A Solution to the Health Crisis: Prescribed Time in Neighborhood Parks

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Awards. Re-Envisioning Pulaski Park, Northampton, Massachusetts. Stimson / Ngoc Doan

The average American now spends 90 percent of their life indoors. Some 40 percent of adults no longer engage in any leisure physical activity at all. Some 90 percent of healthcare costs go to treating the 132 million Americans who suffer from treatable chronic diseases such as diabetes, depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure. There are now 78 million obese adults and 12 million obese kids. Furthermore, the trends seem to only be heading in the wrong direction.

How can we turn this around? For John Henderson, executive director of Park Rx America, a key solution is getting people outdoors and active again.

At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, Henderson explained that exposure to nature reduces the damaging impacts of chronic stress and improves mood and cognition. And exercising in nature amplifies the many health benefits of physical activity.

Given Americans experience 90 percent of their exposure to nature in their neighborhood, it’s important to provide “meaningful” opportunities for healthy nature engagement through high-quality local parks.

But with Americans spending so little time outside, even in their own neighborhoods, who’s going to get people to actually go outside to exercise?

The answer may be doctors and nurses, who have some of the highest levels of trustworthiness and credibility among any professions.

There are now more than 100 “Park Rx” programs in which doctors and nurses prescribe activities in neighborhood parks as treatment for a range of medical conditions. Washington, D.C.-based Dr. Robert Zarr has been credited with spearheading this growing nature-based healthcare movement.

Instead of detailing doses of pharmaceuticals in a conventional prescription, doctors in Park Rx programs prescribe doses of the “nature pill” — time spent in green spaces — including directions about how often and how long to do various activities there. Instead of sending a prescription to a pharmacy near the patient’s house, they send the patient to a park near their home.

Doctors and patients can use Park Rx America’s “Find a Park” web tool to identify parks near them. The tool enables users to filter parks that have been deemed safe and accessible by available amenities. According to Henderson, the number one question doctors ask about local parks is: “Are they safe?”

Park Rx America map of spaces in Washington, D.C. / Park Rx America

Once patients are assigned a park, they can use a smartphone app to keep track of their progress in following a nature activity prescription. They can send their medical provider a text message and geo-tagged marker from the park, proving they’ve completed tasks. This data also helps inform the provider about the efficacy of different prescriptions.

Park Rx shows that a nascent healthcare infrastructure for doctors and patients is forming. But what about the other side of the equation — providing widespread access to high-quality neighborhood parks with lots of amenities?

Also on the panel at APA was a team from Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburban county outside Washington, D.C. that is being strategic about using its limited funds to create local parks, plazas, and trails with the biggest bang for the buck, health-wise.

The county has a population of one million and includes small cities like Wheaton, Silver Spring, and Germantown. Montgomery County already leads on national health indicator rankings but government leaders realized the county has much more to do to make green space accessible to everyone.

Christina Sassaki, a planner in charge of the county’s “energized public spaces (EPS)” program, explained how they recently forged an EPS master plan, which is the result of an exercise to map gaps in green space along with public surveys measuring demand for various amenities, such as playgrounds, trails, dog parks, and outdoor exercise equipment.

Energized Public Spaces master plan / Montgomery County

The team found that “parks and public spaces are not equal” across the county. Some neighborhoods enjoy larger parks, say 2-3 acres, while others in denser urban areas have smaller ones at an acre or less. But they found park size wasn’t the only determinant of park quality — it’s also about what amenities are available. “We decided to measure neighborhood access to different types of experiences instead of acres,” Sassaki said.

Through a systematic GIS analysis, Montgomery County analyzed all green public spaces in terms of their ability to provide contemplative experiences where residents can re-connect with nature; active recreational experiences with sports and exercise facilities; and social gathering experiences where residents can feel welcome and comfortable. GIS Manager Christopher McGovern then plotted all the amenities that enable these experiences on a grid covering the entire county.

The EPS plan identified the top 12 “deficit clusters,” mostly in the mixed-use centers, the downtowns where there are high concentrations of populations and multi-family apartment buildings. In these denser deficit areas, “there was particularly a shortage of contemplative and active experiences,” Sassaki said.

