Learning from Copenhagen: A Focus on Everyday Life

København: Urban Architecture and Public Spaces / © Edition DETAIL, Munich

By John Bela, ASLA

København (Copenhagen), the capital of Denmark, is at the forefront of many landscape architects and planners’ minds for both its groundbreaking moves towards sustainability and cutting-edge public spaces, bicycle culture, architecture, and food scenes.

Having spent a significant amount of time in the city over the last decade, I’ve had the opportunity to begin to get to know the city and its people. One of the striking things about the city, perceptible in even my time there, is its continued trajectory of improvement. A chorus of people working diligently for decades to optimize the city for the everyday lives of its inhabitants have been laying the groundwork for what is possible today. I’ve been in Copenhagen in every season — in the depths of winter when the term Hygge takes on a deeper meaning and the scant hours of sunlight and the chilly winds inspire the strong desire to gather together by the soft light of a fire or candlelight to pass the dark hours. And during the summer months when the long hours of sunlight inspire a collective feeling of exultation and the city’s public spaces: the streets, parks, plazas, waterfront, and the harbor itself are teeming with life and energy. This was not so 20 or 30 years ago. The character of the city has radically changed and the new book København: Urban Architecture and Public Spaces, edited by Sandra Hofmeister, beautifully captures the new spirit of the city.

The book features many places in the Danish capital that have made a significant impact in public space and public life over the past several decades and groups them into four chapters: public spaces, sports and leisure, culture and education, and housing. Well-illustrated project descriptions are complemented by a series of interviews and essays with some of the most prominent and thoughtful designers part of the city’s design scene today.

One of the many featured projects in the public spaces section of the book offers a useful inspiration for what could be possible in U.S. cities if we recognize the value of urban spaces now occupied by parking and remake them in ways that draw public life, commerce, and play.

The Flying Carpet: Israel’s Plads (Israel Square) is a great example of the transformation of public spaces taking place in Copenhagen over several decades. A former vegetable market site near one of the busiest transit stations had degenerated into a parking lot and eyesore. The municipality led the transformation of the site by erecting two covered market halls (the wonderful Torvehallerne) and a public plaza that hosts a weekend farmers market.

Across the street, the city issued a design brief outlining that the former parking lot should be converted into a new public space. The winning competition by Cobe, a Copenhagen-based multidisciplinary planning and design firm composed of landscape architects, planners, and architects, envisaged a “flying carpet” across the entire square. The cars would be “swept under the rug” with underground parking. In the completed design, organically shaped areas punched out of a neatly paved surface provide a variety of public recreational functions. As one the city’s largest new public spaces, Israel Plads is an “informal uncoded space that enables the public to enjoy urban life.”

Israel’s Plads by Cobe, Sweco Architects / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

What you don’t get from the beautiful images and plans featured in the project description — and what is so useful for those of us in the planning and design professions — is covered in an essay that follows. The lead designer for the plaza, Dan Stubbergard from Cobe, illuminates some the underlying processes and struggles that were fought and won and resulted in a new plaza that functions as a diverse and active public space.

Stubbergard notes that “infrastructure had a very important role in defining our cities from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. Public spaces and zones in between buildings became carspaces, and this affected everyday life. But today we know that we have to combine infrastructure with the public quality of urban space. Be it a bicycle parking lot, a metro station, or a streetscape, you need to insist that all infrastructure is also a social and public space.”

Cobe has been leading some of the most impactful urban design efforts in Copenhagen. Their approach to Israel’s Plads reflects the deeply collaborative and creative approach of the practice that co-designs with communities. Dan continues: “Israels Plads is the biggest public space in Copenhagen, but it’s also a schoolyard shared by two schools – we argued it should be an open space nevertheless…We created a discrete boundary and that’s how we persuaded the school to have a safe zone in the middle of the city and an open environment at the same time. The challenge for [landscape] architects is to offer new ways of living together and to foster a lively everyday life.”

Swimming in the Harbor

You can’t comprehend Copenhagen today without understanding its changing relationship to the water. The book’s sports and leisure section describes one of the city’s newest ways to interact with the water: the Kalvebog Bolge (Kalvebod Waves). “An undulating sculptural promenade…the complex stretches out over the water like a park landscape, leading back to land with walkways that rise to different levels. Benches, play areas, and lookout points invite visitors to linger. What may seem coincidental follows a precise plan. Rough winds in the exposed location were considered in the positioning, as well as the course of the sun and the shadows created by surrounding buildings.”

As is typical of the projects described in the book, the space combines various programs in interesting ways. The “wave” stacks many functions: a kayak and canoe club, a swimming basin, a floating mini-hotel for canoeists, and a platform for cultural events all come together in this prominent harborside location. Furthermore, “the site’s cradle to cradle approach ensures that all materials can be separated by type at the end of their service life so they can be recycled or reused.”

Kalvebod Bolge by Urban Agency, JDS architects / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

The Kalvebod Wave harbor bath and others like it in different parts of the city are emblematic of the radical transformation that has occurred regarding the city’s relationship to the water. As in many former industrial waterfronts, the harbor water, as recently as the 1980’s, was polluted and dangerous, and one would not conceive of diving into it headlong as you see so many young and old people doing today.

In an essay, Hofmeister unpacks the process of transforming both the physical quality of the water and the harborfront as well as its mental image in the mind of Copenhageners. “With the shift from an industrial city to an eco-conscious city not only has the quality of life improved, but also the water quality…thanks to targeted measures in wastewater management and modernization of the sewage system. Today living on the waterfront is integral to the city’s image.”

These critical water quality improvements laid the foundation for a fundamental restructuring of the city’s relationship and orientation to the waterfront and a re-conception of the harbor from the “back of the city” to a blue-green central park. So many of the projects featured in the book show how to take advantage of this new orientation. The areas along the harbor offer high quality waterfront living and opportunities to swim or gather to watch the sunset. This is where the city opens up to offer wide views. The city’s master plans stipulate that all harborfront areas must not only be accessible to the public but also enlivened by the public.

Kroyers Plads by Vilhelm Lauritzen Architects, Cobe / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

This orientation of the city around the harbor as its central park is enabled by a steadily growing set of landscape, open space, pedestrian, and bike circulation connections around and across the harbor that provide continuous access around the water’s edge and have opened up new areas for the city’s famous pedestrian and bicycle culture. There are important lessons here for landscape architects and planners working in the U.S.

