At the Congress for New Urbanism, A Critique of European Eco-Cities

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany / Freiburg Tourism Bureau. Copyright FWTM-Spiegelhalter

Are European eco-cities models for the future or do they reflect poor urban design practices? During the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering, a group of architects and urban designers debated the merits of a few well-known sustainable cities, including Vauban in Freiburg, Germany; Bo01 in Malmö, Sweden; Kronsberg in Germany; and Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm, Sweden. While there was agreement on the need to densify cities through new compact low-carbon development, there was a lack of consensus on the best way to make sustainable communities more walkable and aesthetically pleasing and how to best incorporate landscape and access to nature.

According to Dhiru Thadani, an architect and urbanist, the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.2 billion by 2050. “Where will all these people live?,” he wondered.

Land scarcity isn’t the issue. “We could fit 14 billion people into the state of Texas if it was as dense as Paris.” But creating enough dense low-carbon communities is.

Increased density of human settlements is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Walkable, bikeable communities, with access to low-carbon transit, have the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any development model. The key to encouraging denser development is making these communities as livable and beautiful as possible.

Architect and academic Michael Dennis, author of Architecture & The City: Selected Essays, argued that “dense urbanism is the most efficient” way to live. He also believes that ecology can be integrated into compact developments — “density doesn’t preclude ecological considerations; ecology and density are fraternal twins.”

But he believes density must be the priority with any new development. Two-thirds of Americans now live in suburban environments where they are dependent on cars that use fossil fuels. These sprawled-out, car-based communities continues our dependence on the “oil empire.”

Citing arguments made in the books Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change by urban planner Peter Calthorpe and Green Metropolis by The New Yorker writer David Owen, Dennis argued that dense urbanism “uses less land, carbon, and energy, and is the best climate solution.” To stave off the climate crisis, “we have 10-15 years left to make major changes,” which he argues involves transforming our communities into higher-density ones. He added that “stormwater and recycling issues didn’t create this crisis.”

While contemporary European eco-cities offer a model for how to maximize density and incorporate ecological landscape design, his issue is with their urban forms, “which aren’t good.” He believes that the issue is “confusion in terms of the role of landscape: the urbanism-to-building connection.”

Dennis believes ecological systems can be integrated into traditional dense and humane European community forms, but European eco-cities haven’t created the right connections between urban form, buildings, landscape, and people. These communities have an urban design problem.

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, which is one of the original European eco-cities built on the site of a former military base, “still looks like army barracks.” While Freiburg is a “beautiful traditional European city,” Vauban “looks like a trailer park on steroids, invaded by an untamed landscape that looks like a jungle.” Its environmental merits are solid — the development is powered by solar energy and includes all ultra-low energy passive house buildings — but “the landscape is confused and unclear.” It’s a “good environmental solution, but not necessarily good urbanism.” (Dennis didn’t mention the wealth of research on the health benefits of nearby nature).

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany / Taras Grescoe, Twitter
Vauban in Freiburg, Germany / Taras Grescoe, Twitter

As for Bo01, a development designed in the early 00s that is powered entirely by renewable energy, the community is too distinct from the beautiful streets and squares of Malmö. In Bo01, “there are no squares or real streets; it’s an architectural project, not an urbanism project. It’s formed of architectural lego blocks.”

Bo01, Malmo, Sweden / Wikipedia, Johan Jönsson, CC BY-SA 4.0

For Dennis, Kronsberg was “so awful I couldn’t spend time on it.” Hammarby in Stockholm is the best of the set, but “it’s still problematic — it has an architectural design, not an urban design.”

John Ellis, a consulting principal, architect, and urban designer at Mithun, disagreed. “Hammarby isn’t as bad as Michael says.” The project, which transformed a polluted brownfield site, was created as part of an Olympics bid the city didn’t win. The development, which now has 20,000 residents and 11,000 jobs, was designed to extend public transit in a ring loop and provide close proximity to a number of other jobs in Stockholm. Hammarby is powered by 50 percent renewable energy and 50 percent biogas from waste.

Hammarby, Stockholm, Sweden / Flickr, Design for Health, CC BY 2.0

There is a transit stop every 984 feet (300 meters), and the tram arrives every 12 minutes. Studies found that 80 percent of trips in Hammarby occur through walking, biking, or public transit.

Blocks were scaled at 200 feet by 360 feet, and buildings are all U-shaped in order to give everyone views of the surrounding lake. There are networks of landscaped pathways that criss-cross the development, adding green space and alternative ways to traverse the community. The development includes a high school and childcare facilities. “While there is a certain monotony, there are many ingredients that create a good urban pattern. And with buildings 5-8 stories tall, Hammarby is 2.5 times as dense as San Francisco,” Ellis said.

Hammarby, Stockholm, Sweden / Flickr, Design for Health, CC BY 2.0

Architect Doug Farr, who Planetizen called one of the top 100 most influential urbanists, said the world is now facing a climate emergency, so we need to move on from the traditional urbanism of the past. A leading sustainable architect, he has also found design inspiration in Freiburg and Vauban, which he has studied in depth in person.

“Traditional urbanism is part of the fabric of 19th century Europe. But we are facing 21st century questions. Traditional urbanism is good for creating walkability, but development models can’t be fixed in amber. They need to evolve to meet the challenges of today.”

Deanna Van Buren: How to Unbuild Racism

“To unbuild racism, we have to build what we believe,” said Deanna Van Buren, an architect, urban developer, and founder of Designing Justice+Designing Spaces, in a powerful keynote speech at the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering.

Van Buren believes that unearthing and rooting out “ingrained racism and patriarchy” requires daily practice because these issues are so embedded in our society. “There have been hundreds of years of displacement and disenfranchisement — redlining, ‘urban renewal,’ and reverse redlining in the form of predatory lending.” In too many communities, “there is a continued manifestation of racism through the co-location of toxic waste sites, freeways that cut through cultural hearts, inadequate housing, and food deserts.”

To bring equity to the built environment, architects, landscape architects, planners, and developers need to “stop creating prettier versions of racist systems.” Instead, planning and design professionals should focus on restorative justice, a system of justice “not anchored in enslavement, but in indigenous processes.”

Restorative justice is a process in which those who have created harm can make amends and heal the people they have hurt. In many communities, restorative justice is increasingly becoming a viable alternative to the conventional justice system. Cases are being steered out of court to mediators trained in restorative justice.

“The process involves Native American peace making approaches,” Van Buren explained. Peace making is led by a trusted elder figure, a “circle keeper,” who can facilitate the addressing of wrongs. Someone who stole a car or committed a theft at gunpoint sits in a circle across from the person they have wronged. Peace making has to be “hyper local but also happen on neutral ground.”

Her planning, design, and development projects all aim to replace the conventional justice system with a new holistic approach rooted in community needs.