The plan focuses on improving the range of experiences found via amenities in smaller parks and creating new parks and plazas in underserved areas. The county has also been piloting revamps of public spaces — all of this with the goal of packing in more amenities groups like Park Rx America can then offer to nature-savvy doctors and patients.

Your Chance to Comment: The Latest Georgetown C&O Canal Designs

C&O Canal in Georgetown / James Corner Field Operations

Last November, landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations presented ambitious designs for the 1-mile segment of the 182-mile-long C&O Canal that passes through Georgetown. The goal then seemed to be to throw a bunch of bold ideas out there to see what sticks. Six months later, at a public comment meeting in Georgetown sponsored by the National Park Service (NPS) and Georgetown Heritage, a non-profit group financing the planning and design process, Field Operations offered a pared-back plan more respectful of historic preservation concerns. Sarah Astheimer, ASLA, a principal at Field Operations, said the latest design concepts are “smarter, more incisive, and more responsive to the site.”

NPS said they can either take no action other than immediate repairs or maintenance to this highly-popular national park, or they can design and build the “alternative design” approach, which for the purposes of public evaluation is separated into two options.

NPS, Georgetown Heritage, and Field Operations clearly listened to community concerns that the original proposals would be too radical a shift in the laid-back feel of the canal. Responding to over 350 comments from the public, power point slides in the presentation now highlighted the “historic significance” and “informal charm” of the linear park beloved to many D.C. residents and tourists.

An important discussion in this review focused on whether to expand the width of the narrow towpaths that limit access along parts of the canal. But instead of long, cantilevering pathways that were offered last November, Field Operations now proposes widening the paths slightly and only at key “pinch points,” a more strategic solution. Astheimer imagined new linear platforms as contemporary equivalents of the wooden decks that once lined the canal.

Cantilevered pathways onto the Canal / James Corner Field Operations

At mile-marker zero, the beginning of the 182-mile-long trail, Field Operations proposes intelligent fixes to improve pedestrian and bicycle connectivity and make the marker more of a destination. One option includes fun “habitable nets,” where people can lounge over the water, a feature now seen in other urban waterfront parks.

Current view at Mile Marker Zero / James Corner Field Operations
Mile Marker Zero area conceptual design / James Corner Field Operations

The proposal for the area they call Rock Creek Confluence, where the canal meets the creek, is also sensible, opening up views to the creek and the sequence of locks through a viewing platform set in pollinator-friendly meadows. A new pedestrian bridge will make both sides of the canal more accessible.

Rock Creek Confluence / James Corner Field Operations
Rock Creek Confluence design concept / James Corner Field Operations

The Mule Yard design options feature more trees and expanded visitor infrastructure. Heading west towards Wisconsin Avenue, a busy corridor lined with coffee shops, restaurants, and stores, they propose a few alternatives to improve accessibility. Where the canal flows under Wisconsin Avenue, there are a few configurations with stairs and an elevator; and on the south side of the canal, a new boardwalk.

Market plazas area design option / James Corner Field Operations

Further west down the canal, at Potomac Street, one of the central commercial hubs of Georgetown, where crowds come hear a jazz trio at Dean & Deluca on the weekends, an overlook has been transformed either into a “sky deck” or terraced seating. The designers propose opening up views across the canal here by clearing old trees along the south side of the canal. Elevators and Americans with Disabilites Act (ADA)-accessible ramps would make the canal, which can only be reached via steep stairs, far easier to traverse. These proposals would likely increase activity here and help bring more people down to the canal and perhaps the Georgetown Waterfront Park a few blocks to the south.

Market areas design concept / James Corner Field Operations

Lastly, the aqueduct and stone yard segments, the points in the plan furthest out from downtown Georgetown, are proposed as new destinations. The Stone Yard area could be left alone, but Field Operations proposes adding a platform or outdoor seating nooks there.

At the old aqueduct, which is now an interesting, graffiti-covered ruin, Corner’s team proposes heavily redeveloping the space — either as zig-zagging overlook platform or as a structure covered in a trestle, with a kiosk. This is the remaining ambitious piece perhaps most reminiscent of the High Line in New York City, which Corner’s firm also designed.

