MIT Researchers Seek Optimal Form of Urban Stormwater Wetlands

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Diagrammatic plan / Jonah Susskind, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands

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 from MIT 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.

The authors make a case for the potential of urban wetlands, especially in a time of changing climate and deteriorating urban infrastructure. “Wetlands, the world’s most valuable terrestrial ecosystem, provide a multitude of ecosystem services: water treatment, flood protection, carbon storage, habitat, recreation, and aesthetic value,” they write.

And yet, in many cities, existing wetlands have been filled, paved, developed, or channelized, eliminating the benefits they provide. In this context, the authors see opportunity. “Just as urbanization has obliterated wetlands, urbanization can build them new,” they write. “While constructed wetlands are not in all aspects comparable to natural wetlands, they can partially restore some lost ecosystem services.”

However, urban wetlands present challenges for the prospective designer, not the least of which is understanding hydraulic dynamics well enough to create a design that is both beautiful and functional. This is where the team’s research steps in.

At MIT’s Nepf Environmental Fluid Mechanic Lab, the researchers tested dozens of different wetland landform configurations to better understand how “island size, shape, and placement affect hydraulic flow and provide ecological habitat.”

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Topography variations / Tyler Swingle, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands

Researchers fabricated models of different topographies from high-density foam using a CNC milling machine. The models were then inserted into a flume (essentially a long, plexiglass tank that circulates water) for testing. The researchers used dye to track how different landform configurations impact the speed and direction of water flowing over the model.

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Model test / Celina Balderas Guzmán, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands

In analyzing the results of these tests, the authors made some findings. First, topography matters. Topography describes the physical features of a landform. Results varied widely for the different landforms, meaning that certain design approaches are more or less appropriate depending on the goals of the design.

According to the authors, “wetland engineers and designers must make carefully considered design decisions based on hydraulic goals, balanced with ecological and urban goals as well.”

Second, in attempting to slow down water and filter pollutants, smaller interventions may be more effective. “Adding topography subtracts volume from a wetland’s potential water storage capacity,” they write, which means that “water will exit sooner simply because there is less water volume, leading to less pollution treatment.”

In their tests, the researchers found that models were most effective when the total volume of topography equaled approximately 10 percent of the total volume of the basin, although they caution this number may shift in real-world applications.

Of the thirty-four topographies tested, the team found two that provided the best balance of hydraulic performance and pollutant filtering capacity. They conclude the report by applying these topographies to two case study sites: Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas, and Taylor Yard, on the Los Angeles River in Los Angeles, California.

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Site Organization Diagram for Taylor Yards, Los Angeles, CA / Waishan Qiu, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands
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Rendering of Los Angeles River Case Study / Jonah Susskind, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands

The case studies are intriguing, but may be frustrating to those hoping for a more detailed explanation of how to apply the team’s findings. However, the authors note that the studies are “urban design frameworks” and meant to be conceptual. Those seeking to transfer the team’s research to real world projects will likely find their topographic models to be helpful starting points, but will still need to develop unique design solutions that respond to site and program requirements.

Ultimately, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands aims to “inform decision makers, planning agencies, consulting engineers, landscape architects, and urban designers about the efficacy of using ecologically-designed constructed wetlands and ponds to manage stormwater while creating new public realms.”

However, the authors do not present any hard and fast rules for designing urban wetlands. Instead, the report makes a compelling case for why constructed stormwater wetlands are an important and underused resource in urban areas, and provides information that may prove valuable to designers and public officials looking for ways to extract more public benefit from stormwater infrastructure.

“We hope this work gives practitioners and designers a new set of adaptable forms to work with and elaborate upon either in implementation or in future research,” says co-author Celina Balderas Guzmán, describing the study as “a crucial first step to explore forms and validate designs quickly and easily with scientifically rigorous metrics.”

In this respect, the report is a success, presenting imaginative possibilities for new urban spaces supported by hard research. As a resource for designers, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands may not have all the answers, but it does have important ones.

Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge Proposals Unveiled (Part 1)

Elevate San Rafael / BionicTEAM, Resilient By Design

The Resilient By Design Bay Area Challenge brought together nine multi-disciplinary design teams to develop resilient solutions to climate change-induced sea level rise and severe flooding, and seismic impacts at various sites around the San Francisco Bay. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Trust for Conservation Innovation invited design teams and local communities to undertake a collaborative research phase in the fall of 2017. And, then, beginning in 2018, each team was assigned a single site to create a conceptual design.

Landscape architects, architects, planners, engineers, scientists, and others worked with community members to develop design proposals, understanding that climate risks and social equity challenges often co-exist. The teams looked at not only how to make communities more resilient to future physical impacts, but also how to address gentrification and displacement, fragmented governance structures and insufficient infrastructure.

Jurors assessed design teams based on their abilities to engage multiple stakeholders, show technical feasibility, encourage equity and community engagement, incorporate existing sea-level-rise strategies, and demonstrate a design that fits into a regional action plan.

However, this time around there were no winners that went on to receive funding. This process was different from the original Rebuild by Design in the New York City Metro area, because the Bay Area Challenge didn’t partner with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and doesn’t have access to their disaster recovery funds.

