Restoring the Remnant Ecosystems of San Francisco

Twin Peaks Nature Area / Jared Green

San Francisco is part of the California Floristic Province, which stretches from Baja into Oregon and is one of just 36 global hot spots for biodiversity. A hot spot is an area of extraordinarily rich flora and fauna, where there are high numbers of endemic species, which means they are found nowhere else on Earth. In this coastal region, there are some 7,000-8,000 native plants and more than 2,000 endemic ones.

According to the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, the California Floristic Province also has an amazing diversity of ecosystems, including: the “sagebrush steppe, prickly pear shrubland, coastal sage scrub, chaparral, juniper-pine woodland, upper montane-subalpine forest, alpine forest, riparian forest, cypress forests, mixed evergreen forests, Douglas fir forests, sequoia forests, redwood forests, coastal dunes, and salt marshes.”

In addition to the temperate climate, it’s this wondrous abundance of biodiversity that perhaps lures so many people to California. But over-development has put remaining wild places at risk — just a quarter of original ecosystems are in pristine condition.

In San Francisco, the amount of space for these ecosystems is far less — they cover just 5 percent of the city, which makes them even more precious. On a tour at American Planning Association conference, we learned about the ambitious efforts of the San Francisco city government to both protect and restore remnant ecosystems.

Peter Brastow is the city’s biodiversity czar. As our tour bus wheezed its way up precipitous hills, he explained how the city recently formulated a biodiversity policy, formalized through a Board of Supervisors’ resolution, which gives extra support to his department’s efforts to coordinate biodiversity programs across the government and non-profits in the city.

The resolution bolstered the new urban forest plan, approved by city voters in 2016, which transferred ownership of the city’s 124,000 street trees from private property owners to the city’s public works department. San Franciscans saw this as important because the city falls way behind others in its total tree coverage at just 13.7 percent, far less than the nearly 30 percent found in Washington, D.C. The goal is to add another 50,000 trees by 2035, many of which will be native and support native insect and bird species.

The resolution also supports the city’s green connections program, which aims to get more San Franciscans into parks and educated about local biodiversity though a set of ecological guides, explained Scott Edmonston, San Francisco’s strategic sustainability planner, who co-organized the tour.

At our first stop, powerful blasts of cold wind greet us. This means it’s early summer at the Twin Peaks Natural Area, some 900 feet above sea level and near the center of the peninsula. The photogenic pair of hills are a remnant of the coastal shrubland ecosystem and home to the endangered Mission Blue butterfly, which relies solely on lupine plants. Brastow explained that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service re-introduced the butterfly on the peak with specimens from the San Bernardino Mountains. The San Francisco parks and recreation department has been restoring the native shrubland and removing invasive plants.

Twin Peaks Nature Area / Jared Green

Twin Peaks shows why the city has so much biodiversity, even in tiny pockets. Because of the city’s unique topography, the fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean covers some areas in moisture more than others. This results in micro-climates that in turn lead to unique micro-assemblages of plants. Hill tops, ridges, river bed landscapes introduce more complexity.

Edmonston said the problem for those restoring assemblages is that climate change may cause fog patterns to change. So the city and its partners can’t just restore ecosystems to what they were previously; they must instead plant what can survive a changing climate. “There is a lot of uncertainty now. The plant palletes we use now are much drier-loving. We really just need to restore more of nature, so she can be more resilient.”

For Brastow, the city needs to better identify the value of ecosystem services provided by habitats and use those values to steer planning and design efforts to reincorporate nature into the city. “That’s the frontier that can guide restoration ecology, landscape architecture, and urban design.”

The bus struggled mightily trying to reach the Sutro native plant nursery found at the top of a sheer slope at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center. There, volunteers have grown more than 6,000 plants from 150 native species, which are being planted in 30 restoration sites in the 61-acre Mount Sutro area that includes UCSF’s campus. “The goal is to improve native plant diversity,” Brastow said.

Sutro Native Plant Nursery / Jared Green

For many in San Francisco, truly restoring native plant diversity on a broader scale means removing the groves of towering non-native Eucalyptus trees. But others are very protective of the Tasmanian trees and efforts to remove them have led to major protests. “For generations, Californians grew up smelling the trees — and they love it.” (A recent article in The Atlantic provides more context: “The Bay Area’s Great Eucalyptus Debate.”) But there is one big reason to support removal: “they are highly flammable.” And as the city gets drier with climate change, “some day we will have a big fire here.”

Amid the hills of the Sunset neighborhood that rest on ancient sand dunes, we come across a derelict hilltop right-of-way alongside staircases that was transformed into a native plant park and habitat for the Green Hairstreak Butterfly. In neighborhood rights-of-way, parks, and other green spaces, the city finds local site stewards, small non-profits, to manage upkeep.

Peter Brastow in restored park in Sunset / Jeremy Stapleton, Sonoran Institute

Last stop was the Presidio, the only U.S. national park that gets 30 percent of its budget from renting out its restored U.S. Army military housing. There, we saw the results of the U.S. department of defense’s base realignment and closure (BRAC) environmental restoration program. A deep ravine that was once a garbage dump was transformed back into a native shrub habitat, thanks to a multi-million-dollar restoration effort and countless National Park Service volunteer hours.

Restored landscape of the Presidio / Jeremy Stapleton, Sonoran Institute

As we drove back to the Moscone Convention Center, Brastow pointed out the ubiquitous London Planetrees that line Market Street. While not native to San Francisco, they are a cultivar related to the Sycamore tree.

