I Could Have Been Ahmaud Arbery

Andrew Sargeant presenting his VR research, “The Aesthetic of Proof,” at a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) symposium. / Andrew Sargeant

 

By Andrew Sargeant, ASLA

Two days before I saw the footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, I headed out for a quick walk to the local gas station mini-mart. I realized I forgot my mask and returned home to grab it. On my way home, I was greeted with yet another reminder that, as a black man, my movements are constantly policed by everyone.

I was approximately 100 feet from my front door when a pick-up truck with two Latino men approached me. The driver asked me if I was lost. I responded, “No, I’m not lost. Are you lost?” He said “No, I live in the neighborhood. Do you live around here?” At this point, telegraphing my annoyance, I replied “Yeah, man, I live right there,” pointing at my house. “I’m going home because I forgot my mask.” Having successfully checked in with total strangers, I continued home.

Later that day, I mentioned the encounter to my roommate, who is also a black man. Although my retelling was dispassionate, he responded with concern. My roommate wanted us to tell our neighbors because he feared for our safety. He wanted to leverage our social capital for community protection. He wanted what everyone wants — for us to feel safe in our own home. I shrugged off his concern. To my thinking, we lived in Latinx neighborhood and had a great relationship with our immediate neighbors. We were good.

Two days later, I saw the video of Ahmaud Arbery being murdered, chased down and shot by two armed white residents of his neighborhood while out for a jog. The video shook my soul. Arbery and I were about the same age, the same skin color, and enjoyed the same activity. Since the pandemic started, my roommate and I started jogging around our neighborhood at least 3 times a week, usually by ourselves. I just turned 27 years old. Arbery will never have that opportunity because his check in with total strangers didn’t go as well as mine did.

I share this story in hopes that this will be the last time I have to recall these events. I share this story knowing it won’t be.

As landscape architects, we understand that our imagination gives shape to the future. Our creative power manifests in the world and creates change. This same imagination is necessary for the liberation of people, and our role in that liberation.

With the increased global awareness of violent over-policing of black people by officers of the law and citizens governed by unwritten social laws, we are all being pulled into an essential and complicated discourse around race. The people demonstrating in cities across the world are taking us to task. Now is the opportunity to create a new and more just world that has never existed outside our imagination.

We know creating this new world will be hard work. I believe that most of us want to do this work. Yet I recognize there is and always has been opposition from people who benefit from the systemic discrimination against black people or from those who have the privilege to believe that the status quo is not deeply unjust. Even amid the din of protesters taking to the streets demanding justice, I hear the hushed complaints of people wanting to return to the world as it was or at least how we pretended it was. For me, the stakes are high. I have no recourse but to act because my survival depends on it.

In recent years, ASLA and the Landscape Architecture Foundation made a concerted effort to transform our discipline by making diversity a priority. However, firms have made little progress in diversifying their staff or creating cultures where diversity hiring isn’t seen as a forced obligation.

Black, Latinx, and Asian people working in majority white firms still must subscribe to and endure the predilections of white culture even when designing for diverse users. The compulsory need to change our speech, dress, hair and appearance in order to not disrupt the status quo, amounts to a suppression of our being for 40+ hours a week.

If we are to design a new, more just world, we need to start by designing a new, more just workplace. We need to do the hard work of examining our own bias and recognizing that our colleagues are not truly comfortable, yet are expected to endure the trauma of racism outside of the workplace and racial bias while at work. The first step is to have landscape architecture firms write an informed public statement against racism for the world to see.

Furthermore, I implore you to help create lasting change. No matter what your race, if you are unhappy with your firm’s response to current events or their hiring practice, let them know. Or quit. Choose to work elsewhere and share your perspective with other colleagues and perhaps the world. We must no longer be complicit in helping to advance institutional bias or apathy.

If you are a student and you want a more diverse faculty and student body, petition your school to make lasting change. Consider transferring to a university that has a more diverse curriculum, more diverse perspectives, and more diverse faculty. Surrender your education to professors and institutions who share your values.

We must change the narrative about investing in black landscape architects and other minority designers as “helping them.” Investment in diverse people and communities is investing in the future of the profession. I don’t want “help.”

