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

Letters to the Leaders of China / Terreform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medellín Is Healing Itself with Social Urbanism

Medellín, Colombia / Maria Bellalta

The Colombian civil war that began in the 1960s killed some 220,000 people and displaced another 5 million, creating one of the largest groups of internally-displaced people in history.

In a session at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting & EXPO in Philadelphia, Maria Bellalta, ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at the Boston Architectural College (BAC), said the civil war was the terrible legacy of Spanish colonialism, which created a deeply unequal economic and social system that exploited both the environment and native peoples.

Colombians displaced from their farms in the countryside and severed from the natural environment by “greed and violence” ended up in cities like Medellín. There, the chaos of government and guerilla warfare, endemic poverty and great inequality, and the legacy of environmental destruction contributed to the rise of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, who ruled from the neighborhoods at the outer lip of the valley that gives form to the city.

All the violence and corruption scarred not only the city but also the landscape, said Bellalta, who has been bringing her students to Medellín to see and learn for the past few years. But a decade after the death of Escobar in 1993, Medellin invented a new approach, which then-Mayor Sergio Fajardo called “social urbanism.” The goal was to use urban design — and importantly, landscape architecture — to reduce inequality and heal the environmental damage.

Fajardo “invited disregarded communities to participate in planning efforts,” which resulted in major investments in new subways, aerial tramways, bicycle infrastructure, libraries, and beautiful parks — with the majority of the new amenities created in underserved communities. Efforts to “change the social dynamic” yielded new networks of aerial trams and lengthy escalators built into steep hills. These inventive, low-cost transportation systems created new connections to the city center for the once-isolated, difficult-to-reach communities with high numbers of low-income residents. World-class libraries and green spaces were purposefully built in the places that had no parks.

Aerial trams in Medellín / The Gondola Project
España Library-Park in Santo Domingo Savio in Medellín / Royal Institute of British Architects
Botanical garden of Medellín / Flickr

The city was also smart to re-use existing infrastructure. Unidades de Vida Articulada (UVAS), which Bellalta said are equivalent to our YMCAs, were “strategically created by re-purposing existing water tanks that form part of the city’s hydraulic system.”

Bellalta noted an important public work that has also helped Medellin and Colombia heal: the Museum of Memory, a “poignant tribute to those who died or disappeared during the civil revolution.” The museum is found alongside a linear park that follows the Santa Elena stream. The park is designed to “offer relief through a magical re-encounter with nature and the cleansing attributes of water.”

Museum of Memory, stream found to the left of the museum / Juan David Botero

Lina Escobar, director of the landscape architecture program at the Universidad Pontifica Bolivariana in Medellín, further explained how the city is cleansing itself with water and nature.

Since its founding, the city has been intertwined with the Aburrá river — or Medellín river — and the Santa Elena creek, its primary tributary. “Medellín’s geography is determined by the river and tributaries that crosses the valley,” which has shaped the city’s orientation and patterns of development. In the 1940s, a 30-kilometer stretch of the Medellín river was put in a concrete channel to reduce flooding. As the population started to swell in the 1950s, the city developed around the river.

Medellín River / School of Landscape Architecture, Boston Architectural College
Medellín River / Maria Bellalta

Then in 2014, Medellín city government launched an international design competition to envision a new Medellín River Park (Parques del Rio). The competition asked firms to create a master plan for the entire length of the river as it cuts through the city and then focus in on the central zone — the 9-kilometer stretch through the core of the city.

Medellín-based firm Latitude beat out the competition with their concept for a “botanical park that recovers connections to water systems through a revitalized biotic metropolitan corridor.” The park developers will take parts of the concrete channel out, bury an adjacent highway, and create a new, lush green spine, with tendrils spreading throughout the valley.

Medellín River Park / Latitude
Medellín River Park / Latitude

Escobar said the new park, which is now in development, is not only a “new ecological structure for the region, but also re-frames people’s relationships with each other and nature after years of conflict.”

Medellín River Park / Latitude

Daniela Coray, who was a graduate student of Bellalta’s at BAC, said there are so many other opportunities to heal the rupture between city and nature. Her master’s thesis project looked at ways to restore the polluted Santa Elena stream, particularly near the emotionally-resonant Museum of Memory. “The stream holds the memory of geographical and social divisions that could begin a process of healing.”

