The Injustices of the South Shaped Olmsted’s Vision of Landscape Architecture

Map from the 1862 edition of Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom by Frederick Law Olmsted. / Courtesy of the PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography at Cornell University

In the final decades of the 19th century, the new art of landscape architecture was born, in large part due to the efforts of Frederick Law Olmsted. This new profession offered “very specific responses” to the social, political, and environmental challenges of the time, argued Charles Waldheim, Hon. ASLA, the John E. Irving professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, in a panel discussion organized as part of the year-long Olmsted 200 program. “Landscape architecture was radical during his time — a whole new field focused on social progress and reform.”

Before founding the profession of landscape architecture, Olmsted had been a reporter and superintendent of Central Park in New York City, a commission he had won with a design created with Calvert Vaux. Waldheim argued that the 1857 economic shock was a “hinge point” that created demand for a “whole new set of practices, focused on social justice, equity, and public reform.” Economic change created the conditions for landscape architecture.

According to John Stauffer, the Sumner R. and Marshall S. Kates professor of English and African and African American studies at Harvard, Olmsted was long interested in social reform, particularly in the South, where he traveled as a reporter for The New York Daily Times, which later became The New York Times. His reporting formed the basis of three books, which were later packaged in a single, more staunchly abolitionist book on the eve of the Civil War: The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveler’s Observations on Cotton And Slavery in the American Slave States, 1853-1861. “As a writer focused on slavery, he illuminated the South for the North,” Stauffer said. And his writings has enormous political impact: “Olmsted’s books convinced England to not recognize the Confederacy.”

Other than the first-person narratives by slaves in the South, Olmsted’s writings are the most “detailed and accurate slave narratives” available, Stauffer contends. While Olmsted wasn’t an abolitionist at least at first, he “gradually become anti-slavery.”

His early focus was on “improving the land, self, and society — and he championed restoration and regeneration.” He believed American regeneration required infrastructure, which in turn required broad public support and engagement with communities. He wanted to see the South and the rest of the country build public and democratically accessible canals, roads, town squares, parks, schools, and libraries.

While town squares and parks “partially existed in the South,” he found through his travels there were “very few roads and schools, and no restaurants or libraries.” The South had no public realm; it was all private land in the form of massive plantations. Through his depictions in his articles and books, he subtly spoke out about life on southern plantations and slavery.

He painted a portrait of plantations as “primitives places” where everyone working there was “mostly illiterate.” He saw plantations as small universes upon themselves, feudal societies, where the plantation owner was “judge and executioner.” He was horrified by the southern criminal system in which no slave was allowed to testify. His time living on plantations drove him to call for “public infrastructure for a democratic community.”

In the South, capital was invested in private land and human bodies and little in anything else. “Olmsted saw frontier conditions everywhere, dilapidation and carelessness.” While Southern romantic visions of an immaculate white house in a plantation were widespread, he found the reality was “less than 1 percent of the population were wealthy white planters; the rest lived in rude dwellings.” No aesthetic improvements were made for the non-elites, which created a “sense of backwardness” in the whole society.

Olmsted was anti-slavery, but he also wrote statements that are understood to be racist. While in his reporting he sought to be balanced — reporting both the perspective of the white landowner and the slave — he made comments such as “some slaves prefer being slaves.” But in his writings, he was also sympathetic to Black yeoman and subsistence farmers, Stauffer said.

Olmsted was a reformer in political, aesthetic, cultural, intellectual, and material senses. “His reform vision took an aesthetic form” in the design of a system of public parks and boulevards in so many cities. “Central Park is how he would have liked to improve the South, with all classes mixing.” However, it’s important to recognize that the creation of Central Park involved the displacement of Seneca Village, a Black middle class community, by the New York City government.

According to Sara Zewde, assistant professor in the practice of landscape architecture at Harvard University and founder of Studio Zewde, Olmsted forged the new field of landscape architecture as a way to “triangulate between his interests in farming, law, and politics.” There was no existing profession that brought all his interests together. And while the prevailing narrative about Olmsted is that he was first a journalist and then pivoted to become landscape architect, Zewde sees a “linearity in these interests.”

At the start of the Civil War, Olmsted was working on the same social reform and anti-slavery causes through his writings, advocacy, and design projects. “If we look chronologically at his works, he went back and forth between travel, advocacy, and landscape architecture practice. They were all very much part of the same project.”

For Zewde, a landscape architect, educator, and “Black woman raised in the South,” this is perhaps Olmsted’s most important legacy to the field of landscape architecture — he demonstrated its potential to work at multiple scales and in multiple formats, through writing, advocacy, and design.

With the beginning of the Civil War, he thought the institution of slavery was “corrosive” on southern society. “People who owned slaves had lost the ability to investment in themselves or their society. The health of soils, the landscape, and economy were all skewed. There was no innovation or culture, art, or civic ground.” Leaving Central Park while it’s still being constructed to re-write his articles for Cotton Kingdom is the “clearest articulation of how singular his interests are,” Zewde argued.

He also produced a spatial analysis of the Cotton Kingdom, mapping the concentration of enslaved people and the health of each southern state economy in order to show the “inverse relationship between ecological health and the distribution of resources and slavery.”

In 2013, Zewde followed the path of Olmsted’s journeys through the South to better understand his contribution to landscape-scale thinking. Retracing his steps, Zewde reached the conclusion that the socio-economic conditions Olmsted witnessed remain persistent 165 years later, but the physical conditions have changed. The landscapes of slavery have been “recast, obscured, and erased.”

Retracing Olmsted’s steps in the South / Sara Zewde
Retracing Olmsted’s steps in the South / Sara Zewde
Retracing Olmsted’s steps in the South / Sara Zewde
Retracing Olmsted’s steps in the South / Sara Zewde
Retracing Olmsted’s steps in the South / Sara Zewde

Zewde wondered what Olmsted would think of landscape architecture being “used as a tool or weapon to untell stories.” For example, visiting Whole Field Square in Savannah, Georgia, Olmsted “took great care in transcribing the names on headstones in an African burial ground. He was very descriptive and expository.” But while visiting the site, Zewde found “no sign or marker of the existence of what he found.” Landscape architecture had recast the story of the place. Talking to visitors, “everyone had no idea what Olmsted witnessed or that were Black bodies buried there. The headstones had been removed to another part of the city, the ‘other side of the tracks.'”

