ASLA Year of Public Service: What Are You Doing?

2013 is the Year of Public Service at ASLA. The goal is to highlight the wide-reaching public service activities performed by landscape architects and advocate for a deeper commitment by all to community service. ASLA invites current members to submit 2013 projects. Selected projects will be highlighted in the campaign’s Web site and outreach materials. Descriptions, quotes, and multimedia content may be used – with proper credit – on the YPS2013 web site, blog and The Understory Facebook page. Here are three recent public service projects just submitted by ASLA members:

Melissa Evans, ASLA: Members in Arkansas coordinated a one-day charrette as part of the year of public service to determine the best location, size, and form of a green wall to be installed this year at the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. The garden received a donation for a green wall and reached out to ASLA for help. The landscape architects involved in this charrette were able to use their expertise to design two potential green wall installations for potential installation later this year.

The first solution is elegant and simple, allowing the garden staff to implement the design as soon as their schedule permits. The charrette team provided a section, elevation and a perspective view of the proposed wall design. This particular design would be integrated into the entrance to the event room at the garden with two small green walls situated at the edge of the covered entry.

The second wall design is larger in scale and would be constructed north of the butterfly house and west of the garden shed.  It consists of two sweeping walls with the path between.  Designers provided a perspective view of this wall and will continue to work on more detailed drawings in the next few weeks.

Kim Douglas, ASLA, Philadelphia University: In West Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia University landscape architecture and architecture students presented design concepts for a neighborhood to a group of interested government officials. Among the attendees were Councilman Curtis Jones; Richard Redding, Director of Comprehensive Planning Division at Philadelphia City Planning Commission; SEPTA officials; ward leaders of the West Allegheny neighborhood; and community members.

The students outlined design initiatives for sites in the neighborhood that ranged from a new community center to redesigning Allegheny Avenue. All the initiatives were part of a bigger planning effort in the studio to treat the neighborhood as an EcoDistrict. The concept illustrates the opportunities for shared resources, performance goals and measures that “scale up” the sustainability initiatives. The designs all considered the need for a comprehensive framework plan that provided opportunities for shared stormwater, waste and energy management, healthy food options, economic endeavors, open space and park systems as well as social gathering spaces, all at the grass-root level.


The students’ work gathered quite a bit of attention from the city agencies as well as private developers and community organizations. Among the initiatives being explored based on the student work are a retrofit of a bus turnaround that includes rain gardens, permeable paving, new street furniture and lighting; a new gateway park that provides farmers markets, gathering areas, stormwater mitigation and signage;  and a streetscape design for Allegheny Avenue including bike lanes, stormwater bump-outs, street trees, seating, bus shelters and pocket parks. All of these initiatives have prompted City agencies to work together to pool resources and expertise.

This project illustrates the University’s commitment to its neighbor, the West Allegheny community, as well as the City of Philadelphia, to use its knowledge and expertise to help with the many issues of urban areas. We are also providing our students with hands on learning for “real work with real people with real impact.”

Lastly, a project started in 2009 is finally being completed during the year of public service. Brian Templeton, ASLA: In the Spring of 2009 design students in the landscape architecture department at Mississippi State University developed concepts for the re-development of the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum’s site. The result of the effort was a refined 5-phase plan which could be designed and implemented over several years by students.

The plan had three overall goals: improve the museum’s landscape to create a community-wide amenity; implement sustainable site and stormwater management techniques to create a regional model for good site design practices; and provide hands-on design-build opportunities for landscape architecture students.

Two of the efforts were multi-disciplinary efforts where landscape architecture students worked with graphic design and architecture students to work in a real world working environment. In total, the efforts have involved six separate landscape architecture classes, two graphic design classes, and an architecture studio.

The five phases of the site’s development called for a rain garden, a sand filter and outdoor amphitheater, a new entryway and porch, a cistern and educational kiosks, and a green roof pavilion.

Over the past four years the projects have received 3 major design awards, raised over $50,000 in private donations, and been described in dozens of publications. Though this project has run for many years, the final construction phase will be completed during the year of public service.

Learn more about the year of public service and submit your project today.

Image credits: (1-2) Melissa Evans, ASLA (3-4) Kim Douglas, ASLA (5-6) Cory Gallo, ASLA.

Permaculture = Permanent Agriculture

That’s at least one definition of this innovative practice, explained Jillian Hovey, the Toronto-based head of Sustainable Living Network at the 2012 Greenbuild in San Francisco. Another possible definition: “a holistic design methodology to access the intelligence of natural ecosystems.” Really, the goal of the ever-growing tribe of permaculturists is to “co-create with nature.” Permacultural projects include organic food, edible landscaping, forest farming, and other small forms of urban agriculture.

Hovey said one of the central tenets of permaculture is regenerative design. While sustainable design involves simply mitigating the negative impacts of humans on the planet, regenerative design goes beyond and seeks to create a “positive role for people on earth.” Practitioners of permaculture seek to merge landscape, people, and technology to create “food, shelter, and energy.” Hovey said it’s a “philosphical approach to land use” in which “intricately conducted ecosystems, consciously designed” are put to work. (Still, she said some critics argue that, in these permacultural systems, humans are at the center of the regenerative effort, so the approach is still too human-centric, and doesn’t truly benefit “life in all forms,” as permaculturalists say they do).

