Black Landscapes Matter: Q&A with Landscape Designer Walter Hood — 11/02/20, Metropolis Magazine
“The forthcoming collection, co-edited by landscape designer Walter Hood, examines a past, present, and future of the Black American experience as spatially archived in cities such as New Orleans, Detroit, Oakland, California, and Charleston, South Carolina.”
“When there is a convergence of crises, like we have now, there needs to be a convergence of solutions,” argued Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), at the 2020 GreenBuild conference. These solutions need to be net-zero in terms of energy and greenhouse gas emissions, regenerative, and reconnect humanity to nature. And while progress towards these solutions is now “irreversible,” we need to move much faster towards a net-zero world.
Since stepping down from the UNFCCC, where she orchestrated the Paris Climate Accord, Figueres founded the Global Optimism group and wrote the book The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis. With decades of experience fighting in the trenches of UN bureaucracies for climate action, Figueres shared her vision for the future, which is rooted in her “stubborn optimism.”
The history of the planet is the “result of an evolving relationship between nature and humans,” she explained. For 99.99 percent of that relationship over the millennia, “nature had the upper hand, and this was to our benefit.”
Up until the 1960s, humans experienced the Holocene Epoch, which provided Goldilocks-like conditions on Earth, creating a “sweet spot” in terms of temperatures, biodiversity, and precipitation. “This era enabled us to prosper, progress, and multiply.”
But in mid 1960s, the Holocene came to an abrupt halt because of rising greenhouse gas emissions resulting from decades of industrialization. “Then, the relationship between nature and humans was suddenly inverted, and humans took the upper hand, creating the Anthropocene Epoch.”
“I am 60 years old, so I was actually born in the previous era. I’ve lived through two geological eras, and I have to say the Anthropocene is already a sad history.”
In just six decades, humans have actually changed the biophysical processes of the planet. “Atmospheric gases released by our activities have created a warming planet, which has increased cyclones, hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, and sea level rise. Air pollution now leads to the premature death of 7 million people annually.” We have destroyed half of the world’s original forests. As we move into areas that were once the sole province of nature, we are increasingly exposing ourselves to viruses like COVID-19. And soon, “our oceans will have more plastic in them then fish. It’s becoming a dystopian world.”
But this is where her stubborn optimism came in. Figueres doesn’t believe we are condemned to a future of more destruction. “Because we now have the upper hand over nature, this dystopia is not preordained. We can collectively change the course.” That new course is found through adopting “clean energy, designing buildings that produce their own energy, and regenerating our soils and oceans.”
The path of decarbonizing our economies and societies is already laid out. The issue is that according to the UNFCCC, we have about a decade left to orchestrate this major transition in how humans power themselves. “2030 is the eye of the needle. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030, and then 100 percent by 2050.”
There are reasons to hope we can make it. In the energy sector, renewable sources, like hydro, solar, and wind power are already the source of more than 25 percent of global electricity and are heading towards 30-plus percent this year. In a greater number of energy markets, renewables are also the cheapest energy source, beating out coal, oil, and natural gas. In the transportation sector, electric vehicles are growing due to government mandates. “Every major car manufacturer now offers a range of EV models.”
New European Union pandemic recovery funds are directed towards a green recovery. China has just stated it will reach peak emissions by 2060, a major commitment. The majority of G-7 countries are now “headed in the right direction.”
More than 1,400 major corporations worldwide are already moving to “diversify away from climate risks,” Figueres explained. Another 1,200 companies, with some $14 trillion in capital investments, are divesting from sectors with high climate risk, including fossil fuels. The 30 largest institutional investors, which have some $5 trillion in assets, “now understand climate risk and are not willing to strand assets.” 18 countries’ central banks now do climate change stress tests.
Amazon, the global e-commerce giant, just released its pledge to become net-zero in terms of its emissions by 2040. Apple, Nike, Starbucks have moved up their net-zero goals to 2030.
Figueres was very positive about these trends, because they “normalize corporate responsibility and create new expectations.” Plus, these companies are sending the message that “constraining carbon is good for innovation.”
But amid these developments, the future sustainability of the built environment looms large.
Figueres said planners and design professionals play a critical role, because they are the “architects of the future.” It will be design professionals that help us achieve the critical goals of all new buildings being net-zero in terms of energy use by 2030, and all buildings by 2050 — key goals required to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.