Whole Field Square, Savannah, Georgia / Sara Zewde

Olmsted advocated for how the profession should be used — in the same tradition as his vision for reform. “Olmsted offered a methodological proposition — a multi-scalar approach looking at macro-ecologies and economies, down to the level of social interaction.” Following his model, landscape architecture is as focused on the “national state of democracy as what that means for a path in the park.”

In the Q&A, Waldheim noted that the idea of site design and politics as somehow in opposition is false. For Olmsted, “they were one in the same.”

For example, Stauffer noted that Olmsted was deeply suspicious of “privatized things,” like he found everywhere in the South. “He criticized that he couldn’t find a hotel room or restaurant anywhere on his travels.” For him, to improve a “community aesthetically and culturally was also political.”

While he isn’t sure Olmsted read Frederick Douglass’ writings on aesthetics and reform, he believed Olmsted, like Douglass, thought that “true art breaks down racial barriers because it highlights the essential equality of all people. Douglass’ aesthetic vision was: within unity, there is diversity, and within diversity, there is unity.” The poet Walt Whitman had a similar sentiment with “every blade of grass. Out of many one. Every human being is different, but equal despite differences.”

Zewde said in his personal letters Olmsted was much more “forthcoming and explicit” about his objections to slavery, but in his public writings was “more subversive in order to not lose his southern audience.”

His writings would describe the aesthetic qualities of the land, such as the light at dusk, which was then “paired with a shocking description of torture of a slave.” His writings were also “peppered with compelling conversations with enslaved people,” asking them what is most important to them. He relayed their “striving for life” amid details of the landscape. The “proposition is quite profound” — life and freedom are also about aesthetics. “The cultural and aesthetic framing of life makes it worth living.”

Speaking to one enslaved person, Olmsted asks them what they hope for if they became free. They said they wish to “have a home, plot of land, and a wife, to work the land.” Zewde believes this was a notable moment for Olmsted, who then carried these ideas back to New York and his future work creating public spaces.

The entire hour-long session posted by Olmsted 200 can also be watched below:

This Olmsted 200 program was co-sponsored and co-organized by ASLA and the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA).

At the Congress for New Urbanism, A Critique of European Eco-Cities

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany / Freiburg Tourism Bureau. Copyright FWTM-Spiegelhalter

Are European eco-cities models for the future or do they reflect poor urban design practices? During the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering, a group of architects and urban designers debated the merits of a few well-known sustainable cities, including Vauban in Freiburg, Germany; Bo01 in Malmö, Sweden; Kronsberg in Germany; and Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm, Sweden. While there was agreement on the need to densify cities through new compact low-carbon development, there was a lack of consensus on the best way to make sustainable communities more walkable and aesthetically pleasing and how to best incorporate landscape and access to nature.

According to Dhiru Thadani, an architect and urbanist, the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.2 billion by 2050. “Where will all these people live?,” he wondered.

Land scarcity isn’t the issue. “We could fit 14 billion people into the state of Texas if it was as dense as Paris.” But creating enough dense low-carbon communities is.

Increased density of human settlements is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Walkable, bikeable communities, with access to low-carbon transit, have the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any development model. The key to encouraging denser development is making these communities as livable and beautiful as possible.

Architect and academic Michael Dennis, author of Architecture & The City: Selected Essays, argued that “dense urbanism is the most efficient” way to live. He also believes that ecology can be integrated into compact developments — “density doesn’t preclude ecological considerations; ecology and density are fraternal twins.”

But he believes density must be the priority with any new development. Two-thirds of Americans now live in suburban environments where they are dependent on cars that use fossil fuels. These sprawled-out, car-based communities continues our dependence on the “oil empire.”

Citing arguments made in the books Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change by urban planner Peter Calthorpe and Green Metropolis by The New Yorker writer David Owen, Dennis argued that dense urbanism “uses less land, carbon, and energy, and is the best climate solution.” To stave off the climate crisis, “we have 10-15 years left to make major changes,” which he argues involves transforming our communities into higher-density ones. He added that “stormwater and recycling issues didn’t create this crisis.”

While contemporary European eco-cities offer a model for how to maximize density and incorporate ecological landscape design, his issue is with their urban forms, “which aren’t good.” He believes that the issue is “confusion in terms of the role of landscape: the urbanism-to-building connection.”

Dennis believes ecological systems can be integrated into traditional dense and humane European community forms, but European eco-cities haven’t created the right connections between urban form, buildings, landscape, and people. These communities have an urban design problem.

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, which is one of the original European eco-cities built on the site of a former military base, “still looks like army barracks.” While Freiburg is a “beautiful traditional European city,” Vauban “looks like a trailer park on steroids, invaded by an untamed landscape that looks like a jungle.” Its environmental merits are solid — the development is powered by solar energy and includes all ultra-low energy passive house buildings — but “the landscape is confused and unclear.” It’s a “good environmental solution, but not necessarily good urbanism.” (Dennis didn’t mention the wealth of research on the health benefits of nearby nature).

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany / Taras Grescoe, Twitter
Vauban in Freiburg, Germany / Taras Grescoe, Twitter

As for Bo01, a development designed in the early 00s that is powered entirely by renewable energy, the community is too distinct from the beautiful streets and squares of Malmö. In Bo01, “there are no squares or real streets; it’s an architectural project, not an urbanism project. It’s formed of architectural lego blocks.”

Bo01, Malmo, Sweden / Wikipedia, Johan Jönsson, CC BY-SA 4.0

For Dennis, Kronsberg was “so awful I couldn’t spend time on it.” Hammarby in Stockholm is the best of the set, but “it’s still problematic — it has an architectural design, not an urban design.”

John Ellis, a consulting principal, architect, and urban designer at Mithun, disagreed. “Hammarby isn’t as bad as Michael says.” The project, which transformed a polluted brownfield site, was created as part of an Olympics bid the city didn’t win. The development, which now has 20,000 residents and 11,000 jobs, was designed to extend public transit in a ring loop and provide close proximity to a number of other jobs in Stockholm. Hammarby is powered by 50 percent renewable energy and 50 percent biogas from waste.

Hammarby, Stockholm, Sweden / Flickr, Design for Health, CC BY 2.0

There is a transit stop every 984 feet (300 meters), and the tram arrives every 12 minutes. Studies found that 80 percent of trips in Hammarby occur through walking, biking, or public transit.

