Suburban Sprawl Increases the Risk of Future Pandemics

Suburban expansion into remnant habitat / La Citta Vita, Flickr

By Michael Grove, ASLA

The export of American culture is one of the most influential forces in our interconnected world. From Dakar to Delhi, American pop music, movies, and artery-clogging cuisine is ubiquitous. However, one of the most damaging exports is the American suburb. When the 20th century model for housing the swelling populations of Long Island and Los Angeles translates to 21st century Kinshasa and Kuala Lumpur, the American way of life may very well be our downfall.

In our pre-pandemic ignorance, most urbanists pointed to climate change as the most dangerous impact of our cherished suburban lifestyle. To be sure, the higher greenhouse gas emissions and rise in chronic health problems associated with living in subdivisions aren’t going away, but COVID-19 has exposed another threat we’ve chosen to ignore. The next pandemic may very well result from our addiction to—and exportation of—sprawl.

Vilifying Density and Disregarding Equity

The increasing traction of the anti-density movement in the wake of the current outbreak is alarming. Headlines proclaiming how sprawl may save us and that living in cities puts citizens at higher risk for contracting the novel coronavirus are deceptive.

Recent studies have debunked these myths, finding little correlation between population density in cities and rates of COVID-19, instead attributing the spread of the virus to overcrowding due to inequity and delays in governmental responsiveness.

Mounting evidence suggests that COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through close contact in enclosed spaces. Internal population density within buildings and, more specifically, within shared rooms inside buildings is what drives this, not the compact urban form of the city. In New York, for example, COVID-19 cases are concentrated in the outer boroughs, and suburban Westchester and Rockland counties have reported nearly triple the rate per capita than those of Manhattan.

The real issue is the systemic economic inequity that forces lower income people to live in overcrowded conditions, regardless of location. Innovative approaches to urban planning, equitable housing policies, and a reversal of over a century of environmental discrimination in our cities are absolutely necessary. Vilifying the city is counterproductive.

Moving out of dense cities into the open space and social distancing afforded by the suburbs is exactly the type of knee-jerk reaction that we must avoid. Cities are not at fault.

Habitat Fragmentation and Biodiversity Loss

In fact, cities are the answer if we plan them carefully. Among the many human activities that cause habitat loss, urban development produces some of the greatest local extinction rates and has a more permanent impact. For example, habitat lost due to farming and logging can be restored, whereas urbanized areas not only persist but continue to expand.

The Atlas for the End of the World, conceived by Richard Weller, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the best sources for documenting our collective risk. Mapping 391 of the planet’s terrestrial eco-regions, this research identified 423 cities with a population of over 300,000 inhabitants situated within 36 biodiversity hotspots. Using data modelling from the Seto Lab at Yale University, the Atlas predicts that 383 of these cities—about 90 percent —will likely continue to expand into previously undisturbed habitats.

Biodiversity hotspot map of the Indo-Burma ecoregion / Atlas for the End of the World

When we assault the wild places that harbor so much biodiversity in the pursuit of development, we disregard a significant aspect of this biodiversity—the unseen domain of undocumented viruses and pathogens.

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, meaning that they are transmitted to us through contact with animals. The initial emergence of many of these zoonotic diseases have been tracked to the parts of the world with the greatest biodiversity, both in the traditional and man-made sense. Traditional locations include tropical rainforests where biodiversity naturally occurs. Human-influenced conditions include places like bushmeat markets in Africa or the wet markets of Asia, where we are mixing trapped exotic animals with humans, often in astonishingly unsanitary conditions.

However, degraded habitats of any kind can create conditions for viruses to cross over, whether in Accra or Austin. The disruption of habitat to support our suburban lifestyle is bringing us closer to species with which we have rarely had contact. By infringing on these ecosystems, we reduce the natural barriers between humans and host species, creating ideal conditions for diseases to spread. These microbes are not naturally human pathogens. They become human pathogens because we offer them that opportunity.

This is already evident in the fragmented forests of many American suburbs where development patterns have altered the natural cycle of the pathogen that causes Lyme disease. When humans live in close proximity to these disrupted ecosystems, they are more likely to get bitten by a tick carrying the Lyme bacteria. When biodiversity is reduced, these diluted systems allow for species like rodents and bats—some of the most likely to promote the transmission of pathogens—to thrive.

This essentially means that the more habitats we disturb, the more danger we are in by tapping into various virus reservoirs. COVID-19 is not the first disease to cross over from animal to human populations, but it is likely a harbinger of more mass pandemics and further disruptions to the global economy. The more densely we build, the more land we can conserve for nature to thrive, potentially reducing our risk of another pandemic from a novel virus.

Increase of infected tick populations in fragmented forests / National Science Foundation, Nicolle Rager Fuller

Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary

In the United States, over 50 percent of the population lives in suburbs, covering more land than the combined total of national and state parks. Our urbanization is ubiquitous and endangers more species than any other human activity.

In 1979, Portland, Oregon offered a pioneering solution with the creation of an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). Devised by a 3-county, 24-city regional planning authority, the intent was to protect agricultural lands, encourage urban density, and limit unchecked sprawl.