Aqueduct design proposal / James Corner Field Operations

Astheimer seemed to understand what many community members conveyed in the first public review: that the C&O Canal is a “respite in a time when we are all overstimulated.” The new design concepts largely help preserve that vision while improving access and safety. Perhaps the community will find the final designs can be even more surgical, so as to further limit impacts on this historical landscape.

Review the designs and submit your comments by May 11.

Coming next this spring: NPS, Georgetown Heritage, and Field Operations will finalize the plan, and then present design concepts before the Old Georgetown Board and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) in the coming year.

Book Review: The Uninhabitable Earth

The Uninhabitable Earth / Tim Duggan Books

Global warming may be near a tipping point; even the popular press says it is coming. Some experts warn it will be reached within a decade, others hold out for a twenty-year window — a generation at most. But it’s already in rapid motion scolds David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of The Future, beginning straight away in the first sentence of this riveting and deeply distressing overture to a tragic future: “It is worse, much worse than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all….”

Drawing from numerous credible scientific sources, some obscure and esoteric and others as widely circulated as recent U.N. sponsored or World Bank reports, Wallace-Wells hurls out a flurry of shock scenarios to delineate not just the more conservative probabilities, but also the higher and even scarier ranges of human-caused heat buildup. There is little doubt that devastation is occurring more frequently and it is getting more virulent. The book’s opening section, aptly titled “Cascades”, articulates a “new kind of ….violence….the planet plummeting again and again with increasing intensity, and in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond, uprooting much of the landscape we have taken for granted for centuries.”

Last year’s hellacious California wildfires and mudslides were not an isolated incident, but rather part of a massive threat to global plant life. Forest die back may amount to “….retreat[ing] of jungle basins as big as countries….which means a dramatic stripping back of the planet’s natural ability to absorb carbon, which means still higher temperatures, which means more dieback…”

The human costs, especially in politically vulnerable circumstances, are a consequence of similar accelerations. The one million Syrian refugees resulting from the 2011 civil war were also victims of drought. The World Bank estimates that by 2050 the number of climate change refugees from sub-Sahara Africa, Latin America and the rest of Asia could reach 150 million. The U.N. goes higher – ranging from 200 million to a billion.

Celsius degree increases are a suitable metric in comprehending different scenarios, and they are the author’s most relied-upon benchmark. There has been a 1.1 rise since the inception of the industrial revolution; the rise associated with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2016 Paris accords to year 2100 is 2 additional degrees by the end of this century. Wallace-Wells considers this the “best case scenario”, with ice sheets beginning their outright collapse, water scarcity for 400 million more people, unlivable cities along the equatorial band of the planet, and in northern latitudes, heat waves killing thousands each summer.

Last year’s heavily publicized Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has upped that to 3.2 degrees, even if immediate action were taken to implement the Paris accords. That could amount to major flooding in Miami, Dhaka, Shanghai and Hong Kong, along with a hundred other cities and multiple additional catastrophes. And the likelihood cannot been discounted that a rise of 4 degrees, or even much higher, might occur by the end of this century.

It takes little stretch of the imagination to conjure the connection between horrific disaster and the specter of mass extinction, and many other books have focused on this question exclusively. Of the five preceding extinctions, the first occurred an estimated 450 million years ago, when 85 percent of all species died, and the most recent occurring 80 million years ago when the tally amounted to 75 percent. What is likely to be happening now would constitute the first caused by homo sapiens.

Wallace-Wells concludes with wide-ranging speculations on what it means to be human, and thus self-aware, amidst a seemingly limitless universe where other such life forms may have both prevailed and expired countless times before ours. Here is where he searches for personal consolation in the Anthropic principle, which (depending on how it is interpreted) consigns to the very existence of earth-bound humanity, in the author’s words, a “sense of cosmic specialness.”

