A newly expanded and now mobile-friendly version of ASLA’s Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes online exhibition highlights real-world examples of sustainable landscape design and its positive effects on the environment and quality of life. These spaces use natural systems to provide ecosystem services, transform untapped assets into vital community spaces, and create new economic opportunities — they ultimately provide significant environmental, social, and economic value.
Ten new case studies that range from a coastal ecological restoration project to a volunteer-run urban farm illustrate just what sustainable landscapes are and how they provide important benefits on a variety of scales. In the process, the case studies, written in clear, understandable language, also introduce users to what exactly landscape architects do.
The new case studies were carefully selected to show a diversity of landscape types and scales and reflect geographical diversity. There are now a total of 40 case studies.
Lafayette Greens, Detroit, Michigan, a volunteer-run urban farm in downtown Detroit where 800 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables are grown every year.
Living Breakwaters, New York, New York, an innovative coastal ecological restoration project that won $60 million in the Rebuild by Design competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Looking for the perfect present? Or taking time off during the holidays to delve into the latest thinking on design, cities, and the environment? Well, The Dirt’s picks for the top ten books of 2015 are worth exploring:
30:30 Landscape Architecture (Phaidon Press, 2015)
Landscape architecture gets the Phaidon treatment in this appealing and innovative coffee table book by Meaghan Kombol. 30 of the world’s leading landscape architects and designers are paired with 30 up-and-coming ones. Well-known landscape architects featured include Kate Orff, ASLA, Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Kongjian Yu, FASLA, and many others. 30:30‘s scope is truly international, with designers from over 20 countries.
The Age of Sustainable Development (Columbia University Press, 2015)
Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, one of the world’s foremost experts on global development, makes complex, inter-connected issues understandable in this book that explores the future of the planet. E.O. Wilson writes: “Inspirational, encyclopedic in coverage, moving smoothly from discipline to discipline as though composed by multiple experts, the book explains why humanity must maintain sustainability as its highest priority — and outlines the best ways to do it.”
Artful Rainwater Design: Creative Ways to Manage Stormwater (Island Press, 2015)
As our climate becomes more unpredictable, finding better ways to manage stormwater is crucial to reducing floods. However, traditional stormwater management strategies can be unforgettable at best and unsightly at worst. In their new book, Pennsylvania State University professors Stuart Echols, ASLA, and Eliza Pennypacker, ASLA, prove that this doesn’t always have to be the case — it’s possible to effectively manage runoff without sacrificing aesthetics. Read the full review in The Dirt.
The Authentic Garden: Naturalistic and Contemporary Landscape Design (Monacelli Press, 2015)
Richard Hartlage, Affiliate ASLA, and Sandy Fischer, ASLA, founders of Land Morphology in Seattle, have put together a book of visual inspirations, showcasing 60 contemporary designs that feature “beauty for beauty’s sake.” Over 250 full-color photographs highlight the work of Andrea Cochran, FASLA, Raymond Jungles, FASLA, Christine Ten Eyck, FASLA, Michael Vergason, FASLA, and many others.
Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (Verso)
Yale architecture professor and author Keller Easterling has written a fascinating book on infrastructure, and its role in setting the “hidden rules that structure the spaces around us.” Her book looks at the “emergent new powers controlling this space and show how they extend beyond the reach of government.” After reading Extrastatecraft, you aren’t likely to think the same way again about free trade zones, suburbs, or, really, any other standardized spatial form.
Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks (The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted) (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015)
Charles Eliot Beveridge, PhD, Hon. ASLA, Lauren Meier, and Irene Mills bring together Olmsted’s plans and designs for seventy public parks, including Central Park, Prospect Park, the Buffalo Park and Parkway System, Washington Park and Jackson Park in Chicago, Boston’s “Emerald Necklace,” and Mount Royal in Montreal, Quebec. “It is a perfect gift for Olmsted aficionados.”
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Knopf, 2015)
Author Andrea Wulf delves into the life of German scientist and adventurer Alexander von Humboldt, the “Einstein of the 19th century,” who discovered climate and vegetation zones, among many other natural phenomena. Humboldt also predicted climate change. “Arresting. . . . readable, thoughtful, and widely researched,” writes The New York Times Book Review.