Bill Mollison, the Australian founder of the movement, wrote Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, back in the 1980s. Early permaculturalists  in Australia wondered whether it could actually be replicated in other places, but they decided that other temperate climates could make the systems work. So a slew of Australian books came out, followed by American and European guides. Recent how-to literature includes Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscapes Naturally and Edible Forest Gardens.

Standing on Greenbuild’s oddest “dog-bone”-shaped center stage, Hovey walked in circles showing off photographs of permaculture projects being designed and built. One practitioner she showed, Austrian outlier Sepp Holzer, is well-known for his “crater gardens,” stepped, terraced landscapes, which involve moving earth to dig out gardens, creating more surface area for agriculture and microclimates for different plants.

Holzer was recently brought in by Hovey’s group to help build a stepped crater garden at a school in Detroit. With the use of a translator, Holzer communicated to the bulldozer operator to create a set of steep walls out of the earth, adding in wood joints made of out sticks to “increase the productive edges.” Wood was also put in so that it decomposed and made richer soils. Once the area was seeded, straw was put on top. As Hovey described, “nature hates bare soil. Weeds happen when soil is left bare.”

The project, and others like it, demonstrate how “nature can be used as a model.” Hovey said permaculturalists use a design process wherein “everything is connected, every function should be supported by multiple elements, and every element should serve multiple functions.” This type of design process “builds in redundancy and resiliency.”

Permacultural design also enables feedback to be incorporated throughout the process. “This is a cyclical, iterative, spiral approach.” This kind of approach allows permaculturalists to “eliminate pollution.” While waste is abundant in nature — because it produces so much — pollution is not. Pollution is the “concentration of waste to such a degree that nature can’t handle it.” Interestingly, Hovey said lawns are a form of pollution because they “suppress existing ecosystems.”

Hovey went into great detail on the benefits of compost (if done right, it shouldn’t smell), along with the application of permaculture in parks, small urban plots, and even windowsills. 

Closing with a thoughtful take on regenerative design, Hovey argued that if these systems are designed to be self-sustaining, “the agricultural output is theoretically unlimited.” And if designers understand “ecological succession,” these landscapes can be “self-maintaining and even replicating.” Hence, permaculture as a state of permanent agriculture.

Check out Sepp Holzer’s book on permaculture at the small-scale.

Image credit: Powell Street Promenade, San Francisco / Hood Design / image copyright Marion Brenner and Beth Amann

With SITES, Regenerative Design Moves Forward

In a session on measuring regenerative design at the ASLA 2012 Annual Meeting, Danielle Pieranunzi, Affil. ASLA, LEED AP, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin; Joel Perkovich, ASLA, Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens; Jose Almiñana, RLA, FASLA, Andropogon Associates; and Michael Takacs, ASLA, Civil & Environmental Consultants, Inc., discussed recent developments in the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) pilot program.

Pieranunzi began the session by describing the development of sustainable landscape metrics for the SITES rating system. Aiming to improve ecosystem services while bolstering natural systems that we typically view as free, the SITES program is envisioned as a stand-alone rating system, operating on a 250-point scale with 4 levels of certification. This certification system could be applied to projects ranging form small-scale residential sites to parks and streetscapes.

The 2-year pilot program, which ended last June, tested the program metrics on locations spread across the U.S. Of course, developing a landscape sustainability metric is not easy, and the SITES program must define measures for hydrology, soils, vegetation, and materials. The pilot program allowed for critical testing of these measures, which can now be adjusted and refined.

Perkovich discussed one pilot project: the Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) in Pittsburgh. The CSL grounds are located on the 15-acre Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden campus. Opened in 1893, the initial plant collection for the conservatory came from the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Phipps Conservatory touts itself as the world’s “greenest” public gardens and it was the first to become LEED certified.

The new CSL headquarters is on a 2.65-acre site, the former location of a City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Works salt storage facility. The new design includes a 24,350 square foot building and is designed to be net-zero energy and water. In fact, the building is expected to be 80 percent more energy efficient than a conventional building.

Almiñana explained CSL’s design. The integrated design process included nine months of design charrettes with the local community and local designers. This process established a need for the site to be both an extension of the Phipps campus and to fit into the larger landscape. Almiñana discussed how the design offers natural air circulation by connecting the building design into the site, zero-waste energy through the deployment of interventions to generate energy and moderate temperature, and net-zero water by exploring the potential of every site surface.

Takacs talked about the hydrological design of the CSL site. To achieve a 100 percent, net-zero water level, 100 percent of water on the site must be captured or reused. Therefore, the design used pervious paving, bioretention areas, an open water lagoon, underground storage, a green roof, and rain gardens to dramatically reduce runoff. This system even captures runoff from the upper campus Botanical Gardens, which requires a tremendous amount of water to function.

For sanitary water treatment, the CSL design uses an array of tools including a septic tank, constructed wetlands, sand filters, and a solar distillation system. By employing these treatment elements, the CSL site generally doesn’t release anything back into the public sewage system.

As more landscapes like the Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes are designed, built, and monitored, the more refined and sophisticated the SITES rating system will become. Each SITES project provides vital knowledge and creates incentives for the construction of future regenerative sites. The session ended with this thought: “What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place?”

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer associate.

