Rotterdam in the Netherlands is the largest port in Europe. This 800-year-old city, which has a population of 630,000, is split into north and south sides by the River Nieuwe Maas. While the river is a major asset, it also increases vulnerability to climate change as sea levels rise. In a session at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Dutch government officials, landscape architects, and planners discussed efforts to adapt Rotterdam and the rest of Holland to new realities.
After flooding in the early 1950s killed some 1,800 people, the Dutch were determined this would never happen again. According to Tim Van Der Staaij, a resilience officer with the Rotterdam city government, the country created a multi-layered system of “delta works” — a series of dikes, polders, and sluices to defend land against water. This system made Rotterdam, most of which is 6-7 meters below sea level, and its port possible.
But in recent years, climate change has made the intricate system that protects Rotterdam vulnerable. Van Der Staaij said the water management system has become “more unpredictable due to sea level rise, river discharge, groundwater rise, and excess rainfall.”
Given the city is already below sea level, Rotterdam has taken the approach that “we must accept the water; it’s better than fighting.” Once that conclusion was reached, city leaders saw an opportunity to redesign the city as part of a new Rotterdam resilience strategy, a set of “holistic, multi-level, multi-stakeholder” approaches.
In the past few years, the Dutch have invented new ways to “accept water,” including the water square by landscape architecture firm De Urbanisten, which is usually a public plaza with basketball court, but in extreme rain events becomes a temporary water storage space that “holds the water while the sewage system is over-taxed and then lets the water go later.”
Van Der Staaij said the city is now working on redesigning all public spaces to store water, including the new central station now in development. As part of this, Rotterdam has invested heavily in putting all that water to good use through its “water sensitive city” program, which invests in green roofs, tree planting, street-level gardens, and new green “tidal parks” along the river.
Han Dijk, an urban planner working with the city on its resilience plans, highlighted the tidal parks along the Nieuwe Maas — also to be designed by De Urbanisten — as central to creating a Rotterdam that can bounce back from repeated flooding. “The city will build new land with fill, soften the river’s coasts, and open up and connect islands.”
And Gerda Roeleveld, a landscape architect with Deltares, a independent research institute, explained how the Netherlands has invested in 3D simulated models to help local policymakers, planners, and designers — as well as the general public — understand the potential impacts of climate change.
She showed off some sophisticated animations that visualize climate impacts, including the distribution of water — from the national to the site-levels. A set of these adaptation support tools, based in real-time data, are supporting Dutch communities in their efforts to devise new climate resilience and adaptation strategies, which they obligated to create by 2019.
If you are on your phone reading this page, simply click on this URL and watch it in your YouTube mobile app: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQ2geeXMThI (please note that this video will not work in your mobile browser)
Be sure to turn around while watching so you can see all angles of the park!
Use the sphere icon to navigate through the park! Note: the 360 video will not work in Firefox or Internet Explorer.
Option 2: Watch a 3D 360 Video on Samsung Gear VR
If you own a Samsung Gear VR headset and compatible Samsung phone, go to Samsung Gear via the Oculus App and search for “Brooklyn Bridge Park” or “ASLA” to find our video.
Why Brooklyn Bridge Park?
ASLA selected Brooklyn Bridge Park because it won the ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Less than one percent of all award submissions receive this honor.
Our esteemed jury, made up of leaders in the field, described Brooklyn Bridge Park this way: “The plan allows for and encourages different experiences in the different spaces, from being wide open and being fully engaged with the people around you to intimate, forested places. It’s remarkable.”
The award also highlights Brooklyn Bridge Park because it’s a prominent example of how to transform abandoned post-industrial waterfronts into spaces for people and wildlife. These spaces litter cities and represent so much untapped potential.
Why Virtual Reality?
The communications world is increasingly image- and video-driven. With video, you can pack in even more information about a work of landscape architecture, much more than you can in simply a photo or text. With video, you can get a sense of the sight, sound, and “feel” of a place. You can see people interacting with the design, bringing it to life.