This sudden glint of optimism comes as a surprising and confounding about-face, given the preponderance of doom and gloom that precedes it, and yet for David Wallace-Wells, parent to a child born while this blunt screed was being written, the primal instinct to survive and the desire for meaning may be sufficient fuel for his rejection of despair, despite the preponderance of scientific arguments for a worst-case scenario.

This guest post is by Martin Zimmerman, who writes from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he is an urban planner, free-lance journalist, and sustainable city activist.

The Absent Hand: A Memoir and Critique of Contemporary American Suburbia

The Absent Hand / Counterpoint Press

The Absent Hand: Reimagining our American Landscape by writer Suzannah Lessard is part memoir, part examination of the American cultural landscape. Lessard offers a unique and necessary perspective on the deterioration of our society’s connection to the landscape, manifested most prominently in the book as sprawl.

Lessard is an aficionado of sprawl. It transfixes and confounds her, creating a special tension. The reader can feel Lessard’s urge to aptly describe sprawl’s features, sometimes manufacturing new words when the right ones aren’t there. The right words are there often enough, though: schizoid, edgeless, and excrescent attached themselves to places like Rosslyn, Virginia, and King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

This struggle to read and relay the suburban landscape is part of Absent Hand’s larger theme: as technology collapses space, context is lost, and with it the ability to understand our place and purpose. Machiavelli explains to his readers in The Prince that to best view a mountain, one must descend to the valley. Context offers the promise of objective evaluation and control.

So what happens when a force such as sprawl saps context from our landscape or climate change outstrips our capacity to solve it? Bad things, you can imagine. Lessard views a cohesive landscape as cultural glue. Without it, there is no common geography to bind inhabitants. Suburbia gets experienced as “individual, customary routes.” And climate change continues its own destabilizing course.

Technology has historically been the primary instigator of this anti-contextualizing process. Lessard points to its impact on war and labor. The Internet has siphoned people from mills and farms into the same offices in front of monitors that bring us everywhere and nowhere. Our relatively recent fascination with industrial and pastoral relics like warehouses and barns is no coincidence, Lessard argues.

Those relics suggest to us a tangible link between our work and our landscape. Modern work has a weak relationship to territory and leaves no such physical imprint (its infrastructure being another story).

Most of these insights dominate the second half of the book. Lessard’s anecdotes and experiences living and traveling, mainly in the Washington, D.C.-Boston corridor, populate much of the first.

Her opinions are never watery, but neither are her introspection and self-critique. I’m a product of suburbia, and her descriptions of it renewed its mystery to me. As a current resident of Lessard’s old neighborhood in Brooklyn, I found she captured well the charm of the ubiquitous brownstones.

Still, it’s fair to wonder if Lessard’s worries are just fear of modernity. There’s a healthy amount of technophobia expressed in Absent Hand, and Lessard’s outward refusal of nostalgia for bygone landscapes is undercut by her own more elegiac descriptions of said landscapes.

And yes, it’s a familiar trope to fear the encroachment of McMansions, as Lessard seems to. But it’s also highly relatable. The only thing scarier than sprawl’s idiosyncrasies is its sameness.

Still, I imagine Lessard would be amused to learn, as I recently did, that critics initially panned brownstone homes for their uniformity.

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

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Jewel Changi Airport / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

City and Aps Launching a Pilot Program to Turn School Lands into Public ParksThe Sarasota Report, 4/1/19
“Atlanta can greatly add to public green space and parks by partnering with the Atlanta Public Schools to open up school property to the public.”

Why You Should Start a Pocket Prairie in Your YardHoustonia, 4/8/19
“Durham believes that prairie grass is the key to maintaining a more cost-efficient yard while also contributing positively to our flood-prone environment.”

How Better Urban Planning Can Improve Gender EqualityBehavioral Scientist, 4/9/19
“In the mid-1990s, public officials in Vienna found something surprising when they studied who was using their public parks: girls were much less likely to use parks after age nine, while boys continued using them into their teens.”

Mission 66: The Controversial Plan That Brought National Parks into the Modern EraUSA Today, 4/11/19
“Spurred by a comprehensive program known as Mission 66, these new additions were built to address problems plaguing the parks, including outdated buildings that could not accommodate the expected 31 million increase in visitors by 1966.”

