An Opportunity to Reinvent Infrastructure

Self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh / The Washington Post
Self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh / The Washington Post

With President-elect Trump coming into office vowing to raise $1 trillion for infrastructure, many cities and states see a potential bonanza for high-speed rail development, bridge and highway repair, and, hopefully, urban transportation networks. As former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell noted at The Atlantic‘s summit on infrastructure, the Republican agenda is to let localities decide — and that should hold true for their infrastructure priorities as well, even if it means bike lanes, which a number of Republican Congressional lawmakers have come out against. At the summit, experts called for using this investment opportunity to create smarter, more resilient infrastructure, unleash new technologies, and move to more equitable approaches for long-term financing.

Brendan Shane, regional director at C40 Cities, argues that with any new federal infrastructure investment, there is an opportunity to make infrastructure low-carbon and resilient. Complete green streets enable all forms of travel, but especially climate-friendly ones like walking and biking. The national energy grid is woefully outdated and could be updated to be more energy-efficient. Water systems could be made more cost-effective and resilient through the use of green infrastructure. However, he cautioned that “$1 trillion won’t go very far. Los Angeles just approved $120 billion in projects, and that was just one city.”

Improving resilience is the primary focus of Norfolk, Virginia, said Christine Morris, the chief resilience officer of this coastal city. Norfolk, which hosts the largest naval base in the U.S., just finalized its Vision 2100, which creates a road map for resilience and adaptation to both land subsidence and flooding from sea level rise. She said “resilient cities don’t wait for someone to save them, they move forward and find partners.”

Morris was optimistic the department of defense and federal government will continue to invest in making the base and the city that houses it more resilient. Norfolk plans on creating a layered system of defenses with wetlands, green infrastructure, berms, and gates. “The federal government wants to keep and protect national assets.”

Gabe Klein, co-author of Start-up City: Inspiring Public and Private Entrepreneuriship, Getting Projects Done, and Having Fun, and Niki Christoff, head of government affairs for Uber, called for using new technologies to improve urban transportation infrastructure. Klein said the department of transportation’s smart cities challenge was brilliant at leveraging $40 million in prize money to create “$500 million in strategic planning” on how to use technology to reduce congestion and pollution and improve safety and efficiency. 

He said second-tier cities like Pittsburgh — the site of Uber’s self-driving ride-share experiments — are great places to test new transportation technologies, “as they can get things done faster.” 

Klein sees a mix of driven and autonomous vehicles for “a long time,” with a painful transition period over the next 20 years. Eventually, with the explosion of automated ride-share vehicles, 90 percent of cars in dense urban cores will go away, freeing up space for housing and parks.

Christoff noted that one of the biggest obstacles for automated vehicles are potholes, which cause confusion for the computers. She said Uber may eventually share the data automated vehicles collect on potholes with local transportation departments. If they are fixed, it would be a win-win for the private and public sectors. 

Klein said cities can also turn to the public for help in fixing potholes, asking them to identify and submit information. In D.C., when he was transportation commissioner, he created Pot-hole-palooza, a crowd-sourcing effort, and then sent out an “auto pothole killer.”

While Trump aims to use some mix of private and public funds for infrastructure, there was discussion on what happens long-term after the money has been spent. The federal gas tax hasn’t been increased since the 1972. One innovative model piloted by Oregon last year finances road and highway investment through a usage fee, a tax for miles traveled, instead of the usual federal gas tax. Some 5,000 cars participated in the pilot.

Instead of privileging the low-gas use of hybrid vehicles, the system, which involves adding a small USB-like device into cars’ speedometers, treats all miles traveled the same. “It’s more equitable, and the payment system is transparent. At the end of the month, you receive a bill like you do for water or cell phone service,” explained Richard Geddes, with the American Enterprise Institute. As part of the scheme, there are rebates for any gas taxes. 

In a poll from last year, Oregonians were split on the idea of replacing the federal gas tax with a mileage based approach. Still, the idea of charging vehicle owners based on how much they actually use and wear down roads seems more direct, understandable, and fair. 

On Climate Change, Trump Moves from Denial to Being “Open-Minded”

President-elect Trump has moved away from outright denial that climate change is happening. In an interview with Fox News, Trump said he is “open-minded” on the environment, but also believes “nobody knows if climate change is real.” He said he is “studying” whether the U.S. should pull out of the UN Paris climate accord, which has been ratified by 117 countries as of December 12. Trump’s default stance is any regulatory effort to reduce carbon emissions will in turn reduce the economic competitiveness of U.S. industries. His stated goal is to cut federal regulations in all forms in order to grow jobs and the economy.

Over the past few weeks, Trump has sent confusing signals on the climate. One one hand, he has made some gestures that have raised hopes. In a meeting with the editors of The New York Times, he admitted there may be “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change. He met with former vice president Al Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his climate advocacy, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who produced a documentary on the flooding induced by climate change. Gore described the one-hour meeting with Trump as “lengthy and very productive” and the beginning of an ongoing dialogue. Gore said Trump’s daughter Ivanka, likely a key advisor, is “very concerned” about climate change. Given how positive Gore was about the meeting, there was some hope that Trump’s private views may be evolving and that he may end up changing his public positions.

On the other hand, however, in public, he has moved forward with nominating two climate doubters for key positions that impact our environment, health, and well-being. Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruit, who led Oklahoma’s lawsuit against President Obama’s clean power plan, has been tapped for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He is seen as a close ally of the oil and gas industry and has said “more debate is needed” around the already-settled global consensus on climate change.

In a press release, Trump’s transition office wrote: “For too long, the Environmental Protection Agency has spent taxpayer dollars on an out-of-control anti-energy agenda that has destroyed millions of jobs, while also undermining our incredible farmers and many other businesses and industries at every turn.” Pruitt “will reverse this trend and restore the EPA’s essential mission of keeping our air and our water clean and safe.”