Virtual reality takes video to the next level. As you move your phone or VR headset, you control your experience in the landscape. It more closely mimics the experience of exploring a place in person. In part, it recreates that sense of discovery one gets in real life.
Why did ASLA make this VR film?
Virtual reality has proven to be a powerful tool for explaining how the places people love – like Brooklyn Bridge Park – are designed experiences. Virtual reality can educate the public about landscape design in a compelling way.
The video has multiple goals: promote the potential of virtual reality among the landscape architecture community, which totals approximately 25,000 design professionals in the U.S. and Canada; explain the incredible value of landscape architecture to the public; and demonstrate the ability of landscape architects to turn an unloved place like a cut-off, post-industrial waterfront into a beloved community park.
Why should landscape architects use VR?
Virtual Reality is a powerful tool for landscape architects, architects, planners, and developers – really anyone involved in designing our built and natural environments. In the example of Brooklyn Bridge Park: many will never have the opportunity to visit the park in person, but with our video, they can get a good sense of what’s it like to be there.
For landscape architecture firms, this is an excellent way to really show clients that a place they’ve designed works – that people enjoy hanging out there, that kids love playing there, that people are drawn to events there.
ASLA VR Film Credits
Producer: American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)
Production Company: DimensionGate, Toronto
Director: Ian Tuason
Director of Photography: Ian Tuason
Production Assistants: Ward Kamel and Idil Eryurekli
Narrator: Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, President and CEO, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc.
Post Production: Callum Wilkin Gillies
Thank you to Jamie Warren and Onika Selby at Brooklyn Bridge Park for making this all come together. At Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc, we appreciate the kind assistance of Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Hilary Archer, Jane Lee, and Lucy Mutz.
Parks boost community resilience because they offer a place to develop deeper neighborhood connections. They improve community health by reducing stress, restoring cognition, and providing a place to exercise. Parks mitigate the urban heat island effect, improve air quality, and absorb carbon from the atmosphere. They support local biodiversity and can act as buffer zones for flooding or mudslides. Parks are both important social and environmental infrastructure.
To sum it up: “we need more parks if we want our cities to be more resilient to climate change,” said Joshua Alpert, director of special projects for C40, at an event organized by The Trust for Public Land and JBP Foundation during the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.
“We need public space if we want to know our neighbors,” explained Joshua Stanbro, with the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii. Parks are the “platform for social interaction,” but if designed and built with the community, they can also help forge stronger community connections.
Those connections are more likely to happen in parks that communities actually want. So it’s important that “we meet communities where they are,” said Diane Regas, president and CEO of The Trust for Public Land.
In New York alone, The Trust just built their 200th green schoolyard in an effort to build social networks so these communities can then better fight for climate equity.
Regas said some one-third of the population of the US doesn’t have a park within a 10-minute walk. Through their innovative 10-minute walk campaign, The Trust and its partners aim to undo that inequity.
Brady Walkinshaw, CEO of Grist, said the campaign is the kind of clear, simple communication that is needed because it successfully distilled complex urban planning ideas into an easy-to-understand message people can get behind, like the $15-an-hour minimum wage movement.
Urban parks are also important because they provide the foundation of urban forests, which help cities both mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to a changing climate. According to Jad Daley, CEO of American Forests, urban forests absorb some 100 million tons of carbon each year, about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Trees found in these green areas can reduce energy use up to 7 percent because they provide wind blocks for homes in the winter and cooling in the summer.
In an effort to achieve equity, American Forests is now working with vulnerable urban populations to plant millions of trees. Daley said this work is more critical than ever because deaths from extreme heat are expected to increase ten fold by 2050.
Arturo Garcia-Costas, program officer for the environment with the New York Community Trust, said a more connective approach needs to be taken with green spaces in cities. He pointed to the Ramblas in Barcelona and the High Line in New York City as examples. “We need to think of the broader system and greater connectivity, with green space as the priority.”
Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), said ubiquitous “pave the planet” approach to development hasn’t been “healthy or climate-smart.” In fact, the approach make communities even more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. To increase safety, communities must instead create built environment systems that work in concert with natural systems. This is because “we are never going to tame Mother Nature.”
As an example, she said there is a great opportunity to design parks — and cities more broadly — to act like natural sponges that absorb stormwater. The great additional benefit of this green infrastructural approach: “It’s a much healthier system.”
But Somerville also called for better science and data-based models in order to optimize design interventions in cities. With more accurate data-based geographic models and maps, policymakers can understand where the worst urban heat islands are, the most flooding is, the areas most impacted by mudslides, and then create the most effective parks that solve those challenges. “The lack of modelling remains a key gap.”
In comments on the session, landscape architect Mia Lehrer, FASLA, CEO of Studio-MLA, noted that in dense cities, the only remaining spaces that can be turned into parks are brownfields. Remaking those contaminated spaces is a “complicated and expensive process” that requires expert landscape architects.
Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA, senior vice president at The Trust for Public Land and former head of NYC Parks and Recreation, agreed, arguing that “landscape architects are system thinkers” who can help communities maximize park benefits.
Lehrer, Alpert, Somerville, and Walkinshaw saw further densification as a critical future challenge for cities. Walkinshaw said: “densification is the cause of most fights in cities, as it brings up racial, civil rights, public space, and climate issues.”
Alpert believes green public space in the ultra-dense mega-cities of the near-future may end up being dis-aggregated into networks of not only parks but also rooftops and terraces, wherever space is available.
Across the United States, there has been a five-fold increase in wildfires over the past few decades. In 2017 alone, there were some 100,000 wildfires that burned some 10 million acres. With climate change, the zone in which trees burn has increased by two-thirds.
At Science to Action Day, an event associated with the Global Climate Action Summit, in San Francisco, Patrick Gonzalez, principal climate change scientist with the U.S. National Park Service, said “a century of suppressing wildfires has built up fuel in forests.”
When all fires are suppressed, smaller, more frequent fires can’t clear out dead trees and underbrush. The result is accumulated flammable biomass that eventually explodes into unmanageable conflagrations.
Many state-level forestry departments have suppressed fires because more and more communities are now living in — or close to — areas that once frequently burned.
It’s an inherently risky and short-sighted approach to development. And communities in these wildfire zones aren’t just risking their property but also their long-term health.
Kari Nadeau, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University, argued that “there is no safe distance from a wildfire.” Inhaling smoke itself is hazardous. But blazes that consume homes and garages filled with household cleaners like Drano release other dangerous particles into the atmosphere.
“Even one part per million” of toxic wildfire smoke negatively impacts those highest at risk — children, the elderly, and those with asthma.
After five days of wildfires in California, the number of hospital visits for asthma attacks went up a whopping 400 percent. And the number of strokes increased by 42 percent. Being exposed to just one wildfire’s worth of smoke is equal to smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for a year. “That’s the real data.”
Nadeau said there is important research being conducted on prescribed burns, which are smaller, more contained fires that revitalize forest ecosystem function.
“We need to support the increased use of this practice. It can be done safely.” When small, fires give off smaller amounts of nasty pollutants. Burns can also be scheduled when air pollution levels are low and the wind is blowing away from neighboring communities.
In the interim, there is a need for better early warning systems for communities at risk from fast-moving wildfires. Ben Lee Preston, director of infrastructure resilience at RAND, said remote sensing technologies can be installed in the landscape to give communities and firefighters more advance notice. We would add there is a need to use landscape design to fireproof homes and relocate homeowners in very high-risk areas to other locations.
Wildfires are responsible for the majority of the carbon natural systems released into the atmosphere. But forests that have undergone a prescribed burn are estimated to release less carbon over time, given the controlled burn improves their overall ecological health.
The first part of Hunter’s Point South Watefront Park, which opened in August 2013, announced a new era of park-making in New York City. The first significant waterfront park in years, Hunter’s Point South in Long Island City, Queens, was not only an example of stunning landscape design but also a manufactured place that can withstand storms and sea level rise — and be fully resilient to a changing climate.
