Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of the profession of landscape architecture, was designing nature-based solutions 150 years before the term came into favor. He designed with nature, conserved landscapes and ecosystems, and incorporated native plants — all of which are now contemporary approaches to increasing resilience to climate change.
But now, many of Olmsted’s parks, and those of his sons, are being tested like never before. “Olmsted parks are on the front lines of climate change,” said Dede Petri, CEO of the Olmsted Network, during an online discussion as part of Olmsted 200. And his parks are also increasingly test-beds for new solutions, too.
In a discussion moderated by Dinah Voyles Pulver, national climate reporter at USA Today, Erin Chute Gallentine, public works commissioner with Brookline, Massachusetts, said her city’s Olmsted parks are dealing with climate impacts such as flash flooding and drought. Parks’ trees are now “increasingly vulnerable to pests and diseases.” And across the city, climate change is reducing biodiversity and causing “less robust nature.”
In Manhattan, Central Park has seen record rainfall, more extreme weather events, and mass flooding brought on by climate change. Other impacts include “erosion, pathogens, and the spread of invasive plants” and an “erratic planting calendar,” said Steven Thomson, director of thought leadership at the Central Park Conservancy Institute for Urban Parks. Climate change is also causing milder winters, which means more visitors in the park year-round. “The park doesn’t have time to rest; it is trodded on more during its restoration phase.”
Looking nationally, ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen highlighted how increasing temperatures and urban heat islands are putting pressure on Olmsted’s parks. “This in turn threatens the health and safety of communities,” he said.
As the climate continues to change, Olmsted’s parks will take on an even more important role. Olmsted understood the value of ecological health and believed it was central to human health and well-being. As cities deal with flooding, drought, extreme heat, and sea level rise, Olmsted’s urban respites will be needed even more.
Ecological conditions in Central Park are now being monitored by remote sensors. And the “lived experience” of those who work in the park day in and out are also a focus of research. Together, quantitative and qualitative data will inform policy recommendations that will help other parks adapt.
In the Boston and Brookline, the Emerald Necklace, a 1,100-acre chain of 12 parks, was originally designed by Olmsted to provide multiple benefits. It was simultaneously designed for flood control for the Muddy River, sanitation, scenic beauty, and wildlife habitat.
But in recent years, the park system has been impacted by development and climate change. Invasive plants and stormwater have deteriorated Olmsted’s flood control mechanisms. During storms, the Muddy River has regularly flooded surrounding neighborhoods. One severe storm caused “devastating flooding” and more than $60 million in property damages.
The Muddy River Restoration Project, formed out of a broad partnership, has been daylighting culverts, dredging, and removing invasives in order to speed the flow of floodwaters, increase the capacity of the Emerald Necklace to store water, and restore ecosystems. As Olmsted envisioned, “banks will swell, but we’ll be able to naturally manage the flooding,” Gallentine said.
The Central Park Conservancy is also bolstering Olmsted’s ingenious natural infrastructure so it can better withstand future changes. To support a range of species, the conservancy is daylighting streams and creating riparian habitat. It’s replacing lawn with grasses. And it’s also creating more spaces designed for birds and other pollinators.
And at a national level, ASLA is building on its Olmstedian legacy of fellowship, advocacy, and democratic engagement to advance climate action, explained Carter-Conneen. (Two of Olmsted’s sons were among the society’s co-founders).
ASLA launched its Climate Action Plan last year, and its goals include investing in nature-based solutions, focusing on equitable development, and restoring ecosystems on a global scale, which we can imagine Olmsted Sr. would have supported.
“Boston needs to ramp up its heat adaptation strategies, because two summers ago, the city had 40 days of temperatures over 90 degrees. This was a major problem because no one in the city has air conditioning,” said landscape architect Diana Fernandez-Bibeau, ASLA, deputy chief of urban design at the Boston Planning and Development Agency, during the Living Future conference in Washington, D.C.
Fernandez-Bibeau and Tamar Warburg, director of sustainability at Sasaki, outlined Boston’s innovative new plan for addressing extreme heat, which is part of its Climate Ready Boston effort. The plan promotes strategies ranging from parks to street trees, green roofs to library cooling centers, and offers “multiple layers of benefits.”
“The city is centering people in the resilience process. We’ve completed [sea level rise and flooding] planning for all the city’s coasts. And now with the heat plan, we are ahead of the ball,” Fernandez-Bibeau said.
Heat is a priority for the city because it is “the number-one cause of weather related deaths,” she said. “Children and older adults are at risk, along with those with pre-existing conditions like asthma and diabetes. Construction workers, athletes, the unhoused, and those without air conditioning are also at risk.”
Through the 350 plus-page plan, the city argues that heat depends on how someone experiences it, rather than the actual temperature. “Age matters, as does someone’s adaptive capacity, which relates to level of access to cooling. In built-up environments with no trees, parks, or splash pads, perceived heat can have a greater intensity.”
Fernandez Bibeau emphasized that the data used in Boston’s plan is rooted in perceived heat, which she called “revolutionary.” The city decided not to use federal data, instead creating new climate datasets and modeling that they argue tell a truer picture of what heat feels like on the ground in different conditions.
The city brought together a multidisciplinary team, which was led by Sasaki, a landscape and planning firm, and includes All Aces, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultancy; Klimaat, which provided heat data, modeling, and visualizations; and WSP, which examined how to finance heat solutions.
Equity was a major focus for the team. Boston has a dark racial past, and “many areas of the city were redlined and subject to disinvesment by the Boston city government,” said Warburg. When the Sasaki team identified the hottest areas of the cities, they found they almost perfectly lined up with the communities that had been subject to racist policies in the past.