The first is that protecting, enhancing, and restoring the ecological health of extant water bodies and open spaces is crucial for laying the groundwork for future public access and enjoyment. The second is that a powerful vision in the form of a masterplan framework must be established that can live beyond short-term political cycles to guide the actions of many actors over time. The third is that landscape architects must conceive of each intervention, even if it is a small piece of a larger puzzle, as contributing to the realization of the larger vision that will, eventually, result in a radical transformation of place.

The first carbon-neutral capital

Copenhagen, as in many cities with ambitious leaders across the globe, is leading the way towards a more equitable and sustainable future for its inhabitants. By 2025, Copenhagen is to be the first-ever carbon-neutral capital city. Switching from cars to bicycles plays a decisive role.

As described in an essay on cycling culture and quality of life, the city’s bicycle culture is well known to urbanists throughout the world, and it’s a powerful experience to be immersed in it. But what is less well known are the other factors that contribute to making Copenhagen a city where you can actually live without a car, such as the provision of dense, human-scale, compact, and transit-connected urban infill for areas of new development and providing citizens with mobility choice in the form of a world-class transit system. As the city gradually implemented and expanded its famous bicycle infrastructure, there has been commensurate major investment in expanding mass transit, including the brand new Cityringen line completed in 2019.

The wonderful essay by Jacob Shoof unpacks the critical role of innovative public-private partnerships, a role played by redevelopment agencies in the U.S. These partnerships have been charged with re-imagining some of the city’s most valuable port lands and new development areas, financing the construction of major public transport projects such as the Cityringen, as well as leading the re-imagining of the city’s largest new development area, Nordhavn, under its masterplan by Cobe.

Back to the Water, Jakob Shoof, with image of Nordhavn / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

One essay goes into the details of one private-public partnership focused on the port: “The City of Copenhagen and the Danish state the laid foundations for this in 2007 with the founding of the project development company By & Havn (City and Harbour)…the new company has two main tasks: to manage and regulate the use of Copenhagen’s port waters and shore facilities and to promote the conversion of disused port areas…the company operates like a private company largely free from political influence, and can therefore pursue long-term strategies…the business model of By & Havn is to use sales proceeds [of port lands] to build public infrastructure in the newly developed areas. The new Cityringen (City Circle line) of the Copenhagen Metro has been running under the city since 2019 and was also planned by By & Havn. In order to pre-refinance the development of the infrastructure without having to rush property sales the company has taken out long-term loans, using land in its possession as security.”

Innovative financial models and thoughtful long-term planning for public infrastructure investment from bicycle lanes to the new underground metro line are critical to making a thriving and successful public realm as well as incentivizing active mobility and transit use, and therefore enabling the city to meet their ambitious long-term sustainability goals

Dense, diverse, and green. Is it possible?

As with so many urban areas around the globe, Copenhagen is experiencing an urban renaissance as more people choose to reside in dense, amenity rich, and socially diverse urban neighborhoods. But how has the city managed to maintain affordability and access for people at the beginning of their careers or those who are just forming families? So many areas in the U.S. experiencing this same urban renaissance are characterized by significant social conflict due to rapid gentrification and displacement of long-term residents.

A final theme that emerges in the book is the role of an engaged citizenry in generating grassroots-level action to provide a strong political mandate for the municipality and the design community to work for things like mobility choice and affordable housing. For instance, part of the less well-known story of the city’s bicycle culture, which reemerged in the 1970’s after going into decline in the age of the automobile, are the massive protests and collective action in response to the 1970’s oil crisis that inspired city leaders to take seriously the role of the bicycle in urban mobility.

And this level of community engagement has also shaped the city’s approach to housing. Since the late 1960’s, the city’s different forms of communal living have drawn international attention. The final chapter of the book focused on housing describes several of the innovative and beautifully well-designed housing complexes on the re-energized harborfront as well as some excellent examples of co-housing, a trend which is growing in popularity globally and was featured prominently in this year’s Venice Biennale exhibition theme: “How will we live together?”

One of the defining characteristics of Copenhagen’s inner city housing stock is the traditional form of the perimeter block that surrounds a shared green space. These forms can accommodate a variety of functions — from a safe play area for children, food producing gardens, bicycle parking, and larger community gatherings. These collectively owned and managed semi-private green spaces are rare in the U.S., but they contribute significantly to the quality of life in Copenhagen and are a major factor in attracting and retaining young families within the urban core.

The Lange End Co-housing project by Dorte Mandrup is a wonderful, contemporary interpretation of this traditional perimeter block with a large, internal shared green space. Mandrup describes how this happened: “The central aim of the project was to establish a community accommodating a range of age and occupational groups, cultural backgrounds, and ways of living. To determine the different spatial requirements – common areas for meeting and communication, but also more private areas – an extensive participatory process was carried out, with various workshops held between the planners and future residents.”

Lang Eng Cohousing by Dorte Mandrup / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich
Lang Eng Cohousing by Dorte Mandrup / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

Hofmeister’s interview with Mandrup reveals the deeper motivations behind the work. “We already have numerous co-housing situations for very specialized groups – elderly people, students, or young families. My dream is that we can mix the different groups much more and build co-housing spaces that reflect the whole society – singles and families, old and young people.” And in a commentary on the next challenges the city faces, Mandrup says: “I would also wish that the city of Copenhagen would move forward with densification without simply doing things on a larger scale. We have to find better solutions to densify our cities than simply higher buildings. Densification on a small [human?] scale – that’s a real challenge for the future!”

Landscape architects have a critical role to play in the design of new housing areas in our urban neighborhoods. We can ensure there is a clear hierarchy of spaces from public to semi-public to private open spaces. Establishing this hierarchy and definition of whom these spaces are designed to serve is often overlooked but is crucial for achieving quality and livability in dense urban environments.

A beacon of sustainable urbanism

The many innovative ideas and projects described in this book and the exploration of some of the values and motivations that drive the work are what make this book a valuable resource for landscape architects and planners in the U.S. or anywhere in the world.

We can now point to these works and say, look what is possible if we work together for the common good of our communities! The City of Copenhagen brings together innovations in public participation, long term planning, finance, and a socially engaged design community to create the sustainable city of the future for residents today. It’s no wonder city leaders and design professionals around the globe are taking notice!

