising waters?” The answer involves creative economic, social, and environmental solutions that will lead to a transformed city.

Thomas said 30-40 percent of the regional economy is dependent on federal funding, “so we are diversifying the local economy.” There are disconnected communities with concentrated levels of poverty, so the city is investing in mixed-income redevelopment projects. There is recurrent flooding that can result in 2-3 feet of water rise, so the city is creating the “designed coastal systems of the future.”

An example of what Norfolk is dealing with is the highly vulnerable area of Willoughby Spit, which is 3 miles long and 3 blocks wide and where thousands of residents live. This area is a chunk of the local tax base, but “it won’t exist in a few decades.”

Willougby Spit / Pinterest

Through its Vision 2100 process, Norfolk mapped its most valuable assets, which included the Naval base, airport, botanical gardens, and the historic downtown core. Through comprehensive public meetings, city policymakers, planners, and residents created a map of where flooding is expected to worsen, where investments in hard protections and green infrastructure will be focused, and where the “future urban growth of the city will be built.”

The vision organizes the city into four zones: red, yellow, green, and purple.

Vision 2100 map / Norfolk city government

Red areas on the map are vital areas that will see “expanded flood protection zones; a comprehensive 24-hour transportation network; denser mixed-use developments; diversified housing options; and strengthened economic options.” These include the naval base, universities, ports, shipyards, and medical facilities that can’t be moved. Future housing and economic growth will be steered into these areas, which will be made denser. The red zone will receive priority levels of investment in both hard and green resilient infrastructure while maintaining access to the water.

The yellow zone will be where the city helps Norfolk residents adapt to rising waters and where it also cedes land back to the water. Programs there will aim to “exploit new and innovative technologies to reduce flood risk to the built environment; focus infrastructure investments on improvements that extend resilience; educate current residents about the risks of recurrent flooding; develop mechanisms to enable property owners to recoup the economic value lost to sea level rise; and develop a solution for sea level rise adaptation in historic neighborhoods.” Here, the focus is on more resilient housing, raised 3-feet above flood levels, and the widespread incorporation of green infrastructure.

The green zone features communities already on higher ground, safe from flooding, where Norfolk will create new transit-oriented development and resilient urban centers that can accommodate future growth.

The purple zone is where Norfolk will create the “neighborhoods of the future,” improving connections to key assets, creating affordable housing, and redeveloping under-performing residential and commercial areas. According to Vision 2100, the city found that 40 out of 125 neighborhoods were deemed assets and therefore not subject to major “transformation” — a euphemism for redevelopment or letting them be subsumed by rising waters. In many of these historic neighborhoods, which are found in the purple zones, small-scale improvements will be made to improve the quality of life — more parks, sidewalks, libraries, and community centers.

Norfolk’s 2030 comprehensive plan, green infrastructure plan, and resilience zoning code are the primary ways in which the city is moving towards this vision.

George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director, said that zoning requirements are a “blunt instrument” that they tried to make more flexible through a “resilient zoning quotient,” a system that developers and property owners can use to accumulate points to meet requirements. The zoning system itemizes “must do’s, should do’s, and nice to do’s (bonuses) for developers.”

Requirements differ depending on the expected level of risk to water rise, but must-do’s include green infrastructure for stormwater management, risk reduction through raising homes by 3-feet above flood levels, and energy self-sufficiency. The zoning ordinance seems critical to achieving the city’s ambitious green infrastructure plan, which also fits together with the vision and 2030 plan.

Green infrastructure plan for Norfolk, VA / City of Norfolk

Back-up power generation is not only required for the usual places like hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities, but also important community utilities like pharmacies, grocery stores, banks, and gas stations.

Vlad Gavrilovic with EPK, planning consultants to Norfolk, further explained that the new zoning code built off of existing neighborhood, landscape, and building design standards, the “pattern language” so critical to informing neighborhood character.

Homewood believes “climate change and sea level rise are very real to the folks who suffer from recurrent flooding.” But rolling-out the new, more complex zoning ordinance hasn’t been without its challenges, and the city planning department is on their fourth round of tweaks to address “unintended consequences.” Perhaps that is to be expected given it’s the “first, most-resilience focused zoning ordinance in the country.”

