The End of Automobile Dependence

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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…”

Open Street Networks: Gateways to Change

Ciclovia, Bogota / Kiwi crossfit odyssey
Ciclovia, Bogota / Kiwi crossfit odyssey

Open street initiatives temporarily close networks of streets to motor vehicles, allowing people to walk, bike, skate, dance, and hang out. These initiatives enable things that “usually feel illegal or unsafe,” said Mike Lydon, a founder of Street Plans Collaborative and co-author of Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change, at the Congress for New Urbanism in Detroit. But they also open up communities to new opportunities to improve their pedestrian and bicycle networks. And according to Lydon, “people love open streets.”

It has long been assumed that Bogotá, Colombia, started the movement with their Ciclovía in the mid-1970s, but Lydon argued that Seattle’s Bicycle Sundays, which started in 1965, may have been the first open street initiative. Still, Ciclovía was the first large-scale open street network, given some 70 miles of street are shut down every Sunday. Now many Central and South American cities offer the same — at 15, 20, or 70 miles. For these cities, open streets is about equity. “Everyone: rich, poor, old, young, disabled can participate in an unplanned activity together.”

Ciclovia, Bogota / Colombia government
Ciclovia, Bogota / Colombia government

There are now over 130 initiatives all over the U.S. While they may differ on the length of route or frequency, they all reap positive benefits. According to his research, on open street days, cafes, restaurants, and other retail stores see increased business, traffic falls and transit use increases. In many of these communities, open streets have resulted in long-term investment in more sustainable streets. They can be transformational experiences that “open up a gateway to introduce pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements.”

In Miami, where Lydon lives, there has been a 180-degree change in just two years — from a city with one of the worst biking experiences, to a city in the top 30 for bicyclists. He pointed to the city’s open street initiative as the catalyst for the transformation. “It opened up breathing room, politically,” showing people, businesses, and politicians what change would be like without committing first. After that experiment, the city later passed an ambitious city-wide 2030 bicycling master plan.

Miami 2030 bicycle master plan / Street Plans Collaborative
Miami 2030 bicycle master plan / Street Plans Collaborative

And in Burlington, Vermont, where his firm now consults with the city’s transportation department, city officials recently used open streets to test out their complete street vision, so people could experience the proposed network of bike lanes protected by greenery. “The lesson from Burlington is you can connect open streets with the planning process and work through all possibilities through real-time demonstrations.” The test was positively received by the 10,000 who tried it out, and the 55-mile complete street and bike plan is now underway.

Burlington, VT bike network demonstration / Street Plans Collaborative
Burlington, VT bike network demonstration / Street Plans Collaborative

Here are some of the elements that make an open street initiative successful: “Route planning is key. You don’t want to send people up hills.” Open street planners should brand the event and route and identify a local sponsor that makes sense, like a gym. It’s important that the route crosses “different neighborhoods, rich and poor.” It should be fairly easy to get to the open streets — they should be in a downtown area, where there are large populations and lots of neighborhoods connect in. Local businesses need to be brought in early. “Meet with local merchants and encourage street-level marketing.” Volunteers help keep costs down and they help shepherd people new to the concept.

He also pointed out some issues to watch out for: “If the road is too short, it will get packed quickly, so the route needs to be at least 2-5 miles to accrue benefits.” For example, he said Oklahoma City’s open street route is too compact, so it ended up being like a “street fair or festival.” One of the biggest costs at first will be paying overtime for police. In Miami, they spent $35,000 for the police to control traffic on one open street day, so it’s important to “simplify the route so you don’t need a big detail.” Lastly, more benefits accrue the more often the open streets happens. In Paris, they have it down to a science, so they can do away with hiring police and simply pull out the signs that block streets every Sunday.

The New Landscape Declaration: Looking Back Over the Past 50 Years

Manhattan smog in 1966 / Andy Blair
Manhattan smog in 1966 / Andy Blair

At the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s New Landscape Declaration: A Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future, which met in Philadelphia last week, more than 700 landscape architects offered personal declarations and contributed their ideas, all in an effort to shape the 50-year follow-up to LAF’s original declaration of concern, published in 1966 amid massive political and social change and an era of environmental degradation in the United States.