I want you to recognize that our ideas have the potential to be as influential as our contributions to other aspects of culture. I want you to understand that the culture of our firms, the culture of our educational systems, and the culture of our profession is missing critical perspectives that are essential in building a better future.

Students interview each other about experiences in their community during a Studio Los Angeles workshop. / The Urban Studio
Students working collaboratively on site plan sketches as part of a Studio D.C. workshop. / The Urban Studio
Students examine foliage and learn about horticulture during a field trip as part of Studio Los Angeles. / The Urban Studio

White culture has become normative in our work and education. Without a deep and open-minded discussion of that problem, our work will grow stagnant, our imagination will be ill-suited to shape a better future, our creative power will die. We have no recourse but to act. Our survival depends on it.

Andrew Sargeant, ASLA, is a landscape designer and pioneer of design technology in the field of landscape architecture. He is the vice president of The Urban Studio, a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Olmsted Scholar Fellow, and a part of the ASLA’s Digital Technology PPN Leadership.

The Urban Studio: Expanding how students of color are educated and engaged around design. Our mission is “to advance design thinking for equitable + sustainable urbanism.” Please visit theurbanstudio.org and donate.

ASLA seeks to facilitate open, respectful dialogue in its public forums. Opinions expressed in the comments section are not necessarily those of ASLA. By participating in ASLA’s websites, blogs, and social media accounts, the user agrees to the Terms of Use.

2030 Climate Challenge Competition: $10 Million for Big Ideas

2030 Climate Challenge

Levers for Change, an affiliate of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, has announced a $10 million competition for bold solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the building, transportation, or industrial sectors.

According to the organizers, the “vast majority of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from a small set of countries and sectors. In fact, only 20 countries produce 75 percent of GHG emissions, and three-fourths of GHG emissions land in four energy sectors: electricity, transportation, buildings, and industry.” Of those 20 countries, U.S. has “historically been the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter and currently has the second highest amount of emissions in the world.”

Levers for Change sees the U.S. building, transportation, and industrial sectors as critical in the global fight against climate change. “If the U.S. decarbonizes at scale in the next ten years –i.e. by 2030—then we have a chance to land at a decent future. Failure in the U.S. almost guarantees global failure.”

The competition organizers provide an organizational readiness tool that enables those interested to find out if they meet the criteria. Registrations are due July 23 and submissions are due August 20.

Another opportunity worth exploring: the McEwan School of Architecture in Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, has announced an ideas competition for revitalizing the urban core. The city, which has a population of 160,000, has hundreds of lakes and becomes a sports mecca in winter, with a 1.5-mile-long ice skating path.

The city occupies the crater of a meteorite that hit 1.8 billion years ago and left large deposits of copper, gold, platinum, palladium, and nickel. As a result, Sudbury is known as the “nickel capital of the world.” The goal is transform a mining city for the next generation of digital workers.

The Big Nickel / Sudbury 2050, Vanessa Tignanelli

Black Lives Matter. Black Communities Matter.

A storefront in Indianapolis features the names of African Americans who have lost their lives to police violence. / AP Photo. Michael Conroy

After hearing feedback from our membership and after much reflection, the American Society of Landscape Architects issues the following statement regarding the killing of George Floyd:

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) joins millions of people around the world in mourning the death of George Floyd, a black man who was murdered by a police officer.

ASLA recognizes that the brutal systems of slavery and Jim Crowism have dehumanized black people and weakened their communities. We also acknowledge that the planning and design of the built environment, including landscape architecture, has often had a disproportionate adverse impact on black communities. Systemic racism in the built environment has taken many forms, including redlining, urban renewal, and disinvestment. Environmental injustices, including lack of equitable access to clean air and water and greater concentrations of pollution, continue to plague these communities. Further, gentrification and displacement make it impossible for black communities to continue to exist. The landscape architecture profession can play a critical role in reversing these trends.

Public spaces have always been a critically important platform for the protest movement and democratic change. They have also become sites of violent confrontation and oppression against the black community. It is important that ASLA and others amplify the black narrative of these spaces.

ASLA stands in solidarity with black communities in the fight against racial injustice and police violence against black people. Moving forward, ASLA will deepen our partnership with the Black Landscape Architects Network (BlackLAN) to create a meaningful, sustainable plan of action to help guide the profession in addressing the wants and needs of black communities—no matter how much work and time it takes. Black Lives Matter.

