At Congress for New Urbanism, Debate Rages Over Autonomous Vehicles

Proposal for redesigning Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles / Perkins + Will, Nelson/Nygaard & Lyft

Over four days of the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) in Savannah, Georgia, autonomous vehicle (AV) optimists and pessimists presented their hopes and fears about the coming technology-driven transportation revolution. AVs can either increase speed and efficiency and reduce transportation costs, or create more congestion and sprawl, kill off public transit, and increase transportation inequities. AVs will be coming in the next few years, or won’t be seen in most places for a few decades. AV ride share companies like Uber, Waymo, and Lyft only have our best interests at heart, or they are self-serving and want to remake streets to optimize for AVs, to the detriment of other modes of transit. AV companies can be given a long leash and work with state or local governments in partnership, or these companies need to be closely regulated.

Amid the broad debate by planners, landscape architects, architects, and traffic engineers that happened across multiple sessions, possible benefits and dangers of AVs became clear, as did the shape of solutions to possible problems.

Possible Benefits

Gerry Tierney, director of Perkin + Will’s Smart Mobility Lab, thinks AVs will enable cities to create narrower car lane widths — just 8 feet instead of the usual 10 or 12. AVs are expected to communicate with each other to increase efficiency and speed, forming a platoon. With this scenario, “headway between vehicles will be shortened, increasing the capacity of streets by two or three times.”

How AVs could platoon / U.S. Department of Transportation

Tierney thinks we can give that extra road space created by AV platoons over to the public realm. “We can create new mixed-use lanes for bikes, e-bikes, scooters, and e-scooters, along with widened sidewalks, and green infrastructure.”

In an analysis of San Francisco’s streets, Tierney found that green space in transportation networks could be increased by 42 percent with the reduced lanes for AVs, spreading 1.3 Golden Gate Park’s amount of greenery throughout city streets.

Car companies will soon offer subscription services so that car ownership — and the number of cars on the road — will decrease. Today, the average car is only used 4-5 percent of the time. With subscription services for AVs, utilization rates will increase to 96 percent. “Fleet size can be reduced but carry the same number of people.”

AVs could be parked in towers, reducing the need for homeowners to purchase a parking lot, which can add 24 percent to the cost of a unit in a city like San Francisco. Parking will plummet, freeing up space for Amazon deliveries and reducing congestion.

According to transportation planner Patrick Seigman, some 80 percent of the cost of taxis are the driver. As such, AV rideshare “taxis” — like Uber or Lyft — will cause the “cost of taxis to plummet.” With buses and trains powered by autonomous technologies, the cost of transit could also further decrease.

Autonomous rapid transit (ART) could further increase road capacity. Tierney imagines 20-seat shuttles on dedicated lanes. Siegman pointed to self-driving shuttles now in use in Switzerland and Las Vegas, which have a top speed of 25 miles per hour. Instead of a driver, they have a conductor who can only push a stop button.

NAVYA’s self-driving shuttle in Las Vegas / NAVYA

Possible Dangers

Peter Calthorpe, a leading planner, said that “autonomous vehicles will mean death for cities.” He said single-passenger ride share travel 35 percent more miles than regular vehicles, and AV shared taxis can be expected to travel 30-60 percent more miles, and AV single taxis, 50-90 percent more miles. “Dedicated lanes for AVs will only increase sprawl as private vehicles travel farther.” Furthermore, given speed is of the essence, “people won’t share — there’s no time advantage to sharing.” With AVs, “vehicle miles traveled will double and roads will become impassable.”

Tierney worried that AVs could create a “two class system” — those with access to AVs and those without. “We could imagine people playing video games in a Mercedes Benz subscription AV while those who can’t afford are then starved of transit options.”

Architect and urban design Kevin Klinkenberg, said in Savannah, Georgia, Uber and Lyfts can be expensive if you aren’t just taking a short trip downtown. “Even if AVs cut the cost by half, there is still a large section of the population who won’t be able to afford them.”

Transit rides are already subsidized and are losing money in many places; AVs can therefore put further pressure on strapped transit systems, speeding up the killing of routes.

He also wondered who will pay for all the beautiful, green, multi-modal, AV-optimized streets, so often seen in renderings? “With AVs, where will the money come from?” Most cities are already completely strapped and can’t fix potholes on time.

Christopher Fornash, a transportation engineer with Nelson/Nygaard, thinks it will be 20-30 years before we see “pervasive autonomy.” He imagines autonomous cars, buses, and trains, with inter-connections. But Tierney wonders where pedestrians will go in this system? “If you have AV through-ports for efficiency, how does a pedestrian cross the street? I hope not bridges.”

Fornash worries that AV companies have already pre-empted city regulation of AVs, because in 10 states, “it’s too late, city right of ways are now in state control. AV companies now have the ability to use streets on their own terms.”

According to Klinkenberg, the transportation system is controlled by a small number of engineers, policymakers, and companies. “It’s not open to political or economic feedback. There will be the same result if you add AV to the mix. We’re just swapping new technology into the same system.”

Possible Solutions

Tierney said it’s important for planners and policymakers to “design around community values and prioritize road access. We need to reverse engineer these systems and design for what we want. There is an opportunity to reclaim cities from the car.”

Alex Engel, program manager with National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), which just released the smart Blueprint for Autonomous Vehicles, said “we can’t let the private sector dominate the conversation about AVs. We need to produce public policies that shape outcomes. We need to use good data and code the curb.”

Calthorpe called for instead investing in autonomous rapid transit (ART), like bus rapid transit (BRT) but with more nimble vehicles, which is already up and running in Zhuzhou, China. “If ART have dedicated lanes, autonomous vans or buses could be 30 percent faster than BRT and cost 80 percent less because there would be no drivers.”

