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

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Better Block event on Washington Avenue in Houston / Asakura Robinson

Finding Light Through the Concrete of Canada’s Holocaust Monument – ­CityLab, 12/6/17
“In 2007, Laura Grosman, an 18-year-old university student in Ottawa learned that Canada was the only Allied nation that didn’t have a monument to victims of the Holocaust.”

A Brand New Boston, Even Whiter Than the OldThe Boston Globe, 12/11/17
“Imagine a fresh start — a chance for Boston to build a new urban neighborhood of the future, untouched by the bigotry of the past.”

“Splash Pad Urbanism” and 2017’s Other Notable Developments in Landscape Architecture The Huffington Post, 12/11/17
“This was a breakout year for landscape architecture, as well as a period of great trial. The innovative melding of design and ecology at SCAPE earned firm founder Kate Orff a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grant, a first for a landscape architect.”

A New Leader for Central ParkThe New York Times, 12/12/17
“Elizabeth W. Smith grew up in Rye, N.Y., about an hour north of Manhattan, and said her earliest memory of Central Park was from when she moved to the Upper East Side after college.”

Changing Houston, One Little Fix a Time The Houston Chronicle, 12/12/17
“Using colored duct tape, spray chalk and stencils, we were done in 10 minutes. The results were just as immediate: Cars stopped well in advance of this modified intersection, and pedestrians walked with new confidence.”

Why Are We Wrecking Our Best Modernist Landscapes? The Architect’s Newspaper, 12/14/17
“If you’ve seen the movie Columbus, you’ll remember, among all the nerdy dialogue about modernist bank branches and James Polshek’s buildings, that scene where the two protagonists passionately discuss the Dan Kiley landscape outside the Eero Saarinen–designed Miller House.”

Best Books of 2017

Drawdown / Penguin Press

Whether you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or just one for yourself to delve into, we have some options. Here’s THE DIRT‘s top 10 books of 2017, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape:

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (Penguin Press, 2017)
Author and environmental activist Paul Hawken assembled hundreds of experts around the world to rank the potential positive impacts of 100 substantive climate solutions. One of the most accessible and informative books on climate change, Drawdown makes clear the vital role of landscape architecture, architecture, and urban planning in finding a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Hawken and his coalition consider complete streets and bicycle infrastructure, walkable cities, green roofs, composting systems, and net-zero buildings as critically important. Other top solutions — like educating girls in developing countries and silvopasture — will cause you to think more about the relationships between population, agriculture, and sustainability.

Be Seated (Applied Research and Design Publishing, 2017)
In his new book, Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of the landscape architecture firm OLIN and this year’s Vincent Scully Prize winner, brings to life his deep interest in outdoor seating. As he describes: “My interest in public outdoor seating in parks and plazas revolves around two poles: one is related to the fascination that Emerson and other philosophers have shown regarding aspects of the quotidian in our lives and experience, its pressures and benefits; the other is the utility of public seating in guiding our conduct as citizens.” Scattered throughout are evocative sketches and water-colors and well-curated images. If you enjoy trying to figure out what makes a public space great, you’ll love this book.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Liveright, 2017)
Richard Rothstein, an authority on housing policy, “explodes the myth that America’s cities came to be racially divided through de facto segregation―that is, through individual prejudices, income differences, or the actions of private institutions like banks and real estate agencies. Rather, The Color of Law incontrovertibly makes clear that it was de jure segregation―the laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments―that actually promoted the discriminatory patterns that continue to this day.” As American cities continue to address the legacy of segregation while also dealing with widespread gentrification, this new look at urban history is invaluable.

Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017)
Ashley Dawson, a professor of English at the City University of New York, argues that mega-cities, which are most often found on coasts, are “ground zero for climate change,” given they are home to our largest populations, highly vulnerable, and also contribute the most to greenhouse gas emissions. Reviewing Extreme Cities, author McKenzie Wark writes: “Dawson shows how social movements have combined action on disaster relief with forms of equitable common life to produce models for radical adaptation from which we can all learn. This is a brilliant summation of what we know and what we can do to build a new kind of city in the ruins of the old.”

Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design (Island Press, 2017)
University of Virginia professor Tim Beatley’s new book presents everything he has discovered on what he calls “biophilic urban planning and design” — strategies that both boost biodiversity and foster deeper human connections with nature in cities. He brings together the established science, the important case studies, and innovative code and design practices from around the world in one place. Even if you think you already know a lot about how best to incorporate nature into cities, there will be some interesting new facets in this book for you to explore. (Read the full review).

Movement and Meaning: The Landscapes of Hoerr Schaudt (The Monacelli Press, 2017)
This book highlights the depth of work created by landscape architects Doug Hoerr, FASLA, and the late Peter Schaudt, FASLA. From private gardens to lush civic spaces, Movement and Meaning chronicles the major works by the Chicago-based studio, from inception to final installation. The sheer variety of images, drawings, and photography make this book an absorbing overview. (Read the full review).

The New Landscape Declaration: A Call to Action for the Twenty-First Century (Rare Bird Books, 2017)
Last year, on the eve of its 50th anniversary, the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) brought together 700 landscape architects, designers, and planners in a symposium in Philadelphia to forge a New Landscape Declaration. LAF now offers in handy book form 33 speeches that “reflect on the last half-century and present bold ideas for the what the discipline should achieve in the future.” Those ideas are meant to “underscore the need to diversify, innovate, and create a bold culture of leadership, advocacy, and activism.” (Read more about the declaration and symposium).

Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State (University of California Press, 2017)
This new book by Gareth Doherty, ASLA, director of the masters in landscape architecture program at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, is a successful hybrid of landscape writing and ethnography focused on the island nation of Bahrain. It presents a portrait of Bahrainis’ rich and evolving relationship with their landscape as well as a model for future studies. (Read the full review).

Transmaterial Next: A Catalog of Materials That Define Our Future (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017)
While we have all experienced the effects of the information technology revolution now underway, we may be less aware of the impact of the new “materials revolution,” argues University of Minnesota professor Blaine Brownell in his new book. Building materials are being transformed to respond to our planetary environmental crisis, lower costs and boost efficiency, and provide new media for creative expression. Given the serious problems facing the Earth, the scale of the ambition is heartening. (Read the full review).

Wise Trees (Harry N. Abrams, 2017)
Landscape photographers Diane Cook and Len Jenshel offer gorgeous full-page photographs of 50-plus wise, old trees, which are accompanied by a brief story about the spiritual and cultural life inspired by each of these natural wonders. With the help of grants from the Expedition Council of the National Geographic Society, the photographers spent two years traveling across five continents to capture these historic specimens.

Also, worth knowing: buying these books through THE DIRT or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs. And if you are based near Washington, D.C. we also recommend checking out the National Building Museum’s fantastic book store.

With Resilient Design, We Can Better Protect Our Communities from Wildfires

Washington state wildfire / Wikipedia

This year, the Pacific Northwest saw an extraordinary fire season, with approximately 35 fires raging in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California by mid-September. While there is an immediate knee-jerk reaction to fires as entirely negative, wildfires are in fact a very natural part of the life cycle of forests. In addition to removing undergrowth so sunlight can reach the forest floor and new plants can grow, some plants, such as the lodgepole pine, even require fire to germinate and sprout.

What is so unusual about this year’s season is how long it has lasted: a full seven months. An unusually dry summer in a region known for rain, combined with a strong ridge high pressure that settled over the Pacific Northwest heating air and blocking storms from entering, resulted in dried-out plants and created the perfect environment for fires. In 2017, we have already spent more in national funds to combat the fires than in any other year on record, and the year isn’t yet over.

Similar to the hurricanes battering the East Coast this season, these events would be considered normal individually, if it were not for the acceleration of their natural cycles, creating increased numbers that are larger in scope. Looking at the total picture, the acceleration of these cycles is where we can see the inevitable consequences of climate change at work.

Living in Seattle, I have seen the effects of these fires firsthand. Getting up one morning this summer after having left the window open overnight, I went into my dining room and discovered that the wind had covered it entirely with ashes. Despite not being exposed to an active fire, the visible effects continued to blanket our city. And it’s not just the visible effects. Ash and smoke particulates in the air can cause breathing problems, especially for sensitive populations including those with heart and lung diseases such as asthma. Though fires may not be blazing downtown, they are have impacted the lives of everyone living in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Even if you don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, the fires are affecting you too, though you may not know it. The ash and smoke from the fires are not just settling on our cities, but also being lofted into the atmosphere and spreading around the globe. In this map created by NASA, you can see the ash and smoke from the Pacific Northwest fires drifting across the earth, reaching as far as Europe and Northern Africa. And due to their carbon gas emissions, the wildfires themselves contribute to accelerated climate change worldwide. While climate incidents like these can be “out of sight, out of mind” for those not actively experiencing them, the earth is a closed system: climate incidents that impact some of us, impact all of us.

So with climate change here to stay, how can we mitigate its impact to make our cities and dwellings safer? Landscape architecture can provide solutions to some of the problems posed by climate change. For example, better urban design can help reduce the sprawl at the intersection of urban and natural space, which is now in the most in danger of devastation from wildfires. For those already living at these intersections, landscape management of individual properties can help mitigate those hazards.

One such solution is to create a “defensible space” around homes at these intersections. These spaces create a barrier to impede wildfires from reaching homes, room for firefighters to maneuver if needed, and prevent fires in the home from spreading into the wild. Defensible space tactics can include reducing plant fuels around the home, incorporating fuel breaks such as gravel, and ensuring that all trees are cleared to 6-10 feet off the ground.

Careful selection of plants, too, can have an impact at these intersections. Plants that shed minimal amounts of leaves and needles provide less fuel for fires. Trees with low resin and sap content are also considered less likely to burn. Finally, native plants may be more fire-resistant or fire-adapted than non-native species. Over the last 30-40 years, we have gained an increased understanding of the environmental importance of using native plants in landscapes. But with climate change, we must also plan for a “different kind of native,” selecting plants with an eye towards the future, as current native species may not thrive in the environment as it changes.

This is where research and forward-thinking are most critical. Greater focus and funds towards researching the anticipated effects of climate change on an area allows us to plan for “new native” species that will thrive in their changing environment.

We must call on national agencies managing resources to do so with an eye towards the future, conducting research and careful planning to ensure that our natural resources and our built environments are protected. While the effects of climate change are inevitable, what matters now is finding ways to adapt to these new circumstances. You can see great work being done by the National Park Service in this area, preparing our natural treasures to survive and thrive in a world of accelerated natural cycles.

Tackling the problems posed by climate change can be overwhelming, but humans are highly adaptable species, and there are measures we can and should take to protect our future. That’s why the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has convened a blue ribbon panel of multidisciplinary experts to create innovative solutions that will make our cities and inhabited spaces climate resilient. The report will provide comprehensive public-policy recommendations for using resilient design to combat climate change. Learn more about how we’re developing policy recommendations to safeguard our cities and natural resources for the future.

