In the summer of 2012, I arranged a time to meet Diana Balmori, FASLA, for an interview. Looking for her in the hotel lobby, I bumped into a figure wearing gigantic bright-red glasses, a tutu, and punk-rock sneakers. There she was smiling, equal parts incredibly inventive and generous.
Balmori, who passed away this week at age 84, was a passionate advocate for rethinking the status quo. Her 2011 book Groundwork with Joel Sanders, called on designers to “overcome the false dichotomy between architecture and landscape.” Rather than perceiving buildings as isolated objects floating in a natural landscape, designers can see buildings and landscapes as “linked interactive systems that heal the environment.”
In 1993, she published Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony, which Edward O. Wilson called a “manual for improving a large part of the American environment.” Since then, the calls for re-envisioning our residential mono-cultural landscapes have only grown louder and more widespread.
Years of thinking about landscape and teaching at Yale University School of Architecture and Forestry culminated in her 2010 book, A Landscape Manifesto, which outlines 25 ambitious ideas. She presented these ideas to a packed crowd at the National Building Museum a few years ago. My favorite of them: “we must create a new urban identity from the nature underlying cities.”
Beyond her writing, Balmori also saw many important projects built. Married to architect Cesar Pelli, she was partner in charge of landscape architecture at his firm. She then struck out to create her own firm, Balmori Associates.
Spanish-born Balmori was perhaps as central to the rebirth of riverfront Bilbao as Frank Gehry was with his Guggenheim Museum. Bilbao, which is the “Detroit of Spain,” took down its industrial waterfront, freeing up a valuable piece of land that would eventually be the site of the new museum. The city wanted all the transportation infrastructure – buses, trains, and a new subway – to meet in the central part of the city and connect more closely with the river.
Balmori won an international competition for the district, Abandoibarra, to create the master plan, particularly the open space component. Her team created a linear riverfront park, a green boulevard for the light rail line, a series of paths to bring residents down to the water, and a central park and pathway from the center of Bilbao to the waterfront. Over the past decade, she’s been designing and implementing multiple parks in the master plan.
After a vitriolic campaign that exacerbated racial and class divisions, President-elect Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president in January. Under his administration, the Republicans will be the only conservative party in the world that disputes human activity is warming the climate. He has called global warming “bullshit” and a “hoax” invented by the Chinese to make the U.S. non-competitive. Since beginning his transition, Trump has empowered a radical climate change denier and pursued his promises to roll back President Obama’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote clean energy, and protect the environment.
If Trump is committed to uniting the country, as he has stated, he will need to steer towards a more moderate course, given the vast majority of the country supports climate action, even 48 percent of Republicans. A poll last year found that “83 percent of Americans, including 61 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of independents, say that if nothing is done to reduce emissions, global warming will be a very or somewhat serious problem in the future.”
According to The New York Times, Myron Ebell, who runs environmental and climate policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and a noted climate change denier, has been tasked with leading Trump’s transition efforts for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Ebell described himself as a “contrarian by nature.” He has led the Cooler Heads Coalition, which “focused on dispelling the myths of global warming by exposing flawed economic, scientific, and risk analysis.” And he argues that “a lot of third-, fourth- and fifth-rate scientists have gotten a long ways” by embracing climate change.
In some of the most heated moments of the campaign, President-elect Trump threatened to abolish the EPA wholesale or shrink it down to a solely-advisory function. But, in September, he back-tracked on that statement, saying he supports clean air and “crystal clear, crystal clean” water. The Guardian quoted him: “I will refocus the EPA on its core mission of ensuring clean air and clean, safe drinking water for all Americans. I believe firmly in conserving our wonderful natural resources and beautiful natural habitats. My environmental agenda will be guided by true specialists in conservation, not those with radical political agendas.”
The Paris climate agreement is in Trump’s sights as well. After years of negotiation, the agreement was ratified by countries representing 56.87 of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions in late October, bringing it into legal force. Even if Trump’s administration pulls out of the agreement, other countries are likely to ratify, letting the agreement stand. World leaders have called it the last best chance to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). More than 360 American companies just issued a letter urging Trump to continue U.S. participation in the accord. “Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk,” the companies wrote.
Still, Trump is unlikely to provide the billions Obama committed to developing countries to help them mitigate and adapt to climate change. These funds were critical to winning the support of India and other developing countries.