Although the focus of the summit was on forging a new declaration and vision for the profession that can guide the efforts of landscape architects over the next five decades, there was also a call to “critically reflect on what landscape architecture has achieved over the last 50 years.”

Amid all the declarations and discussion, a few major themes came out of the reflections on what has shaped landscape architecture since 1966:

The American environmental crisis went global
From the original declaration: “A sense of crisis has brought us together.”

In his introductory remarks, LAF President Kona Gray, ASLA, was quick to note that in the 1966 declaration, “it was all about the American landscape.” The original declaration cites concerns that “Lake Erie is becoming septic, New York City is short of water, the Delaware River is infused with salt, the Potomac River with sewage and silt.” Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder of Turenscape, noted that this 1966 description of the American environment was in sharp contrast to what Ian McHarg, influential landscape architect and one of the co-writers of the original declaration, simultaneously referred to as “oriental harmony” of the hydraulic civilizations of Asia. Yet 50 years later, Yu, along with Alpa Nawre, ASLA, assistant professor of landscape architecture at Kansas State University, were struck by similarities between 1950’s America and modern China and India today, where development has also led to environmental problems at an unprecedented scale.

In addition to the local crises of pollution, environmental degradation, and habitat loss that has run rampant in the developing world in the past few decades, new overarching global crises have emerged in the form of human-induced climate change and rapid population growth.

Landscape architects got political
From the original declaration: “We pledge our services. We seek help from those who share our concern.”

While the 1966 declaration does not directly address politics, according to keynote speaker Beth Meyer, FASLA, professor at the University of Virginia, Ian McHarg, author of the seminal book Design with Nature, and the other co-writers of the declaration were responding to not only the environmental crisis, but also the political opportunity introduced through the reforms of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.

McHarg was influential in the development of first lady Lady Bird Johnson’s thinking on the value of beauty and nature in cities as well as the launch of the White House Conference on Natural Beauty in May, 1965. He later referred to first lady and environmental advocate Lady Bird Johnson “as his fan.”

Meyer argued then that his central role in creating the 1966 declaration may have been as much about environmental stewardship as a call for increased political influence by landscape architects. Just four years later McHarg would join thousands in Philadelphia for the first ever Earth Day event.

1970 Inaugural Earth Day / Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia
1970 Inaugural Earth Day / Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia

This political context set the stage for protest and advocacy by many other leading landscape architects over the past five decades. Just one example of this at the LAF summit is Martha Schwartz, FASLA, founder of Martha Schwartz Partners. In her declaration, Schwartz said that to respond to climate change, landscape architects must rekindle their political agency by being “online warriors” and rebuild the political wing of the profession that can “put forth a forceful agenda.” The sentiment was echoed by Kelly Shannon, chair of landscape architecture at the University of Southern California, International ASLA, who suggested that landscape architects must continue to “orient social movements and lead policy.”

People and parks returned to the city
From the original declaration: “Most urban Americans are being separated from visual and physical contact with nature in any form.”

At a time of rampant urban blight, the 1966 declaration made little reference to designing in cities. Fast forward 50 years and Blaine Merker, ASLA, director at Gehl Architects; James Corner, ASLA, founder of Field Operations; Henry Bava, partner at Agence Ter; Charles Waldheim, Hon. ASLA, chair of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design; and Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, among others, focused their declarations around celebrating and expanding landscape’s urban reemergence.

Whether it took the form or urban ecological planning, tactical urbanism, green infrastructure, or new parks and plazas, landscape architects have played a critical role in creating humane green public spaces for a new and increasingly urban generation. This effort has helped concentrate development, improve urban sustainability, and preserve the nature surrounding cities. As Corner championed: “if you love nature, live in a city.”

For others, landscape architecture’s return to the city allowed the discipline to grow beyond its 1966 definition as “applied natural sciences.” Christopher Marcincoski, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and partner at PORT Urbanism, argued that landscape architecture has effectively “softened the effect of urbanization,” at least in much of the developed world, but now must better anticipate the political, economic, social, and cultural forces behind urbanization in the areas left behind and the developing world.