Canyons are the natural home of the Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly. Market Street appears to them like a canyon formed by tall buildings on either side. London planetrees are close to their host Sycamores, and there is water in fountains along the street, so these insects have made a home there. “This is an example of how nature is also adapting to the city.”

More than 150 Cities Compete to Document Wild Urban Nature

Washington D.C. City Nature Challenge

In 2016, Lila Higgins at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and Alison Young at the California Academy of Sciences started a friendly competition to see which of their cities — Los Angeles or San Francisco — could identify the most species of plants and animals over a week. Harnessing the enthusiasm of citizen scientists, they launched the City Nature Challenge. Three years later, 159 cities around the world participated in this year’s competition, making some 960,000 wildlife observations, identifying tens of thousands of species, and discovering new ones in the process.

According to this year’s “leadership board” at the City Nature Challenge, Cape Town, South Africa took the top prize with 53,000 observations and 4,500 identified species, contributed by 1,100 citizen scientists. La Paz, Bolivia, made 46,000 observations and identified 3,000 species, with the help of 1,500. In third place is San Diego county, California, which made 38,000 observations and identified 3,000 species through the work of 1,100 locals.

Stella Tarnay, co-founder of Capital Nature (formerly Biophilic DC), said that Washington, D.C. placed in the top 20 in terms of the number of participating citizen scientists, observations, and species identifications. Some 1,200 people got involved through 120 events to collect nearly 30,000 observations and identify 2,250 species. While D.C. did well on observations, the city fell short on species identification.

Around the world, City Nature Challenge citizen scientists used the free iNaturalist app, which was created by the National Geographic Society and the California Academy of Sciences a decade ago, to crowdsource the identification of biodiversity. More than a million citizen and real scientists are now active on the app and have helped each other identify 180,000 species observed 16 million times in cities and the wild. The app is now also assisted by artificial intelligence.

Data was aggregated into local city challenge groups within iNaturalist. Once set up on the app, citizen scientists take photos of native or cultivated trees and plants, as well as fungi, insects, reptiles, and mammals. According to Tarnay, the scientists who run iNaturalist prefer “volunteer” plants, meaning they grew wild in a particular spot and weren’t planted there.

iNaturalist encourages users to take multiple photos of a species, add in notes, and mark the location of the species. Once uploaded, the app then considers that an observation and then offers up possible identifications. Once someone has confirmed the identity of a species, it becomes a “casual grade” identification. Once two users on the app have verified the species, the identification is determined to be “research grade.”

Research grade identification of Mayapple / iNaturalist

For one observational adventure on the National Mall — organized by the Potomac Chapter of ASLA and AIA DC’s committees on well-being and urban design and supported by Capital Nature — urban designer Michiel de Houwer created a handy map, identifying where different types of animals may be found via 5-minute walk zones. Smartphones in hand, we trekked to the National Museum of the American Indian to find native plants.

Map of biodiversity by walking zone / Michiel de Houwer
National Museum of the American Indian, designed by EDAW (now AECOM), Washington, D.C. / photo by OLIN, from the Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C.

At the end of the week-long bioblitz in D.C., Tarnay said the most identified species were:

Plant: Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) – 279
Bird: American Robin (Turdus migratorius) – 143
Mammal: White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) – 111
Butterfly: Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) – 68
Amphibian: Eastern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) – 66

In addition to helping map the extent of biodiversity and getting more young people outdoors to connect with nature, City Nature Challenge has led to the discovery of new species. One estimate find there are 8-9 million species on the planet, but only around 1.75 million have been discovered, identified, and catalogued, leaving 80 percent unknown. More recently, a group of scientists estimated that there could be up 1 trillion species on the globe if we include bacteria, archaea, and microscopic fungi, which could mean some 99.99 percent remain undiscovered.

The latest dire report from the United Nations makes clear why the public needs to engage with biodiversity. The 1,500-page report produced by 145 scientists from 50 countries found that up to one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction due to our degradation of the natural environment and climate change. Today, less than 70 percent of the forests that existed prior to the Industrial Revolution remain, with 100 million hectares cleared since 1980. Some 50 percent of coral reefs and 85 percent of wetland have been lost, while a third of the planet is now used for agriculture. The world’s most famous biologist — E.O. Wilson — has called for preserving half the Earth before it’s too late.

As this year’s challenge shows, cities like Cape Town are actually biodiversity “hot spots.” Documenting and then protecting pockets of biodiversity in cities may seem small in the grand scheme of things, but urban wildlife refuges are critical for the plants and animals that rely on them. More cities are becoming destinations for animals turned out of their natural habitats, spurring on further adaptation and evolution in ways we don’t yet understand.

In the end, the sustainability and resilience of humanity depends on the preservation of Earth’s biodiversity.

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

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Pier 35 on the East River waterfront / SHoP, Ken Smith Workshop

How Wildlife Bridges Over Highways Make Animals—And People—SaferNational Geographic, 4/16/19
“Bridges for bears and tunnels for tortoises have significantly reduced the number of wildlife-car collisions worldwide.”

Make America Graze AgainThe New York Times, 4/22/19
“Nashville’s Zach Richardson uses sustainable practices — and a flock of sheep — to clear overgrown landscapes.”

Design Center Unveils Land Bridge StudyNashville Post, 4/23/19
“There are many local urban place making experts and hobbyists alike who have often contended the single-greatest drawback to Nashville’s failure to maximize its most effective form and function is not limited to the city’s lack of comprehensive mass transit.”