Image credits: (1, 3, 4, 6) Landscape Voice, (2, 5) Andropogon Associates

China’s Landscape Architects Undo the Damage

Chinese landscape architects are buffeted by two trends changing the planet: the information technology revolution coming out of the U.S. and one of the largest mass migrations in history, the current process of urbanization in China, said Liang Wei, PhD, a landscape architect and professor at the Beijing Tsinghua Urban Planning & Design Institute (THUPDI), at the American Institute of Architects convention in Washington, D.C. Liang said 10  million new residents are moving into Chinese cities each year, with one billion new square feet being built to accomodate the influx. By 2020, China will be 65 percent urban, which means landscape architects, planners, and architects have an unbelievable amount of work to do to make these new cities more livable, sustainable, and scalable while also undoing the worst environmental damages.

The incredible rate of urbanization has led to changes in how design is taught in China. Since the 1980s, the number of landscape architecture, architecture, and planning programs has exploded, with 10,000 students now being taught in 200+ schools. There are now 100,000 architects working in China (some 40,000 are licensed). About 40 percent are found in Beijing and Shanghai, which means it’s harder to find a design professional in the rest of the country. With all the development, each architect is doing something like 10 million square feet of new buildings each year. Similarly, China’s landscape architects are working with thousands of hectares annually.

Tsinghua, which is equivalent to a top Ivy league school in the U.S., has adapted itself to address the market demand for designers. Forging connections with the market, much like M.I.T. or Stanford does, Tsinghua has set up a set of institutes that “bridge the school and market and fill in the gaps by addressing practical problems.” THUPDI, where Liang teaches and works, scaled up from a staff of 30 in 2000 to more than 800 these days, with 1,000 or more Tsinghua design students coming through to learn about how design is actually practiced.

Putting the landscape in the center of one of his models, Liang explained how landscape architecture connect urban development, ecology, architecture, and infrastructure. Liang said instead of starting with common infrastructure issues as the basis for planning new developments — roads, housing, stormwater pipes — perhaps green space can become the point of creation. “Through landscape, we can create a new structure for the city.” Outlining a few examples of landscapes that provide multiple ecological services, Liang said “landscape architects can also be infrastructural engineers.” 

One example of this is the new 680-hectare Beijing Olympic Forest Park, designed by Hu Jie, ASLA, head of the landscape architecture department at THUPDI. The project, which has picked up an ASLA professional award among others, was a team effort led by Hu that included some 200-300 experts from many disciplines. A new mountain, Yangshan Hill, was built out of the reclaimed debris from the new Beijing subway and Olympic stadium construction projects. In the same way, the new 20-hectare lake was filled with reclaimed water. The lake water, which is residential grey water, as well runoff, rain, and flood water, is cleansed through a man-made 4-acre wetland, where it’s then used to maintain the landscape. Hu said this system also helped preserve the native “mountain and water tradition” while creating a new landmark.

There are incredible benefits for a city engulfed by new development: 300 new species of plants spread throughout the site, which create new habitat for birds and insects, produce 5,400 tons of oxygen, detain more than 4,900 tons of dust, and suck up 32 tons of carbon dioxide annually. The team even created the kind of ecologically-rich wildlife corridor that many communities in the U.S. only dream of.

Another remarkable project by THUPDI is the Tangshan Nanhu eco-city central park, which won the Torsonlorenzo international prize last year. According to Hu, a 630-acre wasteland was turned into the “largest central park in northern China in three years.” A deeply polluted site, the area was a place to dump coal mining waste. Using a GIS system, Hu and his team found that among all the layers, there were some 4.5 million cubic feet of trash, which was then covered, contained, and turned into a hill, where trees were planted. A new ecologically-restored park starts at the base and works its way up the top of the trash-filled mountain, which is a new scenic destination.

At the edge of the water, willow trees took root and actually create a new habitat in place of the old brownfield. Throughout, the landscape architects only used “low-cost material with low-impact.”

Then, landscape architect Zhu Yu-fan, PhD, explored some of his beautiful sites using his “depth of field” theory as a guide. The Quarry Garden in the Shanghai Botanical Garden used to be “dangerous to use,” but a new stairwell, walkway, and terraces were created, which offer a safe path down to the deep pools at the center. The entrance provides a portal into another ecologically-restored landscape. 

Zhu said “now, you can experience a thrill but there will be no danger.” 

THUPDI clearly demonstrates that landscape architects all over the world are now taking aim at brownfields, and beautiful, high-performing ecological designs aren’t just being built in the U.S. and Europe. Learn more about THUPDI’s ambitious projects (12 MB).

Image credits: THUPDI

A Robust, Sustainable Reference

The Sustainable Sites Handbook: A Complete Guide to the Principles, Strategies, and Best Practices for Sustainable Landscapes by Meg Calkins, ASLA, elucidates strategic design approaches, measures for site performance, and provides an intelligent framework to discuss sustainability and understand technical issues. The handbook is extremely clear and well-structured, synthesizing a wealth of specific information into a useable form. The book embodies the very significant achievement of the Sustainable Sites initiative (SITES), in its broad-based collaborative approach to the subject.

The book begins by discussing the conceptual underpinnings of sustainable design and then moves through a comprehensive project development framework; from planning and site selection, through water, vegetation, soils and materials, to a discussion of human health and well-being and the issues of management and stewardship.

The broad disciplinary base of the SITES program, with its numerous expert contributors and reviewers, has allowed a surprisingly detailed and nuanced approach to the subject areas covered. The value of the book is as a guide to practitioners who are finding their way through the SITES system but also as a general reference to issues of sustainable site development more generally.