For Tim Duggan, ASLA, these places are rich with opportunities. His declaration showed how his work not only over-layed environmental benefits, but also included the “overlaying of opportunities to find a catalytic but attainable scale” for financing and implementing regenerative infrastructure in under-served communities in Kansas City and New Orleans.

 Playground in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward / Make It Right Foundation
Playground in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward / Make It Right Foundation

Landscape architects called for justice
From the original declaration: “Man is not free of nature’s demands.”

Perhaps one of the most resounding critiques of the 1966 declaration was its now dated emphasis on the conflict between man and nature. LAF president Kona Grey began by contrasting the six white male signees of the 1966 declaration with the 715 diverse attendees of the 2016 LAF summit. Throughout the summit, many speakers made the connection between the increased diversity of our profession and the increasingly diverse communities served by it.

There was Randy Hester, FASLA, a professor at University of California at Berkeley, who has long called for an ecological democracy. David Gouverneur, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who showed his methods for working with informal settlements in the global south. And the work of Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, demonstrated that collaborative design can build both social and physical resilience simultaneously. These and numerous other efforts demonstrated a growing push toward environmental justice, combining landscape architects call to serve both the people and the places that sustain them.

In addition to addressing diversity in her talk entitled “Landscape Humanism,” Gina Ford, a principal at Sasaki, ASLA,  also joined others in realizing that humans are no longer “nature’s antagonist,” but rather are inseparable from nature.

Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of OLIN, quoted the great 20th century thinker Buckminster Fuller, reminding attendees that “the opposite of natural is impossible.” Yet our inclusion in nature during what is being called the sixth great extinction, led Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, professor at Ryerson University, to ask, “who in the Anthropocene will care for the wild things?”

Learning from the shortcomings of the 1966 declaration, the 2016 declaration must respond to a greater diversity of people, living creatures, and agendas in order for landscape architects to continue to “make our vital contribution.”

Landscape architecture expanded in scale and scope
From the original declaration: “…the landscape architect is uniquely rooted in the natural sciences.”

Delivering his declaration via a recorded video from Italy, Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, professor emeritus of landscape architecture and planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, asserted that landscape architecture has grown to a “huge diversity of practices.” Steinitz charted how landscape architecture began as a multi-scalar practice, but has since ebbed and flowed between small, medium, and regional scales as predicted by the demands of each subsequent decade.

While Steinitz, Kelly Shannon, and Dirk Sijmons, co-founder,  H+N+S Landscape Architects, suggested a need to now revisit the regional scale so favored by McHarg and his colleagues, others assessed landscapes’ successes in prototyping smaller projects capable of global replication. The notion of landscape architecture as an expanded field was seen as both a pro and a con as some worried about being spread too thin, and others embraced the notion of landscape architect as infiltrator and instigator of public agencies and allied professions.

Ecological research was translated into design
From the original declaration: “The demand for better resource planning and design is expanding.”

While the global threat of climate change presents new, less visible challenges, many at the LAF Summit recognized that the 1966 Declaration’s call to action “to improve the American environment” had in many ways been answered. Having written, advocated for, and pioneered ecological landscape design projects, the impact of landscape architects has been transformational, many argued. As Mario Schjetnan, managing director of Grupo de Diseño Urbano, FASLA, noted, “U.S. cities have upgraded air quality, reduced soil and water pollution, and improved open space.”

In his declaration, Kongjian Yu, founder or Turenscape, FASLA, spoke of “50 years of experiments with fire, water, floods, and the landscape as living machine.” Noting new sustainability standards and guidelines such as LEED and the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), “the change is amazing,” Yu exclaimed. He joined others in calling for the need to now “replicate and open new scales” through global practice.

ASLA 2015 Professional Genera Design Honor Award. Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park / Turenscape
ASLA 2015 Professional Genera Design Honor Award. Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park / Turenscape

Historic landscapes became more valuable 
From the original declaration: “…the landscape architect practices an historic art.”