Autonomous rapid transit (ART) in China / VOC.com.cn

Siegman calls for restoring control of streets back to local areas, giving cities and communities the right to “charge right prices for curb access and parking, and driving on streets.”

As an example, he pointed to San Francisco airport, which now charges taxis and ride share a $7.60 fee for accessing the curb for drop-offs and pick-ups in the most convenient zone, but half the price for access to a less convenient spot at the top of a garage.

Cities could charge riders of AVs for pick-ups and drop-offs in order to finance equitable access to public transit, including low-cost ART, and green street improvements.

Growing Movement: Age-Friendly Communities

Where we live / AARP

“By 2030, there will be more than 75 million older Americans aged 65 and up,” said Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities at AARP, in a session at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) in Savannah, Georgia. This older population will need more livable, age-friendly communities that can meet their needs by offering affordable housing where they can age in place, accessible mass transit and walkable neighborhoods, and daily sources of civic and social engagement and meaning.

AARP recently released comprehensive new survey data, the first major data set in four years. They found that 8 out of 10 older adults want to stay in their home as they age. However, only 46 percent believe they can actually age in place because of accessibility, affordability, and lifestyle issues.

Arigoni thinks communities need to work much harder to keep older residents in their communities. “Older adults are an asset — they are the ‘experienced class’ who add value with their purchasing and voting power. They volunteer their expertise and are entrepreneurial.”

So what can communities do to better keep older adults? Arigoni said diversifying the housing stock is important.

In too many places, when an older person can no longer drive, it’s like a “receiving a serious medical sentence.” Being stuck at home means isolation, which has the health impact of “smoking about 15 cigarettes a day.” The health impacts are particularly acute for older adults.

Home sharing is a way to solve this problem. Some 15 percent of older adults already do this in order to get help with transportation, but also for companionship or economic reasons.

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs), sometimes described as “granny flats or mother-in-law suites,” which are independent units on the lot of a single family detached home, are another way to provide nearby support. Some one-third of older adults would consider building an ADU or living in one, but only 7 percent do, in part because “lots of regulations prevent them.”

8 out of 10 older adults want safe streets, which is why AARP has been supporting walkability audits and pursuing complete street policies at the state and local levels.

84 percent of older adults drive themselves, while 38 percent walk and 10 percent use ride share. Some 43 percent have used Uber, Zipcar, Lyft, and the like; some 55 percent are not likely to use. “What’s preventing them? 50 percent cited safety and privacy issues. Another cohort lacked the technology or knowledge. And 17 percent had disability concerns.”

Arigoni thinks the vast majority of accessibility issue with ride sharing can be resolved. “We have to solve the disability component — the last few feet of ride sharing.”

To promote livable communities, particularly for older adults, AARP has put its considerable advocacy muscle behind Measure M in California, a $120 billion bond for public transit, which subsequently passed.

And they partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) to create the AARP Network of Age-friendly States and Communities, which 246 communities and two states have joined. In 2017, AARP gave 90 communities grants to undertake a 5-year age-friendly community planning process designed to result in a concrete action plan.

In Macon-Bibb, Georgia, which was the first city to sign onto the network, the age-friendly planning process was a “catalyst for things we wanted to accomplish,” said Myrtle Habersham, a consultant and AARP executive committee member.

Macon-Bibb assembled a 28-person age-friendly council, went out into the community, and identified priorities, like redesigning the city’s 2nd street corridor, creating new bus routes and mixed-income housing. The team also invested in revitalizing decrepit parks. “At the beginning of the process, we started with 30 volunteers and now there are 200,” said David Pilgrem, with AARP who was involved in the effort.

Could Climate Migrants Be Relocated to Rust Belt Cities?

Man kayaks in South Beach, Miami after a flood / Wikipedia

In the absence of any national plan for helping the communities most at risk from climate change, a group of members of the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) are exploring ways to relocate the populations of cities with precarious futures — Miami, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Phoenix — to under-populated rust belt cities like Buffalo, Rochester, and Detroit. These cooler, northern-situated cities will be better insulated from the effects of climate change and have “underused infrastructure,” with lots of vacant homes, said Paddy Steinschneider, founder of Gotham Design & Community Development, at CNU’s conference in Savannah, Georgia.

While the idea of moving the population of South Beach, Miami to Detroit is shocking, Steinschneider thinks we have lost “awareness that humans are a migratory species. We’ve survived so long because we have moved.”

And while many national and state level leaders are in denial about climate change, insurance and financial companies certainly aren’t. Local leaders may face political pressure to not give into climate change and tell their population to retreat and relocate, but it soon may not be up to them.

“If insurance companies won’t insure homes in at-risk places, financial companies won’t offer loans.” That means no more new development or re-development. At the same time, the value of existing property will decline. “What happens in communities when real estate assets no longer have any value?” This may happen sooner than we think in communities dealing with forest fires, flooding, drought, and water shortages brought on by climate change.

For architect and urban planner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the question is “what do we do when we have to leave?” Instead of fleeing catastrophe, like the Americans who escaped hurricanes in New Orleans and Houston in recent years, “what if we came up with a plan so we can evolve less catastrophically?”

Plater-Zyberk thinks communities threatened by climate risks have to take their heads out of the sand and think through options now. Communities can either defend and fortify, while securing new water supplies; accommodate climate change — by living with flooding or other extreme weather events; or retreat.

If they elect to defend and fortify, they must prioritize. In Miami, where Plater-Zyberk teaches, “South Beach is a financial hub we depend on, so it will be defended first.”

Retreat and relocation has mind-boggling regulatory and financial implications. In the example of a coastal area permanently flooded due to sea-level rise, policymakers would have to decide to buy out property and transform it into “surface water storage,” giving owners the funds to move elsewhere. Plater-Zyberk said there must be a process for cleaning and recycling coastal land that no longer has any value so it doesn’t further pollute.