Singapore’s $1.3 Billion Airport Expansion Is Half Botanical Garden, Half Mega-Mall Fast Company, 4/12/19
“Jewel Changi is not an airport, nor an amusement park, nor is a retail hub–it’s something in between.”

Singapore’s New Garden Airport

Jewel Changi Airport / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

International airports are in fierce competition for passengers and regularly one-up each other with new wow-factor amenities, shops, and restaurants. But Singapore decided to raise its game by going another direction: a plant-filled haven, a gateway consistent with its moniker — “the city in a garden.” The result is an inventive model other airports should copy, if not in form, then certainly in spirit.

The new Jewel Changi airport features a 6-acre indoor forest, walking trails, and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. This restorative mecca filled with 2,500 trees and 100,000 shrubs not only revitalizes weary international travelers but is also open to the public.

Over the past six years, Safdie Architects has led a team that included PWP Landscape Architecture, Atelier 10, WET, Burohappold, and ICN International to create this bar-raising travel experience.

As anyone who experienced the stress of air travel can attest, the onslaught of digital signs, loud speakers announcing departures, shops blaring music, and carts flying by quickly leads to draining sensory overload. Now imagine if there was a natural place to take a break amid the cacophony. As many studies have shown, just 10 minutes of immersion in nature can reduce stress, restore cognitive ability, and improve mood.

Jewel Changi provides that nearby natural respite with a 5-story-tall forest encased in a 144,000-square-foot steel and glass donut structure. During rain storms, water pours through an oculus in the roof — creating the 130-foot-tall Rain Vortex, a mesmerizing waterfall sculpture that can accommodate up to 10,000 gallons per minute at peak flow. Stormwater is then recycled throughout the building.

Jewel Changi Airport Rain Vortex / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects
Jewel Changi Airport Rain Vortex / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

According to Adam Greenspan, ASLA, a partner at PWP, there is a “forest valley” and a “canopy park.” Throughout, the firm used stone and wood to create winding paths that immerse visitors in nature.

Jewel Changi Airport / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

The valley is organized into terraces, like you would find in a shade-covered coffee or tree plantation, and features three types of trees: Terminalia, a native to Madagascar; Agathis Borneensis, which is native to Malaysia and Indonesia; and Agathis Robusta, which is native to Australia. Terraced planters are faced with Indonesian lava stone that epiphytic and and other plants can climb.

Jewel Changi Airport / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

Amid the canopy park, PWP planted a number of species of wide-spreading Ficus trees that will eventually create shade and a comfortable environment. Up on the fifth level, there’s a topiary walk and horticultural gardens, and an event space for up to 1,000 people.

Jewel Changi aiport upper canopy / PWP Landscape Architecture

Throughout the biosphere-like terminal, PWP selected some 200 species of mostly-highland plant species, calibrating them to the giant torus’ unique conditions where temperatures and humidity levels are slightly cooler than outside. “Air movement, humidity, and natural light have all been balanced.”

Jewel Changi Airport roof and oculus / Safdie Architects

In addition to hosting some 300 shops and restaurants and a transit hotel, the terminal connects to the city’s public bus system. Pedestrian bridges and an inter-terminal train link passengers and visitors to the airport’s many gates.

Jewel Changi Airport train tunnel / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

With Jewel Changi, Singapore has reinvented what an airport can be, just as they re-imagined what a hospital can be with Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, which is not only a medical facility but also a green hub open to the community. Now let’s hope Singapore’s biophilic design culture spreads around the world, like the planes that leave its terminals.

16-year-old Activist Inspires Global Student Protest on Climate Change

At age 8, Greta Thunberg, who lives in Stockholm, Sweden, learned about climate change. By age 11, she had fallen into a deep depression because of the lack of global action to solve the climate crisis. A doctor diagnosed her with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), selective mute syndrome, and Asperger’s syndrome, which means she is on the autism spectrum. Being autistic, she said in a TEDx talk, means she sees the world in “black and white.” And for her, acting on climate change is a black and white issue: “We must stop carbon emissions from fossil fuels. We have to change.”