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, reminded LAF Summit attendees that 1966 was also the year that the Historic Preservation Act passed, and since 1998, Birnbaum, who is the president, CEO, and founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, has made enormous gains in documenting and preserving designed landscapes. For Birnbaum, placing cultural value on our existing landscape heritage is key to bolstering the contemporary contribution of landscape architects.

Complementing this perspective was Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, founder of Heritage Landscapes, who for over 30 years has advocated for “culture-based sustainable development.” Referring to her projects with organizations such as UNESCO and their Historic Urban Landscape Initiative, O’Donnell’s work is exemplary of how the sustaining powers of culture and heritage create “a larger community (for landscape) to participate with.”

Landscape architects emerged as lead collaborators
From the original declaration: “There is no ‘single solution’ but groups of solutions carefully related one to another. There is no one-shot cure, nor single-purpose panacea, but the need for collaborative solutions.”

The 1966 declaration was ahead of its time in its vision of landscape architecture as a collaborative discipline. Many modern declarations reinforced that landscape architects have not only have benefited from these broad collaborations, but also have been increasingly leading teams on the great urban and infrastructural projects of our time.

While James Corner noted the role of his firm in leading large multidisciplinary projects, Kate Orff used her declaration to suggest landscape architecture firms are now the “collaborative glue… convening, organizing, and enabling others” through projects that serve as a “scaffolding for participation.” As LAF Executive Director Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, observed, increasingly you “can’t achieve sustainability without considering landscape.”

Collaborative Design for Living Breakwaters Project / SCAPE
Collaborative Design for Living Breakwaters Project / SCAPE

Landscape architects learned how to simplify and communicate complexity
From the original declaration: “Once they understand landscape capabilities—the ‘where’ and ‘why’ of environment, the determinants of change—they can then interpret the landscape correctly.”

Following the original declaration by only three years, Ian McHarg’s Design With Nature paved the way for the subsequent decades of research, scholarship, and communication by landscape architects to the broader public about the complexities of our ever changing built and natural environment.

From Anne Whiston Spirn’s The Granite Garden to Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s Planting in a Post-Wild World, landscape architect’s played a critical role in deciphering environmental complexity. In his declaration, Dirk Sijmons, former chair of landscape architecture at TU Delft, showcased recent visualizations from the 2016 International Architectural Biennale, animating scenarios for offshore wind energy development in the Arctic.

2050: An Energetic Odyssey / Hans Tak
2050: An Energetic Odyssey / Hans Tak

For Sijmons, “research and design at a large landscape scale” is less about project implementation, and more about building the cultural influence and political will needed to take on the challenges of the Anthropocene – the age of man.

Landscape architects diversified, to some extent

In her opening, Barbara Deutsch noted that the field of landscape architecture still has a major diversity problem, but it’s far more diverse than it was in 1966, when the profession was mostly white and male. Now, membership in ASLA is 36 percent female and now only 68 percent of landscape architecture graduates are Caucasian. And landscape architecture is a global practice, with tens of thousands of diverse practitioners across the world. Still, there is much more work to be done in the future to attract African Americans and Latinos to the field in the U.S.

This guest post is by Nate Wooten, Student ASLA, 2016 master’s of landscape architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

Review: NACTO’s Transit Street Design Guide

Transit Street Design Guide / Island Press
Transit Street Design Guide / Island Press

The new Transit Street Design Guide, the third in a series by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), is a must-have reference manual for city and transportation planners, engineers, urban designers, and landscape architects involved in the design of streets. These books, which include Urban Bikeway Design Guide and Urban Street Design Guide, formulate a new approach to the design of our public rights-of-way, not only as transportation corridors but as important spaces for city life.

Street and highway design has been dominated by civil engineering technical manuals, namely American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)’s Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets — otherwise known as the “Green Book” — along with the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). These together form the core documents that state, county, and city transportation departments have relied upon as street design criteria for the last half century.

