How Can Louisiana Build Back Smarter?

Louisiana flooding / Los Angeles Times
Louisiana flooding / Los Angeles Times

The flooding that hit Louisiana last week affected hundreds of thousands of people over 1,000 square miles. The intense storm claimed 13 lives, and some 30,000 needed to be rescued. Over 60,000 homes have been destroyed, and 100,000 have registered for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance so far. According to the agency, the Louisiana flooding was a 500-year flood event, meaning there was just a 0.2 percent chance of this happening this year. However, this is the 8th 500-year flood event since May, 2015, which beg the questions: With climate change, are flood risk estimates now completely unreliable? And if super-storms are the new normal, what can communities do to build back smarter and make themselves more resilient to the next unexpected, disruptive event?

Wes Michaels, ASLA, a partner with Spackman, Mossop and Michaels, a Louisiana-based landscape architecture firm, said: “More rain fell in 4 days in Louisiana than the last 4 years in Los Angeles. A lot of places considered low-risk areas for flooding got a substantial amount of water, so it’s not just about people living in low-lying, flood-prone areas. These super-floods are unpredictable; they flood areas many people consider high and dry.”

Flooded homes /
Flooded homes /

Super-storms, while unpredictable, are becoming more common with global warming. As David Titley, a meteorology professor and the director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University, told Fast Company: “Warm air holds more water vapor than cold air, and we’re warming up both the air temperature and we’re warming up the oceans. Welcome to the future.”

The Washington Post editorial board in part blames FEMA’s out-of-date flood maps, “which determine who needs to buy government-sponsored flood insurance,” for the extensive damage. These maps “did not assess large portions of the area hit last week to be at high risk.” In reality, this means many of those hit by the storm will “not be able to call on an insurance policy.” The government only “presses people who live in so-called 100-year flood zones, areas that annually face a 1 percent chance of being flooded, to purchase government-backed flood insurance.”

According to Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, only 12 percent of homes in Baton Rouge and only 14 percent in Lafayette had flood insurance. As Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, FASLA, President and CEO, Center for Planning Excellence in Baton Rouge, noted in an appeal posted to ASLA’s LAND, “though the floods affected people of all incomes, early indications show that a majority of victims are working-class or low-income individuals and families.” Many of those hit by the flooding couldn’t afford flood insurance, which is expensive, or didn’t expect they needed it. If a homeowner is insured, FEMA will pay out up to $250,000 in funds to rebuild. Thomas estimates the estimated value of the affected homes is around $5.7 billion.

Area hit by flooding / The New York Times
Area hit by flooding / The New York Times

FEMA only updates its maps each decade or so. But climate change and sprawl, which creates more impervious surfaces prone to flooding, are more rapidly changing the map of flood risk, particularly for coastal areas. Insurance premiums need to be tied to up-to-date flood risk, with higher premiums for higher risk zones.

According to Wired, communities now need “predictive flood maps: projections of flood risk based on modeling. Right now, pretty much all flood insurance comes from FEMA, which, again, updates its maps infrequently and also allows residents to comment and push back on the boundaries, effectively letting them determine their own flood risk. Insurance companies, which might have the capital to invest in models that incorporate climate change, have largely stayed out of the business since the 1920s—partly because it’s too risky, partly because government-subsidized rates are too low for private companies to compete with.”

But some firms, like Risk Management Solutions, are now developing their own flood risk modelling tools, because real-time modelling “could lead to better estimates of risk in certain places, which would allow companies to price policies accordingly and residents to really understand how risky their locations are. And as FEMA enacts some much-needed reforms (like phasing out government subsidies, for one), it may become easier for insurance companies to offer up flood policies, too.” Expanding the areas of people who are encouraged to buy into flood insurance could also help. Wired writes “if the insurance pool included people from 500-year floodplains, the risk would spread out more thinly,” reducing rates.

Beyond making the flood risk insurance system more responsive to a rapidly-changing climate, communities at higher risk of floods also need to rethink the status quo. Thomas believes that “smart, community-driven planning will play a lead role in rebuilding communities designed to thrive against a changing environmental context.”

And Michaels called for that planning effort to include a deeper analysis of the implications of car-based patterns of development. “As landscape architects, we need to be more involved in the design of infrastructure. Some of the unpredictability in flooding patterns comes from the storm itself, but some of it comes from how we design our interstates, roads, dams, bridges, canals and their related drainage systems. We need to think about how infrastructure fits into the larger landscape systems. Roads in particular, being long, linear systems, can drastically change how high intensity flood waters move across the landscape. There is an image in the news of a highway median wall backing up water on one side of the interstate near Walker, Louisiana. This wall may or may not have not caused flooding in other adjacent areas, but it certainly altered the flow of the water. These large infrastructural systems are pushing water around in ways that make the flooding less predictable, which makes planning for disasters more difficult. Our infrastructure needs to be designed to be porous to the flow of water (and species) across the landscape, and adaptable to the landscape at a much larger scale.”