Climate change is a global concern, and linked to many other areas of negotiation. Aggressive anti-climate actions by a Trump administration would severely damage relations with key European partners and even lead them to impose trade sanctions on American high-carbon products. Thankfully, China has said it will stay in the agreement, regardless of how the U.S. acts, but lack of action could also adversely impact the U.S.’s ability to reach agreement with the Chinese on a range of important economic, trade, and political issues.
Trump also promises to end support for clean energy, instead focusing on boosting gas, oil, and coal production. Trump’s website calls for the U.S. to become a major energy producer: “America will unleash an energy revolution that will transform us into a net energy exporter, leading to the creation of millions of new jobs, while protecting the country’s most valuable resources – our clean air, clean water, and natural habitats. America is sitting on a treasure trove of untapped energy. In fact, America possesses more combined coal, oil, and natural gas resources than any other nation on Earth. These resources represent trillions of dollars in economic output and countless American jobs, particularly for the poorest Americans.”
In his effort to open up fossil fuel energy production, Trump will attempt to gut Obama’s clean coal plan, roll-back important auto-emission standards, open up federal lands to oil and gas production, approve the Keystone XL and Dakota access pipelines, and end billions in federal support for clean power. Apparently, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is in the running to head the department of the Interior. She has expressed her enthusiasm for opening up public lands for rampant energy development.
Still, many states and cities are moving forward with ambitious renewable energy plans, which are unlikely to change, even with the loss of federal support. The Georgetown Climate Center found that in 19 states, both red and blue, a “dramatic shift” to clean energy is already underway. And the U.S. Energy Information Administration has said coal is simply not competitive, economically, and it’s not clear whether it can be once again, even with a sweep of deregulation.
Trump wants the U.S. to have developing country-levels of economic growth, which he seems to believe is only possible if important environmental safeguards are gutted. But Democrat-led states like California and New York are not likely to roll over if he pursues federal deregulation that impacts the health of their populations and quality of their environment. If he pursues these plans, we can expect many state-driven legal cases coming. Environmental organizations are also gearing up for a fight. “We intend to fight like mad, both in the courts and in the streets, to resist any rollbacks by the Trump administration,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, told AP.
Again, our hope is Trump will seek to unify the country. If that’s the case, President-elect Trump: the vast majority of Americans believe climate change is a cause of major concern, and their concerns should be heeded. The alternative will be lawsuits and protests, and an increasingly fraught approach to the climate, with responsible, globally-minded states, cities, communities, and companies leading the way forward.
EDSA has designed many high-end hotels and resorts around the world. Many of these new hotels and resorts are found on beach fronts. For example, the Ritz Carlton Fort Lauderdale in Florida is located just a few hundred feet from the Atlantic Ocean. With recent estimates showing that climate change will cause sea levels to rise 6 to 15 feet by 2100, what do you see as the future for beach front amenities? How is EDSA helping these places adapt for a changing future?
For EDSA, it begins in the planning stages. A conscious assessment and understanding of the carrying capacity of a place is an essential precursor to the design of a parcel. In the case of coastal developments, like the Ritz Carlton Fort Lauderdale, this means respecting and protecting the site’s natural systems.
With innovative design and strategic solutions, we seek to continually improve the resilience of each development project we have been honored to steward. At the same time, we have a dialogue with developers and government entities to ensure protection of the existing shoreline, beach access, and related resort venues.
One great example of protective planning measures can be found through the enhancement and preservation of coastal dunes, whose natural placement protects coastal areas more effectively than any man-made measure. Similarly, ESDA supports the protection of coral reef, wetlands, and mangrove restoration, and establishing beach setbacks based on erosion trends and encouraging landward retreat of existing structures from dynamic shorelines. These measures assist developers to maximize their investment, while protecting the natural beauty with which visitors and residents interact.
If the industry disregards nature’s capacity, then we will certainly face many challenges in the years to come. However, it is our aim to ensure the vitality of beach front amenities.
EDSA has also designed a number of eco-resorts. What is the attraction?
Eco-resorts attract those who want to engage in an environment that is intricately tied to the culture, people, and region where it resides. Boutique eco-resorts are authentically contextual, sustainable, respectful, and celebratory of their natural surroundings. Meanwhile, larger hotel brands are now attempting to mimic this sustainable ideology. They’re catching up quickly.
They’re going to places where they haven’t gone before because they realize there’s now a market for eco-resorts and long-term benefits to the implementation of green development measures. From bigger initial site assessments to smaller scale responsibility measures like maintenance adjustments, recycling, and amenity re-positioning, the tourism industry is really flipping the old paradigm of “build first, measure impact later” on its head.