Participants in the competition found the most successful aspect of the competition was the connection of individuals and organizations that had not worked together in the past, laying the foundation for continued collaboration. Building relationships is key to securing funding and implementing these proposals whether through government bonds or new relationships with the private sector.

While there is no funding laid out to implement the Bay Area projects, several teams will continue efforts with communities to realize them. The success of the competition lies in the ideas generated. Bay Area jurisdictions will then need to decide how, when, and what to move forward.

Summaries of the design proposals:

Elevate San Rafael by BionicTeam

Bionic Landscape, WXY, PennDesign, Michael Yarne, Enterprise, Moffatt & Nichol, WRA, RMA, Romberg Tiburon Center SFSU, BAYCAT, Studio for Urban Projects, RAD Urban, Keyser Marson Associates

The North Bay City of San Rafael, like many cities in the Bay Area, is threatened by flooding. BionicTeam’s design encourages San Rafael to “evolve with intention” — by changing its relationship to water through physically elevating itself and also elevating its social and economic performance (see image at top).

San Rafael is vulnerable. Many of the residents, who are immigrants, live in one of the city’s highest flood-risk neighborhoods. Much of the city sits on land that is subsiding. The city’s pump system is failing. Its wood frame housing stock risks condemnation in a flood event. And the city lacks emergency preparedness.

“San Rafael is thought of as a small town in sleepy Marin, and that has to shift. Everything flows through this place,” explained BionicTeam’s Marcel Wilson, ASLA.

The team’s proposal to elevate “everything and everyone” involves both near-term and long-term solutions. The near-term catalyst projects include the completion of the Bay Trail that will one day run through the city, which can act as a resilient edge. In the long term, a new city governance structure that mobilizes economic growth, strengthens infrastructure and ecological resilience, and builds from existing cultural values will “elevate” the city to higher ground and a desirable quality of life.

Several jurors voiced that the proposal could have been stronger, questioning the details of how, exactly, San Rafael would elevate and how the city of San Rafael fits into the region. “It feels that the perspective of the region is missing,” said juror Henk Ovink, The Netherlands’ special envoy for international water affairs.

The People’s Plan by Permaculture Plus Social Equity

Pandora Thomas; Antonio Roman-Alcala; Urban Permaculture Institute; Ross Martin Design; Alexander J. Felson, ASLA, Yale School of Architecture

The Permaculture and Social Equity Team (P+Set) based their project on a commitment to community inclusion in the design process. The team undertook a comprehensive assessment of the needs, capacity, and existing knowledge of the community, and worked with them to create a “people’s plan.” This plan laid out a set of strategies Marin City can implement to create a resilient future.

Marin City, a community comprised of high density of people of color and low income, sits at the foot of a watershed stressed by numerous factors: eroded gullies, insufficient infrastructure that induces flooding, and an adjacency to the Bay, where rising level already threatens the city and the highway in between.

The process that led to a “people’s plan” involved partnering with the community, demonstrating that residents can become “creators and equals at the table” without dependency on “experts coming in to save them.” At the urging of the community, an eight-week course was initiated, to teach them about the unique water flow patterns of Marin City and techniques that could be employed to slow and spread the water, such as creek day lighting, terrace gardening, and bioswales.

The People’s Plan / Permaculture Plus Social Equity, Resilient By Design

“Communities are often included in the community design component—but it’s often just going through the motion,” said environmental designer Pandora Thomas. She believes their plan engaged the community as equal partners.

The jury applauded P+Set for demonstrating how important building social capital is in achieving community resilience. However, they voiced concerns about the plan’s omission of a sea-level-rise response; to which the team acknowledged that ultimately the community does need to work with other districts to innovate at the multi-jurisdictional level. The team focused on empowering and equipping the community with increased literacy that can build leadership.

The Grand Bayway by Common Ground

TLS Landscape Architecture; Exploratorium; Guy Nordenson & Associates; Michael Maltzan Architecture; HR&A Advisors; Sitelab Urban Studio; Lotus Water; Rana Creek; Dr. John Oliver; Richard Hindle, UC Berkeley; Fehr & Peers Transportation Consultants

Common Ground proposed an elevated scenic byway that sweeps across the San Pablo Baylands and Sonoma and Napa Counties in the North San Francisco Bay. The byway would create an “Ecological Central Park” that improves connectivity with an iconic gesture.

The Grand Bayway / Common Ground, Resilient By Design

When examining this expanse of land, the team acknowledged the dual forecasts for this region in the coming decades: the highest population growth in the Bay Area, and sea-level rise that inundates the baylands and Highway 37 that cuts across them.

The proposed scenic byway would make use of bayland’s inhabitable mudflats and marshlands by connecting surrounding communities to each other and the environment.

“Communities don’t have agency here,” said team member Erik Prince, and reiterated that one of their goals in creating an iconic mark through the landscape is to “create a sense of ownership” over this endangered landscape in peoples’ backyards and increase its “visibility,” which can then instigate further action in the region.

Islais Hyper Creek by BIG + ONE + Sherwood

Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), One Architecture + Urbanism, Sherwood Engineers, Moffat & Nichol, Nelson\Nygaard, Strategic Economics, and Dutra Group

This team proposes restoring an area at the base of the largest watershed in San Francisco, re-imagining it as a new park where ecology and industry co-habitate. The team proposes a comprehensive plan that engages physical, social, and economic resilience.