Now, five years later, the 5.5-acre phase two of Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park has opened, extending south, so the entire park now encompasses 11 acres in total. The new segment provide a green buffer for the 30-acre development that will eventually be home to 5,000 units of housing in multiple towers, 60 percent of which will be affordable.
In contrast to the first phase of the park, which includes a playground, sports field, and restaurant, phase two feels like more of a true escape from the city — a green oasis right on the East River.
According to SWA/Balsley, the landscape architects, and Weiss/Manfredi, the architects — who co-designed the park and partnered with engineers at Arup on the project — this section of the park is also a model of resilient design. But its approach is a bit different from the first phase. Instead of the muscular waterfront promenade designed to survive any onslaught, phase two takes a “soft” approach, using tidal marshes to protect the coast of Queens.
There is a meandering waterfront passage, with romantic lighting at night, that brings visitors right up to the very edge of the East River. Walking there one sunset, it was surreal to both commune with nature while taking in the breathtaking views of Manhattan across the river.
The path loops through the tidal marsh, where visitors can see all the plants growing in.
Thomas Balsley, FASLA, principal at SWA/Balsley, told us: “The tidal marsh required an engineered rip-rap embankment, the top of which we transformed into a lush trail on which to stroll. The journey takes in shifting marsh habitat and skyline perspectives.”
Both low and high marsh plants were used to stabilize the sediment and control shoreline bank erosion. A variety of plants also enhance the quality of the water and provided habitat for a range of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife.
Paths in the interior of the park and along the waterfront take you to a dramatic overlook, an elevated promenade that brings you up and immerses you in the skyline of New York City. Cantilevering 50 feet out over the landscape and some 20 feet up in the air, the overlook creates the sense you are in the bow of a great ship.
In contrast to the first phase, there are also many more nooks and crannies, areas the designers call “break-out lounges,” off the various pathways. These intimate spaces, often hidden in tall native bluestem grasses, enhance the sense of retreating into nature. Criss-crossing pathways through the grasses seem designed to invite further investigation and discovery.
Exploring the site, visitors will come across Luminescence, an art installation by New York-based artist Nobuho Nagasawa, which represents the phases of the moon through etched concrete discs that glow at night.
The second phase of Hunter’s Point South waterfront park and related infrastructure for the housing development cost some $100 million, which was financed by the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). The entire park was designed in partnership with NYC Parks and Recreation, which also manages and maintains it.
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) proudly announces the 25 winners of the ASLA 2018 Professional Awards. Selected from 368 entries, the awards recognize the best of landscape architecture in the general design, analysis and planning, communications, research and residential design categories from the United States and around the world.
The winners will receive their awards at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting and EXPO in Philadelphia on Monday, October 22, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Winning projects are designated as either an honor award or an award of excellence, which is the highest possible distinction.
General Design Category
Award of Excellence
Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation, Brooklyn, New York
by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (Brooklyn, New York) for Brooklyn Bridge Park
Chicago Riverwalk | State Street to Franklin Street, Chicago
by Sasaki (Watertown, Massachusetts) and Ross Barney Architects (Chicago) for the Chicago Department of Transportation
Iqaluit Municipal Cemetery, Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada
by LEES+Associates (Vancouver, B.C., Canada) for the City of Iqaluit
Legacy and Community: Juxtaposing Heritage and Invention for Duke University’s West Campus, Durham, North Carolina
by Reed Hilderbrand LLC Landscape Architecture (Cambridge, Massachusetts) for Duke University
Longwood Gardens Main Fountain Garden, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
by West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture (Rotterdam, Netherlands) for Longwood Gardens Inc.