Phyto: Principles and Resources for Site Remediation and Landscape Design (Routledge, 2015)
Harvard Graduate School of Design landscape architecture professor Niall Kirkwood, FASLA, and landscape architect Kate Kennen, ASLA, have created a smart and practical guide on how to incorporate phytoremediation, which involves using plants to absorb, remove, or mitigate pollutants, into the actual landscape design process. Kirkwood and Kennen show how to apply helpful plants in sites that are already toxic, but also how to “create projective planting designs with preventative phytotechnology abilities.” The thoughtful book layout and design enables learning, too.
Planting in a Post-Wild World (Timber Press, 2015)
Landscape architect Thomas Rainer, ASLA, and Claudia West, International ASLA, have written an accessible and creative guide to resilient planting design. Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, said: “Rainer and West describe how to translate natural plant relationships and ecological patterns into aesthetically pleasing yet functional landscapes. With their advice we can change gardening from an adversarial relationship with nature to a collaborative one. Expertly researched, and rife with witty advice, this is the universal how-to guide to sustainable landscaping we have all been waiting for. A masterful accomplishment!”
Also, worth knowing: buying these books through The Dirt or ASLA’s bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs.
If it weren’t for us, bison and beavers might still roam Chicago, Illinois, the location of the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting and Expo. The absence of these keystone species, which once provided important roles in the continental water cycle, represents a marked shift in ecosystem functioning. However, landscape architects and engineers from Andropogon Associates and Biohabitats are thinking about how to bring back the ecosystem services these species once provided in order to more sustainably manage water.
“We’re not bringing bison back to the edge of Chicago where they would have been, but looking at their functionality, the lessons that can be learned from them,” said Keith Bowers, FASLA, president of Biohabitats. “We need to ask ourselves how we can turn it around and be these species.”
One way to start this process is by “thinking like a watershed,” Bowers said. “How different would our water management systems be if our states were configured around our watersheds?,” he asked. While humans have made political boundaries irrespective of these watersheds, ecosystems – and their associated wildlife – simply don’t follow suit. The divide between human perception and ecological realities is ubiquitous. Just as an example, 73 percent of people polled in Baltimore, Maryland, do not believe they live in a watershed. This misconception is even more present in other parts of the country.
Thinking like beavers or bison in their native watersheds could provide solutions. Bison, for example, create holes, or “wallows,” in the ground that are perfect for collecting rainwater. Beavers also play a critical ecological role by building dams, which increase riparian habitat and can help store millions of gallons of water underground, among other benefits. Perhaps one way for California to adjust to drought would be to think more like these creative animals, “with their small, highly-distributed water management systems” that are more aligned with the functionality of a watershed. Their smart approach is the “the exact opposite of water engineering that happens in California,” said Erin English, a senior engineer at Biohabitats.
Thinking about how nature functions on the molecular level can also offer solutions said Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon Associates. It’s at the molecular level “where life starts and where the future of the life on this planet will reside.”
Both Andropogon and Biohabitats have been leading the charge in designing landscapes that think like watersheds. The new U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington D.C. designed by Andropogon Associates and HOK was highlighted. This constructed landscape uses gravity and a set of planted terraces to move and cleanse water.
Mimicking nature’s functionality creates opportunities for more sustainable urban water management. Bowers said “we have to make that a priority.”
Greenwave, a non-profit organization transforming the fishing industry, was recently awarded the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI)’s 2015 challenge, which comes with a $100,000 prize. Greenwave’s winning project is the “world’s first multi-species 3-D ocean farm,” a vertical underwater garden that aims “to restore ocean ecosystems and create jobs in coastal communities by transforming fishers into restorative ocean farmers,” according to BFI. Using simple infrastructure — seaweed, scallops, and mussels growing on floating ropes stacked above clam cages below — Greenwave’s founder Bren Smith has created a low-cost, sustainable system that can be easily replicated by farmers and fishers everywhere.
Drawing comparisons to last years’s BFI challenge winner, Living Breakwaters, the first large-scale experiment with “oyster-tecture” by SCAPE / Landscape Architecture, Smith’s innovative ocean farm was inspired by his time farming oysters in the Long Island Sound. “Here I was a young fisherman, pillaging the oceans in one of the most unsustainable forms of food production on the planet. Aquaculture was supposed to be the great answer to over-fishing, but it turned out to be just as destructive using new technologies. So I became an Oysterman,” Smith said in a Tedx talk.
After Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene destroyed 80 percent of his oyster crop, Smith began to re-envision his farm in order to rebuild it.