ASLA seeks to facilitate open, respectful dialogue in its public forums. Opinions expressed in the comments section are not necessarily those of ASLA. By participating in ASLA’s websites, blogs, and social media accounts, the user agrees to the Terms of Use.

Black Lives Matter

#Blackout Tuesday

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) condemns racial injustice and police violence against black people and black communities. We are using this day to blackout in support of justice for George Floyd and many other black lives lost. #vote #BlackoutTuesday”

ASLA released the following statement on this weekend’s protests, from ASLA President Wendy Miller, FASLA:

“We are all horrified by the events that unfolded over the last several days. I am personally roiling with emotions, watching in real-time the injustices and inequitable treatment of people and communities who are in anguish because of centuries of racial discrimination. As landscape architects, we work to ensure that all persons have the right to equitable access to environmental and community benefits in the places they live, work, and learn. Now is the time for us to work to help ensure that these communities have fair and equitable treatment in all aspects of life.”

Read ASLA’s Public Policy on Environmental Justice.

Read more about ASLA’s work to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.

ASLA seeks to facilitate open, respectful dialogue in its public forums. Opinions expressed in the comments section are not necessarily those of ASLA. By participating in ASLA’s websites, blogs, and social media accounts, the user agrees to the Terms of Use.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 16-31)

Domino Park, Brooklyn, New York / Marcella Winograd, ArchDaily

Gardens Have Pulled America Out of Some of Its Darkest Times. We Need Another Revival05/28/20, Mother Jones
“Google Trends reports that US searches for ‘gardens’ have spiked this spring to their highest level ever, and vegetable seed sales are way up as well. Nearly 20 percent of adults surveyed in April said they had gardened more than usual in the past month.”

Landscape Architect Left Distinct Mark on City — 05/28/20, The Republic
“The memory of a nationally known landscape architect who died earlier this month will live on in his major projects in Columbus. John ‘Jack’ Curtis, 77, died May 2 of COVID-19 complications in Easton, Connecticut, near where he led his firm of Jack Curtis + Associates for more than three decades.”

A Conversation with Mia Lehrer on Her Origins, Civil Service, and Design LeadershipArchinect, 05/27/20
“I think we’re modernists. But we’re also solving problems. I would say that I get inspired, not just by the place and the community and the landscape around this genius loci. But we get inspired by people’s dreams and aspirations that are engaged meaningfully in these project processes and what they want.”

Domino Park Introduces Social Distancing Circles to Adapt to the COVID-19 Crisis — 05/25/20, ArchDaily
“While all public spaces around the world are trying to innovate and implement safety measures to open during the coronavirus pandemic, Domino Park has introduced a series of painted social distancing circles. This strategical urban design intervention ensures that people are “following proper social distancing procedures recommended by the CDC and government”.

Frederick Law Olmsted’s Knowledge of Contagious Diseases Informed His Vision for Urban Parks — 05/24/20, Milwaukee Independent
“The insights Olmsted gained into connections between space, disease control and public health clearly influenced his landscape architectural career and the design of many urban park systems.”

Last Piece of Brooklyn Bridge Park Approved by Landmarks Preservation Commission — 05/21/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“At a virtual public hearing on Tuesday, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a small but consequential section of Brooklyn Bridge Park that will be located directly at the foot of the 137-year-old landmarked bridge’s eastern tower; the eponymous Brooklyn Bridge Plaza.”

365 Ways to Improve Your Graphic Design Skills

Graphic Design Rules / Princeton Architectural Press

While being cooped up at home, now may be a good time to hone your graphic design skills. For landscape architects and designers, urban planners, and architects who present work to the public or private clients, the fully revised Graphic Design Rules: 365 Essential Dos and Don’ts offers common sense design suggestions and up-to-date Photoshop tips that will improve your work. The book is written for those just getting started as a designer and expert communicators who want to refresh their approach.

Created by Sean Adams, chair of graphic design at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California; Peter Dawson, a typographical designer; John Foster, principal of the design firm Bad People Good Things; and Tony Seddon, a freelance designer and writer, Graphic Design Rules brings together different voices united in the goal of “assisting the designer with issues of craft through rules, suggestions, and methods.”