Perhaps even more than its professional use, I believe the book will be an invaluable resource for educators and students as a guide to sustainable design practice. Its comprehensiveness and synthetic approach to issues of site development and management provide a framework that can be broadly applied. The book brings together sound technical and procedural information placed within a well-reasoned intellectual context.

The book’s layout is clear and legible but the book design and production exhibit the limitations of quality in both materials and images so ubiquitous in contemporary textbooks. Given the density of the material, significantly more attention to a more dynamic graphic design and layout would have made a profound difference to the reader experience. The photographic images, which are vital in the elaboration of the text, suffer from being uniformly low contrast black and white images as a result of paper quality, and a more varied and lively design approach to typography, illustrations, and color would enhance both the ability to absorb the information and relay how much fun it is. Given the quality of the content and its broad market appeal, this would have been an opportunity for the publisher to invest in what should be a classic text and reference work, and one can only hope that will happen for subsequent editions.

Given the scope of this book, Meg Calkins has done a superb job in providing intellectual direction and expert content and guiding her excellent collaborators in the creation of what is destined to become a key reference work for the profession.

Read the book.

This guest review is by Elizabeth Mossop, FASLA, Professor, Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, Louisiana State University

Image credit: Wiley & Sons

D.C. Offers a Bold Vision for a More Sustainable Future

At a historic church in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray said there are either two future directions for the city: “The gaps between us could further divide our city,” or the city could become “greener, more equitable, and more prosperous” for all. Outlining a bold vision for a Sustainable D.C., Gray said he wanted the city to not only be the greenest in the U.S. but among all world cities. D.C. is currently ranked 8th in a recent ranking of North American cities by the Economist Intelligence Unit so the city has quite a ways to go to get to number one in this continent, let alone the world. In the near term, can D.C. beat New York City, Vancouver, or San Francisco? That’s a stretch and only possible with deep collaboration with the non-profit and private sectors.

Gray is giving the city one generation — 20 years — to accomplish his ambitious objectives, which weave in health, economic, employment, and environmental goals. The idea is that D.C. will not only become greenest but healthiest, with the most number of green jobs. On top of this, Gray wants to continue to grow the city’s population in a big way. Gray said “sustainability will need to be a continual process.”

In terms of carbon dioxide, the city wants to cut emissions by 50 percent by 2032. In presenting the goals, Christopher Tuluo, head of D.C.’s Environment Department, said “climate change is happening. If someone says it isn’t, they are flat out wrong.” A key part of achieving this goal will be reaching objectives on energy use and efficiency. The city seeks to cut district-wide energy use by 50 percent while increasing renewable energy use to 50 percent. Given some 75 percent of emissions come from buildings, the District will push for adaptive re-use of old buildings so they can become greener. The idea is to maintain and improve the current building stock and increase the number of LEED buildings (the city is already number one for that metric). Another way to fight the effect of climate change: strengthening D.C.’s already considerable urban forest, which stores much of the city’s carbon, reaching a 40 percent tree canopy by 2032. Here Tuluo added that “trees are important when it’s 100 degrees out because of climate change.”

Investing in more sustainable transportation systems is also key to both reducing transportation-related emissions and adapting to a carbon-constrained world. The district seeks to make 75 percent of all trips walking, biking, or transit in 20 years. Harriet Tregoning, D.C.’s planning director, said “this is a stretch goal but these trips already make up 50 percent of all trips right now.” She discussed how more young people may be moving to D.C. because the city’s transportation system is so affordable. This younger generation is so in debt with college loans they can’t afford cars. In fact, just 60 percent of D.C. residents own cars and that number is falling.

Sustainability means improving D.C.’s waterways, which are amongst the most polluted in the country. Gray wants 100 percent of District waterways to be fishable and swimmable, and 75 percent of D.C.’s green space to be used as green infrastructure that captures and filters rainwater for reuse. Tuluo wants the city to become much “spongier.” He wants the city to become “a much more natural place — not just for the environmental benefits. We want return on investment” in terms of stormwater management benefits.

The process for dealing with waste, which the Economist Intelligence Unit report said was among D.C. weak points, will need to be totally transformed if the city is going to reach zero waste in 20 years. Tuluo asked, “is zero waste a pipe dream?” Perhaps not. Organic waste is already turned into compost as a matter of practice in San Francisco, one of the best cities at dealing with waste. He sees D.C. residents “becoming urban farmers,” using their compost daily, and other waste consumed by digesters that turn other garbage into energy.

The front end of the reuse chain is local food production, which will also need to ramped up if the 75 percent of all food is to be grown within a quarter-mile of the population eating it. Tregoning argued that “it used to be really difficult to find a supermarket in the District.” While that has changed, improving the availability of local produce will be sped along by a network of food-productive roofs. She wants one million square feet of these vegetated roofs in place funneling produce to local shops and co-ops. (According to Gray, the city is already number-one in terms of green roofs so this may be possible). Getting local produce to D.C. residents seems to be a key focus. Health must be at the top of a sustainability agenda in a city where 22 percent of the population is obese. Gray wants to cut that rate in half in 20 years. 

D.C.’s plan won’t work without more equitable economic and employment growth. Right now, the unemployment rates in the city differ dramatically from ward to ward. In Ward 3, it’s as low as 2 percent, while in poorer parts of the city, like Ward 8, it’s 24 percent, among the highest in the country. Gray wants to boost the number of green jobs by five times — providing opportunities at all levels, from the PhDs experimenting with biofuels to the landscape architects designing parks, from the green roof installers to the maintenance crews keeping green infrastructure and waste reuse systems working.