John Bela, ASLA, is an urban strategist and designer based in San Francisco. Bela co-founded Rebar, the creators of Park(ing) Day. A founding partner and design director at Gehl San Francisco, he left Gehl in 2021 to form his own design advisory and consulting practice: Bela Urbanism + Design. He is a licensed landscape architect in California.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 16-30)

“Borrowed Scenery” at the Japanese Friendship Garden by Kristi Lin / Beto Soto, KPBS.org

Meet Artist Kristi Lin: Bringing a Natural Balance — 11/29/21, The San Diego Union-Tribune
“Like many local artists, Lin grew up knowing she had artistic inclinations, but was worried about the financial impracticalities that come with being a working artist. In the field of landscape architecture, she says she found that balance; a profession that allows her to be creative and inspired while also paying the bills.”

How to Design a City for Sloths — 11/29/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“As pedestrians, sloths do not walk as much as ooze, inching forward commando-style with their bellies to the ground, as if trying to dodge a museum’s laser-security system. From a distance, the 10 long minutes it takes an average sloth to walk across the street might look more like the end of a yoga class.”

Car-Free Transportation Gets Boost from U.S. Grant Program — 11/29/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“A program that primarily funded highways during the Trump administration has pivoted away from roads in its new disbursement, marking a potential shift in infrastructure spending.”

Africa’s Rising Cities — 11/19/21, The Washington Post
“Several recent studies project that by the end of this century, Africa will be the only continent experiencing population growth. Thirteen of the world’s 20 biggest urban areas will be in Africa — up from just two today — as will more than a third of the world’s population.”

Minneapolis’ Newest Park Is Like a Front Porch on the Mississippi River — 11/17/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Damon Farber Landscape Architects led the design team with HGA designing the pavilion, MacDonald and Mack as historic consultants, and the 106 Group as archaeologists. The Healing Place Collaborative brought in Dakota artists and language experts to design covers for the fire pits and interpret the rainwater collection and use of Native plants.”

Canada’s LGBTQ2+ National Monument Is Moving Ahead, and Here Are the Shortlisted Proposals — 11/16/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The monument, which is meant to ‘educate, memorialize, celebrate, and inspire,’ will not only acknowledge the ‘enduring injury and injustice’ faced by Canada’s LGBTQ2+ communities, it will also set out to confront ‘the abuse perpetrated by the Canadian state,’ chief among these abuses being the LGBT Purge.”

This Stunning High-Rise Would Absorb More Carbon Dioxide Than It Produces
— 11/15/21, Fast Company Design
“Wrapping the buildings are algae-filled facades that produce biofuels that can power the building. Inside, structural components made of biological materials and insulation made from hemp sequester carbon throughout the building’s lifetime. Built-in direct air capture systems pull CO2 out of the air and either store it or make it available for industrial use.”

ASLA Survey: Significant Increase in Demand for Climate Planning and Design Solutions Over Past Year

ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Honor Award. Orange Mall Green Infrastructure. Tempe, Arizona. COLWELL SHELOR LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE / Marion Brenner

Clients are looking to landscape architects to provide nature-based solutions to climate impacts, with street trees, bioswales, and native, drought-tolerant plants in high demand.

ASLA has released its first national survey on demand for landscape architecture planning and design solutions to climate change. 563 landscape architects, designers, and landscape architecture educators in the U.S. responded to the survey in October 2021.

Nationwide, demand for planning and design solutions to climate change has increased over the past year. 77 percent of landscape architects and designers responding to the survey experienced at least a 10 percent increase in client demand for these solutions in comparison with 2020. And, of these, 38 percent of landscape architects and designers experienced more than a 50 percent increase in demand over the past year.

According to the survey results, city and local governments are the foremost drivers of demand for climate change-related planning and design projects. Non-profit organizations, state governments, and community groups, which may or may not be incorporated non-profit organizations, are also key drivers of demand.

Clients are concerned about a range of climate impacts, but are most concerned with:

  • Increased duration and intensity of heat waves
  • Increased intensity of storms
  • Increased spread and intensity of inland flooding
  • Loss of pollinators, such as bees and bats
  • Changing / unreliable weather, or “weird weather.”

The survey finds that landscape architects are also actively educating public, commercial, and residential clients about the importance of investing in more climate-smart practices.

Nationwide, 65 percent of landscape architects and designers surveyed are recommending the integration of climate solutions to “all or most” of their clients. They are creating demand for more sustainable and resilient landscape planning and design practices through “advocacy by design” approaches that persuade city, local government, and other clients to update policies and regulations.

To increase community resilience and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, landscape architects are planning and designing infrastructure at all scales – from the city and county to district, neighborhood, and site.

The top community-wide infrastructure solution clients are requesting is stormwater management to reduce flooding. Solutions that reduce reliance on fossil-fuel-powered vehicles and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, which account for approximately 30 percent of all U.S. emissions, take up the next top four in-demand solutions: walkability improvements, trails, bike infrastructure, and Complete Streets. Improved bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure also increase community resilience to climate impacts by providing additional layers of safe transportation.

The survey found that projects to increase the resilience of communities and reduce greenhouse gas emissions may also be leading to positive economic impacts. 47 percent of landscape architects and designers surveyed estimate their climate projects have a construction value of more than $1 million, with 29 percent saying the value of this work is more than $10 million.

Also, 45 percent of landscape architects and designers surveyed estimated their climate projects created more than 10 local planning, design, construction, management, or maintenance jobs in the past year. Climate solutions are resulting in well-paying creative and green jobs.

“The survey data shows that communities are greatly concerned about a range of climate risks and impacts. They are looking to landscape architects to provide nature-based solutions that both store carbon and increase resilience to extreme heat, flooding, drought, sea level rise, and other climate impacts,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO. “There is also concern about biodiversity loss, particularly the loss of pollinators and the native habitat they rely on, and landscape architects are providing solutions that address the twinned climate and biodiversity crises.”

More key findings:

Designing resilience to climate impacts is at the forefront. 48 percent of landscape architects and designers surveyed stated that “all, a majority, or about half” of clients are now requesting plans and designs to increase resilience to existing or projected climate impacts, such as extreme heat, flooding, sea level rise, storm surges, and wildfires.

Specifically, some 43 percent of clients seek to increase resilience to climate shocks projected for the next 2-5 years, while 39 percent seek to address immediate climate risks or impacts.

38 percent of clients seek to increase resilience over the next 5-10 years, while 32 percent of clients are planning now for the long-term and seeking solutions for expected climate risks and impacts 10-50 years out.

Nature-based planning and design solutions are in demand. Public, non-profit, community, and private clients are looking to landscape architects to plan and design nature-based solutions to impacts such as wildfires, sea level rise, flooding, drought, extreme heat, and biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation.