Forty years into this experiment, Portland’s experience is a mixed bag of successes and missed opportunities. Investment in public transit and urban parks has certainly bolstered the city’s reputation as a leader in urban innovation, sustainability, and livability, with statistics to support its efforts.

On the other hand, two of Oregon’s fastest growing cities are situated just beyond the boundary’s jurisdiction, underscoring the limitations of the strategy. Again, inequity rears its ugly head, with higher prices within the UGB caused, in part, by an inability to deregulate Portland’s low density neighborhoods. This has driven much of the regional population further afield to find affordable housing in the form of suburban sprawl beyond the UGB’s dominion and into even more remote areas.

Another consideration that was overlooked when the original plan was established was the adequate protection of remnant habitat within the UGB. This lack of a regional plan for biodiversity protection has underscored the need for a more ecologically-focused, science-based approach to inform planning decisions.

Suburban development approaching agricultural land and remnant forest in Portland, Oregon / Google Earth

Brisbane’s Bird Population

Unfortunately, anticipating outcomes of urbanization on species diversity is not as pervasive in urban planning agencies around the world as it should be. A lack of detailed modeling specific to individual regions and cities with clear recommendations for how to minimize ecological devastation is absent from planning policy around the world.

However, researchers in Brisbane, Australia have attempted to quantify which development style—concentrated urban intensity or suburban sprawl—has a greater ecological consequences. By measuring species distribution, the study predicted the effect on bird populations when adding nearly 85,000 new dwelling units in the city. Their results demonstrated that urban growth of any type reduces bird distributions overall, but compact development substantially slows these reductions.

Sensitive species particularly benefited from compact development because remnant habitats remained intact, with predominantly non-native species thriving in sprawling development conditions. These results suggest that cities with denser footprints—even if their suburbs offer abundant open space—would experience a steep decline in biodiversity.

This is a common outcome found in similar studies around the world that exhibit a comparable decline in the species richness of multiple taxa along the rural-urban gradient. Although biodiversity is lowest within the urban core, the trade-off of preserving as much remnant natural habitat as possible almost always results in greater regional biodiversity.

Common bird species in urban and suburban Brisbane, Australia / Paula Peeters

Helsinki’s Biodiversity Database

One of Europe’s fasted growing cities, Helsinki faces similar pressures for new housing and traffic connections as many other major metropolises. However, in Helsinki, geotechnical and topographic constraints, coupled with its 20th century expansion along two railway lines rather than a web of highways, created the base for its finger-like urban and landscape structure. Today, one-third of Helsinki’s land area is open space, 63 percent of which is contiguous urban forest.

In 2001, Finland established an open source National Biodiversity Database that compiles multiple data sets ranging from detailed environmental studies to observations of citizen scientists. This extraordinary access to information has allowed the city to measure numerous data points within various conservation area boundaries, including statistics related to the protection of individual sites and species.

Measured by several taxonomies, including vascular plants, birds, fungi, and pollinators, Helsinki has an unusually high biodiversity when compared to neighboring municipalities or to other temperate European cities and towns. Vascular plant species, for example, average over 350 species per square kilometer, as compared to Berlin and Vienna’s average of about 200 species. By embracing biodiversity within the structure of the city, not only is the importance of regional biodiversity codified into the general master plan, it is also embedded into the civic discourse of its citizens.

Figure-ground diagram of Helsinki’s green fingers / Schwarz Plan

When it comes to where the next virus might emerge, Wuhan isn’t really that different from Washington, D.C. If the American model of over-indulgent suburban sprawl is the benchmark for individual success, we all lose.

Now is the moment to put the health of the planet before American values of heaven on a half-acre. Land use policies in the United States have just as profound an impact on the rest of the world as any movie out of Hollywood.

If we shift American values toward embracing denser, cleaner, and more efficient cities that drive ecological conservation—instead of promoting sprawl as a panacea for our current predicament—that may very well be our greatest export to humanity.

Michael Grove, ASLA, is the chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki, a global design firm with offices in Boston and Shanghai.

Biodiversity and Pandemic Diseases (or How We Came to Know Our World in 2020)

Infectious disease outbreaks in North America / Health Map

By Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA

The close friendships people make during the intensity of design school often last a lifetime. My studio bestie was a funny, talented guy named Merrick Zirtzman. We were like twins, except that he contracted AIDS and I didn’t. We ate garlic cloves together and tried to stay safe. But he died within two years of our graduation, along with about 700,000 other Americans who lost their lives to AIDS.

Subsequent research determined that HIV originated in chimpanzees in West Africa, showing that it became a human disease because humans ate chimpanzees. According to Michael Lai at the University of Southern California and his team of disease detectives, the chimps got it by eating monkeys that hosted a similar virus (red-capped mangabeys and greater spot-nosed monkeys, to be exact). This sounds like a version of saying you are what you eat: a food web in an ecosystem of viruses, hosts, predators, and habitat.

When I wrote and spoke about the research connecting biodiversity to infectious diseases in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was one of very few in our field who would broach the subject. At the time, if HIV/AIDS hadn’t roared through your friends, a pandemic seemed unlikely. Worrying about it seemed paranoid. After all, people said, contemporary medicine has made so many advances!