Flooding along highway in Louisiana / Atmosphere Aerial
Flooded highway in Louisiana / Atmosphere Aerial
Flood damage in Denham Springs / Patrick Dennis/The Advocate, via Associated Press
Flood damage in Denham Springs / Patrick Dennis/The Advocate, via Associated Press

He added that landscapes in high flood risk areas also need to be made more resilient: “Landscape architects should be leading the call to design our landscapes to be resilient to flood and disaster. The amount of energy, resources, and effort that will go into ‘re-landscaping’ Baton Rouge is staggering. Not to mention the carbon footprint of all the dying vegetation that must be cleaned up. We can no longer afford to see these disasters as outlying events, and go back to business as usual after the flood waters recede. We need to design landscapes that can be cleaned up with minimal effort after flooding and will adapt to changing soil and climactic conditions over the coming decades. We need to plant resilient perennials that can be chopped to the ground and come back to life. We need to plant trees that can resist flooding, and use soil technologies that allow trees to be healthy in the first place so they can survive stress.”

Michaels concluded: “I don’t think we can design systems that will prevent flooding in a 1,000 year storm. But we can think about the larger implications of our systems and how they will function in super storms at the landscape scale. And we can be smarter about how we design our landscapes and cities, so we can recover from these events more quickly and with less use of limited resources.”

To help with flood relief, donate to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

The End of Automobile Dependence

Proposed streetcar for Downtown Brooklyn / Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector

“Cities have been demanding reduced car dependence,” said Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Curtin University and elder statesman of sustainable transportation, at a talk in Washington, D.C. As a result, 2015 saw a 3 percent decline in greenhouse gas emissions globally. And yet Newman’s indicators show global wealth rising.

Newman called this decoupling of wealth and fossil fuels, which is the crux of his new book, The End of Automobile Dependence: How Cities are Moving Beyond Car-Based Planning, co-authored with Jeffrey Kenworthy, extraordinary.

“All the economists and transport planning modelers still think that if you get wealthier, you will drive more.” According to Newman’s data, this is not necessarily true. “We are driving less and still getting wealthier.” The book traces the decline of auto-dependence in global cities.

There are four drivers of this momentous change, according to Newman: increased urban density, the transition to the knowledge economy, generational change, and the relative convenience of public transportation.

“Since 1999, cities are becoming denser,” Newman said. “The young and the wealthy want to see people face to face. And density of jobs increases productivity.”

According to Newman, car use dropped 23 percent from 2001 to 2009 among 16 to 34 year olds. People in their 40s and 50s are driving less, people in their 20s and 30s less still. But those in their 60s or older are still reluctant to relinquish their steering wheels, according to Newman’s data.

With regards to the convenience of public transportation, Newman stated, “time dominates transport.” Last decade, as people were limiting car use, public transit use increased by 100 percent, biking 122 percent, and walking a respectable 37 percent.

Newman’s data elicited several audible gasps during the presentation, one of which was heard when he demonstrated how 240 people could commute in either 1 train, 3 buses, or 177 cars. “Traffic is slowing down because of how many cars there are, and rail is getting fast,” Newman said. “The demand now is for walking and transit fabric.” To further emphasize the decoupling of wealth and car use, Newman showed how the six most walkable cities in the US enjoy a 38 percent higher GDP, on average.

Europe, which never bought into the cult of the car, and Asia, which has only experienced massive economic growth relatively recently, are leading the way on sustainable transportation, Newman said. His book cites 82 Chinese cities and 51 Indian cities that are currently building metro systems.

As for how to fund urban rail, Newman suggested identifying areas ripe for redevelopment, involving the private sector in unlocking that value, then examining what transit numbers might be achieved. He shared how his city of Perth in Australia has done just that.

“The walkable city is a delight,” Newman said while answering attendees’ questions, but he admitted that successful density is still an elusive goal for many cities.“The cities that are doing it right are doing it with biophilic urbanism.”

Newman offered Singapore, the island city-state of 5.4 million people, as an example. Roughly 10 percent of the city is devoted to public parks. Additionally, all new buildings must integrate natural habitat into their designs, replacing the potential habitat lost by their footprint. “You may not want to go out walking in a hot, dense city,” Newman suggested. “But if that city is a forest, well…”

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

Olmsted statue / The San Francisco Chronicle / AP
Olmsted statue / The San Francisco Chronicle / AP

Renowed California Landscape Architect Offers Take on Grand Rapids
Grand Forks Herald, 4/1/16 
“Walter Hood, in dreadlocks and a sport coat, sat Friday at the head of a set of tables draped in white cloth at the North Dakota Museum of Art, guests listening closely while his voice boomed through the art gallery.”

Reading Viaduct Park Would Make Getting Around Philly Easier Philadelphia Magazine, 4/5/16
“Last September, after visiting the new Whitney Museum in New York, I climbed up to the High Line for what I thought would be a breezy stroll with gorgeous views of the Meatpacking District. How wrong I was.”

12 Projects That Explain Landscape Urbanism and How It’s Changing the Face of Cities Arch Daily, 4/6/16
“In other words, spatial constructions in urban environments should no longer be attached to intractable functions or intent on isolation, but should instead integrate into the fabric of the city.”

New Wave of Landscape Interpretation The Irish Times, 4/7/16
“Much overlooked and under-financed since the foundation of the State, landscape architecture may finally have taken its due place on the podium of Irish-built design.”

New Statue Celebrates Park Designer Frederick Law OlmstedThe San Francisco Chronicle, 4/11/16
“If you’ve visited parks in New York, Boston or many other places around the U.S., you’ve probably experienced the landscapes of Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted designed hundreds of parks, gardens and other public spaces, including Manhattan’s Central Park, Boston’s ‘Emerald Necklace,’ the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington and California’s Stanford University campus.”