Through an interesting aside that took us out of Medellín, Ken Smith, FASLA, founder of Ken Smith Workshop, related how principles of social urbanism could be applied at the landscape-scale in other cities. He “deliberately engineered” the East River Waterfront Esplanade in Manhattan for social interaction through inventive “social seating,” a dog park, and meandering paths that force people to see each other. “The paths curve because it’s impossible to meander in a straight line.”

East River Waterfront Esplanade / Ken Smith Workshop

The important but unspoken message was that the smart design strategies of social urbanism need to be more widely applied around the globe.

A New Vision of Coastal Resilience

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Structures of Coastal Resilience / Island Press

Structures of Coastal Resilience, a new book by landscape architect Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, engineer Guy Nordenson, and architect Julia Chapman, draws on years of research in design, art, policy, and engineering to argue for a new vision of our coasts. As an analysis of trends in representation, mapping, and coastal design work, the book more than justifies its existence. But it is the thought paid to the evolution of these subjects over time that affords the reader a new view of coasts and establishes Structures as a significant contribution to the body of research on coastal resilience.

Architecture critic Michael Kimmelman writes in the book’s introduction that “there is no bigger challenge today than the management of coastal ecologies.” Landscape architects have laudably embraced this challenge and the attendant challenges of environmental and social justice, with no more recent and prominent national example than the Resilient by Design: Bay Area competition. Structures’ authors have concerned themselves with questions of coastal resilience for over a decade — and much of their own design work is featured in the book. The resulting research spans ecology, policy-making, engineering, and design, all of which contribute the physical and institutional structures of resilience.

For someone unfamiliar with the topic of resilience or wondering why the treatment of our coasts needs addressing, the authors’ premise is clear. Our attitude toward the coast has generally been to seek steady conditions. But ecological resilience theory, along with our own observations of this centuries’ worst flooding events, proves that the steady state is a myth. Ecosystems are in constant flux between states. Our coastal works should reflect this reality, with design leading the way.

In order to do so, landscape architects must learn how to better represent the dynamism of the coast. Historically, landscape architects, engineers, and cartographers have relied on motifs of the hydrological systems as static, with a defined line between water and land. This in turn has contributed to our proclivity for sea walls and levees for flood defenses.

Dynamic representations suggest and inspire dynamic treatments of the coast. The authors mine recent history for examples of dynamic representation, from Harold Fisk’s Map of Ancient Courses of the Mississippi River Belt to coastal section drawings produced by landscape architects Anu Mathur and Dilip da Cunha. These drawings do away with the water/land boundary in favor of a gradient of conditions that shifts and pulses over time.

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A portion of sectional sketches through gradients along the Fall Line in Virginia. Each section illustrates the diverse transitions from water to land, and from high ground to low ground, in the region. / Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha, University of Pennsylvania, Island Press

The authors provide a rich exploration of that gradient, its qualities and potential, in the chapter “Reimagining the Floodplain.” As they do with the subject of each chapter, the authors trace the history of ideas and attitudes towards the floodplain and evaluate new methods for engaging it as a site of design. The ideas profiled are speculative within reason, such as landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, and Rosetta Elkins’ coastal forests for Narragansett Bay, which faces issues of coastal flooding and saltwater intrusion. The strategy for increasing  resilience varies along the bay’s length, but generally relies on the planting of forests and shrub lands that attenuate high winds, reduce erosion, and shield community assets.

The strategies Van Valkenburgh and Elkins employ also involve moving community assets out of the floodplain. This strategic retreat from the coast will become more common as climate change exacerbates flood events. The authors also describe a strategy of adaptation through vertical retreat, which sees the lifting of buildings and critical infrastructure above the floodplain and, in phases, replaces lots and alleys with a system of canals and protective wetlands. Such strategies will have to be considered on a case-by-case basis, but what emerges out of the book is a portfolio of ideas and novel thinking that one can imagine being adapted to certain contexts.

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“Amphibious Suburb” proposal for Chelsea Heights, a back-bay neighborhood of Atlantic City and a former salt marsh transformed by urban development. Phased future development would elevate roads and homes, create canals and wetlands, and construct protective edges. / Paul Lewis, Princeton University School of Architecture, Island Press

In the last couple of decades, the democratization of visualization technologies and data have helped to dissolve the boundaries between the disciplines involved with coastal resilience. This has provided landscape architects with exciting new ways of engaging with and designing for coastal environments. Using hydraulic modeling, bathymetric and topographical information, and environmental data, landscape architects can rapidly image an environment and the impact of proposed design interventions on that environment.