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, told The Washington Post: “Pruitt has a record of attacking the environmental protections that EPA is charged with enforcing. He has built his political career by trying to undermine EPA’s mission of environmental protection. Our country needs — and deserves — an EPA administrator who is guided by science, who respects America’s environmental laws, and who values protecting the health and safety of all Americans ahead of the lobbying agenda of special interests.”

Senate Democrats have vowed to fight tooth and nail against Pruitt’s nomination and make the vote on his confirmation a litmus test for supporting the environment and science. However, given Democrats changed rules on filibusters, Pruitt only needs 51 senators to end debate and move forward with a vote.

Trump has also announced Montana state Representative Ryan Zinke, a conservative and climate doubter, as his pick for the department of the interior, which oversees the National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — all 400 national parks and 500 million acres of public lands. According to Scientific American, the secretary of the interior is in charge of “development of many of America’s fossil fuels and renewable resources, including all of its offshore oil, gas, and wind development.” Federal lands are now the source of “more than 20 percent of all the oil and gas and 40 percent of the coal produced in the U.S.”

Zinke wants to further boost energy production and mining on federal lands, but maintain federal control of those lands, reports The New York Times. One semi-positive note: “He has consistently voted in favor of maintaining the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is funded by royalties from oil and gas exploration on public lands but intended to preserve other natural habitats.” He is also a supporter of renewable and alternative energy.

Theresa Pierno, president and chief executive of National Parks Conservation Association told The New York Times: “Though Mr. Zinke has expressed support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and opposes the sale of public lands, he has prioritized the development of oil, gas and other resources over the protection of clean water and air and wildlife.”

Meanwhile, Trump still seems to believe environmental regulations are behind slower growth. He told Fox News: “You look at what’s happening in Mexico, where plants are being built, and they don’t wait 10 years to get an approval to build a plant, okay?” he said. “They build it like the following day or the following week. We can’t let all of these permits that take forever stop our jobs.”

And at a conference hosted by The Atlantic, Democratic officials like former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell aped these views, arguing that environmental assessments can take too long and hold up infrastructure projects. With Trump proposing $1 trillion in infrastructure investment, state governments have already begun jockeying for a slice. Virginia Democratic governor Terry McAullife, a major Clinton ally, also didn’t focus on the climate or environment in his remarks, instead promoting Virginia’s ability to leverage private-public partnerships to build highways, declaring the state open for business. Sadly, there was no mention of how climate, economic growth, and infrastructure are intrinsically linked.

A Dashboard for the Earth

Deep learning neural net technologies / ExtremeTech
Deep learning neural net technologies / ExtremeTech

If we want our planet to be able to house 10 billion people and also want to preserve biodiversity in the future, then we need to leverage the new technologies associated with “big data” and artificial intelligence. Using these sets of new technologies, we can create a dashboard for the planet, with up-to-the minute data on ecosystem functions continuously feeding in. We can create a unified system that “interrogates the environmental condition of the Earth,” said Microsoft scientist Lucas Joppa at a conference organized by the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation (RNRF) in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, today we are nowhere near this “Bloomberg terminal” for the planet.

Discussions throughout the conference were a strange mix of extreme optimism about the capacity of technology to solve our problems and deep concern for the state of the global environment.

While Joppa seemed pessimistic about the climate and health of our ecosystems, he lauded the potential of new technologies to be applied to ecological conservation and restoration.

Apps leveraging “deep learning neural net” technologies can enable people to quickly identify and classify plants. A site called Wild.me borrows the face recognition technology of Facebook to identify individual animal species. Through this technology, a whale shark specimen could be identified by its particular markings and characteristics. Caption bots, which are used to auto-generate captions for images, can also be tapped to label plant and animal species.

Citizen science efforts, which involve the public in conservation efforts, can scale up with the Web and big data. With Zooniverse, people participate in assessing all this biodiversity data, explained Ruth Duerr, with the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship.

And at the planetary scale, new satellite technologies, like the small, distributed network of satellites offered by Planet Labs, promise to make it easier to get a clearer understanding of the state of the environmental in real-time, said Duerr, creating even greater sets of more precise data.

But all that environmental data needs to be more closely connected with social and economic data if we want to get closer to that whole Earth dashboard, argued Robert Chen, a scientist with the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He pointed to his team’s efforts to map settlement patterns, including urban growth. And another project maps the connections between cycles of investment in real estate and vulnerability in flood-prone areas.

Integrating multiple layers of data is the next step, as is using the data to create predictions about possible outcomes. “Big data can help jumpstart the use of well-integrated, usable data and information for managing people and natural resources. We can use data to show how real-world issues interact.”

What’s holding this dream back for now is the variable quality of map-related data and the lack of legal and system interoperability between data sets. To push that forward, he called for more work on creating international open data standards, and more lawyers to get involved to ensure “everyone who needs to has the right to use data — that’s critical.”

Brad Garner with the U.S. Geological Survey pointed to the major gaps in water data in the U.S. Surface water is somewhat well-sampled, but each state uses a different measurement system, so integrating the data into a national view is basically impossible. For groundwater, there is a lack of even basic data. “We have no national sense of water use. How can we not know how much water we are using?” He was not optimistic in the near term, but said the open water data initiative held promise.

And Mathew Hansen, professor of geological sciences at the University of Maryland, and a member of the NASA Modis team, explained how crucial Landsat data is to understanding climate and ecological change, and land use, urbanization, and deforestation trends around the world. NASA has purposefully made all its land map data freely accessible, so anyone can download and analyze. Many countries facing deforestation crises use the data to track illegal deforestation, and map analyses have even been used to pursue court cases against loggers.

Bringing together disparate sets of data into a unified whole planet view is a noble goal and can lead to more responsible human management of our fragile ecosystems in our era of the Anthropocene. The “bad news, however, is we’re not focused enough to integrate these systems,” said Joppa.