NY State Supreme Court Greenlights Lower West Side Pier55The Architect’s Newspaper, 4/12/16
“Last spring, the City Club of New York (a nonprofit organization) filed a lawsuit against Pier55 Inc. and HRPT to stop the project.”

Disruptions Are Needed to Achieve a Sustainable Future

Bus rapid transit (BRT) in Bogota, Colombia /
Bus rapid transit (BRT) in Bogota, Colombia /

“The Paris climate agreement didn’t create the commitments we need to limit global warming to a 2 degree Celsius increase,” said Laura Tuck, vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank at Transforming Transportation, a conference in Washington, D.C. “But it was an awesome achievement. All 190 countries — everybody — are in.” All countries are now focused on how to achieve a net-zero carbon world by 2050. For Andrew Steer, president of the World Resource Institute (WRI), the success of the Paris climate meeting, and the long-term movement towards the ambitious 2050 goals, signifies the “renaissance of moral imperative around the world.”

Tuck and Steer called for undertaking “disruptive approaches” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from the transportation sector, which accounts for the second largest share of energy-related emissions.

On the goods side, this involves shifting freight transportation from roads to rails and waterways. “Freight logistics for transporting goods needs to be greener.” Suresh Prabhu, minister of railways for India, concurred, explaining how India, with the World Bank’s help, is investing billions in a new, renewable energy-powered regional rail network to better facilitate the movement of goods.

And urban transportation was described as critical to achieving a sustainable future. This is because more than half of the world’s population — who create 80 percent of global GDP, consume 70 percent of the world’s energy, and expend around the same percentage of its GHGs — are found in cities, and they can either get around in cars on in a more sustainable manner.

While many of the world’s largest cities are busy retrofitting themselves with more sustainable transportation networks, it may not be too late to do things the right way the first time around with the world’s exploding second-tier cities. “We need to get to those second-tier cities that are growing fast. We need to get to them early and get them to invest in ‘live, work, play’ environments,” said Tuck.

A key part of this strategy in developing countries is to expand street-level connectivity; invest more in public transportation, like bus rapid transit (BRT), subways, and light rail; and create a regulatory environment that enables shared transportation, including mobility on demand services like Uber and Lyft and shared car and bike services.

In addition to their many environmental benefits, these sustainable sources of urban transportation can be major job creators. Just to use one example, Steer said in Bogota, Colombia, some 40,000 workers are directly involved in keeping their city’s BRT system working, with another 55,000 indirectly involved. As Dario Rais Lopes, national secretary of transport and urban mobility for Brazil explained, his government is now forcing all of its 5,600 cities with a population of more than 20,000 to come up with a plan for moving to a BRT system, so imagine the number of jobs there. And then think about all of the jobs related to constructing sustainable transportation infrastructure. In an example from the U.S., complete streets, which provide equally as safe access for pedestrians, bicyclists, and vehicles, were found to create far more jobs than traditional road construction projects.

Copenhagen, Denmark, was held up as a model of disruption in urban transportation. Morten Kabell, mayor of technical and government affairs for the city, explained how the city transformed itself from a car-centric city 40 years ago to the Copenhagen of today, where more than 50 percent of the population commutes by bicycle, even from the suburbs, while just 20 percent use public transportation, and the rest drive. Copenhagen has its priorities straight: when snow storms hit, the city actually plows the bike lanes first, before streets for cars. But Kabell added that “Copenhageners aren’t so idealistic. They bike because it’s the cheapest, fastest, and easiest way to get around.” And the city has worked hard for decades to disrupt the rein of cars.

Copenhageners biking in winter / My City Way
Copenhageners biking in winter / My City Way

Kabell explained that Copenhagen, one of the world’s richest cities, “had to change in order to set this example. Only a few decades ago, we were both totally car-dependent and on the verge of bankruptcy.” City leadership believes going green is what saved the city from financial ruin and ensures its continued success. Today, instead of allowing big box stores only accessible by car, they enable small, local stores for bicyclists. And now Copenhagen is only upping the ante: they are investing $1 billion in wind turbines in the city, with the goal of being totally carbon neutral by 2025.

And if Copenhagen’s well-plowed, wintry bike lanes sound disruptive, how about “taxibots,” which are autonomous vehicles shared by one of more riders at the same time. Cities could begin to get serious about taxibots, said Jose Viegas, the head of the International Transport Forum (ITF), which just did an intriguing modeling exercise on what these vehicles could mean for Lisbon, Portugal. ITF thinks taxibots would reduce overall car use, eliminate the vast majority of parking spaces, but could also increase total vehicle miles traveled.

Taxibots study / ITF
Taxibots study / ITF

Still, to put all of this in perspective, Ani Dasgupta, director, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities at WRI, said the vast majority of the world’s transportation spending is still on car-based infrastructure. He said with increased political pressure, national energy policymakers now must really think again before approving a new coal-fired power plant. Dasgupta believes the world will have really turned the corner when national leaders feel the same pressure when they want to build a new highway. “But we aren’t there yet.”

