Designing Cities for Healthier Microbiomes

Artistic rendering of the human microbiome / The Why Files

Humans are essentially super-organisms or holobionts made up of both human cells and those of micro-organisms, such as viruses, bacteria, archea, protists, and fungi. Researchers now know the human body hosts a comprehensive ecosystem, largely established by age three, in which non-human cells vastly outnumber human cells. The latest study from the American Academy of Microbiology estimates each human ecosystem contains around 100 trillion cells of micro-organisms and just 37 trillion human cells.

But while rainforest or prairie ecosystems are now well-understood, the human ecosystem is less so. As researchers make new discoveries, there is a growing group of scientists who argue our microbiomes are deeply connected with our physical and mental health. The increased number of prebiotics and probiotics supplements on the shelf in drug stores and supermarkets, and availability of fresh pickles and kimchi in local farmers markets, are perhaps testaments to this increasingly-widespread belief.

The question at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Oklahoma City was: Can we design cities to better support our microbiomes and in turn our overall health?

Richard Wener, an environmental psychologist at NYU, explained how our built environment is filled with micro-organisms. “The walls of our kitchen and bathrooms are covered in bacteria; most of them aren’t pathogenic.” The micro-organisms found in our environments are constantly interacting with our microbiomes, so we are “perpetually assembling and re-assembling different species.”

For Wener, this begs the question: “What is an individual?” If we are constantly evolving with the micro-organisms in our environment and therefore changing our composition, “what individual are we talking about?”

While our microbiomes may evolve, they still have a distinct signature. Researchers can now identify people by their unique microbiotic markers — crime-scene microbes are now analyzed in forensic studies to identify who was at a location.

Places have unique microbiotic signatures as well. Through their PathoMap project, Weil Cornell Medical College organized citizen scientists to examine the bacteria in subway stations and found stations had “consistent signatures.” The microbes in stations near hospitals were different from neighborhood signatures. “The microbes really depend on who lives there.” (See data visualizations of the findings).

So can we design the city in terms of microbial species? Can we design buildings and parks to create “selective pressure that supports biotic life that is good for humans?”

Turns out good microbes can be put to better use while bad ones can be suppressed.

In Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, a highly-polluted Super Fund site, researchers took samples of sludge at the bottom of the canal and found bacteria had been digesting some of the worst industrial waste for decades. “They co-evolved to eat solvents and toxins.” At a slow pace, Wener thinks these bacteria could actually clean-up the entire canal. Through interventions, “we could encourage the growth of this bacteria.”

Buildings could be designed to kill off pathogenic bacteria and support the healthy microbes in our biomes. Wener said a recent Brazilian study found pathogenic bacteria, which comes from people, thrive in closed spaces. In open air environments in the Brazilian rainforest, where domesticated and wild animals roamed through indigenous villages, there were no pathogenic bacteria, but in closed building interiors found in Brazilian cities, researchers found many. The conclusion: If you increase exposure to light and air flow in buildings, you will reduce dangerous bacteria.

Through urban farming and gardening — or just plain playing in the dirt — humans can also increase their exposure to healthy microbes found in soils. A group of scientists and advocates argue that greater exposure could help fight depression and anxiety and reduce rates of asthma and allergies in both kids and adults.

The incredible increase of allergies among Western populations may be caused by our “sterile, germ-free environments” that cause our immune systems to over-react to everything from nuts to mold and pollen. Dr. Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Arrieta even wrote a book exploring this: Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Over-sanitized World.

Wener said we have created cities that reflect our fear of bacteria; instead we must create microbial-inclusive cities that improve our health. “Most microbes in our bodies have co-evolved with us. They are important to our vital functions. The future of urban planning and design should support healthy microbes.”

As part of this vision, landscape architects could design parks and plazas to be filled with accessible garden plots and healthy soil-based play areas that let both adults and kids get dirty. We could design for holobionts instead of just people, boosting the health of the collective urban microbiome in the process.

Wener’s colleage at NYU — Elizabeth Henaff — is leading much of this research. Learn about her artful experiments. Read this article from Michael Pollan in The New York Times outlining the connections between our microbiome and health, and this Q&A from The Guardian.

New Short Film: Pollinators Under Pressure

A new short film narrated by award-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio seeks to raise public awareness about pollinators, which includes bees, bats, butterflies, birds, and other mammals; the important ecological and economic roles they play; and the threats they face. The film was produced by Tree Media and directed by Matthew Schmid.

Pollinator health is the rare issue that spans the political spectrum. ASLA has worked with the non-profit Pollinator Partnership to turn this bipartisan goodwill into government policy.

In 2015, ASLA successfully lobbied for inclusion of pollinator-friendly management practices in the 2015 FAST Act. The law instructs the U.S. department of transportation to implement integrated vegetation management, reduced mowing schedules, and planting of native, pollinator-friendly species on highway roadsides. In 2016, the Federal Highway Administration issued guidance to state departments of transportation on how to implement pollinator-friendly habitats on the 17 million acres of roadsides across the country.

Despite the bipartisan consensus, the plight of pollinators remains a relatively obscure issue among the wider population. The producers of Pollinators Under Pressure hope to change that, and have made the film available for free online, making it a valuable tool for those seeking to educate others about the issue.