Explore the plan. There are a few short, medium, and long-term actions listed. As Tregoning said, “the vision is a painting of what’s possible in the District.” A design and implementation strategy with hundreds of actions comes next. To see some actions that should be considered, explore ASLA’s 30-page set of recommendations: Becoming Greenest. One big focus of ASLA’s report was the need for a climate adaptation plan. If local species in D.C.’s great urban forest were to die off due to higher temperatures, none of the other goals related to water, air quality, or health will be possible.

Image credit: City Center, Washington, D.C. / SWF Institute

Green Infrastructure Goes Large in New York

In 2010, New York City released an ambitious green infrastructure plan to spur investment in green roofs and streets, bioswales, and other natural systems to manage stormwater. Just last month, New York State and city officials announced a broad-reaching financing agreement was reached that will commit more than $2.4 billion in public and private investment towards the plan over the next 18 years, with $187 million to be spent over the next three years, reports The New York Times’ Green blog. New York City now joins Philadelphia, Toronto, D.C., and a few other cities now making serious financial investments in applying nature to solve expensive infrastructural challenges.

Green infrastructure can help cities shore-up outdated combined stormwater and sewer systems, which tend to overflow in heavy storm events. In heavy rain, sewage overwhelms these systems and excrement enters water supplies. Because stormwater then can’t enter the drains, contaminant-laden water just sits on streets, funneling towards waterways as well. These overflows are a big problem in New York and one reason so many waterways don’t meet federal standards for fishing, swimming, and healthy habits for wildlife, writes The New York Times. With green infrastructure, water is captured onsite so it doesn’t overload those old pipe systems, which are prohibitively expensive to replace in major cities.

While the Enviromental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) has been re-evaluating its national rules on green infrastructure (and even asked for ASLA’s help in evaluating the benefits of these systems), few states have gotten behind these approaches yet. So the fact that New York State has supported New York City is a major win for using green infrastructure to meet federal water quality standards. According to the state and city, the new green infrastructure investments will eliminate 1.5 billion gallons of sewer overflow annually by 2030, while 12 billion gallons will be kept out of New York’s waterways through combined green and grey infrastructure systems, saving the state and city loads of money in the process.

A significant portion of the $187 million near-term investment will go to bioswales, targeting the areas of heavy “outfalls.” These bioswales are effectively trees set in extra-deep pits and surrounded by vegetation and low curbs to encourage water absorption. As Capital New York reports, more than 100 are in the works for 2012, using an approved “Right-of-way Bioswale” standard model settled on by the city government’s many departments. That model came out of some 20 test sites established throughout the city.

Of course, landscape architects, who will design and implement these systems, are fans. Nette Compton, ASLA, a landscape architect who runs the green infrastructure department in the NYC Parks and Recreation department, said: “I love bioswales. Bioswales are as close to a natural system as we can get on a New York City street.” Compton told Capital New York that each of the new bioswales will cost $13,000 but “costs may go down” as the city scales up the standard model.

Some of those first bioswales were put in Gowanus Canal last November. The four there now are expected to keep 7,200 gallons out of the canal, one of the worst polluted waterways in the U.S. The city also seems to be smart about tree placement and diversity in order to protect against bugs and disease. And the benefits may go beyond simply environmental value: the bioswales alone are expected to bring in $400 million in new taxes by improving property value. Still, others think the city still needs to work on the standard bioswale model, arguing that the soil volumes used just aren’t enough.

Learn more about NYC’s progress in implementing its green infrastructure plans.

Also, check out ASLA’s animations on green infrastructure and urban forests, a resource guide, along with 450+ green infrastructure case studies, designed to provide the E.P.A. with data on the many environmental and economic benefits of these systems.

Image credit: Bioswale / NYC Environmental Protection

City Landscapes, Urban Habitat

The landfill of Kearny, New Jersey, is the site of Steven Handel’s early work restoring urban habitat. It is constructed on top of a wetland. The fill material specified for landfill cover make poor soils, and the railroads, interstates, and cloverleaf interchanges work as barriers to dispersal. His work began with a question: “What can a field botanist do to help this?”

The University of Virginia department of landscape architecture recently hosted restoration ecologist Dr. Steven Handel of Rutgers University for a presentation and discussion of his work in restoring urban habitat. Handel is the Director of the Center for Urban Restoration Ecology (CURE), a joint partnership between Rutgers University and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. In the last decade he has worked as a consultant with landscape firms such as SCAPE, James Corner Field Operations, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, and Ken Smith on projects that have helped establish restoration ecology as an important component of urban landscape design. His presentation focused on the importance of ongoing monitoring and adaptation and the concept of stewardship in the creation of vital urban landscapes.

Handel discussed some of his early work at the Keegan Landfill in Kearny, New Jersey, and how that project led to work on Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, New York, and, eventually collaborations on landscape projects in Europe, China, and across the U.S. This work is best characterized not by the resulting images and supporting data that have become key components of landscape architectural presentations, but by the ecological approach itself. Each project is a dynamic constellation of actors and agents: gravel contractors, city bureaucracies, ecology students, groundwater, and honey bees. In this constellation the ecologist is not the mastermind, but rather one of the primary catalysts. The ecologist joins this willow tree with that robin, this compost depot with that acre of landfill cover in the interest of creating landscapes that include a wealth of inhabitants, from mushrooms and chimney swifts to willow trees and teenagers.