Beginning at age 15, Thunberg started channeling her frustration into being a dedicated climate activist, sitting in front of Sweden’s National Legislature every day, during school hours, demanding the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions by at least 15 percent each year. Thunberg decided on such a radical move because “no one in the media is talking about climate change; and you would think they would talk about nothing else.”

Thunberg — who was inspired by the teen activists at Parkland in Florida skipping school to protest gun violence — has herself inspired a global movement of student-led climate protests. Last year, an estimated 20,000 school children held climate strikes in 270 cities. On March 15, the biggest global protest yet occurred — with an estimated one million students skipping school to march for climate action. Organizers estimated there were some 2,000 strikes in 125 countries.

The UK Student Climate Network, which organized protests in London, released a manifesto that clearly relays the protesters’ frustration and anxiety about the future:

“We’ve joined a movement that’s spreading rapidly across the world, catalyzed by the actions of one individual in taking a stand in August last year. Greta Thunberg may have been the spark, but we’re the wildfire and we’re fueled by the necessity for action.

The climate is in crisis. We will be facing ecological catastrophe and climate breakdown in the very near future if those in power don’t act urgently and radically to change our trajectory. Scientists have been giving increasingly dire warnings about the state of our planet for years, with the urgency and severity of their message escalating in recent times. It’s abundantly clear: change is needed, and it’s needed now!”

According to CBS News, protesting school children were united in their demand for a rapid transition to 100 percent renewable energy.

In the U.S., the strike was organized by Youth Climate Strike, a coalition led by Isra Hirsi, a 16-year-old sophmore from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Haven Coleman, 12-year-old 7th grader from Denver, Colorado. In San Francisco, hundreds of students marched from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office, demanding action. And in St. Paul, Minnesota, 1,000 students stood in front of the state Capitol chanting: “Stop denying the Earth is dying.”

Protests also occurred on March 15 across Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa. In Berlin, Germany, an estimated 20,000 student protestors waved signs such as “‘March now or swim later’ and ‘Climate Protection Report Card: F'” on their march towards German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office. And in New Delhi, school children protested inaction on climate change as well as poor air quality, which causes an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide annually.

A recent Pew survey found that Generation Z, now aged 13-21, is equally as focused on climate change as the Millennial generation, now 22-37 years old. Some 54 percent of Gen Z sees climate change as being driven by human activity, while 56 percent of Millennials think the same. These numbers are considerably higher than for Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, or the Silent Generation.

The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres wrote an op-ed supporting the student protesters:

“These school children have grasped something that seems to elude many of their elders: we are in a race for our lives, and we are losing. The window of opportunity is closing – we no longer have the luxury of time, and climate delay is almost as dangerous as climate denial.

My generation has failed to respond properly to the dramatic challenge of climate change. This is deeply felt by young people. No wonder they are angry.”

Guterres said the “commitment and activism” shown by these students gives him hope the world’s leaders will shift course in time but it’s important to keep up the pressure. A recent United Nations report found that dramatically reducing emissions over the next 11 years is absolutely critical.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (March 16 – 31)

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The so-called Latino High Line, part of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park redevelopment, San Antonio, Texas / Muñoz and Company

First Look at Frank Gehry’s ‘Anonymous’ Building X for Facebook in Redmond The Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce, 3/21/19
“As part of GGN’s landscape plan, native plans will be restored. Gehry Partners says, ‘the intent is to return as much of the site as possible to its natural state by removing non-native plant material and replacing it with native species.’”

Eight Buildings That Incorporate Waterfalls Dezeen, 3/21/19
“The focal point of architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker’s memorial to the September 11 attacks is two square fountains.”

When a ‘Be In’ in Central Park Was Front-Page News The New York Times, 3/25/19
“Fifty-two years ago, thousands came to Central Park for a counterculture happening that influenced decades of political gatherings there.”

A ‘Latino High Line’ Promises Change for San Antonio CityLab, 3/25/19
“The San Pedro Creek Culture Park stands to be a transformative project for nearby neighborhoods. To fight displacement, the city is creating a risk mitigation fund.”