As part of a colloquium on relocation she taught at the University of Miami, Plater-Zyberk’s students created “adaptation maps,” based on the geography of Florida, tracking how the “flora and fauna of the Everglades will change, how the crops grown on agricultural lands will alter, how coastal and inland communities will be impacted.” Overlaid on environmental change are possible economic and political changes. As ecosystems and farmlands shift, the economy of Florida will be deeply impacted. As a result, “politics will become more unpredictable.”

Plater-Zyberk bemoaned the fact there are no solid adaptation plans in place anywhere in the states. “There is a lot of preparing to get ready to get started.”

A MIT study on relocation possibilities in Boston identified relocation scenarios: relocate in town, to an adjacent town, a new town, or cross country. Matthew Hauer, a professor at University of Georgia, is calculating how many people in at-risk communities on the East Coast will relocate and where. But these are just models and projections.

There are likely no solid plans because there are still so many unknowns: “Should communities be required to go or should it all be voluntary? If a property is underwater, who does it belong to? If it’s underwater and filled with toxic building materials that are polluting, who pays for this?” She wondered whether short-term home mortgages will appear in at-risk communities, like a car loan, with a limited length of value.

Laura Clemmons, CEO of Collaborative Communities, who works with communities in the South hard hit by hurricanes, said “most people driven out of their homes usually end up about a 3-hour drive from where they were.” They seek affordable rentals. “In their minds, they will go back and rebuild. They believe they are coming back.” But as they wait for up to a year for insurance money, temporary places become permanent. For receiver cities, the influx can create pressure on infrastructure, home prices, and school systems.

Prisca Weems, a founding partner at Future Proof, explained how poor residents of New Orleans were forcibly evicted and displaced after Hurricane Katrina. “They were distributed throughout the country without being told where they were going. They didn’t have the resources to return. It’s almost impossible to think. It seems un-American.” Weems thinks receiver cities should come up with plans to “attract residents peaceably and appropriately, and get ahead of the curve and absorb people.”

At that point, we heard from Alissa Shelton, with Bank Suey from Detroit, who provided the sole receiver city perspective. She said in Detroit, “there is already tension with new people trickling in.” Hundreds of thousands of people coming into Detroit? “Oh really?”

Videos: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience last fall to offer communities strategies for adapting to global climate change and its impacts on human health and the environment. The panel, composed of leaders from landscape architecture, planning, engineering, architecture, public policy, and community engagement, met September 21-22, 2017, at the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C.

Watch and share the videos below that introduce our panelists and their smart strategies to strengthen community resilience.

The panel’s recommendations will be forthcoming on June 19, 2018.

How Cities Can Prepare for Autonomous Vehicles

NACTO_Cover
Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism / National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO)

The rise of autonomous vehicles presents “sweeping opportunities as well as serious risks,” according to Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism, a new guide from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) that addresses the impact of autonomous technology. “We have a historic opportunity to reclaim the street and correct the mistakes of a century of urban planning,” says NACTO chair and former New York City department of transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Hon. ASLA. However, this opportunity is contingent upon proactive policies that put people – not cars – at the center of planning and design decisions.

Despite the hype surrounding self-driving cars, “the potential benefits of automation are not guaranteed,” warns NACTO. Among the potentially negative effects of autonomous vehicles:

  • “Traffic and emissions could skyrocket,” hampering efforts to meet climate goals and undoing years of progress at moving cities toward more sustainable approaches to transportation;
  • “’Robo-routes’ – walls of autonomous vehicles with few gaps – could divide communities,” repeating the mistakes of 20th century urban highway planning and ruining the street level experience for pedestrians and cyclists;
  • “People could be relegated to inconvenient and unpleasant pedestrian bridges,” removing life, vitality, and community from streets; and
  • “High-priced, inequitable mobility could supplant transit,” undoing years of investment and progress in the growth of mass-transit and sustainable, transit-oriented development.

To avoid this future, NACTO says “cities need strong policies to guide the future of automation and help communities shape powerful technologies around their goals, rather than the other way around.” These policies include reducing speed limits; continuing to invest in active modes of transit such as walking, cycling, and mass-transit; pricing curb access; and using data to create safer and more efficient streets.

NACTO_Perspective
The street of tomorrow? / Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism, NACTO

With the right set of policies in place, autonomous vehicles could represent a powerful tool in helping cities meet transportation and sustainability goals. Streets designed for autonomous technology have the potential to be safer, quieter, and greener, with narrower vehicle lanes, more public transportation, wider sidewalks and bike lanes, and integrated green infrastructure. They can also be more efficient, moving more people and goods with fewer vehicles.

Efficiency
Autonomous technology could allow streets to move more people with fewer vehicles / Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism, NACTO

For this vision to become reality, however, cities and communities need to be in control of policy making – not mobility companies. If cities do not take the lead now, “transportation network companies and technology companies will shape urban transportation policy by default,” says NACTO.

Already, there are signs of the risks and challenges posed by new mobility technology. Studies are finding that the increasing popularity of ride-hailing services is causing congestion on city streets. And earlier this year, an Uber-operated autonomous vehicle on a test drive struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, raising questions about the safety of self-driving technology. These developments underscore the need for cities, engineers, and designers to address the self-driving revolution proactively and critically.

However, there are hopeful signs that technology companies invested in the autonomous future are taking their impact seriously. Earlier this year, a group of technology and mobility companies, including Uber and Lyft, signed a joint declaration of Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities, which pledges to promote equity, support fair user fees, and prioritize people over vehicles. Noticeably absent from the list of signatories, however, is Waymo, the Alphabet subsidiary that has is planning to launch its first fleet of autonomous taxis later this year. Car manufacturers, who are rushing to introduce their autonomous products and services into the marketplace, are also not participants.