One crude example of this is the water tank model, which the authors used to evaluate a proposed intervention in Palisade Bay. While the method isn’t specific to the bay, the authors were able to design a series of wave-attenuating land forms, visualizing their effect on the Bay’s hydraulic conditions. The authors evaluate the impact of these and other technologies throughout the book.

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A water tank model allows experimentation, facilitating testing of the interaction of new landforms with current, tide, and storm surge. / Guy Nordenson, Catherine Seavitt, and Adam Yarinsky, On the Water: Palisade Bay, 2010, Island Press

Structures of Coastal Resilience is an excellent collation of current design research and trends related to our coasts. And through historical analysis, ecological research, and an exploration of representation, the book suggests new ways of seeing and responding to the opportunities our coasts provide.

Resilient Design for Low-Income Communities

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Resilience for All / Island Press

In her new book Resilience for All: Striving for Equity through Community-Driven Design, author Barbara Brown Wilson seeks to confront the failings of traditional planning and design practices in vulnerable low-income communities. While others have pursued landscape-based solutions to this issue — think community gardens — Brown suggests there is a larger role for landscape architecture and urban design in resilient, equitable community development.

The communities featured in Resilience for All struggle with many of the same afflictions: environmental injustice, neglect, and lack of resources. These are vulnerable communities that face high exposure to economic and environmental shocks and disinvestment. Landscape and urban design improvements are relatively cheap, widely-accessible method of addressing these issues. Green infrastructure and streetscape improvements figure prominently in the book’s many case studies.

Importantly, Brown believes there is a fundamental relationship between social and ecological systems that, when leveraged, benefit both communities and their environments.

Consider the case of Cully, a low-income, ethnically diverse neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, that suffers from flooding streets, a lack of sidewalks, and languishing parks. Gentrification is also making its inroads.

Ordinarily, progress on the infrastructure front might invite gentrification. But a neighborhood coalition of community members and non-profits has made a point of linking infrastructure goals with wealth-building and anti-displacement goals. This means new parks associated with new affordable housing, construction on these projects performed by community members, and training provided by community organizations. This holistic approach has led to notable successes by Cully’s residents.

As Brown writes, green infrastructure improvements provide economic and health benefits. It’s logical to ensure those benefits serve communities directly and in as many ways as possible. Brown calls this approach “green infrastructure as antipoverty strategy.”

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Cully residents at work in the community garden / Barbara Brown Wilson

Resilience for All shows community development progress comes in phases, with one success usually priming the next.

In the neighborhood of Denby in Detroit, the local high school worked with non-profits to introduce urban planning and city improvements into the senior class curriculum. Students, concerned with local crime, initially set their sights on getting a nearby abandoned apartment building torn down. They aggregated resident organizations into the Denby Neighborhood Alliance and adopted a vision to target blight on a larger scale. They and thousands of volunteers combined efforts to board up vacant homes and reduce blight on more than 300 city blocks and used this cleanup effort to install wayfinding artwork and planter boxes to mark new safe routes to Skinner Playfield, their revitalized school playground.

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“Safe Routes to School” planter box at Skinner Playfield. / Barbara Brown Wilson

Landscape improvements did not come to these communities without considerable effort and without help from a network of friendly actors. And the projects often operate on a humble scale.

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Skinner Playfield network map. This diagram shows the variety of organizations Denby high school students worked with to achieve their desired outcomes. / Barbara Brown Wilson

Each case in Resilience for All represents innovation and progress for the communities and is fleshed out by a mix of empirical research and Brown’s own analysis to paint a picture of what worked, what didn’t, and how those lessons might be absorbed and applied elsewhere. Resilience for All is also bookended by two useful sections: a brief history of community-driven design and an encapsulation of the case studies’ lessons.

Resilience for All is a useful handbook for landscape architect’s wondering how their skill sets might apply to community-led planning and design. It demonstrates how landscape can be a powerful resource for vulnerable communities. And it also shows how communities can positively impact landscapes.

Rotterdam Redesigns Itself to Handle More Water

Port of Rotterdam / Wikipedia

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.”