Re-Envisioning Pulaski Park, Northampton, Massachusetts
by STIMSON (Cambridge, Massachusetts) for the City of Northampton
Tippet Rise Art Center, Fishtail, Montana
by Oehme, van Sweden | OvS (Washington, D.C.) for Tippet Rise Art Center
Tongva Park and Ken Genser Square, Santa Monica, California
by James Corner Field Operations LLC (New York) for the City of Santa Monica
Walker Art Center Wurtele Upper Garden, Minneapolis
by Inside | Outside + HGA (Minneapolis) for the Walker Art Center
Analysis and Planning Category
Award of Excellence
A Colorado Legacy: I-25 Conservation Corridor Master Plan, Douglas County, Colorado
by Design Workshop (Aspen, Colorado) for The Conservation Fund
Extending Our History, Embracing Our Future, Madison, Wisconsin
by SmithGroup (Ann Arbor, Michigan) for University of Wisconsin-Madison
From Pixels to Stewardship: Advancing Conservation Through Digital Innovation, Austin, Texas
by Andropogon Associates Ltd. (Philadelphia) for the Shield-Ayres-Bowen Family
Iowa Blood Run Cultural Landscape Master Plan, Madison, Wisconsin
by Quinn Evans Architects (Madison, Wisconsin) for Iowa Department of Natural Resources (Todd Coffelt, Michelle Wilson, John Pearson, Frank Rickerl, Pat Schlarbaum, and Kevin Pape), State Historical Society of Iowa (Jen Bancescu, Doug Jones, Susan Kloewer, and Steve King), Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist
Willamette Falls Riverwalk, Oregon City, Oregon
by Snøhetta (New York) for Project Partners: Oregon Metro, City of Oregon City; Clackamas County; State of Oregon; PGE Falls Legacy LLC
Award of Excellence
100 Years of Landscape Architecture at The Ohio State University
by Landscape Architecture Section, Knowlton School, The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio)
Homeplace: Conversation Guides for Six Communities, Rebuilding After Hurricane Matthew
by NC State University Coastal Dynamics Design Lab (Raleigh, North Carolina) for the Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Resilience Initiative (HMDRRI)
Marnas: A Journey through Space, Time, and Ideas
by Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA
VanPlay: Plan to Play
by Design Workshop Inc. (Denver) for the Vancouver Park Board
Atlas for the End of the World – Atlas for the Beginning of the Anthropocene
by Richard Weller, ASLA, University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia)
Design with Dredge: Resilient Landscape Infrastructure in the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore, Maryland
by Mahan Rykiel Associates (Baltimore, Maryland) for the Maryland Port Administration
Urban Aquatic Health: Integrating New Technologies and Resiliency into Floating Wetlands, Baltimore
by Ayers, Saint, and Gross (Baltimore) for the National Aquarium
Residential Design Category
Award of Excellence
Balcones Residence, Austin, Texas
by Word + Carr Design Group (formerly known as Mark Word Design) (Austin, Texas)
Sustaining A Cultural Icon: Reconciling Preservation and Stewardship in a Changing World, Newport, Rhode Island
by Reed Hilderbrand LLC Landscape Architecture (Cambridge, Massachusetts) for Dorrance Hill Hamilton
Yard, Portland, Oregon
by 2.ink Studio (Portland, Oregon) for the Key Development Group
The Landmark Award recognizes a distinguished landscape architecture project completed between 15 and 50 years ago that retains its original design integrity and contributes significantly to the public realm of the community in which it is located.
The Landmark Award
From Weapons to Wildlife: The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Management Plan (Douglas County, Colorado)
by Design Workshop Inc. (Denver, Colorado)
The professional awards jury included:
Mark A. Focht, FASLA, Chair, New York City Parks and Recreation, New York City
Gerdo Aquino, FASLA, SWA Group, Los Angeles
Anita Berrizbeitia, ASLA, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Christian Gabriel, ASLA, U.S. General Services Administration, Washington, D.C.
Terry Guen-Murray, FASLA, Terry Guen Design Associates, Chicago
Dale Jaeger, FASLA, WLA Studio, Athens, Georgia
Sam Lubell, Journalist, New York City
Patrick Phillips, Urban Land Institute, Washington, D.C.