To make this more sustainable future happen, design professionals must “incorporate the human experience” and steer the world towards “more low-impact materials that have a high impact on human livability.”
Furthermore, 60 percent of the world’s infrastructure hasn’t been built yet. With the expected growth in population and new cities across the developed and developing worlds, there’s only one chance to get things right. Landscape architects, architects, planners will be responsible for determining “how we live on the planet” far into the future.
“We can create a new relationship between nature and society. We can claw back nature in cities, creating a more harmonious and regenerative relationship. We must regenerate nature in cities for humans to thrive.”
To achieve this new world, humanity will also need to shift its mindset. “We need to shift from thinking about ‘the other’ to thinking about ‘each other.’ We need to get away from thinking we have power over something or someone and move towards the idea that we have ‘power for’ someone or something. This will create the sense of collective agency.”
Humanity has become totally out of synch with the planet’s biophysical systems — for proof, just look to climate change, COVID-19, environmental degradation, ocean acidification, and the accelerated extinction of species. As we now begin to understand, the planet is a single organism, a complex, inter-connected system that can either be healthy and in balance — or not. Furthermore, our health and well-being are intrinsically connected to the health and well-being of natural systems.
In Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves, a new book edited by Drs. Howard Frumkin and Samuel Myers, we are given a roadmap for how to undo the damage to the Earth and live in a way that is more respectful of the planet’s limited capacity. The authors convince us to take this path not just for nature’s sake but also for our own future health and well-being.
Dr. Howard Frumkin is former Dean of Public Health at the University of Washington and former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Samuel Myers is principal research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Together, they have put together a thought-provoking and rich 500-page overview of the emerging field of planetary health, which is increasingly used by UN organizations, governments, non-profits, and universities as a framework for understanding the relationship between human and environmental health.
Frumkin and Myers and their contributors build their case so methodically, with loads of persuasive data, that by the end of the book, it seems difficult to imagine a better framework for understanding Earth’s contemporary human-environmental dynamics. This book is a must-read for anyone passionate about creating better outcomes for more people, far into the future.
In their introduction, the editors explain how today is “the best of times and the worst of times.” On one hand, it has “never been a better time to be a human being.” In the past 65 years, the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty fell from 63 percent to 10 percent, despite the population tripling in size. Child mortality rates are the lowest in recorded history.
But on the other hand, human activity is “driving biophysical change at rates that are much steeper than have existed in the history of our species.” 40 percent of the planet is now dedicated to agriculture, at the expense of natural systems. Habitat destruction and the anticipated extinction of up to a million species threatens the underlying biodiversity that maintains the resilience of natural systems.
Some may see promise in the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch created by humans, and imagine a future planet optimized by direct human control. But in reality, the poor human management of the planet’s biophysical systems to date means that more of the status quo will lead to civilizational collapse.
According to Frumkin and Myers, we have disrupted the climate system; polluted air, water, and soils; caused rapid biodiversity loss; reconfigured biogeochemical cycles; made pervasive changes in land use; and depleted fresh water and arable land. These changes all have significant health implications for billions of people. A new approach rooted in planetary health is needed.
The book first provides a background on the intellectual history of the concept of planetary health, which only began as a systems-scale field of research in the 1990s. As Dr. Warwick Anderson explains in his essay, the field made a big leap in 2010, when The Lancet, a major research journal, and the Rockefeller Foundation partnered with other public health groups to promote a “new health discipline — public health 2.0.” In 2015, with the release of the seminal Lancet – Rockefeller Foundation commission report Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch, Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, deemed the new field of inquiry “planetary health,” which Anderson states, “rapidly gained currency.”
The book then lays out the scale and complexity of the problems and offer some positive models to addressing them:
A chapter by a team of esteemed researchers from organizations such as the Population Council, Population Reference Bureau, and Population Institute explore how the growth in human population and consumption are driving environmental change. They argue that “given the tight interconnectedness of the two drivers, it may be best to see them as coequal challenges.”
These contributors call for disincentivizing the excessive consumer consumption of the U.S. and western Europe, which would doom the planet if expanded to a global scale. They also point to the connected drivers that can further reduce population growth, including greater investment in the education of girls and women around the world, which helps to empower them to make their own decisions, and the expansion of access to contraceptives.