Adams, an American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) medalist, argues in the introduction that “the best thing about rules is that they often work best when broken.” We wouldn’t enjoy the well-spring of visual innovation — new fonts, layouts, or color schemes — if no one broke the rules. The trick is “when to follow the rules and when to ignore them.”

Graphic Design Rules is organized into sections on type and typography, layout and design, color, imagery and graphics, production and print, and then a final section on the practice of design. Each tip is on one to two pages and features a bright green signal indicating “Go for it,” and a red stop sign that signals “this should be avoided at all costs.”

Readers of the section on type and typography will learn never to use Comic Sans unless ironically. Times New Roman is boring but has its purpose. Zapf Dingbats should stay out of your designs. And the classic typefaces — Garamond, Helvetica, Futura — are classics for a reason.

Graphic Design Rules / Princeton Architectural Press

The authors encourage you to nerd out and study typographical classifications. This kind of guidance is balanced with extremely practical advice like: “Don’t use any more typefaces in one layout than is absolutely necessary.”

Graphic Design Rules / Princeton Architectural Press

The layout and design section delves into rules for organizing information that can apply to everything from a one-page PDF to a brochure, advertisement, webpage, or poster. Here, the authors exhort their readers to use a grid to maintain a layout’s structure, but also break out of the grid if the layout prescribes it. A few essential tips: “Do create a focal point for every layout” and “Do establish a visual hierarchy that leads to the most important information.” Creating layouts or designs in Microsoft or PowerPoint is verboten; learn and use design software.

Graphic Design Rules / Princeton Architectural Press

Beginners will perhaps learn the most from the color section, which explains how colors are made — either from light or pigment — and how to work with them with tools like Photoshop. The authors get you to think critically about hue, saturation, and value (or brightness) and how they impacts designs. You can delve into the technical details of color spaces; how to synchronize your color settings across Photoshop applications, which is crucial for consistency; and the differences between RGB and CMYK.

Graphic Design Rules / Princeton Architectural Press
Graphic Design Rules / Princeton Architectural Press

Some important Dos: Colors need to have a reason for being; don’t just a select a color because you like it. It’s important to ask your client about color preferences, too. One brilliant suggestion is to look at the colors that surrounds you in the environment for color inspiration. “They will always remain in harmony and be unique to your experience.”

In imagery and graphics, you will learn why it’s important to avoid stock images, but to check stock image sites anyway because sometimes the perfect one could be hidden away on page 8 of a search result. The book suggests designers explore technical issues like file types and bit depth. There are tons of recommendations for how to crop, edit, and format images in Photoshop. “Do always apply some sharpening to digital images.” And they lay down the law with a recommendation like: “Don’t use Photoshop filters to disguise a low-quality image.”

Graphic Design Rules / Princeton Architectural Press

A later chapter may only be of interest to those who are trying to faithfully present their designs in print format and want to get into the nitty-gritty of printing. And the practice of design explains how to stay true to yourself as a designer while doing your best for your client. One important tip: “Don’t present mood boards unless specifically asked – and even then.”

Suburban Sprawl Increases the Risk of Future Pandemics

Suburban expansion into remnant habitat / La Citta Vita, Flickr

By Michael Grove, ASLA

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

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

Vilifying Density and Disregarding Equity

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

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

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

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

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

Habitat Fragmentation and Biodiversity Loss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brisbane’s Bird Population

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

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

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

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

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

Helsinki’s Biodiversity Database

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pandemic Is Accelerating the Shift to E-Commerce

Hub and spoke distribution network in Cincinnatti, Ohio / Rick Stein

Amazon and other e-commerce sites have seen record sales in the past few months. Brick-and-mortar stores are closing at higher rates. The transition to online and omni-channel retail will change how shopping areas are planned and designed. During a session at the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference @ Home, a group of planners outlined how this shift to e-commerce may play out.

According to Rick Stein, an urban planner and founder of Urban Decision Group, there have been 30,000 store closures in the past five years. In just the first few months of 2020, 2,000 more stores have shut their doors, with another 15,000 expected this year.

While recent closures are due to the pandemic, the underlying issue is “U.S. retail is overbuilt.”