The last time I spoke about biodiversity and its role in suppressing pandemics was at the Large Parks conference at Harvard University in 2004. After that, my work centered on adapting to climate change, and there was so much other science to talk about. Eventually, pandemics dropped out of my slide set.

Every year, the World Economic Forum organizes a gathering of the global 1% in Davos, Switzerland, and produces a document to communicate the anxieties of money managers, called the Global Risk Report. In 2019, the Global Risk Report had a special section on health risks, titled “Going Viral.” It noted that there has been an increase in the frequency of new infectious disease outbreaks over the last few decades. There were more than 12,000 outbreaks between 1980 and 2013. But in June 2018, there were outbreaks in six of the eight categories of the especially dangerous priority diseases tracked by the World Health Organization (WHO).

For the first time, WHO included “Disease X” in its 2018 list of priority diseases to promote research on new zoonotic diseases that had not yet passed to humans. People who track diseases were expecting new ones, because the number of animal-to-human outbreaks has increased dramatically. The UN Environment Program also stated that a new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months now, and that 75 percent of those come from wild or domesticated animals.

The 2019 Davos Risk Report noted five main reasons for this alarming trend:

  • First, huge increases in the volume of inter-continental travel make it possible for a virus from an isolated village to infect major cities within days.
  • Second, an increasing percentage of the world’s growing population lives in dense urban districts.
  • Third, people are cutting the forests that provide habitat for animals like bats and primates that carry diseases, which humans can catch.
  • Fourth, climate change may accelerate disease transmission by extending the range of some key animal vectors, like mosquitos, but in other complex ways as well.
  • And fifth, poverty drives a lot of people to hunt bushmeat or to raise undernourished domestic animals.

Also, desperate refugees trying to escape wars or climate stressors often live in dense, unhygienic conditions created by societies who want to keep them out, producing hotspots of infectious diseases. The 2019 Risk Report concluded that “globalization has made the world more vulnerable to societal and economic impacts from infectious-disease outbreaks.”

Remember, this isn’t ecologists talking, this is the 1%, the people who spent the last 400 years profiting from the removal of “barriers” to global markets and building a world of white privilege through racism, armed colonization, and enslaved labor. Not to put too fine a point on it.

Ecologists who write about the links between biodiversity and disease typically emphasize the need to limit human impacts on animals that harbor the greatest number of viruses that can spillover to humans: waterfowl, primates, and bats.

When E.O. Wilson published Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life in 2016 and established the Half Earth Project, it sounded crazy to economists and governments to say we should protect half the earth’s land and seas from development.

Half Earth Project

Even sociologists who focus on poverty and development, like Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, slammed Wilson’s proposal. They saw it as a trade-off: protect biodiversity at the expense of the rural poor, who would then be arrested as poachers in their own traditional lands.

But social inequality will not be erased if biodiversity losses continue. Less biodiversity means more disease pandemics and more poverty. I think we can all see that now.

In the 21st century, globalized economic growth has reached the end of its rope. Economies can’t continue to expand without creating new pandemic risks, as more people press up against the habitat of more wildlife or raise domestic animals in unhealthy conditions. We’re now part of one big, highly connected planetary ecosystem that’s going to bite us back hard if we step on it the wrong way.

A lot of news stories are ascribing intention to viruses as if they make plans. While that creates a compelling bad guy, they’re not actually living things. We’re the sentient beings here.

New planetary health concepts advocated by many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provide the framework we need to see through metaphors about viruses invading our country with evil intentions, and the associated imagery of a refugee invasion from some place we imagine to be far away, disconnected from us. In fact, the U.S. is a global hotspot of emerging animal-to-human diseases.

What does this mean for landscape architecture, as a discipline that shapes urban and regional planning?

The challenge is to use our projects and our advocacy to fight for biodiversity (if only for our own survival), genuinely reduce economic inequality, and promote a culture that celebrates rather than denies the inherent limits to growth that come with sharing a single planet.

As Kate Jones, Chair of Ecology at University College London, has noted, pandemics are now “a hidden cost of human economic development…We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.”

Landscape architects and planners can take on this work in three important ways:

First, we can educate clients about the role that native habitat plays in preventing disease outbreaks. Here in California, recent research has revealed that our low rate of Lyme disease can be attributed to our remaining biodiversity. Both mountain lions and western fence lizards play key roles in limiting Lyme disease. Lions keep the deer population low, especially near urban areas where they kill fifty percent more deer per year, perhaps because they are interrupted in the act of eating their kill more often by humans. Our native lizard has proteins in its blood that seem to “turn off” the infection in ticks that bite the lizards, creating a less dangerous tick population that doesn’t host the Lyme bacteria. None of this would work if there were no lion or lizard habitat, no lions, and no lizards.