There are practices any home gardener can adopt: plant pollinator-friendly gardens, eliminate the use of pesticides, provide clean water, and leave dead tree trunks.

Learn more about Pollinators Under Pressure.

Discover Landscape Architecture Activity Books

The ASLA Discover Landscape Architecture Activity Books are for anyone interested in landscape architecture, architecture, planning, and engineering, and for those who like to draw, doodle, and be inspired. The books’ primary focus is landscape architecture, giving readers the opportunity to see the many drawings, places, and landscapes created by landscape architects.

Download Activity Book for Kids

Take a journey across an imaginary town to learn about the building blocks of landscape architecture. In this activity book, you will learn about landscape architecture, see sketches from landscape architecture professionals, and have the opportunity to sketch and color drawings. This book is geared towards readers 9-12 years old.

Drawing by Jim Richard, FASLA / ASLA
Drawing by Michael Batts, ASLA / ASLA

Download Activity Book for Teens & Adults

Take a journey across the United States to see some of the great places designed by landscape architects. In this activity book, you will learn about landscape architecture, see sketches from landscape architecture professionals, have the opportunity to sketch and color drawings, and problem solve to plan your own projects. This book is geared towards readers 13 years and older.

Drawing by Yifu Kang, Student ASLA
Drawing by Robert Chipman, ASLA / ASLA

Share the Books!

Do you have a friend that is interested in landscape architecture? Do your children like the idea of blending art with the environment? Are you a landscape architecture professional visiting a local school and searching for a fun interactive exercise?

Whether you are a kid, teen, parent, teacher, undergraduate student, or landscape architecture professional, there are many ways to share the activity books. To start, share with family, friends, classmates, neighbors, other professionals, and community members.

And don’t forget to share your work. Post your drawings with #ASLAactivitybooks to show the world your creative talents! Stay tuned for future initiatives at ASLA including available copies for distribution and Spanish translated editions.

Design from a Digital Device

Landscape architects create drawings on paper and on digital devices. If you are interested to complete the activity books from your digital device, check out some of the free apps and programs below that include drawing tools.

Adobe Sketch
iBooks
Adobe Acrobat Reader
Microsoft OneNote

This post is by Shawn Balon, ASLA, Career Discovery and Diversity Manager at the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).

ASLA Recommendations: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate / ASLA

Climate change is intensifying the negative impacts of standard development practices and is putting people and communities across the United Sates at risk. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) convened an interdisciplinary Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience in September 2017, and this week ASLA released a blueprint for helping secure a sustainable and resilient future that summarizes the panel’s work and recommendations.

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate: The Report and Recommendations of the ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience found that the U.S. needs a new paradigm for communities that works in tandem with natural systems. It recommends that public policies should:

  • Be incentive based
  • Promote holistic planning and provide multiple benefits
  • Take into account environmental justice, racial and social equity
  • Reflect meaningful community engagement
  • Regularly evaluated and reviewed for unintended consequences
  • Address broader regional issues as well as local and site-specific concerns.

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate also found that:

  • Designing and planning in concert with natural systems promotes resilience, capitalizes on the benefits of natural systems and provides greater long-term return on investment.
  • Key strategies include use of green infrastructure, native plants, urban and suburban tree planting plans, and healthy soil management practices.
  • Compact, walkable, and transit-oriented “smart growth” communities reduce energy use and are climate smart.
  • Special attention must be paid to vulnerable communities in coastal and inland flood plains and underserved and low-income communities.
  • Transportation should be considered critically as not only a connection point between home to work/services, but also as a source of greenhouse gas emissions, and a contributor or detractor to a community’s appearance and function in light of a weather event.
  • Agricultural systems must be addressed because they are being stressed by unsustainable farming practices and farmland is being lost to expanding development and sprawl.

“Our nation, states, counties, and cities are looking for solutions to mitigate the risks from the changing climate and extreme weather events,” said Nancy C. Somerville, Hon. ASLA, ASLA executive vice president and CEO. “With this report, landscape architects and their design and planning colleagues forward public policy recommendations that can make communities safer while taking climate change and existing natural systems into account.”

ASLA released the report at an evening reception and candid discussion yesterday with Somerville, and ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel members Adam Ortiz, director for the Department of the Environment for Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Diane Jones Allen, program director for Landscape Architecture, the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington and principal landscape architect with DesignJones LLC.

We have provided a platform for landscape architects, public officials, and other design and planning professionals to share their views on how to help communities adapt to climate change through smart design policies. Go to https://climate.asla.org.

The Blue Ribbon Panelists included a diverse range of practitioners, experts and stakeholders with different levels of experience working in different aspects of geographic and technical design. They are:

  • Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, SITES AP, ASLA Immediate Past President, Chair;
  • Armando Carbonell, FAICP, Senior Fellow and Chair, Department of Planning and Urban Form, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy;
  • Mark Dawson, FASLA, Managing Principal, Sasaki Associates Inc.;
  • Tim Duggan, ASLA, Founder, Phronesis;
  • Ying-yu Hung, ASLA, Managing Principal, Principal, SWA, Los Angeles Studio;
  • Dr. Dwane Jones, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Sustainable Development + Resilience at the University of the District of Columbia;
  • Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, Program Director for Landscape Architecture, the College of Architecture Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington and principal landscape architect with DesignJones LLC;
  • Adam Ortiz, Director for the Department of the Environment for Prince George’s County, Maryland;
  • Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, SITES AP, Executive Vice President and CEO, ASLA; and;
  • Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, Ph.D., Senior Program Officer, Environment, The Kresge Foundation.