Barbara Wilks, FASLA, W Architecture + Landscape Architecture LLC, New York City
For the selection of the Research Category, the jury was joined by M. Elen Deming, FASLA, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina, for the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and Ashley Steffens, ASLA, College of Environment and Design, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia for the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA).
In the not too distant past, you could park a car in the midst of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) at California’s Yosemite National Park. That is no longer possible thanks to a recently-completed $40 million restoration by the National Park Service (NPS) in partnership with the Yosemite Conservancy and Seattle-based multidisciplinary design firm Mithun.
Now, visitors park at a newly constructed, 300-vehicle-capacity terminal two miles away and take a shuttle bus to a main entry plaza at the lower grove.
“Before, it used to be a pass-through area. People didn’t even really notice it,” says Mithun senior associate Christian Runge, ASLA, about the restored lower grove. “They saw a couple of big trees, but it wasn’t a place. Now, it’s the centerpiece of the whole project.”
This transformation didn’t happen for its own sake. Years of heavy visitor traffic and poor planning took their toll on the storied trees, raising alarm about their future health.
The giant sequoia, which grows to approximately 300-feet high and can live for thousands of years, is an endangered species. This tree occupies a narrow ecological niche only 260-miles-wide on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains and requires specific environmental conditions to thrive. The Mariposa Grove is one of the few places on earth where the sequoia is able to reseed on its own.
“The Sequoias exist on the western slopes of the Sierras at a certain elevation, which is essentially at the rain-snow transitional zone,” says Runge. “If you go much lower, it’s all rain; if you go much higher, it’s all snow. That feeds the hydrology of these mountain wetland stream systems, which the sequoias tend to cluster closely around.”
“So, restoring hydrology and improving the natural hydrologic flow in the grove was really an important piece of the restoration puzzle.”
To achieve this, the design team removed the existing network of asphalt roads and paths, which were interfering with the grove’s natural drainage patterns.
One road that connected the lower and upper groves crossed streams and wetlands approximately 30 times, says Runge. “Those culverts were anywhere between 50-60 years old, and a lot of them weren’t even functioning anymore.”
In the place of asphalt and culverts, Mithun designed a series of elevated boardwalks and trails that allow for a variety of visitor experiences and do not interfere with the delicate hydrology needed to sustain the sequoias.
“If we keep those streams running and hope for the best with snowmelt, then we can imagine those populations will continue to be stable and hopefully grow into mature trees,” Runge says.
However, that outcome is not guaranteed. Giant sequoias are threatened by the effects of climate change, which could reduce the amount of groundwater available to the trees and make it more difficult for seedlings to survive.
Runge acknowledges that in the face of such forces, there is only so much that the project can accomplish.
“The best thing we can really do is improve and maintain the processes that keep the sequoias as healthy as possible in order to provide as much resilience as possible,” says Runge. “Improving those processes was really the focus of the restoration.”
Ensuring the survival of the Mariposa grove also required changes to the visitor experience. In addition to restoring groundwater hydrology, the elevated boardwalks also keep visitors at a distance from the trees in the grove’s most heavily trafficked areas.
“People want to get up close to them. It’s just a human, intuitive thing that you want to be able to do,” Runge says. But, “if everyone did that, there would be too much damage to the tree.”
Instead, Mithun created a series of loops that become progressively less contained as they lead further from the main entry plaza. “Each loop takes you further out and is closer to a wilderness experience. If you want to go up into the upper grove, that’s something that can only really be hiked into.”
In addition to the new trails, enhancements to the visitor experience include a new visitor center and comfort stations designed by Mithun architects Brendan Connolly and Susan Olmsted, ASLA.
While the design language and material choices were in some way constrained by the need to work within the rustic National Park aesthetic of stone and timber, Runge says the design team found room for creativity in the details.
“We didn’t argue about modern versus historic, but we did push for quality detailing and structural systems, thinking through stonework, and trying to understand what the Works Progress Administration (WPA)-era standards were in reality versus just giving the impression of something being historic. Making something that is durable, long-lasting, and in some sense beautiful was the key goal for us both in terms of the architectural elements and site elements, like the boardwalk.”