Waymo
Alphabet subsidiary Waymo is set to launch its first fleet of autonomous taxis in 2018 / Waymo

In the face of these looming changes, “waiting to see how events unfold is not a viable option,” writes NACTO. Cities must act now to guarantee that that “automation is harnessed to serve the goals of safety, equity, public health, and sustainability” and not roll back more than a decade of progress in the realm of sustainable transportation. “Streets in the autonomous age should give ultimate priority to pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders,” says NACTO. “The future street is a place for people.”

Read the full report.

MIT Researchers Seek Optimal Form of Urban Stormwater Wetlands

MIT_plan_render
Diagrammatic plan / Jonah Susskind, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands

Cities are sitting on a largely underused public resource: urban stormwater wetlands. If properly designed, these landscapes can reduce flooding, support urban wildlife, and serve as public space. A new report Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands authored by an interdisciplinary group of researchers and students at the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism led by Celina Balderas Guzmán, Heidi Nepf, and Alan Berger — advocates for the positive role wetlands can play in cities and outlines research that provides insights for landscape architects, engineers, and planners.

The authors make a case for the potential of urban wetlands, especially in a time of changing climate and deteriorating urban infrastructure. “Wetlands, the world’s most valuable terrestrial ecosystem, provide a multitude of ecosystem services: water treatment, flood protection, carbon storage, habitat, recreation, and aesthetic value,” they write.

And yet, in many cities, existing wetlands have been filled, paved, developed, or channelized, eliminating the benefits they provide. In this context, the authors see opportunity. “Just as urbanization has obliterated wetlands, urbanization can build them new,” they write. “While constructed wetlands are not in all aspects comparable to natural wetlands, they can partially restore some lost ecosystem services.”

However, urban wetlands present challenges for the prospective designer, not the least of which is understanding hydraulic dynamics well enough to create a design that is both beautiful and functional. This is where the team’s research steps in.

At MIT’s Nepf Environmental Fluid Mechanic Lab, the researchers tested dozens of different wetland landform configurations to better understand how “island size, shape, and placement affect hydraulic flow and provide ecological habitat.”

MIT_model_iterations
Topography variations / Tyler Swingle, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands

Researchers fabricated models of different topographies from high-density foam using a CNC milling machine. The models were then inserted into a flume (essentially a long, plexiglass tank that circulates water) for testing. The researchers used dye to track how different landform configurations impact the speed and direction of water flowing over the model.

MIT_model_test
Model test / Celina Balderas Guzmán, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands

In analyzing the results of these tests, the authors made some findings. First, topography matters. Topography describes the physical features of a landform. Results varied widely for the different landforms, meaning that certain design approaches are more or less appropriate depending on the goals of the design.

According to the authors, “wetland engineers and designers must make carefully considered design decisions based on hydraulic goals, balanced with ecological and urban goals as well.”

Second, in attempting to slow down water and filter pollutants, smaller interventions may be more effective. “Adding topography subtracts volume from a wetland’s potential water storage capacity,” they write, which means that “water will exit sooner simply because there is less water volume, leading to less pollution treatment.”

In their tests, the researchers found that models were most effective when the total volume of topography equaled approximately 10 percent of the total volume of the basin, although they caution this number may shift in real-world applications.

Of the thirty-four topographies tested, the team found two that provided the best balance of hydraulic performance and pollutant filtering capacity. They conclude the report by applying these topographies to two case study sites: Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas, and Taylor Yard, on the Los Angeles River in Los Angeles, California.

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Site Organization Diagram for Taylor Yards, Los Angeles, CA / Waishan Qiu, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands
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Rendering of Los Angeles River Case Study / Jonah Susskind, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands

The case studies are intriguing, but may be frustrating to those hoping for a more detailed explanation of how to apply the team’s findings. However, the authors note that the studies are “urban design frameworks” and meant to be conceptual. Those seeking to transfer the team’s research to real world projects will likely find their topographic models to be helpful starting points, but will still need to develop unique design solutions that respond to site and program requirements.

Ultimately, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands aims to “inform decision makers, planning agencies, consulting engineers, landscape architects, and urban designers about the efficacy of using ecologically-designed constructed wetlands and ponds to manage stormwater while creating new public realms.”

However, the authors do not present any hard and fast rules for designing urban wetlands. Instead, the report makes a compelling case for why constructed stormwater wetlands are an important and underused resource in urban areas, and provides information that may prove valuable to designers and public officials looking for ways to extract more public benefit from stormwater infrastructure.

“We hope this work gives practitioners and designers a new set of adaptable forms to work with and elaborate upon either in implementation or in future research,” says co-author Celina Balderas Guzmán, describing the study as “a crucial first step to explore forms and validate designs quickly and easily with scientifically rigorous metrics.”

In this respect, the report is a success, presenting imaginative possibilities for new urban spaces supported by hard research. As a resource for designers, Design Guidelines for Urban Stormwater Wetlands may not have all the answers, but it does have important ones.

Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge Proposals Unveiled (Part 1)

Elevate San Rafael / BionicTEAM, Resilient By Design

The Resilient By Design Bay Area Challenge brought together nine multi-disciplinary design teams to develop resilient solutions to climate change-induced sea level rise and severe flooding, and seismic impacts at various sites around the San Francisco Bay. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Trust for Conservation Innovation invited design teams and local communities to undertake a collaborative research phase in the fall of 2017. And, then, beginning in 2018, each team was assigned a single site to create a conceptual design.