Pier 35 Eco-Park and ‘Urban Beach’ Is Open to the Public6sqft, 4/23/19
“After years of anticipation, Pier 35 on the East River waterfront is officially open (h/t Curbed). The project, designed by SHoP with Ken Smith Workshop, consists of a new eco-park and an “urban beach” anchoring the northern flank of the East River waterfront esplanade and providing much-needed public space on the waterfront.”

Landscape Architect Pushes His Students to Serve Communities, Design For Greater Good The Daily Evergreen, 4/26/19
“Steve Austin, WSU Architecture professor and landscape architect, said he believes we need to hold open discussions on climate change.”

A Model Plan for Protecting Vital Coastal Habitats

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Conserving California’s Coastal Habitats / The Nature Conservancy

Sea level rise is coming, and its impacts will be far reaching. For the state of California, the threat of sea level rise may prove existential. More than two-thirds of its population lives in the states’ 21 coastal counties, which are responsible for 85 percent of the state’s GDP.

However, sea level rise will not just impact human activity. Rising tides will also drastically alter, and in some cases destroy, important coastal habitats. Conserving California’s Coastal Habitats, a new report from The Nature Conservancy, provides a startling analysis of the future of California’s coast and charts a path forward for coastal conservation efforts.

The California coast represents the most biodiverse region in the country’s most biodiverse state, lending nationwide significance to coastal conservation efforts there. “The state of California has been a leader in environmental policy for over a century,” say the report’s authors, praising the state’s “legacy of coastal conservation.”

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California’s coastline / Sue Pollock, The Nature Conservancy

However, current policy and decision-making frameworks have been “developed to reflect static existing conditions and are not well suited for the dynamic needs of adapting to sea level rise,” the authors warn.

At risk are “nesting areas along global migrations for diversity of species, as well as nesting and pupping habitat, nursery habitat, and important feeding grounds critical to populations of many species, some which are found nowhere else in the world.”

Sea level rise threatens areas of human settlement and activity, too. The conversion of land to tidal and subtidal coastline will reduce the size of natural buffers, providing less protection to human settlements in coastal flooding events. Saltwater intrusion will impact agriculture. According to the Conservancy, sea level rise and the flooding this will cause could damage or destroy nearly $100 billion worth of property along the California coast by 2100.

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Coastal infrastructure is at risk from sea level rise / Thomas Dunklin

The report’s authors used GIS to identify and map the coastal habitats, ecosystems, and infrastructure most at risk from sea level rise. They based their projections on two and five feet of sea level rise, which they say are in keeping with projections issued by the California Coastal Commission. The authors then developed metrics to measure the potential impact of sea level rise on a given area and the area’s vulnerability and ability to adapt.

Their findings are worrying. “As much as 25 percent of the existing public conservation lands within the analytic zone will be lost to subtidal waters,” they warn. Habitats for eight imperiled species will be completely inundated. Large portions of other significant coastal habitats are “highly vulnerable,” including 58 percent of rocky intertidal habitats, 60 percent of upper beaches, and 58 percent of regularly-flooded estuarine marshes. “At least half of the documented haul-outs for Pacific harbor seals and Northern elephant seals, and nesting habitats for focal shorebirds like black oystercatchers, are also highly vulnerable.”

Maps show that habitats in the San Francisco Bay Area are particularly at risk. There, vulnerable landscapes and habitats–such as 87 percent of the state’s regularly-flooded estuarine marsh–will be trapped between rising seas on one side and human development on the other. “The built environment–including roads and other infrastructure–creates barriers that prevent coastal habitats from moving inland,” while “dikes, levees, and other water control features negatively impact the health and function” of these threatened landscapes.

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California Coastal Conservation Assessment / The Nature Conservancy

The Conservancy finds that sea level rise could adversely affect public access to California’s coast. “Sea level rise will diminish coastal access opportunities throughout the state by reducing beach widths, submerging rocky intertidal areas, and flooding coastal beach infrastructure.”

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Sea level rise threatens access to California’s beaches and coastal public lands / Sylvia Busby

In the face of these potentially-devastating impacts, the report presents a suite of strategies for conservation in the era of climate change. Habitat managers need to “conserve and manage for resilience.” This includes maintaining the conservation status of existing conserved lands and identifying and protecting resilient coastal landscapes that are not vulnerable to sea level rise.

The Nature Conservancy recommends managing for resilience through the use of sediment augmentation and sand placement. “The majority of highly vulnerable conservation lands in need of managing in place for resilience are found in the San Francisco Bay Delta,” an observation that speaks to the importance of landscape-led initiatives such as the recent Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge.

The Conservancy also calls for conserving nearly 200 square kilometers of potential future habitat areas and adapting the built environment “with more natural coastal processes in mind” – in effect, giving the coastline room to change.

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California’s coastline / Taylor Samuelson, California State Coastal Conservancy

“As sea levels rise, California’s coast will erode and evolve, and habitats will need to shift. Our current conservation efforts and land use management decisions must focus on further supporting these natural processes and enabling the transition and movement of coastal habitats as sea levels rise. Conservation in the face of sea level rise requires an adaptive process that embraces the reality of a dynamic coastline.”

The reports’ recommendations and strategies are “spatially explicit,” with specific proposals for areas, depending on their vulnerability and adaptive capacity. There are detailed high-resolution maps that illustrate the location, distribution, and severity of risks as well as opportunities.