This post is by Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, immediate past president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and a landscape architect with 40 years of experience.

Building Community Through Inclusive and Equitable Parks

Hayden Plaza, New Orleans / Design Jones LLC

New parks can become agents of gentrification if they are not planned with all of the community. Often, the unintended consequence of a bright, shiny new park planned with only part of the community can be a change in community identity, so parts of the existing community no longer recognize their own neighborhood. Improved park amenities can also also spur new development, higher rents, and, eventually, displacement. But “there are also projects that can break the sequence of negative outcomes,” explained Janelle Johnson, ASLA, a landscape architect with Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, at the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. “Whose change and what change — these are questions that landscape architects can help communities answer.” If done well, new parks can instead act as agents of community building, forging new connections that help break down racial and class barriers.

Bridging Communities Through a New Park in New Orleans

Landscape architect Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, explained how she helped bring together multiple communities in central city New Orleans to re-imagine Hayden Plaza, a linear park found at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.

The neighborhood has evolved over the years. First settled by Jewish, Italian, and German immigrants, it became an African American community, and one of the few places African Americans could shop during the segregated 1930s, 40s, and 50s. As the immigrant shop owners who served African American patrons moved elsewhere, the stores were taken over by African Americans, who “didn’t get enough business,” and commercial activity declined.

In the 1960s civil rights movement, the neighborhood was a hub for protests. Artist Frank Hayden created an abstract sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the era when there “wasn’t community engagement.” The community had wanted a figurative sculpture, but Hayden delivered an abstract one instead. “The community wasn’t happy.” (Another figurative sculpture was later added).

Post-Hurricane Katrina, “new development came in, as black merchants lost property. A new merchant’s association made capital improvements,” such as a new jazz market, with a bar and theater, and an old school was revamped as a stall market. “They were bringing money in, but pushing the community out.” New development became a “sign of gentrification;” there was even a “Jane Jacobs walk.”

But every March, the Recreating the Emotional Ability to Live (REAL) protest march, led by a black empowerment group, works its way down through the neighborhood to the plaza, which demonstrates how this “space is still contested.” Working with the client — the merchant’s association — there was a “chance to educate and design for both those who go on the Jane Jacobs walk and those pushing for empowerment. A symbolic design would be inclusive and not take space away for the empowerment group.” The new landscape design “acknowledges the future, while honoring the past” (see image above).

Both communities — the African Americans and the new-comers — are now part of the future of the neighborhood, Jones Allen said. They came together in community planning and design charrettes held in the jazz market.

Revitalizing a Symbol of Integration in Birmingham, Alabama

Eric Tamulonis, ASLA, a partner with OLIN, explained how Birmingham, was long known as the “Pittsburgh of the south,” because of its iron ore mines in the Red Mountains, which were part of the US Steel empire. Down in the mines, African American and white miners toiled together since the late 1800s. “The mines were a magnet for African Americans given the great demand for workers.”

But back on the surface, there was “deep segregation.” A racist zoning map created red zones — or “danger zones” — the only places African Americans could live. Many of these places were actually dangerous — one was called “Dynamite Hill.” Jim Crow laws and regulations codified segregation. “There was a municipal law that African American and white children couldn’t play together.”

As de-segregation of all public schools, facilities, and transportation systems slowly became national policy in the 1950s and 60s, Birmingham’s city government fought it as much as they could. “They closed parks instead of integrating them.” While African Americans made up 40 percent of the city, they had only been given a few small parks. When those were shut down, “kids played in the streets.”

Now with a new 4.5-mile-long Red Mountain Park on land US Steel donated to the community, we are “building community in the park. It’s a bridge across the divide.” A new walking bridge called the “walk of unity” will end in a mine, where visitors can learn about the cultural history of the industry. “Noble mining structures are being restored, and there are reforestation efforts.” Throughout, there will be educational moments, including recordings of oral histories conducted with miners. Tamulonis worked on the community planning effort while at WRT, and said the Red Mountain Park Commission is “committed to equitable development.”

ASLA 2012 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Red Mountain / Green Ribbon — The Master Plan for Red Mountain Park, WRT / WRT
ASLA 2012 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Red Mountain / Green Ribbon — The Master Plan for Red Mountain Park, WRT / WRT

Birmingham is also trying to move beyond its racist park history through the creation of other inclusive public spaces. Tom Leader Studio’s Railroad Park is a “symbol of re-unity.” And a city task force has been laying the ground work for using Olmsted brothers’ 1925 equitable greenways plan, which was never implemented, as the basis for “future land use.”

Scaling up Inclusive and Equitable Park Development

Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA, former NYC parks department head and now senior vice president at the Trust for Public Land (TPL), explained how urban parks can lead to greater equity.

TPL along with the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and the National Parks and Recreation Assocation (NRPA) created a campaign to promote the idea that everyone in a city should live within a 10 minute walk of a park. Already, 134 mayors have signed on, including Mayor Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, where only 50 percent of the population meet the campaign’s goals.

While the “federal government won’t do anything for urban parks” in the foreseeable future, cities are using tax increment financing, property tax increases, and business improvement districts to improve the quality of parks across all communities. In Minneapolis, which already tops the nation in TPL’s Park Score rating system, some $250 million will be invested in parks, particularly in underserved communities. “They asked themselves hard questions and are focused on areas of poverty.”