Now, a single underwater acre of Greenwave’s flagship farm on the Thimble Islands in New York’s Long Island Sound filters millions of gallons of ocean water each day, creates homes for marine and bird life, and absorbs nitrogen and carbon (the kelp in the farms sequester five times more carbon than land-based agriculture). With zero added inputs, the farm has the capacity to grow 10 tons of sea vegetables and 250,000 shellfish annually on a single acre.
“I went from farming 100 acres down to 20 acres as I began using the full water column. And now I’ve been growing a lot more food on the 20 acres than I was on the 100. Whereas aquaculture is obsessed with growing one thing in one place, we’re growing four kinds of shellfish, two kinds of sea weed, and salt from the 20 acres,” Smith said.
Greenwave will use the $100,000 award to train 25 new farmers on both the East and West coasts of the U.S. with the skills to implement Smith’s ocean farming model. Each of the new farmers “will receive start up grants, free seed, and two years of training and support,” Smith said. “Greenwave will also buy 80 percent of their crop for 5 years at triple the market rate.” The rest of the money will go toward research and development on “kelp-raised beef, and specialty food products.”
Since 2007, BFI has used its annual international competition to highlight paradigm-shifting designs that, in the words of the late Buckminster Fuller, “make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”
This is the second year in a row that the first place winner has “directly addressed urgent and complex issues related to our oceans: the impending collapse of marine ecosystems, the long-term effects of climate change on our coastal communities, and the economic catastrophe these communities are experiencing right now as a result,” said Elizabeth Thompson, executive director of BFI.
This year’s other finalists include:
Algae Systems is a new technology that uses native algae species to capture and treat wastewater. Powered by photosynthesis, the system produces renewable fuels and fertilizers as byproducts, at a lower cost per gallon that alternative wastewater treatment technologies.
The Community Architects Network is a regional network of “community architects and planners, engineers, young professionals, lecturers and academic institutes in Asian countries” that supports participatory design for community projects in 17 Asian countries. Projects include new housing developments, citywide upgrading, and recovery from natural disasters.
Hazel is a digital modeling tool produced by the Drylands Resilience Initiative, which, when completed, will assist arid communities in designing effective stormwater infrastructure.
Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT) is an organization aimed at providing secure housing situations — including basic water and sanitation, as well as financial and legal advice — for poor women in four states of India.
A 2012 and 2014 finalist, the Nubian Vault Programme (AVN) trains people in five African countries in the Nubian Vault construction technique, a cheap and sustainable method for constructing homes from local materials.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is further complicating water management in the many states struck by drought. State water management bodies are increasingly coming into conflict with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as these organizations add more species to the endangered species list. In a panel at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, Robert Gulley, Texas Office of the Comptroller Public Accounts; David Sunding, University of California at Berkeley; and Kathy Robb, Hunter & Williams, LLP, waded into the issues. The general consensus seemed to be: we need to take care of diverse species but a balance is needed. Also, underlying problems with federal and state water management laws and regulations make things all that much harder.
Texas: Freshwater Mussels and Long-term Water Planning
Texas is just now recovering from years of drought, but if “El Nino doesn’t come through, we’ll be right back to where we were,” said Gulley. In its last session, the Texas state legislature agreed to put $2 billion into a fund to finance long-term water banking projects, which run the full gamut of efforts to enhance the water supply. All sorts of new technologies and private public partnership models will be tested. The goal is to dramatically increase the amount of water stored by aquifers, boosting reserves for when times are dry. But as Gulley explained, the “Endangered Species Act can be an obstacle to long-range water planning.” He added that not all endangered species are found in surface water. It can get even more complicated because “new species can also impact groundwater resources.”
Between now and 2017, the FWS will decide on whether 57 species should be added to the endangered species list, which gives them all sorts of protections. “Upcoming, there are decisions alone on 11 types of freshwater mussels found in every watershed in the state.” Water use in the state is seasonal. “When we need to use it in the drought season is just the time when the mussels will need it. This is a significant threat to water availability.”
And while the FWS investigates whether to give a local jurisdiction a permit to use water, water treatment or use can be put on hold. As FWS consultation processes can go on for years, “the ongoing consequences can be severe.” As an example, Gulley pointed to the city of Abilene, Texas, whose water supply was “almost cut off” due to the drought. The city is in ongoing consultations with the FWS on the possible impact of pouring brine, which is an output of their treatment process for reusing brackish water, into the community’s rivers. They can’t do it yet because the brine could possibly impact two endangered species. “The process is still ongoing.” In the meantime, the city’s ability to reuse water and plan for back-up reuse systems is hamstrung.