Blocks were scaled at 200 feet by 360 feet, and buildings are all U-shaped in order to give everyone views of the surrounding lake. There are networks of landscaped pathways that criss-cross the development, adding green space and alternative ways to traverse the community. The development includes a high school and childcare facilities. “While there is a certain monotony, there are many ingredients that create a good urban pattern. And with buildings 5-8 stories tall, Hammarby is 2.5 times as dense as San Francisco,” Ellis said.

Hammarby, Stockholm, Sweden / Flickr, Design for Health, CC BY 2.0

Architect Doug Farr, who Planetizen called one of the top 100 most influential urbanists, said the world is now facing a climate emergency, so we need to move on from the traditional urbanism of the past. A leading sustainable architect, he has also found design inspiration in Freiburg and Vauban, which he has studied in depth in person.

“Traditional urbanism is part of the fabric of 19th century Europe. But we are facing 21st century questions. Traditional urbanism is good for creating walkability, but development models can’t be fixed in amber. They need to evolve to meet the challenges of today.”

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

Art in its nature state: visible invisible in Arkansas / Phoebe Lickwar, via Sightlines

Edible Cities: Landscape Architect Phoebe Lickwar on Post-pandemic Public Spaces and Urban Agriculture — 06/14/21, Sightlines
“Landscape architect Phoebe Lickwar thinks about how more food could be grown within cities — how agriculture should be a part of contemporary urban infrastructure. Sure, that means things like more community gardens where people can grow their own food. But even the practice of community gardens needs significant expansion and change.”

Cornelia Oberlander, a Farsighted Landscape Architect, Dies at 99 — 06/09/21, The New York Times
“Her acclaimed modernist but naturalist designs recognized the fragility of the climate and the social effects of parks and playgrounds.”

When Monuments Go Bad — 06/08/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“The Chicago Monuments Project is leading a city-wide dialogue in search of ways to resolve its landscape of problematic statues, and make room for a new, different kind of public memorial.”

Explore the Modernist Landscapes of Washington, D.C., with This New Illustrated Guide — 06/08/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Now, D.C.’s modernist landscapes are taking center stage with a new illustrated guide produced by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in partnership with the National Park Service. Titled D.C. Modernism, the handheld device-optimized, GPS-enabled city guide is the 18th of its kind to be produced by TCLF as part of the What’s Out There series.”

With New Law, Las Vegas Water Agency Bets on ‘Aggressive Municipal Water Conservation Measure’ to Remove Decorative Turf, Conserve Colorado River Supply — 06/08/21, The Nevada Independent
“Over the past two decades, Lake Mead, which holds nearly all of Las Vegas’ water, has dropped more than 100 feet amid drought and overuse. In response, federal regulators expect to declare the first-ever shortage for the Colorado River next year, triggering cuts to Arizona and Nevada’s allocations.”

Lower Merion Suddenly Has a Walkable Riverfront, Thanks to Pencoyd Landing Development — 06/07/21, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“By incorporating bits and pieces from the ironworks into the design, the project becomes more than just another generic development. History is made visible in the steel outline of the former complex.”

Deanna Van Buren: How to Unbuild Racism

“To unbuild racism, we have to build what we believe,” said Deanna Van Buren, an architect, urban developer, and founder of Designing Justice+Designing Spaces, in a powerful keynote speech at the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering.

Van Buren believes that unearthing and rooting out “ingrained racism and patriarchy” requires daily practice because these issues are so embedded in our society. “There have been hundreds of years of displacement and disenfranchisement — redlining, ‘urban renewal,’ and reverse redlining in the form of predatory lending.” In too many communities, “there is a continued manifestation of racism through the co-location of toxic waste sites, freeways that cut through cultural hearts, inadequate housing, and food deserts.”

To bring equity to the built environment, architects, landscape architects, planners, and developers need to “stop creating prettier versions of racist systems.” Instead, planning and design professionals should focus on restorative justice, a system of justice “not anchored in enslavement, but in indigenous processes.”

Restorative justice is a process in which those who have created harm can make amends and heal the people they have hurt. In many communities, restorative justice is increasingly becoming a viable alternative to the conventional justice system. Cases are being steered out of court to mediators trained in restorative justice.

“The process involves Native American peace making approaches,” Van Buren explained. Peace making is led by a trusted elder figure, a “circle keeper,” who can facilitate the addressing of wrongs. Someone who stole a car or committed a theft at gunpoint sits in a circle across from the person they have wronged. Peace making has to be “hyper local but also happen on neutral ground.”

Her planning, design, and development projects all aim to replace the conventional justice system with a new holistic approach rooted in community needs.

In Syracuse, New York, her organization designed the Center for Court Innovation, a peace making center out of an abandoned house, creating a space that feels like a home, not a court, and include circles of chairs, sofas, a kitchen, and gardens. The center is a safe place and has become a true community mecca that offers food and drink and space for other events, even engagement parties.

Near Westside Peacemaking Project, Syracuse, NY / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Near Westside Peacemaking Project, Syracuse, NY / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

Van Buren hopes restorative justice system will become the primary way to provide justice. She envisions a network of restorative justice centers distributed in neutral places, outside of gang zones, across communities.

In Oakland, California, she has been realizing this vision through Restore Oakland, which will host a “constellation of non-profit organizations” that provide both restorative justice and economics. In addition to peace making spaces, the center will include community organizing spaces and a restaurant on the ground floor that trains people to work in fine dining. “It will be an anchor for this entire community.”

To create more equitable and safe communities in the Bay Area, Van Buren and her team are also co-organizing pop-up villages with custom-crafted wood stalls. “These are temporary projects designed for impact.” Visitors can have everything from a breast cancer screening to an AIDS test to a haircut. “These villages help build community relationships, which is how we keep people safe and also support local businesses.”

Popup Village, Bay Area, California / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Popup Village, Bay Area, California / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

In another project, Van Buren’s organization re-imagined a re-entry center for incarcerated women. “When they get out of prison, they are confronted with so many barriers.” Her team collaborated with women just released to design a mobile refuge that provides a safe space to get oriented before moving to transitional housing and its dormitory living. The mobile refuge provides therapy and social services.

Women’s Mobile Refuge / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Women’s Mobile Refuge / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

Another goal is repurposing hundreds of downtown jails that have closed in recent years. “These are toxic holes in downtowns that can be re-imagined as community centers,” she said.