Some quotes from panelists on the importance of adopting effective public policies and landscape architecture design solutions:

“The plans we’re going to have in the future to deal with living with water have to be more realistic. We have to live with the acknowledgement that there will be hurricanes and areas that naturally want to flood. How do we build differently as opposed to thinking we can keep water out?”

Diane Jones Allen, ASLA
Program Director for Landscape Architecture, the College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington

“We have a number of antiquated policies within governmental structures. Reevaluating them every five years or so would help us to reflect what is currently happening and to better project how we should design communities to be able to proactively respond to such changes and challenges.”

Dr. Dwane Jones, Ph.D.
Director of the Center for Sustainable Development + Resilience at the University of the District of Columbia

“All public projects really have to be interdisciplinary. They have to incorporate the local culture, the local economy, forward-thinking design concepts, as well as good engineering. All that together, in a very thoughtful way that respects the complexity of our society, is a way to make a sustainable project that people enjoy and love.”

Adam Ortiz
Director for the Department of the Environment for Prince George’s County, Maryland

“One of the things we need to be doing is do a lot more experimentation. Sometimes you just need to be able to try things and see if that solution can take you forward. If it’s not a good solution, let’s try something else. That kind of creativity and ideas is really what innovation is all about.”

Vaughn B. Rinner, FASLA, SITES AP
Immediate Past President, American Society of Landscape Architects

“Our standard development practices are not sustainable, but when we understand and work with natural systems, we can build safer and healthier communities.”

Nancy C. Somerville, Hon. ASLA. SITES AP
Executive Vice President and CEO, American Society of Landscape Architects

“My hope is that we embed true kinds of community engagement, justice, and equity into our focus on climate change and resilience. We need to really do that in a way where it’s not so scientific. The social engineering matters as well. It’s what you’re doing in your profession that impacts people and makes those impacts equitable.”

Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, Ph.D.
Senior Program Officer, Environment
The Kresge Foundation

Remnants of Oglethorpe’s Utopian Vision Survive in Savannah’s Squares

James Oglethorpe statue in Chippewa Square / Jared Green
James Oglethorpe statue in Chippewa Square / Jared Green

James Oglethorpe, founder and planner of Savannah, Georgia, was educated during the height of the Enlightenment. Influenced by John Locke and Isaac Newton, he was a visionary who sought to use “scientific laws to establish the ideal city,” explained Steve Smith, with the Massie Heritage Center, during a tour at the Congress for New Urbanism.

Upon the approval of his petition to create the colony of Georgia, named after King George II, Oglethorpe set sail for the American south with 100 settlers, with the goal of establishing an “anti-urban settlement, a low-density, agrarian community,” said David Gobel, an architectural history professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

Oglelthorpe thought cities were the root of all social ills. Removing people from a productive relationship with the land and a healthy connection with nature resulted in bad morals, crime, and debt. He sought to create a new colony for people who had suffered in urban debtors’ prisons, but ended up attracting many merchants, artisans, and others to his venture.

In his new colony of Savannah, established in 1733, Oglethorpe organized the community along an unusual layout — now known as the Oglethorpe Plan — characterized by wards made up of 40 60-feet-by-90-feet lots on either side of a central square, framed by “tithe lots” where churches and civic centers were found. At no time in history has there been an urban plan like this.

Original Oglethorpe plan / Connect Savannah

In this village format, each colonial family would get a lot, which included a garden and a 50-acre farm outside the town center. Ogelthorpe originally envisioned four wards, with a maximum of 240 families.

According to Gobel, the utopian plan of Ogelthorpe was a failure. “He took people from the urban core of London and told them they will become farmers — in clay soil in the southern heat.” Oglethorpe was also very restrictive — alcohol wasn’t permitted; families were restricted to the property they were allocated; lawyers and Catholics weren’t allowed; and due to his moral opposition to slavery, that evil practice was banned.

As we heard from Vaughnette Goode-Walker, a local historian who gave a tour of the African American history of Savannah, Oglethorpe eventually succumbed to the slave culture established in nearby South Carolina. “The first settlers were lazy, drinking, and didn’t do anything. Oglethorpe had to borrow slaves until 1741” to clear the land and construct the city. By the time Oglethorpe returned to Georgia in 1752, his utopian vision was in ruins; he had been “overwhelmed.” And the reality was that “slaves built the city.”

By 1750, “slavery arrived with a vengeance.” Between 1761 and 1771, some 10,000 slaves were sold in the markets near the wharfs, where boats loaded with suffering human cargo would arrive from the Caribbean and Africa. The first slaves worked rice plantations and then later cotton fields. By 1810, some 44 percent of the workforce was enslaved. In 1860, the population of the city was 22,000, with some 17,000 enslaved people and 700 free blacks, many of whom owned slaves themselves.