However, in the past few decades — as automobile transportation peaked, personal vehicle miles traveled per day soared, and congestion increased, resulting in wasted time and productivity — officials in some of our larger cities moved towards more productive forms of transportation, using transit street designs not seen in AASHTO or MUTCD. An emerging movement coincided with three city planning trajectories: 1) “smart growth” — compact, mixed use development, centered on high-capacity transit stations in a pattern that favors walking and bicycling; 2) the renaissance of America’s downtowns as desirable places to live, work, recreate, shop, and enjoy culture; and 3), enhanced or new transit to city centers.

Because downtowns use existing developments and rights-of-way, this spawned new ways of thinking about not only moving people in urban streets but also how street space is a part of civic open space. Street space offers a great opportunity: In my home town of Portland, Oregon, streets occupy over 45 percent of the land area downtown.

The stage was then set for a new transportation movement. NACTO was formed in 1996 as a coalition of city departments of transportation for 22 of the nation’s largest cities and now includes 17 affiliate cities. NACTO gained legitimacy in the industry and stimulated a more multi-modal outlook in AASHTO and MUTCD’s guides. In turn, NACTO refers back to AASHTO and MUTCD manuals for more detailed technical criteria.

Transit Street Design Guide is a reference manual so it’s not necessary to read from cover to cover in one sitting, but it’s ordered in a way to easily find the topic you want to explore and go directly to that section. This has been the format of all the books in NACTO series and their free, complementary websites. The book offers advice on choices, how to interpret specific recommended criteria (critical, recommended, and optional, for example), and clear references back to other technical manuals.

In the introduction, NACTO lays down six key principles for innovative thinking. For example, one principle is “growth without congestion,” which calls for “serving more people in less space” and “making transit trips faster on streets with high travel demand.” The other five principles set the stage for creating richer street places, providing better service and mobility for the whole city, ensuring safety, and generating economic benefits from reliable travel choices. NACTO also explains why transit reliability matters, and the components of design and service that create reliability.

Chapters explore transit streets, stations and stops, station and stop elements, transit lanes and transit ways, and intersections. These are all organized with the principles that underlie all street designs and should be kept in mind as a landscape architects and engineers make decisions. These are then followed by a description of the different contexts for design. Clear paragraph headings — such as application, benefits, considerations, critical, recommended, and optional — make it easy to choose a design for further analysis.

These segments typically include one to two-page spreads for each design type featuring outstanding illustrated graphics. Simple line drawings are in birds-eye perspective with color tone and numbered legend symbols. User-friendly illustrations are complemented by photos of the design types built in cities across the country.

An example of the birds-eye illustrations. In this case, paired parallel transitways / NACTO
An example of the birds-eye illustrations. In this case, paired parallel transitways / NACTO

A bonus chapter on transit system strategies peeks into the world of transit system planning and includes sections on systems, ranging from multi-hub (a series of inter-modal transfer stations where passengers change to another line); grid network (great for cities with consistent grid street patterns and distributed destinations); radial network (great for cities with strong downtowns), with benefits and considerations noted. Again, great graphics are used to help a lay-person grasp these concepts.

Example of the excellent graphics. In this case, a menu of different bus stop configurations / NACTO
Example of the excellent graphics. In this case, a menu of different bus stop configurations / NACTO

The last segment — performance measures — is particularly important. For decades, the traffic capacity of streets and intersections was the primary performance measure for street design, and the results of these measurements trumped all other concerns. The book advocates a holistic approach called “Measure the Whole Street” — as in, average person capacity per lane space, safety, public space and social life, health, sustainability, and economic productivity as additional performance measures.

A very graphic way of understanding how person-trip capacity (the number of people moving through a lane space) changes dramatically between your mode choice: auto, bicycle, local bus, express bus and light rail / NACTO
A very graphic way of understanding how person-trip capacity (the number of people moving through a lane space) changes dramatically between your mode choice: auto, bicycle, local bus, express bus and light rail / NACTO

One quibble with the guide: in the double-page birds-eye perspectives of transit street types, the caption lists street width in parentheses. This is typically, but not always, the curb-to-curb dimension. Because overall street width from building face to building face is so critical in total street design, I would have listed both curb-to-curb and building face-to-building face widths so the reader would know at a glance what the sidewalk widths are. You can uncover those missing dimensions in other detailed segments, but it’s important to list total street space.