In Syracuse, New York, her organization designed the Center for Court Innovation, a peace making center out of an abandoned house, creating a space that feels like a home, not a court, and include circles of chairs, sofas, a kitchen, and gardens. The center is a safe place and has become a true community mecca that offers food and drink and space for other events, even engagement parties.

Near Westside Peacemaking Project, Syracuse, NY / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Near Westside Peacemaking Project, Syracuse, NY / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

Van Buren hopes restorative justice system will become the primary way to provide justice. She envisions a network of restorative justice centers distributed in neutral places, outside of gang zones, across communities.

In Oakland, California, she has been realizing this vision through Restore Oakland, which will host a “constellation of non-profit organizations” that provide both restorative justice and economics. In addition to peace making spaces, the center will include community organizing spaces and a restaurant on the ground floor that trains people to work in fine dining. “It will be an anchor for this entire community.”

To create more equitable and safe communities in the Bay Area, Van Buren and her team are also co-organizing pop-up villages with custom-crafted wood stalls. “These are temporary projects designed for impact.” Visitors can have everything from a breast cancer screening to an AIDS test to a haircut. “These villages help build community relationships, which is how we keep people safe and also support local businesses.”

Popup Village, Bay Area, California / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Popup Village, Bay Area, California / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

In another project, Van Buren’s organization re-imagined a re-entry center for incarcerated women. “When they get out of prison, they are confronted with so many barriers.” Her team collaborated with women just released to design a mobile refuge that provides a safe space to get oriented before moving to transitional housing and its dormitory living. The mobile refuge provides therapy and social services.

Women’s Mobile Refuge / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Women’s Mobile Refuge / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

Another goal is repurposing hundreds of downtown jails that have closed in recent years. “These are toxic holes in downtowns that can be re-imagined as community centers,” she said.

Van Buren has worked with community groups to re-imagine the Atlanta City detention center as a community center with co-located city services and new revenue streams. One option is to daylight the old jail, creating daycare space and meeting rooms. With the right broadband infrastructure, the dark spaces in the bowels of the building could be rented out as server farms. Another option is to simply tear the existing building down and distribute restorative justice centers across the city.

Reimagining the Atlanta City Detention Center / Designing Justice + Designing Spaces
Reimagining the Atlanta City Detention Center / Designing Justice + Designing Spaces

And over the long-term, Van Buren wants to see more wealth come to underserved communities. This can happen if more low-income residents can purchase their own homes or earn profits from development projects.

In Detroit, Van Buren’s team and a number of partners are working on an ambitious community land trust — the Love Campus, which aims to “build the infrastructure to end mass incarceration by creating re-investments that can divert funding from criminal justice into restorative community assets.”

Love Campus, Detroit / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Love Campus, Detroit / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

Retrofitted buildings will become an arts and culture hub, with low-cost gallery space, digital fabrication tools, and industrial design spaces. The community development will also include housing; job training, because “people don’t kill each other when they have jobs;” and a youth center, because “youth have no place to go.” The project will be crowd-funded so people who don’t meet minimum real estate investment thresholds can participate in wealth generation. “Affordable housing is a poverty trap; people need to own their own homes.”

These projects demonstrate that designers play an important role — they can “ignite radical imagination, create a co-learning process and democratic tools for change.”

New Research: The Built Environment Impacts Our Health and Happiness More Than We Know

ASLA 2020 Urban Design Honor award. Yongqing Fang Alleyways: An Urban Transformation. Guangzhou, China. Lah D+H Landscape and Urban Design

People living in dense cities are among the least happy. Their rates of depression are 40 percent higher than other populations; and their rates of anxiety are 20 percent higher. Why? Because the built environment is directly linked with happiness and well-being, and too often urban environments fail to put people at ease.

In a session at the American Planning Association’s virtual conference, Justin Hollander, professor of urban and environmental planning and policy at Tufts University, said planners, landscape architects, and architects have a responsibility to design a built environment that increases well-being. Through his fascinating research on cognitive architecture, he has found “we are deeply influenced by our surroundings” — even more than we know.

“We have an automatic (non-conscious) response to shapes, patterns, and colors. Our minds are like icebergs — we are only aware of less than 5 percent of our responses to our environment,” Hollander said. These findings, which are covered in greater detail in his book Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, co-authored with Ann Sussman, have significant implications for the planning and design of communities.

Hollander argued that “humans are wall-hugging species. Well-defined corridors and streets encourage our walking.” (see image at top)

On an innate level, humans are also “programmed to look for faces everywhere.” This may be why many traditional or vernacular buildings almost look like faces, with a central door and windows on either side.

A building that looks like a face / Ann Sussman, Tufts University

Humans connect with these forms because they help us tell stories about buildings and places. “We go to places because of stories we tell ourselves. We can imagine identities in these places. Tourist attractions always tell a story.”

Given nature is our original context, humans also have an innate biophilia — a deep attraction to and affinity for nature. “It’s an artifact of evolution.”

ASLA 2020 Landmark Award. Millennium Park — A Fortuitous Masterpiece. Lurie Garden by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol / P. Psyzka and City of Chicago

As we now understand, humans are drawn to landscapes that provide a refuge, a sense of safety, and prospect, a view of the entire scene, which supports that sense of safety. Storytelling is also important in landscapes, whether they are gardens, parks, or streetscapes. Humans are drawn to landscapes that provide clear sequences.

ASLA 2018 Professional Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Juliane Schaer

At Tufts University, Hollander is examining students’ cognitive responses to a variety of images of the built environment. Through eye-tracking software, “we can see the unseen — we can see what our minds are looking at an unconscious level.”

In his lab, Hollander uses 3M’s visual attention software to map the path students’ eyes take across an image — where they fixate and experience an unconscious response to visual stimuli. In a study of 30 students, Hollander found they universally looked at the entrance and windows on a traditonal building first, ignoring the blank areas. And when he showed students’ eye tracks of a contemporary all-glass library, they fixated briefly on the edges, but the glass facade itself seemed faceless, almost invisible. They just looked at the sky because the image simply caused too much cognitive stress. (In the image below, the areas of highest fixation are in red, followed by orange, with blue indicating the least attention).

Eye tracking of a traditional building and a glass library / Justin Hollander and Ann Sussman, Tufts University

Hollander said eye tracking software shows that New Urbanist-style communities, which have homes closer to the street; traditional architecture that mimic faces; and sidewalks all “encourage walking.” If a pedestrian can see a sequence — one, two, three, four homes in a row — they are more likely to want to walk down that row. He knows this because he could see the students unconsciously looking at all the facades down the street in a sequence.

In contrast, an image of a row of parking garages, with no clear doors or windows, caused students to scan for windows, quickly give up, and again look at the sky. “There was far less visual intensity, and it’s a less walkable environment.”

Flags and columns succeed in grabbing attention, which has been known for millennia. Flags predate permanent settlements, and the ancient Greeks and Romans used columns in their architecture.