Van Buren has worked with community groups to re-imagine the Atlanta City detention center as a community center with co-located city services and new revenue streams. One option is to daylight the old jail, creating daycare space and meeting rooms. With the right broadband infrastructure, the dark spaces in the bowels of the building could be rented out as server farms. Another option is to simply tear the existing building down and distribute restorative justice centers across the city.

Reimagining the Atlanta City Detention Center / Designing Justice + Designing Spaces
Reimagining the Atlanta City Detention Center / Designing Justice + Designing Spaces

And over the long-term, Van Buren wants to see more wealth come to underserved communities. This can happen if more low-income residents can purchase their own homes or earn profits from development projects.

In Detroit, Van Buren’s team and a number of partners are working on an ambitious community land trust — the Love Campus, which aims to “build the infrastructure to end mass incarceration by creating re-investments that can divert funding from criminal justice into restorative community assets.”

Love Campus, Detroit / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Love Campus, Detroit / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

Retrofitted buildings will become an arts and culture hub, with low-cost gallery space, digital fabrication tools, and industrial design spaces. The community development will also include housing; job training, because “people don’t kill each other when they have jobs;” and a youth center, because “youth have no place to go.” The project will be crowd-funded so people who don’t meet minimum real estate investment thresholds can participate in wealth generation. “Affordable housing is a poverty trap; people need to own their own homes.”

These projects demonstrate that designers play an important role — they can “ignite radical imagination, create a co-learning process and democratic tools for change.”

New Research: The Built Environment Impacts Our Health and Happiness More Than We Know

ASLA 2020 Urban Design Honor award. Yongqing Fang Alleyways: An Urban Transformation. Guangzhou, China. Lah D+H Landscape and Urban Design

People living in dense cities are among the least happy. Their rates of depression are 40 percent higher than other populations; and their rates of anxiety are 20 percent higher. Why? Because the built environment is directly linked with happiness and well-being, and too often urban environments fail to put people at ease.

In a session at the American Planning Association’s virtual conference, Justin Hollander, professor of urban and environmental planning and policy at Tufts University, said planners, landscape architects, and architects have a responsibility to design a built environment that increases well-being. Through his fascinating research on cognitive architecture, he has found “we are deeply influenced by our surroundings” — even more than we know.

“We have an automatic (non-conscious) response to shapes, patterns, and colors. Our minds are like icebergs — we are only aware of less than 5 percent of our responses to our environment,” Hollander said. These findings, which are covered in greater detail in his book Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, co-authored with Ann Sussman, have significant implications for the planning and design of communities.

Hollander argued that “humans are wall-hugging species. Well-defined corridors and streets encourage our walking.” (see image at top)

On an innate level, humans are also “programmed to look for faces everywhere.” This may be why many traditional or vernacular buildings almost look like faces, with a central door and windows on either side.

A building that looks like a face / Ann Sussman, Tufts University

Humans connect with these forms because they help us tell stories about buildings and places. “We go to places because of stories we tell ourselves. We can imagine identities in these places. Tourist attractions always tell a story.”

Given nature is our original context, humans also have an innate biophilia — a deep attraction to and affinity for nature. “It’s an artifact of evolution.”

ASLA 2020 Landmark Award. Millennium Park — A Fortuitous Masterpiece. Lurie Garden by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol / P. Psyzka and City of Chicago

As we now understand, humans are drawn to landscapes that provide a refuge, a sense of safety, and prospect, a view of the entire scene, which supports that sense of safety. Storytelling is also important in landscapes, whether they are gardens, parks, or streetscapes. Humans are drawn to landscapes that provide clear sequences.

ASLA 2018 Professional Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Juliane Schaer

At Tufts University, Hollander is examining students’ cognitive responses to a variety of images of the built environment. Through eye-tracking software, “we can see the unseen — we can see what our minds are looking at an unconscious level.”

In his lab, Hollander uses 3M’s visual attention software to map the path students’ eyes take across an image — where they fixate and experience an unconscious response to visual stimuli. In a study of 30 students, Hollander found they universally looked at the entrance and windows on a traditonal building first, ignoring the blank areas. And when he showed students’ eye tracks of a contemporary all-glass library, they fixated briefly on the edges, but the glass facade itself seemed faceless, almost invisible. They just looked at the sky because the image simply caused too much cognitive stress. (In the image below, the areas of highest fixation are in red, followed by orange, with blue indicating the least attention).

Eye tracking of a traditional building and a glass library / Justin Hollander and Ann Sussman, Tufts University

Hollander said eye tracking software shows that New Urbanist-style communities, which have homes closer to the street; traditional architecture that mimic faces; and sidewalks all “encourage walking.” If a pedestrian can see a sequence — one, two, three, four homes in a row — they are more likely to want to walk down that row. He knows this because he could see the students unconsciously looking at all the facades down the street in a sequence.

In contrast, an image of a row of parking garages, with no clear doors or windows, caused students to scan for windows, quickly give up, and again look at the sky. “There was far less visual intensity, and it’s a less walkable environment.”

Flags and columns succeed in grabbing attention, which has been known for millennia. Flags predate permanent settlements, and the ancient Greeks and Romans used columns in their architecture.

Why does this matter? Hollander argues that environments that are easier to fixate on cause less cognitive stress.

Megan Oliver, an urbanist based in Baltimore, Maryland, and founder of Hello Happy Design, said the research of Hollander and others is critical, because there is a “mental health crisis” in the U.S., particularly American cities.

People are constantly responding to the built environment and in turn trying to shape it in order to reduce the impact of environmental stressors, such as blank glass or concrete building facades, crowds, noise, and air pollution. These stressors combine to make people anxious, sick, and unhappy.

In contrast, happy places are designed to encourage pro-social behavior. This is because “people need social connections in order to thrive.” Happy places help create layers of social relations, including “weak ties,” which are actually very important. “Weak ties create a sense of belonging and identity. They build trust, which helps pull communities through challenges.” Communities with higher weak ties and trust fought the COVID-19 pandemic better.

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Honor Award. Walker Art Center Wurtele Upper Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Inside | Outside + HGA / Theodore Lee

Oliver argued that communities with pro-social behavior are also more inclusive and participatory and therefore better at shaping the built environment to meet their needs. The ethos in these communities is “change ourselves by changing the city.” These communities shape their spaces, creating shared identity through gardens, public art, and other improvements that help reduce stressors. Happy places then go beyond “places we inhabit and become extensions of ourselves.” These places enable us to “bond with the environment around us.”