Landscape architects, architects, planners, engineers, scientists, and others worked with community members to develop design proposals, understanding that climate risks and social equity challenges often co-exist. The teams looked at not only how to make communities more resilient to future physical impacts, but also how to address gentrification and displacement, fragmented governance structures and insufficient infrastructure.

Jurors assessed design teams based on their abilities to engage multiple stakeholders, show technical feasibility, encourage equity and community engagement, incorporate existing sea-level-rise strategies, and demonstrate a design that fits into a regional action plan.

However, this time around there were no winners that went on to receive funding. This process was different from the original Rebuild by Design in the New York City Metro area, because the Bay Area Challenge didn’t partner with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and doesn’t have access to their disaster recovery funds.

Participants in the competition found the most successful aspect of the competition was the connection of individuals and organizations that had not worked together in the past, laying the foundation for continued collaboration. Building relationships is key to securing funding and implementing these proposals whether through government bonds or new relationships with the private sector.

While there is no funding laid out to implement the Bay Area projects, several teams will continue efforts with communities to realize them. The success of the competition lies in the ideas generated. Bay Area jurisdictions will then need to decide how, when, and what to move forward.

Summaries of the design proposals:

Elevate San Rafael by BionicTeam

Bionic Landscape, WXY, PennDesign, Michael Yarne, Enterprise, Moffatt & Nichol, WRA, RMA, Romberg Tiburon Center SFSU, BAYCAT, Studio for Urban Projects, RAD Urban, Keyser Marson Associates

The North Bay City of San Rafael, like many cities in the Bay Area, is threatened by flooding. BionicTeam’s design encourages San Rafael to “evolve with intention” — by changing its relationship to water through physically elevating itself and also elevating its social and economic performance (see image at top).

San Rafael is vulnerable. Many of the residents, who are immigrants, live in one of the city’s highest flood-risk neighborhoods. Much of the city sits on land that is subsiding. The city’s pump system is failing. Its wood frame housing stock risks condemnation in a flood event. And the city lacks emergency preparedness.

“San Rafael is thought of as a small town in sleepy Marin, and that has to shift. Everything flows through this place,” explained BionicTeam’s Marcel Wilson, ASLA.

The team’s proposal to elevate “everything and everyone” involves both near-term and long-term solutions. The near-term catalyst projects include the completion of the Bay Trail that will one day run through the city, which can act as a resilient edge. In the long term, a new city governance structure that mobilizes economic growth, strengthens infrastructure and ecological resilience, and builds from existing cultural values will “elevate” the city to higher ground and a desirable quality of life.

Several jurors voiced that the proposal could have been stronger, questioning the details of how, exactly, San Rafael would elevate and how the city of San Rafael fits into the region. “It feels that the perspective of the region is missing,” said juror Henk Ovink, The Netherlands’ special envoy for international water affairs.

The People’s Plan by Permaculture Plus Social Equity

Pandora Thomas; Antonio Roman-Alcala; Urban Permaculture Institute; Ross Martin Design; Alexander J. Felson, ASLA, Yale School of Architecture

The Permaculture and Social Equity Team (P+Set) based their project on a commitment to community inclusion in the design process. The team undertook a comprehensive assessment of the needs, capacity, and existing knowledge of the community, and worked with them to create a “people’s plan.” This plan laid out a set of strategies Marin City can implement to create a resilient future.

Marin City, a community comprised of high density of people of color and low income, sits at the foot of a watershed stressed by numerous factors: eroded gullies, insufficient infrastructure that induces flooding, and an adjacency to the Bay, where rising level already threatens the city and the highway in between.

The process that led to a “people’s plan” involved partnering with the community, demonstrating that residents can become “creators and equals at the table” without dependency on “experts coming in to save them.” At the urging of the community, an eight-week course was initiated, to teach them about the unique water flow patterns of Marin City and techniques that could be employed to slow and spread the water, such as creek day lighting, terrace gardening, and bioswales.

The People’s Plan / Permaculture Plus Social Equity, Resilient By Design

“Communities are often included in the community design component—but it’s often just going through the motion,” said environmental designer Pandora Thomas. She believes their plan engaged the community as equal partners.

The jury applauded P+Set for demonstrating how important building social capital is in achieving community resilience. However, they voiced concerns about the plan’s omission of a sea-level-rise response; to which the team acknowledged that ultimately the community does need to work with other districts to innovate at the multi-jurisdictional level. The team focused on empowering and equipping the community with increased literacy that can build leadership.

The Grand Bayway by Common Ground

TLS Landscape Architecture; Exploratorium; Guy Nordenson & Associates; Michael Maltzan Architecture; HR&A Advisors; Sitelab Urban Studio; Lotus Water; Rana Creek; Dr. John Oliver; Richard Hindle, UC Berkeley; Fehr & Peers Transportation Consultants

Common Ground proposed an elevated scenic byway that sweeps across the San Pablo Baylands and Sonoma and Napa Counties in the North San Francisco Bay. The byway would create an “Ecological Central Park” that improves connectivity with an iconic gesture.

The Grand Bayway / Common Ground, Resilient By Design

When examining this expanse of land, the team acknowledged the dual forecasts for this region in the coming decades: the highest population growth in the Bay Area, and sea-level rise that inundates the baylands and Highway 37 that cuts across them.

The proposed scenic byway would make use of bayland’s inhabitable mudflats and marshlands by connecting surrounding communities to each other and the environment.

“Communities don’t have agency here,” said team member Erik Prince, and reiterated that one of their goals in creating an iconic mark through the landscape is to “create a sense of ownership” over this endangered landscape in peoples’ backyards and increase its “visibility,” which can then instigate further action in the region.