Comparing retail space per capita in the U.S., Canada, Australia, UK, France, and elsewhere, the U.S. tops the charts with 24 square feet of retail space per capita and $14,614 in per capita sales annually. While incomes have increased 11 percent since 2009, the amount Americans spent shopping each year has increased by 37 percent in the same time frame.

Stein outlined four types of brick-and-mortar shopping centers, which total 6.2 billion square feet of retail space and generate $2 trillion in revenue annually: strip malls, neighborhood centers, community centers, and malls. There are 70,000 strip malls, which account for $300 billion in revenue; 32,000 neighborhood centers that total $750 billion; 10,000 community centers that generate $620 billion in sales; and 1,200 remaining malls, which are “rapidly shrinking” as a retail type, that account for $325 billion in retail sales.

In-store retail sales in the U.S. have been declining since the early 2000s, with sales now less than $325 per square foot. The pandemic is accelerating this decline in sales. “Some 60-70 percent of retail stores are now closed,” with an estimated $1 trillion in lost revenue.

Most shopping centers were built in the suburbs because land was cheap. But within suburbia, there are different levels of risk.

Stein argued that locally-owned shopping centers — the community and neighborhood centers — are likely more stable. Malls, which are mostly owned by large corporations, are at greater risk of closure.

E-commerce, which increased by 25 just last year to reach 12 percent of all sales, is now putting pressure on all types of purely brick-and-mortar retail stores. Large grocery stores aren’t safe either: e-commerce now also accounts for 8 percent of all grocery sales.

In the future, “the winners will be omni-channel retailers, which are not purely e-commerce,” Stein argued. Stores like Target and Walmart that successfully leverage brick-and-mortar with e-commerce are the new model other stores need to follow.

Stein sees more retailers like Kohl’s partnering with Amazon as distribution and return centers. These brick-and-mortar stores can leverage their prime locations in local markets to become part of a “hub and spoke” distribution system that makes it easier for customers to pick up or return purchases (see image above). More relationships will form to maximize the benefits of the “last mile” — being close to the consumer.

Stores within a 10 minute drive in Columbus, Ohio / Rick Stein

Stein surveyed some 500 retailers from mid-March to mid-April and found that 80 percent will be moving to an online or omni-channel approach. Included in the survey responses was some bleak news: “40 percent of apparel retail may never re-open. And 1 in 5 restaurants may never re-open.”

“30 percent of what is purchased online is returned. 15 percent of what is purchased never makes it into customers’ hands. What does this mean for local traffic?,” asked Lisa Nisenson, a vice president at WGI, an engineering and transportation consultancy. “Deliveries have spiked. Will this stick?”

She thinks the pandemic will lead to changes in how goods are transported, bought, and sold. With social distancing, now is the time for technology-based delivery companies to perfect their approach. Many are ramping up tests to facilitate same-day delivery in more places across the country.

Proposed delivery solutions for rural, suburban, and urban areas are different. There are cargo bikes and terrestrial delivery drones of all sizes for dense urban areas, vans that can launch drones in suburban residential communities, and aerial drones for long-range delivery of medical supplies in rural areas.

Drones launch from roof of a Mercedes van / Daimler AG

The delivery model is also changing. In the past, goods moved from the factory to the distributor to the store where consumers made purchases. With the expanding same day delivery model that calls for a highly-local approach to distribution, goods are moving from the distributor to either stores or local sorting centers that then enable in-store picket, local deliveries, or access to delivery lockers, like you find with Amazon lockers in Whole Foods stores. Goods distribution is moving closer to where consumers are.

Flexible delivery model / WGI

That model could further evolve if there is growth in the use of autonomous delivery drones. Distributors and warehouses will become even more local. Niesenson even envisions “micro-warehouses” in neighborhoods.

Drones now a part of the delivery mix / WGI

The configuration of all those retail hubs with acres of parking has become outdated. “Dwell times in stores could drop from 40 minutes to 2 minutes,” really just enough time for picking up or returning items. “Or if the store also has a coffee shop, dwell times could increase to 1.5 hours.” What is clear is that these retail hubs needed to be redesigned to become more flexible and allow for a higher number of consumers visiting for a few minutes to handle pick ups and returns.