Why does this matter? Hollander argues that environments that are easier to fixate on cause less cognitive stress.

Megan Oliver, an urbanist based in Baltimore, Maryland, and founder of Hello Happy Design, said the research of Hollander and others is critical, because there is a “mental health crisis” in the U.S., particularly American cities.

People are constantly responding to the built environment and in turn trying to shape it in order to reduce the impact of environmental stressors, such as blank glass or concrete building facades, crowds, noise, and air pollution. These stressors combine to make people anxious, sick, and unhappy.

In contrast, happy places are designed to encourage pro-social behavior. This is because “people need social connections in order to thrive.” Happy places help create layers of social relations, including “weak ties,” which are actually very important. “Weak ties create a sense of belonging and identity. They build trust, which helps pull communities through challenges.” Communities with higher weak ties and trust fought the COVID-19 pandemic better.

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Honor Award. Walker Art Center Wurtele Upper Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Inside | Outside + HGA / Theodore Lee

Oliver argued that communities with pro-social behavior are also more inclusive and participatory and therefore better at shaping the built environment to meet their needs. The ethos in these communities is “change ourselves by changing the city.” These communities shape their spaces, creating shared identity through gardens, public art, and other improvements that help reduce stressors. Happy places then go beyond “places we inhabit and become extensions of ourselves.” These places enable us to “bond with the environment around us.”

A related conversation, also with Hollander, occurred at the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering. In a rapid-fire Zoom roundtable, the debate about what makes people happy or not in the built environment continued.

Architect Don Ruggles, CEO of Ruggles Mabe Studio, argued that “humans are always looking for safe spaces. We think about survival every minute of the day. But beauty is equally as important. We have an intuitive response — it creates a sense of pleasure.”

The problem, he argues, is that “our survival instinct is about five-to-seven times stronger than our pleasure instinct,” so anything in the built environment that is a stressor overwhelms our ability to experience beauty. He called for designers to focus on projects that engage our parasympathetic system that create deep relaxation so that pleasure can be experienced.

According to Nikos Salingaros, professor of mathematics, architecture, urban, and complexity theory at the University of Texas at San Antonio, architects today are wed to a style rooted in 1920s Germany — the Bauhaus — that creates an unhealthy built environment. “Trillions of dollars are wasted on creating stylistically irrelevant glass boxes that are essentially invisible to people. Whole cities — districts, neighborhoods, and downtowns — have become invisible, because of the geometries and math of the structures built.” Given humans are cognitively stressed by Modernist or contemporary glass buildings, these places are “close to malpractice, based on the medical evidence.”

Instead, Salingaros called for privileging human connections through walkable, bikeable places. “Start with network connectivity. No giant blocks. Create intimate networks that are comfortable to humans.” Furthermore, all urban spaces should be “continuations of those people-centric networks. Use the correct dimensions, apply pattern languages, and make the boundaries of buildings and spaces permeable.”

Urban designers, architects, and landscape architects should be “applying mathematical symmetries at multiple scales. The urban, landscape, architectural, and ornamental scale should all be aligned through sub-symmetries” — or the entire design will fail. “The measure of success will be the flow of people.”

He especially cautioned against contemporary buildings that purposefully try to be disharmonious — “these place intentionally violate symmetry laws,” creating stress in their attempt to grab attention.

For Ann Sussman, an architect, author, and researcher, designers can retrofit environments that create stress and anxiety, but only to a degree. She pointed to a project in Somerville, Massachusetts, where the negative impact of the blank concrete wall of a parking garage was mitigated through public art and greenery. Students shown the blank wall and then an image of the redesigned wall while wearing eye-tracking monitors experienced higher visual fixation on the art.

But in the case of a car-centric suburb, with a wide road with few houses along it, even adding in sidewalks would do little to reduce the impact of its inherent car-centric nature. “As people look down the street, they can’t fixate on the sidewalk and therefore safety. There are some suburbs built in the 1950s and 60s that just will never be walkable. These places are too foreign to our brain architecture.”

Unfortunately, new developments can have the same problems. Sussman asked: “Why is the Seaport district in South Boston so loathed? It’s because people can’t focus on it — they can’t anchor their sight on the glass buildings, so their fixation is anchored to the sky.”

Seaport District, Boston / Signature Boston

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

The Nation’s Capital Welcomes Its Newest Memorial, Dedicated to American World War I Troops — 04/30/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The proposal, designed by architect Joe Weishaar with sculptor Sabin Howard, grew into a collaboration with architects-of-record GWWO and the Philadelphia-based David Rubin Land Collective as landscape architect, resulting in the new memorial through years of iterative agency review and adjustment.”

Activists Want to Restore Tampa’s Kiley Garden, Once a Landscape Marvel — 04/29/21, Tampa Bay Times
“A downtown resident and photographer who uses Kiley Garden for shoots, Stehlik is on a mission to add shade to the 4 1/2-acre checkerboard of grass and concrete located next to the Rivergate Tower at 400 N. Ashley Dr.”

The Weitzman School of Design Will Ponder the Fate of a Fragile Planet at the Venice Architecture Biennale — 04/27/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Richard Weller, professor and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture and co-executive director of Penn’s Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology, will present three new works as part of the As One Planet exhibition at the Central Pavilion at the Giardini.”

Modi’s Sprawling Delhi Makeover Fuels Anger in Virus-hit India — 04/26/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Current plans suggest that many open spaces around India Gate that are visited by thousands daily may no longer be accessible to the public. ‘We common mortals will have no reason to go there, as government offices replace the quiet spaces of art, history, performance, leisure,’ Narayani Gupta, a Delhi-based historian said.”

Can City-owned Vacant Lots Fill the Need for Park Equity in Houston? — 04/21/21, Rice Kinder Institute for Urban Research
“The residents of University Village in Greater Third Ward made a very strong case for turning a vacant lot into a pocket park in their neighborhood — and the city listened.”

Midtown’s Highway-capping Park Boosters Release New Video, Continue Outreach — 04/21/21, Urbanize Atlanta
“The goal of the park’s green elements is to recapture the character of the land, as it was in the late 1800s, when Georgia Tech was a single building, Midtown just a series of stately homes along Peachtree Street, and the rolling landscape still bucolic, with Tanyard Creek slicing through.”

To Create a Better California, These Landscape Architects Design Inclusive Public Spaces for All — 04/20/21, University of Southern California News
“The Landscape Justice Initiative unites USC students and faculty with community organizations to tackle big social and environmental challenges in Los Angeles and beyond.”

The Case for the Rural-to-Urban Transect

Transect Urbanism: Readings in Human Ecology / ORO Editions

By Grace Mitchell Tada

Imagine a tool that banishes the social and environmental ills of modern urban planning and its suburban sprawl, instead constructing an approach that reconciles urbanism and environmentalism. Meanwhile, the tool also enables choice and equity in how and where individuals live.