The plan starts with six pilot projects that serve as a roadmap for long-term, larger projects that embody the “hyper-creek” idea. These projects include an Islais Creek gateway that provides flood management and an accessible waterway; a living levee; a “food district” for selling and production; and an “innovation cove” that focuses on business incubation, research, and workforce training.

The Islais Hyper Creek / BIG + ONE + Sherwood, Resilient By Design

Because the hyper-creek is contingent upon long-term stewardship of the area, it was “imperative to integrate the community and get feedback” when developing the pilot projects. The team pointed out, however, that a pilot project cannot address all of the issues because some “need to be addressed on a jurisdictional basis, at a higher level.”

The intention is these pilots will be folded into a long-term strategy that manages stormwater flows, adaptation to sea level rise, and liquefaction risks through both natural and urban systems.

Jurors expressed skepticism about the proposal’s ability to solve the issue of displacement that courses rampantly through Bay Area communities, and this one specifically. “The pilots will not solve the displacement issue,” the team conceded. But they can “bring the surrounding community into the Islais Creek basin to start the conversation about the longer-term future.”

Read part 2, which covers the other five proposals.

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.

Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge Proposals Unveiled (Part 2)

ouR Home / The Home Team, Resilient By Design

The Resilient By Design Bay Area Challenge brought together nine multi-disciplinary design teams to develop resilient solutions to climate change-induced sea level rise and severe flooding, and seismic impacts at various sites around the San Francisco Bay. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Trust for Conservation Innovation invited design teams and local communities to undertake a collaborative research phase in the fall of 2017. And, then, beginning in 2018, each team was assigned a single site to create a conceptual design.

Continued from part 1, here are the rest of the project summaries:

ouR Home by the Home Team

Mithun, Chinatown Community Development center ISEEED/Streetwyze, BioHabitats, Integral Group, HR&A Advisors, Moffat & Nicho, ALTA Planning, Urban Biofilter, Resilient Design Institute

The Home Team addresses the structural inequity ingrained in North Richmond with a set of design ideas aimed to boost community health and wealth. The team worked with community members and an advisory board to develop strategies that build local agency (see image above).

Strategies focused on four notions: 1) “Thrive,” which addresses housing affordability and wealth building; 2) “Filter,” on managing storm water; 3) “Grow,” focusing on a living shoreline, community amenities, and infrastructure; and 4) “Relate,” creating physical connections between North Richmond and the region.

One solution suggested splitting vacant lots into smaller lots, making home ownership possible by lowering the entry cost. Others strategies called for increasing urban canopy through “an air quality park,” a neighborhood greenway, and the protection of old growth trees—important to a community situated adjacent to the Chevron refinery.

Asked by juror Helle Soholt, CEO of the urban design firm Gehl, about finances, the team pointed out the City of Richmond is already a leader in alternative approaches to financing; social impact bonds are already used revitalize the community, and land trusts related to natural resources and housing are being explored.

The Estuary Commons by the All Bay Collective

AECOM, CMG Landscape Architecture, UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design, Berkeley Center for New Media, The Terner Center, California College of the Arts, IDEO, Silvestrum, SKEO, modem, David Baker Architects

The All Bay Collective (ABC) proposes redesigning the shoreline of San Leandro Bay into a habitable system of ponds, streams, and land forms. The resulting landscape would be “muscular, strong, and alive,” adapting to sea-level rise and groundwater flooding. The design proposes transportation and ecological corridors that will “stitch together” the patchwork of surfaces and “allow us to live with water in the future.”

The Estuary Commons / The All Bay Collective, Resilient By Design

Like other teams, the ABC team remarked on the importance of working with community partners—especially as they dove into East Oakland’s most historically red-lined and disadvantaged neighborhood. To facilitate community empowerment, the team developed a toolkit to educate community members. It includes the “In It Together Game,” for both kids and adults, intended to explore resilience actions like living levees. Another tool, the Community Resilience Investment Decision Making Tool, evaluates trade-offs between different adaptation actions. For the long-term, the team proposes implementing community benefit districts and eco-districts as governance and funding strategies that place power in the hands of community members.

The proposal also aligns the three transportation lines that divide the neighborhood, burying I-880 in a waterproof tunnel. Juror Shelley Poticha, with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), praised the group’s willingness to tackle existing transportation corridors that are at risk to sea-level rise and fluvial flooding.

“Throughout today, it really struck me how the legacy of the freeways in particular are really shaping the life of this region, and how the transportation agencies have a profound role here,” Poticha noted. “To what extent have these agencies acknowledged their role in creating the vulnerabilities in this region and their role in addressing the challenges?”

Unlock Alameda Creek by Public Sediment

SCAPE Landscape Architecture, Arcadis, Dredge Research Collaborative, TS Studio, UC Davis Department of Human Ecology and Design, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, Buoyant Ecologies Lab

The Public Sediment team offers a plan to reconnect the sediment flows from Alameda Creek to the San Francisco Bay, facilitating the reestablishment of marshes and mudflats that can serve as ecological infrastructure for the Bay. The team looked upstream in the Alameda Creek watershed, the largest tributary that feeds the Bay.