According to Jason Sudy, national lead on transportation technology planning at HDR, many companies are trying to expand the use of aerial and terrestrial autonomous drones for deliveries.

Wing, an aerial drone company of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has partnered with Walgreens to deliver medications to customers in Virginia. They have seen a surge in drone deliveries since the COVID-19 crisis began. The drone drops packages in backyards, so only lightweight deliveries under 5-10 pounds are allowed. At The Villages, a retirement community near Orlando, Florida, UPS and CVS are also testing drone deliveries of medications. To apply the technology in rural areas, the company Zipline is running long-range drones in Ghana that can make deliveries of up to 70 pounds.

WIng and Walgreens partner on drone delivery / Walgreens
Zipline drone launch / Wikipedia

Sudy imagines parts of streets and neighborhoods reconfigured for aerial drone launch zones, and new permits to allow vans to launch drones into suburban neighborhoods.

Demand for deliveries by terrestrial drones could mean re-imagining how space on streets is allocated. “Are drones deployed from the public right of way or private property?” There are many zoning (and privacy) implications.

Solutions will need to be crafted for different types of communities — rural, suburban, or urban — creating new work for planners, transportation engineers, urban designers, and landscape architects.

Given autonomous drones are continuously collecting data about their surroundings, they need to be integrated into the built environment in a way that protects privacy.

In the Q&A, discussion veered towards Main Streets and downtown shopping districts. Stein believes that “Main Streets will have a tough time over the next 18 months until a vaccine is discovered, but over the long-term, they will be extremely important. Main Street retail is most likely to survive this great disruption.”

Nisenson added that with the rise of online deliveries, people will crave “experiential retail” that offers more meaningful and social shopping experiences. With so many people seeking community and connection, stores that offer a safe coffee shop or outdoor social space may be ahead of the curve.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 1-15)

Field Day campers / Jonathon Geels

A Virtual Landscape Architecture Camp Introduces Girls to Careers They Didn’t Even Know Existed — 05/13/20, Next City
“The eight-week camp covers key concepts in landscape architecture, from the meaning of ‘place’ to interpreting information about the environment, understanding the ways that different people use spaces, and the early stages of the design process.”

How the Virus May Change Your Next Home — 05/12/20, The New York Times
“After spending so much time indoors, having access to fresh air and nature at home is likely to become a priority.”

BIM in Landscape Architecture: Scenarios, Possibilities and Breakthroughs 05/11/20, ArchDaily
“For professional landscape designers, a greater effort is needed to understand how to behave within this new universe of intelligent modeling and how to contribute, through landscape architecture projects, to the multidisciplinarity that BIM brings.”

Architect of Sweden’s No-lockdown Strategy Insists It Will Pay Off – 05/07/20, The Financial Times
“Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist who devised the no-lockdown approach, estimated that 40 per cent of people in the capital, Stockholm, would be immune to Covid-19 by the end of May, giving the country an advantage against a virus that ‘we’re going to have to live with for a very long time.'”

A Schoolyard Fence Proposal for Greenwich Village Raises Questions about Creeping Privatization — 05/05/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“To screen or not to screen? That was the question before New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) on April 28, when panel members reviewed a seemingly innocuous proposal to permanently alter a chain-link fence surrounding a schoolyard in Greenwich Village.”

How Life in Our Cities Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic — 05/03/20, Foreign Policy
“The pandemic is transforming urban life. We asked 12 leading global experts in urban planning, policy, history, and health for their predictions.”

After Lockdown, New Opportunities for Downtown Shopping Districts

Petoskey, Michigan / Robert Gibbs

By Robert Gibbs, FASLA

Since the earliest human settlements, the retail experience has evolved to meet the needs of the public. This evolution has taken us from rural markets to towns, cities, suburban shopping malls, big box mega stores, and, more recently, the Internet. But what will retail shopping look like once COVID-19 lockdowns are over and people return to the wild for their shopping experiences?

When all the dust settles, the post-lockdown era should provide a boost to downtown areas, in part due to newly unemployed but highly skilled restaurant and retail workers opening new businesses in downtowns where rent prices will trend downward.