More cities also better understanding the consequences of new park development without an equitable development plan — what has been called the “High Line effect.” For example, Bozeman, Montana, a small city of 30,000 people, is now creating their first large central park on a 60-acre site. Some 8 acres around the park will be set aside for a community center and affordable housing. “This project shows we can’t just focus on parks. It’s our problem to fix equity, too.”

Story Mill community park / Trust for Public Land

And the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C. — which seeks to bring together the majority-white Capitol Hill neighborhood, and racially-mixed, gentrifying Lincoln Park and Hill East on the west side of the Anacostia River and majority African American Anacostia, Barry Farm, Fairlawn, and Woodland, and Fort Stanton neighborhoods on the east side of the river through one park — represents the “future of equitable park development.”

11th Street Bridge Park equitable development plan / 11th street bridge park

The leaders of the park and landscape architects at OLIN forged an equitable development plan with the communities along the Anacostia River, which includes a small business and workforce plan that will boost local employment in the park, and a new land trust, which is designed to insulate neighborhoods around the park from speculative real estate development.

Visions of a Renewed Los Angeles River (Part 1)

Los Angeles River / City of Los Angeles

Over the past decade, the Los Angeles River has become a source of excitement, inspiration, and concern for residents, city officials, and planners and landscape architects as renewed attention is being paid to its revitalization.

At the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, Barbara Romero, deputy mayor of city services for Los Angeles; Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder and president of Studio-MLA; and Teresa Villegas, office of Los Angeles County supervisor Hilda L. Solis offered background on the river and planning and design efforts already underway.

Historically, the Los Angeles River, a 51-mile stretch of waterway, served as a vital water source for agriculture, but its constantly-changing course led to massive flooding that killed 115 people in 1938; and its unpredictability hindered development. By the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers began channelizing the river, encasing it in concrete.

As a result, today, “the river resembles a freeway more than a waterway,” said Frances Anderton, host of DnA and moderator of the panel. 

The river is at the center of complex jurisdictional overlays, with a number of organizations and agencies, like the city of Los Angeles, the county department of public works, and the Army Corps of Engineers, to name a few, sharing responsibility over its maintenance and future plans.

Thirty-two miles of the river falls within the boundaries of the city of Los Angeles. Romero explained how the city is working to implement their 2007 master plan, focusing on reconnecting people, particularly in adjacent neighborhoods, to the river.

“The scale of this is enormous,” Romero said, underscoring the jurisdictional complexity of the revitalization efforts. Within the existing master plan there are 240 projects that incorporated community engagement, representing some $500 million in investment.

Romero pointed to the city’s collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers to restore ecological function and public access to an 11-mile portion of the river. Within this segment is Taylor Yard, a 42-acre parcel, purchased in March from Union Pacific Railroad Company for $60 million. Work is underway with Studio-MLA and WSP to make it a public park, after cleaning up the contaminated brownfield site.

Taylor Yard G2 project / City of Los Angeles

“If we’re really going to revitalize the river; if we’re really going to change the course of the river; if we’re really going to look at this ambitious plan, we needed to get this parcel into public ownership,” Romero said, referring to how acquiring Taylor Yard fit into the city’s revitalization plans.

Lehrer and her studio is designing public spaces in Taylor Yard, which is at mile 25, almost half way down the river. Her design studio is also situated on the river, and its revitalization has been a “passion project” of hers for three decades.

Lehrer said there is an opportunity to connect neighborhoods to the river while addressing environmental concerns like soil contamination and incorporating green infrastructure and creating new wildlife habitat. Lehrer also said there is an opportunity to use the river to create green infrastructure projects that recharge groundwater and get more water down into underlying aquifers.

“We think it’s good these 51-miles of infrastructure were kept away from any other kind of development. It has become an opportunity to bring the communities together to address environmental ills.” She added that “we want it to be resilient, inclusive, and an inspiration for Los Angeles.”

Villegas is coordinating revitalization efforts at the county scale. “We will be dusting off the old plan, opening it up, and adding to it,” she said, referring to the county’s master plan, which was last updated in 1996. They have created a stakeholder group of about 40 people.

The group is focused on the southern portion of the Los Angeles river. A park needs assessment completed last year showed a critical lack of access to green space. “We know we need additional park space in the lower Los Angeles River because it is densely populated.”

Revitalization efforts will coincide with the city’s preparation to host the 2028 summer Olympics. Romero said the major event can serve as a framework to invest resources. “This is not about bringing the world here for two weeks — it’s about reframing the discussion we want to have in our city,” she said.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (September 16 – 30)

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A.E. Bye’s stone-and-grass mounds in July 2017 / Audrey Wachs, The Architect’s Newspaper

Landscape Architect Explores Nature’s Role in Urban Development – 9/18/17, Rhode Island Public Radio
“If you’ve made your way to the outskirts of downtown Providence lately, you may have noticed thousands of sunflowers growing on empty plots of land by the riverfront. The pop-up garden is highlighted in this year’s “Design Week RI,” a series of events showcasing the state’s design sector.”

Garden Smart; A Glimpse at the Work Landscape Architect of Randle Siddeley – 9/19/17, South China Morning Post
“Unlike architects who build buildings, what I’m building is forever growing,” says Randle Siddeley, a prominent British landscape architect who has designed for commercial, residential and public spaces.”

Behind the U.S. Botanic Garden There’s … An Architect?9/20/17, The Washington Post
“Much of the same planning that goes into a building’s architecture applies to a garden’s architecture, especially one as large and detailed as the fragrant, pleasantly humid, lush-as-can-be United States Botanic Garden.”