In a later conversation, Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA president and long-time resident of Norfolk, who was deeply involved in these planning efforts for decades, said that Old Dominion University in downtown Norfolk was key to kick-starting the multi-decade-long effort to make Norfolk more resilient. “Back in 2010, the university started an initiative to prepare Norfolk for sea level rise, asking Larry Atkinson in the oceanography department to lead a cross-disciplinary effort and create a coalition with the community that exists to this day. That was many years ago, but it was then that the seeds were planted for the approach we see today.” That approach, Rinner said, uses public-private partnerships and creates bottom-up, community-driven solutions that transcend politics. “Environmental issues are so close to people in Norfolk and Hampton Roads; it doesn’t matter if you are Democrat or Republican.”

For her, Norfolk’s resilience plans and codes are a true model for other communities because they show what can happen after years of effort — “major change seems to coalesce all of the sudden.”

Faced with Climate Impacts, Communities Turn to Green Infrastructure

Shelby Country Resilience planning / Sasaki

Climate change is causing seas to rise, flooding to worsen, and hurricanes and wildfires to become more destructive, all of which puts our infrastructure at greater risk. On top of that, America’s current infrastructure received a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in their latest scorecard. Increased risk from climate events and the massive backlog of maintenance projects means that our infrastructure has never been more vulnerable.

But for some forward-thinking communities, vulnerability means opportunity. For these communities facing climate impacts, the best way to protect themselves has been to move beyond the grey infrastructure of the past and transition to green infrastructure.

In the Neoclassical Rayburn building on Capitol Hill, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and Environment and Energy Study Institute (EESI) hosted a briefing for over a hundred Hill staffers to explain how communities and landscape architects are using green infrastructure to help communities become more climate-resilient.

Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO of ASLA, said infrastructure should be created or remodeled to work “in tandem with natural systems.”

As outlined in the report Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, which was the result of ASLA’s blue ribbon panel on climate change and resilience, green infrastructure — such as “green roofs, streets, and corridors; tree canopies; parks and open spaces; and wetlands and wild lands” — leverages the benefits of nature to soak up excess stormwater and protect against flooding. These innovative projects also provide many other benefits, such as improved water and air quality, cooler air temperatures, and psychological and cognitive benefits for people.

“The risks of coastal, riverine, an urban flooding are increasing,” said Mark Dawson, FASLA, managing principal at Sasaki, one of the leading landscape and urban design firms in the U.S., which incorporates green infrastructure into all its community resilience projects.

His firm is now working with flood-inundated Shelby County in Tennessee, which won a national disaster resilience grant of some $60 million, to protect itself from persistent, destructive riverine flooding. Sasaki mapped the extent of current and expected future flooding and developed comprehensive plans with the impacted communities. In one especially hard-hit low-income community, there was serious conversation about selling and relocating but planning turned towards how to use parks and reconfigured residential lots with floodable zones to better protect homes. A new green infrastructural park now in development will accommodate an expanding and contracting flood plain (see image at top).

Montgomery county, Maryland, has also gone all-in on using green infrastructure to improve community resilience to climate change. Adam Ortiz, director of environmental protection for the county, said the county government is focused on bringing green infrastructure to previously under-served communities in order to spread the benefits to everyone.

For example, the Dennis Avenue green street, found in an “under-invested” neighborhood, is not only a “beautiful upgrade” but cleans and infiltrates stormwater runoff and protects against flooding. These projects aren’t just good for the environment and property values, they also create economic benefits. According to Ortiz, “green infrastructure projects have contributed $130 million to the local economy,” spurring the creation of county businesses that offer well-paying green jobs.

Dennis Avenue green street / Montgomery County department of environmental protection

It’s worth reiterating that some communities need green infrastructure more than others, because some communities have borne “environmental insults” far longer. Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome with the Kresge Foundation argued that environmental justice considerations should guide who gets much-needed resilient green infrastructure. She said low-income “black and brown” communities are often more vulnerable to climate impacts because they are already dealing with so many contemporary issues and the legacy of past injustices. “First, you take institutional racism, then throw climate change on top of that, and it makes things only worse.”