Their conclusion: a “multi-pronged strategy that integrates education, sound policies, and high-quality health services — all while guaranteeing the rights and respecting the dignity of all people — could dramatically accelerate the transition to truly sustainable levels of human population and consumption.”
A companion essay outlines the environmental impacts of the twinned growth in population and consumption. The authors argue: “We live on a different planet than the one our great-grandparents called home a century ago. It is a warmer planet, a more crowded planet, a planet with fewer species, a planet marked by widespread contamination and altered biogeochemical cycles.”
In this chapter, we learn about humans’ many impacts on the environment — ranging from the climate to the nitrogen cycle in agriculture, from land use and cover to water scarcity, biodiversity loss, and pollution.
Through a series of essays, Planetary Health delves into how those specific environmental changes — all driven by human behavior — are in turn jeopardizing human health and well-being by increasing risks in the area of nutrition, infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, population displacement and conflict, and mental health.
In the section on nutrition, Myers explains how rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels increase risks in the agricultural sector, impacting everything from the amount of time farm workers can stay in the heat to the nutritional yield of important mainstay plants. He also flags the lack of genetic diversity of the few plant species we rely on and the need to greater protect plant diversity.
A chapter on infectious diseases by Richard Ostfeld, with the Cary Institute of Ecological Studies, and Felicia Keesing, a biologist at Bard College, explains the growing risks of various infectious diseases. They write: “key environmental drivers, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, land use change, pollution, and alteration of biogeochemical cycles cause changes in the abundance, distribution, physiology, and behavior of important species involved in the transmission of both zoonotic and nonzoonotic pathogens to humans.” They analyze the relationships between land use, biodiversity, and diseases like malaria, lyme disease, and schistosomiasis, among others.
Non-communicable diseases, which include cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, and other conditions, account for 70 percent of global deaths each year. In this chapter, Frumkin and Andy Haines, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases, lay out the data on how climate change, urbanization, and air pollution increase non-communicable disease risk. Of particular interest for landscape architects and planners is a section on the dangers of automobile-dependent communities.
A team of researchers then connect the dots between environmental change, migration, conflict, and heath impacts, explaining how the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, is now understood as the first “modern climate change conflict,” and how we can expect more to come.
One of their arguments for investing in climate solutions is worth re-stating: “Adaptation to global environmental change is part of preventing migration. Adaptation can reduce vulnerability to both sudden shocks and long-term trends. Examples include switching farming practices to drought-tolerant crops and soil-conserving techniques, not building in floodplains, constructing levees and sea walls, restoring coastal barrier systems (mangroves, vegetated dunes, coral reefs, wetlands), and altering building codes to put key utilities on roof instead of in basements.”
Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster, provides a much-needed overview of the expected mental health impacts of climate and environmental change. She collects many useful studies in one place, providing a valuable reference.
One worrying conclusion: “Higher temperatures can provoke increased aggression. This manifests in many ways: from pitchers beaning batters during baseball games and drivers aggressively honking their horns, all the way to violent crime, particularly when combined with frustration over limited access to resources, such as fresh water or arable land.” One of her key solutions is expanding access to nature, particularly in cities. “Reconnecting with nature…offers a range of direct and indirect mental health benefits.”
Planetary Health then turns to building the case for systemic changes in our societies and economies, including a shift away from using gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of growth and instead using gross national happiness and other metrics that better account for human health, well-being, and environmental health. Central arguments include: “happiness and human health are intertwined; natural environments make people happy; and happiness production is not resource-intensive.” In other words, more experiences in nature create happiness, not the latest purchases.
After wading through the problems, we then get to the solutions — healthier models for various sectors: energy, chemicals, cities, economic development, and private sector growth. The chapter on urban places and planetary health is particularly worth reading as it makes the health argument for “integrated green urbanism,” transit-oriented development, bicycle infrastructure, and urban food systems. Iryna Dronova, a professor of landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, contributes to this discussion. The chapter on chemicals outlines how to reduce the risk of endocrine disruptors and create new green chemicals.
This significant new book also proposes how to create a set of planetary health ethics that can guide current and future action — a mutual promise to do no further harm in our era of climate and environmental change. Here, the contributors call for a “social movement, a scientific framework, an attitude towards life, and a philosophy of living that fosters resilience and adaptation.”