The city focused on these previously redlined areas, what they call “environmental justice communities” — Chinatown, Dorchester, East Boston, Mattapan, and Roxbury.
According to Fernandez-Bibeau, these are not what have been described as vulnerable communities. “There are vulnerable conditions and infrastructure, not vulnerable communities. These communities are actually incredibly resilient, but their environment doesn’t serve them.”
In the five neighborhoods, temperatures can be up to 7.5 degrees hotter, which means the difference between 83 and 90 degrees. And the communities are even hotter at night. “They have 70 percent less parks and open space and 30 percent fewer street trees than communities that weren’t redlined,” Warburg said.
Chinatown was found to be Boston’s hottest neighborhood. “89 percent of it is impervious, and there is little greenery or shade.” The community is a heat island, which is caused by paved streetscapes and the thermal masses of buildings. “Those buildings radiate heat at night, reducing the ability of the community to cool down.”
To kick-start the work in the neighborhoods, the city and the planning team set up advisory boards, hosted open houses, sent out surveys, and hosted youth charrettes.
Sasaki also asked Bostonians to mark on a map where they felt hot. “In the comments, recurring themes came up — the lack of shade and trees, the impacts of pollution, and affordability issues,” Warburg explained. And the comments also outlined where Bostonians go for cooling relief.
City residents could use a website to create their own three-panel comic strip, choosing colors to indicate how uncomfortable they are. “It was qualitatively helpful.”
And with each neighorhood, the team also drew possible solutions on top of a transect, showing how trees, parks, shade structures, and green roofs could be woven in.
Sasaki and Klimaat tested the cooling benefits of a range of strategies, including converting streets to parks, planting street trees and tree groves, and adding shade structures. They also examined the different cooling benefits of green roofs; cool roofs, which are painted white; and shaded green roofs.
The team looked at how to make transportation systems more heat-resilient, too. Through pocket parks and cool streets, walking to the bus or subway will be made a cooler experience. So will “cool bus stops” with shade canopies. All these strategies together form an implementation toolkit.
The plan also covers how to increase equitable access to cooling. In the past, the city had opened up cooling centers but asked for personal information, such as name, phone number, and health insurance information.
Warburg said the unintended effect was to drive away many prospective visitors. “This was asking too much info,” particularly for the unhoused; immigrants, who may not have documentation; and others concerned with their privacy. Warburg learned that many instead “went to public libraries, which have water, bathrooms, wi-fi, and a place to sit.”
As a result of the research, the city will “move away from asking for IDs” at the cooling centers in the future, Fernandez-Bibeau said.
The city government and Sasaki piloted the creation of new outdoor cooling areas at a few public libraries, which provided free wi-fi, shade, and misters. “At the East Boston public library, the plan was to keep up the temporary outdoor cooling pop-up for a few weeks; it ended up staying for four months,” Warburg said. (see image at top).
To increase resilience, the plan calls for operationalizing heat management, including heat risk notifications through the city’s 311 system.
Other priorities include: mobilizing city government workers with heat wave resources; and targeting utility assistance programs and long-term home energy retrofits towards at-risk community members.
Building community capacity to manage heat solutions is another focus area. “Neighborhood champions can help ensure older residents are using fans and drawing their shades,” Warburg said.
“Heat resilience is layered. All solutions are needed to mobilize communities,” Fernandez-Bibeau said.
Now the hard part. Implementation challenges will need to be addressed, such as securing the capital budgets to develop new cooling nature-based solutions and the maintenance budgets to support that work.
And some underserved communities are already concerned that adding trees will have a gentrifying impact. “What if by adding trees we make it less affordable to live here?” Warburg worried.
Tree maintenance issues are a factor. Cities like Philadelphia and Boston have planted thousands of trees but seen many of them die because neighbors didn’t have the time or resources to take care of them.
“During drought and heat waves, trees need extra care; without that, it impacts their ability to thrive,” Fernandez-Bibeau said. The city now has four arborists on staff who can help watch over the canopy.
And to ensure future development doesn’t cause more heating, projects not only need to include energy and carbon modeling, but also thermal comfort modeling as a matter of course. “Any development’s impact should be understood relative to existing heat conditions.”
Fernandez-Bibeau said more planning will be needed to advance the heat plan as well. “Heat adaptation will require studies involving the city’s urban forest plan, open space and recreation plans.”
“Boston faces some extreme challenges. Inequities and climate climate are interconnected,” Fernandez-Bibeau said. And to date, the city has been “hindered by old systems and structures, which are not enabling communities to grow in an equitable way.”
While the heat solutions are rolled out over the coming years, Fernandez-Bibeau urged policymakers and landscape architects to use projected weather data for 2050 and even 2070 and “design for the future.”
And last fall at COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, the administration released the “first national strategy on nature-based solutions,” a roadmap that offers “strategic recommendations” to “unlock the full potential” of these approaches to “address climate change, nature loss, and inequity.” In other words, the administration believes if planned and designed well, nature-based solutions can provide integrated carbon drawdown, resilience, biodiversity, and equity benefits.
In Miami, Harris argued that “natural infrastructure reduces the impact of storm surges and hurricanes. And by the way, natural infrastructure is often more effective than concrete barriers and retaining walls.”
Earlier this year, Harris spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Miami, where landscape architect Kate Orff, FASLA, founder of SCAPE Landscape Architecture, also presented. Perhaps it was there that Harris and her team learned about Living Breakwaters in Staten Island, New York City, which leverages oyster reefs to reduce the impact of storm surges.
Back in Miami for Earth Day, Harris said “we will restore oyster reefs. And that work will diminish the impact of tropical storms and hurricanes and clean our oceans by filtering out polluted runoff from our cities.”