Integrate—Don’t Decorate—the Outdoors, Says Landscape Architect – 9/25/17, Masion Global
“Enzo Enea, a landscape architect based in Switzerland, established Enea GmbH in 1993. Now, the firm has offices in Switzerland, Miami and New York.”

Future Uncertain for Rare Public Landscape by A.E. Bye in Brooklyn – 9/26/17, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Brooklyn’s first park may be getting a new entrance that some say would open up the green space to the neighborhood, but opponents contend the renovation would erase significant historic fabric, including a rare public commission by the late modern landscape architect Arthur Edwin (A.E.) Bye, Jr.”

10 Lessons From Chicago’s New Landscapes – 9/28/17, Urban Milwaukee
“The opening of Millennium Park in 2004 in downtown Chicago is widely credited with launching a renaissance of public spaces—not just in the Windy City but nationally and even globally.

Green Infrastructure Through the Revival of Ancient Wisdom

Before. ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award or Excellence. “Green Sponge” for a Water-Resilient City, Qunli Stormwater Park in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, China / Turenscape
After. ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award or Excellence. “Green Sponge” for a Water-Resilient City, Qunli Stormwater Park in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, China / Turenscape

Gray infrastructures made of steel and concrete, which we built to connect our physical world, are shallow or even fake constructs that are destroying the real and deep connections between human beings and nature and among various natural processes and flows. The alternative is green infrastructure, or ecological infrastructure, the construction of which can be inspired by the ancient wisdoms of peasantry.

For the past twenty years, I have tried to revive some of these peasantry wisdoms and combine them with modern sciences and technologies to solve some of the most annoying problems in today’s urban environment, particularly around water. The solutions are simple, inexpensive, and beautiful and have been applied on a massive and extensive scale in over two hundred cities in China and beyond.

Gray Infrastructure and Broken Connections

Some people may think that our world, through our built infrastructure, is more connected digitally and physically than ever before: we have Facebook and WeChat on the one hand, and ubiquitous highways and pipelines on the other. But actually the opposite is true. More than ever we are disconnected from the communities we belong to, and we have alienated ourselves from our neighbors and from those we love.

Physically, the landscapes that we inhabit are visibly interconnected: motorways connect urban and rural settlements; power lines that transport energy connect power stations to individual families; pipelines that drain waste water connect our toilets to sewage treatment plants; aqueducts that transport drinking water connect reservoirs to our kitchens; airlines that transport food connect the farm in the southern hemisphere to the refrigerators in the north; trucks that carry fertilizers and herbicides on the highways connect city factories in the east with the peasants who farm in the rice paddies in the mountainous west.

We have created a connected world, but these connections are false: the landscape matrix and its invisible processes are fragmented and disconnected. The movement and cycles of water, nutrients, food, energy, species, and people are broken. The interconnected relationship between air, water, soil, nutrient, species, and people is being interrupted, and in a harmful way, more than ever before.

Let me offer an example concerning water. Over 75 percent of the surface water in China is polluted; 50 percent of China’s more than 660 cities are facing floods and urban inundation; and over 60 percent of China’s cities do not have enough water for drinking and for other uses. The groundwater table in the North China Plain drops over one meter each year; and over 50 percent of the wetland habitats have been lost in the past fifty years.

All these water-cycle related issues that impact our cities and our landscapes are actually interconnected, but the conventional infrastructural solutions designed to solve these problems are fragmented, isolated, and single-minded: We build water treatment plants to remove the nutrients that could be used in fertilizers for farming; billions of dollars are spent yearly on the construction of concrete dikes, dams, and pipes to control floods and stormwaters, but these structures eventually produce fiercer droughts, declines in groundwater levels, and habitat loss; a thousand-mile-long aqueduct built to divert water from Southern to Northern China caused serious damage to the ecosystem in the lower and middle reaches of the Yangtze River; ornamental gardens and landscapes as well as agricultural fields are over-fertilized and all those nutrients flush into the water system, polluting the rivers and the lakes. And again, the conventional solution is single-minded – build expensive water treatment plants that need huge amounts of energy (mainly from coal burning) to operate, which in turn create more air pollution.

An alternative solution might be the construction of green infrastructure, or ecological infrastructure, which creates a deep and true connection between man and nature and among various natural processes and flows.

The Ancient Wisdom of Peasantry

The connections between peasants and their farmlands illustrate the timeless interdependence of human culture and nature. One alternative to rebuilding the deep connections between human beings and nature and among various natural processes comes from the wisdom of peasantry, of field-making, irrigating, fertilizing, growing, and harvesting, which have transformed landscapes on a large scale and sustained humanity for thousands of years.

One category of peasantry wisdom is the making of fields through a cut-and-fill action. The peasant’s approach to cut and fill is one integrated action, meaning the earthworks created for farming happen on-site, with minimum costs for labor and minimum transportation of material to or from the site. It has, therefore, a minimum impact on the natural processes and patterns in the region. This tactic has been implemented by peasants in almost all parts of the world as a way to transform their otherwise unsuitable environments into productive and livable landscapes.

The second category of ancient peasantry wisdom lies in managing water and irrigating the fields. Modern methods of irrigation used in both farming and landscaping are represented by a system of pipes and pumps that is nearly invisible. It doesn’t relate to surrounding terrain and available water resources. The peasant’s approach to irrigation is deeply rooted in natural processes and patterns. Thousands of years of farming experience have made irrigation one of the most sophisticated techniques in agricultural societies. The use of gravity to irrigate the field requires precise knowledge, and the harmony between nature and subtle human intervention can turn such a serious science into an art form, an interactive medium of community building, and even a spiritual force.