New Ways to Promote Smart Growth

Smart growth in California data / Calthorpe Associates
Data on smart growth in California / Calthorpe Associates

“Climate change is the one thing that clearly unifies the planet — every city in the world has to cope with these issues,” said Peter Calthorpe, principal of Calthorpe Associates, in his keynote address at the Louisiana Smart Growth Summit. At the two-day conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, climate change was a hot issue for many of the speakers, who discussed strategies for combating it with smart growth policies, not just in Louisiana, but across the country.

Calthorpe identified several new avenues for promoting smart growth, which concentrates urban development in walkable downtowns and connects regions:

Use Data to Show Smart Growth Is Low Cost

We need to talk about smart growth in terms of its cost-saving benefits. Policymakers, planners, and the public all increasingly desire quantifiable data on environmentally-sound policies. It’s not enough to harp on the health or environmental benefits of walkable downtowns — if the cost-saving benefits are not highlighted, smart growth policies will not be implemented.

As Calthrope said, “smart growth is fiscally the most responsible thing to do if you get the data on the table. A lot of conservative Republicans who don’t believe in smart growth or climate change were at least on board for the least-cost scenario.”

One way to help policymakers and the public understand the cost-saving benefits of smart growth is by presenting them with the costs of various scenarios. “People will say we can’t afford $94 billion for high speed rail in California but the reality is, if we don’t build it and we still have those same trips taking place, we’d have to expand airports and highways to accommodate them and that would cost $180 billion dollars.”

Plan for the California high-speed rail system when completed / UC Davis and Esri

Though it might seem “geek-ish” to make a hard sell for design based on so much data, according to Calthorpe, presenting policymakers and the public with cost-benefit scenarios can can help them clear their minds of the rhetoric that “we should do nothing because we can’t afford anything.”

Christopher Leinberger, president of LOCUS, made a similar point in his presentation about the importance of selling the least-cost scenario.

“Why would you ever invest your limited capital dollars into roads and sewers when, if you put them into walkable urban development, you can bring in 6-12 times the revenue for the same cost per mile,” he said. Not everyone cares about the environment. Not everyone acknowledges climate change. But presenting thoughtful, environmentally-sensitive projects through an economic lens can provide a backdoor for implementation.

Use Autonomous Vehicles to Better Connect Regions

While Calthorpe argued that technology is not a “silver bullet” for creating better cities, he acknowledged that new technologies may help us change some of the behaviors that have contributed to sprawl. Innovation will come out of a transportation revolution centered on autonomous public transportation.

Google’s prototype for a driver-less car / Google

While autonomous private vehicles companies like Google are prototyping have the potential to perpetuate the negative environmental impacts of regular vehicles — by encouraging sprawling development — there is a compelling case for autonomous public buses, Calthorpe said.

“If you take that same technology companies like Google are thinking about and apply it in place of large buses in dedicated right of ways, you’ll be able to create a transit system that is equitable and affordable without drivers,” he said. “Connecting communities at a regional scale is also crucial.”

Leinberger argued that new autonomous vehicle technologies, without a concurrent change in our lives or our cities, are not going to solve anything. But tailoring technology to inspire behavioral changes can provide a great tool for changing the underlying chemistry of broken systems.

Use Mixed-Income Developments to Build Resilience

Discussing the inevitable trade-offs involved in promoting smart growth, Calthorpe called gentrification “good news for the U.S,” because of the environmental and social benefits associated with its driving forces. For example, gentrification often occurs in mixed-use areas that are designed to be the most resilient to climate change.

“They call it gentrification, but I call it mixed income,” he said. “I believe many communities would love to have a broader mix of incomes, more services, better schools. Displacement is not nearly as draconian as it is portrayed to be.”

Policy makers, planners, and designers in every city are going to have decide the right balance of walkable mixed-use development given environmental and social constraints. Sometimes building walkable, healthy downtowns will lead to gentrification, but, as Calthorpe said, “there are trade-offs in everything.”

Mesmerizing Visualizations Reveal Pace of Urban Expansion

“Urbanization stirs up all kinds of emotions about rights and inhumane conditions, but we decided to take a scientific approach to discover the scope of it,” said Anthony Flint, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, at the Urban Thinkers Campus, an event organized by the Municipal Arts Society (MAS), New School, University of Pennsylvania, Next City, Citiscope, and 15 other organizations in advance of UN-Habitat’s conference on the New Urban Agenda in Quito, Ecuador, next year. To make better sense of the historic rate of urbanization, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy put together an open and accessible Atlas of Urban Expansion covering 120 cities, with data from historical maps, censuses, and satellites that quantify urban growth from 1900 to 2000. For 30 cities, the Institute went as far back as 1800. Working with Schlomo Angel of the Urbanization Project at the New York University Stern School of Business, they then turned the data into a set of mesmerizing visualizations.

The visualizations show all cities exploding from humble beginnings into engulfing megalopolises. The rate of urban expansion, particularly over the past three decades, has been incredible, with millions of rural migrants moving into cities in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.

Watching visualization after visualization, it’s clear that Geoffrey West, a scientist with the Santa Fe Institute, was correct when he said cities are like vast organisms that grow based on their own metabolic rate. Consuming vast quantities of resources — land, water, minerals — they expand until there are no more resources, and then will perhaps shrink and die.