Harrisburg Plans ‘Chutes and Ladders’ Playground at Reservoir Park Penn Live, 3/27/19
“Kids of all ages will eventually be able to play in a life-sized version of the classic board game “Chutes and Ladders” at Reservoir Park, after Harrisburg City Council voted to hire a landscape architect to design the playground.”

A Landscape Architect’s Plant-filled Oasis in Lower Manhattan Architectural Digest, 3/29/19
“Of course, one shouldn’t expect any less from Von Koontz, a talented landscape designer who works on everything from large country estates to petite, elegant rooftop spaces in Manhattan.”

Forging a National Bike Route System

Philadelphia regional bicycle network / Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia

There are a growing number of routes for those hardy souls who love the thought of biking from state to state, or even shore to shore. At the League of American Bicyclists’ National Bike Summit in Crystal City, Virginia, a group of nonprofit leaders described how street bicycle infrastructure forms into neighborhood and urban networks, then state and regional ones, and finally, an ever-growing national network.

Neighborhood and urban networks are for joy riders and bike commuters. The state and regional networks are for more hardcore “adventure cyclists” who are up for or multi-day or multi-week trips. Many entities, including local and national non-profits and state and federal governments, create the plans and make the investments needed for these networks to connect and cohere.

According to Sarah Clark Stuart with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, government funds can kick start wider projects. A U.S. department of Transportation TIGER grant of $23 million to the city of Philadelphia to create a regional bicycle network helped spur an additional $300 million in investment from states and foundations. There are now some 334 miles of greater Philadelphia bicycle infrastructure, with 25 miles in progress (see image above). “This demonstrates the real power of leverage.” And the growing 750-mile regional circuit network can now feed better into national networks.

“Imagine an epic journey — biking from Washington, D.C. to Washington State through local trails,” mused Kevin Mills, senior vice president with the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. “Approximately half of that network now exists,” and it’s called the Great American Rail Trail. Rails-to-Trails selected gateway trails in the 13 states that make up the 3,000-mile cross-country trail, including some of the most scenic and beautiful like the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park Trail in the Washington, D.C. area; the Cardinal Greenway in Indiana; and the Casper Rail Trail in Wyoming. The group is now working on a more detailed set of recommendations to improve the connectivity along this TransAmerica Trail.

Cardinal Greenway / Rails to Trails Conservancy

Ambitious coastal trails are in the works, too. Dennis Markatos-Soriano, executive director of the East Coast Greenway, said his organization seeks to realize a vision of a 3,000-mile route through 15 states, from Maine to Key West, Florida. Since 1991, about 1,000 miles have been built in partnership with states and mayors. About $2 billion is needed to complete the remaining 2,000 miles. “We’ll need about $160 million a year in investment though 2030.” When complete, the East Coast Greenway will touch some 450 communities, and about 25 million people will live within 5 miles of the route.

The Path to Freedom Tour, headed south on the East Coast Greenway / Wikipedia

The greater goal is for all of these cross-country and coastal routes to coalesce into a U.S. Bicycle Route System, said Ginny Sullivan, director of travel initiatives at the Adventure Cycling Association, which was an early shepherd of the expanding national network and continues to develop it. A task force at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) officially proposes routes for the system, which state departments of transportation then approve. Sullivan said the network leverages infrastructure that has already been built, connecting neighboring states. So far, some 13,000 miles in 25 states and Washington, D.C. have been designated as part of the system; the eventual goal is 50,000 miles.

U.S. Bicycle Route System Twitter

Why Bicycling Has Flatlined

Protected bike lane in Arlington, Virginia / BikeArlington

About 830,000 Americans biked to work in 2017, down from a high of 904,000 in 2014. Given communities large and small have made major investments in bicycle infrastructure — and bike share now seems ubiquitous — why haven’t the numbers of bike commuters dramatically increased?

In some cities, a safe, connected, and protected system of bicycle infrastructure has made it easy to get to work on two wheels. These cities include Berkeley, California, with a population of 120,000 people, where 9 percent of commuters travel by bike, and Portland, Oregon, with a population of 640,000, where more than 7 percent do. In those communities, safe infrastructure has been vital to achieving high numbers of bike commuters.