White-Newsome said anyone working on these projects should seek to use good local science; conduct a comprehensive environmental justice analysis before starting a project; remove barriers to “education, access, and financial decision-making;” and empower local communities as part of the process. Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange and Earth Economics are helpful organizations for communities seeking to finance their own plans and projects.

In the past few years, there has been progress on Capitol Hill in incentivizing more resilient infrastructure, but not nearly enough. Ellen Vaughn, director of public policy for EESI pointed to the Disaster Recovery Reform Act; the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act; Defense appropriations around climate resilience; and the recently-passed Natural Resources Management Act, which provides permanent financing for the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). And Somerville noted that ASLA has been promoting the Living Shorelines Act and hopes it will be re-introduced this Congress.

But more must be done at the federal level to spread the protective benefits of next-generation resilient infrastructure to more communities. Somerville said: “what is needed is dedicated federal funding for green infrastructure.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Turns to Nature

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Engineering with Nature: An Atlas / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

“We rely on natural processes and landscapes to sustain human life and well-being. Our energy, water, infrastructure, and agricultural systems use these processes and landscapes to satisfy our most basic human needs. One motivation, therefore, for protecting the environment is to sustain the ecosystem goods and services upon which we depend. As we emerge from the sixth decade of modern environmentalism, there is a growing international awareness of opportunities to efficiently and effectively integrate natural and engineered systems to create even more value.”

One might understandably think this was written by a landscape architect, or excerpted from somewhere on the ASLA website. In fact, it comes from the forward of Engineering with Nature: An Atlas, a new book by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Engineering with Nature (EWN) team, led by environmental scientist Dr. Todd Bridges. 

Over the last eight years, Bridges has quietly built the EWN initiative out of the Army Corps’ Vicksburg, Mississippi headquarters, working with a team of engineers, environmental scientists, and ecologists to develop pilot projects that prove the viability of engineering large-scale infrastructure in partnership with natural systems. 

Now, after successfully completing dozens of projects across the U.S., Bridges is pushing to take EWN to new heights. The initiative’s 2018-2023 strategic plan envisions an expanded portfolio of engineering strategies and project types, deeper interdisciplinary and community engagement, and heightened public awareness of EWN goals, activities, and success stories.

To that end, Engineering With Nature: An Atlas documents more than 50 engineering projects completed in recent decades that exemplify the EWN approach. The projects are grouped according to typology, including chapters on beaches, wetlands, islands, reefs, and rivers. Reflecting the collaborative approach of the EWN initiative, only half of the case studies profiled were carried out by the Army Corps. The remainder were executed by partner NGOs in the US and government agencies in England, The Netherlands, and New Zealand, countries which have made substantial investments of their own in innovative coastal and water-based engineering.

Sand_motor
The Sand Motor, The Netherlands / Zandmotor Flickr

A key theme of the book is the beneficial re-use of dredged material. While conventionally viewed as a waste product, the EWN initiative seeks to find and develop beneficial uses for the material, such as in wetland restoration, habitat creation, and beach nourishment. And because the Corps is required to maintain the navigability of all federal waterways, the EWN team has a ready supply of dredged material to work with.

One example of this strategy can be seen in Texas’ Galveston Bay, where the Corps partnered with Houston Audubon to create the 6-acre Evia Island, which today is populated with herons, egrets, terns, and brown pelicans. 

Evia_island
Evia Island / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Other projects take advantage of erosion and sediment flux to catalyze beneficial outcomes. In Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River, the Corps placed dredged material in strategic upriver locations to create a 35-hectare island that is “self-designed” by the river’s flow. And at Sears Point, in the northern San Francisco Bay, the Sonomoa Land Trust and Ducks Unlimited restored 1,000 acres of tidal marsh by puncturing a levee, allowing water from the Tolay Creek to flow into a field of constructed sediment mounds. The mounds slowed the water’s rate of flow, stimulating land growth within the project area.

dredge
Dredging in the Atchafalaya River / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

These approaches have considerable overlap with recent research in the field of landscape architecture, particularly the work of the Dredge Research Collaborative, which advocates for ecological and watershed-scale approaches to the management of sediment and dredged material and has collaborated with the EWN initiative in recent years.