According to landscape architects, designers, and educators surveyed, these are the top solutions requested by clients for each climate impact area. Note: Not all climate impacts are relevant to the respondents’ regions.

Extreme heat solutions:

  • Street trees (64 percent)
  • Shade structures / canopies (60 percent)
  • Tree groves (35 percent)
  • Parks (35 percent)
  • Green roofs (31 percent)

Flooding solutions:

  • Bioswales (62 percent)
  • Rain Gardens (61 percent)
  • Permeable pavers (59 percent)
  • Trees (54 percent)
  • Wetland restoration (45 percent)

Drought solutions:

  • Native, drought-tolerant plants (67 percent)
  • Low-water, drought-tolerant plants (65 percent)
  • Irrigation systems (48 percent)
  • Greywater reuse (36 percent)
  • Landscape solutions that increase groundwater recharge (35 percent)

Biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation solutions:

  • Increase diversity of native tree and plant species (58 percent)
  • Native plant gardens (57 percent)
  • Increase use of plant species pollinators rely on (52 percent)
  • Ecological landscape design (41 percent)
  • Ecological restoration (35 percent)

Wildfire solutions:

  • Firewise landscape design strategies (27 percent)
  • Defensible spaces (22 percent)
  • Land-use planning and design changes (19 percent)
  • Forest management practices (17 percent)
  • Wildfire risk or impact assessment (14 percent)

Sea level rise solutions:

  • Nature-based solutions (33 percent)
  • Erosion management (30 percent)
  • Beach / dune restoration (25 percent)
  • Other coastal ecosystem restoration (21 percent)
  • Berms (19 percent)

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is also now a key focus. Landscape architecture projects can incorporate Climate Positive Design practices so that they absorb more carbon than they emit over their lifespans. Projects at all scales can act as natural and designed carbon sinks, storing carbon in trees, shrubs, and carbon-sequestering materials, such as wood and pavers. 27 percent of respondents stated that “all, a majority, or about half” of clients are requesting projects that reduce or store greenhouse gas emissions now.

The top five strategies sought by clients to reduce emissions include:

  • Parks and open spaces, which include trees and grasses that sequester carbon.
  • Tree and shrub placement to reduce building energy use.
  • Habitat creation / restoration, which can increase the amount of trees and plants in a landscape, removes invasive species, and improves the overall health of natural systems, and the amount of carbon stored in landscapes.
  • Elimination of high-maintenance lawns, which involves reducing the corresponding use of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and fossil-fuel-powered lawn movers and leaf blowers.
  • Minimizing soil disturbance, which helps keep intact carbon stored in soils.

Clients are also requesting materials that store carbon, such as woods and carbon-absorbing concrete.

Top five solutions:

  • Recycled materials, such as pavers that incorporate a high percentage of industrial byproducts.
  • Reused materials, such as wood or concrete, which eliminate the need to produce new materials.
  • Trees that absorb higher amounts of carbon than others, which include white oak, southern magnolia, London plane tree, and bald cypress trees.
  • Carbon-sequestering shrubs, groundcover, and grasses, such as native grasses with deeper roots than turfgrass.
  • Solar reflective materials that bounce back more sunlight and therefore reduce heat absorption and air conditioning energy use and expenses in adjacent buildings.

See full results of the survey

Landscape Architects Poised to Lead New Era of Infrastructure

ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Portland Mall Revitalization. ZGF Architects LLP / ZGF Architects LLP

By Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA

The House of Representatives just passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which makes significant investments in the nation’s transportation, water, renewable energy, and broadband infrastructure. The legislation incorporates 13 of the transportation, water, and natural resource policy recommendations sent by ASLA’s Government Affairs team to the leaders of Congressional transportation and infrastructure committees and the Biden-Harris administration.

The legislation includes a five-year re-authorization of transportation programs and dramatically increases funding for safe, active, and low-carbon transportation programs, such as the Transportation Alternatives program, the Safe Routes to School program, and the Complete Streets initiative.

The package creates new programs that will allow landscape architects to lead projects nationwide. These include the Healthy Streets Initiative, as well as programs to remove invasive plants, create habitat for pollinators on highway rights-of-way, and plan and design new wildlife crossings.

There are also some first steps to address the legacy of environmental and social inequities in cities created by highways that have divided communities for decades. The Reconnecting Communities program provides $1 billion to remove highways and reconnect communities through multi-modal transportation options, boulevard-like green spaces, and new connections to economic opportunity. These are projects landscape architects are poised to lead.

The legislation increases funding for the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Fund programs, which landscape architects will be able to access to help communities address their water quality and quantity issues.

The legislation will also create five new Stormwater Centers of Excellence. These will enable landscape architecture educators to explore new types of nature-based green infrastructure methods to improve existing designs and strategies for financing and rate-setting, public outreach, and professional training.

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Award. Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park Phase II: A New Urban Ecology. SWA/BALSLEY and WEISS/MANFREDI with ARUP / Lloyd/SWA, courtesy of SWA/BALSLEY and WEISS/MAN-FREDI

ASLA transportation priorities incorporated into the legislation:

1) Increased funding for the Transportation Alternatives program, and new regulations allowing states to allocate funding to counties, local governments, and Metropolitan Planning Organizations, as well as other regional transportation organizations, increasing local control over funding and projects.

2) Expanded eligibility under the Highway Safety Improvement Program to include projects covered by the Safe Routes to School Program, such as sidewalks, crosswalks, signage, and bus stop shelters.

3) Increased federal highway funding for states to create a Complete Streets program and projects.

4) Funding to create seamless active transportation networks and spines within and between communities.

5) A pilot program aimed at helping underserved communities tear down urban highways and rebuild the surrounding neighborhoods.

6) Elevate Context Sensitive Solutions as a tool in the decision-making and design process for transportation projects, particularly for projects in underserved communities.

7) Dedicated funding from the National Highway Performance Program for the protection of wildlife corridors that intersect with vehicle rights-of-way and establish critical reporting and training opportunities on the issue.

8) Emphasize design techniques that address pedestrian and bicyclist safety in our nation’s rights-of-way and support Vision Zero goals.

9) Invest in transit and transit-oriented development to meet growing demand for expanded public transportation.

ASLA 2020 Professional Urban Design Honor Award. The 606. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Scott Shigley

Detailed list of programs and funding in the legislation:

TRANSPORTATION

Active Transportation Infrastructure: $1 billion over five years to build active transportation networks that connect people with public transportation, businesses, workplaces, schools, residences, recreation areas, and other community activity centers.