The first step of their three-fold plan to restore sediment to the Bay “rethinks the sediment shed,” investigating how more sediment can be released downstream on its journey from the uplands. Dams, for instance, are barriers that impede the downstream movement of sediment.

The second step to “unlock Alameda Creek” transforms the present flood control channel into an “active” channel that moves sediment and fish and engages people through proposed terrace trails, “mudrooms,” and seasonal bridges. The third step plans and pilots these moves.

Public Sediment’s Unlock Alameda Creek / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Public Sediment spent appreciable time with neighboring communities throughout their research and design process. Responding to communities’ desires to “see more water,” they worked to get people “closer to a water-based experience,” and also involved them in adaptive management and monitoring strategies. “One of the major goals of this work is to have an emotional relationship with the dynamic ecosystems that shape this place over time,” said Gina Wirth, ASLA, with SCAPE.

Resilient South City by HASSELL+

Hassell, Deltares, Lotus Water, Idyllist, Civic Edge Consulting, Goudappel, Page & Turnbull, HATCH, Brown & Caldwell

The Resilient South City proposal creates a continuous public corridor along Colma Creek in South San Francisco, managing flooding and expanding available public green space. It integrates habitat creation, water management, and recreation to “start from the bottom up” and offers a scalable implementation plan. Elements of the design include creating a natural floodplain, treating runoff from the adjacent highway, and using schools as “resilience hubs” that treat stormwater and serve communities during emergencies.

Resilient South City / HASSELL+, Resilient By Design

The design team uncovered the vulnerability of the city’s creek-side and shoreline areas to flooding, sea-level rise, and liquefaction; the necessity for restoration projects to better engage local communities; and the imperative that the city’s diversity of communities become its strength.

The jurors lauded the team for focusing on pedestrian and cycling as key forms of mobility. But Henk Ovink, The Netherlands’ special advisor for international water affairs, wondered: “What are the instruments you have to get people out of their cars?”

South Bay Sponge by The Field Operations Team

James Corner Field Operations, Moffat & Nichol, Magnusson Klemencic Associates, SF Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Romberg-Tiburon Center SFSF, Andrea Baker Consulting, James Lima Planning + Development, The Bay Institute, SeArc/ECOncrete, HT Harvey and Associates, Playhou.se, Adventure Pictures

The Field Operations Team developed a framework for climate change and sea-level rise adaptation for South Bay and Silicon Valley communities using green infrastructure. The proposal focuses on the synchronized efforts needed to implement a multi-jurisdictional plan such as theirs and creative educational ventures to harness community enthusiasm.

The team mobilized the South Bay’s historical position as the region’s “sponge,” a sieve for water. Re-instituting a sponge-like infrastructure “will give space for this water to go” and use nature as “the primary tool for climate adaptation.” Flexible forms of infrastructure to manage water include widening channelized creeks to “flex and give” during flooding. “Soil swaps” that move soil from low-lying areas to higher, and protective edges that will transform the low areas to “sponges” that absorb water.

South Bay Sponge / The Field Operations Team, Resilient By Design

The team took to the streets in a bright green air stream called the “Sponge Hub,” visiting communities to build enthusiasm for their initiative and discuss sea-level rise. Public sessions heard anxieties, questions, and interests.

Approaching resilience from the district approach—bridging counties and municipalities—is fundamental to this proposal. This is particularly striking given that the jurisdictions encompassed within the South Bay Sponge range from the disadvantaged to those of the globe’s wealthiest tech companies.

“What is really making me nervous is the profound power imbalance in this area,” Poticha remarked. “It’s wonderful that a very wealthy company like Google can do something really transformational with their own property, and yet the various unfunded projects in this area should be seen as shameful, given the amount of wealth in this area.” Can a cross-jurisdictional approach solve some of the power imbalance?

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.

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

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Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. / Adrian Higgins, The Washington Post

The Vaunted Garden at Dumbarton Oaks Reopens After Some Major Surgery The Washington Post, 5/2/18
“Those of us who are drawn to landscape architect Beatrix Farrand’s design masterpiece have been cooling our heels since last summer, when the garden closed for major infrastructure repair. The good news is that it has reopened.”

Chicago to Get a Mile-Long Park and Wildlife Habitat The Architect’s Newspaper, 5/4/18
“A vestige of Chicago’s industrial history is slated for redevelopment as an ecologically focused public space.”

Cooper Hewitt Announces the Winners of its 2018 National Design Awards Architect, 5/8/18
“This year’s winners include Anne Whiston Spirn, a Cambridge, Mass.–based author, landscape architect, and MIT’s Cecil and Ida Green distinguished professor of landscape architecture and planning (for Design Mind) and Boston-based landscape architecture firm Mikyoung Kim Design (for Landscape Architecture).”

How Green, Flexible Infrastructure Can Make Cities Resilient Curbed, 5/11/18
“Examine any piece of urban infrastructure—a street, sidewalk, park bench, or dock—and evidence of a losing battle is quickly evident.”