An Atlas also includes projects that retrofit conventional infrastructure to provide ecological benefits, such as creating nesting habitat for terns on top of breakwaters in Lake Erie, or efforts in the Netherlands to redesign coastal reinforcements to serve as habitat for marine plants and animals. Reminiscent of SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters project off the southern coast of Staten Island, these projects demonstrate an increasing interest in designing infrastructure that provides multiple benefits.

tern_nest
Decoy terns at the Ashtabula Harbor Breakwater Tern Nesting Habitat / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Despite its title, At Atlas does not contain any maps or diagrams to orient the reader–an unfortunate omission that makes it difficult to grasp the scale of the presented projects. Instead, the projects are depicted using solely perspective and aerial photos.

While these photos are informative, the book would have greatly benefited from the development of a graphic language to more clearly and visually communicate the impacts of the presented projects and the issues they seek to address.

Despite these omissions, the breadth and scope of projects presented in Engineering with Nature: An Atlas makes a considerable impression, presenting a range of strategies for designing infrastructure with ecological, social, and cultural benefits at multiple scales.

Perhaps most significantly, An Atlas suggests there is great potential for meaningful interdisciplinary collaboration between the Corps and landscape architects. As landscape architects increasingly seek to broaden the field’s scope to include the planning and design of large-scale systems and ecologies, this collaboration may prove vital. Engineering with Nature: An Atlas begins to paint a picture of what such a collaborative practice may look like.

Learn more about the Engineering with Nature initiative and download Engineering With Nature: An Atlas.

A Model Plan for Protecting Vital Coastal Habitats

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Conserving California’s Coastal Habitats / The Nature Conservancy

Sea level rise is coming, and its impacts will be far reaching. For the state of California, the threat of sea level rise may prove existential. More than two-thirds of its population lives in the states’ 21 coastal counties, which are responsible for 85 percent of the state’s GDP.

However, sea level rise will not just impact human activity. Rising tides will also drastically alter, and in some cases destroy, important coastal habitats. Conserving California’s Coastal Habitats, a new report from The Nature Conservancy, provides a startling analysis of the future of California’s coast and charts a path forward for coastal conservation efforts.

The California coast represents the most biodiverse region in the country’s most biodiverse state, lending nationwide significance to coastal conservation efforts there. “The state of California has been a leader in environmental policy for over a century,” say the report’s authors, praising the state’s “legacy of coastal conservation.”

coast
California’s coastline / Sue Pollock, The Nature Conservancy

However, current policy and decision-making frameworks have been “developed to reflect static existing conditions and are not well suited for the dynamic needs of adapting to sea level rise,” the authors warn.

At risk are “nesting areas along global migrations for diversity of species, as well as nesting and pupping habitat, nursery habitat, and important feeding grounds critical to populations of many species, some which are found nowhere else in the world.”

Sea level rise threatens areas of human settlement and activity, too. The conversion of land to tidal and subtidal coastline will reduce the size of natural buffers, providing less protection to human settlements in coastal flooding events. Saltwater intrusion will impact agriculture. According to the Conservancy, sea level rise and the flooding this will cause could damage or destroy nearly $100 billion worth of property along the California coast by 2100.

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Coastal infrastructure is at risk from sea level rise / Thomas Dunklin

The report’s authors used GIS to identify and map the coastal habitats, ecosystems, and infrastructure most at risk from sea level rise. They based their projections on two and five feet of sea level rise, which they say are in keeping with projections issued by the California Coastal Commission. The authors then developed metrics to measure the potential impact of sea level rise on a given area and the area’s vulnerability and ability to adapt.

Their findings are worrying. “As much as 25 percent of the existing public conservation lands within the analytic zone will be lost to subtidal waters,” they warn. Habitats for eight imperiled species will be completely inundated. Large portions of other significant coastal habitats are “highly vulnerable,” including 58 percent of rocky intertidal habitats, 60 percent of upper beaches, and 58 percent of regularly-flooded estuarine marshes. “At least half of the documented haul-outs for Pacific harbor seals and Northern elephant seals, and nesting habitats for focal shorebirds like black oystercatchers, are also highly vulnerable.”