Healthy Streets Program: $500 million over five years ($100 million a year) for a new trust fund-financed grant program that can be used for cool and porous pavements and expanding tree cover in order to mitigate urban heat islands, improve air quality, and reduce impervious surfaces, stormwater runoff, and flood risks. Priority is given to projects in low-income or disadvantaged communities. Maximum grant amount is $15 million.

Invasive Plant Elimination: $250 million over five years to eliminate or control existing invasive plants along transportation corridors.

Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program: $350 million over five years from the Highway Trust Fund. At least 60 percent of funding must go to projects in rural areas. Projects must seek to reduce the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions and improve habitat connectivity for terrestrial and aquatic species.

Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program: $1 billion over five years for a pilot program to reconnect communities that were divided or were separated from economic opportunities by previous infrastructure projects. Planning and capital construction grants will be available.

Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA): $1.25 billion in Federal credit assistance in the form of direct loans, loan guarantees, and standby lines of credit to finance surface transportation projects of national and regional significance.

Complete Streets Initiative: Each state and Metropolitan Planning Organization will now set aside funding to increase safe and accessible options for multiple travel modes for people of all ages and abilities. Funds could be used for: creating Complete Streets standards, policies, and prioritization plans; new transportation plans to create a network of active transportation systems; or projects that integrate active transportation and public transportation, improve access to public transportation, connect communities through multi-use active transportation infrastructure, increase public transportation ridership, and improve the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians. Also covered are regional and mega-regional planning and transportation plans that support transit-oriented development.

Safe Routes to School: Codifies the program, expands federal funding sources, and includes high schools.

Safe Streets & Roads for All Grant Program: $5 billion in emergency funding over five years ($1 billion per year) for a new program to support local initiatives to reduce traffic crashes and fatalities on roadways. Grants will be provided to Metropolitan Planning Organizations and local and Tribal governments to develop and carry out comprehensive safety plans to prevent death and injury on roads and streets, especially cyclists and pedestrians — sometimes known as “Vision Zero” initiatives.

Congestion Mitigation & Air Quality Improvement Program: Eliminates current formula for calculating annual state apportionments for the program and replaces it with set dollar amounts — increasing from $2.5 billion for fiscal year 2022 to $2.7 billion for fiscal year 2026. Projects now eligible include shared micro-mobility projects, such as bikeshare and shared scooters.

Multimodal Transportation Investments: $13.5 billion in emergency appropriations over five years for multimodal infrastructure, including $5.0 billion for RAISE (previously known as BUILD or TIGER) grants, $7.5 billion for local and regional projects of significance.

Support for Pollinators: $10 million over five years to benefit pollinators on roadsides and highway rights-of-way.

ASLA 2020 Professional Urban Design Award of Excellence. Dilworth Plaza, Philadelphia. OLIN / James Ewing, OTTO

WATER INFRASTRUCTURE

With regards to water infrastructure, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act incorporates numerous recommendations ASLA has also sent to the Biden-Harris administration.

ASLA water priorities incorporated into the legislation:

1) Increase funding for the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds, which provide critical resources to states, localities, and water systems to improve water treatment infrastructure and includes funding, research, and other tools to implement green infrastructure projects.

2) Adequately fund the Chesapeake Bay program and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Specific projects include improving water quality, combating invasive species, and restoring habitat and addressing shoreline erosion.

Detailed list of programs and funding in the legislation:

The Act provides $55 billion over 5 years, specifically reauthorizing the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) at $11.7 billion each. Many landscape architects access funds from these programs to design and implement water management projects.

Sewer Overflow and Stormwater Reuse Grants: $1.4 billion over five years for critical stormwater infrastructure projects, including those with combined sewer overflows and sanitary sewer overflows.

Clean Water Infrastructure Resilience and Sustainability Grant Program: $125 million for a program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that provides grants to help communities strengthen the resilience of their publicly owned treatment works against the threats of natural hazards.

Stormwater Infrastructure Technology Program: $25 million for five new Stormwater Centers of Excellence. The EPA will administer an application process for colleges and universities, research organizations, and nonprofit groups to become centers of excellence. These centers will explore new types of nature-based green infrastructure, methods to improve existing designs, and strategies for financing and rate-setting, public outreach, and professional training.

ASLA 2016 Professional Communications Honor Awards. Roving Rangers: Bringing the Parks to the People. Bay Area, CA and Santa Monica, CA. BASE Landscape Architecture / Ben Fash

NATIONAL PARKS and PUBLIC LANDS

While most national park and public lands programs and funding were successfully included in the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act in 2019 and the Great American Outdoors Act in 2020 as a result of ASLA’s advocacy efforts, there are additional recommendations that were also included in this bill.

ASLA national lands recommendations incorporated into the legislation:

1) Invest in our nation’s public lands, including providing for construction, maintenance, and restoration projects at the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service.

2) Support increased funding for Federal Emergency Management Agency hazard mitigation revolving loan fund.

Detailed list of programs and funding in the legislation:

Federal Lands Transportation Program: $311 million over five years to improve roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure in parks.

Nationally Significant Federal Lands and Tribal Projects Program: $55 million a year and up to an addition $300 million a year to address large repair projects in our parks and other public and tribal lands. This program also prioritizes sustainable and natural designs to improve the resilience of park roads and bridges to intensifying climate threats.

Also included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: $46 billion to mitigate damage from floods, wildfires, and droughts.

Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, Esq., is director of federal government affairs at the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (October 16-31)

COP26 / UK Government

COP26: ‘Moment of Truth’ as World Meets for Climate Summit – 10/31/21, BBC News
“Delegates from around 200 countries are there to announce how they will cut emissions by 2030 and help the planet. With the world warming because of fossil fuel emissions caused by humans, scientists warn that urgent action is needed to avoid a climate catastrophe.”

Black Landscapes Matter Asks Why Black Landscapes Are Separate from Landscape Design — 10/29/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“If Black lives do matter, then where we live, and how we live there, must matter as well. This deceptively simple suggestion is the provocation that Black Landscapes Matter poses to the fields of landscape architecture and design.”

U.S. Traffic Deaths Continued to Spike in 2021 — 10/29/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“The number of people killed on U.S. roads jumped 18.4% — the largest six-month increase in traffic fatalities on record — as car travel picked up.”