Maintenance and Ecological Thinking

Looking south over Fresh Kills landfill in 2002 empty debris barges from the World Trade Center site can be seen in the lower right hand corner. Steven Handel’s partnership with the Department of Sanitation began here in 2000 and took on new significance after 9/11: “what was a hated place became a sacred place.”

In the presentation, Handel outlined the two most important objectives when beginning any urban ecological restoration project: what is the ecological target for restoration?, and how can we rebuild the soil? Everything else follows from those two questions. For any kind of restoration project, whether it a piece of colonial architecture or a 2,000 acre municipal landfill, defining the desired outcome is the fundamental problem. The second objective is particular to urban ecological restoration projects. Handel noted that urban soils are notorious for their inability to support healthy ecosystems due to compaction, contamination, and a lack of microbes. What is more, they are extremely varied — one block is contaminated with high levels of lead and the next is choked with concrete and asphalt dust.

For Handel, the maintenance budgets of city agencies are poorly conceived and misappropriated. Maintenance takes on an entirely new definition when it is informed by an ecological approach. Tasked with the unenviable job of trying to maintain landscapes in a static state, current maintenance practice too often resists the other organisms at work in the landscape while doing too little to monitor and observe change. Project budgets are designed for major capital investments up front followed by a maintenance plan that aims to protect the landscape from change. Handel throws into relief the fundamental misalignment between maintenance policies and funding mechanisms that tend toward static and compartmentalized concepts of landscape and an ecological approach to creating vital urban habitat.

In many urban projects, the ecological constraints – opportunity for dispersal, regeneration of soils, disturbance regimes – are in conflict with the regulatory structures set by rigid engineering norms. Handel noted that scale-dependent ecological processes rely on a lapse of time, and, therefore, landscape projects need instruments and mechanisms that can hold a portion of the budget in reserve so that monitoring can occur over 10 years and adaptations to initial strategies can be incorporated. For him, the idea of ecosystem services–a movement to quantify the benefits of natural systems as economic value– is useful in this discussion because it inserts the animals, plants, topography, and other aspects of ecosystems into the budget and profit strategies that dictate the terms of development and management of most of our urban land. 

The Importance of Rhetoric

The concept of ecosystem services is contentious. In addition to being difficult to quantify, it suggest that costs that have traditionally been externalized (such as CO2 emissions) be accounted for. Nonetheless, in specific, localized situations, the idea that restoring a healthy ecosystem to a former municipal landfill so that it can serve as bird habitat and a community recreation area is one that is gaining traction and is worth an investment. 

Handel noted that prior to 9/11, the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island was a “hated landscape.” People wanted it gone, and if they could not make it go away then they certainly did not want to spend money on it. As the final resting place for the remains and debris from the World Trade Center, the landfill overnight became a “sacred landscape.” It was worth investing in. While undertaking his project there, he was working with communities and trying to help them understand the importance of bees in pollinating plants and creating healthy plant communities. He told an anecdote of going to a community meeting and trying to convince people that bringing bees back to this place would provide many benefits. This was not well-received. He realized that by simply referring to them as “pollinators” (the benefit they provide) and not “bees” (their cultural symbol with some negative connotations) the project won their support. This observation is the real contribution of Handel’s work: For him, ecosystems are not pristine examples of natural systems, but are messy networks of social and natural entities, all mashed together and trying to find ways of going about their business, whether that is pollinating a stand of service berries or trying to catch the 7 train.

A NYC subway car in 1973. This is an ecology too.

Scientific Stewardship and a Future Ecological Ethic

The presentation culminated with the importance of stewardship of the land and the development of tools and methods for engendering a more responsible environmental ethic. The stewardship concept itself is contentious, with notable scholars such as Carolyn Merchant rightly pointing out that the idea dates back to the origins of Judeo-Christian society and comes with a whole host of gender specific and anthropocentric connotations. At the end of her book Reinventing Eden, she suggests that the idea of kinship–a partnership among equals–might be the future environmental ethic, a suggestion that seems more in line with ecological thinking.

This emphasis of Handel’s would seem to be antithetical to the ecological approach, with the honey bee and the fungus carrying an important role in the ecosystem, right alongside the park user and the bulldozer operator. As a steward, you might care for the land, but you still survey it, decide what should be done, and then go back to your dwelling. There is a hierarchy and the human is at the top. It is the opposite of amongst-ness. But then, Handel is actually out there, digging in the stinking muck of Keegan Landfill and counting preying mantis on Staten Island. You don’t get much more among things than that.

A new ecological policy for the landfills of Jamaica Bay is the legacy of Steven’s work. Located in the center at the top of the image, the landfills are currently being maintained as an ecological restoration project, with the mowed grassy hills slowly changing into thriving upland ecosystems on the edge of the bay.

This guest post is by Brian Davis, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of Virginia School of Architecture, and editor of FASLANYC.

Image credits: (1) Landfill of Kearny, New Jersey / Google Earth , (2) Fresh Kills Landfill / Cryptome, (3) NYC Subway Car, 1973 / U.S. National Archives, (4) Landfills of Jamaica Bay / Google Earth

Becoming Greenest: Recommendations for a More Sustainable Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. leadership has requested input from a range of organizations as it develops a new “unified vision” and “comprehensive framework” for a more sustainable Washington, D.C. The end goal: to connect sustainability with economic development and become the number-one, most sustainable city in North America. Washington, D.C. is currently ranked eighth in a recent Economist Intelligence Unit report sponsored by Siemens.