He thinks the U.S. national ecosystem assessment, which was promoted by President Obama’s administration, could perhaps help kickstart the effort, at least in the U.S. He’s hoping a huge data collection and analytical effort for our nation’s ecosystems will continue into the next administration, given time is short to stop the worst environmental damage.

In coming years, advanced artificial intelligence can then be used to find trends and predict scenarios through big data. “We need artificial intelligence to save us from ourselves. My worry is A.I. won’t come soon enough.”

Symbols and Systems: The Work of Barbara Grygutis

dawns-silver-lining_001
Part of Barbara Grygutis’ acclaimed sculpture, Dawn’s Silver Lining. / Oro Editions

When reductionist artwork, like a Jackson Pollock or Piet Mondrian painting, succeeds, it succeeds in part because of the role it affords us, the viewer. Faced with a vacuum of meaning, we impart our own identities on the work, gratifying ourselves in highly-personal ways. Artist Barbara Grygutis, whose sculptures are featured in the new book, Public Art / Public Space: The Sculptural Environments of Barbara Grygutis, practices a different reductionism. It’s not us, but the sculpture’s setting that completes the composition.

The book’s subtitle tells us a bit about how Grygutis sees herself, not just as a composer of materials, but a composer of environments. Many of her sculptures cast intricately woven shadows, filter and disperse light, or consolidate it into beacons. The resultant spaces are elevated by the sculptural work and reconstituted environmental qualities. Bronx River View is one such example. This collection of sculptures transform the walls of an above-ground subway station into windows and seating. The view works both ways, and the light cast inward onto the train platform illuminate the sculptures and the passage of time.

Bronx River View / Barbara Grygutis
Bronx River View / Barbara Grygutis

“If you look back at civilizations, we learn about them through their art,” Grygutis says in an interview at the outset of her book. That’s an edifying thought if we consider Dawn’s Silver Lining, a sculpture that epitomizes Grygutis’ most successful work (see image at top). Set in Salina, Kansas, the surrounding rural landscape is flattened into a silhouette of trees and vegetation and pressed onto perforated aluminum: the reduction process. The silhouettes are then re-extruded by the light, the quality of which is constantly changing.

It’s not always enough to simply reduce. There must be a re-introduction of substance into the artwork. Without this — or with too uncritical a reduction — the piece can suffer from a poverty of meaning. Grygutis’ Drop in Prewitt Park is a 35-foot steel and glass sculpture of a water drop. Set centrally to rippling landforms, the sculpture is intended to read as the moment of congruence between water and earth. Instead, because of the drop’s very recognizable and very flat form, it reads as a corporate logo, a symbol rather than a system.

Drop in Prewitt Park / Barbara Grygutis
Drop in Prewitt Park / Barbara Grygutis

This logo-ization of complex system holds back a few of Grygutis’ sculptures that seem to have powerful ideas behind them. Weather, an oblique steel and glass structure located in North Richland Hills, Texas, is meant to evoke the meteorological systems that our landscape is subject to. But the pattern emblazoned in the glass says less about our weather systems than a barometer. Grygutis’ sculpture Signs and Symbols, Symbols and Signs, is quite literally a giant symbol, π, comprised of several other symbols borrowed from keyboards and calculators. There’s literalness in this and other Grygutis sculptures may put an expiration date on them.

Signs and Symbols, Symbols and Signs / Barbara Grygutis
Signs and Symbols, Symbols and Signs / Barbara Grygutis

Other projects, like Flaming Arroyo in Las Vegas and Frequencies, a project slated for completion in 2017 in Palo Alto, feel timeless. The latter, which is comprised of five perforated aluminum sculptures and set on a tech campus, indexes electromagnetic frequencies that are ordinarily invisible to us.

flaming-arroyo
Visitors gather under the sculpture Flaming Arroyo / Oro Editions
Frequencies / Barbara Grygutis
Frequencies / Barbara Grygutis

This is Grygutis at her most impactful, manifesting the unseen or ignored forces of our environment with sculptural interventions that beg people to slow down and take notice.

Environmentalism of the Rich

Environmentalism of the Rich / MIT Press
Environmentalism of the Rich / MIT Press

Peter Dauvergne, a professor at the University of British Columbia, has coined an interesting phrase for the incremental approach taken by environmental regulators, self-professed sustainable multi-national companies, and many mainstream environmental non-profits in the West: the environmentalism of the rich. His issue with this now-widespread shade of green: it may not be working.

In his new book Environmentalism of the Rich, Dauvergne paints a portrait of consumers in wealthy Western countries complacently purchasing their way to sustainability by swapping out old, inefficient products for new, smarter “eco” ones, or taking small steps to reduce energy and water consumption and carbon pollution. The idea promoted by many companies and non-profits is that consumers can continue to buy away if the products are “green.” They can feel as if they are making a difference by making small, not-too-painful adjustments, which will together create larger global impacts one day. 

These approaches are rooted in the perhaps-erroneous belief that “innovative policies, scientific ingenuity, and technology will allow for continuous economic growth.” Furthermore, “trust is put in soft regulation, soft regulation, eco-certification, fair trade, and corporate self-regulation, while great promise is seen in corporate responsibility and individual goodwill.”

The problem is these collective approaches are “not adding up to anything approaching global sustainability.” Throughout the book, Dauvergne peppers depressing environmental indicators showing how trends worldwide are going in the wrong direction. Ecosystems are collapsing, biodiversity loss is increasing, carbon dioxide emissions keep going up, water is becoming more scarce. 

These negative trends are only getting worse because the underlying issue is the rampant growth of all forms consumption worldwide, as Americans, Canadians, and Europeans continue to shop till they drop, and growing middle classes in developing countries aspire to reach the materialism of these countries. In coming decades, Dauvergne argues, if there are 10 billion American-style consumers on the planet, it won’t matter if consumption is eco or not. Humans will have over-tapped the carrying capacity of the Earth; in fact, they may have already.