‘Making Meaningful Places’: Claude Cormier Landscape Architecture Award Launched at University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty — 10/29/21, University of Toronto News
“The Claude Cormier Award in Landscape Architecture will annually cover the domestic tuition fees of an MLA student, in their third and final year, who shows promise to pursue creative and pioneering forms or approaches to practice.”

As E-Bikes Speed Up, a Policy Dilemma Looms — 10/29/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“The newest electric bikes can go much faster than pedal-only riders, which could spur a backlash from pedestrians and a crackdown from regulators.”

The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Leaf Blowers — 10/25/21, The New York Times
“Grasshoppers belong here. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers are invaders, the most maddening of all the maddening, environment-destroying tools of the American lawn-care industry.”

In Ida’s Wake, America’s Rural Communities Need Better Protection—Cities Can’t Hog Climate Adaptation — 10/25/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Hurricane Ida served as a harsh reminder that the nation’s rural and smaller coastal communities often bear the brunt of the effects of climate change, suffering extensive flooding and other damage, yet lack the resources to rebuild or to implement measures that could prevent future disasters.”

Hundreds Turn out to Celebrate New Downtown Park in Palm Springs — 10/21/21, Desert Sun
“‘Nellie Coffman’s mantra is she believed in space, stillness, solitude and simplicity and I hope this project really conveys those ideas,’ park designer Mark Rios said. ‘Tonight we are here to celebrate and I think we really want to celebrate that it worked.'”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (October 1-15)

Landscape Architect Whose Designs Reclaim Toxic Sites Wins International Prize — 10/14/21, The Washington Post
“Landscape architect Julie Bargmann, who for 30 years has transformed postindustrial and sometimes toxic sites into inviting spaces, is the winner of the first Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize, a biennial award of $100,000 given by the Cultural Landscape Foundation.”

A Landscape Architect Who Loves Ruins and Hates Ruin Porn — 10/14/21, Curbed
“Bargmann, who has just been awarded the first $100,000 Cornelia Hahn Oberlander prize in landscape architecture, never lost her taste for such wounded and poisonous places, even after they’ve stopped being productive.”

The Modernist French Garden: Design by the Vera Brothers Highlights the Legacy of André and Paul Vera — 10/11/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Although restrained, The Modernist French Garden: Designs by the Vera Brothers presents an informative, yet concise, survey of the brothers’ drawings produced for their 1912 landscape design treatise, Le Nouveau Jardin.”

Could Low-Carbon Trains Cure Europe’s Flying Addiction? — 10/11/21, Next City
“In April, the French government voted to ban short-haul domestic flights where alternatives by train exist. Research by French consumer group UFC-Que Choisir had found that planes emit 77 times more CO2 per passenger than trains on journeys lasting under four hours.”

Biden Restores Beloved National Monuments, Reversing Trump Cuts — 10/08/21, The Guardian
“Biden signed three proclamations that increased the boundaries of Bears Ears to 1.36m acres, while restoring the Grand Staircase-Escalante to 1.87m acres – both spanning large swaths of southern Utah. He also reinstated protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine, about 130 miles off the coast of New England, and extended limits on commercial fishing.”

Trams, Cable Cars, Electric Ferries: How Cities Are Rethinking Transit — 10/03/21, The New York Times
“Today, a quiet transformation is underway. Berlin, Bogotá and several other cities are taking creative steps to cut gas and diesel from their public transit systems. They are doing so despite striking differences in geography, politics and economics that complicate the transformation.”

ASLA Ratifies International Federation of Landscape Architects’ Climate Action Commitment

ASLA 2021 Professional Urban Design Honor Award. Xuhui Runway Park, Shanghai, China. Sasaki / Insaw Photography

Landscape Architects Unite in Advance of Key United Nations Climate Change Conference

ASLA announced it will join a global coalition of 70,000 landscape architects in 77 countries in committing to limiting planetary warming to 1.5°C (2.7 °F). This is the largest coalition of landscape architecture professionals ever assembled to advance climate action.

IFLA’s Climate Action Commitment will be issued to sovereign nations at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will be held in Scotland, October 31 – November 12.

ASLA has committed to the six goals outlined in the IFLA Climate Action Commitment:

1) Advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)
ASLA and its member landscape architects and designers will accelerate efforts to protect and repair ecosystems.

2) Attaining Global Net Zero Emissions by 2040
ASLA and its members will dramatically reduce operational and embodied carbon emissions produced by projects, increasingly harness the unique capacity of landscapes to draw down carbon dioxide, and continue to advocate for low-carbon multi-modal transport systems.

3) Enhancing Capacity and Resilience of Livable Cities and Communities
Implementing green infrastructure approaches, ASLA and its members will increase efforts to mitigate the urban heat island effect and reduce climate impacts associated with fire, drought, and flooding.

4) Advocating for Climate Justice and Social Well-Being
ASLA and its members will maintain our priority on equity and equality and ensure the right to nearby green spaces and clean water and air.

5) Learning from Cultural Knowledge Systems
ASLA and its members commit to respecting and working with indigenous communities and honoring cultural land management practices to mitigate climate change impacts and continue work towards reconciliation.

6) Galvanizing Climate Leadership
Landscape architects are uniquely positioned to lead the built environment community’s response to the climate crisis. ASLA will continue to collaborate with clients, suppliers, and allied professions to champion climate positive landscapes, which involves planning and designing landscapes that sequester more greenhouse gas emissions than they emit.

“ASLA is proud to be joining forces with IFLA and the global community of landscape architects in advancing our climate action goals,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO, ASLA. “We speak as one voice, globally, when it comes to advancing climate action.”

“As landscape architects we can make a tremendous difference to climate change and to climate action through our work, so thinking globally but acting locally is critical,” said IFLA President James Hayter.

“In a year marked by historic flooding in Europe and China and deadly wildfires and heat waves in the United States, it’s clear we’re running out of time to start healing a century’s worth of harm done to our Earth and its atmosphere,” said Tom Mroz, FASLA, ASLA President.

“I am gratified that Climate Positive Design has been incorporated into the global Commitment,” said Pamela Conrad, ASLA, Founder of Climate Positive Design, Principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, and IFLA Climate Change Working Group Vice Chair. “All landscape architects must rapidly scale up their work transforming designed landscapes into natural carbon sinks.”