Some of the urban forms expand in a somewhat orderly manner, Flint said. In these cases, growth has been corralled into corridors and grids in a more sustainable way.

However, the cities of the developing world look like metastasizing cancers simultaneously reaching out in all directions, unless some part of the growth is hemmed in by mountains or a river.

Flint said the data and visualizations show that “we need to be realistic about urban land. Cities have to plan ahead in terms of what they will need in 50 years. Even at high densities, we’ll still need a lot of land.”

The next steps for the Institute are to overlay new data layers, so they can further define the character of urban expansion — for example, deciphering whether an area is a slum or not based on the formations of the settlement. They also want to figure out which areas of the city are affordable, but that will require “boots on the ground.”

And for the upcoming UN-Habitat meeting in Quito, which will create a New Urban Agenda, a 20-year development plan for the world’s cities, the Institute wants to create a “projected urban growth atlas,” that will show how the expansion of cities will look over coming decades.

This is a crucial undertaking because by 2050, the world population will hit 9 billion and some 6 billion of those people will live in cities. As Flint said, “60 percent of the cities that will exist in 2050 don’t exist now.” But unless steps are taken to design future cities better — planning ahead for grids, transportation systems, parks, and open space — many billions of people will still be living in slums with few rights in inhumane conditions.

Watch all 30 visualizations and read the report, Making Room for a Planet of Cities.

Sprawl Costs the U.S. $1 Trillion Annually

Urban sprawl in an arid landscape near Near the Central Valley, California / EcoLibrary
Urban sprawl in an arid landscape near near the Central Valley, California / EcoLibrary

Not only does sprawl increase the distance between people’s homes and jobs, a new study by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate found that it also costs the American economy more than $1 trillion annually. These costs include increased spending on infrastructure, public services, and vehicles. The most sprawled-out American cities spend an average of $750 on infrastructure per person each year, while the least sprawled cities spend closer to $500. Compared with smart growth communities, which are denser, walkable developments, sprawl typically increases per capita land consumption 60-80 percent and motor vehicle travel by 20-60 percent.

The study found that sprawl also affects about two-thirds of city expenses, “by requiring longer road and utility lines, and increasing travel distances needed for policing, emergency response, and garbage collection.” Some of the largest costs are associated with city government vehicle travel.

According to the study, much of Americans’ preference for sprawl is rooted in underlying social and economic factors — “such as the perceived safety, affordability, public school quality, prestige and financial security of suburban neighborhoods” — rather than the physical features of sprawl. The 2013 U.S. National Association of Realtors’ community preference survey found that most Americans prefer single-family homes and place a high value on privacy. However, interestingly, they also desire the convenience of walkable, mixed-use communities with shorter commutes and convenient access to public services found in cities. As the U.S. continues to grow and urbanize, cities will have to expand to accommodate new people but also reconcile these conflicting desires.

Looking to the future, the study defines three categories of cities that will each need to address sprawl differently:

Unconstrained Cities

Unconstrained cities, such as most American and African cities are surrounded by “an abundant supply of lower-value lands” and have room for significant expansion. According to the study, these cities should maintain strong downtowns surrounded by higher-density neighborhoods with diverse, affordable housing options. Excessive vehicle use should be discouraged by creating streets that include adequate sidewalks and crosswalks, bike infrastructure, and bus systems.

A 2010 study found that Baton Rouge, Louisiana is the most sprawling urbanized area in the U.S.
A 2010 study found that Baton Rouge, Louisiana is the most sprawling urbanized area in the U.S. /

Semi-constrained Cities

Semi-constrained cities, mostly found in Europe and Asia, have a limited ability to expand. These cities should expand through a combination of infill development and modest expansion along major transportation corridors. New housing should consist of townhouses and mid-rise multi-family housing, which can reduce the costs of sprawl. Similar transportation policies to those suggested for unconstrained cities, which can help further discourage car use, should also be implemented in semi-constrained cities.

Constrained Cities

Constrained cities are those that cannot significantly expand, such as city-states like Singapore and Hong Kong. In these cities, most new housing will be multi-family, and fewer households will own cars. These cities require strong policies that improve livability in dense neighborhoods, including: “well-designed streets that accommodate diverse activities; adequate public green space; building designs that maximize fresh air, privacy, and private outdoor space; transport policies that favor space-efficient modes; and restrictions on motor vehicle ownership and use, particularly internal combustion vehicles.” Seoul has already demonstrated that with good planning, high density neighborhoods can offer a good quality of life.

A dense urban neighborhood in Singapore / NUSdeltares
A dense neighborhood in Singapore / NUSdeltares

Developing cities in Asia and Africa are poised to establish more sustainable transport and land use development patterns, avoiding the mistakes made by the U.S. Although sprawl-related costs may appear to lower in developing countries — due to lower incomes and land prices — their share of household and government budgets, and their relative impacts on economic development, are greater. Emerging cities must implement policy reforms that result in better walking and cycling conditions. Improving public transit services in developing country cities is particularly important.

The study maintains that in order “to increase economic productivity, improve public health, and protect the environment,” dense, urban neighborhoods need to be considered just as safe, convenient, and attractive as their suburban counterparts. In all types of cities, ensuring that neighborhoods are livable and cohesive is crucial. Designing attractive, multi-functional streets and public parks and providing high-quality public services are all major components of reaching this goal.