California: A Water Management Crisis
For Sunding, an economist who consults with states on water resources, water conflicts around ESA are real and ongoing. California has just initiated a statewide 25 percent reduction in water use, with exemptions for farmers. While the measures will reduce wasteful water use for lawns, California, he argued, is having a “water management crisis, not a scarcity crisis.”
While the drought is “causing a massive dislocation for other species,” the state’s faulty water management system is causing “conflicts between humans and other species to come to the foreground.”
The majority of ESA conflicts in California occur when agricultural water users divert traditional sources of water because the one source they rely on has gone dry. Conflicts can also arise when new water infrastructure takes water out of existing water bodies in a way that affects water-based wildlife.
For example, the new multi-billion water infrastructure system being planned and created in Northern California will most likely lead the state to create alternative water supplies, which will then trigger FWS consultations. Northern California desperately needs to move forward with infrastructure planning to create new sources of water but ESA considerations will lengthen the process.
Obstacles Preventing Progress
California, Texas, and other western and southwestern states’ struggle to balance the needs of humans and wildlife will only get worse as species migrate to find new sources of water. Gulley said states will need some flexibility to deal with this, “and need to be recognized by the FWS for developing voluntary action programs.” But underlying issues in water management also need to be addressed if a balance is going to be struck long term.
For example, Sunding said the problem with the water management system in Texas is the state doesn’t recognize “conjunctive management,” meaning that it regulates surface water and groundwater in the same place differently. “They need to be able to manage both resources together to create better outcomes.” In too many states, “arcane water rules don’t match up with the reality.”
In California, the question is “can we manage scarcity with smarter policies?” When water users pay the water bill, they are paying for water treatment and the pressurized flow of water from the plant to their tap. “They are not paying for the water itself. That’s a problem because we’re not thinking of its value to other people or species. Too much water is locked up in bad uses. Livestock, cotton, hay, and rice water use are all low value uses of water.”
And Kathy Robb argued that the entire 43-year-old Clean Water Act regulatory system is outdated, and a 2014 decision by the Supreme Court to clarify the meaning of “traditional, navigable waters” in the act to now include tributaries with seasonal or intermittent flow has led to a total upheaval of the American water management system. This decision meant that power plants, waste water treatment facilities, oil and gas companies, and other industrial water users will all need to get permits to access the thousands of streams and creeks once deemed private and now labeled official “waters of the U.S.A.” In Kansas alone, there are 32,000 such tributaries. And, already, a single power plant could wait nearly 3 years and spend $270,000 in fees to get a permit.
Robb said “water lawyers are suing everyone now,” with 14 jurisdictional district court cases pending. As of now, 27 states are moving forward with the new definition of navigable waters, while 13 states have refused. She added, “this is not a sustainable way of creating water policy in the U.S. We can do better.”
LA+ (Landscape Architecture Plus) is a new interdisciplinary journal of landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Published biannually, the journal explores contemporary design issues from the perspective of multiple disciplines, promoting collaboration and offering thoughtful insights and innovative ideas on each issue’s theme.
The journal’s provocative first issue, LA+ WILD, explores the shifting concept of “wild.” In the midst of the 21st century’s global environmental crisis, what is truly wild? For Tatum Hands, editor in chief of LA+, “wild is fundamental.” This idea resonates in the issue’s essays and graphic depictions, which speculate on conservation initiatives that fall under the rubric of “rewilding.”
Contributors of the issue’s 20-plus features aim to make “wild re-imagined, re-situated, and re-constituted.” Explorations into the interconnections of living things confound our preexisting notions. For example, artist Sonja Bäumel, in a project entitled Expanded Self, makes visible the bacteria on her own skin, depicting her body as an extension of the landscape.
Artist and designer Orkan Telhan observes in The Taste of the New Wild that “nature ‘as is’ is now competing with better (and wilder) alternatives.” Consumer products like bio-synthesized sandalwood and lab-grown meat are potentially more resilient, sustainable, diverse, but also more unpredictable than the sources from which they originate.