A related conversation, also with Hollander, occurred at the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering. In a rapid-fire Zoom roundtable, the debate about what makes people happy or not in the built environment continued.

Architect Don Ruggles, CEO of Ruggles Mabe Studio, argued that “humans are always looking for safe spaces. We think about survival every minute of the day. But beauty is equally as important. We have an intuitive response — it creates a sense of pleasure.”

The problem, he argues, is that “our survival instinct is about five-to-seven times stronger than our pleasure instinct,” so anything in the built environment that is a stressor overwhelms our ability to experience beauty. He called for designers to focus on projects that engage our parasympathetic system that create deep relaxation so that pleasure can be experienced.

According to Nikos Salingaros, professor of mathematics, architecture, urban, and complexity theory at the University of Texas at San Antonio, architects today are wed to a style rooted in 1920s Germany — the Bauhaus — that creates an unhealthy built environment. “Trillions of dollars are wasted on creating stylistically irrelevant glass boxes that are essentially invisible to people. Whole cities — districts, neighborhoods, and downtowns — have become invisible, because of the geometries and math of the structures built.” Given humans are cognitively stressed by Modernist or contemporary glass buildings, these places are “close to malpractice, based on the medical evidence.”

Instead, Salingaros called for privileging human connections through walkable, bikeable places. “Start with network connectivity. No giant blocks. Create intimate networks that are comfortable to humans.” Furthermore, all urban spaces should be “continuations of those people-centric networks. Use the correct dimensions, apply pattern languages, and make the boundaries of buildings and spaces permeable.”

Urban designers, architects, and landscape architects should be “applying mathematical symmetries at multiple scales. The urban, landscape, architectural, and ornamental scale should all be aligned through sub-symmetries” — or the entire design will fail. “The measure of success will be the flow of people.”

He especially cautioned against contemporary buildings that purposefully try to be disharmonious — “these place intentionally violate symmetry laws,” creating stress in their attempt to grab attention.

For Ann Sussman, an architect, author, and researcher, designers can retrofit environments that create stress and anxiety, but only to a degree. She pointed to a project in Somerville, Massachusetts, where the negative impact of the blank concrete wall of a parking garage was mitigated through public art and greenery. Students shown the blank wall and then an image of the redesigned wall while wearing eye-tracking monitors experienced higher visual fixation on the art.

But in the case of a car-centric suburb, with a wide road with few houses along it, even adding in sidewalks would do little to reduce the impact of its inherent car-centric nature. “As people look down the street, they can’t fixate on the sidewalk and therefore safety. There are some suburbs built in the 1950s and 60s that just will never be walkable. These places are too foreign to our brain architecture.”

Unfortunately, new developments can have the same problems. Sussman asked: “Why is the Seaport district in South Boston so loathed? It’s because people can’t focus on it — they can’t anchor their sight on the glass buildings, so their fixation is anchored to the sky.”

Seaport District, Boston / Signature Boston

After the Worst of the Pandemic, What Will Happen to Open Streets?

During the pandemic, many neighborhoods that were once bounded by streets designed primarily for cars became permeable and open. With the spread of open, slow, or shared streets, pedestrians and cyclists quickly took over traffic lanes, creating an expanded, often safer public realm. Vehicular traffic into downtowns and town centers also saw a dramatic decline, which made wider streets and boulevards and expansive parking lots ripe for transformation into safe spaces for exercise and socially-distanced community events.

Now that the coronavirus is ebbing, at least in many parts of the U.S., communities are wrestling with the legacy of their open streets initiatives. Should some streets remain pedestrian and bicyclist-first spaces? Should temporary changes to slow or ban cars be made permanent? How can landscape architects and planners sort through the options?

In a session at the American Planning Association’s virtual conference, Lian Farhi, senior transportation planner with Sam Schwartz in Brooklyn, New York, said when reevaluating new shared spaces and deciding whether to make them permanent, communities should first ask: “what is their added value?”

Communities need a “decision-making framework, with overall goals and objectives,” she said. Temporary street closures, pop-up parklets, painted sidewalks and bike lanes, and other new shared outdoor dining and recreational spaces should be evaluated in terms of “usage, safety, accessibility, equity, diversity, mobility, and maintenance requirements.”

The city government of New York City, which opened up 60 miles of streets in five boroughs to pedestrian and bicycle use during the height of the pandemic, is now looking again at some of their temporary open streets.

Irene Figueroa-Ortiz, senior project manager with NYC’s department of transportation, said of all their pilot open streets, 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, was the most successful. “26 continuous blocks were closed to cars and immediately taken over by people.” Parts of the avenue in front of schools became expanded playgrounds and used as educational spaces. Figueroa-Ortiz said “there’s now broad public support for this new public space. The community wants to make it permanent.”

To determine whether to keep 34th Avenue open, the city needs to measure impact. Her department has undertaken an extensive multi-cultural community engagement process in Jackson Heights, one of the most diverse communities in the country, with surveys, webinars, and design workshops, supported by real-time translation in numerous languages.

The department of transportation received more than 2,000 responses to their requests for input, whereas before they would expect around 100 responses. The feedback is helping to map out safety concerns, determine community members’ satisfaction, and re-imagine traffic lights and flow to enhance safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Figueroa-Ortiz said that survey results also show that open streets in New York City “weren’t successful in underserved communities, because of higher crime rates and the fact that essential workers were too busy to take advantage of the spaces. But overall, only a handful of shared streets in NYC were deemed unsuccessful.”

Steven Bossler, a landscape architect and planner who founded Shift Planning and Design in Denver, Colorado, said putting together packages of small federal, state, and local recovery grants has been critical to making temporary COVID-19 park and streetscape improvement projects come together — and more financing will be needed to make them permanent.

Olde Town Arvada, a community in Colorado, found the funds to reimagine their streets as public spaces free of cars. Restaurants and stores lining the street saw a 200 percent increase in foot traffic, which was matched by a 200 percent increase in sales tax receipts. Now coming out of the worst of the pandemic, “80 percent of residents say the open street should continue.”