Under the Highways and Rails, NYC Has 700 Miles of Unused Space

Broadway and Flushing Ave under the JMZ subway lines / Krisanne Johnson for the Design Trust for Public Space
Broadway and Flushing Ave under the JMZ subway lines / Krisanne Johnson for the Design Trust for Public Space

During the early and mid-twentieth century, New York City constructed a massive transportation system, layering elevated highways, subway tracks, and rail lines to create the complicated web we are familiar with today. While this network has undoubtedly contributed to NYC’s physical and economic growth, it has also provided an untapped public asset: 700 miles of unused space (nearly four times the size of Central Park) beneath the city’s elevated transportation infrastructure.

In a comprehensive new report resulting from a two-year-long study, the Design Trust for Public Space and NYC Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) highlight sustainable ways to rethink these residual spaces. Addressing complex problems such as noise, safety, and lighting, the new study builds off of the success of the Design Trust’s 2002 study, Reclaiming the High Line (“the study that catalyzed efforts to save and reprogram the decommissioned rail line”). The result is a comprehensive document intended to inspire public and private investment in some of the city’s most neglected public spaces.

In an introductory essay that discusses New York’s elevated railways (or “els”), Thomas Campanella, an associate professor in Cornell University’s city and regional planning department, frames the importance of the study, stating: “The demesne of the elevated— I’ll call it “el-space” here— is neither tranquil nor serene, but it’s not without poetry. The root of its allure is the close juxtaposition of human life and heavy industrial infrastructure.”

Going Home Near Bloomingdales, 1946 / Lionel S. Reiss via the Collection of The New York Historical Society
Going Home Near Bloomingdales, 1946 / Lionel S. Reiss via the Collection of The New York Historical Society

In many ways, the elevated railroad is a relic of an age before zoning when people, especially the poor, were forced to live in hazardously close proximity to the factories where they worked. And while the els remains popular today — particularly in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx — Campanella claims that the fact that el-space “is almost universally described as dark and oppressive is an inaccurate cliché.” The quality of light beneath elevated tracks can be “exquisite” and the sense of enclosure created by the columns “yields an effect reminiscent of an avenue of mature trees … a kind of sturdy steampunk Elm Street.” Such sentiments are the first inklings of design inspiration the study provides.

Third Avenue Elevated Railway at 18th Street in 1942 / Marjorie Collins via The Design Trust for Public Space
Third Avenue Elevated Railway at 18th Street in 1942 / Marjorie Collins via The Design Trust for Public Space

Focusing in on elevated train lines rather than elevated highways, which are more relevant in other U.S. cities, the Design Trust for Public Space first assessed the inventory of existing el-space to identity opportunities and constraints. Surprisingly, these opportunities and constraints have largely remained unchanged since the 1960s when Jane Jacobs called attention to them in her seminal book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities. These physical structures divide low-incomes neighborhoods and produce noise, darkness, and dirt; on the other hand, the els have also brought people, commerce and cultural vibrancy to these areas. The call is the same now as it was then: Reconnect communities divided and affected by elevated infrastructure and turn these el-spaces into a positive resource.

Map of Elevated Transit Infrastructure in New York City / The Design Trust for Public Space

So, in 2014, 146 year after the construction of the first el, is NYC any closer to reclaiming these spaces? The study explores the potential uses of el-spaces from site strategies to their associated policies, relying heavily on research and case studies from across the country to inspire designers, planners, and policymakers to action. The good news is that many of these spaces are already being reclaimed for a variety of public uses. Potential uses highlighted in the study include:

Environmental Sustainability

In Flushing, Queens, the Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) System, invented by DLANDstudio, uses a low-cost, flexible, plant-based system to collect and filter stormwater from drainpipes on the elevated highways that run through Flushing Meadows Corona Park. This system absorbs and filters pollutants such as oil, heavy metals, and grease out of the water that drain off of the elevated highways, leading to cleaner runoff entering the city’s waterways. The system’s ability to retain water during heavy rain events also helps reduce flooding.

Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) Systems to collect and filter storm water from highway scuppers / dlandstudio
Highway Outfall Landscape Detention (HOLD) Systems to collect and filter storm water from highway scuppers / dlandstudio


In 2002, the redesign of Queens Plaza was one of the first comprehensive el-space improvement projects in New York City. A group of designers and engineers was selected to transform Queens Plaza into Dutch Kills Green, a new park with well-lit green pathways in the heart of the Long Island City commercial district. In an article for Urban Omnibus, the project’s landscape architect, Margie Ruddick, ASLA, says that “rather than using a harsh, urban language, we tried to find a language through which lushness and beauty could coexist with the hard edge of infrastructure. The linear landscape of medians and streetscape meet in Dutch Kills Green, and this convergence, for me, challenges the notion of an urban park because its surroundings are so inhospitable. This juxtaposition would have seemed inappropriate several years ago. But these days it’s becoming more prevalent.”