The third category of peasantry wisdom is fertilizing. It is a magical component of traditional farming and a critical link, closing the circle by reusing the materials of human living. All wastes from humans and domestic animals as well as vegetative materials are recycled into fertilizers. Such a nutrient cycle is broken in our urbanized and industrialized settings. What peasants call fertilizers are today defined as “pollutants” in our lakes and rivers.

The fourth category of peasantry wisdom is growing and harvesting. Unlike planting and pruning in gardening to create a pleasant ornamental form, the peasant’s approach to planting is focused on productivity. Planting begins with the sowing of seeds, and the management process follows nature’s rhythm as a strategy of adaptation to the surrounding climate and conditions. Again, the self-sufficient nature of ancient agricultural economies requires each household to grow diverse crops, including grains, vegetables, fibers, medicines, fruits, timber, fuel, and even fertilizer proportionately to the seasonal needs of the family, and within the limits of nature and human capabilities. The meaning of harvest goes far beyond the production of foods and products. Harvests are productive in terms of their capacity to enrich the soil, purify the water, and make the land healthy. In other words, the peasant’s fields are net producers instead of net consumers of energy and resources.

This is not to say that one should give up the comfort of urbanization and go back to a peasant’s primitive life. These essential features of peasantry illuminate the underlying basis for rebuilding the connections between nature and human desires, balancing natural processes and cultural intervention, and help us to reclaim the harmonious relationships between human beings and nature.

Revival of the Ancient Wisdom to Create an Alternative Infrastructure

Imagine what our cities would look like if we did not drain the rainwater away through pipes and pumps, but instead used the ancient wisdom of peasantry in field-making to create a green sponge in the city that retains the rain water, creating diverse habitats and recharging the aquifer. In this way, the green spaces in the city become an ecological infrastructure that provides multiple ecosystem services that regulate the urban environment to be resilient to flood or drought, allowing clean water and food to be produced right in the middle of the city. Biodiversity would be enhanced dramatically; urban residents would have a green network for jogging, commuting, and relaxing; and real estate values would increase because of the beauty of, and access to, nature! That is what we have tried to do in many cities in the past twenty years: to transform the city into a sponge city.

Before. ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. Tianjin Qiaoyuan Park, China / Turenscape and Cao Yang
After. ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. Tianjin Qiaoyuan Park, China / Turenscape and Cao Yang

Imagine what our cities would look like if we abandon the high and rigid concrete flood walls and instead revive the ancient wisdom of peasantry and create vegetated terraces at the river banks that adapt to the up and down of the water flow. Ecofriendly solutions like ponds and low weirs are designed to slow down the flow of water and let nature take time to nourish itself, so that diverse habitats can be created that enrich vegetation and wild life, allowing nutrients to be absorbed by the biological processes! That is what we have done to transform the mother rivers in many Chinese cities.

Before. ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park, Guizhou Province, China / Turenscape
After. ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park, Guizhou Province, China / Turenscape
Before. ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway / Kongjian Yu
After. ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway / Kongjian Yu

Imagine what our cities would look like if the nutrient-rich (eutrophic) river and lake water could be cleansed through the landscape as a living system, in the way that peasants have recycled organic waste, instead of using expensive sewage plants to remove the nutrients. We could produce clean water and nourish the lush vegetation. Native biodiversity could be improved. We could turn recreational spaces into urban parks and, in this way, urban parks could become producers instead of consumers of energy and water. That is what we have done to transform the landscape into a living system that mediates polluted water.

Before. ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Shanghai Houtan Park, China / Turenscape
After. ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Shanghai Houtan Park, China / Turenscape

Imagine what our cities would look like if the brown fields of industrial sites are recovered by the processes of nature, where the ancient wisdom of the pond-and-dyke system is adapted to create a terrain that collects rainwater (instead of draining it away through pipes) and initiates the evolution of a plant community, remediating the contaminated soil during this process. At the same time, the industrial structures are preserved as sites of cultural heritage in the city. A unique landscape is created, featuring dynamic native vegetation and a touchable memory of the past, which attract urban residents because of its beauty as well as the diverse wild life that it maintains in the middle of the city. This is what we have done in several industrial cities.

Imagine what our cities would look like if we turn some of the urban land back into productive landscapes instead of into expensive lawns or ornamental gardens, so that the long-distance transportation of food can be reduced. Let the rice, sunflowers, beans, and vegetables be grown in the city, let the sun and moon tell the time for sowing and harvesting, let the seasonal change be noticed by the urban residents, let the process of food growing be known to the young, and let the beauty of crops be appreciated! This will not only make our city more productive and sustainable, but nourish a new aesthetic and a new ethics of land and food. This is what we have done in some Chinese cites.

Before. Quzhou Luming Park, Zhejiang Province, China / Turenscape
After. Quzhou Luming Park, Zhejiang Province, China / Turenscape

By reviving the ancient wisdom of field making, irrigating, fertilizing, growing, and harvesting, and integrating this wisdom with the contemporary sciences and arts, we are able to build alternative infrastructures – nature-based green infrastructures replacing the conventional gray infrastructures – that are able to solve some of the problems in today’s urban environment, particularly around water, which are difficult or very expensive to solve through conventional means. Living with nature is inexpensive and easy, comfortable and beautiful, and an art of survival.

This guest post is by Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder and dean of the College of Architecture and Landscape and Cheung Kong Scholar Chair Professor at Peking University, and founder and president of Turenscape. He was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016.