If you are new to the NACTO series but genuinely interested in 21st century street transportation and street design, get all three books. They are worth the investment. If you’re already a NACTO fan, add this book to your library.

Going forward, street design must increase circulation for all transit modes, improve economic vitality and safety, and result in great placemaking — places that promote community identity, health, and well-being.

Brian McCarter, FASLA, AICP, is principal urban designer at ZGF Architects based in Portland, Oregon. He has 30 years of experience creating urban street designs in Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, Calgary, Boise, and, notably, the Portland Mall Revitalization, an ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Award of Excellence winner.

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.”

Can Technology Save Our Crumbling Infrastructure?

Mississippi collapsed bridge / Wikipedia
Mississippi collapsed bridge / Wikipedia

“The infrastructural situation in the U.S. is bad,” said Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kantor at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. Traffic causes “5.5 billion of hours or about $70 billion of lost productivity, costs 2.9 billion gallons of fuel, and increases our healthcare costs by $45 billion each year.” About a quarter of American bridges are crumbling and structurally obsolete; and we hear horror stories nearly every month of another major collapse.

“But technology is the big hope.” Kantor argued that embedded sensors can be used to make roads and cars smarter so they can relay traffic reports in real time, identify structural issues and report them, and reduce traffic collisions and fatalities, which also cost the U.S. hundreds of billions each year.

Embedded sensor / Embedded computing.com
Embedded street sensor / Embedded computing.com

And autonomous vehicles, ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft, on-demand mobility apps like Ridescout, as well as parking apps, could reduce the inefficiency of traffic. With so little investment in actual structures and asphalt, technology is seen as one cost-effective way to lengthen the life of our crumbling transportation system.

San Francisco parking app / San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco city government’s parking app / San Francisco Chronicle

What is holding back this safer, more efficient future? For Kantor, the problem is “very silo-ed governments, from the federal to local level.” What’s instead needed is a “whole ecosystem approach, connecting across systems.”

And that’s what the U.S. department of transportation (DOT) is now attempting with its Smart City Challenge, which will give up to $50 million to one city to become the “country’s first city to fully integrate innovative technologies – self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors – into their transportation network.”

At SXSW, DOT announced the finalists: Portland, Oregon; Kansas City, Kansas; Columbus, Ohio; San Francisco, California; Denver, Colorado; Austin, Texas; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. DOT will work with these cities to refine their plans before announcing a winner.

Mark Dowd, senior advisor at DOT, said the “car has caused disconnection in communities; but technology can reconnect communities. We can’t build our way out of our current problems. We are leaning hard on the technology piece.”

Dowd said big cities have the resources to start their own high-tech, integrated transportation programs, but “urbanization only increases pressure on mid-sized cities that can’t build their way out of the problem or attract the tech talent they need,” so they can only benefit from the involvement of the DOT.

DOT was surprised by the incredible demand for these funds. Some 78 cities sent in applications. “There is a hunger for a new way of doing things.” But $50 million only meets a slim share of that demand.

The question for Kantor is “who is going to pay for new infrastructure?, ” smart or otherwise. The only way forward may be an increase in the gas tax, which is seen as a third-rail in American politics. But perhaps a tax gas increase could happen if it’s tied to local fixes that benefit commuters and result in a measurable reduction in fatalities. “Over 36,000 people every year die on the roads, and their deaths are preventable.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16 – 29)

le-caveau-christian-poules-installations-international-garden-festival-quebec_dezeen_ban
Le Caveau by Christian Poules is a four-sided room with walls made of stones contained within steel frames / Dezeen

Installations for Quebec Garden Festival to Include Pavilion and Suspended Cone – Dezeen Magazine, 2/17/16
“A shadowy room with gabion walls and a suspended canopy made of wooden slats are among the winners of a juried competition to design installations for this year’s International Garden Festival, in Quebec, Canada.”