Dauvergne’s critique is a harsh one but one worth considering. He states: “sustainability policies of governments and corporations may pay lip service to principles of ecology, but the underlying reason is almost always ahistorical, fragmentary, and linear, rarely integrating holistic or dynamic understandings of resilience, feedback loops, tipping points, and complex systems.”

For example, some sustainability-minded multi-national companies, which he names, fund the efforts of big environmental non-profits to undo ecological damage in developing countries — and they always do so in a way that maximizes public perception of their brand — but, at the same time, ramp up their efforts to expand markets, reach more consumers, and increase consumption and growth overall, all of which exacerbate underlying ecological issues somewhere else. Consumption and growth, in their abstracted models, are most often divorced from any real-world ecological impacts. 

This disconnect between growth and ecology continues because many developing-world companies and multi-nationals don’t have to reconcile these competing demands. They can follow the same pattern established by colonial powers in the past: look for the cheapest and easiest-to-extract resources in developing countries where there is little accountability and maximize their extraction. If a regulatory hurdle appears, move to the next country. 

Dauvergne uses a few chapters to go deep into these examples: the terrible legacy of phosphate mining in Nauru, the ongoing destruction of the rainforest due to palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia, along with a brief discussion of ranchers and soy farmers clearing the Amazon rainforest. He also explains how being an “environmentalist of the poor” — an advocate in a developing country fighting environmental degradation — is one of the most dangerous jobs one can have. Thousands of environmental activists have been murdered or disappeared over the past few decades.

Recent corporate and non-profit efforts to self-regulate natural resource extraction, like the Forest Stewardship Council, which covers around 10 percent of traded timber, and the Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies around 10 percent of seafood consumed, are having some positive impact. But he questions whether these efforts can scale up to cover the global marketplace, and whether these voluntary regimes can actually limit resource plunder when the rubber hits the road in coming decades amid exploding population growth. 

He admits the environmentalism of the rich, which originated out of an American movement to conserve wild nature, has led to some gains: its “improving the administration of nature parks and the management of cities, as well as averting some known and immediate harms.” He cites clean air and water in the developed world and many developing world cities, the spread of energy efficient green buildings, and the growth of recycling and power from waste as major wins. Corporations are now setting ambitious goals like “water neutrality, zero waste, zero deforestation, carbon neutrality, 100 percent sustainable sourcing, and 100 percent renewable energy, among others.”

The problem for Dauvergne is that these well-meaning but perhaps superficial efforts don’t get at the underlying issue: “much of today’s wealth is a product of the globalization of the unsustainable world economy of ever-higher extraction, growth, and consumption, where violence, extreme inequality, and ecological risk-taking are the norms.”

He wants a new deep green global movement that limits consumption and aims to change the fundamental human preference for growth. He calls for transforming the anti-establishment, anti-consumption movement — which seeks to replace the annual shopping bonanza Black Friday with the protest gesture Buy Nothing Day — into a more mainstream platform everyone can get behind. He’s hoping some clever messaging and advertising will make reduced consumption more palatable.

Perhaps not buying things in the first place can become a moral good, just as throwing away unloved things has become one in Marie Kondo’s best-selling ode to minimalism, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. One reporter in London actually didn’t buy anything she didn’t absolutely need for a year and survived. Dauvergne wants everyone to take responsibility for their own consumption and reduce their ecological footprints to a “fair Earth share.” For those in rich Western countries, it means setting a new example before it’s too late.

Landscape Architects Announce Call for Presentations for 2017 Annual Meeting

ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting / ASLA
ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting / ASLA

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has released its call for presentations for the 2017 Annual Meeting and EXPO, which will take place October 20-23, 2017 in Los Angeles. More than 6,000 landscape architects and allied professionals are expected to attend.

The meeting will feature a diverse spectrum of industry experts speaking on a wide range of subjects, from sustainable design and best practices to new materials and technologies.

More than 130 education sessions and field sessions will be presented during the meeting, providing attendees with the opportunity to earn up to 21 professional development hours under the Landscape Architecture Continuing Education System™ (LA CES™).

Many of the sessions will also qualify for continuing education credit with the Green Building Certification Institute (toward LEED AP credential maintenance), the American Institute of Architects, the American Institute of Certified Planners, and other allied professional organizations and state registration boards.

Education session speakers selected from this process will receive a full complimentary registration to the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting and may also be eligible for reimbursement for one night’s hotel stay at an official ASLA hotel (an estimated $750 value). Landscape architecture professionals wishing to present at the New Orleans meeting need to be active members of ASLA. Allied professionals are encouraged to both submit presentations and speak but are not required to be members of the Society.

The deadline for education session proposals is February 1, 2017. Submit your session proposal today.

Interview with Mitchell Silver on NYC’s Game Changing Park System

Mitchell Silver / NYC Parks and Recreation
Mitchell Silver / NYC Parks and Recreation

Mitchell Silver is commissioner of the New York City Departments of Parks and Recreation. Silver is past president of the American Planning Association (APA) and an award-winning planner with 30 years of experience.

In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the Community Parks Initiative, which aims to improve historically underfunded parks in densely populated and growing neighborhoods with higher than average concentrations of poverty. Some $285 million has been set aside for this effort, which will lead to the full re-imagining of 67 parks. Your department has broken ground in some 35 parks. What do communities want most for their new spaces after all those years of deferred maintenance? What are some common elements in these new places?

First, they want the asphalt gone. Most of these parks were just play spaces with asphalt. They want trees and green space. Even if it’s synthetic turf, they want a softer surface. Second, they want multi-generational spaces. We have an aging population and want make sure we have seating areas, gathering spaces, so it isn’t just a playground. And then, people want fitness equipment, or adult play equipment, which is a big trend right now. People want to come out and be healthy. And spray showers, because, if you have a pool, you can only use it a few months a year. With spray showers, you can still play on the same surface in the winter. In the summertime, they’re self activated, you can just cool off and enjoy without getting fully wet. Those were some of the primary ones, but number one is people want the asphalt gone. They want to go from gray to green.