“The results of this spatially explicit assessment provide a foundation of information to support immediate action to conserve habitats and biodiversity in the face of sea level rise,” the Conservancy argues. “With so much of California’s coastal habitats, imperiled species, and managed lands at risk from sea level rise, immediate collective action is necessary to conserve these natural resources into the future.”

Download the full report and maps.

Most Popular DIRT Posts of 2018

Approach to Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park, Australia / TCL

As we look forward to covering new stories on the built and natural environments this year, here’s a look back at the 10 most popular DIRT posts of 2018. Readers were most interested in the debate over whether beauty still matters in an age dominated by science; how the practice of landscape architecture is evolving to deal with climate change and increasingly diverse communities; how urban sprawl is impacting biodiversity; and the interesting relationship between landscape architecture and retail. As in past years, new research on the health benefits of nature remains a favorite topic.

Always worth mentioning: We are looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners, on topics that inspire you. And tell us about your new projects and research. Please email us at info@asla.org.

1) Is There Still a Place for Aesthetics in Landscape Design?

Kicking off a two-day planting symposium at the University of California at Berkeley, professor emeritus Marc Treib posed the question: Is there still a place for the “art of landscape design” in an age “dominated by the science of landscape ecology?” Planting design is often brushed aside as superfluous or unserious. British historian and critic Tim Richardson reminded the audience of the litany of unfavorable adjectives associated with artful planting: the bourgeois, the small-scale, the amateur, the hobbyist, the ephemeral, the female.

2) Best Books of 2018

If you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or just one for yourself to delve into over the winter break, explore THE DIRT’s top 10 books of 2018, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape.

3) To Become More Resilient, Boston Takes a “Landscape First” Approach

Instead of simply responding to catastrophe, Boston is getting out front on climate change. As part of its Climate Ready Boston plan, the city of 670,000 aims to act fast and protect two coastal neighborhoods most vulnerable to rising sea levels and storms: East Boston and Charlestown. New plans for these neighborhoods explain how a simple fix like creating a temporary flood wall at the coastal end of the East Boston Greenway, at a cost of just $100,000, would protect 4,300 residents, 70 businesses and critical infrastructure, and result in $17 million in benefits.

4) Landscape Architects May Be Liable for Climate Impacts

When a neighborhood floods, who is at fault? A class action lawsuit in Houston asks that question. The residents of a master-planned community that flooded during Hurricane Harvey are suing the engineering firm that designed the neighborhood’s stormwater management system. While that suit targets engineers, it nonetheless represents the heightened risk landscape architects face from climate impacts on their projects.

5) New Maps Show How Urban Sprawl Threatens the World’s Remaining Biodiversity

At the United Nations World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, next month, the McHarg Center for Ecology and Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania will display an alarming set of new maps. They show, in bright red, that the growth of cities worldwide is on a direct collision course with the world’s remaining biodiversity.

6) MIT Researchers Seek Optimal Form of Urban Stormwater Wetland

Cities are sitting on a largely underused public resource: urban stormwater wetlands. If properly designed, these landscapes can reduce flooding, support urban wildlife, and serve as public space. A new report Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands authored by an interdisciplinary group of researchers and students at the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism led by Celina Balderas Guzmán, Heidi Nepf, and Alan Berger — advocates for the positive role wetlands can play in cities and outlines research that provides insights for landscape architects, engineers, and planners.

7) This Is Your Brain on Nature

Neurosurgeon Edie Zusman, a real-life Doogie Howser who started medical school at 19 and has completed some 6,000 brain and spinal surgeries, said what landscape architects do saves far more lives than what she does. The early prevention of disease reduces the need for surgeries. Prevention is made possible by eating healthy foods and walking and getting exercise in green environments that lower stress and improve well-being.

8) Interview with Robert Gibbs: Trees Cause You to Spend More

Trees are really essential for a competitive shopping district. There was a study by Kathleen Wolfe that indicated trees increase price elasticity by 9-12 percent. In other words, people feel comfortable paying up to twelve percent more for the same product if they purchase in a well-landscaped place with nice streets. Also, when properly located, street trees keep people in the downtown district longer. They feel more relaxed and are more likely to spend more money.

9) Participatory Design Must Evolve

Participatory design is “hands-on democracy in action,” argue the editors of the impressive new book Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity. Participatory design (also known as cooperative or co-design) is a process in which a designer actively involves all stakeholders in a design process. Unfortunately, many of the best-known techniques to enable this approach, which have been used for the past few decades, have become stale. This has led to complacency among designers, and less-than-ideal outcomes for communities that need their help. To revitalize the approach and achieve better results, the authors call for making participatory design “truly democratic.” Furthermore, it must become “contextual, open, experiential, substantive, and holistic.”

10) New Study: Technology Undermines the Restorative Benefits of Nature

We experience “soft fascination” with nature when we sit on a park bench and let our mind wander, taking in the trees and flowers, noticing birds and squirrels, feeling the breeze. This gentle decompression in nature is actually critical to helping us restore our ability to pay attention. We need breaks where our minds can just go slack and subconsciously take in the complexity of the natural world. Researchers are still trying to figure out the ideal “dose” of this green medicine, but benefits have been seen with just 10 minutes.

ASLA Condemns Administration Proposal to Weaken Protections of Wetlands and Waterways

Little Blue Heron in a wetland / Getty Images

A statement by ASLA Executive Vice President and CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, regarding the proposed rule issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to alter the definition of “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act in such a way that severely threatens the quality of drinking water and community health and well-being nationwide:

The Trump administration’s proposed rule redefining the term “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) within the Clean Water Act is a direct assault on the health and well-being of American communities nationwide. The proposed definition severely limits which waterways and wetlands are protected from pollutants, and could have catastrophic effects on the quality of the nation’s water, human health, the economies of communities, and the viability of wildlife populations.