Architect, urban designer, and DPZ CoDesign principal Andrés Duany insists such a tool exists. It’s the Rural-to-Urban Transect, at once a tool and a theory, and it’s a balm to the recklessly sprawling modern life now ubiquitous across the U.S., which takes the form of socio-economic uniformity, automobile dependence, and conspicuous land consumption.

The book Transect Urbanism: Readings in Human Ecology, edited by Duany and Brian Falk, who is director of the Center for Applied Transect Studies, presents a collection of essays and descriptive graphics that examine the Rural-to-Urban Transect and explains its potential to create both a better quality of life within communities and better environmental practices across all scales.

This transect identifies and allocates elements of urbanism and their suitability to varying environments. It’s a theory of human settlement: an “ordering system” that harnesses a geographic gradient to organize natural habitats, including human habitats. Every human activity, and its resulting element in the urban fabric, can be pegged to a locus somewhere along that gradient. These elements comprise an “interrelated continuum of natural and human habitats—natural, rural-sub-urban, and urban—with different settlement densities and opportunities for social encounter and human activity,” the authors write.

Though the concept of a transect was not defined as such until the 18th century, Duany describes it as a pattern of human settlement both timeless and cross-cultural: the rural-to-urban spectrum can be traced to settlements from ancient Pompeii to ancient China.

In the late 18th century, Alexander von Humboldt first articulated the transect in the modern sense. Joseph Meyer illustrated the concept, drawing Humboldt’s voyage to South America to include the natural habitat and conditions above and below the ground’s surface.

“Tableau Physique,” Alexander von Humboldt / Center for Applied Transect Studies

In the 19th century, Sir Patrick Geddes’ illustrated “Valley Section” incorporated human presence in varying habitat zones. The humans, per the times, always exploited their environment.

“Valley Section,” Sir Patrick Geddes / Center for Applied Transect Studies

In 1969, Ian McHarg posited the next seminal transect. Duany finds it incomplete: it failed to include, or even suggest, human habitat. Moreover, this absence perpetuated the dualism between human and nature that underpins environmental thinking — “nature is sacred, and the city profane.” This dualism ultimately produced the chasm between environmentalism and urbanism.

In practice, McHarg-inspired planning has yielded countless communities that prioritize preserved “environmental” areas at the expense of higher density. For example, South Carolina’s Hilton Head and California’s Sea Ranch sanction only single-use zoning. “The developed areas of these projects remain, in their socioeconomic and environmental performance, indistinguishable from sprawl: everyone drives everywhere for everything,” Duany and Falk write.

Ian McHarg’s Natural Transect / Center for Applied Transect Studies

In 1994, the transect was revitalized as an ordering system at the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), when the group — proponents of “density, connectivity, and contiguity” — sought a theory establishing connections between elements of urbanism. The Rural-to-Urban Transect did so by defining six recognizable transect zones and their interrelationships: Natural (T1), Rural (T2), Sub-urban (T3), General Urban (T4), Urban Center (T5), and Urban Core (T6).

The Rural-to-Urban Transect / Center for Applied Transect Studies

Duany asserts that the Rural-to-Urban Transect extends “the environmental protocol of McHarg into the city,” thus including people. It becomes a tool with which to design, correlating elements along a rural-to-urban continuum, enabling “the basis for a system of zoning that creates complex, contextually appropriate human environments.” Adapted from landscape ecology, each of the six transect zones contain elements that engender and amplify a place’s character.

This transect’s extension of the McHargian protocol yields arguably two of its greatest boons: its potential to unite environmentalism and urbanism and its capacity to support diverse, equitable communities. The divide between humans and nature is not new — Duany traces this chasm back to the Old Testament — and it manifests in the 20th century as environmentalism’s defensive stance toward urbanism.

The dominant ecological disposition “privileges a pristine nature and regards the presence of humans as a disturbance” to a system understood according to its pre-human condition. “A good human community can be ‘green’ only by being invisible,” Duany and Falk argue. Urbanism has thus been viewed as “a negative condition, never as an organization of positive choices for the improvement of human communities.” And as a result, environmentalism is expressed in technical and regulatory systems that promote suburbanization — from pervasive landscaping to mandated on-site stormwater treatment.

This paradigm fails communities when prioritizing nature means seeing “social space as blight.” “Whole communities of humans have been pushed aside for highway construction, but certain fish and fowl have caused even the most single-minded transportation department officials to reconsider their designs,” Duany and Falk contend. But only certain communities get pushed aside. Favoring nature also usually translates to favoring certain social and racial groups at the expense of others.

According to the authors, their Rural-to-Urban Transect can mitigate these insidious tendencies. Rather than holding economy and culture as beyond nature, this transect accommodates all elements, rooted in the belief that humans are essential to environmental discourse, in all their various lifestyles along the rural-to-urban spectrum.

Most importantly, Duany and the other authors include everyone in their conception and explicitly those who historically have had little choice in how they live. Systems based in the Rural-to-Urban Transect encourage a plurality of viewpoints and human habitats. They promote equity.

Echternach, Luxembourg, by Léon Krier (left), and Annapolis, Maryland, by Charles Barrett (right) / Center for Applied Transect Studies

Key to the Rural-to-Urban Transect is its basis in form. Many planning initiatives are based in use and therefore manifest as prohibitions and separation. Cities filter community-making through a sieve of engineering standards, zoning ordinances, and other regulatory mechanisms long before designers enter the scene. Duany asserts that this existing framework, however, can be re-imagined by their transect: zoning based in form can yield certain physical outcomes and settlement patterns. Rather than zones that simplify and separate, transect code ensures fruitful relationships and adjacencies, from the local to regional scale. Transect-inspired zones preserve character and diversity according to place.

Essays in Transect Urbanism explain how these successes of the transect can be achieved: one details how to analyze an urban transect, one discusses governance along the transect, another discusses retail models within it. Duany includes a chapter describing the transect-based SmartCode that he has developed and implemented across various cities. Another chapter gives hope that existing sprawl can be repaired into a paradigm more resilient. Other essays consider the Rural-to-Urban Transect ontologically: the reason for six zones, and whether it qualifies as natural law, as certain people — Duany included — claim. The range of essays, from the practical to the theoretical, and the extensive illustrations make it a book suited for the student and the professional, for the planner, the landscape architect, and others thinking critically about the built environment.

As of 2019, the Form-Based Codes Institute identified 439 transect-based codes that had been adopted worldwide. Clearly, more communities do not embrace such thinking than do, and our society has much work to accomplish before divorcing itself from suburban sprawl. Duany in part blames the theory of landscape urbanism, which he claims perpetuates sprawl through the guise of aesthetics. He argues: “human biophilia is such that an image of anything with leaves will tilt the selection in its favor.”