For Runge, striking this balance between ecology and the visitor experience defined Mithun’s approach to the project. “Ultimately, I feel like we got there,” he says. “It feels like a transformed place.”
The Batture, a historic squatter community nestled between the levee and the Mississippi River in New Orleans is an unconventional model of a resilient community. But as climate change forces more coastal communities to deal with greater risks, their approach offers some important lessons.
This tiny community of now only 12 homes, which has fought eviction by the city government for generations, is constantly exposed to flood risk. But living right on the banks of the Mississippi has given the community a deeper understanding of the river’s ebbs and flows. The residents of the Batture are always watching the weather, know when flooding will occur, and are therefore better prepared for disaster. By constantly living with risk, the community has in turn become more adaptable and safer.
In a talk at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) in Oklahoma City, Carey Clouse, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the Batture is an important contrast to other communities in New Orleans that were separated from the river by the levee — communities that literally couldn’t see the river, canals, or other water bodies. With the great risk posed by the Mississippi and other water bodies out of view, these communities became “overconfident” about the safety of the levee system.
In reality, many communities were made even more vulnerable because they didn’t know what was coming. As the levees failed, the result of Hurricane Katrina was some 400,000 were displaced and 100,000 homes were destroyed. “Sadly, vulnerable people had no awareness of where they were in regards to sea level. The Army Corps of Engineers and insurance companies obscured the risks. 400,000 people were blind to topography.”
But the Batture, a “self-sufficient, resilient, and adaptive community, suffered almost no damage in the Katrina flooding.”
In the liminal space between the river and the embankment, the Batture was created through “Do-It-Yourself (DIY) urbanism, a homesteader’s approach.” Clouse spent time researching the community and found it was a “hidden landscape, filled with self-built structures” on pylons. The river is ever present. “It’s 50 feet away from houses but can pass right below their feet during storms.” Each resident has created homemade protections against floating debris.
Clouse believes residents of the Batture are “more secure having taken risk into their own hands, rather than relying on the city government.” In this “quirky, escapist, anti-urbanist community,” there is “great toughness and resilience,” rooted in a deep connection to place and the river.
The Batture began in the early 1900s as a squatter community for people who worked in fishing and other marine trades. In the Great Depression, the Batture swelled to hundreds of homes, becoming a Hooverville on the river. Settlers built homes out of driftwood, creating a “ramshackle shanty town.” There was a tiny school and church, but no roads, water, or electricity. In the 1990s, the New Orleans government came in removed many of the homes.
Today, there are just 12 homes left, from “the humble to the post-modern.” Batture residents can’t legally buy or sell their own properties, have no access to insurance or protection by the city or state, but they do have now access to “city fire, water, electricity, and P.O. boxes.” A local lawyer has sued the residents, claiming to own the entire Batture and is trying to remove the last remaining residents, but judges have recognized the rights of the existing tenants. “Many believe they deserve to stay.”
For Clouse, the lesson of the Batture is that “with incremental exposure to risk, communities can alter their landscapes and lifestyles to manage that risk.” Levees, with their air of safety and permanence, may actually “invoke crises.” But in communities like the Batture, where people live in close contact with nature and risk, “they can cope, thrive; they can take matters into their own hands.”
In the absence of any national plan for helping the communities most at risk from climate change, a group of members of the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) are exploring ways to relocate the populations of cities with precarious futures — Miami, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Phoenix — to under-populated rust belt cities like Buffalo, Rochester, and Detroit. These cooler, northern-situated cities will be better insulated from the effects of climate change and have “underused infrastructure,” with lots of vacant homes, said Paddy Steinschneider, founder of Gotham Design & Community Development, at CNU’s conference in Savannah, Georgia.
While the idea of moving the population of South Beach, Miami to Detroit is shocking, Steinschneider thinks we have lost “awareness that humans are a migratory species. We’ve survived so long because we have moved.”