The IFLA Climate Action Commitment is the second major coalition ASLA has joined this year. ASLA also signed on to Architecture 2030’s 1.5°C COP26 Communiqué, calling for built environment industries to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

Landscape architects plan and design with nature to help all communities reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate. Landscape architects use climate positive design approaches that transform parks and open spaces into natural carbon sinks. They develop resilient nature-based solutions that reduce the impacts of extreme heat; coastal, ground, and inland flooding; sea level rise; pollution; and wildfires. They also increase biodiversity and protect and restore ecosystems, which underpin life on Earth.

“Landscape architects are already helping communities adapt to climate impacts. We are having a particularly big impact on reducing dangerous urban temperatures, saving many lives in the process,” said Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA President and ASLA representative to the IFLA Climate Change Working Group.

ASLA Announces 2021 Professional Awards

ASLA 2021 Landmark Award. Portland Open Space Sequence, Portland, Oregon. PLACE.

ASLA announces the 2021 Professional Award winners. The 40 winning projects exemplify the highest level of achievement in the profession, and the professionals themselves will be honored at ASLA’s Conference on Landscape Architecture, Nov. 20 in Nashville, TN.

Winners each year are chosen by a jury panel representing a broad cross-section of the profession, from the public and private sectors, as well as academia. The 40 winners were chosen from 486 submissions from around the world. Award categories include: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, and Research. In addition, one Landmark Award is also selected each year.

“This year’s winners demonstrate how landscape architects are increasingly leading the planning and design of healthy and resilient communities for all,” said Torey Carter- Conneen, CEO of ASLA. “Landscape architects are advancing communities’ diversity, equity, and inclusion goals in significant ways.”

Professional Award recipients, their clients, and advisors will be honored in-person at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, TN on Saturday, November 20th, at 6pm ET.

Explore the full list of this year’s Professional Award winners

ASLA Announces 2021 Student Awards

ASLA 2021 Student General Design Honor Award. The Interaction Between Masks And Desertification: A Paradigm of Family Sand Control by Mongolian Herdsmen. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Xi Zhao; Xue Li; Xinyu Yang; Qiong Wang, Student International ASLA, Beijing Forestry University

ASLA announces the 2021 Student Award winners. The 35 winning projects exemplify the highest level of achievement by future landscape architect professionals. The students themselves will be honored at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture, Nov. 20 in Nashville, TN.

Winners each year are chosen by a jury panel representing a broad cross-section of the profession, from the public and private sectors, as well as academia. The 35 winners were chosen from 440 submissions of projects from around the world. Awards categories include: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, Student Collaboration, and Community Service.

“This program not only honors the tremendous creativity and passion of these future landscape architect leaders, it also highlights the extraordinary contributions they will make to communities upon graduation,” said Torey Carter- Conneen, CEO of ASLA.

Student Award recipients will be honored in-person at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, TN on Saturday, November 20th, at 6pm ET.

Explore the full list of this year’s Student Award winners

Pandemic-era Street Spaces: Parklets, Patios, and the Future of the Public Realm

Rebar’s “walket” a prototype parklet system deployed in San Francisco’s Mission district in 2009. / Rebar

By John Bela, ASLA

On a clear fall day in 2005, a group of friends and collaborators from the art collective Rebar commandeered an 8-foot-wide by 20-foot-long metered parking space in downtown San Francisco. This two-hour guerilla art installation evolved into Park(ing) Day, a global public art and design activism event that has been celebrated every year since. In 2009, Rebar and other design studios were approached by the City of San Francisco to prototype a more permanent version of Park(ing) Day. In response, we created one of the world’s first parklets in San Francisco (we called our version walklet), and through the diligent efforts of Andres Power in the Mayor’s Office and City Planning, San Francisco’s pioneering parklet program was born.

By early 2020, San Francisco had created 70 parklets in every corner of the city, and the city’s parklet program, now part of Groundplay SF, had become a model for cities around the world.

And then came the pandemic.

After the initial period of lockdown restriction, data emerged that anything we could be doing outdoors, we should be doing outdoors. Communities around the country then began to look to outdoor spaces and the public right-of-way to accommodate outdoor dining, pick-up and drop-off, exercise, socialization, and play. Outdoor dining programs like the City of San Francisco’s Shared Spaces and the City of Oakland’s Slow Streets were launched across the country.

The proliferation of outdoor dining spaces was mind-boggling. In San Francisco alone, there are more than 2,000 outdoor dining platforms (don’t call them parklets — parklets are by definition public spaces). All over the country, almost overnight, parking spaces and streets have been transformed into places for people. While many of these spaces have succeeded in their original intended purpose of supporting local businesses and accommodating public health guidelines regarding social distancing, it may now be that they have outlived their useful lives. While many cities are making the move to make the outdoor dining spaces permanent, due the rapid nature of their creation, only a handful of these spaces live up to the original ideals of the parklet program to contribute something meaningful to the public realm.

A few of the over 2,000 shared spaces outdoor dining platforms (don’t call them parklets) on Valencia Street in San Francisco. / John Bela

Communities around the country are grappling with the future of these temporary outdoor spaces. To tackle this question, I have been in conversation with peers in Oakland, Seattle, Vancouver and other cities. My original thinking was that by default — because these spaces occupy precious curbside public right-of-way — the best outcome is that they all become parklets — that is public space, accessible during the city’s standard public space operating hours.

Parklets, by definition, are publicly accessible and open to all. They work best when their design cues create an invitation for many types of uses — from eating takeout from the adjacent restaurant or cafe, to bike parking, or simply taking a pause on a busy commercial street for a chat with friends. In fact, during the pandemic, when many of our more traditional venues of social infrastructure like schools and libraries have been closed, these smaller spaces have become that much more critical for supporting the everyday casual encounters that are the basis of social cohesion and community building.

But what I’ve learned in the course of my conversations with peers from across the country has resulted in an evolution of my previous thinking, and here’s why.

Lessons from the “Emerald City”

Inspired by San Francisco’s parklet program, businesses in Seattle became interested in building parklets and approached the city in 2011. Today, Seattle has both a parklet program and a streatery program. Seattle’s parklets are much like those in San Francisco where a local sponsor designs, builds, and maintains the space, and the city government issues the permit and ensures adherence to design standards. The streatery model is unique in that they provide commercial cafe seating during business hours as well as public access after business hours.

A Seattle Streatery, a hybrid public/private space. / SDOT

That’s right, it’s a hybrid public space. But how well does this work in practice? Do people use the streateries as public parklets after business hours? Has the city run into any issues regarding liability, or challenges with illicit behavior happening in the streateries when there is no one around to keep their “eyes on the street”?