The pandemic has left millions of highly skilled workers from the retail and food and beverage industries unemployed and eager to work. Many of these people are highly motivated to start their own businesses, creating an unparalleled pool of talent and potential entrepreneurial interest.

In a recent Forbes article, Bernhard Schroeder wrote: “27 million working-age Americans, nearly 14 percent, are starting or running new businesses. And Millennials and Gen-Z are driving higher interest in entrepreneurship as 51 percent of the working population now believes that there are actually good opportunities to start companies.”

Traditionally, fear of failure has held people back from starting a business, but with so many having their jobs swept away due to the pandemic, that fear is gone for many people, who realize they no longer want to rely on an employer for the rest of their careers, and instead want to take on the challenge of leading their own companies.

Downtown shopping districts will capture traffic from fading malls

Malls will struggle in the era of COVID-19. Being inside an enclosed bubble will not be the ideal situation for most shoppers for the foreseeable future. Morning Consult reports that 24 percent of U.S. consumers fear shopping in malls for at least the next six months due to the COVID-19 threat.

As an article about a newly reopened mall in Atlanta explains, the experience won’t be very welcoming in the near term. Play areas are roped off, water fountains covered, and stores are limiting the number of shoppers due to social distancing. Add in the inconvenience factor, and it’s clear why so many malls are facing a reckoning in the coming years.

As regional malls continue losing consumers due to changing shopping habits and fears of COVID-19, an excellent opportunity presents itself for villages, towns, and cities to regain their dominance as thriving centers for retail and entertainment.

Some factors to consider:

  • As Millennials and Empty Nesters seek to live, work, and shop in urban centers, medium-sized cities (100,000 to 200,000 population) are especially likely to benefit from this trend.
  • Small towns (10,000 to 20,000 people) located near large urban centers are also appealing to start-up retailers and restaurants that want to take advantage of their proximity to large, well-heeled populations and small towns’ affordable commercial storefronts.
  • New walkable town centers — planned with authentic urbanism and a variety of hospitality, employment and residential land use — can also ride the wave of Millennials, young families, and Empty Nesters who seek an exciting place to hang out.

Main Streets are already innovating

Main Streets have been reinventing themselves in a positive way during the past few decades, making them a more attractive alternative for retail shopping in the era of COVID-19.

These innovations include:

  • Updated master plans that undo blight caused by 1970s urban renewal plans.
  • Implementation of Downtown Development Districts, which offer marketing, promotions, special events, street cleaning, landscaping, flowers and private-sector levels of management.
  • Effective parking management, and construction of new parking lots and garages.
  • Investment in beautiful new streetscapes, public art, and street furnishings.
  • Reduction of crime, increased safety.
  • U.S. Main Street programs, which offers guidance to revitalize downtowns, and returns $36 for each $1 invested.

For Millennials, who seek more social experiences as opposed to the enclosed mall experience of their youth, Main Street experiences in their towns and cities are the perfect fit for their lifestyle.

While the larger portion of their income will go to experiences such as European travel or outdoor adventures, closer-to-home visits to a local brewpub or coffee shop in their town center make perfect sense.

Main Streets will provide new homes for mall stores

As malls close and online shopping grows, existing mall retailers will seek new locations near their former mall stores. In many instances, these venues include smaller downtown cores, which traditionally offer lower rents and, now, the safety of an open-air shopping experience.

The writing is on the wall for mall store operators, all of which leads to an economically-friendly, Main Street setting:

  • Malls depend on department stores to attract almost 50 percent of their shoppers and cannot operate without them, which is problematic for many reasons.
  • Many mall retailers have lease options allowing them to break their leases and leave the mall should key department stores close.
  • Department stores are losing market share, from a peak of 50 percent of all retail sales in the 1950s to 5 percent today.
  • Since the heyday of malls in 1992, department store sales have dropped from $230 billion to $140 billion and many department stores are close to bankruptcy.
  • Over 50 percent of regional malls are forecast to close by 2025 (Credit Suisse).

Retail and Office Space Will Move to Town Centers

The online shopping boom has made nearly obsolete many of the conventional large power center retailers offering products such as books, electronics, office supplies, sporting goods, and toys. The end result is the expected closing of millions of square feet of retail space.