As part of this process, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) polled members from its Potomac, Northern Virginia, and Southern Maryland chapters and incorporated their input into a set of bold recommendations in the priority areas identified by the city government. Because the categories of recommendations will be evaluated by different D.C. agencies, recommendations are repeated when appropriate and relevant. Among them:

Energy: Reuse brownfields as solar energy farms. Through revised building codes and local tax incentives, expand use of smart tree placement and green roofs and walls. Reduce building energy use through green infrastructure. Incentivize the use of rooftop solar panels. Read research and recommendations >

Climate Change / Mitigation: Reduce total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by expanding urban park land, further improving bike and pedestrian infrastructure, incentivizing the growth in the number of bicycle and pedestrian commuters, creating highly walkable pedestrian-only areas, and introducing new innovative forms of public space such as parklets and underpass parks. Read research and recommendations >

Climate Change / Adaptation: Increase coverage of street trees for shade and expand use of green and cool (white) roofs in order to adapt to higher average temperatures along with more varied temperature fluctuations within the District. Improve building and landscape water efficiency measures. Develop resiliency plans for Washington, D.C.’s plant and animal life within parks and green spaces, including the introduction of wildlife migration corridors and heat and drought-tolerant plants. Read research and recommendations >

Water: Develop a comprehensive green infrastructure plan that leverages existing grey infrastructure. Use Sustainable Site Initiative™ (SITES™) guidelines to improve water efficiency measures, require the use of appropriate plant species in public and residential landscapes, and enable rainwater capture and filtered or treated greywater (and even blackwater) reuse for landscape irrigation. For stormwater management, require the use of green roofs for new buildings exceeding a minimum size. In addition, approve the use of rainwater cisterns for irrigation of green roofs and other green infrastructure. Improve the permeability of the District’s park surfaces and their ability to capture and store water. Create multi-use infrastructure, or rain gardens or bio-retention systems in District parks, turning them into green infrastructure and water treatment systems. Increase the use of bioswales near transportation systems, and add in permanent green street corridors and green alleys. Continue to expand urban tree canopy and preserve larger trees to manage stormwater runoff. Spread use of tree boxes and permeable pavements for stormwater capture. As part of a public education campaign, parks and public green space should follow the highest water efficiency standards. Read research and recommendations >

Transportation: Expand bike and pedestrian infrastructure. Create safe bicycle infrastructure. Connect the Metro system with bike infrastructure and bikeshare stations. Require secure bike parking within office and residential buildings. Incentivize the growth in the number of bicycle and pedestrian commuters. Create highly walkable pedestrian-only areas, and introduce new innovative forms of public space such as parklets and underpass parks. Read research and recommendations >

Waste: Set clear, ambitious targets and deadlines for achieving zero waste in the District and measure progress against targets. Ensure all building materials are reused in new buildings (if the materials are non-hazardous). Use Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) guidelines for park maintenance and eliminate grounds waste generated from Washington, D.C., parks through composting. Read research and recommendations >

Built Environment: Invest in turning more brownfields into parks. Apply bio-remediation and other safe environmental remediation technologies during park development. Develop an Internet-accessible inventory of all brownfields in the city to enable easier remediation and redevelopment of derelict sites by local developers. Create a certification program for remediated brownfields to facilitate faster reuse. Invest in retrofitting older school buildings to make them LEED Platinum and also integrate green school redesign activities into school curricula. Ensure all schools apply Safe Routes to Schools design guidelines. Read research and recommendations >

Nature: Develop a biodiversity and environmental education action plan based on the concept of biophilia. Recreate wetlands along riverfront edges and reintroduce native wildlife. Reduce the mortality rate of trees and extend their lifespan by enabling them to grow in larger tree pits with structural soils and under permeable pavements. Use appropriate trees grown locally for urban forestry campaigns. Experiment with growing trees in park nurseries. Read research and recommendations >

Food: Develop a comprehensive urban agriculture plan. Evaluate all available empty lots (including brownfield sites) as potential opportunities for commercial and community urban agriculture. Develop new codes enabling local food production. As a priority, target food desert communities with high numbers of brownfields. Allow local residential food production. Develop new soil testing and clean-up requirements for growing food in former brownfield sites. Allow and also increase tax incentives for rooftop food production. Read research and recommendations >

Green Economy: Invest in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure improvement projects to boost job growth. Use green infrastructure systems, including green roofs, to increase number of local, non-exportable green jobs. Launch a comprehensive green jobs program, training chronically unemployed and former convicts in brownfield remediation, green roof installation, and other tasks. Launch a national campaign in an effort to lure the best green talent to the District. Read research and recommendations >

Governance: Organize watershed councils at the local level and appoint ward-level sustainability advocates to help implement and align SustainableDC initiatives. Use Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) guidelines as a management tool for achieving high-performing landscapes across the district. Read research and recommendations >

Go to the report Web site and explore the recommendations in detail, or download the PDF version of the report.

Also, be sure to add your comments below on how D.C. can become greenest.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Professional Design Honor Award. Monumental Core Framework Plan, Washington, D.C. AECOM, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the U. S. Commission of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C.