The core message: If we truly commit to maximizing human and environmental health in all communities, and undertaking all that entails, we will get on a pathway to saving the planet.
Monday, November 16, 1:00 pm – 6:00 pm EST
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Join prominent educators and practitioners as they share their experiences teaching and coordinating studios as part of the Green New Deal Superstudio, a national conversation on how the framework of the Green New Deal’s key tenets of jobs, justice, and decarbonization can be translated from policy into actual projects with regional and local specificity.
For some inventive landscape architects and architects in Europe, water bodies have presented an opportunity to create memorable, immersive experiences for the public. Instead of creating bridges that traverse lakes and moats, these projects bring cyclists and pedestrians through the water, creating seamless access to nature preserves and historic sites.
Limburg, Belgium, which is in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of the country, has developed 1,240 miles (2,000 kilometers) of bicycle trails, which attract two million cyclists annually. The area is known in Europe as a “bicycling paradise,” according to the Limburg tourism bureau.
In De Wijers, a vast 1,730 acre (700 hectare) nature preserve comprised of lakes, there were areas difficult to reach for cyclists through existing trails. To improve access to Bokrijk, which includes a 19th-century castle, open-air museum, and arboretum set within the nature preserve, landscape architecture firm Burolandschap and architecture firm Lens°ass Architecten created an ingenious path — Cycling Through Water, which cuts directly through one of the lakes.
The concrete-lined path is 695 feet (212 meters) long and nearly 10 feet (3 meters) wide, and its top is designed to be level with the surrounding lake, creating an infinity effect from the distance. Burolandschap states that since the path opened in 2018, more than 300,000 cyclists have used it.
To anticipate and address concerns raised about carving the path through a nature preserve, the city of Limburg paired the project with an expansive restoration and conservation effort in the surrounding lake district, which included the development of new lakes. Burolandschap found that the project resulted in “improvements of the water quality and a significant increase in the habitat of amphibians.”
The dikes were remodeled, which creates “purer water” in the lakes. And below the concrete path, Burolandschap created an amphibian crossing of sorts that lets the animals move to other areas of the lake.
The Limburg tourism bureau said Cycling Through Water is increasing tourism to Bokrijk in a safe and sustainable way. The base of the cycling path is constructed with slip-resistant tiles, which work “even when there is frost.” The path also extends car-free access to the castle and its surrounding sites, further privileging the bicycle, a very low-carbon form of transportation.
Another recent project designed for pedestrians similarly cuts through water in dramatic fashion. Moses Bridge in Halsteren, The Netherlands by RO&AD Architecten is a path through the West Brabant Water line, a defensive system from the 17th century made up of fortresses and moats.
To help pedestrians reach Fort de Roovere, a recently restored fortress, RO&AD Architecten designed a low-impact “invisible bridge” made of wood and waterproofed with EPMD foil.
“The bridge lies like a trench in the fortress and the moat, shaped to blend in with the outlines of the landscape,” RO&AD states.
The top of the bridge meets the actual water line, so the structure can’t be seen from a distance and doesn’t mar the view of the historic landscape. But “when you get closer, the fortress opens up to you through a narrow trench. You can then walk up to its gates like Moses on the water.”
The Little-Known Women Behind Some Well-Known Landscapes — 10/21/20, The New York Times
“‘Women have literally shaped the American landscape and continue to today,’ said Charles A. Birnbaum, president and chief executive of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, ‘but their names and contributions are largely unknown.’”
Photographers have taken to the air en masse. With drones loaded with high-resolution cameras, aerial photographers are capturing surprising and beautiful scenes from both nature and cities, giving us a fresh perspective on the planet’s complexity. After receiving submissions from 126 countries, the Siena Awards Festival selected their latest Drone Photography Awards. The grand prize winner took home €500,000 (US$586,000) of aerial photography equipment.
Photograph of the year went to Love Heart of Nature by Australian photographer Jim Picôt (see above), who captured an amazing scene in which a shark chases a fish within a heart-shaped school of salmon.
In the urban category, aerial photographer Tomasz Kowalski describes the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as an alien landscape.
Dmitrii Viliunov, the winner of the wildlife category, explains that “many think herons make nests in reeds or in a swamp. In fact, they nest in the tops of huge trees.” With a drone, it’s possible to get a sense of their home life.