Dutch Kills Green / The Design Trust for Public Space
Dutch Kills Green / The Design Trust for Public Space


In 2011, the New York City Economic Development Council (NYCEDC) and the City Council combined forces to modernize underutilized market space, add new retail space, and construct a kitchen incubator underneath the Park Avenue elevated train station between 115th and 116th Streets in El Barrio. Despite significant public investment in the area, “the new La Marqueta has struggled to attract visitors and retain retailers.” Yet just a block north of La Marqueta at 116th Street, salsa dancers have congregated under the tracks every Saturday evening in the summer months for years. In an attempt to revive the informal spirit the market once had, City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito launched La Marqueta Reto (La Marqueta Reblooms) in 2014, an initiative to bring street vendors, a farmers market, and other community events back into the space.

Children sit in front of the entrance of La Marqueta, in East Harlem / Epoch Times
Children sit in front of the entrance of La Marqueta, in East Harlem / Epoch Times


Before New Lots Triangle Plaza in East New York, Brooklyn, was completed in 2011, subway riders exited from the train onto a narrow sidewalk with minimal protection from oncoming traffic. NYC Department of Transportation worked with the New Lots Avenue Triangle Merchants Association to join an 800-foot traffic triangle with nearby sidewalks and the exit of the three elevated train lines to create a 3,800-square-foot public space that is protected from traffic by decorative planters. According to the NYC DOT, the plaza has made the area safer for pedestrians and created “an immediate impact on business by encouraging pedestrians to linger longer in the area and visit businesses, boosting the local economy.”

New Lots Triangle Park / Streetsblog NYC

In a dense city like New York, residual spaces under elevated transportation infrastructure can no longer be an afterthought — and these spaces in NYC are only a small piece of the more than 7,000 miles available for reclamation in cities across the country. The Design Trust for Public Space report further emphasizes the need for adaptive reuse of these spaces, looking at the infrastructure that gets us from point a to point b and creating a much-needed public space as point c.

Purchase the report.

Several years ago ASLA created an animation to introduce people to the concept of reusing transportation infrastructure as public spaces, including underpass parks. The video, which is a part of Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes, a project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), can be viewed below:

From Corporate Campus to Downtown

Core Values: Why American Companies are Moving Downtown / Smart Growth America

In the past several years, small businesses and Fortune 500 companies alike have said goodbye to suburban office parks and moved their headquarters back to city centers. Attempting to cater to a new generation of Millennial urbanites, this trend represents a “marked shift in the preferences of American companies,” who are now choosing to invest in more walkable locations, according to Core Values: Why American Companies are Moving Downtown, a new study by Smart Growth America.

The study, which was accompanied by kickoff panel discussion at the Newseum in Washington D.C., examines the motives and preferences of companies that have moved to more walkable downtown locations between 2010-2015. The launch event supplemented the study, hosting business and planning experts from cities across the country who discussed both sides of the issue: Why are companies choosing downtown locations? And how can cities create the kinds of places these companies seek?

In the late 1960s and 70s, companies across the country began leaving downtown cores for suburban office campuses. By 1996, on average, less than 16 percent of jobs were located within three miles of a traditional city center. In recent years, however, this trend is showing signs of reversing. According to the study, “between 2007 and 2011, job growth in city centers grew 0.5 percent annually on average, while the city peripheries lost jobs, shrinking 0.1 percent annually.” By 2013, 23 percent of jobs were located within 3 miles of a city’s downtown. While the majority of American jobs are still located outside of central business districts, businesses are slowly moving back to cities.

Why? Many companies are finding that downtown locations can help them better recruit employees, particularly Millennials, which are defined as people between the ages of 18 and 34 in 2015. According to Vishaan Chakrabarti’s, A Country of Cities, 62 percent of Millennials prefer to live and work in the type of mixed-use neighborhoods found in urban centers where they are in close proximity to a mix of shopping, restaurants, and offices.

In the report, Adam Klein, the chief strategist of American Underground in Durham, North Carolina, said “we wanted to be in an amenity-rich environment where our employees could walk to get a cup of coffee and participate in arts, music, and the excitement of downtown. We’re able to show potential employees a cool office in the middle of downtown and that has definitely helped us recruit people.”

American Underground moved to the campus of the former American Tobacco factory in Durham, NC. / Scott Faber Photography via Smart Growth America

As Mike Deemer, the executive vice president of business development for the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, echoed at the launch event, “It’s not enough to create a great space and take a ‘if you build it, they will come approach.’ We need to activate spaces and draw people in.”

While great office spaces tend to be plentiful in downtown locations, the surrounding neighborhood mix is equally, if not more, important. The study found that providing live/work/play neighborhoods with places to see and things to do is important for attracting Millennials, “who are now the largest generational segment of the American workforce, with 53.5 million people making up 34 percent of all workers — more than either Gen Xers or Baby Boomers.”

According to the study, companies chose vibrant, walkable neighborhoods where people want to both live and work. “Our younger employees don’t want to go to a suburban office park. It’s boring as all get out out there. Here, they walk outside and see cool stuff and it’s fun. I wanted to be where they wanted to be,” said Reg Shiverick, President of Dakota Software in Cleveland, Ohio.

Millennials also behave differently when it comes to transportation and are generally more likely to commute by biking, walking, or public transportation. Thus, walkability and access to public transportation are also cornerstones of this shift to downtown locations. Matin Zargari, principal at Gensler’s Oakland, California office, explained that “being so close to the 19th Street BART and many other city bus lines gives our staff the opportunity to get to work easier from all over the East Bay. Our employees like our new location and, in addition, many of our clients and projects are within walking distance of our office. That’s been a game changer for us.”