Contested Landscapes: 9 Public Re-Appropriations of Urban Infrastructure Architizer, 2/18/16
“In cities around the world, space that was once fully given over to utilitarian functions such as highway interchanges, elevated rail lines, waterways and streets are being wrestled into the public domain for the use of the pedestrian.”

The Salt Season Metropolis, 2/23/16
“This mixture increases winter road safety, melting ice and providing needed friction on slippery surfaces, but its application also produces a number of negative side effects, including a very toxic impact on plant life adjacent to roadways.”

Arizona Bill Would Kill Licensing Requirements for a Host of Professionals, From Yoga Instructors to Geologists The Arizona Republic, 2/25/16
“Todd Briggs is at the height of his career as a landscape architect. After years at a larger firm, he started his own business. But he fears his career in Arizona may now be in jeopardy.”

Two Downtown L.A. Parks and the Tricky Task of Designing Them to Best Serve the CityThe Los Angeles Times, 2/25/16
“In the spring of 1985, Jack Smith wrote a column for this newspaper with the following headline: ‘Can Downtown L.A. Survive Its Own Heady Prosperity?'”

An Obstacle Path to a Seamless Tel Aviv Bike Lane Network Haaretz, 2/27/16
“Growing bike use in Tel Aviv creates new challenges; whole areas of the city are unserved by bike paths, and the existing network is barely connected to paths in adjoining towns.”

Disruptions Are Needed to Achieve a Sustainable Future

Bus rapid transit (BRT) in Bogota, Colombia / Scania.com
Bus rapid transit (BRT) in Bogota, Colombia / Scania.com

“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 Case Studies on Sustainable Landscape Design

Sherbourne Commons /
Sherbourne Commons / ASLA 2013 General Design Honor Award. Sherbourne Common / Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg

A newly expanded and now mobile-friendly version of ASLA’s Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes online exhibition highlights real-world examples of sustainable landscape design and its positive effects on the environment and quality of life. These spaces use natural systems to provide ecosystem services, transform untapped assets into vital community spaces, and create new economic opportunities — they ultimately provide significant environmental, social, and economic value.

Ten new case studies that range from a coastal ecological restoration project to a volunteer-run urban farm illustrate just what sustainable landscapes are and how they provide important benefits on a variety of scales. In the process, the case studies, written in clear, understandable language, also introduce users to what exactly landscape architects do.

The new case studies were carefully selected to show a diversity of landscape types and scales and reflect geographical diversity. There are now a total of 40 case studies.

New case studies include:

Burbank Water & Power Eco-campus, Burbank, California, a sustainable landscape for employees and visitors in the midst of a working power plant.

Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson Apartments, San Francisco, California, a safe and welcoming apartment complex, with beautiful design elements, for the chronically homeless.

Lafayette Greens, Detroit, Michigan, a volunteer-run urban farm in downtown Detroit where 800 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables are grown every year.

Living Breakwaters, New York, New York, an innovative coastal ecological restoration project that won $60 million in the Rebuild by Design competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse Sustainable Landscape Renovation, Albuquerque, New Mexico, an underused plaza that has become a model of sustainable landscape design in the desert.

Quarry Garden, Shanghai, China, a derelict, polluted quarry that was transformed into a garden visited by more than 3 million people in its first year.

Sherbourne Common, Toronto, Cananda, a multi-functional park and wastewater treatment plant that includes an underground Ultraviolet (UV) water purification system.

The Steel Yard, Providence, Rhode Island, an abandoned steel manufacturing facility that has become a beloved community arts space.

Sunnylands Center and Gardens, Rancho Mirage, California, an extension to the Annenberg Estate that captures every drop of stormwater, with some collected in underground cisterns for later use.

Woodland Discovery Playground, Memphis, Tennessee, an immersion in nature play for children that features surfaces made of recycled athletic shoes.

The Web site also 30 other case studies; 10 animations created by Daniel Tal, ASLA, using Google Sketchup; and companion sustainability education resources that enable users to explore sustainable design concepts in greater depth.

Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes was originally made possible with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

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.”

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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-Autonomous-Car.png
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.”