The anti-materialistic, equitable vision Oglethorpe had for the city wasn’t realized; and the physical form of his idealism was corrupted as well. Oglethorpe envisioned a maximum of four wards, but beginning in the 1790s, the ward system was replicated and eventually expanded to 24 wards (there are now just 22). “Savannah became a city filled with squares; it’s almost ridiculous,” Gobel said. But these squares are now what helps draw millions of tourists to Savannah every year.

Historians in Savannah have long wondered: why squares? The Massie Center is a believer in the “Turin theory,” posited by Cornell University professor John Reps, which contends that Oglethorpe modeled the squares after the Piazza Carlina in Turin, Italy. But Gobel believes Oglethorpe instead modeled them after squares created in London in the 17th century. “London was square-crazy then. There were more than 20 in the West End, where the trustees of the colony had homes.”

Piazza Carlina in Turin, Italy / @rtisan Traveler, Pinterest
St. James Square, London / Eric Parry Architects

Still, the Savannah squares aren’t like their possible Italian or English inspirations. “The Savannah square is nothing like an Italian piazza, because there are lots of openings. There is a porosity to the squares, with all the streets that come off them, which breaks down the sense of an enclosed space. And unlike the squares of London, the Savannah squares are open, with no fences.” (Gramercy Square in New York City is more like an old English square, with its private key for residents who live beside it).

Porosity of the squares of Savannah / Jared Green
Fountain in square / Jared Green

The squares were originally completely utilitarian. “They were used as pasture, marketplaces, for exercise or as military encampments. They started as left-over, residual spaces.” The primary feature of many was simply a well. According to Goode-Walker, African Americans certainly weren’t allowed in the squares — “slaves stayed in the lanes behind houses.” And back then, the lanes and streets were filled with mud and horse excrement, which is why most whites lived in the upper levels of the homes they built.

But slowly the squares evolved into important spaces of public beauty. By 1810, there were mentions of “how lovely the squares were,” said Gobel. Curbs separated them from the streets; trees were planted; and north-south and east-west pathways were established. In between this matrix of paths, the city erected giant monuments to heroes of the American Revolutionary War.

Sgt. William Jasper Monument in Madison Square / Jared Green
Sgt. William Jasper Monument in Madison Square / Jared Green

There have been “many changes to the squares over the years. They have been gussied up; today, they are more like garden parks.” Landscape architect Clermont Lee renovated and restored five squares from the 1950s to the 1970s. In 2010, EDAW (now AECOM) restored Ellis Square to the original plan, after the old City Market built over it was torn down. Today, a team of landscape architects — who work for the city government in a group distinct from the parks department — maintain the squares.

In their beautification, the squares have transitioned from places of recreation, commerce, and civic action into places to relax and commune with nature and the community. “The goal today is to prevent any active use. Monkey grass was put in to keep out kids,” Gobel fretted.

Not play-friendly Savannah Square / Jared Green

The squares wouldn’t be the draw they are without the amazing Live Oaks that were planted more than 150 years ago. The original trees of the squares — the Pride of India or “China berry” tree, a relative of the Mahogany — were all killed off in a hurricane in the 1850s. A towering canopy of Live Oaks, Palmettos, Magnolias now oversee the squares, which feel heavy with history, but where, today, all ethnicities can be seen together.

Live Oak in a Savannah Square / Jared Green
Magnolias and Live Oaks in a Savannah Square / Jared Green

According to Gobel, there is a history that still needs to be more deeply explored: “a landscape history of the city has never been done.” A story needs to be told about the horror of the landscape of East Upper Factors Walk, which was created by Irish sailors with ballast from ships, where slaves who had just been purchased were kept, a haunted place Goode-Walker said she doesn’t bring tours.

East Upper Factors Walk / Jared Green
East Upper Factors Walk / Jared Green

And the story of the amazingly resilient natural and cultural communities that define the character of the city — the diverse trees that shade the city, and people who built Savannah and shaped its evolution.

Human Activity Is Making Oceans Louder, Putting Wildlife at Risk

right_wale_calf
Right whales breaching / NOAA

Jacques Costeau famously called the planet’s oceans “The Silent World.”

“Unfortunately, that was not really an accurate description,” says Dr. Jason Gedamke. “To the animals that live in the ocean, it is an incredibly noisy and loud place.”

Gedamke should know – he is the director of the Ocean Acoustics Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

What’s more, Gedamke says that the world’s oceans are getting noisier still thanks to human activity. At a recent round-table discussion hosted by the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation, Gedamke discussed his team’s research on this significant but overlooked impact of human activity on the not-so-silent world.

Water, it turns out, is an excellent conductor of acoustic energy.  “Sound travels incredibly efficiently underwater,” said Gedamke. He pointed to the 1991 Heard Island Feasibility Test, in which sounds emitted from underwater speakers off the coast of Australia were heard by researchers on the other side of the planet.

Whales and dolphins have adapted to exploit this property of water to communicate over large distances, but these adaptations also make them vulnerable to adverse effects from human sounds.

For example, there is evidence to suggest that beaching behavior – when a whale or dolphin becomes stranded on the ocean shore – may be related to acute ocean noise events such as loud pings from underwater sonar equipment.