Five Important Reasons Why You Should Hire a Landscape Architect Times Square Chronicles, 5/11/18
“When designing and planning your landscaping, it is crucial to hire an expert instead of creating the features on your own. Landscaping involves a unique balance of amplifying the natural features surrounding your home to come up with a functional and attractive environment.”

Why Smart Urban Design May Save Us from Natural Disasters and Address Social Justice


The stories of loss and destruction that have emerged from extreme weather events and natural disasters illustrate the catastrophic damage that American families are dealing with today.

The numbers are staggering. Last summer, Hurricane Harvey alone caused an estimated 32,000 to lose their homes in the metropolitan Houston area and as many as 82 deaths. Damages are expected to cost between $70 and $108 billion.

Yet not all families suffer equally from these calamities. In Louisiana, those seeking affordable living spaces find them in lower elevations. Low-lying areas are seen as less desirable and, therefore, less expensive. A prime example is New Orleans, which is almost entirely below sea level. When Hurricane Katrina pummeled the city in 2005, the lowest elevations received the most damage. And—no surprise—lower-income minorities lived there and saw the most damage.

Cities like Seattle and Atlanta are becoming more popular places to live, and the price of living there continues to increase. Poorer families, by necessity, get pushed to the outskirts of such cities — outskirts that happen to be located in vulnerable areas often close to industrial lands and cut off from the rest of the community. Physical barriers, which include highways and buildings, create a divide between the wealthier city areas and the poorer areas on the outskirts.

Smart urban design policies can help bring people together as one community—and protect their communities during times of calamity.

Relocating families to safer areas is one option. But it isn’t always the optimal choice. We must respect the deep and historic ties people have with their communities. Relocation would mean taking them away from their established homes.

One of the best solutions is rebuilding neighborhoods through sustainable design. We can use landscape architecture and creative urban design to adapt vulnerable areas to the natural habitat and changing climate conditions.

A great example are the 100 houses built in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. These homes were built by the nonprofit Make It Right in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was hit the worst by Katrina due to its geographic location. Through innovative, resilient design, families were able to return to live in safe housing in their already established communities.

Make It Right Foundation home / MusicforGood.tv

Areas not redeveloped for housing can be turned into parks or natural areas that also protect against natural disasters. To make either of these changes happen, communities need to call on their legislators and members of Congress. They can work with landscape architects to turn these locations into a bridge to bring together wealthy and low-income residents. This kind of unification will help us create a sustainable population.

Over the long term, something called “transactive design thinking” needs to take place—when citizen scientists, or community members who know the area the best, work with lawmakers to get an outcome that is appealing to everyone. Lawmakers must enact laws to create more sustainable areas. To come full circle, citizen scientists must be receptive to these changes and provide feedback to ensure their voice is being heard. They and their fellow community members must also agree with the reconstruction of their green spaces in order for it to be successful.

Recently, I had the pleasure of collaborating on a project to rebuild and transform land damaged during Hurricane Katrina and never restored. I worked with the Sankofa Community Development Corporation (SCDC), a local nonproject, to build the Sankofa Wetland Park.

Sankofa Wetland Trail and Nature Park / Sankofa CDC

SCDC founder Rashida Ferdinand, who is committed to creating an environmentally sustainable community, received a grant from New Orleans to transform two acres of a deteriorated natural area in the Lower Ninth Ward into an educational assimilated wetland park. This site provides the area with many environmental benefits, including restoring habitat for plants and animals as well as cleaning stormwater runoff. In time, we hope that the city sees the benefits of creating this wetland and will allow Ferdinand to expand her project into the intended full 40 acres of vacant land.

As the landscape architect, I visited the proposed site as the first step of our project. A citizen scientist from the neighborhood accompanied me–John Taylor, who has lived in the area his entire life. He not only helped me navigate through the land, but also showed me an underground water channel that I would have never known existed had he not been there.

This is a prime example of why landscape architects need to work with the local residents, who share their extensive knowledge of the area. Their voices ensure we build and rebuild in a way that’s not only right from an environmental and social equity perspective, but that’s also respectful of longstanding local communities.

Natural disasters may be increasing in frequency, but it’s not the number of disasters we should worry about. Instead we should focus on how each disaster continues to get more costly. Families are facing life-changing disasters and despite contrary belief, there are actions we can take to mitigate some of the damages that they face. We must call on policy makers, landscape architects, and communities that are affected the most to enact change.

To this end, the American Society of Landscape Architects has convened a Blue Ribbon Panel to get a jump start on making these changes a reality. In the first quarter of 2018, the panel will release comprehensive public policy recommendations for using resilient design to combat social injustices that occur when natural disasters hit. These recommendations are just the first step with many more to go. Learn more about how we’re developing policy recommendations to safeguard our cities and natural resources for the future.

This guest post is by Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, who has 30-plus years of experience in professional practice focusing on land planning and varied scales of open space and park design, including community development work. Jones Allen is currently the program director for landscape architecture at the college of architecture planning and public affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington. She participated in the American Society of Landscape Architects’ Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience held September 21-22, 2017.

ASLA Endorses the Living Shorelines Act

Living Shorelines and breakwaters, Barnegat Bay / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) applauds Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (NJ) for introducing the Living Shorelines Act, which would provide critical funding to help our nation’s coastal communities develop flood-resistant green infrastructure projects that integrate local ecosystems.