ASLA supports having one clear and consistent definition of WOTUS that balances the need to have safe, healthy bodies of water with commerce and sound development practices. The proposed rule change significantly alters that balance, endangering communities and ecosystems while allowing polluters to adversely affect communities and ecosystems well beyond the boundaries of their property.

The fact is, clean water is good business and polluted water is not. A WOTUS Rule should ensure healthy drinking water, reduce adverse health consequences, bolster communities reliant on tourism and recreation, and facilitate place-making for coastal communities. This irresponsible rule change will undermine those goals.

It is particularly regrettable that this rule would go into effect at a time when climate change is already wreaking havoc with fragile environments, particularly those in flood-prone areas. Increasingly frequent and intense storms will, by definition, affect the dry riverbeds and isolated wetlands that this new rule would exempt from protection. This rule would make a bad situation even worse.

Landscape architects work at the nexus of the built and natural environments and are at the forefront of planning and designing water and storm-water management projects that help to protect and preserve our nation’s water supply and enrich the lives of communities. The administration’s replacement rule would be a drastic step backward from the commitment to clean water for all Americans that is at the heart of the original Clean Water Act and the WOTUS rule, and ASLA will work to oppose this proposal.

Interview with Hitesh Mehta: The Spiritual Side of Sustainability

Hitesh Mehta, FASLA / HM Design

Hitesh Mehta, FASLA, is president of HM Design, which has completed planning, architecture, and landscape architecture projects in more than 60 countries. He is an international expert in sustainable tourism, including wildlife conservancy planning and eco-lodge development. Mehta is also the author of Authentic Ecolodges (Harper Design).

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.

In more than 60 countries, you have worked on some of the finest sustainable tourism planning and eco-lodge projects in the world, including the Crosswaters Ecolodge in China, which won two ASLA professional awards. National Geographic has called you a pioneer of sustainable tourism. What are the top three lessons you have learned from your many projects working with local and indigenous communities?

Lesson number one: Never judge people from the way they look. Indigenous people have lived on their land for thousands of years. Through storytelling and personal experiences that have been passed over generations, they have built knowledge and wisdom crucial to every project.

Lesson number two: Empower local people from day one, especially women and children. At home, women make a lot of the decisions, and youth are the future. Bringing them into a project on day one helps ensure a sustainable project. You want to give them ownership. It’s a ground-up approach rather than top-down.

Lesson number three: No matter how much of an international expert you are, no matter how much research you have done, and how much knowledge you have acquired, always go into every project without an ego. Go with good listening skills first. Once you’ve heard local peoples aspirations, needs, etc.; gathered on-site information; walked the site with the locals; and have conducted a metaphysical site analysis, slowly share what you can bring to the table, making sure you let them know what they bring to the table is equally important.

Indigenous communities are in the front lines in the fight against climate change. How do you empower them in their fight to protect endangered ecosystems and their own livelihoods? Are there any projects that serve as models?

Indigenous communities, especially in the less developing world, are greatly affected by climate change. A lot of these communities live in the tropics. Especially in Africa, drought and the lack of drinking water are big issues. This in turn, causes food security problems. In Kenya, where I am still a citizen, the Maasai look at their cattle as their economic lifeline. That’s what keeps them going. If there is drought, there is no grass. There’s nothing to feed the cattle, and it can become a serious issue, because this is their security.

A project that serves as an exemplary model is one in which I led a team of local Kenyan consultants and where we worked together with the clients — the Koiyaki Maasai community — to help create an ecotourism and conservation destination called Naboisho Wildlife Conservancy. Previous to our intervention, the community had subdivided their 50,000-acre land into 50-acre parcels owned by 500 families. But every family had their cattle and goats, which caused the land to be overgrazed. Lack of grass and presence of cattle kept all the wild animals away.

The Maasai decided to consolidate all their land and brought in private lodge operators — eco-tourism companies — as a way to generate income for them. The Maasai all moved to neighboring lands they also owned. The private partners contracted us as protected area ecotourism planners, and, together with the Maasai, tourism and conservation stakeholders, we created an integrated sustainable tourism, biodiversity, and grazing master plan for the conservancy.

Planning with the Koiyaki Maasai community / HM Design

With five small twelve-room tents and lodges, money started flowing directly into every Maasai’s home at the end of each month via their mobile cell-phones. They no longer had to rely solely on cattle for their livelihood. Wild animals started coming back, because cattle mainly grazed in neighboring areas. And the tourists are paying big bucks to have quality guided safari experiences. Creating a wildlife conservancy was a win/win for everyone: the tourists, the private partners, flora and fauna and of course the Maasai and their cattle. During droughts, cattle are only allowed into the conservancy in certain controlled areas. The conservancy fees provide the Maasai community with a sustainable livelihood and ensure the conservation of the wildlife in this vital corridor of the Maasai Mara ecosystem.

As populations grow around the world, but also in sub-Saharan Africa, human and wildlife conflicts are becoming more prevalent. How can we protect endangered species while also ensuring people’s livelihoods? Are there models that show the way?