Gedamke’s team, however, is most interested in the chronic effects of years’ worth of sound pollution on marine mammal life. “We’re trying to shift our focus from the acute – the immediate, loud sound that causes an animal to change its behavior – to the broader effects of all this introduced sound changing their habitat.”

young_monk_seal
A young monk seal / NOAA

Part of the challenge Gedamke and his team face in their research is a lack of consistent data. The historic record of ocean noise levels is piecemeal, meaning it is difficult to make direct comparisons over time. The researchers are trying to address this with a new system of recorders that were deployed in 2014. These will allow for more accurate assessments of how the ocean’s sonic landscape is changing over time.

Gedamke’s team is also using GIS to map areas of high-noise intensity. When those are overlaid with maps showing areas of wildlife population, they could help identify areas and populations most at risk from harmful noise pollution.

There are many risks of a noisier habitat for marine life. Ambient noise could mask sounds that allow certain species to detect their predators, or vice versa, which could lead to food chain disruptions and ecological imbalance. It could also make it more difficult for individual animals to communicate with members of their own species, interfering with behaviors like hunting and mating. Proximity to loud sources of sound could lead to injury or hearing loss.

Oil and gas exploration and maritime shipping are primary contributors to our increasingly noisy oceans. Gedamke said that the Gulf of Mexico, the source of 17 percent of total U.S. crude oil production, is “an incredibly loud environment, one of the most heavily impacted on Earth.”

oil_rig
An oil rig at the mouth of the Mobile Bay / Andrew Wright

In January of this year, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed opening all US coastal areas to offshore oil exploration, sparking widespread pushback from many coastal states and environmental groups. Recent reports suggest that industry demand for such a move is tepid, however.

Conventional industrial activity is not the only contributor, however. The installation of offshore wind turbines also contributes to ocean noise.

According to Project Drawdown, offshore wind turbines are an important tool for reversing global warming, with the potential to reduce atmospheric CO2 by 14.1 gigatons by 2050.

Wind turbines, both on and offshore, have also drawn criticism from environmental groups in the past for their potential impacts on wildlife, especially birds.

The risk of rising ocean noise fits into a larger pattern of disregard for the impact of human activity on marine habitat. From warming water temperatures to toxic chemical spills to swirling islands of plastic garbage, the world’s oceans are bearing the brunt of some of the most harmful industrial practices of the 20th and early 21st century.

The recent BBC nature documentary series Blue Planet II illustrated the scope of these impacts in its final episode, “Our Blue Planet.” In the episode, narrator David Attenborough warns that “the health of our oceans is under threat now as never before in human history.”

Among the harmful impacts of human behavior are overfishing, plastic entering the food chain, and yes, noise. “Man-made noise is now everywhere in the ocean, and it has an effect on marine creatures of all kinds,” says Attenborough.

The Blue Planet team follows marine biologist Steve Simpson, who researches how fish use sound to communicate, as well as how man-made sound interferes with that ability.

While it seems to be a complicated issue, for Simpson, the way forward is clear: “We can choose where we make the noise, we can choose when we make the noise. We can directly control the amount of noise that we make, and we can start doing that today.”

Learn more about NOAA’s research on ocean noise: Cetacean & Sound Mapping.

Can the 11th Street Bridge Park Slow Gentrification in DC?

aerial
The proposed 11th Street Bridge Park will span the Anacostia River in southeast Washington, D.C. / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

Scott Kratz is attempting something very difficult.

He’s walking backwards on a busy Capitol Hill sidewalk, straining to be heard over traffic as he leads a group of eager residents on a walking tour to the future site of the 11th Street Bridge Park in southeast Washington, D.C.

The park, which has been in development since 2011, will one day span the Anacostia River, connecting the well-to-do neighborhoods west of the river and the historically African American neighborhoods to the east.

More difficult than walking backwards, however, is Kratz’s larger goal of ensuring that the creation of this new landmark public space, designed by Philadelphia-based landscape firm OLIN and Dutch architecture firm OMA, does not unleash the waves of gentrification that are already lapping at the Anacostia’s western shore.

“We’re three or four years away from opening, but we’ve already had the park appear in real estate ads without permission,” he told me as we walked back towards Capitol Hill after the tour. “We had to send some gentle cease-and-desists.”

This illustrates both the reality of the gentrification threat posed by the park’s construction and the measures that Kratz, who is director of the project, and his team at the Congress Heights-based non-profit Building Bridges Across the River (BBAR) are taking to mitigate it.

“First and foremost, this is a park for the local residents,” Kratz said, explaining how that basic principle has caused BBAR to take a much more expansive view of their role in the park’s development. “There’s the site of the park, but we have to be thinking about the larger systems we’re engaging with. What are the policies that can ensure local residents thrive in place?”

anacostia
OMA and OLIN’s design features a unique “X” shaped structure of interlocking trusses / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

This broad approach has led to what he called a “deep and sustained” relationship with the surrounding community.

“Before we engaged a single architect, landscape architect, or engineer, we had over two-hundred meetings with faith leaders, business owners, ANC commissioners, civic associations — with anybody who would have us.”

“And we didn’t just go out and say ‘what color should the chairs be,’” but instead asked more fundamental questions: “Should we do this? Does the community want this?”

This initial round of dialogue helped to bridge what Kratz called a “deep, real, and justified” trust-deficit in nearby communities, especially those east of the river.