Lyme disease in California / Kristina Hill

We can work to genuinely promote social equality. Step one is to stop pretending that development investments, or even new parks, create benefits for everyone. In fact, investments in parks typically displace low-income residents (anyone been to the High Line?). Setha Low’s anthropological research in New York City showed that upscale materials or finishes, like brushed aluminum or polished rock, can make lower-income people of color feel unwelcome, setting them up to be followed and harassed because Caucasian park visitors think they don’t belong there. Creating new upscale mixed-use districts in historically African-American, Native American, and Hispanic spaces raises the likelihood that police will kill more people of color. Trickle-down public benefits from private real estate investments are a myth. We can stop repeating it and instead work to increase the health, wealth, and stability of low-income communities directly. In the San Francisco Bay Resilient by Design Challenge, our ABC Team re-thought our work in East Oakland to focus more on supporting local businesses and health, rather than trying to imagine the trickle-down benefits of big new real estate investments.

Third, we can promote a culture of restraint to protect local habitat areas. Persuading humans to back off and respect the territory of other cultures or other forms of life is the real “balance of nature,” created by our own sense of restraint. We can design windows in “walls” that surround key vegetated areas, instead of designing paths through them. Maybe these are literal walls, like the habitat island at Parc Henri Matisse in Lille, France by Gilles Clément. Or maybe they’re thorny hedge plants or wetland “moats” with an overlook platform. Physical trampling, noise, and pets exert real limits on biodiversity. And cultural self-restraint can be sexy—it can be theatrical and negotiated. Not going somewhere can make that special place valuable and mysterious. Bring back the sacred Greek temenos, and the hortus conclusus. Limits and social negotiation create deeper design opportunities and better designers.

Parc Henri Matisse in Lille, France / Gilles Clément

There’s more: are you designing new urban districts in China, Africa, or the Middle East? It’s time to reconsider taking that work unless it’s an infill strategy.

And we should all stop flying so much, considering its impact on our climate and our health — and now that we’ve mastered Zoom.

Prevent urban and agricultural sprawl into native vegetation. Promote increased wealth and self-sufficiency for the global poor. Support animal welfare by becoming an activist against large-scale animal farming.

Landscape architects can lead a re-think of how to design for biodiversity, cities, and health on our one little planet.

Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, is associate professor of landscape architecture, environmental planning, and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley College of Environmental Design.

Beth Meyer: Natural Beauty Has a Ripple Effect

Beth Meyer / National Building Museum

Beth Meyer, FASLA, the Merrill D. Peterson professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, is this year’s recipient of the Vincent Scully Prize, which is bestowed by the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C.

Just the second landscape architect to receive the prize, after Laurie Olin, FASLA, in 2017, Meyer is widely viewed as one of the most influential landscape architecture professors teaching today. Scully Prize jury chair Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk said: “she has left an indelible mark on theories of aesthetics, sustainability, culture, and social impact.”

In a wide-ranging, dynamic conversation at the NBM with her friend Thaïsa Way, the resident program director for garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Meyer demonstrated her ability to enlighten and create a sense of wonder. She helped the audience better understand the deep impact beauty has on us, particularly natural beauty in the public realm.

A few highlights from the conversation:

On how she formed her ideas: “I grew up in Virginia Beach as a Navy brat. I spent endless hours on beaches and boardwalks, walking the promenades and public spaces. There was every body shape and size imaginable.”

“I came to landscape architecture sideways. Visiting Norfolk, Virginia, in the mid-60s, I saw urban renewal projects demolish buildings and communities, and what was created as a replacement was not great stuff. I became interested in design really through demolition. I wanted to make cities better. I later discovered cities involve dynamic processes that result from political and social factors.”

“I found a niche between historian and designer. In landscape history, there had been an over-emphasis on ecology. I wanted to focus on cultural and social aspects and human agency.”

“I left my suburban life to study, work, and live in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Boston. Suburbia is so segregated, but I discovered that urban parks are outdoor living rooms where you encounter people who are not like you. By recognizing the humanity of a stranger different from you in public spaces, you develop empathy and tolerance, which is the basis of community and democracy.”

“Sitting outside alone is also an act of self care. There is an intimacy to being alone in public, which allows you to quiet the usual busyness and see each other. That intimacy creates conviviality and moments of connection, which is an act of self care.”

On how to understand the social, cultural, and political aspects of landscapes: “In Southern cities and towns, there is a racialized topography. Wealthy and white live up on the ridges; poor and black live in the bottoms, the bowls, which leads to temperature, health, economic, and social disparities. Analyzing power and race topographically provides a lens for understanding public space. Landscape is a text for reading issues of power and privilege.”

“I think a lot about who has the right to the city? Who has the right to linger in public spaces? How do you define lingering versus loitering? What if a park is the only place someone has to go to during the day?”

“I’m not into the theory of landscape urbanism. It doesn’t engage with the social and political. Landscapes are a framework.”

On the importance of natural beauty: “There is a real pleasure and joy in the experience of — and interaction with — plants that are changing. Places with plants can cause people to become distracted, to pause and wonder. Princeton University professor Elaine Scarry calls this ‘wonder in the face of beauty.’ It arrests time and causes us to care. When something beautiful happens, when the mist rises, there is a ripple effect on others.”

On why we need to design with nature: “Public spaces are more than human when we recognize the agency of soil, microbes, plants, and critters. There is this constellation of life in it together. We co-construct public space with other species. Interacting with the biophysical world also alters our mood and sensibility — and our ethos and ethics.”