But looking from another angle, those numbers have been stuck at less than 10 percent for a number of years. Why? According to a number of speakers at the League of American Bicyclists’ National Bike Summit, held in Crystal City, Virginia, it’s because the bicycling movement hasn’t been inclusive.

Numerous sessions at the conference delved into how to broaden the appeal of bicycling for people of different ages, income levels, and races.

Christian Dorsey, chair of the Arlington County Board, said his community in Northern Virginia is in the process of revising its bicycle infrastructure master plan. The county’s goal is to “double the mode share of bike commuters.” But to achieve this goal, “we can’t just promote the new bicycle infrastructure to the bicycle advocates — it has to be for everyone.”

Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities at AARP, and an Arlington resident who bikes to work, said that just 6 percent of older adults regularly bike — and that number has “flatlined.”

Bicycling fatalities have increased over the past few years, with those 65 and older killed “over-represented.” She said if bicycle infrastructure isn’t designed to be safe for everyone — and therefore inclusive of everyone — then “it’s not safe for anyone.”

Dorsey said it is important that access to bicycle infrastructure and bike share systems is equitable. Bike share stations need to be set up in all neighborhoods, not just the wealthy downtowns.

Furthermore, an important but rarely-mentioned barrier is that most employers of low-income people don’t offer showers or bike lockers. If someone is biking to work, they have to do so in their work clothes. “There are often no facilities at the other end.”

In reality, it’s easier for an executive, with access to those facilities, to bike to work than it is for someone who works at a fast food restaurant. That is unfortunate — as those working for less money would benefit far more from the lower transportation costs offered by commuting by bicycle.

If the many safety and social benefits of inclusive infrastructure aren’t enough, there are also economic reasons.

Steve Hartell, director of U.S. public policy for Amazon, said that Amazon selected Crystal City as the location of one of its second headquarters because it’s walkable, bikeable, and next to two Metro stations. “Look at downtown Seattle where Amazon grew up. There, 50 percent of our employees bike, walk, or take mass transit to work.” Amazon was looking for places with the same kind of connected network offering lots of transportation options. And other companies are too.

In another session asking attendees to “think outside the bike,” representatives from a number of urban bicycle non-profits explained how they are diversifying the community of bikers:

Nicole Payne, a program manager at NACTO, noted that Oakland, California required 50 percent of bike share stations to be placed in under served areas. NACTO and the Better Bike Share Partnership have released a guide to engaging a broader community in biking.

At West Town Bikes, a youth development center, in Chicago, Danni Limonez works hard to teach both bicycling and basic work skills. Kids are taught how to maintain bikes used for tours, and some end up getting hired around city bike shops. West Town Bikes also organizes rides for families on the 606 Trail, a 2.7-mile-long elevated bike way created by landscape architects at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA). And there are tours for “women, transgender, and non-binary riders.”

Chicago Tour de Fat / West Town Bikes, John Greenfield on Flickr

For Cindy Mense with Trailnet, a community will only have an inclusive, accessible bicycle infrastructure if everyone’s voice is heard. St. Louis, Missouri, was envious of Indianapolis’ cultural trail and decided to create their own extensive bike network to connect cultural centers. Ensuring that feedback was received from all communities — especially those north of the “Delmar divide,” the predominantly African American community — Trailnet financed community champions, who were each given $250 for targeted engagement. “They made all the difference, as they told us what music and neighborhood events to go to” to find people to fill out their surveys.

St. Louis connected bicycle network / Trailnet, HOK

And Waffiyyah Murray said her organization — the Better Bike Share Partnership — which is based in Philadelphia, is all about using bikes to build community. The organization provides low-cost tours throughout neighborhoods and to cultural centers like the Barnes Foundation; Internet, mobile phone, and bike safety education classes so people can better access Philly’s Indego bike share system; and free bike deliveries of food to the homeless. There are also programs using bikes to improve mental health and prevent suicides. “Biking can be a coping mechanism for anxiety and depression.”

Better Bike Share Partnership tour in Philadelphia / Better Bike Share Partnership