There are many models, particularly in Africa, and it has become mainstream to go in this direction. A project that I worked on many years ago that is still a good case study is the Virunga Massif Trans-Boundary protected area. Virunga Massif straddles and borders of three East and Central African countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Each country has a national park along their respective borders. This region protects the only remaining populations in the world of mountain gorillas. The parks are bordered by dense populations of local peoples, and there are human-wildlife conflicts with gorillas going out into the fields. We prepared an integrated sustainable tourism and biodiversity master plan for the whole region. When we began the master plan in 2005, there were only 600 mountain gorillas, and the latest count is 1,004!

Virunga Massif integrated master plan / HM Design

Apart from conserving important habitat, the master plan also proposed several eco-lodges at the edge of the parks. All of them have now been built and are financially successful. The demand to see the mountain gorillas is so high that eco-tourists are paying $1,500 for one hour to be with these great apes. There’s a one-year waiting list!

What’s great is that some money is channeled straight to local communities, which now see the importance of maintaining the gorillas’ habitat. The communities no longer take firewood from the forest because they earn a living from gorilla tourism and the eco-lodges bring in a lot of money from guests, with part of the profits used to benefit these communities.

A heart-warming part of the master plan just got realized five months ago on the Uganda side of the Virunga Massif in Mgahinga National Park. The Batwa, indigenous peoples, who used to live in the forest but had been chased out when the National Park was created in 1991, have now been re-located to a new village at the edge of the park and act as guides, taking visitors into the forest in the National Park, and showing them about their lives and connections with the forest. An eco-lodge where I had provided site planning consultancy, funded the Batwa village and Visitor Center, so the Batwa community could share their culture and live closer to the forest instead of the nearby urban town of Kisoro.

You have said we cannot have true sustainability without incorporating the spiritual. This belief is central to your metaphysical or sixth-sense approach to planning and designing projects, which you have also trained other planners and designers to apply. What is the core idea you want people to understand?

For the longest time, pragmatic environmentalists have been talking about the triple bottom line of sustainability — environmental, economic, and social. But in my work, I have found that without respecting the fourth element — spiritual — one cannot have sustainability. What do I mean by spiritual? Spirituality is the energy embodied in any place. The metaphysics of a place. The intangible aspects that cannot be measured by modern science. We need to respect this embodied energy to create a sense of place. The sacred space.

Feng Shui is a well-used example of the spiritual aspects of sustainability — the yin and the yang, the chi, and how to use that energy to create an amazing experience in which you have a spiritual connection with the site. Similarly, for over 8,000 years, the Indians have been applying principles of design, layout, measurements, ground preparation, space arrangement, and spatial geometry called Vastu Shastra, which is even older than Feng Shui. Vastu Shastra is the ancient Indian science of harmony and prosperous living by eliminating negative energies and enhancing positive energies.

Native Americans also have a strong spiritual connection with their lands. When they take you on a walk of their country, they will point at a hill and say “this is our sacred hill” and when you look around, there are probably several others that look the same. So why is that hill sacred and not the others? It’s because there is a sacred energy embodied in that particular hill. My job as a landscape architect is to work with indigenous communities, so they can identify all those areas sacred to them. And then protect them.

If the clients do not believe in these traditional ways of looking at the land, I propose the use of each one of our six senses to immerse into the site to understand the energy. Connect deeply to the land through the ears, mouth, eyes, nose, fingers, but most importantly through the sixth sense: when you become a part of the site and feel its energy. That is the crucial element of trying to create a project that’s sustainable, but also which creates a beautiful sense of place.

Metaphysical analysis of a place through touch / HM Design
Metaphysical analysis of a place through sound / HM Design

As part of your work of Landscape Architects Without Borders, you have provided pro-bono planning and design services to aboriginal tribes in Australia and other communities. How do you enable them to incorporate their landscape spirituality into a contemporary place designed for themselves but also tourists?

We worked with the Quandamooka peoples of Queensland in Australia. They were the first aboriginal tribe that managed to get their land back from the white government in an area so close to a major city; Brisbane in this case. The land they got back was part of an island and has the second most popular camping sites in Australia.

However, the aboriginal peoples do not have camping site management experience, so we came in to help them build an ecotourism experience that would help them share their culture with guests and help make more money than before. We designed and built two glamping eco-shacks as examples of what they can achieve with enhanced camping experiences.

In the gardens, we proposed for the planting of bush tucker plants. The aboriginal peoples, who live in the outback have these special plants they eat called bush tucker. With their knowledge and wisdom, we created a beautiful indigenous garden that included both bush tucker and medicinal plants.

Planning landscape with the Quandamooka peoples of Queensland in Australia / HM Design

You are a proponent of ego-less design, which is characterized by a deep respect for the environment and all of its inhabitants, existing cultures, and vernacular styles. Can you explain how you came across this design philosophy? What about your upbringing, your religious heritage, shaped that?

My childhood has heavily influenced the work I do in landscape architecture. My upbringing is in the philosophy of Jainism, which is one of the four main philosophies that came out of India. It’s by far the least known, because Jains don’t believe in preaching.

One of the main tenets of this philosophy is a Sanskrit concept called Ahimsa, which means non-violence to fellow beings, and non-violence to all other beings as well. In my family, we’ve been vegetarians for at least 3,000 years. The respect is so deep for other beings that Jain monks in India sweep the floor before they walk so they do not step on and kill any ants.

In true Jainism, they believe plants have feelings. In fact, modern science is confirming this, but my ancestors have believed this since 1,000 BC. True Jains don’t eat anything that grows below the ground — no potatoes or carrots — because every time you pick that plant, it’s dead. So you only pick a vegetable or fruit from a tree that continues living after you picked what you want. That is deep respect, even to plants. It’s all about low-impact living. This is the conservation ethic I practice in my work.