And while many national and state level leaders are in denial about climate change, insurance and financial companies certainly aren’t. Local leaders may face political pressure to not give into climate change and tell their population to retreat and relocate, but it soon may not be up to them.
“If insurance companies won’t insure homes in at-risk places, financial companies won’t offer loans.” That means no more new development or re-development. At the same time, the value of existing property will decline. “What happens in communities when real estate assets no longer have any value?” This may happen sooner than we think in communities dealing with forest fires, flooding, drought, and water shortages brought on by climate change.
For architect and urban planner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the question is “what do we do when we have to leave?” Instead of fleeing catastrophe, like the Americans who escaped hurricanes in New Orleans and Houston in recent years, “what if we came up with a plan so we can evolve less catastrophically?”
Plater-Zyberk thinks communities threatened by climate risks have to take their heads out of the sand and think through options now. Communities can either defend and fortify, while securing new water supplies; accommodate climate change — by living with flooding or other extreme weather events; or retreat.
If they elect to defend and fortify, they must prioritize. In Miami, where Plater-Zyberk teaches, “South Beach is a financial hub we depend on, so it will be defended first.”
Retreat and relocation has mind-boggling regulatory and financial implications. In the example of a coastal area permanently flooded due to sea-level rise, policymakers would have to decide to buy out property and transform it into “surface water storage,” giving owners the funds to move elsewhere. Plater-Zyberk said there must be a process for cleaning and recycling coastal land that no longer has any value so it doesn’t further pollute.
As part of a colloquium on relocation she taught at the University of Miami, Plater-Zyberk’s students created “adaptation maps,” based on the geography of Florida, tracking how the “flora and fauna of the Everglades will change, how the crops grown on agricultural lands will alter, how coastal and inland communities will be impacted.” Overlaid on environmental change are possible economic and political changes. As ecosystems and farmlands shift, the economy of Florida will be deeply impacted. As a result, “politics will become more unpredictable.”
Plater-Zyberk bemoaned the fact there are no solid adaptation plans in place anywhere in the states. “There is a lot of preparing to get ready to get started.”
A MIT study on relocation possibilities in Boston identified relocation scenarios: relocate in town, to an adjacent town, a new town, or cross country. Matthew Hauer, a professor at University of Georgia, is calculating how many people in at-risk communities on the East Coast will relocate and where. But these are just models and projections.
There are likely no solid plans because there are still so many unknowns: “Should communities be required to go or should it all be voluntary? If a property is underwater, who does it belong to? If it’s underwater and filled with toxic building materials that are polluting, who pays for this?” She wondered whether short-term home mortgages will appear in at-risk communities, like a car loan, with a limited length of value.
Laura Clemmons, CEO of Collaborative Communities, who works with communities in the South hard hit by hurricanes, said “most people driven out of their homes usually end up about a 3-hour drive from where they were.” They seek affordable rentals. “In their minds, they will go back and rebuild. They believe they are coming back.” But as they wait for up to a year for insurance money, temporary places become permanent. For receiver cities, the influx can create pressure on infrastructure, home prices, and school systems.
Prisca Weems, a founding partner at Future Proof, explained how poor residents of New Orleans were forcibly evicted and displaced after Hurricane Katrina. “They were distributed throughout the country without being told where they were going. They didn’t have the resources to return. It’s almost impossible to think. It seems un-American.” Weems thinks receiver cities should come up with plans to “attract residents peaceably and appropriately, and get ahead of the curve and absorb people.”
At that point, we heard from Alissa Shelton, with Bank Suey from Detroit, who provided the sole receiver city perspective. She said in Detroit, “there is already tension with new people trickling in.” Hundreds of thousands of people coming into Detroit? “Oh really?”
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience last fall to offer communities strategies for adapting to global climate change and its impacts on human health and the environment. The panel, composed of leaders from landscape architecture, planning, engineering, architecture, public policy, and community engagement, met September 21-22, 2017, at the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C.
Watch and share the videos below that introduce our panelists and their smart strategies to strengthen community resilience.
The panel’s recommendations will be forthcoming on June 19, 2018.