That same level of community involvement carried through to the design competition process. Program requirements for the park were decided through a series of charrettes with community members. BBAR then created a community-led design oversight committee that reviewed the final design brief and met with the competing design teams multiple times during the design process to provide feedback and input.

“We didn’t know if it would work,” Kratz told me, “but at the end, each one of the design teams said it was the most valuable part of the process.”

“It was incredibly helpful,” said Hallie Boyce, ASLA, who led the design team for OLIN. “What it allowed us to do was to quickly develop a deeper knowledge of the place, both from a natural systems standpoint but also a cultural-systems standpoint.”

Boyce pointed out some members of the committee have lived in the area for twenty-five or thirty years. “You just can’t beat that kind of knowledge of a place.”

At the end of the competition, the design oversight committee ranked the submissions and made a recommendation to the competition jury. “The jury ultimately could have overruled the community recommendation,” Kratz said, “but as it turned out, both the jury and the design oversight committee were unanimous” in their decision.

“If we’re really about community engagement, then we need to let the community have the decision-making authority,” Kratz said, adding that members of the design oversight committee are now working with OLIN and OMA as they refine their winning concept, providing a real time, community-driven feedback loop. “That level of agency is critical.”

theater
The park will include an amphitheater for performances, community events, or for watching the regattas that are frequently held on the Anacostia river / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

With the design selected and pre-construction underway, the team is now working to ensure the park doesn’t end up displacing the very community that has brought the project this far.

In 2015, BBAR released an Equitable Development Plan which outlined how it would achieve this goal. The plan makes recommendations for addressing workforce development, small businesses, and housing. BBAR will soon be releasing an updated version of the plan that adds strategies for cultural and political equity.

Remarkably, BBAR has so far been able to muster more in financial support for the Equitable Development Plan than it has for the park itself. The park will cost $50-60 million to construct, of which roughly half has been committed to by the city, private donors, and other sources. Meanwhile, philanthropic contributions to the equitable development arm of the project already exceed $50 million.

While the park itself is still a few years off, the impact from the Equitable Development Plan is already being felt. A newly-created Ward 8 Homebuyers Club has so far helped sixty-one Ward 8 residents purchase their own home. For renters, “we have started monthly tenant rights workshops, working in collaboration with Housing Counseling Services.” And the newly-created 11th Street Park Community Land Trust is close to acquiring its first property, a 65-unit apartment complex in Ward 8 that would be managed as affordable housing in perpetuity.

The park is also making its presence felt in other ways. Since 2014, BBAR has organized the annual Anacostia River Festival, which last year brought more than 9,000 residents to the site of the future park.

Then there is the park’s burgeoning urban agriculture program, which boasts seven urban farms providing fresh produce to a variety of businesses, residents, and non-profits in the area. Nearby residents can even sign up for a CSA.

“We’re not waiting until we open. We want to make sure that we’re testing and piloting these programming ideas before we launch.”

cafe
The intersecting trusses create sheltered space for amenities such as food kiosks and a café, which will feature businesses from the surrounding area / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

The cumulative effect of these efforts is a strong sense of community ownership. He told me a story to illustrate this point.

“We were having a public meeting a year ago, and I was talking about the equitable development plan. Someone raised their hand and said, ‘So, with all the money that’s coming in, you’re starting a community land trust, you’re doing tenants’ rights workshops, you’re doing workforce development training. Do you need to build the bridge?'”

“And it totally floored me! I was a little speechless. Then someone from the community stood up and said: ‘He better build that bridge! We designed that bridge – this is our bridge!'”

According to Kratz, that level of ownership comes from sustained relationships, shared experiences, and leadership of the decision making process.

Boyce echoed that sentiment, saying the community-led design process and the scope of the Equitable Development Plan have built trust in the community, allowing residents to become invested in the long-term success of the project.

“We have multiple champions now. That’s what it’s going to take.”

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The park will also feature a new playground on southeastern end of the bridge. / Image courtesy of OMA+OLIN

Construction on the park should begin in 2020, with an opening date in 2022 or 2023. BBAR is already looking ahead to understand how its role will change at that juncture.

BBAR is exploring ways to help demystify the planning process for local residents, so they are empowered to shape those decisions that will in turn shape their neighborhoods.

“Sometimes when we have these larger conversations about displacement and gentrification, there’s a feeling of inevitability. We reject that. The reason we’ve been living in segregated cities is because of a series of intentional decisions. We now need to make a series of intentional decisions to undo that disinvestment.”

“We’re increasingly looking at what is our role to help move the needle on some of those larger policy questions,” he added.

As an example of that expanding scope, BBAR has now begun advising other Washington, D.C. neighborhoods as they create their own equitable development plans. They’ve even met with officials from Los Angeles, Dallas, and St. Louis to discuss how the 11th Street Bridge model can be applied in those cities.

“We had no idea that this could have such an influence across the United States. But we’re the nation’s capital. We often talk about being the template for how we should do things. Sometimes we’re successful, sometimes not so much. This is a chance to actually get it right.”

11th Street Bridge Park walking tours continue throughout the summer.