On climate change: “To combat the threat, landscape architects can care for materials and small things; people’s need for public space and the ability to self care; and beauty. Design matters because it alters the ethos of people who use the spaces.”

“It’s not only humans that are feeling the threat of climate change. I saw a Dogwood tree outside of Dumbarton Oaks the other day that was blooming with browning leaves.”

On how positive change can happen: “I understand now that the aggregated experience of natural beauty among many people can change our collective mood and create a cultural shift.”

Now more than ever then, natural beauty is needed in our public spaces.

ASLA Announces 2019 Professional & Student Awards

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Heritage Flume. Sandwich, MA. Stimson / Ngoc Doan

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) announced the 2019 Professional and Student Award winners.

Chosen from 544 submissions, this year’s 36 Professional Award winners represent the best of landscape architecture in the General Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, and Research categories. In addition, a single Landmark Award is presented each year.

A full list of this year’s Professional Award winners can be found at www.asla.org/2019awards

ASLA 2019 Student General Design Award of Excellence. “Y” Shape Jetty System: A Sustainable Solution for Coastal Ecosystem Protection, Population Retreat, and Global Tourism Development, Yi Song, Student ASLA, University of Texas at Austin.

Chosen from 368 submissions, this year’s 26 Student Award winners represent the bright future of the landscape architecture profession in the General Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Research, Communications, Student Collaboration and Student Community Service categories.

A full list of this year’s Student Award winners can be found at: www.asla.org/2019studentawards

“ASLA’s Professional and Student Awards programs are the oldest and most prestigious in the profession. This extraordinary and diverse array of winners represent both the best of landscape architecture today and the brightest hope for our future,” said ASLA President Shawn T. Kelly, FASLA.

“This year’s awards reflect the global nature of landscape architecture and demonstrate to professionals and the public alike how our profession addresses some of the world’s most pressing problems, including climate change and resilience, livability, and the creation of healthy and equitable environments.”

All Professional and Student Award recipients, their clients, and advisors will be honored at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture on Monday, November 18, in San Diego, California. There are still complimentary press passes available.

Background on the ASLA Awards Programs

Each year, the ASLA Professional Awards honor the best in landscape architecture from around the globe. Winners of these prestigious awards are chosen by a jury that represents the breadth of the profession, including private, public, institutional, and academic practice, and exemplify diversity in professional experience, geography, gender, and ethnicity. Submissions are judged blind.

Professional Awards are presented in six categories: General Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, and the Landmark Award. In each of the first five categories, the Jury may select one Award of Excellence and any number of Honor Awards. It is not guaranteed that an Award of Excellence will be selected each year, as it is up to the jury’s discretion. Only one Landmark Award is presented each year.

This year’s Professional Jury included: Andrea Cochran, FASLA (Chair); Henri Bava; Kofi Boone, ASLA; Gina Ford, FASLA; Deb Guenther, FASLA; John King, Honorary ASLA; Pam Linn, FASLA; John Vinci; and Keith Wagner, FASLA. Joining the Professional Jury for the selection of the Research Category were representatives on behalf of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA): Stephanie A. Rolley, FASLA and Galen Newman, ASLA.

Student Awards are presented in seven categories: General Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Research, Communications, Student Collaboration and Student Community Service. Like the Professional Awards, the jury may select one Award of Excellence and any number of Honor Awards. It is not guaranteed that an Award of Excellence will be selected each year, as it is up to the jury’s discretion.

This year’s Student Jury included: Linda Jewell, FASLA (Chair); Diana Fernandez, ASLA; David Gouverneur; Robert Gray, ASLA; Damian Holmes; Kendra Hyson, ASLA; Maki Kawaguchi; Signe Nielsen, FASLA; and Daniel Tal, ASLA.

Revitalizing Culture: The 2019 Aga Khan Architecture Awards

Arcadia Education Project in South Kanarchor, Bangladesh / Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Sandro di Carlo Darsa

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture was bestowed on six buildings and landscapes across the world that show the power of design to revitalize cultural heritage and strengthen community identity but also improve quality of life and enhance natural resources. These include: the Alioune Diop University Teaching and Research Unit in Senegal; the Arcadia Education Project in Bangladesh; the Palestinian Museum in Palestine; the Public Spaces Development Programme in Tatarstan, Russia; the Revitalisation of Muharraq in Bahrain; and the Wasit Wetland Centre in the United Arab Emirates.

In 1977, His Highness the Aga Khan, a progressive spiritual leader of some 10-15 million Nizari Ismaili Muslims, who has prioritized religious pluralism, women’s rights, and cultural preservation, created an architecture award to honor projects that “successfully address the needs and aspirations of communities in which Muslims have a significant presence.” Since then, some 122 projects around the world have won the prize.

According to the Aga Khan Development Network, the award recognizes excellence in the “fields of contemporary design, social housing, community improvement and development, historic preservation, reuse and area conservation, as well as landscape design, and improvement of the environment.”

Highlighted are winners with significant landscape and environmental aspects:

Arcadia Education Project in South Kanarchor, Bangladesh. After teaching in the UK for four decades, Razia Alam returned to her home country of Bangladesh and used her pension funds to create a school for underserved children. When the lease ran out on the school’s property, Alam decided to purchase a riverside lot because she wanted the children to be close to a river. The only downside: the property is partially submerged under 10 feet of water during the four month-long monsoon season.