Timothy Morton’s theory on “agri-logistics” in Where the Wild Things Are and Julian Raxworthy’s appropriation of thermodynamics in Born to Be Wild: Heat Leaks, and the Wrong Sort of Rewilding challenge distinctions between humans and non-humans. Biologists Timothy Mousseau and Anders Møller reveal the darker implications of this interconnectedness in Landscape-scale Consequences of Nuclear Disasters. Findings reported from expeditions to Chernobyl, Russia, and Fukushima, Japan, demonstrate the considerable cascading biological impacts of radiation from nuclear power plant failures on ecosystems. Continued study is necessary to determine if these sites will ever be appropriate for habitation.
So what are the implications of conservation initiatives based on “rewilding”? The movement today, as Adela Park, a landscape architecture graduate student at UPenn, reports in Re:Wilding, is entering into the province of genetic engineering that is “beguiling and frightening” and raises ethical questions regarding the invention and reinvention of life forms. Projects at Oostvaarderplassen outside Amsterdam and Pleistocene Park in northern Siberia attempt to recreate Pleistocene ecosystems to support the reintroduction of extant species like the aurochs and the de-extinction of species like the wooly mammoth. Humans are conspicuously absent from these landscapes.
But there are opportunities to encourage a meaningful and productive conversation on how to intervene in the wild. Landscape architects are positioned to redefine and reengage with the wild through initiatives that facilitate the integration and coexistence of humans and non-humans. New agencies of design and forms of practice that reach beyond traditional efforts to protect wilderness could result in novel ecosystems that both embrace and engender biological and cultural diversity.
In Tracking Wildnerness: The Architecture of Inscapes, Paul Carter, professor of design at RMIT University, shares observations on how the Shipibo people are shaping the Lupunaluz project, a cultural and biodiversity initiative in the Peruvian rainforest. From the Shipibo people’s belief that human consciousness derives from plant consciousness, contributors to the project have inferred that design is a collective endeavor shared by humans and nonhumans. Nature is not automatically arranged according to human preferences.
In Practices of the Wild: A Rewilding of Landscape Architecture, Mick Abbott, landscape architecture professor at New Zealand’s Lincoln University, explains how the Landscope DesignLab at the university is developing new technologies to engage public conservation lands. Tools like Plant-it, a mobile application that crowd-sources the replanting of forests, aim to spur the development of landscapes that value, rather than discourage, interaction between people and ecology.
Claire Fellman, a director at Snøhetta, argues in Watching Wild against the removal of 90 kilometers of roads within Norway’s Dovrefjell-Sundalsfjella National Park, home to a large herd of endangered wild reindeer. This conservation initiative, which prevents people from reaching the park’s interior, inhibits the creation of spaces where “blurred and overlapping boundaries can create a productive gray zone in which the rights of multiple species are actively negotiated, promoting respect, interdependence, and community.”
Gardening is an analogy for working with existing ecological processes that are both managed and adaptive. Washington University in St. Louis landscape architecture professor Rod Barnett advocates in Unpremeditated Art for conservation initiatives that are based on “an open system that creates novelty through its encounter with indeterminate conditions.” In England, farmers are being paid to create and maintain nesting plots for the Eurasian Skylark within their acreage by turning off their seeding machines for stretches of five to ten meters. This simple but innovative agricultural practice is as regulated as it is experimental.
Additional opportunities emerge to experiment. UPenn planning graduate student Billy Fleming considers the efficacy of the recovery-through-competition model to create resilient cities in Can We Rebuild By Design? In Firescaping, Arizona State University environmental historian Steve Pyne discusses the potential for sculpting landscapes to control fire in conservation lands. In Xing: New Infrastructures for Landscape Connectivity, Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, a professor at Ryerson University, presents the opportunity to design flexible, adaptive, and context-specific infrastructures for wildlife crossings that could influence the way we live and move through a landscape shared with other species.
Physicist and climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf advocates in Wild Ocean for the design of multi-use platforms combining renewable-energy generation, aquaculture, transport services, and leisure activities in the oceans. Writer Emma Marris‘s Simian City proposes a unique conservation strategy for the Golden Lion Tamarin, a rare species that Marris suggests could — with community support — “introduce surprise and beauty to urban life” while finding refuge in the city.