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

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The grounds of St. Louis’ Gateway Arch have been brilliantly updated for the 21st century. / Photo Credit: Alex S. MacLean/Landslides Aeria

Is LEED Tough Enough for the Climate-Change Era? CityLab, 6/5/18
“Twenty years ago, the U.S. Green Building Council piloted its LEED certification, which has reshaped architecture and real estate. But how much does it dent buildings’ energy use?”

Gateway Arch Transformed: New Landscape, Expanded Museum Better Link the Icon to St. Louis The Chicago Tribune, 6/6/18
“Fusing the traditional form of an arch with the modern materials of steel and concrete, the Gateway Arch doesn’t just pay tribute to America’s westward expansion.”

The Happy Prison Urban Omnibus, 6/7/18
“In 1999, a New York Times journalist was astonished by his visit to the Rikers Island jail complex: ‘Environmentalists might think they had died and gone to eco-heaven,’ he wrote.”

Detroit’s Lafayette Park to Get Five New Developments The Architect’s Newspaper, 6/8/18
“Twelve-hundred new residential units and a variety of commercial and retail offerings are slated for Detroit’s Lafayette Park neighborhood, the Detroit Free Press reports.”

Secret Gardens: A Global Tour of Hidden Urban OasesCurbed, 6/12/18
“Cities attract residents and tourists alike for their energy. The constant movement and activity, the visual poetry, and the sensory overload can be both engaging and addictive.”

Above the Bay, the Tunnel Tops Green Space is Coming to San Francisco The San Francisco Chronicle, 6/12/18
“You wouldn’t know it whizzing through the tunnels of the Presidio Parkway, or motoring to or from the Golden Gate Bridge, but above you, San Francisco’s next great green space is starting to take shape.”

In an Era of Roll-Back and Repeal, the Case for Environmental Regulation

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) / New America

“Let’s talk about toasters!” Thus began Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) keynote remarks at last week’s symposium, The War on Regulation, organized by the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards and hosted by Georgetown Law School. Sen. Warren went on to share a personal anecdote about flame-engulfed bread to explain how the lowly toaster has become a safer consumer product, which was in large part thanks to good federal regulations.

“Back in the 1970s, our toaster oven had an on-off switch and that was it,” said Warren. “And on meant on, which meant it was possible to leave toast under that little broiler all day and all night until the food burned, the wiring melted, and the whole thing burst into flames.”

Around the same time, Ohio’s heavily polluted Cuyahoga River was also famously prone to ignite. When it did so in 1969, it captured the nation’s attention. Dramatic photos published in TIME helped galvanize the environmental movement, leading to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, landmark laws that established the environmental regulatory framework under which the country operates today.

Fire on the Cuyahoga River, 1956 / Pinterest

According to Sen. Warren, this regulatory framework is under attack by corporate interests, a Republican-controlled congress, and the Trump administration. “In agency after agency in the federal government, powerful corporations and their Republican allies are working overtime to roll back basic rules that protect the rest of us,” aiming “to insulate big corporations from accountability and responsibility.”

Sen. Warren reserved her heaviest criticism for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, saying “corruption oozes out of his office,” and the costs of his proposed regulatory repeals will be “measured in hospital admissions and funeral bills.”

In a later panel, 30-year EPA veteran Betsy Southerland provided context for Sen. Warren’s comments. “Right now, Scott Pruitt has in place sixty-six public health and safety repeals,” which were made “without any input from the EPA scientists, engineers, or economists who in most cases worked eight to ten years” to create them and “without any evidence that those rules have any technical or procedural flaws.”

Southerland said that these repeals will have three major impacts. First, they “abandon the polluter-pays principle which underlies every environmental statute, transferring the costs of dealing with pollutants to the downwind, downstream public.”

“This makes absolutely no economic sense,” because “the costs of treating pollution at the source are always orders of magnitude less than treating those pollutants once they’ve been dispersed into the environment.”

Second, Southerland said that environmental repeals will “ensure our communities are going to be exposed to ongoing pollution that would have been prevented back in 2015 or 2016,” warning that “there’s a much higher chance today of an environmental crisis with serious public health implications because so many of these rules are under repeal.”

And third, Southerland said the repeals have eliminated regulatory certainty. “It actually penalizes the environmentally responsible companies that moved out quickly to come into compliance with these rules. And it rewards the recalcitrant companies who used their resources to either argue for exemptions or to litigate those promulgated rules.”

Ironically, it is this last point – regulatory certainty – that Pruitt has repeatedly used to justify his agenda at the EPA.

“The purpose of the regulatory reform effort is to provide certainty to those that we regulate,” Pruitt said in a recent interview with Fox News’ Ed Henry. “What we’ve seen in the last several years among several sectors of our economy is tremendous uncertainty,” he claimed, “and almost a weaponization of the agency against certain sectors of our economy, which has caused low growth.”

This oft-repeated talking point – that regulation stifles growth – was repeatedly and emphatically rejected at the symposium. Sen. Warren argued instead that regulations “provide the framework for commerce to flourish” and create a level playing field for economic competition.

Southerland pointed out that a recent report published by the Office of Management and Budget found for regulations promulgated from 2006 to 2016, “the benefits far exceed the costs.”

“Furthermore,” she said, “there was no discernable effect on jobs or economic growth.”