Olde Town Arvada / Olde Town Arvada Business Improvement District

But in Paonia, Colorado, which used $46,000 in state grants matched with $8,000 in local funds to undertake temporary tactical urbanism projects, the results were less positive. Projects included vibrant painted crosswalks, bump-out parklets, and bike lanes. “Residents liked the greenery and colorful sidewalks, but didn’t like that parking was removed for the new bike lanes,” Bossler said. (The survey results are worth a read).

Jenny Baker, a land use consultant with Clarion Associates in Denver, Colorado, said communities can better leverage their zoning code to make long-term changes now that the coronoavirus is being contained by greater numbers of vaccinated people. “Codes can be used, for example, to enable outdoor seating. Parking requirements can also be revisited.”

Baker said much still needs to be figured out to make these new open streets permanent. “Where do the intersections begin and end? If there are now different visual cues at intersections, how do people navigate safely? Are shared streets legally the right-of-way or park space? Do the agencies managing these spaces need to change? Some of these things are a little difficult to answer.”

Just as temporary COVID-19 solutions were largely driven by local needs, long-term changes will be as well. But, hopefully, greater flexibility and experimentation are here to stay.

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

Swing Time by Höweler + Yoon Architecture, Boston / via Bloomberg CityLab

Teen Girls Need Better Public Spaces to Hang Out — 05/28/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Basketball courts, skate parks and playgrounds overlook an important demographic: teenage girls. A burgeoning design movement is trying to fix that.”

D.C. Retakes Top Spot in Annual Survey of Nation’s Best Parks; Arlington at No. 4 — 05/27/21, The Washington Post
“The survey, released Thursday by the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group, ranks the nation’s 100 largest cities on park access, acreage, investment, amenities — and, for the first time this year, ‘park equity.'”

Anna Halprin, Teacher and Choreographer Who Embraced Improvisational Style, Dies — 05/25/21, The Washington Post
“Mrs. Halprin [wife of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin] made a bold statement by making California her base. ‘I’m accused of being touchy-feely,’ she once said. ‘Well, I am. California is a very sensual place, and its landscape has become my theater. I’ve found much inspiration in the way nature operates.'”

An Open Space Plan for Cultural Landscapes, Resilience, and Growth in the Coastal Southeast — 05/25/21, Planetizen
“The Beaufort County Greenprint Plan, completed in 2020, offers an innovative model of open space planning integrated within a larger planning framework.”

Canadian Landscape Architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Dies at 99 — 05/24/21, The Architect’s Newspaper 
“German-born Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, who revolutionized mid-20th century urban play spaces and cleared the path for women in the profession, has died in Vancouver, British Columbia, just weeks ahead of what would have been her centenary on June 20.”

A New $260 Million Park Floats on the Hudson. It’s a Charmer — 05/20/21, The New York Times
“Signe Nielsen, a co-founder of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, designed everything green and flowering that visitors will see, smell, lay a blanket on and walk past.”

What Could Be Next for Biden’s Infrastructure Plan

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park Phase II: A New Urban Ecology. Long Island City, NY, USA. SWA/BALSLEY and WEISS/MANFREDI with ARUP

Congressional debate on the massive new infrastructure legislation President Joe Biden has proposed is a “big glorious mess,” said Jason Jordan, director of public affairs at the American Planning Association, during their virtual national conference.

President Biden’s infrastructure proposal, which is called the American Jobs Plan, calls for spending $2.2 trillion over the next 8 years. Some $620 billion would go to funding improvements to roads, bridges, public transit, rails, ports, waterways, and new electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure. $115 billion of that would go to modernizing 20,000 miles of highways, roads, and main streets, along with another $20 billion for road safety. $100 billion would be for improving water infrastructure.

The plan defines infrastructure much more broadly than just roads and bridges and includes social, technological, educational, and economic infrastructure. Biden asks for another $400 billion for home care services and workforce development, $300 billion for manufacturing, $213 billion for housing, $100 billion for broadband infrastructure, $100 billion for new schools, $180 billion for research and development, and $100 billion for workforce development. To pay for these priorities, Biden calls for increasing the corporate tax from 21 percent to 28 percent and setting minimum corporate taxes.

Jordan asked a panel he assembled tough questions like: “Will budget reconciliation be used to fund the infrastructure investments? Will Biden’s infrastructure proposals be bound up in transportation legislation re-authorization? Will the financing mechanisms for these infrastructure proposals be increased corporate taxes, user fees, or gas taxes?”

Sam Mintz, a transportation reporter with Politico, said “there’s a high level of uncertainty around infrastructure, because there are unprecedented and vast policy changes proposed.”

“Republicans have made a much smaller counter-proposal that would just focus on transportation, water, and broadband infrastructure. They would finance this investment with increased infrastructure user fees rather than corporate taxes,” he explained.

The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which passed in 2015, and then was extended through this year, adds another element to Congressional deliberations on transportation. A number of bills are being developed in committees to replace the FAST Act. “Biden may bounce off the baseline re-authorization of transportation spending or spend more on top of this bill,” Mintz said.

He also believes that budget reconciliation, which is a way to get past the 60 votes required for legislation in the Senate, is likely to be used given the “progressive climate components” of Biden’s infrastructure plans.

For Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, director of federal government affairs at ASLA, the debate on transportation infrastructure is personal. “I grew up in West Baltimore, a once vibrant working-to-middle class community, which is now called an underserved community. Like many former industrial cities, Baltimore encountered some severe challenges — from the loss of factories and their blue collar jobs, to white flight, urban decay, and so called ‘urban renewal,’ and increased crime.” West Baltimore now has “rows of abandoned houses, vacant lots, food deserts, deserted and decrepit playgrounds and parks, ineffective public transit — and yes – a highway to nowhere – that replaced blocks and blocks of homes and Black families.”

Equity and climate change now guide ASLA’s advocacy efforts. Recently, the organization has sent its comprehensive set of policy recommendations to the Biden-Harris administration, relevant departments and agencies, and Congressional committees. ASLA then sent a second set of transportation recommendations to Capitol Hill on re-authorizing the FAST Act.

According to Blackwell, landscape architects are focused on increasing equitable access to safe pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, such as Complete Streets; transit-oriented development; and green infrastructure. “We also strongly believe that parks are infrastructure, and have not been elevated in the conversation as much as they should be. Parks are a critical part of the social fabric.”