Instead of building a raised structure that would negatively impact the wetland ecosystem, Alam’s architect, Saif Ul Haque Sthapati, created a building that can float but also remain tethered during flooding. Upcycled steel barrels raise the school up during high waters, and bamboo planks, the sole building material, were waterproofed by “applying liquid made from boiled local gaab fruit – a traditional Bangladeshi method.”

Arcadia Education Project in South Kanarchor, Bangladesh / Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Sandro di Carlo Darsa
Arcadia Education Project in South Kanarchor, Bangladesh / Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Sandro di Carlo Darsa
Arcadia Education Project in South Kanarchor, Bangladesh / Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Sandro di Carlo Darsa

Palestinian Museum in Palestine. Through an international design competition, the Taawon-Welfare Association hired Dublin, Ireland-based Heneghan Peng Architects along with Jordan-based landscape architect Lara Zureikat to create a new museum in Birzeit to celebrate Palestinian heritage and foster a culture of “dialogue and tolerance.”

The museum was built on an agricultural site defined by terraces formed with low stone walls (sanasil) and artfully maintained that character. According to the Aga Khan Development Network, “the zigzagging forms of the Museum’s architecture and hillside gardens are inspired by the surrounding agricultural terraces, stressing the link with the land and symbolizing resistance to the West Bank’s military occupation.”

Palestinian Museum / Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Cemal Emden
Palestinian Museum / Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Cemal Emden

The outer areas of the landscape are used to grow agricultural crops, while next to the LEED Gold, Palestinian limestone-clad building there are gardens that yield produce for the museum’s café. Rainwater is harvested from the terraces and amphitheater for irrigation and toilets; greywater is also reused in the landscape.

Palestinian Museum / Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Cemal Emden

Wasit Wetland Center in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Part of a broader effort to restore wetlands along the Persian Gulf Coast, the Wasit Wetland Center, designed by X-Architects, based in Dubai, is an angular visitor center, slimmed down and sunken into the landscape to reduce visual and environmental impacts. School groups and visitors walk through corridors that lead to views of the surrounding water bird aviaries.

Wasit Wetland Center / Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Cemal Emden
Wasit Wetland Center / Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Cemal Emden
Wasit Wetland Center / Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Cemal Emden

Across the nearly 50-acre site, which was once a waste dump, the Wasit Wetland Center has restored the native wetland landscape and built six shelters made out of recycled wood and plastic for bird watchers.

Wasit Wetland Center / Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Cemal Emden

Revitalization of Muharraq in Bahrain. Pearl diving was once the primary industry in Muharraq, the former capital of Bahrain. With the growth of cultured pearls in the 1930s, the industry fell into decline. With the rise of the oil industry, the capital then moved to Manama.

Muharraq’s unique heritage is being preserved; it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Along a new “Pearling Path,” the Bahranian government and Sheikh Ebrahim Centre for Culture and Research initiated a comprehensive program that included the restoration and adaptive reuse of historic buildings, creation of new museums and visitor center, and the transformation of vacant lots into a chain of 18 new public spaces.

Revitalization of Muharraq, Bahrain / Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Cemal Emden
Revitalization of Muharraq, Bahrain / Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Cemal Emden
Revitalization of Muharraq, Bahrain / Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Cemal Emden

According to the Aga Khan Development Network, “spherical white streetlamps atop terrazzo posts bring further pearl-related symbolism and assist way-finding.” Read more about Bahrain’s evolving relationship with nature in Paradoxes of Green, a recent book by Gareth Doherty, ASLA.

Revitalization of Muharraq, Bahrain / Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Cemal Emden

And, lastly, the Public Spaces Development Programme in Tatarstan, Russia. The Republic of Tatarstan in central Russia has a population of some 3.7 million. During the Soviet era, churches and mosques were destroyed, leaving public spaces associated with these places of worship empty. With the end of the Soviet Union, property was privatized, and the most appealing lakeside property was purchased and became inaccessible to the public.

To remedy these issues, the Tatarstan government transformed 328 spaces across 45 municipalities, covering two cities, 42 towns, and 33 villages into public beaches, ponds, parks, gardens, plazas, and boulevards that can be enjoyed year-round, even in dark, snowy Russian winters.

Terrace at the beach, Almetyevsk, Public Spaces Development Programme, Tatarstan, Russian Federation / Daniel Shvedov
Central Square, Bavly, Public Spaces Development Programme, Tatarstan, Russian Federation / Lenar Gimaletdinov
Kaban Lake riverfront promenade, Kazan, Public Spaces Development Programme, Tatarstan, Russian Federation / Daniil Shvedov

Learn more about all the winners at the Aga Khan Development Network.

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

Climate Ready Boston Harbor / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Winning Designs: Jury, Community Picks for Linear Park along Old Rail Corridor
The Buffalo News, 06/14/19
“A Buffalo firefighter and a New York City landscape architecture firm emerged as top winners Friday in a design competition for a linear park proposed along the former DL&W rail corridor.”