Often, these centers cover typically 20-50 acres of prime real estate, which presents an opportunity. They can be converted into mixed-use town centers with medium density residential and commercial occupants.

The same can be said of suburban office parks, as even centers in blue-chip locations are facing high vacancies and declining rents as many major corporations are moving into city centers to attract top talent. Millennials find the suburban office parks boring, preferring to live and work in downtowns. These large office parks have an abundance of land and parking that can be retrofitted into walkable mixed-use town centers.

Challenges and opportunities for downtown shopping districts

When a national brand relocates from a mall environment to a town or city, they may initially receive a cold shoulder from city leaders and the community, who fear popular brands will end up killing their beloved Main Street’s unique charm.

Looking back at history, though, this thinking is inaccurate, as downtown shopping districts were filled with leading retailers and large department stores during their 1950s heyday. For long-term sustainability, a downtown should always offer the goods and services desired by its residents and workers, which may include popular brand names.

Zoning is another key battle. Cities must offer flexible form-based zoning to allow for medium-to-high densities of residential and commercial to be developed as walkable neighborhoods and business districts. Development standards should focus on requiring quality design and materials, rather than arbitrary minimal units per acre densities, minimal parking ratios, or suburban building setbacks.

Parking needs to be reconfigured to allow shoppers to pickup goods curbside.

Downtowns and open-air town centers are seen as safer from the pandemic than enclosed malls, because they offer:

  • Wider spaces.
  • Less-enclosed spaces, with more fresh air and direct sunlight.
  • The ability to walk on other side of street or block.
  • No elevators or escalators.
  • Fewer doors to enter.
  • Curbside pick-up of goods.

People enjoy visiting towns and cities to socialize and experience parks, urban life, including storefronts.

They visit to have an experience they cannot get through online shopping. And while visiting downtowns for entertainment and fun, many will walk by store fronts and be tempted to make impulse purchases from Main Street retailers.

Inviting storefront that provides a unique shopping experience in Nantucket, MA / Robert Gibbs
Ralph Lauren shop in Southhampton, NY / Robert Gibbs
Shoppers in Naples, Florida / Robert Gibbs

Towns and small city landlords typically offer much cheaper rents than suburban malls, often more than 50 percent less, and also offer flexible lease terms: no minimum hours and less rigorous storefront and merchandising standards than mall leases. This type of accommodation will be more attractive to new entrepreneurs created from this pandemic.

The savings also are appealing to national retailers facing declining sales and mall leases that are too expensive.

How downtown Main Streets can ensure success

As we look to the future, and the economic recovery that will come once a vaccine is created and herd immunity is established, all signs point to the re-emergence of Main Street as the place people will want to do their retail shopping.

A new generation of entrepreneurs will be eager to start a new chapter in their life, and the suburban shopping centers are not going to attract them.

Well-designed town centers, with the type of social interaction sought by Millennials, young families, and Empty Nesters will be the new home for the boom in the years to come.

King Street in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia / Robert Gibbs

A few best practices for downtowns to apply:

  • Create a marketing strategy for a post-pandemic campaign.
  • Beautify the public realm through landscape, lighting, parking lots-garages, signage, streetscape, and storefront improvements.
  • Explore temporary commercial street closures to allow for open air dining and shopping spaces.
  • Modify zoning to allow first floor office and service business.
  • Require store fronts to maintain large clear glazing, sign bands, operating doors, and ceiling heights to allow for future retail or restaurant use.
  • Remove or reduce minimum retail and restaurant parking requirements in downtowns and new mixed-use developments.
  • Include generous 10-minute parking spaces to accommodate curbside pickups for restaurants and retailers.
  • Devise market-based business recruitment plans and resources to identify and attract new retailers and restaurants into the downtown.
  • Seek a balance of local, regional, and national retailers.
  • Apply flexible zoning to promote medium-density and high-density multi-family residential.
  • Implement market based master plans, form-based codes, and zoning flexibility to allow for retrofitting of underutilized shopping centers and office parks.

Robert Gibbs, FASLA, is president of the Gibbs Planning Group, which has advised and planned commercial areas in some 500 town centers and historic cities in the U.S. and abroad. Gibbs is a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, a lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, author of Principles of Urban Retail Planning and Development, and co-author of eight books.