Harris made clear that the benefits of nature-based solutions aren’t theoretical. “All of this makes sense. And it works! It is very doable; it is within our grasp. And that is why I am so optimistic about all of this.”
The Vice President also recognized the economic benefits of designing with nature to address climate change. “These investments will not only protect our environment but also strengthen our economy. For example, here in Florida, our work will create jobs for construction workers, environmental engineers, and landscape architects.”
Landscape architect Aida Curtis, ASLA, co-founder of Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, attended Harris’ speech in Miami. She was personally invited by the White House because of her long-time leadership on nature-based solutions in Miami.
Curtis’ team instead “envisioned vegetated shorelines with mangroves along with strategically-placed bermed islands in the Bay that would attenuate wave action during storm surges. This is a grey/green solution, not all nature-based, but it would be much better for the community and environment and increase park access.”
“Vice President Harris’ recognition that nature-based solutions can be more effective than concrete barriers and walls was enlightening. Her optimism and commitment to coastal communities gives me hope for Miami. It gives me a huge boost to continue our efforts to advocate for and design nature-based solutions,” Curtis told us.
And on a personal level, “it was amazing to hear the Vice President recognize the work that we — landscape architects — do on climate adaptation and resilience. The fact that nature-based solutions was at the heart of her message gives me great encouragement that we are on the right path.”
Harris announced that $562 million in IRA funds will go to a few key NOAA-managed programs. This is because “demand for funding focused on preparing for and adapting to climate change is high,” NOAA states. Funding requests made by communities to date have exceeded what is available.
Of the $526 million, $477 million will be dedicated to “high-impact projects” that provide multiple benefits at once:
“creating climate solutions by strengthening coastal communities’ ability to respond to extreme weather events, pollution and marine debris
restoring coastal habitats to help wildlife and humans thrive
building the capacity of underserved communities to address climate hazards and supporting community-driven restoration
and creating jobs in local communities.”
$46 million will be distributed through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation National Coastal Resilience Fund to “help communities prepare for increasing coastal flooding, sea-level rise and more intense storms, while improving thousands of acres of coastal habitats.”
And $39.1 million in non-competitive funding will go to 34 state and territorial coastal management programs and 30 national estuarine research reserves.
According to NOAA, these programs provide “essential planning, policy development and implementation, research, education, and collaborative engagement with communities.” The goal is to “protect coastal and estuarine ecosystems important for the resilience of coastal economies and the health of coastal environments.”
Through this national partnership, NPS-RTCA staff identify projects that would benefit from the expertise of licensed landscape architects and recruit ASLA members who can volunteer their time and skills. Together, we pair the planning skills of NPS-RTCA staff with the design expertise of ASLA members to help communities plan and manage their natural, recreational, and cultural resources.
We provide pro-bono facilitation and planning assistance to neighborhoods, nonprofit organizations, tribes, and state and local governments – helping them turn their visions into a reality. Our partnership focuses on bringing everyone to the table to ensure the long-term success of the project and its benefits to the community.
Each project extends the missions of the NPS and aligns with the Biden-Harris Administration’s “America the Beautiful” initiative. In collaboration with ASLA, NPS-RTCA supports locally led projects focused on conserving, connecting, and restoring lands and waters across the nation to build healthy neighborhoods, power local economies, and help communities become resilient to a changing climate.
A few projects that have resulted from our partnership:
Inclusive Recreation on the Saluda River Blueway
Winding calmly toward the Atlantic Ocean from the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Saluda River makes its way through northwestern South Carolina, brushing past old mill towns, rolling countryside, and historic landmarks. Once a vital piece of the area’s textile industry, the river became a source for hydroelectric power while its potential for outdoor recreation went unnoticed.
Together, NPS-RTCA and ASLA organized a design charette to develop a solution for getting canoes and kayaks around a dam. Residents, planners, historians, and 15 volunteer landscape architects worked together to design river access points that are accessible to all. The design process further expanded outdoor recreation opportunities by connecting the Saluda River Blue Trail to existing parks along the river.
With assistance from the partnership, Anderson County exceeded ADA expectations – installing portable, floating kayak launches that give people with disabilities an opportunity to get on the water despite the issue of constantly fluctuating water levels.
“This has been all about inclusive access on the river… to give some people a river experience that they would have never gotten otherwise,” said Matt Schell, the director for Anderson County’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
Restoring Sacred Lands: Tásmam Koyóm Maidu Cultural Park
After more than a century of displacement, the Mountain Maidu people returned to their homeland − Tásmam Koyóm (the Maidu name for Humbug Valley) which is a 2,300-acre alpine valley in California’s Sierra Nevada.
With a vision to develop a cultural park dedicated to education, healing, and traditional ecosystem management, the Maidu Summit Consortium requested assistance from NPS-RTCA. In collaboration with the California Sierra and Nevada chapters of ASLA, NPS-RTCA supported the Mountain Maidu tribe in developing conceptual plans for a park entry site to welcome visitors, identified public access opportunities for a trail network while protecting special cultural sites that only tribal members can access, and developed a 40-acre visitor zone that includes improvements to the Yellow Creek Campground.
“It gives us a chance to bring back our culture, and the way we live,” said Beverly Ogle, a Maidu elder, author, and activist. “It’s given us a land base to bring back our plant life, the botany, the wildlife, and reconnect with the landscape.”
Today, the Mountain Maidu tribe continues to work on developing the Tásmam Koyóm Maidu Cultural Park where they will be able to share their history and heritage with visitors and care for the land.
Conservation and Outdoor Recreation on North Beach Eco Park
Migratory birds aren’t the only ones flocking to Corpus Christi, Texas. With a goal to expand recreational and educational opportunities, the city is implementing plans for a 30-acre ecological and birding park in North Beach that will cater to both their human and avian visitors.