Two SITES Pilot Projects Tell All

Kevin Burke, ASLA, senior landscape architect with Atlanta’s ambitious Beltline project, and Constance Haydock, a landscape architect working in the northeast, have been moving through the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) pilot project phase and lived to tell about it. In their presentations at the 2011 GreenBuild, both forward-thinking practitioners mentioned that early on in their careers, some 20 years ago, they were, “embarrassed to say,” not using sustainable best practices. Haydock said back then she was “pouring concrete, ordering up machinery, and producing terrific waste.” Now, with SITES and its focus on creating regenerative landscapes, “there’s another way, and I am excited about that.”

Burke described SITES as a rating system focused on ecosystem protection, restoration, and regeneration. The system enables the development of man-made landscapes that are “sustainable and don’t rely on future resources.” The end goal is that “what we design today should be able to function on its own.” Haydock added that SITES can help mitigate some major environmental issues: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.), in 2007 there were 33 million tons of municipal yard waste, 13 percent of the total. As encouraged by SITES, “this can now be used for compost tea.” Also, invasives, which cause an estimated $38 billion in damage annually, can be fought through SITES-encouraged removal programs and adding and protecting native plants.

On soils, SITES can help reduce erosion and compaction. For water, the system can help eliminate the use of increasingly scarce potable water for landscape irrigation. Native plants can also be used to reduce water use overall, and increase biodiversity. SITES encourages more sustainable material use, including local products made up of industrial byproducts like flyash and foundry sand. Haydock said she loves her Italian marble, but won’t be importing it for projects anytime soon. For the important area of human health and well-being, SITES also rewards projects that enable exercise, which “helps ward off anxiety, depression, and improves mood.”  (See an overview of SITES and the pilot projects).

The system, which many landscape architects already know, offers a maximum of 250 points. To certify, 100 points must be earned. To reach 1-2 stars, projects need to hit 125-150 points. 200 are needed to achieve the “very challenging” SITES 4 star level.

Haydock’s 19-acre SITES pilot project is Hempstead Plains in Long Island, New York. Managed by Nassau Community College, the site is surrounded by historic areas, parkways, and a stadium, but has remained a “pure prairie” landscape, largely due to the dedicated efforts of a group of passionate biologists. Running through the SITES pre-requisites and credits and applying them to her project, she noted that pre-requisite 2.1, which calls for a “pre-design site assessment”, is a challenge, involving seven pages of paperwork. However, she said that process was actually critical because it “forces designers, engineers, landscape architects to get together as a group in the beginning. It’s a powerful tool to get people thinking and anticipating future problems early on.”

The total water credits, with a possible 44 points, are tools for helping man-made landscapes reduce potable water use. Haydock said 70 percent of water pollution in urban areas comes from stormwater runoff. So for her project, she is applying a “demonstrative green roof” on the interpretive learning center she’s building in the 5 percent of the total site she’s allowed to use. The green roof, which will help capture any runoff, will use BioTrays made of coconut husks. These will be filled with engineered soils and native grasses and flowering plants.

Moving into the soil credits, Haydock said “these are pretty standard” — soils can’t move off the site. She said SITES was right to recognize the issue with construction sites as well given the average construction site has 20 times the sediment runoff of an agriculture site and 1,000-2,000 times that of a forest. For credits dealing with vegetation, Haydock noted that she is expected to earn credits for “preserving plant biomass” as she’s working with the biologists to protect an endangered wildflower in the prairie.

Moving deeper into more sections of SITES, Burke took over and discussed how Atlanta’s Beltline provides opportunities for 6,500 acres of redevelopment. Within the Beltline, there are 45 neighborhoods, covering 8 percent of the city’s land and 22 percent of its population. One component of this project is the Historic 4th Ward Park, which includes brownfields and greyfields, and is a natural stormwater catch basin. In an clever landscape architecture design, the Beltline team created a new basin that doubles as a park. An example of smart multi-use infrastructure, the new park, which cost 50 million, is designed to flood in severe storm events. When not flooding, there are ledges for exercise, with a theatre in the center. “We built a 17 acre park and a new piece of infrastructure for $50 million.”

To earn SITES credits on materials, Burke said they used recycled plastic panels set within local woods railings for a boardwalk that helps visitors avoid the old pecan trees on site.  “Weathered granite” excavated during site development was also reused. For credits on using local materials, the team made sure all materials were sourced within 250 miles, except for LED lights. However, Burke said that the local material credits were pushing the Beltline staff to look for a local LED light manufacturer.

The project is also expected to earn credits for human health and well-being (through the inclusion of stairs), responding to community input (by creating the theatre), cleaning soils (through removing lead and asbestos-laden soils in favor of new, clean soils), and developing a plan for sustainable maintenance (instead of “sterilizing soils,” Burke will bring in compost to create microbiological processes). There are other credits to be earned through the project’s use of solar power to run the lights. Here Burke noted that the Georgia Parks department said some 55-60 percent of total costs are associated with electricity so installing renewable energy can have a demonstrable impact on site sustainability.

Both Haydock and Burke said they were aiming for SITES 2 stars for their projects, and think they can get to 3 stars over time, with greater effort. Still, Burke noted that “we’ve created a very valuable project, even if it’s not 4 stars. Any project that’s 1 or 2 stars is doing great”

Image credit: ASLA 2011 Student Awards General Design Honor. Co-Modification Joseph Kubik, Student ASLA, Graduate, University of Pennsylvania
Faculty Advisor: Mark Thomann