In the sports category, photographer Roberto Corinaldesi captures swimmers “taking refuge between the blue carpet and the white foam of the waves.”
And in a wonderful photograph by Joseph Cheires, winner of the nature category, we see a gray whale who seems to enjoy interacting with whale watchers. Cheires writes: “at the end of the gray whale season, I was told about a whale that for the last three years played with the boats, pushing them gently. So we went back the year after, and incredibly the gray whale appeared.”
Lastly, in the abstract category, we get a glimpse of the incredible resilience of nature. Aerial photographer Paul Hoelen captures the results of the transformation of a toxic industrial mining site at Lake Owens in California into a shorebird reserve. Hoelen writes: “after a destructive past and the creation of the most toxic dust bowl in America, migratory birds are returning, and life is beginning anew.”
The photographs are now on display in an exhibition entitled “Above Us Only Sky” in Siena, Italy, through the end of November.
During this time, when people especially need places of solace and peace, the re-opening of our sanctuaries seem particularly important. After a comprehensive restoration and expansion, the Rothko Chapel, a non-denominational sacred space in Houston, Texas, has re-opened on a limited basis. Much of the revitalization effort, which encompasses the building and landscape, helps to more fully realize the vision of Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko and the Chapel’s founders, John and Dominique de Menil.
The skylight in the original Chapel, which was designed by architect Gene Aubrey in 1971, has been reconceived, letting more light pour onto the 14 deep, dark, textured Rothko paintings. The landscape surrounding the building has been re-imagined to lead visitors on a more meaningful journey from the street to the artworks. And a new visitor center helps welcome and orient visitors.
The Rothko Chapel is a spiritual center open to those with “any background, any religion, any faith, or no faith,” explains Christopher Rothko, the son of Mark Rothko and chairman of the board of the organization that runs the Chapel.
In an introductory video, he explains how his father, who created some of the world’s most enduring artworks, had always wanted to create a space “where he could set the tone and have direct interaction” with the audience. When the Chapel’s founders, the de Menils, reached out to him, it was a “dream commission.”
Rothko the senior envisioned the 14 paintings and building together as one work of art. Architect Philip Johnson was first engaged to create the building, but Rothko and Johnson didn’t see eye to eye. Architect Howard Barnstone was then hired, but fell ill during the process. Gene Aubrey was the final architect to complete the work, which is in the form of an octagon, in reference to the spaces in a Greek orthodox cross. Rothko would never see its completion. After years of struggling with depression, he killed himself in February 1970, months before before the Chapel’s opening.
According to his son Christopher, Rothko spent his career searching for a “universal language” in art. Before the pandemic, the Chapel attracted some 80,000 visitors annually, some making pilgrimages from around the country and world. So in this sense, Rothko succeeded in achieving his goal with these enveloping, meditative panels, which are considered among his masterpieces.
To realize the vision of Rothko and the Menils, the Rothko Chapel uses its 2-acre campus and powerful art to create interfaith understanding and champion human rights. Since 1971, the Chapel has hosted 5,000 programs on religion, meditation, and spiritual healing, and current global issues.
The renovation of the Chapel was overseen by Architecture Research Office along with lighting designers at George Sexton Associates. The skylight, lighting design, and entryway into the chapel were redesigned to heighten the visual impact of the paintings. With a new central skylight, daylight now permeates the interior, which is what Rothko originally intended.
Before, visitors would gather at the Chapel’s vestibule, crowding the experience. The new Suzanne Deal Booth Welcome House to the north of the Chapel helps relieve pressure on the Chapel, creating ample space for groups and guided tours to meet, and includes an expanded gift shop and bookstore.
The landscape has been clarified and improved by Nelson Byrd Woltz | Landscape Architects. The firm writes that the existing landscape is structured along a primary axis, which is defined by three elements: “the irregular octagonal brick Chapel, a reflecting pool, and Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk that is sited at the far end of the pool from the Chapel.” These elements represent art, spirituality, and justice, respectively — justice because Barnett Newman’s piece is dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr.
NBW bordered the reflecting pool’s western and southern edges with a new screen of 32 evergreen Savannah holly (Ilex x attenuata ‘Savannah’) hedges, which they say “refocuses attention on the central axis of the campus.”