She called for a broad-based collaboration between planning and design organizations and local community groups to transform inequitable elevated highways — which destroyed diverse urban communities as part of “urban renewal” — into green, surface-level boulevards. “This is a no brainer and something the nation needs to do. It can be the first step in atonement.”

And this is where Blackwell believes the resurgence of Congressional earmarks presents a real opportunity. Congressional committees are being more inclusive in their earmark review process and asking for proposals directly from community groups. “So this is not just about capital investment but also about community engagement. These community groups — and our grassroots network of landscape architects — can now advocate for specific projects in specific places. It’s a huge opportunity for our members to address environmental injustices.”

There may also be new opportunities on climate change-related measures in Biden’s proposals. “While the terminology may be different — the Democrats say climate change, and the Republicans talk about resilience — the message is the same and there is a new willingness to work on these issues. Climate change, and nature-based solutions, are now part of the conversation,” Blackwell said.

Mintz said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who was determined to make President Barack Obama a one-term president, can be expected to be recalcitrant towards any new major investments on mitigating or adapting to climate change. Biden’s infrastructure proposal is “probably the only climate bill we will get — it’s the chance for climate action before the mid-term elections next year.” He added that “climate change may be used as a cudgel” by Republicans in the mid-terms.

Blackwell argued that senators and representatives need to “listen to their constituents who have been flooded, seen their backyard on fire, or experienced drought. There will be a political price to pay for more theater.”

Democrats and Republicans are still far apart on EV infrastructure. “Republicans see this as giving a big gift to China, as EV batteries are produced there, and there isn’t a domestic U.S. battery industry,” Mintz said. But he noted that President Biden has been talking about 500,000 EV charging stations since the very early days of his campaign so is not expected to compromise on this policy area.

Blackwell said that ASLA is focused more on building out safe, accessible bike and pedestrian infrastructure so as to reduce the number of short trips taken in vehicles. “We need complete streets for everyone.”

Moakley Park: The Inclusive, Resilient Park That Prepares South Boston for the Future

Stoss Landscape Urbanism, led by Chris Reed, FASLA, has produced a fascinating 40-minute video about their new design for Moakley Park in South Boston, which vividly conveys how to create next-generation waterfront parks in the era of sea level rise, social and environmental injustices, and COVID-19.

Through Stoss’ inventive resilience plan and landscape design, which was created in partnership with a range of community groups, Moakley Park will be transformed into an inclusive, resilient, biodiverse, and accessible recreational hub for diverse nearby neighborhoods, including the predominantly Black Roxbury and Dorchester communities.

Stoss states that updates to the 60-acre park, which were just approved by agencies in Boston, present “a rare opportunity to address pressing climate change needs while also prioritizing social, cultural, economic and environmental equity.”

Stoss led a large multi-disciplinary team for the project. Their design builds in climate resilience by creating multi-layered solutions for coastal flooding, stormwater, and extreme heat. The planning and design team proposed a landscape berm that will help protect the park and surrounding neighborhoods from a “predicted sea level rise of 21-40 inches in the next 50-60 years.” Constructed coastal marshes, tree orchards, and stormwater meadows help with both stormwater management and storm-related inundation from the coast. Some 500 new trees will help cool the space.

The video makes the science very clear — it models where sea level rise, exacerbated by heavy storms, would inundate the park and surrounding neighborhoods. This is planning and design rooted in the Boston city government’s latest climate projections.

Petra Geiger with Stoss, who produced and narrated the video, explains how Stoss and its team, which includes local Boston landscape architecture firm Weston & Sampson, delved into the complex legacy of the park. She explains Moakley Park’s rich history — from a garbage dump in the early 20th century to the site of protests against racial injustice in the mid-1970s.

Stoss also reframes the site — as a node in a larger waterfront Harborwalk network; as part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, his grand system of parks; as part of a new coastal bulwark against seal level rise; and as a crucial recreational space for nearby communities that are expected to double in population over coming decades.

The new park is designed to increase public health and well-being, and therefore social resilience. As a first step, Stoss and team analyzed all the physical and non-physical barriers to access. A highway, busy streets, and dangerous rotaries that surround Moakley Park all prevent older residents and those with disabilities from accessing the space. Some 55 percent of the current park is dedicated to sports, which is great, but there aren’t many alternatives for people who want to just enjoy nature or take an interesting walk.

Given the predominant sports focus, “the park is largely dormant in winter,” explained Amy Whitesides, ASLA, director of resilience and research at Stoss. And while Carson Beach is just over the other side of William J. Day Boulevard, which bounds the eastern edge of Moakley Park, relatively few go there because they can’t see it and it is difficult to access.

The planning and design team’s strategy for building climate and social resilience is to layer in an amazing set of multi-functional amenities. In an effort to create a more inclusive and equitable recreational center, there will be even more sports areas, including for basketball, skateboarding, and street hockey.

But the park will not just be about sports any longer. Amid the fields and courts are relaxing (and resilient and biodiverse) green spaces filled with native plants, playgrounds, picnic and BBQ areas, and more. All of these are made much more accessible through new safe routes into the park.

Moakley Park / Stoss Landscape Urbanism
Moakley Park / Stoss Landscape Urbanism
Moakley Park / Stoss Landscape Urbanism

Stoss and team have also forged a greater connection with Carson Beach, better integrating the park and beach into the Harborwalk and surrounding neighborhoods. There are now more accessible pathways under the boulevard that take visitors back and forth between the park and beach.

Moakley Park / Stoss Landscape Urbanism

In the video, the design team reiterates how “deep community engagement,” including open houses, in-person and web-based surveys, virtual tours, free movie night events, and countless interviews with residents of the area informed the planning and design process. Stoss and team also worked closely with community advocacy groups and even hired an equity consultant.

Reed said: “the goal has been to create a safe place for everyone.” Everything from the protective coastal berm, to the safer street-level access points, to the trees, which help cool the air, help achieve that mission. “This is what a new 21st century park looks like.”

The video was released as part of the American Planning Association (APA)’s virtual national conference.

Utility-Scale Solar Energy Could Need Land the Size of Connecticut

Combining solar and ecological restoration at Purdue University, Indiana / Great Plains Institute

The U.S. is headed towards a renewable energy future. Over the coming decades, some mix of mostly wind and solar power will spread across the landscape. With the growing cost competitiveness of utility-scale solar power plants, we can expect 583 gigawatts to be in production by 2050. That’s ten times the current amount. At approximately 7 acres per megawatt, that means an area larger than the state of Connecticut could be used for solar energy production.