Certainly, though, criticisms of the Rural-to Urban Transect arise: it is too simplified; its mere six zones are insufficient to account for all settlement and natural area types; the intentional rules of its zones are undesirably prescriptive; or it lacks consideration of urban ecology and biodiversity.

Yet, as made by the case presented in Transect Urbanism, the Rural-to-Urban Transect can serve as a noble tool in the reformation of our urban fabric. In one of his essays, written in 2005, Duany warns that a failure to square environmental ethos and social equity concerns with free market choice as perpetuated by the status-quo sprawl may only be solved by “a long economic emergency…that none of us should wish upon the nation.”

As millions of Americans grapple with job and home losses, among many other kinds of loss, we’re in the midst of an emergency. Released into a pandemic climate that has made us skeptical of dense urbanism, this book arrives with special urgency.

Now is as ripe a time as ever to give a different paradigm a chance, even if doing so will also require specific and convincing accommodations to the moment.

Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, is with Hood Design Studio and co-editor of the new book Black Landscapes Matter.

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

Proposed redesign of Hirshhorn sculpture garden by Hiroshi Sugimoto / Hirshhorn Museum

Hirshhorn Museum Is Close to Finalizing Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Garden Revamp — 03/12/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Sugimoto’s design will be only the second comprehensive update of the Washington, D.C. museum’s Gordon Bunshaft-designed campus, which debuted in 1974. Bunshaft’s garden, as well as its extensive 1981 renovation, was influenced by Japanese landscape architecture and garden design.”

The New Trend in Home Gardens—Landscaping to Calm Anxiety — 03/12/21, The Wall Street Journal
“Loud hues don’t cultivate serenity. ‘Reds, oranges and yellow are hot colors that stir passion,’ said New York landscape architect Edmund Hollander, who recommends mining the other end of the spectrum for tranquility. ‘The gradation of blues into greens is almost the colors of a stream, with whites and creams representing movement, if you will.'”

Toronto Swaps Google-backed, Not-So-Smart City Plans for People-Centered Vision — 03/12/21, The Guardian
“Now, Canada’s largest city is moving towards a new vision of the future, in which affordability, sustainability and environmentally friendly design are prioritized over the trappings of new and often untested technologies.”

The Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden Redesign: Paving Paradise — 03/11/21, The Wall Street Journal
“The Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden in Washington is nearly perfect; of course, it must be destroyed. This is the paradox of landscape architecture: The more sensitive and subtle the garden, the more invisible it is—even to its custodians. At a certain point they can mistake it for an opportunity to exploit rather than a sacred trust to protect.”

Philly’s Iconic Ben Franklin Parkway to Get a Major Redesign – 03/05/21, WHYY
“Philadelphia is moving forward on a long-term plan to overhaul much of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with an eye toward improving access for people walking and biking.”

Big Step Forward for $50 Billion Plan to Save Louisiana Coast — 03/05/11, The New York Times
“An environmental assessment said the project’s next step would largely benefit coastal areas, though it might also affect some marine life, especially dolphins.”

The Bike Boom Is Real, Says New Mode Share Data — 03/05/21, Greater Greater Washington
“Since 2007, the share of people in the Washington region who ride bikes has gone up, while driving and riding transit have dropped, according to a gigantic once-per-decade report.”

What About Jane? – 03/03/21, Urban Omnibus
“Jacobs’ legacy is divided. On the one hand she should be seen as an analyst of gentrification, not simply a harbinger of its ill effects. But she also treats with kid gloves the social phenomenon that has made gentrification such an urgent topic today: race.”

10 New Projects in Online Exhibition Demonstrate Value of Landscape Architecture as a Climate Solution

NatureScape homeowner in Orange County, California / Jodie Cook Design, Inc.

ASLA’s Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Online Exhibition demonstrates how landscape architects are designing smart solutions to climate impacts, such as flooding, extreme heat, drought, and sea level rise. 10 new projects added to the exhibition exemplify best practice approaches to landscape architecture in the era of climate change.

The projects include a mix of landscape-based and often nature-based solutions across the U.S., which range in scale from residential and school landscapes to master plans for entire cities and counties. There is also a focus on projects that address climate injustices and meet the needs of historically-marginalized and underserved communities.

The John W. Cook Academy Space to Grow Schoolyard / site design group, ltd. (site)

“The projects clearly show how landscape architects can help all kinds of communities reduce their risk to increasingly severe climate impacts. Landscape architects design with nature, which leads to more resilient solutions that also improve community health, safety, and well-being over the long-term,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO

With the new projects, which were selected with ASLA’s Climate Action Committee, there are now a total of 30 projects featured in the online exhibition. Each project was selected to illustrate policy recommendations outlined in the 2017 report produced by ASLA’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change & Resilience.

Explore all the new projects:

Cuyahoga Greenways Framework Plan
Cuyahoga County, Ohio | SmithGroup

Being solely dependent on cars increases communities’ risks to climate impacts. Through the 815-mile Cuyahoga Greenways Framework Plan created by landscape architects and planners at SmithGroup, some 59 communities will have healthier and more resilient transportation connections to downtown Cleveland, Lake Erie, and each other.

Green Schoolyards
Vancouver, Washington | nature+play designs

Too few schools offer educational green spaces that can spark children’s appreciation for nature, which is critical to helping them become future Earth stewards. Jane Tesner Kleiner, ASLA, with nature+play designs partnered with school leaders, students, and volunteers to design native plant gardens, meadows, and tree groves that create environmental education opportunities; support pollinators, such as butterflies, bees, and birds; and also manage stormwater.

Houston Arboretum and Nature Center
Houston, Texas | Design Workshop and Reed Hilderbrand

By 2012, more than 50 percent of the tree canopy of the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center had been lost due to drought and hurricanes made more severe by climate change. By removing trees and restoring the original prairie, savannah, and woodland ecosystems found at the Arboretum, landscape architects with Design Workshop and Reed Hilderbrand designed a landscape naturally resilient to future climate shocks.

The John W. Cook Academy Space to Grow Schoolyard
Chicago, Illinois | site design group, ltd (site)

Historically marginalized and underserved communities, like those found in the South Side of Chicago, are disproportionally affected by climate impacts such as flooding. Through the Space to Grow program, a flooded asphalt schoolyard at the John W. Cook Academy, an elementary school on the South Side, was redesigned by landscape architects at site design group, ltd (site) to become a green learning and play space that captures stormwater.

The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design
Atlanta, Georgia | Andropogon

Through their research capabilities and campus infrastructure, universities and schools can also help solve the climate crisis. For the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, landscape architects with Andropogon integrated an innovative water management system that captures and reuses 100 percent of stormwater runoff from the building and also cleanses and reuses building greywater in the ecological landscape.

NatureScape
Orange County, California | Jodie Cook Design, Inc.