Maps show that habitats in the San Francisco Bay Area are particularly at risk. There, vulnerable landscapes and habitats–such as 87 percent of the state’s regularly-flooded estuarine marsh–will be trapped between rising seas on one side and human development on the other. “The built environment–including roads and other infrastructure–creates barriers that prevent coastal habitats from moving inland,” while “dikes, levees, and other water control features negatively impact the health and function” of these threatened landscapes.

maps
California Coastal Conservation Assessment / The Nature Conservancy

The Conservancy finds that sea level rise could adversely affect public access to California’s coast. “Sea level rise will diminish coastal access opportunities throughout the state by reducing beach widths, submerging rocky intertidal areas, and flooding coastal beach infrastructure.”

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Sea level rise threatens access to California’s beaches and coastal public lands / Sylvia Busby

In the face of these potentially-devastating impacts, the report presents a suite of strategies for conservation in the era of climate change. Habitat managers need to “conserve and manage for resilience.” This includes maintaining the conservation status of existing conserved lands and identifying and protecting resilient coastal landscapes that are not vulnerable to sea level rise.

The Nature Conservancy recommends managing for resilience through the use of sediment augmentation and sand placement. “The majority of highly vulnerable conservation lands in need of managing in place for resilience are found in the San Francisco Bay Delta,” an observation that speaks to the importance of landscape-led initiatives such as the recent Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge.

The Conservancy also calls for conserving nearly 200 square kilometers of potential future habitat areas and adapting the built environment “with more natural coastal processes in mind” – in effect, giving the coastline room to change.

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California’s coastline / Taylor Samuelson, California State Coastal Conservancy

“As sea levels rise, California’s coast will erode and evolve, and habitats will need to shift. Our current conservation efforts and land use management decisions must focus on further supporting these natural processes and enabling the transition and movement of coastal habitats as sea levels rise. Conservation in the face of sea level rise requires an adaptive process that embraces the reality of a dynamic coastline.”

The reports’ recommendations and strategies are “spatially explicit,” with specific proposals for areas, depending on their vulnerability and adaptive capacity. There are detailed high-resolution maps that illustrate the location, distribution, and severity of risks as well as opportunities.

“The results of this spatially explicit assessment provide a foundation of information to support immediate action to conserve habitats and biodiversity in the face of sea level rise,” the Conservancy argues. “With so much of California’s coastal habitats, imperiled species, and managed lands at risk from sea level rise, immediate collective action is necessary to conserve these natural resources into the future.”

Download the full report and maps.

Most Popular DIRT Posts of 2018

Approach to Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park, Australia / TCL

As we look forward to covering new stories on the built and natural environments this year, here’s a look back at the 10 most popular DIRT posts of 2018. Readers were most interested in the debate over whether beauty still matters in an age dominated by science; how the practice of landscape architecture is evolving to deal with climate change and increasingly diverse communities; how urban sprawl is impacting biodiversity; and the interesting relationship between landscape architecture and retail. As in past years, new research on the health benefits of nature remains a favorite topic.

Always worth mentioning: We are looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners, on topics that inspire you. And tell us about your new projects and research. Please email us at info@asla.org.

1) Is There Still a Place for Aesthetics in Landscape Design?

Kicking off a two-day planting symposium at the University of California at Berkeley, professor emeritus Marc Treib posed the question: Is there still a place for the “art of landscape design” in an age “dominated by the science of landscape ecology?” Planting design is often brushed aside as superfluous or unserious. British historian and critic Tim Richardson reminded the audience of the litany of unfavorable adjectives associated with artful planting: the bourgeois, the small-scale, the amateur, the hobbyist, the ephemeral, the female.

2) Best Books of 2018

If you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or just one for yourself to delve into over the winter break, explore THE DIRT’s top 10 books of 2018, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape.

3) To Become More Resilient, Boston Takes a “Landscape First” Approach

Instead of simply responding to catastrophe, Boston is getting out front on climate change. As part of its Climate Ready Boston plan, the city of 670,000 aims to act fast and protect two coastal neighborhoods most vulnerable to rising sea levels and storms: East Boston and Charlestown. New plans for these neighborhoods explain how a simple fix like creating a temporary flood wall at the coastal end of the East Boston Greenway, at a cost of just $100,000, would protect 4,300 residents, 70 businesses and critical infrastructure, and result in $17 million in benefits.