Greenwood Lake Commission Cancels Canada Geese Catch-and-kill, Adopts Alternate Plan
Northjersey.com, 06/14/19
“The revised strategy introduced by local advocates involves a long-term plan to addle eggs and use dogs to deter Canada geese from making the state’s second-largest house-lined lake their home, commission records show. Other control methods now in limited use or under consideration include laser lights, organic sprays and landscape architecture, said Paul Zarrillo, the commission’s New Jersey chairman.”

Sea Ranch, California’s Modernist Utopia, Gets an Update
The New York Times, 06/14/19
“Trees were key to the science-based approach of Lawrence Halprin, the master planner. Ms. Dundee estimates they planted 100,000 pines on the property, with 10,000 expected to survive.”

Judge: Plan to Build Obama Museum in Jackson Park Should Not Be Delayed, Dismisses Legal Challenge
The Cook County Record, 06/11/19
“U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey dismissed a lawsuit filed by the group known as Protect Our Parks, challenging the city of Chicago’s approval of the plan to bring the Obama Presidential Center to the historic park on the city’s South Side.”

Cooper Hewitt Celebrates 20 years of National Design Awards with 2019 Winners
The Architect’s Newspaper, 06/11/19
“SCAPE Landscape Architecture was recognized for its numerous projects (and master plans, and research) that combine landscape architecture with living ecology. SCAPE works across all scales but its use of regenerative landscapes and public outreach is deeply embedded in the firm’s process no matter the size of the project.”

Winning Design for Revamped Detroit Cultural District Envisions Unified Landscape, Architecture and Technology
Crain’s Detroit Business, 6/10/19
“With its vision for Detroit Square, a team including Paris-based Agence Ter with Detroit-based Akoaki LLC, Harley Etienne, assistant professor in the University of Michigan Urban and Regional Planning program, and Ann Arbor-based Rootoftwo LLC was named the winner of the DIA Plaza/Midtown Cultural Connections international design competition Monday morning.”

Ace Idea: Transforming Defunct Golf Courses into Parks

Orchard Hills Park / KaBOOM!

There are some 16,000 golf courses in the U.S. In the last decade, about 800 have closed. In 2009, about 30 million Americans played golf. In 2016, just 20 million did, a 30 percent decline in less than a decade. Americans are simply too busy to play 9 or 18 holes. And the demographics for golf and the culture surrounding the sport have fundamentally changed.

Since 2010, around 20 defunct golf courses have been transformed into public parks. According to Eric Bosman, an urban designer at Kimley-Horn and Associates, who organized a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, underused courses were once entirely converted into subdivisions. But now, more “communities want them to become nature parks or preserves.”

“In the 90s and 00s, there was the Tiger Woods effect. Golf became ‘every man’s sport.'” Despite Woods’ recent amazing win, that effect has dissipated. The average age of viewers of golf tournaments on TV is older than 55, and the audience is 87 percent white.

“The demographics for golf is fading away. Golf courses are no longer the place for business deals. This is because people have to practice or they will embarrass themselves” on the fairway — and not many people have time for that. For younger generations, “golf is now about social, interpersonal connections.” But they are less tied to the sport because “they didn’t grow up with it.”

So many communities suffer from a dearth of green space. The average golf course is 150 acres. Problem meets solution. And “where else are you going to find so much open space?,” Bosman rhetorically asked.

Recent projects have transformed links that either follow a traditional layout, which means they flow in a linear or L shape over 18 holes, or a modern layout, with “big rectangular blocks of land, where golfers play 9 holes up and then 9 holes back.” Whether traditional or modern, homes are often found on the edges or even middle of courses.

The 237-acre Orchard Hills Park in suburban Cleveland was transformed from a golf course into a park with a 3.6-mile walking trail and restored streams, meadows, and wetlands. “It’s picturesque and now a popular wedding destination” (see image at top).

In Belgium, Wisconsin, a 116-acre course was purchased by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust and transformed into the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve. Its club house became a community center. Trails through the habitat areas, which include five constructed wetland ponds, range from 0.25 miles to 1.5 miles.

Forest Beach Migratory Preserve / Blog for Wisconsin Land Trusts, Kate Redmond
Forest Beach Migratory Preserve / Ozaukee Washington Land Trust

The Highlands in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a 121-acre course co-managed by the Land Conservancy of Western Michigan and Blandford Nature Center, offers hiking and cross-country skiing along with looped trails ranging from a half mile to 10 miles.

The Highlands / Land Conservancy of Western Michigan

The focus of the rest of the panel was on the Milton Country Club in Milton, Georgia, a wealthy suburb of about 40,000 people with a strong equestrian culture. In 2017, the city purchased the bankrupt 137-acre club for $5 million, a major piece of the $25 million green space bond the city issued, which is also financing an expansive 52-mile-long trail network to connect schools and parks. Remodeling the former golf course, which will include removing golf cart trails and adding new amenities, will likely cost $17 million and take up to a decade.

Milton Country Club / Mike T., Yelp

Bosman and landscape architect Mack Cain at Clark Patterson Lee approached the challenge of remodeling the course by first working with community leaders to establish guiding principles: “honor the rural character, build off existing plans and studies, design safe and attractive spaces, and value all voices.”