Another exciting initiative you’re leading: Parks Without Borders. Some $50 million will be spent on improving park access through “opening sight lines, beautifying edges, adjusting furnishings.” Part of this will include lowering all those tall chain-link fences, unappealing gates, and fixing the sidewalks lining the parks. Can you talk about the connection between a park and it surrounding streets? Why focus on the borders? Why are they so important?

Frederick Law Olmsted once said the sidewalk adjacent to the park is the outer park. If you look at Prospect Park and Central Park, the sidewalk is part of the park. When I came on board, I recognized that in our city charter, the parks department not only oversees the parks, but the sidewalks adjoining the parks. The park doesn’t end at the fence line or the wall, it actually ends at the curb and beyond.

The second point is park land represents 14 percent of the city’s footprint. Streets and sidewalks represents another 26 percent. So in other words, 40 percent of New York City is within the public realm. We own it, yet the average citizen does not know where the parks department property ends and the department of transportation property begins. And guess what? They don’t care. They want a seamless public realm.

That gave birth to the Parks Without Borders. Parks aren’t just islands of green space; they’re connected to our entire public realm. Parks Without Borders help us create a more seamless experience at the edges, entrances, and adjacent park spaces. We don’t have to buy new land; we own it. We just have to program it differently, so we provide a better experience.

Parks without Borders / NYC Parks and Recreation
Parks without Borders / NYC Parks and Recreation

Are you concerned about security when you lower all those fences?

We’re always concerned about security. But here’s the good thing about Parks Without Borders: We met with our police department and they fully support the effort. Why? Because when you lower the fences, it increases natural surveillance. There are now more eyes on the park. We’re also removing landscaping and vegetation and other obstacles that block views. People who want to do bad things do not want to be seen. By removing the obstacles, improving the lighting, and increasing the sight lines into the park, we can actually make parks safer. Part of Parks Without Borders is also a public safety campaign.

We need fences for children to play and for certain recreation, but, for the most part, we don’t really need them. Without fences, we can create a more seamless experience.

Parks Without Borders is about making parks more welcoming, open, turning them into the living rooms of the city. It’s about removing all of these tall fences where young people feel, “Why are you imprisoning me in this public space?” We’re no longer in the ’80s and ’90s anymore. Parks are safe.

Another part of Parks Without Borders is bringing free Wi-Fi to city parks. New York City parks and recreation has partnered with AT&T. You’ve piloted benches that enable you to recharge your phone via solar panel while browsing on Wi-Fi. But aren’t parks meant to be an escape from technology in urban life? Doesn’t time spent downloading apps diminish time enjoying Central Park?

We carefully look at the demographics. From the Greatest generation, to the Boomer generation, and the X, Y, Z generations, people experience parks in different ways. Years ago in Bryant Park, there would be couples using the movable chairs, enjoying their public space. Today, people go by themselves with their smartphones. The smartphone is the most necessary device. It connects people to the world. I’m totally fine with that. Some people go to parks purposely to read a book, but they can also be alone with their smartphone.

People may want to look for something within the park, download a map to see where they’re going, meet up with a friend, or pull out their phone and take photographs and selfies and tweet them out. We want to encourage those activities.

Soofa Charging Bench / NYC Parks and Recreation
Soofa Charging Bench / NYC Parks and Recreation

For me, technology and parks go together. I love taking pictures of people taking pictures in parks. Very often, you know you have a popular park when someone pulls out their phone and they start taking selfies.

We’ve put in charging stations at beaches. Who knows? Maybe you may can meet your future husband or wife getting your phone charged on the beach. I don’t see any disconnect: Technology and parks definitely go together.

Beach Charging Station / NYC Parks and Recreation
Beach Charging Station / NYC Parks and Recreation

You said the newly-rebuilt 5.5 mile Rockaway Boardwalk is a part of New York City’s “first line of defense against climate change.” The boardwalk features “multiple layers of protection” with six miles of planted dunes backed by concrete retaining walls. When the next super storm hits, how is that reconstructed shoreline expected to perform? And how do you know?

Super Storm Sandy established a new reality for New York City. We never thought we were that vulnerable. In New York City, we have 520 miles of coastline and 155 miles are within parks. So in each neighborhood, we’re looking at a different approach of how to address risks, but there’s no question our parks are now the first line of defense.

In the Rockaway, we worked with our landscape architects and engineers. We did beach replenishment. We put in dunes. We use concrete as opposed to piles of wood. What we’ve built will do a much better job at saving life and property. What we’ve built is stronger and better.

Rockaway Beach Protective Dunes / NYC Parks and Recreation
Rockaway Beach Protective Dunes / NYC Parks and Recreation

And that’s our goal moving forward. Solutions will vary between different neighborhoods, but the Rockaway shows one example of a very vulnerable neighborhood that now has a concrete boardwalk that’s reinforced with dunes on both sides.

Clearly we’re going to be tested one day. We hope not soon.

Parks, plazas, even playgrounds, can be part of a city’s system for protecting itself against storms and floods. As the Big U, the set of parks that double as berms, take shape in Lower Manhattan, your city is showing the way forward on how to create protective infrastructure that doubles as public parks. How do roles and responsibilities change when you have a $350 million dollar piece of public multi-use infrastructure charged with protecting billions of dollars of real estate in Lower Manhattan? Are you creating a governance model for this system that other cities can use?

Under our previous mayor and current mayor, the Mayor’s Office for Resiliency, Recovery and Resiliency has been the overarching coordinating agency that works with all the relevant agencies, such as parks, environmental protection, and transportation. They take the lead role, even though all the resilient infrastructure is placed in the park. The Big U is not just about green infrastructure but also acts as a protective infrastructure to protect life and property.

ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Rebuild by Design, The Big U / BIG and Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners
ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Rebuild by Design, The Big U / BIG and Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners

We need to be a resilient city. Sea levels are increasing over time, and New York City is a coastal city. We recognize we have to plan for change now. All these projects are also taking into account sea level rise in a city that is basically an island, except the Bronx, which is part of the mainland.