4) Landscape Architects May Be Liable for Climate Impacts

When a neighborhood floods, who is at fault? A class action lawsuit in Houston asks that question. The residents of a master-planned community that flooded during Hurricane Harvey are suing the engineering firm that designed the neighborhood’s stormwater management system. While that suit targets engineers, it nonetheless represents the heightened risk landscape architects face from climate impacts on their projects.

5) New Maps Show How Urban Sprawl Threatens the World’s Remaining Biodiversity

At the United Nations World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, next month, the McHarg Center for Ecology and Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania will display an alarming set of new maps. They show, in bright red, that the growth of cities worldwide is on a direct collision course with the world’s remaining biodiversity.

6) MIT Researchers Seek Optimal Form of Urban Stormwater Wetland

Cities are sitting on a largely underused public resource: urban stormwater wetlands. If properly designed, these landscapes can reduce flooding, support urban wildlife, and serve as public space. A new report Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands authored by an interdisciplinary group of researchers and students at the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism led by Celina Balderas Guzmán, Heidi Nepf, and Alan Berger — advocates for the positive role wetlands can play in cities and outlines research that provides insights for landscape architects, engineers, and planners.

7) This Is Your Brain on Nature

Neurosurgeon Edie Zusman, a real-life Doogie Howser who started medical school at 19 and has completed some 6,000 brain and spinal surgeries, said what landscape architects do saves far more lives than what she does. The early prevention of disease reduces the need for surgeries. Prevention is made possible by eating healthy foods and walking and getting exercise in green environments that lower stress and improve well-being.

8) Interview with Robert Gibbs: Trees Cause You to Spend More

Trees are really essential for a competitive shopping district. There was a study by Kathleen Wolfe that indicated trees increase price elasticity by 9-12 percent. In other words, people feel comfortable paying up to twelve percent more for the same product if they purchase in a well-landscaped place with nice streets. Also, when properly located, street trees keep people in the downtown district longer. They feel more relaxed and are more likely to spend more money.

9) Participatory Design Must Evolve

Participatory design is “hands-on democracy in action,” argue the editors of the impressive new book Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity. Participatory design (also known as cooperative or co-design) is a process in which a designer actively involves all stakeholders in a design process. Unfortunately, many of the best-known techniques to enable this approach, which have been used for the past few decades, have become stale. This has led to complacency among designers, and less-than-ideal outcomes for communities that need their help. To revitalize the approach and achieve better results, the authors call for making participatory design “truly democratic.” Furthermore, it must become “contextual, open, experiential, substantive, and holistic.”

10) New Study: Technology Undermines the Restorative Benefits of Nature

We experience “soft fascination” with nature when we sit on a park bench and let our mind wander, taking in the trees and flowers, noticing birds and squirrels, feeling the breeze. This gentle decompression in nature is actually critical to helping us restore our ability to pay attention. We need breaks where our minds can just go slack and subconsciously take in the complexity of the natural world. Researchers are still trying to figure out the ideal “dose” of this green medicine, but benefits have been seen with just 10 minutes.

UN Climate Conference: New “Rule Book” for Measuring Carbon Emissions

UN Climate conference in Poland / UN News

During the latest United Nations climate conference, which just concluded in Katowice, Poland, some 190 countries reached agreement on next steps to move forward the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement. After days of intense negotiation, countries agreed to a “rule book” for measuring their annual carbon emissions, including transparency guidelines that enable all countries to understand how emissions numbers and future commitments are calculated.

The Paris climate agreement calls for limiting the rise in global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The framework essentially asks countries to make voluntary agreements to lower their emissions and uses global peer pressure to spur them to ratchet up their commitments every five years. The new system for measuring and communicating these reductions provides a platform for greater future commitments.

However, there were also some failures at the conference. According to The Guardian, disagreements over the future of carbon markets and “how countries can gain credits for their efforts to cut emissions and their carbon sinks, such as forests” were punted down the road. Brazil was seen as a spoiler on this effort, because their new leadership demanded “wording that critics said would allow for double counting of credits and undermine the integrity of the system.”