In World P-ark, UPenn landscape architecture department chair Richard Weller, ASLA, considers how landscape architecture “might now go to work on a scale commensurate with that of biodiversity’s otherwise inexorable decline.” He proposes linking the world’s most biodiverse and threatened landscapes into one contiguous World Park with two continuous routes: one north-south from Alaska to Patagonia, and another east-west from Indonesia to Morocco.
The landscape architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania is engaged in an exercise to map ecological networks for the 425 ecoregions that make up the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots. Weller is confident that landscape architects are best positioned to negotiate how these networks, once connected, would interact with the landscape.
These essays demonstrate that “to be wild is to exist in a condition of extreme openness – instability, uncertainty, and continual perturbation.” LA+ WILD sparks a dialogue that could itself run wild, potentially never reaching a conclusion, but perhaps proving as dynamic as the medium in which landscape architects work. A quote by land artist Robert Smithson paired with an image of his Spiral Jetty reminds us that “nature is never finished.”
Purchase the issue. And look for the next issue on pleasure, which comes out in September.
This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, Associate ASLA, recent master’s of landscape architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania and former ASLA communications intern.
We work in a small, but timely profession. Our potential to impact the neighborhoods, communities, and cities where we work is huge. Though landscape architecture professionals make up just a small fraction of the design field, ours is the work that is the first to be seen. Ours is the work that brings function and beauty to parks, plazas, campuses, institutions, and transportation corridors. Ours is a profession that blends the power of design with ecological principals and environmental justice. And because we are few and far between, we have to advocate for what we know.
The responsibility is on us to make our voices heard, not for our own betterment, but for the sake of our communities.
Public awareness is growing around a range of big issues, from humanity’s need for nature to improve our health, to watersheds, drought, and climate change. And yet, those in our profession most able to speak intelligently on these issues, to guide our communities towards thoughtful solutions, remain silent too often.
Those who fill the void may be knowledgeable in some respects, but often they simply have a good sound bite. The media won’t know to ask a landscape architect for a solution, suggestion, or comment if they don’t know what landscape architects can do. And most of them don’t.
We need to educate our media, politicians, and the public on the issues we care most about. In addition to keeping each other informed about lessons learned from the field, landscape architects need to write letters to the editor, speak at city council meetings and land-use committee meetings, and join non-profit boards and advisory groups. We need to present ideas to civic groups, garden clubs, and parent groups. And we’re not talking about advocating for the profession: we’re talking about advocating for our quality of life.
We urge you to:
Advocate for regionally and micro climate-appropriate design that minimizes resource use while maximizing benefits;
Speak out to conserve existing habitat and create new parks, wildlife habitats, and greenway corridors;
Call for nature playgrounds and natural systems in our schools, parks, and institutions to increase human access to nature and its physical, mental, and educational benefits;
Ask for more flexible policies to support rainwater capture, graywater reuse, and recycled water use and reduce unnecessary use of potable water;
Fight to ban plastic materials, such as bags, bottles, furnishings, and grass, to stop the incessant addition of toxins into our oceans and food chain;
Advocate for more transit and pedestrian and bicycle options and mixing land uses to cut our need for automobiles;
Specify local, non-toxic, reclaimed, and reclaimable natural materials;
Educate the public about the need to design with plants that provide food for pollinators and people.
Our firm is widely known in Los Angeles, and beyond, for being vocal. We go to public meetings about water conservation, school sites, citizen science, agriculture, forests, and the Los Angeles River. We go to lectures about climate change, drought, food deserts, park poverty, water quality, and environmental justice. We listen, form opinions, speak and write. We get our voices heard.
We might annoy you. And that’s okay. Because we believe we can make a difference in where we live and how we live to make a better future for all of us. And we hope you do, too.
This guest op-ed is by Mia Lehrer + Associates, an internationally-known, award-winning firm made up of landscape architects, urban designers, environmental planners, and a team of multidisciplinary designers based in Los Angeles. Read their recent op-ed in The Los Angeles Times.
Imagine a wastewater treatment facility where people get married, amid 40-acres of restored salmon habitat with designed ponds and wetlands. It sounds far-fetched but it’s reality in Snohomish County, Washington, near the border with King County, about an hour northeast from downtown Seattle. In a tour of the Brightwater facility during the American Planning Association (APA) conference by Michael Popiwny, the landscape architect who managed this $1 billion project for the King County government, we learn how wastewater treatment plants can become assets instead of drains on communities and the environment. The key to success was an interdisciplinary management, design, and construction team that was highly responsive to community feedback and deeply sensitive to environmental concerns. Plus, Brightwater was paid for by growth in the region. As new people are attracted to the quality of life the Seattle area offers, they move in and pay a $4,000 – $8,000 sewer hook-up fee. “The fact that new people were paying for the system helped us to sell it to the community.”