In 2019, the city requested assistance from NPS-RTCA on the park’s design and asked for support in building organizational development for community partners. In collaboration with the Houston/Gulf Coast Section of the ASLA Texas Chapter, NPS-RTCA held public meetings to identify community ideas and generate feasible designs for a migratory bird habitat with recreational opportunities for visitors.
Three park designs were developed from community input, resulting in a master plan for a park that will be home to healthy wetlands and wildlife as well as trails, boardwalks, observation decks, interpretive signs, and educational resources for outdoor programming.
Improving Access to the Sacramento River
The River District in Sacramento, California has a rich cultural and natural history and is located at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency applied for assistance to develop placemaking
concepts for the Sacramento River waterfront.
In 2020, NPS-RTCA partnered with the ASLA California Sierra Chapter and UC Davis’ Department of Landscape Architecture to host three virtual design workshops with the community to explore, envision, and re-think the concept of place along the waterfront.
More than 60 community members and stakeholders participated, including local
tribal members and residents of a low-income housing development. The workshops focused on developing a vision to improve access to the riverfront and expand existing recreational and educational opportunities by creating welcoming spaces that reflect on the history, identity, and legacy of the residents that call the area home.
In addition to creating safe access to the waterfront, the planning and design effort was seen as an opportunity to promote a sense of place and ownership for community members. Concepts generated from the design workshops were shared with stakeholders and city and county officials to identify concepts for funding and implementation.
Evelyn Moreno is a writer and editor with NPS-RTCA.
Deb Guenther, FASLA, LEED AP, SITES AP, is a partner and landscape architect at Mithun, based in Seattle, Washington. She was a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Leadership and Innovation Fellow from 2021-2022 and awarded the President’s Medal by the American Society of Landscape Architect in 2010.
Equity is increasingly being seen as central to landscape architects’ climate action work. How do you define equity in your planning and design work? And what about terms like climate equity and climate justice?
We spend time discussing equity for each project, even if the project doesn’t explicitly have equity goals. It’s different for each community.
We focus on understanding the historical injustices that have happened over time and how those show up in day-to-day lives today. Disproportionate underinvestments in communities have impacts. We try to understand how those show up in power dynamics of not only race and gender but also income and class. We want to be able to understand the power dynamics before we come in the room.
Climate injustices have disproportionately affected communities of color. Often these communities have been redlined, are lower lying, and experience more flooding, or have less trees and experience more intense summer heat. These communities often don’t have the infrastructure to prevent flooding.
We need to build trust with communities to be able to do effective work and learn with community members. I think the big takeaway for me from the fellowship was that I was just catching up to a lot of the things that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color have known for a long time.
People with the lived experience in the community are the greatest resource for finding the solutions. We can’t do work that is meaningful to communities without first investing time. So all of that comes back to: how can we build a design process that is more relational and less transactional? How do we do the pre-design work that leads to greater trust?
Community design centers are ready to do this long-term, place-based work. Partnering with a community over time is a different exercise with different results than coming in and out of a community. Staying with a community builds understanding.
I have also heard about flood control districts and park districts that are starting to band together regionally because they know they can’t address all the climate adaptation needs individually as agencies. So we need to take a broader or regional view, and at the same time, look at what community leaders know about their specific neighborhoods. It’s a back and forth, regional and local.
We can’t move climate justice work forward and do our best work without building trust first. Climate work is so urgent that we have to go slow to go fast. We have to take the time to build the trust in order to be able to move quickly enough to respond to climate in effective way.
You’re a partner at Mithun, a mission-driven integrated design firm that began in Seattle, Washington, and later expanded to offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In Washington State and elsewhere, Mithun is partnering with tribes on a range of planning and design projects. What have you learned working with tribes and their approaches to long-term sustainability and resilience? And what are some examples of how their ethos has been translated into landscape architecture projects with your firm?
We are so grateful for the relationships we have with First Nations. Twenty years ago we were learning about co-design and co-creation through our engagements with First Nations.
We were going to their events. We were having meals with the elders. We were getting to know sites together by sleeping overnight in the sagebrush steppe in eastern Washington while working with the Wanapum on their Heritage Center. We were invited to share in some very special ceremonies. We were getting to know each other and each other’s culture in a deeper way.
We also learned about holding the capacity for difficult conversations. As facilitators of these conversations, we’ve learned a lot over the years about how to allow those uncomfortable conversations to happen, how we can have those together in a room and still walk out together at the end and be better for it. That’s a big lesson learned over the years.
The importance of investing in youth is another area where we’ve learned so much from First Nations. The canoe journey is a multi-tribal event that happens every other year among many of the tribes in the Pacific Northwest. Youth are reclaiming their connection to traditional lifeways through a canoe journey where they travel to a hosting tribe. They come together for a major gathering at the end. Preparing for these journeys influences many youth.
And it had a direct result creating the House of Awakened Culture that we designed with the Suquamish tribe. They built that project in anticipation of hosting a canoe journey. Now they can also host future canoe journeys and larger gatherings as a tribe.
The Sea2City Design Challenge in Vancouver, Canada led to an exciting re-imagining of False Creek, a central inlet in the city. Mithun worked with representatives and cultural advisors from Host Nations, including the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh, and the community to envision a decolonized approach to coastal climate adaptation planning. What do decolonized landscapes look like? And how did you leverage traditional tribal communications forms, including spoken word and storytelling, to envision this decolonization process?
We went directly to the Host Nation cultural advisors, Tsleil-Waututh Nation knowledge keeper Charlene (Char) Aleck, and Squamish artist Cory Douglas and asked: what does a decolonized landscape look like to you? They wanted to imagine a place where they feel like they belonged. Right now, the way the False Creek area is set up, there aren’t many places where they feel they belong.