According to my peers in Seattle, following an extensive community survey, they have concluded the following: Streateries perform well from an economic development perspective and have fulfilled a need in the city for outdoor dining, adding vibrancy to Seattle’s streets. They do provide a public benefit in terms of creating vibrant streets bustling with activity. (The city enforces strict design guidelines for streateries such as a 42-inch height maximum for surrounding enclosures that must be 50 percent transparent.) On the downside, streateries have not been perceived by the public as public space. The public amenities and invitation for use after business hours have been limited at best.

Seattle has some important lessons to share. First, private outdoor dining patios, like streateries, can contribute to economic development, social infrastructure, and create the public benefit of vibrant, safer streets when they adhere to basic good design principles. Second, the hybrid private / public space model sounds good in theory, but in practice it’s hard for an average member of the public to navigate unless there are strong design cues in either direction. In other words, don’t expect your thriving commercial district’s outdoor dining spaces to fulfill a public space need such as public gathering spaces or non-commercial community seating.

Van-city Speaks

But what can we learn from the Queen of the Northwest? As a social democracy, everything is better managed and more beautiful in Vancouver, Canada, so it’s no surprise that this city is leading the way for all of us regarding the future of outdoor public and private spaces. Vancouver’s parklets are very different from San Francisco’s or Seattle’s in that they are designed, funded and built by the city. This has been good for adherence to design standards and ensuring high quality and beautiful parklets. The downside is that due to limited city funding and staff capacity, there were only a handful of parklets created each year.

A Vancouver parklet, a dedicated community serving public space. / City of Vancouver

In response to a growing demand from restaurants and cafes, Vancouver also created a curbside patio program for commercial outdoor dining. Prior to the pandemic, six patios had been approved by the city. When the pandemic hit, the city created a temporary expedited patio permit process. Since June 1, 2020, the city has approved over 400 temporary patios on private and city property.

A typical Vancouver patio designed for commercial outdoor dining. / Google Streetview

Following the initial success of the parklet program, but acknowledging the inherent obstacles of city-led parklets, the city stopped accepting new conventional parklet applications and instead focused their energy on a pop-up plaza program in partnership with local business districts, which has resulted in the creation of 20 nicely-designed plazas with broad public support. Vancouver found that for about the same amount of time and money as a parklet, they could create much more generous and useful pop-up plaza spaces. The second initiative is a community focused parklet program, created in partnership with social service organizations in underserved neighborhoods like the Downtown Eastside. These parklets are designed and built by the city and programmed and managed with a dedicated community partner to offer such programs as health clinics and safe injection sites.

A well-designed and maintained social service parklet in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. / City of Vancouver, BC.

What this means is that as a citizen of Vancouver navigating the city’s streets you have lots of choices. You can choose to pay for seating and experience the buzz and vibrancy of the commercial outdoor dining happening in one of the city’s 400 patios, or you can walk a bit further down the street and hang out at the free public seating in a city-sponsored pop-up plaza or a parklet.

One of the 20 city-led pop-up plazas that provide public seating, shade, bike parking, and public programs. / City of Vancouver.

From my point of view, this is the right balance of public and private use of the curb lane in the public right-of-way. We all want thriving, economically-vibrant commercial districts AND we want meaningful investment in high-quality and well-maintained public spaces in our neighborhoods. The role of the Vancouver municipality has been to be the referee — to ensure that in any given neighborhood or commercial district there are both public and private seating options.

The Upshot

So while my original view was that outdoor dining should be redesigned and converted to public parklets, I now see the powerful and important role that well-designed patios can play in adding to the social and economic vibrancy of our streets. What I don’t support is trying to force these tiny curb lane spaces to be all things for all people. Attempting to saddle commercial patios with public seating or public-use requirements both dilutes their ability to serve their primary commercial purpose and sends confusing signals to the public.

Nor do I support continuing to allow the free-for-all use of the curb lane that has occurred during the pandemic and which has resulted in the proliferation of low-quality, poorly designed, and potentially dangerous commercial outdoor dining platforms. Many of these spaces feel opaque and claustrophobic, blocking visual access to ground floor retail and obstructing city sidewalks.

Businesses who want to use curb lane space for commercial outdoor dining must recognize the immediate benefit of the use of the public right-of-way for their businesses and compensate cities for the use of the space. By pricing the curb appropriately, cities can generate revenue to support and invest in public realm improvements and city staff time to manage their outdoor space programs. Also, patios must adhere to basic good design principles like 42-inch height maximum for surrounding enclosures; 50 percent transparent walls; and a direct, accessible connection to the adjacent sidewalk in order to generate the public benefit of vibrant, lively streets.

This outdoor dining platform is porous, accessible, light filled, and designed with simple and durable materials by designer Léa Saito for the Bon Nene Japanese restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission district / John Bela

With the revenue generated from commercial outdoor dining patio permit fees, cities can then invest in the parklets and pop-up plazas that can continue to fulfill a crucial role for everyday, informal social encounters that form the basis of social bonding and community cohesion. Parklets and pop-up plazas work well when there is a dedicated sponsor or steward — like a community organization, or an adjacent sponsor which has an established take-out business model like an ice cream shop or cafe — who is in charge of daily maintenance and programming of the space. Public space is a verb, not a static object. Public spaces must be cultivated and maintained to flourish and grow so that they are best able to contribute meaningfully to a city’s social infrastructure and a diverse, inclusive, resilient public realm.

Landscape architects and urban designers have a crucial role to play in shaping the future of the use of outdoor spaces. As upholders of design quality, we can ensure that the next generation of commercial outdoor dining patios are well-designed and contribute to a high-quality and vibrant public realm.

As stewards of public space and the public realm, we can ensure that in any given neighborhood or commercial district, there are beautifully-designed public spaces, with generous public seating and lively programming, to create invitations to all city residents to socialize and spend time together.

This beautiful outdoor dining platform was designed and created by Cotogna in San Francisco’s Jackson square. / John Bela
John Bela, ASLA, sitting in the outdoor dining platform designed and created by Cotogna in San Francisco’s Jackson square. / Superworks

John Bela, ASLA, is an urban strategist and designer based in San Francisco. Bela co-founded Rebar, the creators of Park(ing) Day. A founding partner and design director at Gehl San Francisco, he left Gehl in 2021 to form his own design advisory and consulting practice: Bela Urbanism + Design. He is a licensed landscape architect in California.