Through thoughtful planning and design, these future solar power plants can be well-integrated into communities and provide many co-benefits — water quality improvements, ecological restoration, and pollinator habitat, among many others. Renewable energy creates enormous opportunities for landscape architects and planners working in rural, suburban, and urban areas.

At the American Planning Association (APA)’s virtual national conference, Megan Day, a senior energy planner with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado, said that utility-scale power plants, which are very large-scale solar facilities, are needed to achieve our climate and energy goals.

Utility-scale solar now accounts for 60-70 percent of all solar energy in the U.S. This is because the cost of energy from utility-scale solar is approximately “one third to one-fourth the cost of residential solar.” The market is further heading in the direction of big solar power facilities.

Daly said “these numbers don’t speak fully to value though.” Utility-scale solar creates far fewer green jobs than rooftop solar. 1 megawatt of clean energy could be generated through a single utility-scale power plant or approximately 100 rooftops. While the capital costs of the utility approach would be about $1 million less, there would also be much fewer local green jobs created. “This is because you need a lot more people to install 100 rooftop systems.” (Not to mention utilities offer fewer resilience benefits: Any centralized power plant can go down in a hurricane, storm, or wildfire).

Day said the vast majority of new solar power facilities use tracking systems that rotate photovoltaic (PV) panels to face the sun over the course of each day. While these tracking systems increase the amount of solar energy that can be captured, it also means these power plants require more space so as to avoid over-shadowing other tilting panels. “These panels cast shadows east west, so they need more land.” Combined with ecological site design that avoids existing wetlands, rivers, streams, and forests, these kinds of renewable energy power plants aren’t the most compact. “In fact, compact isn’t the best.”

The trend is for solar power facilities to go bigger and bigger. In 2010, she said, a large solar power plant had a 15 megawatt capacity. Today, there are 75-250 megawatt systems and even larger. “With more land, you can achieve greater economies of scale.”

Showing interactive models NREL can create through its fantastic State and Local Planning for Energy (SLOPE) tool, Day indicated where in the continental U.S. solar energy could be developed. If all land suitable for solar development was used, the country would have 59,000 times more energy than it consumes on an annual basis. “That gives you a sense of the incredible potential.” In contrast, if all suitable roofs in the U.S. were covered with PV panels, they would only meet 45 percent of energy needs.

While California and Texas are currently leaders in renewable power generation because they have invested in transmission capacity, many other states across the country can easily expand their solar energy capacity.

According to Sarah Davis, a planner who founded her own firm, “large-scale solar is coming” to every community. As the U.S. de-carbonizes its energy systems, there an opportunity for “authentic and meaningful community participation” in planning and designing a clean energy future.

Planning new utility-scale solar facilities involves typical development activities — incorporating developments into long-range comprehensive plans, creating enabling regulations, and permitting actual projects. These projects include utilities, developers, landowners, federal and state regulators, residents, and the end-users of the energy generated.

Using NREL’s SLOPE tool, Davis helps communities identify, at a county level, what areas would be ripe for solar development; what areas should be avoided because of existing cultural, scenic, or environmental resources; and where solar developments could provide the most co-benefits.

She outlined a few examples: In Butte county, California, Davis worked with stakeholders to create a vision statement that outlines a set of guiding principles and design and development guidelines. In Stearns, Minnesota, an agricultural community integrated renewable energy into the agricultural section of their comprehensive plan. “PVs need land and can use grazing areas.” But the new policies also required beneficial ground cover amid the solar facilities and enabled laying new transmission cables. And renewable energy planning can even be done in small rural communities. In Gold Hill, Colorado, she worked with an isolated community of 200-300 residents to devise a plan for a micro-grid and distributed household solar systems.

Another theme running through the session was the importance of maximizing the co-benefits of solar energy. Brian Ross, a vice president at the Great Plains Institute in Minnesota, made the case: “if sited and designed appropriately, large-scale solar can provide local benefits to communities. If you can restore watershed functions, diversify agriculture, or protect wildlife habitat and drinking water supplies, does it matter if it’s a solar farm?”

“Solar development is also development, and development means jobs, rents, and tax revenue,” Ross argued. The benefits of utility-scale solar development projects are increased local property tax incomes, increased local power generation, and reduced environmental and climate risks.

Communities should first figure out where to site their large-scale solar power facilities, then determine how the facility should function as a land use. “When planning and designing these projects, it’s important to look for synergies.” If there are valuable natural areas, watersheds, or scenic areas, “don’t put the solar developments in those places.” Instead, use solar farms as a way to fix existing environmental issues.

For example, in one Indiana agricultural community, nitrate run-off from farms was negatively impacting water quality, including groundwater recharge areas and the drinking water supply. The community decided to transform a 33-hectare area of contaminated farmland into land just used for solar power generation.

The new solar facility enabled the farmers to still earn income from the land while also reducing water quality impacts. This is a prime example of the co-benefits of utility-scale solar: “co-locating solar power plants with agriculture is a way to diversify farmers’ incomes and provide buffers for watersheds, including groundwater and surface water,” Ross said.

Solar power plants can not only just serve as buffers that reduce other impacts downstream, they can also be ecologically beneficial themselves. Acres of PV panels can be arranged amid native grassland restoration projects that can yield a three-fold increase in pollinators and a two-third increase in carbon sequestration through the landscape. Furthermore, these native grassland projects can increase sediment retention by 95 percent and water retention by 15 percent.

Engie solar, Vermont / courtesy of Fresh Energy, Rob Davis
Denison University, Ohio / courtesy of Fresh Energy, Rob Davis
Perdue solar headquarters / courtesy of Fresh Energy, Rob Davis

In Indiana, Purdue University’s extension programs worked with conservation, agriculture, and energy stakeholders to create state-wide standards for ground cover in solar power plants. This approach has been included in a model solar ordinance created by Indiana University and codified in an innovative ordinance that requires beneficial ground cover over the lifespan of a solar facility, which is 25 to 30 years. The ordinance ensures that solar energy developers just don’t plant once and then forget to maintain the landscape. Some solar power facilities are even in layering in sheep grazing, vegetable farming, and bee hives. Solar power plants can become multi-functional green infrastructure.