Climate change has severely reduced the availability of fresh water in arid Western states. Turf lawns require vast amounts of water to maintain and also provide no habitat for native plant and animal species. Through NatureScape, an innovative program in Orange County, California, Jodie Cook, ASLA, helped homeowners transform their turf front yards into water-saving native plant gardens that can sustain a range of native bird, bee, and butterfly species.

Rain Check 2.0
Buffalo, New York | Buffalo Sewer Authority

Climate change is making communities’ struggles with aging combined sewer systems, which carry both sewage from buildings and stormwater from streets, even worse. With more frequent extreme weather events, these systems now more often overflow, causing untreated sewage to enter water bodies. Rain Check 2.0, an innovative program in Buffalo, New York, led by landscape architect Kevin Meindl, ASLA, offers grants to private landowners to capture stormwater through trees, rain gardens, green roofs and streets.

Randall’s Island Connector
The Bronx, New York | Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA)

Historically marginalized and underserved communities, like those in the South Bronx in New York City, experience higher than average heat risks because they typically have fewer parks and recreational spaces. The lack of safe and convenient pedestrian and bicycle access to nearby green spaces exacerbates the problem. Working with two community groups and the New York City government, landscape architects with MNLA designed the Randall’s Island Connector, a ¼-mile-long multi-modal path underneath an Amtrak freight line.

Sapwi Trails Community Park
Thousand Oaks, California | Conejo Recreation & Park District and RRM Design Group (consulting landscape architects)

In drought-stricken Western states, climate change has added stress to increasingly fragile ecosystems. Instead of moving forward with an earlier plan that could have damaged the Lang Creek ecosystem, planners and landscape architects at the Conejo Recreation & Park District and RRM Design Group designed the Sapwi Trails Community Park to be a model for how to preserve ecological systems while improving access and dramatically reducing water use.

Thornton Creek Water Quality Channel
Seattle, Washington | MIG

Climate change and environmentally-insensitive development in the Pacific Northwest are exacerbating negative impacts on salmon. Grassroots environmental organizations sought to daylight the piped Thornton Creek. A new water quality channel was designed by landscape architects at MIG to clean stormwater runoff from 680 surrounding acres before the water flows into the South Fork of the salmon-bearing Thornton Creek.

Background:

New projects were submitted by ASLA members through an open call ASLA released in 2019. In partnership with the ASLA Climate Action Committee, projects were selected to represent a range of U.S. regions, scales (from residential to county-wide master plans), and firm types.

In 2017, ASLA convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change & Resilience, which resulted in a report: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate and a series of lectures and educational sessions at built environment conferences. In 2019, an exhibition outlining 20 cases that exemplify the policy goals outlined in the report opened at the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C., and a companion website was launched.

The exhibition was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Street Trees Are Important, But Need to Be Respectfully Sited

Misplaced trees in front of a civic building, Nantucket, Massachusetts / Robert Gibbs
Trees respecting the Civic-Commercial C-Zone / Robert Gibbs

By Robert J. Gibbs, FASLA, AICP

For most of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American cities prospered as their region’s center of commerce. Central business districts thrived as shopping destinations by having densely populated cores, mass transportation, large employment centers, on-street parking, and numerous governmental and civic institutions. During the 1960s, America’s larger cities began installing street trees and designer furnishings in an effort to revitalize downtowns in the wake of losing significant market share to suburban shopping centers.

Even though they are a relatively recent phenomenon in many city centers, street trees enhance a downtown’s uniqueness and authenticity. A well-planned, tree-lined urban street contributes to shoppers’ perception that downtown stores offer quality goods and services not commonly found in shopping malls.

Studies dating back to the 1970s, including those by Kathleen Wolf, a research social scientist at the University of Washington, have documented the effects of trees and other plant life on the “restorative experience,” a concept advanced through two interpretations: Stress Reduction Theory and Attention Restoration Theory. The former theory contends that environments containing natural elements reduce levels of “physiological arousal” (stress) in the brain; the latter contends that the presence of vegetation in an environment is “uniquely capable” of effortlessly capturing attention, which allows those elements of the brain used for direct concentration to recuperate. This mitigates what is known as “directed attention fatigue” (DAF), or simply the depletion of the ability to focus on a directed task.

These findings have implications for urban retail areas. It has been proven that shopping, as a goal-oriented activity constrained by many external factors, can induce a stressed state in the consumer. Research has also documented a positive correlation between a shopper’s “mood state” and his or her willingness to buy. Further, the mood state of retail employees correlates with job performance. The vast array of merchandising techniques retailers employ when aggregated across the urban or mall setting can result in DAF, a form of “information overload” that affects the consumer. It has likewise been proven that DAF results in decreased consumer confidence because of poor or rushed purchasing decisions, which may translate into dissatisfaction with a specific store or the overall retail area.

However, street trees alone cannot solve the problems and challenges that commercial urban areas face. Frequently, too much emphasis has been placed on planting street trees and installing decorative streetscape enhancements in an effort to improve retail sales in historic downtowns.

Retailers, shopping center developers, and urban designers have differing opinions regarding the layout and use of trees. Some shopping center developers even design by the “24-inch rule”: any tree is acceptable in any location as long as it is less than 24 inches tall (a metaphor for no street trees of any type).

In some cities, planners have installed short shrub-like trees that block motorists’ and pedestrians’ views of storefronts and signage but fail to provide useful canopies. In some newer and renovated urban centers, trees have either been organized around an abstract grid or randomly scattered according to some new design theory. In each case, trees have been sited without regard for the visibility of signage, storefronts, and civic buildings.

To enhance the sustainability of an urban commercial center, street trees should be carefully located to provide protection from extreme heat, reduce the scale of the street, mitigate the height of tall buildings, and improve the overall aesthetics of the shopping area. Asymmetrically sized sidewalks can respond to local climate conditions: wide sidewalks accommodate more shade in hot climates or the warming sun in colder regions.

Trees are often planted in a 25-30-foot on-center grid, frequently evenly spaced between predetermined street lighting fixtures or curbside parking spaces. While this modular approach contributes to a balanced and organized urban aesthetic, trees frequently cause havoc with retailers and civic buildings. Rather than installing trees at regular intervals in a row, which may inadvertently align with and thus block the view of building entrances, each building’s significant architectural features or signage should be analyzed during the initial site analysis process. Where worthy building features are present, or proposed with new development, a Civic-Commercial C-shaped Zone should be included in site plans.

Diagram of the Civic-Commercial C-Shaped Zone at the entrance of a building. / Gibbs Planning Group

Proposed street trees, light fixtures, site furnishings, and landscaping should be planted outside of the C-Zone, near or on common property lines, clustered where they can hide blank walls, or spaced to avoid blocking the view of retail entrances, storefront windows, signage, important commercial architectural features, and civic buildings.