One of the places on seawall promenade that resonated with Cory was this cluster of cedar trees peeking out of the asphalt. So we built on the idea of the cedars, harvesting plants and food for cultural uses, and being able to be in a place where land and water is nourishing. Those are the ways of belonging they were speaking to.
A significant moment in this project is when went on a boat ride up and down False Creek with Char and Cory and the team. During that boat ride, we heard from Char about reciprocity and exchange, what is given and what is taken, and how that all influences their cultural outlook on what it means to have a place they belong in.
Afterwards, we threw out all of our design work and started again with this idea of going back to the historic natural shoreline. We have to go back to where things were taken. Not only does that make sense from a sea level rise protections, flooding, contamination standpoint, but it also makes sense from a reciprocity standpoint. Decolonized landscapes are about finding the ways to ensure people feel like they belong.
It is interesting to think that our next experiences as landscape architects may be about deconstruction rather than construction. The return to the historic shoreline is predicated on buildings that are aging out. Instead of replacing buildings that have aged out, we can rezone upland areas that can take more development and not displace people or businesses. We can plan for the gradual movement of people and businesses and housing up slope. This is a way of building in protections against sea level rise and allowing for marine life to flourish. It’s also a way to clean a contaminated waterway over time.
As part of Bay Area Resilient by Design Challenge, Mithun led an interdisciplinary team of ecological, design, planning, economic, and social justice organizations to create ouR-HOME, a comprehensive planning effort in Richmond, California, a low-income community that has experienced a range of environmental injustices and is facing significant sea level rise and flooding impacts. The Resilient by Design effort sought to envision what structural equity looks like, how to protect the community from gentrification and displacement, and create new wealth, while also using nature to increase resilience to future climate impacts. It’s a great example of equity-based climate adaptation work. How did those ideas came together and how they are being pursued in projects that have evolved from the planning effort?
This is a very special project and place with a lot of wonderful people. There’s such a strong environmental justice history in North Richmond. This community has had to build their sense of self-determination because they were ignored, redlined, and subject to disinvestment.
So there are multiple generations of community leaders, like Whitney Dotson, Cynthia Jordan, Dr. Henry Clark, Annie King-Meredith, Princess Robinson who have led and are leading significant change. They are working in so many ways to advance locally-driven solutions.
The Bay Area tends to approach things regionally. A lot of Resilient by Design was happening at the regional level. But that wasn’t going create change in North Richmond because of its history.
As part of the shoreline collaboration plan, we’re now working on what the governance strategy can be with the community. The goal is to evaluate how to connect immediate benefits from the work they’re doing on nature-based solutions. We’re designing a living levee there that will allow marine life to transition and protect the wastewater district facility that serves the entire West Contra Costa County. We’ve also co-designed with a community advisory group a five-mile strategy of collaboration between property owners that would protect a much larger swath of the neighborhood and other infrastructure.
Some of those direct benefits are building up community knowledge through a co-design process, workforce development, and land trusts that guard against gentrification. And there are projects that will provide more access to the shoreline through trails and destinations, like interpretive centers and overlooks.
A lot of the residents that were involved in the co-design process during Resilient by Design have remained involved as champions of various projects. Folks really grabbed on to the pieces they were interested in and shepherded those forward.
In the co-design process as part of Resilient by Design, we had public agency folks in the room with community residents, business leaders, various nonprofit organizations. They all knew each other before Resilient by Design. But they knew each other in the context of presenting information to each other, not really working shoulder to shoulder. During the process we conducted, they were working shoulder to shoulder to solve issues, having more casual dialogue. This is the main thing we heard at the end of the process — that resident advisors wanted this kind of work to continue.
What we noticed is that there is cyclical process with funding, right? There wasn’t a convener that could keep the group going until West Contra Costa County Wastewater District stepped up to do their work on the levee. They were able to bring a similar group together again.
As designers, we need to think about how we keep shoulder-to-shoulder dialogue going with communities, even when there isn’t a project driving it. So many relevant projects come out of those kinds of processes.
Mithun states that it uses affordable housing developments to create “active social hubs,” and it leverages its “integrated design approach” as a vehicle for social equity. Your firm’s landscape architects are often involved in these projects, weaving in green spaces, play areas, rooftop gardens, pedestrian bicycle access, and public art. A few projects — the Liberty Bank Building in Seattle, Washington, and Casa Adelante at 2060 Folsom in San Francisco — seems to highlight the value of landscape architects in these projects. Can you talk about how landscape architects on your team are shaping these projects?
Common space in affordable housing projects is such highly valued space. You can imagine when the goal is to house people, every square foot is going to be carefully scrutinized.
At the beginning of these projects, the landscape architect’s role at Mithun is to do that massaging, that working back and forth between the indoor and the outdoor space, to not only program the shared spaces outside but also the spaces inside.
We look at those adjacencies where people can run into each other naturally, where are they going to get their mail, where are they going to for daily life experiences. Running into each other causes people to know their neighbors and builds a stronger sense of community.
Those are the two areas where we’re shaping these projects the most. The first is being present at the beginning to do that shaping of how the common space is tied to the lifeways of the residents. And the second is figuring out how those adjacencies are built into the framework of the design. All the other stuff is gravy if you get the adjacencies right.
Mithun has invested in being a responsible design firm. It has offset all its emissions since 2004, offers bike parking at its offices, and finances employees’ home energy efficiency retrofits. It donates pro-bono design services, raises funds for local community groups, and its leaders are involved in the boards of civic organizations. How does Mithun plan to further evolve to address the climate crisis?
We are looking at the North Richmond work and thinking about how we can work geographically like that in other areas and build long-term relationships. We’ve been there now for seven years continuously and built a more relational way of working. Ultimately, we feel that is the most equitable way to work, because we have that deeper understanding and a shared sense of reciprocity.