My projects are low-impact designs that respect everything. I practice a non-homocentric approach to planning, where everything is equal. You can call it vegan or ahimsa design and planning. I design non-violent spaces. For example, I identify all native species and make sure none of them are cut. And in all our projects, we only specify native plants.

And, personally, I have been practicing a vegan lifestyle for 13 years.

Lastly, you have called yourself a “holistic, contextual designer.” How do you think this is different from being a planner or landscape architect?

For me, there’s a big difference between holistic and contextual design. Holistic is when in my projects I look at animals and plants as my clients, too. So, when human clients come to me, I tell them: I see you as half of my clients, but the other half are the animals and plants. And when I perform a beautiful marriage of the two, we will have a holistic yet sustainable project.

Local communities are an important part of the holistic process. I involve them from the beginning. Local consultants also bring in amazing knowledge and wisdom. So, I consider the local consultants and communities, fauna, flora, and, of course, the clients’ financial needs, because a project has to be profitable for it to function. That is the holistic side.

I also look at myself as a contextual designer. I like to create projects in context with their cultural and physical environments. For me, placing in a glass, aluminum, and concrete building in the middle of a remote area with rich cultural architectural heritage is not contextual. My office carries out research both off-site and on-site in order to discover the local vernacular styles before starting on any project. We use a landscape design approach called the “continuity of the vernacular.”

Kwanari Eco-lodge, Dominica / HM Design
Kwanari Eco-lodge, Dominica / HM Design

Experience Brooklyn Bridge Park in Virtual Reality

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn, NYC / Alexa Hoyer

Experience Virtual Reality! Immerse yourself in Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City, which won the ASLA 2018 Professional Award of Excellence in General Design. Explore this unique park built in part over abandoned piers, guided by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, president and CEO of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

Viewing Options

Option 1: Watch a 360 Video on YouTube

If you are on your phone reading this page, simply click on this URL and watch it in your YouTube mobile app: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQ2geeXMThI (please note that this video will not work in your mobile browser)

Be sure to turn around while watching so you can see all angles of the park!

Or if you are on a desktop computer, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQ2geeXMThI using your Chrome browser.

Go to settings and set the resolution to 2610s.

Use the sphere icon to navigate through the park! Note: the 360 video will not work in Firefox or Internet Explorer.

YouTube 360 on mobile / YouTube
YouTube 360 on mobile / YouTube

Option 2: Watch a 3D 360 Video on Samsung Gear VR

If you own a Samsung Gear VR headset and compatible Samsung phone, go to Samsung Gear via the Oculus App and search for “Brooklyn Bridge Park” or “ASLA” to find our video.

Samsung Gear VR / Samsung
Samsung Gear VR / Samsung

Why Brooklyn Bridge Park?

ASLA selected Brooklyn Bridge Park because it won the ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Less than one percent of all award submissions receive this honor.

Our esteemed jury, made up of leaders in the field, described Brooklyn Bridge Park this way: “The plan allows for and encourages different experiences in the different spaces, from being wide open and being fully engaged with the people around you to intimate, forested places. It’s remarkable.”

The award also highlights Brooklyn Bridge Park because it’s a prominent example of how to transform abandoned post-industrial waterfronts into spaces for people and wildlife. These spaces litter cities and represent so much untapped potential.

Brooklyn Bridge Park VR / ASLA
Brooklyn Bridge Park VR / ASLA

Why Virtual Reality?

The communications world is increasingly image- and video-driven. With video, you can pack in even more information about a work of landscape architecture, much more than you can in simply a photo or text. With video, you can get a sense of the sight, sound, and “feel” of a place. You can see people interacting with the design, bringing it to life.

Virtual reality takes video to the next level. As you move your phone or VR headset, you control your experience in the landscape. It more closely mimics the experience of exploring a place in person. In part, it recreates that sense of discovery one gets in real life.

Why did ASLA make this VR film?

Virtual reality has proven to be a powerful tool for explaining how the places people love – like Brooklyn Bridge Park – are designed experiences. Virtual reality can educate the public about landscape design in a compelling way.

The video has multiple goals: promote the potential of virtual reality among the landscape architecture community, which totals approximately 25,000 design professionals in the U.S. and Canada; explain the incredible value of landscape architecture to the public; and demonstrate the ability of landscape architects to turn an unloved place like a cut-off, post-industrial waterfront into a beloved community park.

Why should landscape architects use VR?

Virtual Reality is a powerful tool for landscape architects, architects, planners, and developers – really anyone involved in designing our built and natural environments. In the example of Brooklyn Bridge Park: many will never have the opportunity to visit the park in person, but with our video, they can get a good sense of what’s it like to be there.

For landscape architecture firms, this is an excellent way to really show clients that a place they’ve designed works – that people enjoy hanging out there, that kids love playing there, that people are drawn to events there.

ASLA VR Film Credits

Producer: American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)
Production Company: DimensionGate, Toronto
Director: Ian Tuason
Director of Photography: Ian Tuason
Production Assistants: Ward Kamel and Idil Eryurekli
Narrator: Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, President and CEO, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc.
Post Production: Callum Wilkin Gillies

Thank you to Jamie Warren and Onika Selby at Brooklyn Bridge Park for making this all come together. At Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc, we appreciate the kind assistance of Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Hilary Archer, Jane Lee, and Lucy Mutz.