Islais Hyper Creek by BIG + ONE + Sherwood

Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), One Architecture + Urbanism, Sherwood Engineers, Moffat & Nichol, Nelson\Nygaard, Strategic Economics, and Dutra Group

This team proposes restoring an area at the base of the largest watershed in San Francisco, re-imagining it as a new park where ecology and industry co-habitate. The team proposes a comprehensive plan that engages physical, social, and economic resilience.

The plan starts with six pilot projects that serve as a roadmap for long-term, larger projects that embody the “hyper-creek” idea. These projects include an Islais Creek gateway that provides flood management and an accessible waterway; a living levee; a “food district” for selling and production; and an “innovation cove” that focuses on business incubation, research, and workforce training.

The Islais Hyper Creek / BIG + ONE + Sherwood, Resilient By Design

Because the hyper-creek is contingent upon long-term stewardship of the area, it was “imperative to integrate the community and get feedback” when developing the pilot projects. The team pointed out, however, that a pilot project cannot address all of the issues because some “need to be addressed on a jurisdictional basis, at a higher level.”

The intention is these pilots will be folded into a long-term strategy that manages stormwater flows, adaptation to sea level rise, and liquefaction risks through both natural and urban systems.

Jurors expressed skepticism about the proposal’s ability to solve the issue of displacement that courses rampantly through Bay Area communities, and this one specifically. “The pilots will not solve the displacement issue,” the team conceded. But they can “bring the surrounding community into the Islais Creek basin to start the conversation about the longer-term future.”

Read part 2, which covers the other five proposals.

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.

Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge Proposals Unveiled (Part 2)

ouR Home / The Home Team, Resilient By Design

The Resilient By Design Bay Area Challenge brought together nine multi-disciplinary design teams to develop resilient solutions to climate change-induced sea level rise and severe flooding, and seismic impacts at various sites around the San Francisco Bay. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Trust for Conservation Innovation invited design teams and local communities to undertake a collaborative research phase in the fall of 2017. And, then, beginning in 2018, each team was assigned a single site to create a conceptual design.

Continued from part 1, here are the rest of the project summaries:

ouR Home by the Home Team

Mithun, Chinatown Community Development center ISEEED/Streetwyze, BioHabitats, Integral Group, HR&A Advisors, Moffat & Nicho, ALTA Planning, Urban Biofilter, Resilient Design Institute

The Home Team addresses the structural inequity ingrained in North Richmond with a set of design ideas aimed to boost community health and wealth. The team worked with community members and an advisory board to develop strategies that build local agency (see image above).

Strategies focused on four notions: 1) “Thrive,” which addresses housing affordability and wealth building; 2) “Filter,” on managing storm water; 3) “Grow,” focusing on a living shoreline, community amenities, and infrastructure; and 4) “Relate,” creating physical connections between North Richmond and the region.

One solution suggested splitting vacant lots into smaller lots, making home ownership possible by lowering the entry cost. Others strategies called for increasing urban canopy through “an air quality park,” a neighborhood greenway, and the protection of old growth trees—important to a community situated adjacent to the Chevron refinery.

Asked by juror Helle Soholt, CEO of the urban design firm Gehl, about finances, the team pointed out the City of Richmond is already a leader in alternative approaches to financing; social impact bonds are already used revitalize the community, and land trusts related to natural resources and housing are being explored.

The Estuary Commons by the All Bay Collective

AECOM, CMG Landscape Architecture, UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design, Berkeley Center for New Media, The Terner Center, California College of the Arts, IDEO, Silvestrum, SKEO, modem, David Baker Architects

The All Bay Collective (ABC) proposes redesigning the shoreline of San Leandro Bay into a habitable system of ponds, streams, and land forms. The resulting landscape would be “muscular, strong, and alive,” adapting to sea-level rise and groundwater flooding. The design proposes transportation and ecological corridors that will “stitch together” the patchwork of surfaces and “allow us to live with water in the future.”

The Estuary Commons / The All Bay Collective, Resilient By Design

Like other teams, the ABC team remarked on the importance of working with community partners—especially as they dove into East Oakland’s most historically red-lined and disadvantaged neighborhood. To facilitate community empowerment, the team developed a toolkit to educate community members. It includes the “In It Together Game,” for both kids and adults, intended to explore resilience actions like living levees. Another tool, the Community Resilience Investment Decision Making Tool, evaluates trade-offs between different adaptation actions. For the long-term, the team proposes implementing community benefit districts and eco-districts as governance and funding strategies that place power in the hands of community members.

The proposal also aligns the three transportation lines that divide the neighborhood, burying I-880 in a waterproof tunnel. Juror Shelley Poticha, with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), praised the group’s willingness to tackle existing transportation corridors that are at risk to sea-level rise and fluvial flooding.

“Throughout today, it really struck me how the legacy of the freeways in particular are really shaping the life of this region, and how the transportation agencies have a profound role here,” Poticha noted. “To what extent have these agencies acknowledged their role in creating the vulnerabilities in this region and their role in addressing the challenges?”

Unlock Alameda Creek by Public Sediment

SCAPE Landscape Architecture, Arcadis, Dredge Research Collaborative, TS Studio, UC Davis Department of Human Ecology and Design, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, Buoyant Ecologies Lab

The Public Sediment team offers a plan to reconnect the sediment flows from Alameda Creek to the San Francisco Bay, facilitating the reestablishment of marshes and mudflats that can serve as ecological infrastructure for the Bay. The team looked upstream in the Alameda Creek watershed, the largest tributary that feeds the Bay.

The first step of their three-fold plan to restore sediment to the Bay “rethinks the sediment shed,” investigating how more sediment can be released downstream on its journey from the uplands. Dams, for instance, are barriers that impede the downstream movement of sediment.

The second step to “unlock Alameda Creek” transforms the present flood control channel into an “active” channel that moves sediment and fish and engages people through proposed terrace trails, “mudrooms,” and seasonal bridges. The third step plans and pilots these moves.