Brightwater, a 15-year endeavor that began operations in 2011, is a wastewater treatment facility, environmental education and community center, and ecological system rolled into one. It’s a 114-acre site, nestled in a wealthy residential area, with some 70 acres of trails and parks open to the public. There are 13 miles of underground conveyance pipes that direct wastewater to the plant. When it reaches the plant, the wastewater is cleaned through the largest membrane bioreactor system in North America, which makes the water 70 percent cleaner than conventional approaches. It is then sent out through a 600-foot-deep outfall pipe a mile out into the Puget sound. Excess materials are turned into “loop,” a biosolid that is sold to local farms and orchards at very low cost.
However, this description of the system doesn’t do justice the experience of being at Brightwater. Popiwny explained the critical role excellent design played in “selling this place to the community.” He said, “we realized that this place needed to be beautiful. We need it to be very well designed.” Just siting the project won King and Snohomish counties, along with CHM2Hill and Environmental Design Associates, an ASLA 2005 Professional Analysis and Planning award. Then, engineers with CHM2Hill and landscape architects with Hargreaves Associates and Mithun along with restoration ecologists and conservation biologists came together in an interdisciplinary design team to create a welcoming place that actually restored the ecological function of the landscape, turning into a place that aids salmon in their annual migration.
Popiwny briefly described the design and construction process: “We had separate contracts for the engineering and design teams. We needed the strongest engineering team and the strongest landscape architecture team. The teams completed their work separately and then we combined their efforts in the final design. Internally, we had an engineer lead the engineering team, and I led the design team. It’s important that you set up competitions for top notch talent in each category and then give them equal status.”
As the deep processing facilities were dug out of the landscape, the excess soil was turned into “decorative, geometric landforms,” by Hargreaves Associates. “These landforms alone took thousands of trucks off the highway, saved lots of carbon,” explained Popiwny.
Amid these landforms in the “north 40 acres” is an elaborate system of forests, meadows, raingardens, wetlands, and ponds that hold and clean rainwater before directing it to the streams salmon use. What was once an auto depot is now a place that provides great environmental benefits.
The process of restoring the habitat and turning into a publicly-accessible park was complex, involving stream and wetland biologists, who guided ecological decisions, and landscape architects with Hargreaves. The team used 15 different types of rocks to create two different stream corridors that empty into ponds where salmon rest on their uphill climb to the places where they spawn. “The result is something similar to the original stream.”
To restore the forested wetland, the Brightwater team made it an environmental education and community outreach project. Kids from the area helped plant over 20,000 native willows. “Native willows are easy for children to plant. We had about 4-6 busloads of kids from the surrounding area per week.” This effort really helped create community buy-in and grow a sense of greater investment in the success of the project.
As you walk out of the park and into the environmental education center, which was designed and built to a LEED Platinum level, you can see how an open-minded couple would actually want to host a wedding here. Popiwny laughed and said one comment he read about the onsite wedding online was, “it’s today — get with it!” There are pleasing views of the green infrastructure. One of the larger buildings is also a frequent host for local non-profits and community meetings.
All of this is a result of efforts to stave off protracted lawsuits that would have delayed the project from the beginning. The parkland, environmental education and community centers, were all part of the $149 million set aside as part of the “mitigation budget.” According to Popiwny, “budgeting this kind of work upfront meant saving money over the long run.” However, the Brightwater project was still sued by local sewer districts who argued that the project “spent too much on mitigation.” The state supreme court eventually sided with Brightwater. Popiwny said “lawsuits are an inevitable part of large projects.”
Now the challenges to projects like Brightwater are “often in the guise of environmental protection.” But Popiwny just sees this as part of the broader system of checks in a democratic system. “There needs to be multiple checks as these projects can affect communities. The region benefited from the opposition to the project as it pushed us towards a higher performance, but it also made it more expensive.” The Brightwater team included other forms of technical fail-safe systems, like multiple, isolated ponds to separate acid or bases if there was an overflow or accident caused by an earthquake, and engineering all pipes and systems to withstand high levels of seismic activity.