This article was first published in Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Summer 2017, volume LXX, number 4).

Landscape Architecture in the News (September 1 – 15)

Capture
At the home of Carole Olshan, trumpet vines form an arch over a bench in a kitchen garden / Daniel Gonzalez for The New York Times

How Does the Hamptons Garden Grow? With a Lot of Paid Help The New York Times, 9/5/17
“The rigors of vegetable gardening, for most people, are humble and gritty: planting, weeding, dirtying knees, working up a sweat and maybe straining a back muscle or two.”

Field Operations, OLIN, West 8 Among Finalists to Redesign Philly Airport Landscape Curbed Philadelphia, 9/6/17
“The Philadelphia International Airport and the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society (PHS) have announced the five finalists in their competition to redesign 130 acres of land around the airport—and it’s a doozy of a list that includes at least two Philly-based landscape architecture firms.”

How a South African Artist Blends Art and UrbanizationCityLab, 9/12/17
“In much of her work, Svea Josephy, an associate professor at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, examines how urbanization can be explored through art.”

The Suburb of the Future, Almost Here The New York Times, 9/15/17
“The suburbanization of America marches on. That movement includes millennials, who, as it turns out, are not a monolithic generation of suburb-hating city dwellers.”

Here Are Some of Our Favorite PARK(ing) Day Interventions The Architect’s Newspaper, 9/15/17
“This year, the American Society of Landscape Architects asked landscape architects all over the country to invest their quarters on temporary, miniature green spaces. Here are some of our favorites from the #ASLAPD17 hashtag on social media.”

Soon We’ll Be Able to Swim in the Chicago River

Chicago River / Pinterest

Take a dip in the Chicago River? Those familiar with its history might think twice.

The Chicago River has a notoriously waste-filled past. Originally, the 150-mile-long waterway was used to fuel booming industry in the Midwest city. Little attention was paid to its environmental and civic value. By the turn of the century, it was contaminated with sewage and factory waste. When a storm cause the Chicago River to overflow, it would spill into Lake Michigan, the source of the city’s drinking water, posing such an acute risk to residents’ health that in 1900 the city turned it around, reverse-engineering its flow and diverting wastewater away from Lake Michigan and out of the region to the Mississippi. The reversal was crucial to protecting thousands of Chicagoans a year from waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera.

By 1930, after legal complaints from cities downstream, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Chicago to address the pollution problem. Since then, efforts have been ongoing to clean up the waterway. Recently, the city has stepped up those efforts again with hopes of increase activity along and in the river, including swimming.

In 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Metropolitan Planning Council announced the Great Rivers Chicago effort, a city-wide “visioning process” to develop a long-term plan to clean up and reintegrate into city life the three rivers of the Chicago system – the Chicago, Calumet, and Des Plaines Rivers.

The vision, released last year, lays out a series of goals that aim to make the river “inviting, productive and living” with benchmarks at 2020, 2030, and 2040. Ultimately, the city wants to draw more people to a river front that’s safer and more engaging with improve water quality.

And by 2030, they hope to make the river swimmable.

But despite reversing the Chicago River, the city’s combined sewage and stormwater system is still inundated during large storm events and can overflow into the rivers, canals, and Lake Michigan. According to The Chicago Tribune, 18.2 billion gallons of pollution entered the river last year. Chicago plans to eliminate the system’s overflows through green infrastructure and  completing the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, known as the Deep Tunnel project, which started in 1975 and the city hopes to complete by 2029.

For recreation purposes, the rivers need to achieve the “primary contact” water quality standards set for them by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, which would allow for safe swimming, paddling, and fishing.

Each year, 1.5 million Chicagoans and tourists flock to the popular Riverwalk, a 1.25 mile pedestrian walkway that runs from Lake Shore Drive to Lake Street on the south bank of the Chicago River in the city’s downtown. A new $108-million segment designed by the landscape architecture firm Sasaki, Ross Barney Architects, and Collins Engineers that just saw its official opening has generated even more interest in the river.

Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki
Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki
Chicago Riverwalk / Sasaki

Paddling is already happening on the river. And a floating museum, or barge-turned moveable entertainment center, which launched this week, will travel along the Chicago River through August, eventually landing at Navy Pier.

New cleanup efforts are happening right alongside all the activity. Last month, the city tested a trash skimmer to collect garbage pooling along the Riverwalk. According to The Chicago Tribune, the floating dumpster is an $11,000 pilot program running through the fall that “sucks in the bacteria-laden water and uses a mesh screen to catch oil pollutants and floating garbage.”

Some residents are ready to take the plunge now, but getting much of the public past the initial “ew factor” of swimming in infamously-polluted waters may take time. Regardless, beyond swimmable urban waterways, this aspiring scheme could offer a unique way of looking at a role of a river can play in connecting a city.

Review: NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide

NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide / Island Press

The NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide should first be commended for the sheer amount of information it compresses into a succinct guide that touches upon nearly every consideration in the planning and design of green streets. I can only imagine the amount of coordination that took place to assemble the different national green street case studies, as well as the nearly impossible task of reigning in different perspectives on streetscape design from various planning and design disciplines.

While past NACTO guidebooks have successfully focused solely on street, bikeway, or transit design, the Urban Street Stormwater Guide delivers one of the most comprehensive guides on how to combine complete street design and green infrastructure stormwater management. Having a volume like this on one’s shelf is extremely helpful to anyone who is engaged in even general streetscape planning and design, as it points out the importance of having green infrastructure integrated into the right-of-way.