In the aftermath of major hurricanes and superstorms, the United States has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in evacuation, clean-up and rebuilding efforts. The Living Shorelines Act will promote the use of nature-based systems and materials to help coastal communities address climate-related weather events and rebuilding efforts in a more resilient and cost-effective manner. The bill also includes a provision to require communities to monitor, collect and transmit data on living shoreline projects, which will provide critical metrics on the benefits of these green infrastructure projects.

Landscape architects are on the front lines of protecting coastal communities from the destructiveness of storms. They work with nature as they design projects that control flooding, restore shorelines and provide thriving eco-habitats. In designing these environments, they collaborate with local residents to ensure that the infrastructure provides opportunities for recreation and economic and educational benefits.

“The Living Shorelines Act is smart policy for our nation, and gives communities options for their planning toolbox,” says Nancy C. Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA. “Green infrastructure helps position coastal communities to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters and provides critical services that improve human and environmental health.”

“As a landscape architect, I support this legislation because it will allow communities and design professionals to work together in developing long-term solutions for transforming our coastal communities,” says Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE Landscape Architecture and the first landscape architect to receive a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. “Creating a built environment that protects and sustains us must include natural systems. Robust coastal ecosystems are critical next century infrastructure.”

ASLA urges all its members to use the iAdvocate Network to contact their members of Congress about cosponsoring this important legislation that will help protect coastal communities and highlight the critical role landscape architects play in their health, safety and welfare.

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

East Boston flood scenarios / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss

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.

But perhaps the most important statement in the plan is: “more extensive measures combining green and gray infrastructure and new open space can be built and expanded over time to address risks from 1 percent annual chance floods with over 36 inches of sea level rise (by the 2070s).” In other words, landscape-based solutions are the answer for long-term protection and resilience. The plan calls for making $142-262 million of these investments over the next few decades, netting $644-751 million in benefits.

East Boston plan, near and long-term projects / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss
Charlestown plan, near and long-term projects / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss

An inter-departmental city government team lead the effort, which was conducted by engineers at Kleinfelder, landscape architects at Stoss landscape urbanism, and architects with ONE architecture. The district-level coastal resilience plan came out of the recently-completed Climate Ready Boston process and Imagine Boston 2030, the first comprehensive planning effort in 50 years, and resulted from the efforts of Boston Harbor Now and other non-profits.

In a phone interview, Chris Reed, ASLA, founder and principal at Stoss landscape urbanism, said East Boston and Charlestown were the focus of the first plans and conceptual designs in a series that will look at all vulnerable Boston neighborhoods. “The rationale was to look at the places that will flood first and also help disadvantaged neighborhoods threatened with displacement and gentrification.” An analysis of South Boston, including Seaport, is also underway, and more neighborhood analyses will be coming over the next few years.

Reed explained that Kleinfelder, Stoss, and ONE only proposed “flood control measures that have social, environmental, and economic benefits.” Flood control infrastructure takes the form of landscape berms, wildlife habitat, waterfront promenades, play areas, and strategic walls. Using evaluation criteria established in the report, the planning and design team settled on a layered approach with back-up defenses. In most instances, walls were minimized in favor of other kinds of multi-use infrastructure that enable access to and recreation on the waterfronts.

East Boston landing: a landscape-first approach / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss
Ryan playground in Charlestown / Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown, Stoss

The team also crafted a “development toolkit,” with new regulations to guide private developers and better leverage public-private infrastructure investments. For example, currently, new developments on the waterfront must have 50 percent open space. Reed explained that through new regulations, these open spaces can be better coordinated to maximize resilience. “The city can now gang up and locate protective open spaces strategically.” With the toolkit, the city can also now move beyond a “site by site approach” and scale up its resilient development efforts.

Recommendations are rooted in different flooding scenarios. Reed said the tricky part was “you can have a storm surge on top of sea level rise.” Instead of using outdated FEMA data, Boston is basing its analyses in dynamic models created by Woods Hole Group, University of Massachusetts Boston, and the Barr Foundation. Models project out to 2070, but purposefully stop there. “We just can’t project to 2100.”

Reed said funds have already been allocated to projects, including the coastal end of the East Boston Greenway and raising Border Street. But it’s not clear how Boston will pay for the billions it may actually need to spend on resilience, when all neighborhood analyses are said and done.

What is clear to Reed is that “there is an absolute need to address climate change.” And in our new age of resilience, what’s needed is a “landscape first strategy for city-making.”

In fact, Reed thinks these district-scale resilience plans return us to the era of Frederick Law Olmsted, when landscape served as a basis for urban planning. “People are re-discovering cities are part of the environment and impacted by nature and temperature change.”

Read the executive summary or full report (large PDF).

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

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A view of the Obama Presidential Center campus shows a proposed promenade along the Lagoon at the east side of the campus with the Museum Building and the Museum of Science Industry beyond. / Obama Foundation

The Fraught Future of Monuments Co.Design, 1/2/18
“Let’s get this out of the way: Public space is, and always has been, political. Public spaces are the sites of protest–the places we exercise democracy.”