We’re participating in conversations happening in communities that we’re a part of. And then we bring those ideas to our projects. We’re tying ideas together and building momentum. This is just how we live as a community, right?
We never want to underestimate the value of social resilience. The greatest predictor of survival in a crisis is how well you know your neighbors, your community. In a climate justice context, we want to model what we think is valuable for all communities. We want to design places where people can get to know each other, where they can practice adaptation together, and therefore be better prepared to work together when they need to respond to climate impacts.
The plan and guide chart a pathway for landscape architects to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions in their projects and operations and increase carbon sequestration by 2040.
The plan was developed by a high-profile Task Force of five landscape architects chaired by Pamela Conrad, ASLA, founder of Climate Positive Design, and a 17-member Advisory Group. It outlines a bold vision for 2040 and a set of 71 actions to be taken by 2025.
By 2040, all landscape architecture projects will simultaneously:
Achieve zero embodied and operational emissions and increase carbon sequestration
Provide significant economic benefits in the form of measurable ecosystem services, health co-benefits, sequestration, and green jobs
Address climate injustices, empower communities, and increase equitable distribution of climate investments
Restore ecosystems and increase and protect biodiversity
Watch a 13-minute overview of the vision and goals of the plan by ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen during the ASLA 2022 Conference opening general session (see video above).
Then, watch a 60-min presentation on the three goals and six key initiatives of the plan and field guide:
Speakers include the ASLA Climate Action Plan Task Force:
Along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, a 118-year-old power station has become Powerhouse Arts, a contemporary arts and fabrication space. To protect its waterfront from storm surges and sea level rise, landscape architecture firm Ken Smith Workshop layered in steel and concrete defenses. But they also wove in a nature-based solution to capture stormwater. “It’s both a defensive measure and a living shoreline that will make the site adaptable,” said Ken Smith, FASLA. “It’s how we could use a tight space with a steep slope to do a lot.”
The power station, built at the turn of the 20th century, once housed coal-powered turbines that generated electricity. The three-story red brick building was developed by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company. It was decommissioned in the late 1930s and by the 1970s reborn as a cardboard incinerating facility. Since then, it has had many lives, becoming home to both artists and squatters. Some of the city’s best graffiti artists left their mark. And in recent decades, it became known as the Batcave, a place for dance parties.
After starting a foundation, hedge funder Joshua Rechnitz purchased the building in 2012. He then hired architects Herzog & de Meuron and PBDW to renovate the power station and graph on a six-story annex, essentially doubling the square footage. “They brought rigor to the project, maintaining the architecture in as straightforward a way as possible,” Smith said during our hardhat tour.
The foundation and architects re-imagined the space as a contemporary artist and fabrication studio that will offer community classes, prototyping spaces, job training, and public exhibitions. But they also wanted to keep its layers of history, including the graffiti.
Exiting the rear of the Powerhouse, the expanse of the Gowanus Canal, one of the most contaminated Superfund sites in the country, came into view. It’s a water body that also continues to receive millions of gallons of combined sewer overflow each year.
The canal has drawn in number of landscape architects over the years. Susannah Drake, FASLA, and her firm DLANDStudio, created the Gowanus Canal Sponge Park™. That began as a plan for lining the 1.5-mile-long canal with absorbent green spaces that could reduce stormwater from further polluting the waterway. An 1,800-square feet pilot sponge park was then completed in 2016 and now captures some 2 million gallons of stormwater each year.
And in 2018, SCAPE Landscape Architecture partnered with the community to create the Gowanus Lowlands Masterplan, a vision for restoring public spaces and the ecology of the canal and its watershed. SCAPE dove into the history of the Gowanus Creek ecosystem that once existed. In the 1850s, the creek was hardened, becoming what is is today — a canal for transportation and industrial manufacturing.
Smith said that during Superstorm Sandy, which pummeled the city in 2012, the canal’s polluted waters rose up by 12 feet, flooding the area. Working with limited space, he decided to reinforce the Powerhouse Arts waterfront with a steel sea wall and concrete yard blocks, protecting it from future storm and climate impacts. “The site was raised considerably. To be good citizens, we went with armature.”
Before Smith began his work, the existing waterfront edge was 5.8 feet above sea level, so not enough to protect against a future storm surge. With the engineering team, Smith brought in 225 feet of black steel sheet pile walls, which were driven 40 feet down into the canal bank. The top of the new sheet pile sea wall is now 10 feet above sea level — higher but not enough for the greatest anticipated storm surges. On land, the sea wall is about the height of an armrest for Smith, 3-4 feet off the ground, so possible to see over.
Behind the sea wall, Smith wove in a 12-foot-wide gravel walkway, ensuring public access to the waterfront. From the back of that path, stepped rows of concrete yard block walls add another 12.75 feet of protection. The 366 concrete yard blocks, sometimes called “mafia blocks,” are lined up in precise rows. The top of the slope is now 19.5 feet above sea level.
Smith said he also used hardcore materials like steel and concrete because he wanted to maintain the site’s “industrial vocabulary.”
He sees potential in this humble grey infrastructure: “Gabions used to be utilitarian; now they are quite fetishized. Concrete yard blocks will become the next gabion.” (And, hopefully, it’s eco-concrete that will be fetishized).
The blocks were also purposefully positioned so they are multi-functional: “They are usable; you can sit on them.”
Above the blocks is a vegetated buffer filled with trees and meadow grasses that will capture water coming from the Powerhouse parking lot. “The beach plum, coffee, and red cedar trees are tough” and will ensure that living shoreline element will endure.