As we walk out of the environmental education center, which features flexible classrooms for groups of all ages and enables a range of hands-on learning about the water cycle, we head to the facility itself, which is strangely odorless. “There are three levels of odor control.”
Spread throughout the site is public art, as the project was part of the state’s 1 percent for art program. Climbing up a stairwell to the spot where the millions of gallons of cleaned water is sent out to the sound, there is artist Jane Tsong’s poem, which actively blesses the elements of the plant (air, water, biosolids) as “they depart from the treatment process and continue their life cycle into the natural world.”
Popiwny said the facility staff particularly connect with these poems, as it is reminder of how meaningful their work really is.
Amid Drought, The West Is No Place For a Lawn, As Nevada Has Learned – The Los Angeles Times, 5/1/15
“When Gov. Jerry Brown ordered that California rip up 50 million square feet of lawns to conserve water amid the West’s deadening drought, the Golden State gasped. Meanwhile, the Silver State yawned. Desert denizens have already been there and done that — since 1999, in fact.”
Sprawling Wetland Structures by HHD_FUN Host Chinese Horticultural Show– Dezeen Magazine, 5/5/15
“Beijing-based architecture studio HHD_FUN undertook two landscape architecture projects on the vast 23,000-square-metre site in Qingdao, a region in the eastern Chinese Shandong Province. The site was part of the International Horticultural Exposition, which was held between April and October last year.”
An Architectural Tour of … Parklets? – The San Francisco Chronicle, 5/6/15
“Say what you like about Parklets — and there are detractors as well as devotees — they are now an established part of the scenery not only in San Francisco, but beyond.”
New Plan Would Revamp Heart of Downtown– The Baltimore Sun, 5/12/15
”New designs for McKeldin Plaza would fuse the brick space to the Inner Harbor promenade, transforming one of the busiest and most prominent intersections in the city into a 2.8-acre park, with grassy slopes and a curtain-like translucent fountain.”
EcoDistrict planning and design can accelerate local efforts to improve sustainability. EcoDistricts offer a framework through which communities can discuss, prioritize, and enact initiatives that address climate change — by providing clean energy, conserving wildlife habitat, and encouraging low-impact development — and also social equity. If more neighborhoods begin to adopt the EcoDistrict model — wherein a range of partner organizations work in concert — we could see stronger bottom-up pushes toward city-wide sustainability.
Since 2011, the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, which is funded by the Bullitt Foundation and led by Capitol Hill Housing, has sought to improve the sustainability of the community and the equity of its constituents. This EcoDistrict is partnering with the Seattle 2030 District, a high-performance business district in downtown Seattle, that aims to reduce carbon emissions 50 percent by 2030. In 2015, Seattle’s City Council formally passed a resolution recognizing the EcoDistrict.
In the past few years, the EcoDistrict has made progress: Capitol Hill Housing and Seattle City Light started the first community solar project on an affordable housing building in Washington State. Participants in this program can “subscribe” to receive the benefits of solar via the systems built and maintained by Seattle City Light on the rooftop of the new Capitol Hill Housing, the Holiday Apartments, which houses 88 new apartments for low-income families, artist spaces, two theaters, various community organizations, and street-level retail spaces.
Also, innovative building projects are being encouraged to update the city’s outdated land-use code, using a process of design review. As an example, The Bullitt Center helped launch the city’s Living Building pilot program.
The EcoDistrict aims to address urban ecosystem fragmentation and the loss of tree canopy and open space. To do this, Capitol Hill Housing is partnering with interdisciplinary designer Sarah Bergmann to create the second certified Pollinator Pathway in the U.S. Each Pollinator Pathway connects two or more green spaces, following a set of scientific criteria, and is created through commission or partnership.
Bergmann’s first project, Pollinator Pathway One — a mile-long, 12-foot wide landscape first developed seven years ago — connects Seattle University’s campus with Nora’s Woods, a small forested area a mile away, through a series of connected gardens (see image above). The second project, Pollinator Pathway Two, will run through the heart of the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict and will connect two Olmsted-designed parks and Seattle University.
More knowledge sharing among EcoDistricts around the country will help lead to a more replicable model. Already, a few high-profile EcoDistricts are joining together: In 2014, the Portland, Oregon-based EcoDistrict organization launched a program called Target Cities, a two-year partnership with ten projects across eight North American cities.
This guest post is by Katy Scherrer, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, University of Washington.