The Office of Recovery and Resiliency is a model that other cities should emulate. They have designers, engineers, planning professionals, and policy makers that focus on resiliency efforts throughout the world.  They focus on this day in and day out. Parks will then bring in their experience because we know plant material, horticulture. We know how to plan for different type of environments in our city and how to protect the environment. But an overarching agency that spends all of their time focused on recovery and resiliency is a good coordinating mechanism.

You told The New York Times that part of your Sunday routine is to visit a park you’ve never been, a new one out of the whopping 1,700 parks in five boroughs you oversee. You see who is visiting, take photos, document issues. What have your Sunday adventures taught you about the park system that you couldn’t read in a briefing book?

Taking these surprise visits, I’ve learned that our parks are cleaner than I thought. I get a lot of reports about people complaining how filthy our parks are. That is not the case. There were a couple of instances, but our parks are a lot better maintained than I would believe just by doing these spontaneous visits.

Second, New Yorkers love parks. I spend a lot of time watching where people are sitting, what they’re doing. On a hot sunny day, a spot under a tree is a very popular spot.

People enjoying the shade under a tree at Sunset Park / Mitchell Silver
People enjoying the shade under a tree at Sunset Park / Mitchell Silver

I look at how different generations are using the spaces, what seniors and families are doing.

I knew we lacked capital investment and, so, going into certain parks, I knew we had to focus on finding a way for some of our lesser known parks to get an infusion of capital. That has became obvious to me.

There are certain parks that did have some maintenance issues, but I realized staff did not have the proper equipment. I didn’t go into these parks to whack staff. I want to find out what I need to give them to do their jobs better. Now we have a whole new approach to make sure the service for our equipment is better and staff have the tools they need to maintain this park.

I live in Brooklyn, I grew up in Brooklyn. I had no idea we had such an incredible park system. I was blown away by parks I’d never heard of. I just came from Bowne Park in Flushing, Queens, which is beautiful. I’m going to parks and saying, “I cannot believe I’m in New York City.” I had a chance to take a canoe down the Bronx River and I was transported to another place.

I want to go on my own, unannounced without staff, just to be free to explore and see how people are using spaces. I love photography, so enjoy taking pictures of some of my favorite moments in these parks.

Lastly, given Mayor de Blasio’s focus on creating One City in NYC, what role do you think public spaces like parks, greenways, playgrounds play in reducing inequality? Can they reduce poverty?

Parks are free. They’re democratic spaces. Regardless of your race, income, age, parks are accessible to everyone.

We do have our quality regional parks — Central Park, High Line, Prospect Park — open to everyone. But we want to take that a step further: Every neighborhood deserves to have a quality space. We want everyone to be within a ten minute walk to a park. But it’s not just the proximity, we want that park to be a quality park.

We launched the Community Parks Initiative because we believe parks are places where people connect, get healthy, and relax. Having that in every neighborhood addresses inequality. We want to make sure we’re fair about how we invest in our parks, and all young kids have a chance to enjoy green spaces and get healthy.

I can’t say parks address poverty per se, but they certainly address inequality. Everyone deserves a quality space in New York City, where density and open space go together. You cannot have one without the other. You don’t just want to have affordable housing. You want to have a quality neighborhood with adequate public space.

Best Books of 2016

Capability Brown: Designing the English Landscape / Rizzoli Press
Capability Brown: Designing the English Landscape / Rizzoli Press

There were so many great books this year that honing in on just ten favorites was too challenging. Whether you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or one for yourself to delve into, we have some options. Here’s The Dirt‘s top 15 books of 2016, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape:

Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens (National Trust, 2016); Capability Brown: Designing the English Landscape (Rizzoli, 2016); and Moving Heaven and Earth: Capability Brown’s Gift of Landscape (Unicorn Press, 2016).
All three books were published this year to celebrate the 300th anniversary of English landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown’s birth. Together they paint a rich portrait of this master landscape designer and his most influential works.

Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change (Timber Press, 2016)
Larry Weaner, one of the world’s top meadow designers, and Thomas Christopher have created a reference book on ecological design for gardeners and landscape designers and architects. They write: “By following ecological principles, we can have landscapes that are alive with color, friendly to local wildlife, and evolve over time—with much less work and effort.”

Environmentalism of the Rich (MIT Press, 2016)
Peter Dauvergne, a professor at the University of British Columbia, asks the hard questions: is environmentalism, as it’s practiced in the developed word, failing? Is the mainstream sustainability movement, with its focus on incremental gains, failing the planet? Erik Assadourian, Senior Fellow, Worldwatch Institute, writes that the book “is required reading for anyone wanting to help ram the movement off its current dead-end path and build a new deep green movement.” Read The Dirt review.

Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (Liverlight, 2016)
In his latest book, renowned biologist and author E.O. Wilson makes the case for both preserving and restoring half of the Earth, which he believes is possible if we set aside some of the richest places of biodiversity on land and in the oceans. Read The Dirt review.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World (Greystone Books, 2016)
Peter Wohlleben, who spent twenty years with the German forestry commission, and Tim Flannery, a scientist and author, ask: “Are trees social beings?” They are convinced the forest is actually a social network.

The Long, Long Life of Trees (Yale University Press, 2016)
Fiona Stafford, a professor who focuses on romantic poetry at Oxford University, has published a lyrical volume on the history of seventeen common trees, including ash, apple, pine, oak, cypress, and willow. She delves into history, paying homage to important specimens from the past, and also explains trees’ critical role in the future fight against climate change.

Nature and Cities: The Ecological Imperative in Urban Planning and Design (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2016)
In their new book, editors Frederick Steiner, FASLA, George Thompson, and Armando Carbonell have made complex ideas about urban ecological design incredibly accessible. They make a convincing argument that “ecological literacy” is an “essential base” for anyone involved in urban planning and design today. There are 17 thought-provoking essays from leading landscape architects and planners from around the world.

Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist (Jewish Museum, 2016)
The Jewish Museum in New York City has put together the definitive book on the influential Brazilian landscape architect and artist. In addition to designing more than 2,000 gardens, Burle Marx created paintings, drawings, tile mosaics, sculpture, textile design, jewelry, theater costumes, and more.

Toward an Urban Ecology: SCAPE / Landscape Architecture (The Monacelli Press, 2016)
Kate Orff, ASLA, and her team at SCAPE have created a beautiful book with engaging full-page color photography that delves into Breakwaters, their Rebuild by Design project in Staten Island, and others. The goal of their projects is to “bring together social and ecological systems to sustainably remake our cities and landscapes.” They describe the book as “part monograph, part manual, part manife­sto.”

Site, Sight, Insight: Essays on Landscape Architecture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)
Landscape historian John Dixon Hunt, who has just retired from University of Pennsylvania, collects twelve of his recent essays in one book. He takes the reader on an intellectual ride, explaining the ways we perceive landscapes, and in turn asking us to examine our own baggage when viewing them, so that we may gain greater insights into landscapes’ true meaning and our own emotions.

Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs (Random House, 2016)
In this new collection of the short writings and speeches of Jane Jacobs, one of the most influential thinkers on the built environment, editors Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring have done readers a great service. They’ve brought together the best of this brilliant autodidact’s arguments for why planners and designers must never forget the importance of small-scale diversity given it results in interesting cities created, first and foremost, for people. Read The Dirt review.

Water Infrastructure: Equitable Deployment of Resilient Systems (Columbia University, 2016)
Developed for the UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda, S. Brye Sarte and Morana M. Stipisic, with the Sherwood Institute and Columbia University Urban Design Lab, have created a well-organized guide to resilient green infrastructure for developing-world cities. There are smart solutions for water pollution, climate change, and multiple types of flooding, with real-world examples.

Wild by Design (Island Press, 2016)
A leading advocate of the “wild” landscape movement, landscape architect Margie Ruddick, ASLA, explains how she carefully balances ecological conservation and restoration with a strong sense of design. Ruddick is the 2013 winner of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. Learn more about Ruddick and the book.

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

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

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Freeway Park, Seattle, Washington by Lawrence Halprin / Photograph © Aaron Leitz, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

New Hudson River Park Will Be on Man-Made Island  The Wall Street Journal, 11/16/16
“Plans for a new park in Manhattan call for lush plants, towering trees, walking paths and a theater, all set on a rolling section of waterfront property.”

Diana Balmori, Landscape Architect With a Blending Philosophy, Dies at 84The New York Times, 11/17/16
“Diana Balmori, a landscape architect whose ecologically sensitive designs integrated buildings and the natural environment in projects ranging in scope from urban rooftop gardens to South Korea’s new administrative capital, Sejong City, died on Monday in Manhattan.”

From Penguin Watching to Healing Gardens, See the Best Australian Landscape Architecture from 2016 The Architect’s Newspaper, 11/21/16
“The Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) has presented this year’s National Landscape Architecture Awards. The winners span an eclectic mix of typologies ranging from penguin viewing platforms to waterfall trails and healing gardens.”

The Landscape Architect Who Helped Invent Modern City Parks Curbed, 11/22/16
“An urban public park that runs above a highway; a master plan for an oceanfront community that’s both sustainable and resilient: these typify today’s progressive contemporary visions for landscape architecture.”

The Best New Public Design Projects in NYC, According to the CityFast Company, 11/23/16
“The Public Design Commission (which was called the Municipal Art Commission until it was renamed in 2008) decided that it needed to actively promote design, creativity, and innovation in civic projects to incentivize better work and recognize the efforts of the ambitious municipal agencies behind the projects.”

The Art of Survival: Turenscape Creates Green Infrastructure Through Resilient Wetland Parks Architizer, 11/30/16
“How can you find an artful way to clean the soil? How can you find an artful way to manage the storm-water? I call this the art of survival. Because we are facing the problem of survival.”

A Progress Report from the Cutting Edge of Resilient Design

Resilient Bridgeport / Rebuild by Design
Resilient Bridgeport / Rebuild by Design

“We don’t know what resilience policy will look like in the new administration. There are lots of unknowns, but we can take solace in what we do know,” said Amy Chester, director of Rebuild by Design, at an event in Washington, D.C. that provided updates on how the six teams devising novel resilient designs in the tri-state area are doing two years into planning and design.

Rebuild by Design, a unique cross-sector initiative supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Initiative, and numerous non-profit organizations, was created by President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which hit the east coast in 2012 and damaged or destroyed 650,000 homes across 13 states. 148 teams submitted proposals to create new layers of defenses that could also be beautiful public amenities. 6 teams went onto receive nearly $1 billion in public financing.

Each team provided a brief update:

Bridgeport, Connecticut (see image above): David Kooris, with the Connecticut state government, explained how his team received $10 million from Rebuild by Design to create a comprehensive plan to make the low-lying, vulnerable South End more resilient to flooding. The funds, which are much less than what they’ve asked for, gave them extra capacity to plan. From that effort, they learned transit-oriented development, combined with surge protection, green infrastructure, and micro-grids should be core of their approach. They have since received another $54 million from HUD’s national resilience competition. Those funds will be split between implementing the project and developing a “state-wide policy” that can guide other coastal Connecticut resilient projects.

Alan Plattus at Yale University, who is involved in the research side of the project, explained how their plan will link two Olmsted-designed parks, Seaside Park, which is already tasked with surge protection duties, and Beardsley Park, at the mouth of the water system. Plattus thinks Olmsted’s original vision was to connect them. Bridgeport will begin implementation in 2019. Learn more.