According to Jim Reilly, vice president of corporate communications at Panasonic, when Panasonic moved its headquarters from a suburban corporate campus to urban Newark, New Jersey, “the percentage of employees commuting via public shifted transportation from 4 percent of employees to 57 percent of employees.” While the environmental impacts of such a shift generally fall outside the scope of the study, a decreasing reliance on automobiles is sure to mitigate some of the negative environmental effects of suburbanization.

A key takeaway from the study is that any city can learn from companies that have moved back to central business districts. While many cities already have the kinds of neighborhoods these companies are looking for, many do not. But taking the steps to draw companies into cities provides a mutually-reinforcing smart growth strategy: Companies will invest in walkable, safe downtown environments, allowing cities the opportunity to create great, quality neighborhoods that benefit businesses and residents alike.

Read the full report.

Revitalizing Urban Projects Win Rudy Bruner Awards

Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland / Courtesy of Billy Michels via Metropolis
Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland / Billy Michels via Metropolis

From a pool of applicants from 40 communities in 26 states, Miller’s Court in Baltimore was awarded the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence (RBA) gold medal and a $50,000 prize. Four other projects were awarded silver medals and $10,000 each.

Since 1987, the biennial award has recognized “urban places distinguished by quality design and contributions to the social, economic, and communal vitality of our nation’s cities.” The 2013 gold medal was awarded to Inspiration Kitchens in Garfield Park, Chicago.

This year’s winning project, Miller’s Court, is a “renovation of a vacant historic tin can manufacturing building, into an affordable and supportive living and working environment for school teachers and education-focused non-profits.” Located in an economically and culturally diverse neighborhood near Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, the project, which was conceived and developed by Seawall Development Company with Mark, Thomas Architects, was completed in 2009.

The LEED Gold-certified complex includes “40 rental apartments and 30,000 square feet of office space and shared meeting rooms with contemporary, loft-like interiors.” Other features include a teacher resource center and a cooperatively owned independent café, which has become a popular meeting place for teachers, tenants and even President Obama, who visited in January.

miller's court
Miller’s Court / Seawall Development Corporation

One of the project’s crowning achievements is generating additional investment in the surrounding community. At the urging of several building residents, Seawall purchased and renovated 30 vacant neighboring houses to create Miller’s Square. Baltimore public school teachers and police officers are eligible for $25,000 grants toward homes there. Read more about the project in Metropolis.

Renovated row houses at Miller’s Square / Courtesy of the Bruner Foundation
Renovated row houses at Miller’s Square /
Bruner Foundation

Four other projects were recognized with silver medals and $10,000 each:

Located in the center of downtown Greenville, South Carolina, Falls Park on the Reedy is an urban oasis thanks to the transformation of a forgotten 40-foot tall waterfall and overgrown river valley into a 26-acre park. Development of the park, which opened in 2006, included replacing a four-lane vehicular bridge built directly over the falls with a pedestrian suspension bridge designed by Rosales+Partners. The bridge appears to float above the river, offering a dramatic overlook of the falls. Learn more about this project at Metropolis.

IMAGE 1 Falls Park Signature Image
Falls Park on the Reedy in Greenville, South Carolina / Rosales+Partners via Metropolis

Grand Rapids Downtown Market is a new public space in one of West Michigan’s most challenged neighborhoods. The market “promotes local food producers, entrepreneurship, and education about nutrition and healthy lifestyles” by linking urban communities with the 13,000 farms in 11 surrounding counties and attracting a diversity of customers to the southern edge of downtown Grand Rapids. The state-of-the-art facility, designed by Hugh A. Boyd Architects, is the first LEED Gold–certified public market in the country. Learn more about the market at Metropolis.

Grand Rapids Downtown Market / Grand Rapids Downtown Market

Quixote Village, in Olympia, Washington, is a two-acre community of tiny houses that provides “permanent, supportive housing for homeless adults, including people suffering from mental illness and physical disabilities and recovering from addiction.” Since its completion in December 2013, Quixote Village has attracted the attention of many interested in tiny houses including nonprofits and private developers, as well as The New York Times. Learn more about the project at Metropolis.

nytimes quixote village
Tiny house in Quixote Village / Courtesy of Jeremy Bittermann for The New York Times

Located three miles south of downtown Cleveland, Uptown District is the “redevelopment of a corridor that links surrounding neighborhoods with art, educational, and healthcare institutions, producing outdoor gathering spaces, retail shops and restaurants, student and market-rate housing, and public transit connections in the process.” The development has transformed two previously underused city blocks between two of the city’s most iconic cultural institutions into a “community gateway.” Learn more about the project at Metropolis.

Uptown District in Cleveland, OH / Stanley Saitowitz, Natoma Architects Inc. via Metropolis

The 2015 RBA selection committee included: Mayor Mark Stodola, Little Rock, Arkansas; Rebecca L. Flora, Sustainable Practices Leader, Ecology & Environment, Inc.; Larry Kearns, Principal, Wheeler Kearns Architects; India Pierce Lee, Program Director, Cleveland Foundation; Mia Lehrer, FASLA, President, Mia Lehrer + Associates; James Stockard, Lecturer in Housing, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Learn more: A blog series on Metropolis’ web site is chronicling the 2015 RBA process and case studies of the winning projects.