Public Sediment’s Unlock Alameda Creek / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Public Sediment spent appreciable time with neighboring communities throughout their research and design process. Responding to communities’ desires to “see more water,” they worked to get people “closer to a water-based experience,” and also involved them in adaptive management and monitoring strategies. “One of the major goals of this work is to have an emotional relationship with the dynamic ecosystems that shape this place over time,” said Gina Wirth, ASLA, with SCAPE.

Resilient South City by HASSELL+

Hassell, Deltares, Lotus Water, Idyllist, Civic Edge Consulting, Goudappel, Page & Turnbull, HATCH, Brown & Caldwell

The Resilient South City proposal creates a continuous public corridor along Colma Creek in South San Francisco, managing flooding and expanding available public green space. It integrates habitat creation, water management, and recreation to “start from the bottom up” and offers a scalable implementation plan. Elements of the design include creating a natural floodplain, treating runoff from the adjacent highway, and using schools as “resilience hubs” that treat stormwater and serve communities during emergencies.

Resilient South City / HASSELL+, Resilient By Design

The design team uncovered the vulnerability of the city’s creek-side and shoreline areas to flooding, sea-level rise, and liquefaction; the necessity for restoration projects to better engage local communities; and the imperative that the city’s diversity of communities become its strength.

The jurors lauded the team for focusing on pedestrian and cycling as key forms of mobility. But Henk Ovink, The Netherlands’ special advisor for international water affairs, wondered: “What are the instruments you have to get people out of their cars?”

South Bay Sponge by The Field Operations Team

James Corner Field Operations, Moffat & Nichol, Magnusson Klemencic Associates, SF Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Romberg-Tiburon Center SFSF, Andrea Baker Consulting, James Lima Planning + Development, The Bay Institute, SeArc/ECOncrete, HT Harvey and Associates, Playhou.se, Adventure Pictures

The Field Operations Team developed a framework for climate change and sea-level rise adaptation for South Bay and Silicon Valley communities using green infrastructure. The proposal focuses on the synchronized efforts needed to implement a multi-jurisdictional plan such as theirs and creative educational ventures to harness community enthusiasm.

The team mobilized the South Bay’s historical position as the region’s “sponge,” a sieve for water. Re-instituting a sponge-like infrastructure “will give space for this water to go” and use nature as “the primary tool for climate adaptation.” Flexible forms of infrastructure to manage water include widening channelized creeks to “flex and give” during flooding. “Soil swaps” that move soil from low-lying areas to higher, and protective edges that will transform the low areas to “sponges” that absorb water.

South Bay Sponge / The Field Operations Team, Resilient By Design

The team took to the streets in a bright green air stream called the “Sponge Hub,” visiting communities to build enthusiasm for their initiative and discuss sea-level rise. Public sessions heard anxieties, questions, and interests.

Approaching resilience from the district approach—bridging counties and municipalities—is fundamental to this proposal. This is particularly striking given that the jurisdictions encompassed within the South Bay Sponge range from the disadvantaged to those of the globe’s wealthiest tech companies.

“What is really making me nervous is the profound power imbalance in this area,” Poticha remarked. “It’s wonderful that a very wealthy company like Google can do something really transformational with their own property, and yet the various unfunded projects in this area should be seen as shameful, given the amount of wealth in this area.” Can a cross-jurisdictional approach solve some of the power imbalance?

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.

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

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Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. / Adrian Higgins, The Washington Post

The Vaunted Garden at Dumbarton Oaks Reopens After Some Major Surgery The Washington Post, 5/2/18
“Those of us who are drawn to landscape architect Beatrix Farrand’s design masterpiece have been cooling our heels since last summer, when the garden closed for major infrastructure repair. The good news is that it has reopened.”

Chicago to Get a Mile-Long Park and Wildlife Habitat The Architect’s Newspaper, 5/4/18
“A vestige of Chicago’s industrial history is slated for redevelopment as an ecologically focused public space.”

Cooper Hewitt Announces the Winners of its 2018 National Design Awards Architect, 5/8/18
“This year’s winners include Anne Whiston Spirn, a Cambridge, Mass.–based author, landscape architect, and MIT’s Cecil and Ida Green distinguished professor of landscape architecture and planning (for Design Mind) and Boston-based landscape architecture firm Mikyoung Kim Design (for Landscape Architecture).”

How Green, Flexible Infrastructure Can Make Cities Resilient Curbed, 5/11/18
“Examine any piece of urban infrastructure—a street, sidewalk, park bench, or dock—and evidence of a losing battle is quickly evident.”

Five Important Reasons Why You Should Hire a Landscape Architect Times Square Chronicles, 5/11/18
“When designing and planning your landscaping, it is crucial to hire an expert instead of creating the features on your own. Landscaping involves a unique balance of amplifying the natural features surrounding your home to come up with a functional and attractive environment.”

How War Has Shaped the Landscape

Border wall prototypes, along the southern border with Mexico / Archinect

“The wall is a military structure that has gained new resonance today,” said Anatole Tckikine, the organizer of a two-day symposium on military landscapes at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. But walls aren’t the only military structures that have shaped our landscapes. From the U.S. Interstate system, which was designed to facilitate evacuations from cities in the event of atomic strike; to the utopian, star-shaped forts of old Europe; demilitarized zones that separate warring lines; and commemorative memorials that demand our awe, like the imposing Motherland Calls in Stalingrad, Russia, military landscapes are not just empty spaces but “landscapes of people.”