Hudson River and Meadowlands, New Jersey: Hoboken, the 4th most dense city in America, received $230 million to control flooding. Alexis Taylor, New Jersey state bureau of flood resilience, explained how a network of berms and gates will be created to protect the vast majority of the city during storms. All the infrastructure will be created in public right-of-ways:  alleys, plazas, and parks. An undulating sea wall will be aligned towards the interior of the city, rather than the coast. Vital infrastructure is protected. A network of green infrastructure also helps reduce inland flooding.

Hudson River / NJ DEP
Hudson River resilience project / NJ DEP

Taylor said about “85 percent of the city will be on the dry side, but this benefits 100 percent of the population because Hoboken will no longer be an island cut-off when it floods. All evacuation routes will be dry. This plan strikes the right balance.” Learn more in this presentation. Alternative 3 was finally selected by New Jersey’s government after much community input. Balmori Associates and SCAPE Landscape Architecture are the landscape architects.

Separately, the Meadowlands project received $150 million, which is far less than the $850 million they requested for the 9 miles of flood protection measures needed. As a result, the team is created a set of modular flood protection systems on streets, a “kit of parts, pre-cast, that can be easily scaled or replicated, and enables prototyping.” Pretty smart. MIT CAU, ZUS, and URBANISTEN are the landscape architects and planners on the team. Learn more.

Meadowlands / MIT CAU, Zus, Urbanisten
Meadowlands / MIT CAU, Zus, Urbanisten

Staten Island, New York City: Alex Zablocki, New York governor’s office of storm recovery introduced Pippa Brashear, ASLA, SCAPE Landscape Architecture, and their project, Living Breakwaters, which will result in a “necklace of breakwaters” off the Staten Island coast that will attenuate the impact of storm surges, build back beaches, create habitat for millions of oysters and fish, and “reconnect people with the shoreline.” SCAPE modeled the shoreline with their engineering team and tested specially-designed concrete that will enable biogenic build-up. Working with the One Billion Oyster Project, they are collecting literally tons of shells from restaurants to reuse in their breakwater reefs and educating the public about their mission. Brashear said the citizens advisory group was critical to the process, as was going out into neighboring communities to “show progress,” and make public events fun, through the use of virtual reality headsets and games.

Living Breakwaters / SCAPE Landscape Architecture
Living Breakwaters / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Final designs will be ready in 2018. They are now working on schematic designs and environmental assessments before partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on implementation. Learn more.

Long Island, New York: Nassau County received some $125 million, less than the $1 billion they asked for, said Laura Manufo, New York governor’s office of storm recovery. A layered solution will focus on integrated stormwater management along a greenway corridor that follows the Mill River, and preventing flooding and storm surge impacts from the bay through “strategically deploying protective measures like constructed marshes and dikes, which in turn will improve water quality and the bay ecology.”

Living with the Bay / Rebuild by Design
Living with the Bay / Rebuild by Design

Given the team received far less funds than they hoped, they needed to re-scope, explained Michael Bomar with Tetra Tech. “We narrowed the focus to low and middle income neighborhoods. One thousand acres is more manageable.” But, still, the team is dealing with 45 separate municipal and other stakeholders. An extensive team includes landscape architects H+N+S. Learn more.

Manhattan, New York: The Big U, which received the lion’s share of the Rebuild by Design financing, with $355 million, is designed to numerous communities and billions of real estate along the tip of Manhattan. The Big U will create an integrated system of compartments that can be closed in storms. The first phase to be built will protect the Lower East side, ranging from Montgomery Street up to 23rd Street in Stuyvesant Town, explained Carrie Grassi, City of New York. Most of the infrastructure will overlay the 2.4-mile-long East River Park. New berms accessible via bridges and a series of gates will protect critical infrastructure and communities. Protective measures average 8-9-feet-tall but reach up to 16 feet in some places.

The Big U berms / BIG
The Big U berm in park / BIG

Travis Bunt with One Architecture, a member of the team led by BIG, which also includes Starr Whitehouse landscape architects and Mathews Nielsen landscape architects, said the preliminary design work is done, but now details must be refined. Construction is expected to begin in early 2019.

Hunt’s Point, South Bronx: Jessica Colon, City of New York, said Hunt’s Point has suffered from years of disinvestment and bad planning decisions. It’s a mile from Manhattan, but feels like a world away. Hunt’s Point has a major market, which is one of the key food distribution hubs in the tri-state area, an industrial area, and a smaller residential area. The South Bronx team asked for $800 million but only received $20 million, so they decided to invest that in more planning. Through that process, the community decided to focus on coastal and energy resilience. They have received another $125 million to prototype projects. One realization that came out of their research: critical facilities are not the biggest worry; the “problems are more at the building level.”

Hunts Point Lifelines / Penn Design / OLIN, via Rebuild by Design
Hunts Point Lifelines / Penn Design / OLIN, via Rebuild by Design

Colon said the South Bronx is now at the “vanguard of adaptation. They’ve been ignored by the government for so long. They’ve been to hell and back. They can survive.” Design and construction on prototype projects begins in 2018. OLIN and PennDesign are the planners and landscape architects. After hearing from the teams, Jessica Grannis at the Georgetown Climate Center shared findings from her research into how “public officials overcame challenges to make these projects happen.” She offered a summary of key take-aways, which included:

  • Create a long-term vision to drive policy and regulatory change. Create regional coordinators, as many issues cross jurisdictional boundaries.
  • Design berms with benefits. Coastal defenses can offer multiple social and environmental benefits.
  • Coordinate the layers of authority involved in nature-based coastal resilience projects. In inter-tidal areas, the federal government, state, and local governments will all have a say. Involve regulators early on in a coordinated way.
  • Leverage public right-of-ways to avoid permitting and ownership issues.

For Grannis, if Rebuild by Design is successful, the projects will not only influence state and federal policy-making for public projects but also for private development.

And she thinks all of this work should have bipartisan support: “Resilience is more important than ever. If you are a Democrat or Republican, you want safe and prosperous communities.”