Trees planted along storefront edges that respect the Commercial C-Zone, Nantucket, Massachusetts. / Robert Gibbs

As an idealistic young landscape architect early in my career, I designed a textbook perfect streetscape for a small Wisconsin town. Large Linden trees were spaced exactly 25 feet apart, to align with the center of each adjacent parallel parking space and for a continues tree canopy at maturity in 25 years. Street furnishings and flower beds were precisely spaced in a “landscape zone” along the outer edge of the walkway. I was convinced that my design would almost immediately revitalize the then declining business district by creating a human-scaled, beautiful destination for eager shoppers and diners. Adjacent building features, storefronts of commercial signage were not even considered in my design. Symmetry and scale were all that mattered for my brilliant placemaking and hopefully award-winning design.

However, during the tree installation, a hardware store owner taught me a lifelong lesson. One of the new trees directly blocked all views of this historic neon sign from both passing vehicles and pedestrians. The owner explained how he would lose vital business to a competing larger chain store located in a nearby shopping center. Although I did my best to enlighten the businessman that my design would create a “sense of place” to attract many more people to the downtown, and that views of his storefront or sign were not important, or that the trees would eventually grow tall enough to expose his sign after 20 years, he wasn’t buying it and let me know his concerns in no uncertain terms. He was angry, and I knew he was right. I had mistakenly misplaced trees relative to the adjacent facades and commercial signage. One tree even blocked the portico of a historic landmark church. I had made a blunder that provided a lifelong lesson for future urban designs. This approach was later reinforced during my tenure as the director of planning for a major shopping center developer.

It’s almost unbelievable, but many landscape architects and designers still routinely align trees and furnishing in an abstract grid without consideration of the surrounding architecture.

Misplaced tree obstructing landmark historic building in Nantucket, Massachusetts / Robert Gibbs
A tree blocks views of the store’s entrance / Robert Gibbs
Another poorly located tree that could have easily been located asymetrically along the sides of the storefront in Nantucket, Massachusetts / Robert Gibbs
Misplaced tree blocks view of an entrance to a building / Robert Gibbs
Misplaced trees block view of store sign in Nantucket, Massachusetts / Robert Gibbs

Since the humbling lessons learned during my Wisconsin streetscape design, I have frequently lectured about my C-Zone theory at universities. When possible, I include photographs of local misplaced street trees, often resulting in rapid tree relocations or removal by the city. Below, see 2009 “before” and 2011 “after” photographs of a street tree blocking a luxury store along Worth Avenue, Palm Beach, Florida. The ill-located tree was moved within month of my Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce address on urban retail best practices.

In 2009, a street tree blocked the entrance to a luxury store in Palm Beach, Florida / Robert Gibbs
In 2011, the tree was removed and two street trees created space for the entrance, in Palm Beach, Florida / Robert Gibbs

Robert Gibbs, FASLA, is president of the Gibbs Planning Group, which has advised and planned commercial areas in some 500 town centers and historic cities in the U.S. and abroad. Gibbs is a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, a lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, author of Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development, and co-author of eight books.

Social Urbanism: From the Medellín Model to a New Global Movement

Social Urbanism: Reframing Spatial Design – Discourses from Latin America / Applied Research + Design, ORO

By Gabriel Díaz Montemayor, ASLA

Social Urbanism: Reframing Spatial Design – Discourses from Latin America, a new book by Maria Bellalta, ASLA, dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at the Boston Architectural College, is a welcome addition to the growing number of publications on the social justice-oriented form of urbanism, architecture, and public space emanating from Medellín and Colombia. The achievements of social urbanism have rightfully become synonymous with Medellín in the world of landscape architecture, urban planning and design, and architecture.

So what is social urbanism? Is it a top-down and bottom-up planning, design, and implementation process for improving the quality of life of low-income and disenfranchised communities? Appropriately, there is no single definition in the book. There are various takes, which range from comparisons to Jaime Lerner’s strategy of urban acupuncture, integrated community approaches (engagement and participation), and projects and practices in Mexico and Brazil.

While this lack of definition may leave some readers dissatisfied, the book provides a chronology of Medellín’s many social urbanist endeavors and institutional actors, which are represented by a collection of acronyms: PRIMED, POT, EDU, PUI, EPM, UVA, AEI, etc. All these point to the value of complex solutions that include multiple stakeholders and interests.

But the results are not without shortcomings. In Gloria Aponte’s critical contribution, she highlights the lack of ecological considerations in the practice of social urbanism in Medellín. This omission is further described in Juan Camilo Jaramillo’s article on the damaged environment of the city – the accumulated negative impacts on air, water, land, and biodiversity.

Social Urbanism is a predominantly graphic book. It contains appealing and comprehensive social, economic, urban, and environmental data-based maps of Latin America, Colombia, and Medellín. As such, it is a book aligned with the work of architect and professor Felipe Correa, including his books on Sao Paulo, Brazil; Mexico City, Mexico; and Quito, Ecuador.

La Aurora Trece de Noviembre and Barrio Independencia informal settlement at Medellin’s urban periphery / Integrated Urban Projects, a co-production with Daniela Coray and Maria Bellalta

Social Urbanism also contains the DNA for several potential books that I hope emerge soon. Chapter One on Latin America’s geography is succinct, but as a chapter may be too ambitious. The maps describing the resource extraction of the continent are also a good companion for Correa’s Beyond the City: Resource Extraction Urbanism in South America. In Chapter Two, the book shifts its focus to the urban history of Medellín. Social urbanism, the heart of the book, makes up Chapter Three.

Chapter Four is a collection of studio projects developed through the many visits and design studios Bellalta has organized in Medellín with students from the Boston Architectural College and their student and faculty collaborators from the prestigious Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana (UPB), a private, Catholic, and powerful institutional actor in Medellín’s transformation. This chapter reveals the breadth and depth of opportunities for exploration by planning and design students. The projects speak to the unfulfilled promise of progress in Latin America and the potential of social urbanism across the region. Chapter Five, “Invited Voices,” includes short articles by some of the key contemporary actors reshaping Medellin, including Jorge Perez Jaramillo and Alejandro Echeverri Restrepo, former director of the Urban Development Company.

Social Urbanism opens with a prologue by Echeverri, who highlights the quality of the graphic presentations of data. Indeed, some of the graphics are spectacular, and their presentation is supported by the generous book format. But some graphics are not immediately digestible. Take your time to process them, especially the statistical information. (The book is bilingual, with English and Spanish in parallel, only in the index, acknowledgements, prologue, and introduction sections — a limitation I hope is resolved soon through an important and potentially impactful full translation in Spanish).

Bellalta views “landscape as a cultural space, influenced by geography.” Her introduction focuses on the exploitation of the natural resources and the people of Latin America by Europe and the United States. Latin America created wealth that Latin Americans did not enjoy, because they were enslaved and offered arduous low-paid labor. Local and foreign corruption and greed, which was fueled by resource extraction, explain Latin America’s permanent under development. In the region of Medellín, cocaine, gold, flowers, and coffee were the focus of extraction. The book is written as a criticism of this social and environmental injustice, illustrating how Europe and the United States were indifferent to the consequences of their actions. This is one of the book’s strengths.