Motherland Calls / i09

And as war has evolved over the ages, these landscapes of people have evolved, too, said Antoine Picon, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Up until relatively recently, military landscapes were about creating fortifications or gaining control over the conflict by achieving some physical advantage. Generals sought higher ground for their artillery. Rivers, hills, and other natural features would be used to hem in armies. The landscape of a battle ground was critical to reducing the number of variables and achieving military success.

But today, the ground for action has greatly expanded, Picon explained. “With our sprawling military geographies, the rise of boundless violence, and the infinite energy of atomic weapons, there has been a globalization of the landscapes of conflict.” One result is “that the landscape can no longer regulate military action. Fortifications no longer work.”

War now creates expansive environments, not just landscapes or territories. Imagine the drone flying overhead; war is like a video game. “Before the landscape contained the military event; now, the event generates the landscape.”

Predator drone / Intercepts Defense News

During the symposium, lectures zig-zagged through historical eras and regions, each making points about how the military has shaped our landscapes over time.

John Dixon Hunt, professor emeritus of landscape history at the University of Pennsylvania, delved into how military fortifications inspired peace-time landscapes in the 17th and 18th centuries in the United Kingdom. He explains that the “earliest use of ha-has in landscape dates from 1695, and then at Castle Howard and at Stowe in the 1710s: the ha-ha sought to distinguish the garden from the non-garden, but gradually worked to confuse the status and significance of each.” Beyond the ha-has, peace-time castles put in elaborate walls and other military-inspired fortifications. Dixon Hunt asked: “Why fortify a garden?” Protections could “keep out thieves and cold drafts,” creating micro-climates beneficial to growing food.

Grimsthorpe Castle’s walled gardens / Pinterest

Fortified landscapes ended up falling out of favor with the rise of picturesque view espoused by landscape architect Capability Brown and his contemporaries. Everything was opened up for the eye to enjoy.

For Finola O’Kane Crimmins, a professor at University College Dublin, the Battle of the Boyne, the only time that “Ireland was an arena of European War,” is a source of great interest. In 1690, protestant successor King William III vanquished the Catholic deposed King of England James II. Later, the battle ground became a designed focal point among the families who built great manors there in the battle’s aftermath, with the Boyne Obelisk serving as the dominant reminder of victory. “The obelisk is the most concentrated architectural form for power.”

Boyne Obelisk / Imleach Iseal

Topographical features of the landscape were highlighted in paintings as well, always from the point of view of the victor.

Moving forward centuries and to Southeast Asia, Pamela McElwee, an anthropologist and ecologist at Rutgers University, gave a fascinating tour of a military land use — the Ho Chi Minh trail, which was used to convey soldiers and supplies from the Communist North Vietnam to Viet Cong insurgents in the US-backed South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The trail wasn’t a singular pathway or even a set of trails, but a “plate of spaghetti or a spider web within a spider web.” Known as the Truong San supply route to the Vietnamese, the “porous, creative, and innovative” trails were “the lifeblood of the insurgency,” which some 33,000 North Vietnamese soldiers died to defend.

Ho Chi Minh trail map, 1967 / Wikipedia

Armed with new Vietnamese scholarship on the trail, McElwee was the first American scholar to gain access to the region of some of the most important trail heads. She discovered the trail was formed out of a balance “working with and against nature.” Soldiers created tree bridges to hide the trail and protect it from aerial bombardment, and they purposefully kept a light footprint, cooking and eating in constantly-changing locations, so that American soldiers wouldn’t be able to discover their whereabouts. But they also had to hack their way through jungles with machetes, fight off deadly snakes, build bamboo ladders to climb ravines, and carry their own pontoons to forge rivers. Some 80 percent of the soldiers and workers traveling the trail, and passing through places like the Gorge of Lost Souls, got malaria.

In the early 60s, routes through Laos multiplied with the help of indigenous ethnic minorities who had the most-intimate knowledge of the landscape, and by the early 70s, many trails had widened, so that more than 10,000 people were using it each day. Later, President Nixon ordered the widespread spraying of Agent Orange, a herbicide, in order to reveal the trail to bombers. The end result was to kill the tall trees, giving light to rapacious bamboo, which would form large masses that further hid the network of paths. For McElwee, the endless labyrinthine quality and “impossibility” of the trail, and the deep inhospitality of the jungle had an impact on Americans, perhaps weakening their resolve and contributing to their defeat.

And, finally, Astrid Eckert, a historian at Emory University, took us to the Iron Curtain, which began as a figure of speech Winston Churchill used to describe what he saw as the dark influence of the Soviet Union falling across eastern Europe at the start of the Cold War, but soon became a real presence once the borders between east and west became a walled and fenced-in no mans lands fatal to cross. While the Communists were known for degrading the environment — for example, the Aral Sea was desiccated to grow cotton — the borderlands became de facto protected landscapes teaming with biodiversity. When the walls came down and the borders opened in Germany and other eastern European in the late 80s and early 90s, conservationist rushed in to save these landscapes. Some 85 percent of these former borderlands are now preserved as the 7,700-mile-long European Green Belt.

The “ridiculously photogenic” green belt, where nature was granted a “40-year vacation,” serves as a “happy end to partition” and is a new ecological symbol of unification — the belt grew together and so former foes can come together again. Well, at least that is the prevailing narrative, Eckert said.

European Green Belt / Wikipedia

The reality is that constructing the border over the 1950s and 60s was an act of environmental destruction: marshes and wetlands were drained, hydrological systems were destroyed, and canals and trenches created gaping scars. Minefields killed so many deer that eastern Germans determined deer to be a nuisance — because they exploded so many mines. Except for bird populations, which benefited from the protections, especially Winchats, which enjoyed nesting on fence posts, “the borders meant the end of biological exchange.” Due to the work of conservationists, Eckert said, ironically, the borderlands are once again inaccessible, at least to development. But the green belt is now seen as the “flagship of German conservation.”