Dallas Is Finally Talking About Bicycles The Dallas Morning News, 1/2/18
“The other day, I once again found myself discussing dockless bike share. Someone said the only thing anyone in Dallas is talking about is bikes.”

Atlanta’s Piedmont Park Slated for $100 Million Expansion The Architect’s Newspaper, 1/2/18
“Late last month, Mayor Kasim Reed announced that the city will kick in $20 million to expand Piedmont Park and the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, which sit just east of the city’s Ansely Park neighborhood.”

Top Trends in Parks and Recreation for 2018National Recreation and Parks Association Blog, 1/8/18
“Several years ago, what started as a lighthearted look at new, interesting and even controversial trends in the field of parks and recreation for the coming year, has now become an annual New Year tradition.”

Can Oman Build a Better Planned City?CityLab, 1/10/18
“The petro-states of the Persian Gulf do not lack for outlandish and ambitious urban projects: See the man-made islands of Dubai, a supertall curved skyscraper in Kuwait, or the enormous clock tower in Mecca that’s the size of six Big Bens.”

An Obama Tower in an Olmsted Park? Yes, But Design Still Needs RefinementThe Chicago Tribune, 1/13/18
“During his White House years, Barack Obama did not shy away from big, provocative political issues. The aesthetic instincts of the former president, who once wanted to be an architect, are proving no different.”

Five Years After Superstorm Sandy, Is New York City Better Prepared for the Next Mega Storm?

Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella

Five years ago, New York City began the long task of recovering and rebuilding in the wake of Sandy, one of the worst storms in the U.S. history in terms of physical devastation and loss of life. According to the National Weather Service, the cyclone generated a “worst case scenario for storm surge for coastal regions” in New York and its neighboring states. Today, as severe storms correlated with climate change escalate nationwide, is the city better prepared for the next mega storm? The answer is yes and no.

More nimble than the federal government, New York has taken a tactical, diversified approach to solutions that has some advantages. The NYC Panel on Climate Change 2015 triggered new thinking about human health risks and vulnerable populations and also built awareness that flood risk reduction must account for stormwater in the future.

OneNYC, an on-going mayoral initiative, seeks to strengthen community-based organizations to prepare and respond to disasters.

NYC’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency’s (ORR) climate change resilience guidelines introduced extreme heat and extreme precipitation to the area’s list of natural disasters and moves the discussion away from “protection” to “resilience” of the useful life of a critical infrastructure investment.

And the Department of City Planning (DCP) has recognized that the city’s zoning codes are ossified, opening significant opportunities for designers to produce a more resilient urban realm.

However, with the exception of Build It Back projects, no federally-funded resilience program has been implemented, leaving New York area residents virtually as vulnerable as, and certainly more frustrated than they were immediately after the storm.

More local agencies need to move the needle towards better waterfront planning and design by addressing ecological system benefits and increasing awareness of neighborhood needs. And the city needs to take steps to curb the root causes of climate change in the absence of federal leadership. If nothing else, the many resilient design lessons learned from Sandy have revealed the need for widespread change at the federal, local, and community levels.

At the federal level, most resilience implementation funding is based on stringent Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) requirements, including the reconstruction of a damaged or destroyed property in the same location and elevation and using the same materials. The National Flood Insurance Program requires that you rebuild on affected land even if it is repeatedly flooded. Low-lying areas demonstrate that these approaches are no longer fiscally responsible. Relocation must be considered.

A post-Sandy design team, including Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA), McLaren Engineering Group, Garrison Architects, LTL Architects, Sage & Coombe Architects, and several city agencies, worked to address beachfront restoration location concerns in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens by providing modular, elevated lifeguard stations and comfort stations on their own “islands” to recoup area beaches. The team employed integrated wave attenuation and topographic change along with shoreline plantings to mitigate future storms.

Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella
Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella
Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella

Locally, slow decision-making on FEMA-certified projects by operationally-strapped city agencies is being exacerbated by federal and local flood protection data variances. Additionally, FEMA’s maps do not adequately account for sea level rise and rapid rain accumulation, and it is politically challenging to change National Flood Insurance Program maps. Federal agencies should consider local conditions and seek to provide broader solutions on a local basis.

New York realizes that resilience requires a regional response, but action often succumbs to inertia in the face of budget shortfalls and cost uncertainty due to natural and physical conditions related to soils; contamination; utilities relocations; and stormwater collection, storage tanks, and pumps; and other considerations.

Many touched by Rebuild by Design planning and design efforts now feel they are not getting promised ecosystem services and broader community benefits and remain concerned about aging infrastructure, basement and street flooding, contamination, water quality, zoning, and related issues.

Communities are often confused by projects that purport to offer “protection” versus “flood risk reduction.” The elevation of these measures seems guided more by available construction dollars than by intelligent, regional strategies.

In partnership with Civitas, MNLA developed a visionary plan to support growing sentiment that the East River waterfront can serve as a major recreational and environmental resource for East Harlem, the Upper East Side, and all of New York City. We researched and analyzed conditions from 60th Street to 125th streets and conducted in-depth community and stakeholder outreach.

The result is a plan that identifies short, medium, and long-term opportunities that combine strategies to protect neighborhoods from storm surge, improve water quality, create littoral habitat, and expand waterfront recreation. This multi-faceted design approach is an example of feasible design solutions that can restore resilience to a critical link along Manhattan’s waterfront.