Brazil recently-elected Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing leader who has promised to shut down Brazil’s environment ministry. He has come out against Brazil’s previous pledges to reserve 12 percent of the Amazon — a vitally-important rainforest that serves as the world’s lungs — for indigenous groups. He instead seeks to build highways through the forest, creating easier access for agri-businesses, and also build more dams. Bolsonaro has called the global scientific consensus on climate change “dogma” that ignores “evidence,” using language similar to that of US President Donal Trump, who has called global warming a “hoax” or “con-job.” Bolsonaro has also pulled out of hosting the next UN climate summit, all but erasing the moral leadership on climate change just exhibited in the Rio Olympics in 2016. And Brazil’s new foreign minister Ernesto Araújo recently said climate change is a “Marxist plot” by the Chinese to increase their competitiveness at the expense of Western economies.

The UN conference in Poland created necessary governance infrastructure, but the hard work on ratcheting up emission reduction targets will happen at the critical 2020 meeting, some five years on from Paris. There, countries must commit to incredibly-ambitious goals if we are going to stave off the worst effects of a global temperature rise. Meanwhile, 2018 will likely prove to be the hottest year on record, and greenhouse gas emissions increased by nearly 3 percent this year due a resurgence in oil and gas use.

In other climate change news:

The World Bank announced it will invest some $200 billion in climate change mitigation and adaptation through 2025. The funds will go towards boosting renewable energy production, helping 100 cities adapt to climate change, creating early warning systems for climate impacts, and improving “landscape management” of 120 million hectares of forests in 50 countries.

Some 415 investors managing $32 trillion in assets called on nations at the UN climate change conference to “achieve the goals of the Paris climate agreement; accelerate private sector investment in the low-carbon transition; and continue to improve climate-related financial reporting.”

A new study published in Science Advances found that natural solutions, including rural and urban reforestation, better forest and grassland management, and wetland and peatland restoration, could reduce US annual carbon emissions by 21 percent, an amount approximately equal to taking all cars off the road.

Thirteen federal agencies in the U.S. released the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which states that climate change could reduce US economic output by 10 percent by the end of the century if emissions aren’t cut fast. In comparison with the third report published four years ago, the new assessment concludes that total impacts from wildfires, drought, flooding, extreme heat, sea level rise, and spreading tropical diseases will be more severe and widespread. According to an analysis of the 1,600-page report by The New York Times, the report puts actual numbers on the expected cost of the coming impacts: “$141 billion from heat-related deaths, $118 billion from sea level rise, and $32 billion from infrastructure damage by the end of the century.” Additional frightening conclusions: “American exports and supply chains could be disrupted, agricultural yields could fall to 1980s levels by mid century, and fire season could spread to the Southeast.”

The report, which was released by the Trump administration on Black Friday in an likely effort to bury the findings amid the holiday shopping spree, calls for putting a price on carbon, taxing companies that release carbon emissions, and increasing investment in clean energy technologies. The fourth national assessment also makes the case for increasing “proactive” adaptation measures at all scales — from the community to national levels — and incorporating equity, justice, cultural heritage, health, and national security considerations into these approaches. But while the number of adaptation projects has greatly increased since the launch of the third national assessment in 2014, “adaptation implementation is still not commonplace.”

Read the summary of the fourth national assessment and ASLA’s report: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, which offers recommendations on mitigation, adaptation, and resilience.

Kongjian Yu: To Save China’s Environment, Educate the Leaders

Letters to the Leaders of China / Terreform

Many have called Kongjian Yu, FASLA, president of Turenscape, the Frederick Law Olmsted of China. And with his new book Letters to the Leaders of China: Kongjian Yu and the Future of the Chinese City, one understands why. This collection of letters to Chinese president Xi Jinping and provincial governors, essays, interviews, and other advocacy pieces reveal how much Yu has invested in promoting his ecological, water-centric “sponge city” approach. His book demonstrates that every landscape architect can become a leader and a powerful force for improving environmental and human health in their community.

Yu connects the professed communal and environmental aspirations of the Communist Party leadership with his own goals — healthy places for people and well-functioning ecosystems. But he also believes there has been some deviation from the original goals of the Communist revolution, with the pursuit of Western-style, car-based development; isolated, residential skyscrapers; and widespread environmental degradation.