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

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The Glenstone Museum / Goran Kosanovic, The Washington Post

Glenstone’s Landscaping Is as Mindful as its Artwork The Washington Post, 10/2/18
“When you visit the expanded Glenstone Museum, you may find the contemporary artwork to be moving, provocative, weird or simply inscrutable, but one aspect of the experience will be constant: its mindfulness.”

Midtown Pocket Park with an Urban Waterfall is Designated a National Historic Place 6sqft, 10/8/18
“Greenacre Park, a famed vest pocket park in Midtown, was added last week to the National Registry of Historic Places.”

A Walk in Moscow’s Grand New Park, Created by an American CBS News, 10/7/18
“The hottest selfie destination in Russia’s capital sits at the end of an elegant V-shaped walkway in Moscow’s Zaryadye Park. The park itself is brand new – the result of an international collaboration led by New York-based architect Charles Renfro.”

Tel Aviv’s High-profile Renovation of Dizengoff Square Nears Completion, but Pedestrians Still Left in Lurch Haaretz, 10/10/18
“In one of their first lessons in architecture school, students learn the difference between a town square and a traffic circle. A real town square is a piazza or plaza – a space for pedestrians to gather, along the lines of what visitors see in Europe.”

As a Landscape Architect, How Do You Interpret the Word “Biodiversity”? How Does This Meaning Find Expression in Your Design? The Nature of Cities, 10/10/18
“Every month we feature a Global Roundtable in which a group of people respond to a specific question in The Nature of Cities.”

Designing Cities for Healthier Microbiomes

Artistic rendering of the human microbiome / The Why Files

Humans are essentially super-organisms or holobionts made up of both human cells and those of micro-organisms, such as viruses, bacteria, archea, protists, and fungi. Researchers now know the human body hosts a comprehensive ecosystem, largely established by age three, in which non-human cells vastly outnumber human cells. The latest study from the American Academy of Microbiology estimates each human ecosystem contains around 100 trillion cells of micro-organisms and just 37 trillion human cells.

But while rainforest or prairie ecosystems are now well-understood, the human ecosystem is less so. As researchers make new discoveries, there is a growing group of scientists who argue our microbiomes are deeply connected with our physical and mental health. The increased number of prebiotics and probiotics supplements on the shelf in drug stores and supermarkets, and availability of fresh pickles and kimchi in local farmers markets, are perhaps testaments to this increasingly-widespread belief.

The question at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Oklahoma City was: Can we design cities to better support our microbiomes and in turn our overall health?

Richard Wener, an environmental psychologist at NYU, explained how our built environment is filled with micro-organisms. “The walls of our kitchen and bathrooms are covered in bacteria; most of them aren’t pathogenic.” The micro-organisms found in our environments are constantly interacting with our microbiomes, so we are “perpetually assembling and re-assembling different species.”

For Wener, this begs the question: “What is an individual?” If we are constantly evolving with the micro-organisms in our environment and therefore changing our composition, “what individual are we talking about?”

While our microbiomes may evolve, they still have a distinct signature. Researchers can now identify people by their unique microbiotic markers — crime-scene microbes are now analyzed in forensic studies to identify who was at a location.

Places have unique microbiotic signatures as well. Through their PathoMap project, Weil Cornell Medical College organized citizen scientists to examine the bacteria in subway stations and found stations had “consistent signatures.” The microbes in stations near hospitals were different from neighborhood signatures. “The microbes really depend on who lives there.” (See data visualizations of the findings).

So can we design the city in terms of microbial species? Can we design buildings and parks to create “selective pressure that supports biotic life that is good for humans?”

Turns out good microbes can be put to better use while bad ones can be suppressed.

In Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, a highly-polluted Super Fund site, researchers took samples of sludge at the bottom of the canal and found bacteria had been digesting some of the worst industrial waste for decades. “They co-evolved to eat solvents and toxins.” At a slow pace, Wener thinks these bacteria could actually clean-up the entire canal. Through interventions, “we could encourage the growth of this bacteria.”

Buildings could be designed to kill off pathogenic bacteria and support the healthy microbes in our biomes. Wener said a recent Brazilian study found pathogenic bacteria, which comes from people, thrive in closed spaces. In open air environments in the Brazilian rainforest, where domesticated and wild animals roamed through indigenous villages, there were no pathogenic bacteria, but in closed building interiors found in Brazilian cities, researchers found many. The conclusion: If you increase exposure to light and air flow in buildings, you will reduce dangerous bacteria.

Through urban farming and gardening — or just plain playing in the dirt — humans can also increase their exposure to healthy microbes found in soils. A group of scientists and advocates argue that greater exposure could help fight depression and anxiety and reduce rates of asthma and allergies in both kids and adults.

The incredible increase of allergies among Western populations may be caused by our “sterile, germ-free environments” that cause our immune systems to over-react to everything from nuts to mold and pollen. Dr. Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Arrieta even wrote a book exploring this: Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Over-sanitized World.

Wener said we have created cities that reflect our fear of bacteria; instead we must create microbial-inclusive cities that improve our health. “Most microbes in our bodies have co-evolved with us. They are important to our vital functions. The future of urban planning and design should support healthy microbes.”

As part of this vision, landscape architects could design parks and plazas to be filled with accessible garden plots and healthy soil-based play areas that let both adults and kids get dirty. We could design for holobionts instead of just people, boosting the health of the collective urban microbiome in the process.

Wener’s colleage at NYU — Elizabeth Henaff — is leading much of this research. Learn about her artful experiments. Read this article from Michael Pollan in The New York Times outlining the connections between our microbiome and health, and this Q&A from The Guardian.