East River Esplanade / MNLA
East River Esplanade / MNLA

The key post-Sandy takeaway is that federally-promulgated resilience measures can have negative impacts on communities.

Instead, every dollar must be directed towards projects that provide multiple benefits that fuel future storm resilience.

As designers, we can enhance results through inclusive and comprehensive communications with all of our constituencies during the design process, engaging a spectrum of urban challenges, and proposing multi-faceted solutions for our clients.

This guest post is by Signe Nielsen, FASLA, a founding principal of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA) and practicing landscape architect and urban designer in New York since 1978. Nielsen is also a professor of urban design and landscape architecture at Pratt Institute in both the graduate and undergraduate schools of architecture and serves as president of the Public Design Commission of the City of New York.

With Resilient Design, We Can Better Protect Our Communities from Wildfires

Washington state wildfire / Wikipedia

This year, the Pacific Northwest saw an extraordinary fire season, with approximately 35 fires raging in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California by mid-September. While there is an immediate knee-jerk reaction to fires as entirely negative, wildfires are in fact a very natural part of the life cycle of forests. In addition to removing undergrowth so sunlight can reach the forest floor and new plants can grow, some plants, such as the lodgepole pine, even require fire to germinate and sprout.

What is so unusual about this year’s season is how long it has lasted: a full seven months. An unusually dry summer in a region known for rain, combined with a strong ridge high pressure that settled over the Pacific Northwest heating air and blocking storms from entering, resulted in dried-out plants and created the perfect environment for fires. In 2017, we have already spent more in national funds to combat the fires than in any other year on record, and the year isn’t yet over.

Similar to the hurricanes battering the East Coast this season, these events would be considered normal individually, if it were not for the acceleration of their natural cycles, creating increased numbers that are larger in scope. Looking at the total picture, the acceleration of these cycles is where we can see the inevitable consequences of climate change at work.

Living in Seattle, I have seen the effects of these fires firsthand. Getting up one morning this summer after having left the window open overnight, I went into my dining room and discovered that the wind had covered it entirely with ashes. Despite not being exposed to an active fire, the visible effects continued to blanket our city. And it’s not just the visible effects. Ash and smoke particulates in the air can cause breathing problems, especially for sensitive populations including those with heart and lung diseases such as asthma. Though fires may not be blazing downtown, they are have impacted the lives of everyone living in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Even if you don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, the fires are affecting you too, though you may not know it. The ash and smoke from the fires are not just settling on our cities, but also being lofted into the atmosphere and spreading around the globe. In this map created by NASA, you can see the ash and smoke from the Pacific Northwest fires drifting across the earth, reaching as far as Europe and Northern Africa. And due to their carbon gas emissions, the wildfires themselves contribute to accelerated climate change worldwide. While climate incidents like these can be “out of sight, out of mind” for those not actively experiencing them, the earth is a closed system: climate incidents that impact some of us, impact all of us.

So with climate change here to stay, how can we mitigate its impact to make our cities and dwellings safer? Landscape architecture can provide solutions to some of the problems posed by climate change. For example, better urban design can help reduce the sprawl at the intersection of urban and natural space, which is now in the most in danger of devastation from wildfires. For those already living at these intersections, landscape management of individual properties can help mitigate those hazards.

One such solution is to create a “defensible space” around homes at these intersections. These spaces create a barrier to impede wildfires from reaching homes, room for firefighters to maneuver if needed, and prevent fires in the home from spreading into the wild. Defensible space tactics can include reducing plant fuels around the home, incorporating fuel breaks such as gravel, and ensuring that all trees are cleared to 6-10 feet off the ground.

Careful selection of plants, too, can have an impact at these intersections. Plants that shed minimal amounts of leaves and needles provide less fuel for fires. Trees with low resin and sap content are also considered less likely to burn. Finally, native plants may be more fire-resistant or fire-adapted than non-native species. Over the last 30-40 years, we have gained an increased understanding of the environmental importance of using native plants in landscapes. But with climate change, we must also plan for a “different kind of native,” selecting plants with an eye towards the future, as current native species may not thrive in the environment as it changes.

This is where research and forward-thinking are most critical. Greater focus and funds towards researching the anticipated effects of climate change on an area allows us to plan for “new native” species that will thrive in their changing environment.

We must call on national agencies managing resources to do so with an eye towards the future, conducting research and careful planning to ensure that our natural resources and our built environments are protected. While the effects of climate change are inevitable, what matters now is finding ways to adapt to these new circumstances. You can see great work being done by the National Park Service in this area, preparing our natural treasures to survive and thrive in a world of accelerated natural cycles.

Tackling the problems posed by climate change can be overwhelming, but humans are highly adaptable species, and there are measures we can and should take to protect our future. That’s why the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has convened a blue ribbon panel of multidisciplinary experts to create innovative solutions that will make our cities and inhabited spaces climate resilient. The report will provide comprehensive public-policy recommendations for using resilient design to combat climate change. Learn more about how we’re developing policy recommendations to safeguard our cities and natural resources for the future.

This post is by Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, immediate past president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and a landscape architect with 40 years of experience.