He submits typical contemporary urban design in China to a kind of criticism study session, asking mayors and governors to re-examine their own motivations and re-align themselves with the true needs of the Chinese people and the environment.

He takes aim at the Chinese version of the western City Beautiful movement that has been carried out “aimlessly and autocratically,” damaging both the civil realm through the development of highways that split communities, giant soulless plazas, and parks filled with non-native plants; and the natural environment, through the country-wide pollution of air and water. His core argument: to mindlessly ape Western development models — and profit from these destructive approaches — is fundamentally un-Chinese and certainly not Communist.

In one compelling essay directed to mayors, he writes: “contemporary movements to build the ‘City Beautiful’ and the ‘eco-city’ are short-sighted. It is wrong to raze old homes downtown to erect a paved concrete square; wrong to demolish natural features to build ‘parks’ stuffed with exotic plants; wrong to cut down forests that meander along riverbanks, only to line those rivers with concrete; wrong to take productive rice fields that are over a thousand years old and cover them up with lawns of imported grass — all to inflate and publicize a mayor’s false achievements.”

He seeks to grow a new stock of governors and mayors who can change the status-quo urban planning paradigm in China. He wants them to adopt a “negative planning” approach in which important ecologies are purposefully protected from development. Instead of running population growth estimates and then creating a development plan based in standardized land requirements per person, Yu wants urban planners to preserve and enhance undeveloped land — hence the “negative” or zero planning or development approach — that provide vital ecosystem services. With negative planning, China can then build “landscape security patterns,” which form out of “strategic locations and linkages” that are “extremely important to the maintenance and control of ecological processes.”

ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

In a country that has become a toxic brownfield, landscape security could provide the stable foundation for the renewed sustainability and resilience of the country.

He calls for using a number of ambitious strategies for achieving landscape security, and bringing nature back to the cities in a real, not fake “eco-city” manner. Historic and cultural preservation, as well as agriculture, are woven through the ideas, too:

  • “Maintain and strengthen the overall continuity of the landscape pattern.
  • Establish and protect the city’s diversity of habitat.
  • Maintain and restore the natural configuration of rivers and shorelines.
  • Restore and protect wetland systems.
  • Integrate rural windbreaks into urban greenways.
  • Build greenways for pedestrians and cyclists.
  • Establish green cultural heritage corridors.
  • Improve urban green spaces by making them more permeable and accessible to the public.
  • Dissolve parks into the city’s matrix.
  • Dissolve the city, protect and integrate productive farmland as an organic element of the city.
  • Establish native plant nurseries.”
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

Amid the essays and lectures, Letters to the Leaders of China intermingles actual letters written by Yu to provincial governors, mayors, and Chinese president Xi Jinping himself. They give an insight into the opportunities and limits of Yu’s role as a leading intellectual and critic and the preeminent landscape architect in China. Unfortunately, though, Yu doesn’t provide any of their responses back to him, so these sections feel like a one-sided conversation. One doesn’t know the results of his lobbying.

Still, one letter to Wen Jiabao, premier of the state council, calling for a “vernacular heritage landscape network” — essentially, a national system of cultural landscapes that could also provide ecosystem services — is a particularly creative, efficient policy proposal that even includes specific governmental and regulatory changes to make his proposal happen. The letter shows an understanding of how the government is structured and what needs to change.

Through the letters, essays, and lectures, one gets a sense of how much Yu cares — and how driven he is to undo the unsustainable development patterns that repeat the same destructive errors made in the West over the past 50 years. He is trying to respectfully guide the leadership of China towards a more ecological, humane approach, and he works every angle he can find.

At the end of the book, there is a transcription of an interview with Chinese contemporary artist Ai Wei Wei. Ai presses Yu on his ideas, forcing him to justify his arguments. Yu states that China’s rustic, vernacular, “low culture” is what’s key to achieving sustainability — not the imported Western ideas of development, architecture, and landscape or bourgeois Chinese traditions. To achieve social and environmental reform, China must raise up what is considered low today — the wetland that functions, the productive aesthetics of the humble farm, the clean river.

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

And so he seeks to educate China’s many mayors on the beauty of what is plain, which is why his works of landscape architecture are “consciously educational.”