A few years ago in Medellín, I interviewed architect and urbanist Jorge Perez Jaramillo, former dean of the School of Architecture at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, former planning director of Medellin, and author of another recent and significant book on Medellín, which is summarized in an article in the “Invited Voices” section of the book.

Perez Jaramillo described his city as a community that hit rock bottom in the early 1990s. After decades of violence and crime produced by powerful drug cartels, and the cumulative effects of decades of civil war and guerrilla activity, there was nowhere else to go except up or drown in the bottom. This springing up was fertile ground for a socially-oriented urban transformation.

If you are interested in Medellín because you know of the many beautiful public buildings, parks, and infrastructure built in the city in the last two decades, and you want to know more about these structures, then this is not your book. All the important examples — Biblioteca España, the escalators in Comuna 13, etc. — are included, but only as part of generous photographic essays woven through the chapters. The fact that the book avoids a design focus is refreshing. Social Urbanism instead targets the social and political processes that enabled these projects to exist.

Comuna 10 escalator in Medellin’s peripheral communities / Maria Bellalta

The book seeks to answer: What kind of administrative, professional, academic, social, and cultural processes spawned the great design quality so widely recognized by many publications and awards? How can other cities transform inert and obstructive infrastructure, such as municipal water tanks, which in Medellín have become social-public infrastructure in the form of the Unidades de Vida Articulada (UVAs)?

Unidades de Vida Articulada (UVAs) / Maria Bellalta

This is not a how-to book, because the story of Medellín demonstrates that the great design quality could have only happened the way it did there. It may be due to the unique social, cultural, economic, and environmental conditions; the “Paisa” history, identity, and territory; the city’s resilient community; and numerous outstanding urban planning and design leaders, politicians, and academics.

Social urbanism has improved the quality of life for many who had been systematically ignored. But inequality has also increased in Medellín, and multiple projects and plans remain truncated, postponed, or unimplemented.

The important, old-yet-also-new ideas of social urbanism remind us to be always in action. Public health, safety, and welfare, which landscape architects and others are responsible for, must be sustained. As Bellalta proposes, social urbanism must transition from model to global movement.

Sketch study, Medellin / Maria Bellalta
Sketch study, Medellin / Maria Bellalta
Sketch study, Medellin / Maria Bellalta

Gabriel Díaz Montemayor, ASLA, is Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Arkansas.

ASLA Releases Policy Recommendations for the Biden-Harris Administration

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

ASLA released a comprehensive set of policy recommendations for the Biden-Harris administration titled “Landscape Architects Design Vibrant, Resilient, and Just Communities for All – Recommendations for the Biden-Harris Administration.”

“Our climate is in crisis. Social and racial injustice issues continue to go unaddressed. The pandemic is forcing us to rethink public space,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). “Landscape architects aren’t just designing resilient, sustainable solutions for all these problems – they’re designing the public policies necessary to support that vital work.”

The report makes specific, actionable policy recommendations in four major areas:

  • Applying STEM-related design principles to protect communities.
  • Addressing climate change through sustainable, resilient design.
  • Supporting green community infrastructure solutions.
  • Promoting racial, social, and environmental justice in design.

ASLA’s recommendations are supported by other organizations in the industry, including the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF).

“The pandemic has revealed now more than ever the value of public open spaces: we are human beings and need to be outside and with other human beings,” said Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, CEO of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF). “These policy recommendations provide overdue support to enable landscape architects to design healthy, accessible and equitable outdoor places for people to connect with nature and each other, and rebuild the public realm infrastructure.”

“Landscape architects play a vital and irreplaceable role in the design of the built environment. It’s time their recommendations for how that design is governed are heard and implemented,” Carter-Conneen added. “ASLA urges the Biden-Harris administration and the new Congress to review these recommendations and begin the process of implementing them.”

ASLA and our partners look forward to working with the Biden-Harris administration and the new Congress on implementing these policy recommendations that will lead to vibrant, resilient and just communities across the nation.

Read the full report

About the Report

The American Society of Landscape Architects compiled a comprehensive series of specific, actionable policy recommendations designed to give landscape architects a seat at the table and support for their vital work. The report is broken down into four sections.

ASLA 2016 Professional Communications Honor Award. Sea Change: Boston, Sasaki Associates / Sasaki Associates

The first, Landscape Architects Apply STEM to Protect the Public, outlines the measures necessary to assist landscape architects in meeting the economic demands and challenges facing our nation.

Recommendations in this section include:

  • Support continued state licensure of highly complex technical professions, including landscape architecture, to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.
  • Provide targeted and sustained COVID-19 relief for small businesses, including landscape architecture firms.
  • Appoint landscape architects to key positions throughout the Biden-Harris administration, including within the Departments of Transportation, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, and Agriculture, and in the Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, the U.S. Access Board, and others.
  • Include landscape architecture on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Designated Degree Program List.

The second section, Landscape Architects Lead in Climate Solutions, focuses on policy solutions that support landscape architects’ work to design resilient, sustainable spaces that help communities mitigate and adapt to the effects of the ongoing climate crisis.

Recommendations in this section include:

  • Create a comprehensive, science-based climate action plan to significantly reduce carbon emissions.
  • Establish adaptation and mitigation strategies using natural systems to make communities more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
  • Protect underserved communities from climate and environmental injustices.
  • Adopt the Sustainable Sites Initiative® (SITES®) for all federal projects.
  • Reverse rules, regulations, and policies from the Trump administration that weaken environmental protections and ignore climate change, specifically involving the National Environmental Policy (NEPA) and the Waters of the U.S.( WOTUS).

The third section, Landscape Architects Transform Community Infrastructure, outlines policies to encourage the designing and building of community infrastructure projects in a way that fosters sustainable development, generates jobs, encourages healthy lifestyles, and creates resilient, equitable, and economically vibrant communities.

Recommendations in this section center around the following goals:

  • Upgrade to a multimodal transportation network.
  • Fix our nation’s water management systems.
  • Recognize public lands, parks, and open space as “critical infrastructure.”
  • Design resilient communities.

The fourth and final section, Landscape Architects Seek Racial, Social, and Environmental Justice, provides specific recommendations that seek to address the inequities that harm underserved communities, including communities of color, low-income populations, and Tribal and Indigenous communities across the country.

Recommendations in this section include:

  • Work with Congress to codify Executive Order 12898, so that it is permanent law for federal agencies to identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse health and environmental effects of agency actions on low-income and minority communities.
  • Join stakeholders across the country in advancing the tenets of the Environmental Justice for All Act (H.R. 5986), which help to ensure that all communities are protected from pollution and that all voices are heard in the federal environmental decision-making.
  • Consider policies that promote design techniques as a tool to address racial, environmental, and social justice for all.

Read the full list of recommendations