Lanie McKinnon, ASLA, a landscape architect with the firm, goes into greater detail about their efforts in the public space surrounding the pool: “The plaza space was redesigned to create a larger and more contiguous space between the Chapel and Broken Obelisk. The new plaza space features exposed aggregate concrete reminiscent of the original concrete. The new Ilex hedge was installed, offset from the plaza, to open the edges of the gathering space and include new custom benches that, through their thick wood seats, echo the original benches within the Chapel.”
The landscape architects also reworked the “arrival sequence” that guides visitors from the street to the sacred heart of the campus — the 14 paintings. The path moves visitors through a series of “calm, quiet, shaded landscape rooms.”
The firm explains: “these outdoor chambers provide visitors the time and space to physically and mentally prepare first for Broken Obelisk, then the Chapel, and finally Mark Rothko’s paintings. The sequence is calibrated to allow the eye to continually scale down while providing increasing shade in anticipation of the transition from the usually bright Texas sunlight to the Chapel’s interior. In reverse sequence, exiting the Chapel moves visitors through a range of spaces with tree-filtered views of the campus, allowing for quiet reflection in preparation for re-engaging with the city.”
NBW planted some 300 river birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’) trees in rows along the edges of the landscaped rooms to the west and south of the Chapel, which are used for yoga, the annual summer solstice labyrinth, and other musical events.
McKinnon told us: “the birches balance the larger gathering spaces with more intimate seating spaces. The idea was to create outdoor space for Chapel visitors to reflect before or after their journey.” All the new trees, along with a sub-grade detention system, help the campus better manage stormwater.
The total revitalization plan includes some $30 million in projects. A planned second phase will include a new administration and archive building, a renovated and relocated guest house, a meditation garden, and a program center with outdoor plaza. The program center will become the new home for the events the Chapel organizes each year.
In the 1930s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), a government-sponsored corporation that issued mortgages, would send lenders and realtors out into communities with a standard form they were asked to fill out. The form was meant to capture data about areas’ characteristics and figure out which had “favorable influences,” such as good schools or views, and which had “detrimental influences,” such as “obnoxious odors, a lack of utilities, or a high number of African Americans or immigrants,” explained Rob Nelson, a professor at the University of Richmond, during a session at the Urban Land Institute’s virtual fall meeting. The forms were meant to calculate the “level of infiltration” by African Americans and immigrants. Areas with high levels were marked as “high risk” areas for mortgage lending.
What HOLC and other lenders had been doing for decades would later be named redlining. The term redlining came from the comprehensive color-coded maps HOLC and other lenders would create, which would indicate “security grades” for mortgage lending. According to Nelson, grade A or B grade neighborhoods were colored in green and blue, grade C in yellow, and the lowest level, grade D, in red.
Grade A neighborhoods were “hot spots for construction,” often in the suburbs, and entirely white. Grade B neighborhoods were “still desirable” and “good for lenders.” Grade C neighborhoods were somewhat “infiltrated by lower grade populations,” and grade D neighborhoods experienced the “detrimental influence of undesirable populations.” In these neighborhoods, HOLC urged lenders to “refuse to make loans.” These predominately African American areas were deemed “hazardous,” Nelson explained.
In Richmond, Virginia, D neighborhoods, marked in red, were found closer to the city center, while C neighborhoods were a little further out, and A and B neighborhoods were in the suburbs. “Almost all A, B, C neighborhoods had no African Americans, while D neighborhoods were predominately African American. The pattern was crystal clear.”
Nelson argued that other than the racial composition of the A and D neighborhoods, HOLC and other lenders had no clear sense of the demographics of these areas. The A neighborhoods weren’t further examined — they were assumed to have multi-generational wealth and the “best people, really.” In the D neighborhoods, “comprised mostly of Negroes,” there “was no occupations listed; they were assumed to be domestic workers or gardeners.”
C neighborhoods were defined by the degree they were influenced by D neighborhoods. A neighborhood categorized as C could include a “predominately white school in a Black area, or include ‘mostly respectable’ people who happened to live too near Negro areas.”
The conclusion from Nelson’s analysis is that lenders found African Americans to be a “profound threat to property values. Just having proximity to African Americans, who may be pedestrians walking through the neighborhood, would have material consequences.”