Design guidebooks are always a unique snapshot in time. They highlight our current understanding of design application and what, at the moment, can be implemented. This is an important consideration for the Urban Street Stormwater Guide — it reflects our design comprehension of green infrastructure at the current moment. This too will, and must, evolve over time.

Early sections of the guide provide a powerful argument for why “Streets are Ecosystems.” Stormwater runoff is no longer treated as a waste but as a valuable resource that should be managed in the right-of-way using a green infrastructure approach. The design community, I believe, comprehends and embraces this basic premise, but there is still a lack of understanding, which is reflected in this guidebook and reverberates in today’s built green street projects.

While stormwater runoff is now not considered a waste, it is still mistakenly labeled as a source of the problem of urban stormwater management. Runoff is not the source, but a symptom and result of the larger problem that urbanization has dramatically removed natural landscape systems and replaced them with impervious area.

We now focus on treating the symptom of “too much stormwater runoff” by designing small-footprint, deep-profile “landscapes” that force water back into the ground to prevent urban flooding, reduce the burden on grey stormwater infrastructure systems, or comply with state and federal regulations.

While reducing flooding and infrastructure capacity issues are important, these approaches create a water-centric approach very much reflected in this guidebook, which dilutes the focus and urgency to address the real problem of landscape loss. The only way to address this issue is to dramatically spread the footprint of vegetation and perviousness in our built environments. Only when we advocate and create a greater balance of green space and perviousness in our cities can we then accurately label our streets as “ecosystems.”

The Urban Street Stormwater Guide provides a series of “stormwater streets” as hypothetical scenarios of different urban conditions, such as a green transitway, ultra-urban green street, boulevard, neighborhood main street, and a host of other urban contexts. These are valuable glimpses of the possibilities of introducing vegetated swales, stormwater planters, pervious paving, rain gardens, and other green infrastructure and complete street elements into urban conditions.

However, the models shown have a definite tilt towards very urban conditions with the huge rights-of-way commonly found in larger American cities. The hypothetical boulevards, transit streets, and even the neighborhood main streets green street examples in the guidebook look nothing like those that I have worked on in smaller cities. Where are the examples outside of the big city? How about strip mall or big-box arterial streets, small-town main streets with tight sidewalks and packed with on-street parking, and the ultra-wide suburban residential streets that have covered mass landscapes in this country?

Typical strip mall / Kevin Robert Perry

I raise this question, because these latter streets are just as impervious and incomplete. They produce massive amounts of stormwater runoff, just like our big city downtown streets, but are completely forgotten in the Urban Street Stormwater Guide vernacular.

From a stormwater management perspective, I define an urban street as any street that has a curb, gutter, and sidewalk that produces excessive stormwater runoff. It appears that the Urban Street Stormwater Guide defines an urban street similarly, but focuses largely in ultra-urban downtown conditions. Perhaps there is an opportunity to follow up this guide with a “less-urban” street stormwater companion guide.

I think that this omission is largely due, again, to the “snapshot in time” effect and focuses more on examples where green streets are currently being implemented: in big cities that are trying to comply with stormwater consent decrees and/or dealing with infrastructure capacity issues. The truth is that we need green streets in all urban contexts, and those should be better represented in this guide.

As I mentioned before, the Urban Street Stormwater Guide packs in an incredible amount of information in a finite number of pages. It feels almost too dense, where some graphics and photos are reduced to a miniscule scale, and text flows as if one is simply reading a series of bullet points (albeit good bullet points). In fact, some of the very important cross-sections of types of stormwater facilities are so cryptic, with minimal or no text call-outs or dimensions, that they remind me of the pictures illustrated when one is trying to follow an IKEA shelve assembly instructions manual. When dealing with urban stormwater, cross-sections illustrating very specific horizontal and vertical layout are critical.

Diagram / NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide

Lastly, I worry that many of the cross-sections, and even the built project photo examples, suggest too much hardscape in the form of vertical walls to contain landscape and soil. Excessively-engineered green street facilities go against the very principles of green infrastructure to keep things simple, shallow, cost-effective, and beautiful.

Seattle Green Street / photo: Mike Nakamura, from NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide

One of the most successful elements in the Urban Street Stormwater Guide is the numerous design, planning, and policy case study examples shown throughout the United States. Each case study describes the project’s goals, project overview, design details, keys to success, lessons learned, and qualitative and quantitative outcomes. There are excellent pictures of projects shown in action.

Some case projects are clearly more successful than others, but it is extremely valuable for everyone to understand what has been built and how the project is performing, regardless of its real or perceived level of success.

Another very successful piece of the guide is Section 5: Partnerships and Performance, which highlights successful green street programs and policies from around the United States, details the need for inter-agency and private-public partnerships, and outlines operation and maintenance roles and responsibilities. The discussion of operations and maintenance should take a more formative role earlier in the guide, as maintenance often defines what can be built, to what extent, and how it will perform in the long-term.

NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide / Island Press

In conclusion, the Urban Street Stormwater Guide is an valuable resource to those planning and designing green street projects. It makes a very strong argument that green streets and complete streets can live symbiotically and details different examples on how to combine these design strategies.

This guide is a wonderful snapshot in time of what has been built, but the guide also shows that we still have much to learn and that green infrastructure strategies are still evolving. I again really commend the amount of information provided in the guide and the level of coordination that was needed to complete it. I look forward to the next edition of the Urban Street Stormwater Guide.

This guest post is by Kevin Robert Perry, ASLA, principal of Urban Rain Design.