Before hosting any public meetings, they met with the homeowners around the former course, who will now have a public park in their front yards; the equestrian community; and the green space and trails committee of the city government in order to identify primary “divergent opinions.”

Through a series of open houses and public workshops, they found the community was most concerned about increased pedestrian and vehicular traffic to the new park. Most of the residents around the course purchased their lots for the view. “Only about 35 percent of golf club homeowners typically play golf,” Bosman explained. These residents are concerned about finding the public in their yards. A draft plan calls for spending $960,000 on fences and planting walls of trees in other areas to protect privacy (and property values).

Cain said that beyond the increase in public and vehicular traffic, the community was focused on maintaining existing programs like the pool and tennis courts at the club house; celebrating and restoring nature; balancing trail, horse, and bicycle use in the new park through extra-wide paths; ensuring safety at the trail connections with roads; distributing access points and moving parking off-site; and building partnerships between the landowners and the city.

A draft master plan for the park, which was recently presented to the city council, will offer two loop trails far enough away from nearby homes, with one trail connecting to a nearby school. “People like loops — they don’t want to start and then have to go back.”

Trails will be designed for different purposes: a 2.2-mile-long trail made of porous granite will offer access for pedestrians, those in wheelchairs, and road bicyclists, while another trail for equestrians and mountain bicyclists will be made of soft, natural surfaces.

Wetlands and meadows will be restored. Cain said there will also be an environmental education component, using the landscape as a “lab for natural succession.” The tennis courts and pool are now open to all local residents, while the club house is being redeveloped as a community center and more sports amenities are added.

Jan Hancock — an expert on designing spaces for horses, and a primary author of the Federal Highway Administration-produced Equestrian Design Guidebook for Trails, Trailheads, and Campgrounds — is also part of the planning and design team for the Milton Country Club.

She said former golf courses are an “equestrian’s dream come true,” but much work was done to make these trails friendly to horses and reduce conflicts with neighbors. Riders on horseback can look over most fences, so trails will be moved away from homes to maintain privacy. “Horses can slip and fall on paved surfaces and curbs,” so they are creating natural surface trails for them. Steep inclines will be regraded to reduce accidents.

Soft, natural trail for horses / Wikipedia

Trails will be 8-feet-wide because that is the minimum width for two horseback riders to pass each other. Paths will curve because that gives visual cues to users. “They can see if a bike is coming up.” Bridges will have at least a 54-inch rail and be able to support over 1,000 pounds of weight.

Lastly, Hancock designed “poop zones” at the beginning of trail. “Horses mark their territory and use smell to figure out if they have come back to a spot.” Knowing this, horse parking and staging areas will be separate from where pedestrian and bicyclists enter the park.

New ASLA Exhibition: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate exhibition / EPNAC

Across the country, landscape architects are stepping up to face the growing global climate crisis head-on. In 2018, ASLA’s interdisciplinary Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience issued a report that outlined policy recommendations and design best practices for creating resilient, sustainable communities.

The new Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Exhibition showcases 20 diverse case studies that illustrate the success these recommendations can have in harnessing natural systems, reducing carbon emissions, and improving communities’ resilience to climate change.

Some projects lower carbon emissions from transportation by improving access to bicycle lanes and sidewalks and limiting space for vehicles, like the Jackson Street Reconstruction Project in Saint Paul, Minnesota, by Toole Design Group.

Jackson Street Reconstruction, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design

Others show how we can restore natural systems and bring back biodiversity on previously-developed sites, like the Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects.

ASLA 2010 Professional Honor Award in General Design. Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona. Ten Eyck Landscape Architects. / Bill Timmerman

Some projects show how cities can design to prepare for worst-case flooding scenarios using natural systems, like the Buffalo Bayou Promenade in Houston, Texas by SWA Group.

ASLA 2009 Professional Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade, Houston, Texas. SWA Group / Bill Tatham

Others integrate renewable energy facilities into communities, like the Solar Strand project in Buffalo, New York by Hood Design Studio.

Solar Strand project in Buffalo, New York. Hood Design Studio / Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo

The exhibition is free and open to the public at ASLA’s Center for Landscape Architecture (636 I Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20001) every weekday from 10am to 4pm EST (excluding holidays) through May 1, 2020.

ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture / ASLA

There is also an expanded companion to the exhibition at the website: climate.asla.org.

To put on the Smart Politics for a Changing Climate Exhibition, ASLA was awarded an Art Works Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. “These awards, reaching every corner of the United States, are a testament to the artistic richness and diversity in our country,” said Mary Anne Carter, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Organizations such as the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) are giving people in their community the opportunity to learn, create, and be inspired.”

ASLA is also calling for the submissions of further case studies that show how landscape architects design for a changing climate. If you know of a project that fits the bill, please submit at the exhibition website.

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, alpine, riparian, cypress, mixed evergreen, Douglas fir, sequoia, and 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.

And in San Francisco, the amount of space for these ecosystems is far less — only 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 Bruno Mountain. 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 remaining habitats and use those to push for reincorporating nature into more of 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.”) There is one important reason to support their 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.