The same exact patterns of grading communities and redlining existed in a staggering 200-plus cities, both large and small, across the U.S. “This was structural racism that was state-endorsed.”
One of the results was to “direct public and private capital to white families in the suburbs.” In effect, redlining became “one of the greatest mechanisms for white families to generate wealth and for denying African Americans the opportunity.”
The legacy of redlining, which occurred over the course of many decades, continues to impact American society. As Kofi Boone, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University explained at last year’s ULI conference, without the opportunity to accumulate wealth through home ownership, African Americans to this day have little to pass on to future generations to inherit. “Today, the average white family has $122,000 in wealth; Latinx family $1,600; and African American family, just $1,300,” Boone said.
The African American communities denied access to home ownership also experienced other forms of public disinvestment. As Nelson pointed out, a recent study from The New York Times found that historically redlined communities had “much more asphalt and concrete and much fewer street trees or parks.” This resulted in higher levels of the urban heat island effect. These areas are now highly correlated with increased pollution and asthma rates. “These places are much more vulnerable,” and their populations have “far lower life expectancy, with higher rates of diabetes, asthma, kidney disease, and hypertension,” he said.
Nelson believes the racist housing policies of the past can be undone through “anti-racist real estate practices.” The past approach for wealth building can be “reversed.”
Dr. Fullilove said on their surface, the redlining maps are beautiful, almost like cartoons. But in reality, they represented a total stratification of cities, the “trashing” of cities. (She added it’s important to note there were no redlining maps of the suburbs).
Thinking like a psychiatrist, Dr. Fullilove said the maps have had a powerful impact that help maintain an “American apartheid in our heads” and create a “paradigm in our hearts.” She then outlined a few projects that are breaking down the hierarchies established by the redlining maps in Manhattan, particularly the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights.
In 2005, Dr. Fullilove founded Hike the Heights, a program that helps residents of northern Manhattan cut across neighborhoods once graded A,B,C, and D and break down the “mental map” that still segregates communities.
The program created a walking and biking map of a newly imagined linear North-South trail that begins from Central Park and ends at the Cloisters museum at Fort Tryon park in the northwestern edge of Manhattan.
After expanding her efforts by forming the City Life Is Moving Bodies (CLIMB) community group, Dr. Fullilove and team worked with designer Sagi Golan to fine tune a map they pass out at walking events and festivals.
The map’s route was entirely guided by the community, including children who helped with data collection. Dr. Fullilove then consulted with an urban designer, who advised that the trail, which children said looked a bit like a giraffe, needed a head, so it was decided that it should end at the Cloisters. The team added in east west components as the trails moves north south.
As groups of upper Manhattanites organized by CLIMB began to walk the trail, the community started to clean up derelict parks and revitalize “scary places” that had been occupied by junkies with children’s art, like papier-mâché giraffes.
The new investment of community energy into these green spaces caused the city government to follow suit. CLIMB’s advocacy work led to the New York City government to invest $30 million in restoring Highbridge Park in Washington Heights.
Dr. Fullilove’s former students also started Design The We, an inventive research and planning project in New York City aimed at “un-designing the redline.”
Still, the legacy of redlining is being felt to this day. As Dr. Fullilove explained, redlining maps set up neighborhoods for urban renewal in the 1960s and 70s. “The refusal to invest led to communities to become blighted and then to be destroyed through urban renewal,” she said. Urban renewal also meant displacement.
Today, that displacement only continues. Too often urban development or revitalization efforts “happen to communities, not with or for them.” Community development is still too often a box to check; the developers “aren’t really listening.”
The foremost issue exacerbating community gentrification and displacement is the lack of affordable housing. An increasingly large share of the population is paying nearly half of their income on rent, which is unsustainable. The amount spent on housing should be around 30 percent.
Public housing no longer receives much support or investment, so housing development has been given over to the private sector. The issue is that private developers can’t afford to develop low-cost housing; they need further subsidies.
The lack of affordable housing is in turn “causing white people to gentrify previously redlined communities,” Dr. Fullilove said. “When I say ‘white people,’ it’s arbitrary, it’s who we think of this week.”
One way to slow this process down is to further densify communities and increase the amount of affordable housing available in every neighborhood. “We need to make the whole city fabulous at all price points — everywhere.”