Heidi Shierholz, policy director of the Economic Policy Institute and former chief economist at the Department of Labor, quantified the argument, saying federal regulations promulgated under the Obama administration contributed a net benefit of $100 billion per year to the economy. Other studies have come to similar conclusions, she added.

“The backdrop of this conversation is heated rhetoric saying that regulations are incredibly costly, they’re destroying the economy, they’re destroying jobs – and it is such a surreal backdrop, because it is so at odds with the evidence.”

Georgetown Law professor Lisa Heinzerling said focusing on costs alone ignores legislative intent. After all, “if Congress cared solely about regulatory costs, it wouldn’t pass regulatory statutes.”

Heinzerling’s point raises questions about the legal standing of the Trump administration’s actions in pursuit of deregulation thus far. Heinzerling claimed the administration, in its rush to deregulate, is now brazenly violating the Administrative Procedure Act, the law that governs the regulatory rule-making process. Such violations could expose the administration to legal challenge.

The event concluded with a panel of citizens whose lives had been directly affected by weak regulations and now advocate for regulatory reform. Penny Dryden of Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice said her neighborhood was less than a mile from forty-eight brownfield sites and four Superfund sites, plus ongoing pollution from the nearby Delaware Memorial Bridge, Port of Wilmington, and other nearby industrial facilities.

“Deregulation makes it even harder for our communities to get the protection we need from polluters and industry bad actors,” she said. “The events that are taking place here in Washington, D.C. in the Environmental Protection Agency are outright unjust.”

To Create a Sense of Belonging, Embrace Cultural Diversity

Brazilian festival in Herter Park / Herter Park Facebook

While designers of the built environment only improve at creating sustainable, technologically-savvy, and beautiful places, they aren’t succeeding at “creating belonging,” a feeling of “respectful co-existence in shared space,” argued Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental planning at Tufts University. More “culturally-competent” planners, landscape architects, architects are needed to create more just places.

In a keynote speech at the Congress for New Urbanism in Savannah, Georgia, Agyeman said “there is an equity deficit in the sustainability movement. The green movement is socially unjust.” Agyeman believes that in many cities “the old red-lining of neighborhoods have been replaced by green exclusionary zones — just a new form of socio-economic segregation.” Instead, true sustainability “involves justice — and equity in recognition, process, procedure, and outcomes.”

With true sustainability, it isn’t possible to have “spatial injustice,” in which life chances are not distributed in a fair way geographically. (Sadly, in the vast majority of countries, your zip code determines everything from your income to your life expectancy).

With true sustainability, public spaces are for everyone. He held up Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia as an example of a “space of respect, engagement, and encounter.” Agyeman wondered whether we can design places like this anymore?

Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia / Pinterest

Too often public spaces labeled as sustainable aren’t just. While the contemporary Complete Street movement is lauded as a way to make transportation systems more equitable — by providing equal access for pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars — complete streets that remove street vendors and spruce up public spaces with new amenities can end up killing the cultural and social lives of streets.

“Places have no fixed meaning; they are social as much as physical entities. Complete streets can disconnect streets from the social, structural, symbolic, discursive, and historical realities of a place.” Agyeman asked: “Who gets to say what a complete street is anyhow? They can’t be complete if they fail to include the livelihoods and economic survival of vendors.”

Park planning and design needs to be re-thought in terms of boosting cultural diversity, instead of just ecological diversity.

As an example, he pointed to a local park in Bristol, Massachusetts. At great expense, the park managers created a wildflower meadow in order to increase biodiversity. But the new garden had the effect of driving away Caribbean immigrants who used to spend time in the park. “They have a residual fear of places that could harbor snakes.” Aygeman said “if someone in the parks department was Caribbean, they would have known.” The question in instances like this is: “do we drop the cultural or social diversity or respect the cultural side?”

Given urban communities are evolving, we must better engage new immigrant communities in the planning and preservation of park systems.

In Boston, many immigrants “aren’t connecting with the old parks created by Frederick Law Olmsted. They just don’t resonate with them — and these groups, which are growing, could be deciding the future of Boston’s parks.”

Immigrant groups instead yearn for landscapes that remind them of home. In Boston, Herter Park draws immigrants from Latin and South America, because it provides spaces for extended family gatherings by a river, which feels familiar to them (see image at top).

Aygeman thinks landscape architects must intentionally design for immigrants and encourage encounters between ethnicities.

In Supekilen Park in Copenhagen, Denmark, teams of designers with BIG, Topotek 1, and Superflux, created a “controversial park” in a highly-diverse immigrant neighborhood where ethnic groups “could see themselves in the space,” but also encounter other communities. Each ethnic group in the neighborhood around the park had a designated space meant to reflect some aspect of their cultural identity.

Superkilen Park, Copenhagen, Denmark / Jens Lindhe

Parks-for-all like Superkilen may just be the start. Aygeman foresees a future in which landscape architects first do “deep ethnographic research to really understand a community before they get started.” Landscape architects trained in “cultural competency” then eliminate disparities in access to public space, creating true urban commons. “More diverse professionals who know what these new societies think” will partner with diverse communities to “co-design and co-create more just places.”

The result could be something like Medellin, Colombia, where a participatory approach rooted in the philosophy of “social urbanism,” led to the “urban transformation of the century,” in which the poor were given equitable access to all the city has to offer — parks, libraries, museums, and transit.