Water plaza / Rotterdam Resilience Strategy

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.

Water sensitive Rotterdam / Urban Green-Blue Grids

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.”

Proposed tidal park in Rotterdam / De Urbanisten, Rotterdam Climate Initiative

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.

Climate resilience planning tool / Deltares

Learn more about Rotterdam’s resilience and adaptation strategy.

Experience Brooklyn Bridge Park in Virtual Reality

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn, NYC / Alexa Hoyer

Experience Virtual Reality! Immerse yourself in Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City, which won the ASLA 2018 Professional Award of Excellence in General Design. Explore this unique park built in part over abandoned piers, guided by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, president and CEO of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

Viewing Options

Option 1: Watch a 360 Video on YouTube

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!

Or if you are on a desktop computer, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQ2geeXMThI using your Chrome browser.

Go to settings and set the resolution to 2610s.

Use the sphere icon to navigate through the park! Note: the 360 video will not work in Firefox or Internet Explorer.

YouTube 360 on mobile / YouTube
YouTube 360 on mobile / YouTube

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.

Samsung Gear VR / Samsung
Samsung Gear VR / Samsung

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.

Brooklyn Bridge Park VR / ASLA
Brooklyn Bridge Park VR / ASLA

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 Are a Critical Solution to Climate Change

PS 15 The Roberto Clemente School in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, a “state of the art green infrastructure playground” / Maddalena Polletta, The Trust for Public Land

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.”

Ramblas, Barcelona / Wikipedia

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.”

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

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.

A Call for Prescribed Burns in Forests

Prescribed burn in Yosemite National Park / PBS

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.

Unwise management of forests has only exacerbated the impacts of our changing climate. Instead of setting prescribed burns to manage fires, like Native Americans have done for centuries, natural resource policymakers suppressed all wildfires in an effort to protect communities. The result has been an explosion in difficult-to-control wildfires.

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.

Jonathan Jarvis, former director of the National Park Service and now head of the Institute for Parks, People, and Biodiversity at University of California at Berkeley, argued that national parks may be the best place to try out climate adaptation approaches like controlled burns. “We need to experiment at the landscape scale — at the scale of very large ecosystems.” Indeed, the National Park Service is now prescribing burns in Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, as is the U.S. Forest Service in some of its forests, but the approach needs to become more widespread.

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.

A Romantic Kind of Resilient Design

Hunters Point South Waterfront Park Phase 2 / David Lloyd, SWA, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

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.

Hunters Point South Waterfront Park Phase 2 / David Lloyd, SWA, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

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.

Hunters Point Park South, Phase 2 / Albert Vecerka, ESTO, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

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.”

Hunters Point South Waterfront Park, Phase 2 / David Lloyd, SWA, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

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.

Hunters Point South Waterfront Park Phase 2 / David Lloyd, SWA, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

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.

Hunters Point South Waterfront Park, Phase 2 / Bill Tatham, SWA, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

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.

ASLA Announces 2018 Professional Awards

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn, New York. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Image

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.

The September issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM) features the winning projects and is available for free.

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

Honor Awards
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

ASLA 2018 Professional Analysis and Planning Award of Excellence.
A Colorado Legacy: I-25 Conservation Corridor Master Plan, Douglas County, Colorado. Design Workshop (Aspen, Colorado) for The Conservation Fund / Image

Award of Excellence
A Colorado Legacy: I-25 Conservation Corridor Master Plan, Douglas County, Colorado
by Design Workshop (Aspen, Colorado) for The Conservation Fund

Honor Awards
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

Communications Category

ASLA 2018 Professional Communications Award of Excellence. 100 Years of Landscape Architecture at The Ohio State University. Landscape Architecture Section, Knowlton School, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio / Image

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)

Honor Awards
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

Research Category

Honor Awards
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

ASLA 2018 Professional Residential Award of Excellence. Balcones Residence, Austin, Texas. Word + Carr Design Group (formerly known as Mark Word Design) / Image

Award of Excellence
Balcones Residence, Austin, Texas
by Word + Carr Design Group (formerly known as Mark Word Design) (Austin, Texas)

Honor Awards
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

ASLA 2018 Landmark Award. From Weapons to Wildlife: The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Management Plan. Douglas County, Colorado. Design Workshop Inc. (Denver, Colorado) / Image

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).