Boulders were plopped to offset the rectilinear building. “I didn’t want the landscape to be too straight forward and direct. I wanted to create an interesting frame for the building.”
Crossing a bridge to the other side of the Gowanus Canal, Smith remarked that the canal is a highly polluted place that is being rapidly re-zoned as a residential area.
Standing at the Sponge Park, and looking across the canal at Powerhouse Arts, one could see a variety of waterfront landscapes — some clearly green spaces associated with residences, some public spaces, and some linked with legacy manufacturing sites. The ad-hoc approach to waterfront resilience in NYC was apparent.
Nature-based solutions to storm surges, such as mangroves and wetlands, are ideal but require enough space on shore. Constructed islands, berms, and reefs can reduce wave power from storms off shore but require enough space in the water and distance from the land.
What is the solution along highly developed canal and river communities where set-backs or off-shore solutions aren’t possible? In many places, New York City has been lifting up, adding elevated park structures as well as sea walls to its waterfront. The Powerhouse Arts project says here, at least along this stretch of canal, resilience means armor. But this also means the next mega storm, made more destructive by climate change, will surge in elsewhere.
New research published in The Lancet has found that increasing tree cover in European cities to 30 percent could have reduced premature deaths from urban heat islands by 40 percent.
Currently, the average tree canopy in cities across the continent is approximately 15 percent. Increasing tree coverage to 30 percent would cool cities by 0.7°F (0.4°C) — showing that even seemingly small reductions in summer temperatures could save many lives.
The climate crisis has increased temperatures across Europe and led to more dangerous heatwaves. Last year, the continent experienced its hottest summer and second warmest year overall, which only increased the impacts of urban heat islands.
Heat islands form in urban environments comprised of dark, heat-absorbing materials like asphalt, concrete, and tar-covered roofs. These islands are also found in areas where is a high population density, which means a high number of air conditioners expelling heat, and a lack of trees and plants.
And this is confirmed by previous research. In a study of the West Midlands, United Kingdom cited by the authors, “urban heat islands were estimated to have contributed around 50 percent of the total heat-related mortality during a 2003 heat wave.”
“We already know that high temperatures in urban environments are associated with negative health outcomes, such as cardio-respiratory failure, hospital admission, and premature death,” explained lead author Tamar Iungman, with the Institute for Global Health in Barcelona, Spain. And hotter temperatures and deadlier heat islands will lead to an even “bigger burden to our health services over the next decade.”
The researchers used data from 2015, the latest continent-wide population study, to estimate the summer mortality rates of 57 million Europeans in 93 cities, aged 20 years and older. From June to August 2015, the cities were 2.7°F (1.5°C) warmer on average than surrounding rural areas.
The researchers first looked at a range of strategies to reduce heat islands. The majority are solutions landscape architects plan and design:
Green roofs and walls
Light-colored building roofs, walls, and landscape pavers
Replacing impervious surfaces with plants and soils
Increased tree coverage
But for this study, the researchers decided to hone in on trees. They argue that “planting urban trees offers an important opportunity to mitigate high temperatures and, compared with other strategies, is relatively simple and cost-effective to implement.”
Trees are known to be effective at cooling cities — through the shade they provide and the water vapor they release through transpiration. A study cited by the researchers found that in 600 cities trees cooled urban neighborhoods by an average of 1.8°F (1.1°C) — and up to 5.2°F (2.9°C).
Other studies have backed the 30 percent tree canopy target, which is why many cities have set that as a policy goal as well. “Previous epidemiological studies have suggested health benefits associated with tree coverage of at least 30 percent, including reduced odds of incident psychological distress, and non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.”
Another study found that if European city leaders met World Health Organization recommendations and ensured all their populations lived within 1,000 feet (300 meters) of a green space, 20 deaths per 100,000 people could be avoided each year. This speaks to the importance of distributing trees equitably across all neighborhoods and focusing on historically marginalized and underserved communities with lower tree canopies.
According to The Lancet study, the cities with the highest number of deaths that can be attributed to urban heat islands were in “southern and eastern Europe, particularly in Spain, Italy, Hungary, Croatia, and Romania,” while the lowest were located in “northern Europe including Sweden, Estonia, UK, and northern France.”
Most of the cities with the worst heat islands were also the most densely populated. Dangerous heat islands were found in Paris, France; Thessaloniki and Athens, Greece; Bilbao, Spain; and Brussels, Belgium. These cities have population densities that range from 7,272 to 21,462 people per square km.
The researchers argue that denser cities with lower than average canopies can therefore see even greater benefits from increasing their tree cover than other cities. The issue is finding ways to retrofit these cities to add more trees — a challenge landscape architects can address by adding in new parks, recreational areas, green roofs, and green streets.
Premature deaths that can be attributed to hotter urban temperatures also vary greatly across cities. For example, there were no summer heat-related deaths in Goteborg, Sweden, but 32 premature deaths per 100,000 people in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, The Lancet notes.
Trees were also found to significantly reduce the effects of heat islands during the day because they provide shade along with transpiration. But at night, “the urban canyon (i.e., the geometry formed by a city street and its flanking buildings) more strongly determines urban heat island effects.”
“The night-time intensity of the urban heat island effect is on average three times the daytime intensity. Therefore, urban green infrastructure strategies need to be accompanied by other interventions—especially those that reduce night-time urban heat island effects—to achieve health benefits, such as changing ground surface materials (e.g., from asphalt to granite) and structural interventions that change the sky view factor (i.e., the fraction of visible sky relative to street geometry and building density),” the researchers write.