Another way to be more responsive to existing urban communities is to diversify the people making development decisions. Showing a photo of the lenders who redlined New York City in the 1930s, it’s all white men. And then showing a photo of a group of community planners today, there is a “melange of people” providing different perspectives.
In a general session during the Urban Land Institute (ULI)’s virtual fall meeting, Bakari Sellers, author of the memoir My Vanishing County and commentator on CNN, called for Americans to get out of their bubbles and become more empathetic towards others with different identities and beliefs. He challenged everyone to spend a week watching Fox & Friends, then a week watching Morning Joe, and then a third week watching New Day. “It may be difficult for some, but afterward sit back and have some conversations.”
Sellers then spent the early part of his talk walking the online audience through the life story of his father Cleveland Sellers, a professor and civil rights activist.
His father grew up in rural Denmark, South Carolina, a predominantly Black town. After enrolling at Howard University, Sellers met Stokely Carmichael and joined the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG). In the mid-1960s, he became one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was sent to Mississippi to register voters, where he was met with intense racism.
In 1968, while in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Sellers was arrested during campus protests against the segregation of a local bowling alley. The protest became known as the Orangeburg Massacre because police shot and killed three Black protesters. Sellers and others were accused of being “outside Black Power agitators.” While the nine policemen accused of using excessive force were acquitted, Sellers was convicted and sentenced to year in jail for inciting a riot. Sellers went on to receive a degree from Harvard University and became the director of African American studies at the University of South Carolina; twenty-five years after Orangesburg he received a full pardon.
Sellers explained his father’s history in detail to remind the audience of “difficult times in the past” and relay the importance of “leaving our silos” and seeing history from another perspective.
Back in the present day, Sellers returned to discussing Denmark, South Carolina, and other rural Black communities in the South that have been left behind. There, local businesses and the hospital have shut down. The schools are in the “‘corridor of shame,’ and students walk through mud to get to classes held in trailers.”
With the pandemic, the lack of access and opportunity has only gotten worse. “People feel anxious and suffocated.” Many in the community feel like they are “on the floor,” and there is no further they can drop. Their ability to “emerge from that soil and become an example has gotten so much tougher.”
Sellers brought up Denmark to explain that there is an “empathy deficit in America.” He said “Black people are in a constant state of grieving.” To help, “we can all do our part, take the time, do the introspection. We have made a lot of progress, but there is still so much farther to go. We need to dream with our eyes open and re-imagine the possibilities.”
Those who are developers, planners, and designers of the built environment have an important role to play in re-imagining the country. One of the first major pieces of civil rights legislation — the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — was about “real estate development.”
Before the legislation, redlining, which significantly reduced home ownership in Black and Latinx communities, was pervasive. Redlining also hampered equitable education reform. Equal access to purchasing of a home is essential to growing local tax bases, which play a large role in funding schools.
Today, much of local property taxes come from commercial properties and new development. Here lies the Catch-22: “you can’t improve schools without bringing in business and development, and you can’t bring in business and new development without better schools.”
Sellers applauded the legislation signed into law by President Trump to create opportunity zones. There are now more than 8,700 zones in the U.S. where low-income communities are seeing an influx of direct investment. In return, developers receive significant tax benefits.
But Sellers also called for a greater focus on “race-based policies to address race-specific issues.” These policies can help undo inequities in access to education, health care, transportation, and other areas.
He said even with all the new investment in opportunity zones, Black people in the U.S. are still far behind whites and other groups in wealth accumulation, in large part because of the legacy of redlining, which denied prospective Black homeowners the ability to take out a mortgage. “If white people stopped making any money now, it would still take Black folks 228 years to catch up.”
When asked by an audience member what white and other allies can do to help, Sellers said: “bringing humility and honesty, and really listening is more important than speaking out.” But then he added that “Black people aren’t the ones who are going to cure racism in this country.”
And then when asked what is holding up further change — a lack of knowledge about racism or denial? — Sellers responded: “it’s partly due to willful ignorance, and partly due to a piss-poor educational system.”
Returning to his theme of breaking down racial and partisan silos, he offered a message of solace and determination: “it’s a courageous thing to love your neighbor, even when they don’t love you back. You have to re-dedicate yourself, even when they don’t love you. For some of us, that’s an awesome responsibility.”