The researchers’ analysis is based in a “coarse spatial resolution” (1,600 feet by 1,600 feet squares), so it’s not precise. The researchers also note that data on urban tree transpiration rates is hard to measure at a city scale. Typical urban trees’ transpiration rates may be more limited than trees in large parks or the suburbs, because they are “often exposed to harsh conditions (paved soils, air pollution).” The researchers also didn’t factor in how transpiration rates or the shade generated differ by tree size or species. And there was no discussion on how water bodies and features in cities could help further cool communities.
New Orleans experiences the worst urban heat island effect in the country, with temperatures nearly 9 F° higher than nearby natural areas. The city also lost more than 200,000 trees from Hurricane Katrina, dropping its overall tree canopy to just 18.5 percent.
But more importantly, the plan also seeks to equalize the canopy, so at least 10 percent of all 72 neighborhoods are covered in trees. Currently, more than half of neighborhoods are under the 10 percent goal.
Wes Michaels, ASLA, a founding partner at SMM, explained that some communities in the city are almost entirely concrete and asphalt and have canopies as low as 1 percent, while others, like the famous Garden District, have nearly 30 percent.
This causes an inequitable distribution of heat risks. “With Hurricane Ida, the foremost cause of death wasn’t flooding but heat. The storm knocked out electricity, so people were in their homes without air conditioning,” explained Emily Bullock, ASLA, a principal with SMM.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, trees and plants really do have a significant cooling benefit. “Trees and vegetation lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade and through evapotranspiration. Shaded surfaces, for example, may be 20–45°F (11–25°C) cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials. Evapotranspiration, alone or in combination with shading, can help reduce peak summer temperatures by 2–9°F (1–5°C).”
The New Orleans Reforestation Plan offers a new, more equitable model for reducing dangerous extreme heat — the number one climate killer — and flooding, while also lowering energy use.
“Conventional urban reforestation plans are focused on achieving an overall canopy percentage, and there is often an equity component. But this plan centers equity so that it frames all goals,” Bullock said.
“The plans we reviewed from other cities were all similar, kind of boilerplate. We needed a plan that recognizes the unique neighborhoods of New Orleans,” said Susannah Burley, executive director of SOUL. “We wanted to find a local firm that understood the context of our city.”
Burley, who has a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Louisiana State University (LSU), spearheaded the complex reforestation planning effort over the past two years.
With Traci Birch, a LSU professor and planner, SOUL organized four round table discussions with local stakeholders from the public, private, and non-profit sectors, and seven community meetings.
“Spackman Mossop Michaels was a stakeholder in those early conversations. We knew they were already invested in the plan and understood the steps taken,” Burley said.
The firm was then hired to analyze the complex GIS data gathered by SOUL, facilitate more meetings across the city, and develop the plan.
“Landscape architects know the challenges and how to intersect with utilities. We helped facilitate concrete conversations with stakeholders. We examined city regulations and came up with recommendations so that these systems can work a little better. The goal is to make planting trees a smoother, easier process,” Bullock said.
The firm’s community engagement experience also helped SOUL frame the conversations.
“Not everyone in the community is 100 percent behind planting more trees. Landscape architects know that trees = good, but we can also meet communities where they are. We heard concerns like: ‘what if a tree falls on my house or leaves clog up my gutters? What if their roots break up my driveway?'”, Michaels said.
Research shows that trees increase property values. But SMM didn’t hear concerns that more trees could lead to gentrification or displacement. “The questions were more about: ‘who will maintain the trees in rights of way? Where will the maintenance funds come from?,'” said Bullock.
In the historic Garden District, tree roots can transform sidewalks into jagged small hills, making them inaccessible. And in other older parts of the city, sidewalks are very narrow, leaving little room for trees. How will the city fit in more?
“We didn’t get into these kinds of issues, which were beyond the scope. We want to make sure we don’t repeat the current issues, including with overhead and underground utilities. The goal is to create a unified tree policy with stakeholders, including the utilities providing power, water, sewage. The idea is to create a new policy together,” Michaels explained.
The plan outlines detailed steps SOUL, other organizations, and the city can take to build capacity and ramp up tree planting to achieve the 2040 goal. But before scaling up, the plan calls for a full-year of community engagement. “This will help educate communities about the benefits of trees and lay the groundwork for the planting programs to come,” Michaels said.
In five diverse, underserved neighborhoods, pilot tree planting efforts will be rolled out over coming years. In some of these neighborhoods, planting more trees will be fairly straightforward given there are open green spaces available. In other more difficult neighborhoods, which already have lower tree canopies, additional funds and support will be needed to break up and remove concrete rights of way.
According to Burley, the biggest barrier to implementing the plan is lack of funding. “In New Orleans, the Department of Parks and Parkways is extremely underfunded. The plan is an advocacy tool — it shows what can be done with additional funds and how to make it happen.”
And this is why the team focused on making the plan so easy-to-understand. “Most reforestation plans I saw were missing the human component. Our plan is meant to be highly accessible, so it can be picked-up by any city government official or neighborhood association.”
This plan also offers an approach other landscape architects can apply. “Reforestation plans are in landscape architects’ wheelhouse. These plans are at the intersection of ecology, culture, and public health. It’s not just about overall tree canopy numbers. But how to plant the most trees in places where they are needed, and in the shortest amount of time, with limited resources,” Michaels said.
LA County Board Adopts Updated Park Needs Assessment– 12/6/2022, Spectrum News 1
“The LA County Board of Supervisors Tuesday unanimously adopted a countywide assessment of park needs identifying priority areas for development of recreational facilities, and calling for efforts to transform ‘degraded lands’ such as landfills and oil fields into open spaces, especially in lower-income communities.”
Boston City Hall Plaza Reopens – 12/6/2022, World Landscape Architect
“Sasaki partnered with Shawmut Design and Construction and Skanska to implement the City of Boston’s vision of an inclusive, welcoming front yard for downtown Boston.”