What we’ve learned from our experiences is that we need to advocate for nature’s preservation by introducing these eco-friendly principles to all projects in which we are involved.
Can you talk a bit more about those guidelines? Some have expressed concerns about whether an eco-resort can truly be environmental and minimize impacts on the natural environment. For example, some eco-resorts are challenging to get to, so there’s a lot of energy spent to travel to these places. How do you balance appreciation for nature, but also access to it?
It’s a challenge. I mean, essentially, many eco-resorts are remote by nature. We have been involved in some in the middle of deserts. There are others that are on secluded tropical islands, and it takes time and energy to get there.
What we have learned is it’s important to balance energy spent. When you arrive, you should not be using anything detrimental to the environment. Whether it’s through the use of bicycles, public shuttles, electric vehicles or ride sharing, and improving overall walkability as a part of an overall vacation package, it’s very important to leave as little impact on the environment as possible.
The most successful eco-resorts net out at zero. They give back to the grid. Many times they are fully self-sufficient, so, they’re not depleting any resources.
EDSA has also planned and designed many golf courses. How can you minimize the impact of them on the environment? In developing countries, more and more people want to play golf. In China, for example, golf is booming. How do you get a Chinese golf course developer to avoid some of the errors we’ve made?
Golf is global. The Masters Series and USGA are actively engaging the global market, as all major tournaments now seek international players to join their ranks. Golf is now part of the Olympics.
Ask anyone who is a golfer—and I am—and you will find that this sport is growing and evolving with the changing ideals of consumers. As demographics, eco-awareness, and financial value propositions change, adjustments to the traditional golf amenity are explored. This is a phenomenon that’s not going to go away.
Golf has always been an international sport. Scotland’s St. Andrews Golf Course is the prototype of the game, as we know it today. It has outstanding beauty and sensibility of the natural environment.
While golf is often considered an elite sport, I have been impressed by the First Tee program that welcomes inner-city children and others alike to get involved in the game at an early age.
From an environmental perspective, golf is challenging. Consumption of golf is dynamic. Golf takes up a lot of land, and there are a lot of things done to golf courses to keep them green, as we know. Some courses are not as environmental as they should be, but the golf course industry is already at the cutting-edge of sustainability efforts with innovations in resource management increasing at a rapid pace.
The Collier’s Reserve, outside of Naples, Florida, one of our early golf course communities, is an Audubon course, so they’re using all the proper techniques to make sure no pesticides that are detrimental to the environment. But the other thing we learned from that course is the open space created is so valuable. Not only is it used for golf, it’s also a wildlife corridor. When we began our master plan, we mapped the way the fauna and flora worked throughout the region and kept those corridors open and tied them together.
From a real estate perspective, golf is important for maximizing residential properties, creating an identity of manicured beauty, a brand of exclusivity, and a fabric for social connectivity. However, much of the world has been over-golfed. There are many courses that are now being turned into parks. We’ve also seen a lot of golf courses reduced from eighteen holes to nine holes.
This is happening because golf doesn’t typically make money. It’s an extremely expensive venture. It’s difficult to pay for that with a club membership unless you have a very expensive club. In an effort to capitalize on these evolving inclinations and pull in a more diverse range of individuals, golf facilities are starting to make some much needed changes.
Some of these new trends in the evolution of golf include: shorter courses so people spend less time out on the green, advanced practice facilities, chipping greens, and putting ranges that are accessible to the entire family – in addition to new kinds of nature-based obstacles and driving ranges. You can enjoy the sport without taking the time or the land required for traditional courses.
EDSA and your studio there in particular have a global focus. How do you ensure your projects have maintained that local feel? How does your firm fully involve the local community in design and development?
EDSA is an international design firm. We’ve learned over the years that it’s so important to entrench yourself in the local context, so we make it a part of our culture to get fully educated about where we’re going. We’ll read travel magazines, Lonely Planet, international news, and review travel websites, so we understand the customs and cultures that relate to the places where we’re going to be. We are fortunate enough to have many people from around the world working at our firm, and so they bring with them that local connection that allows us to focus on what’s important on the ground.
And, once we’re there, we make it a point to work with many local consultants. We don’t go anywhere unless there is a local consultant to assist us. That’s part of our process. Working with them, we learn a lot—about ourselves and the local culture. All the while, we’re working closely with constituents and stakeholders who are going to be involved in the process so we’re designing what they need.
And you also have a global perspective yourself, given you are from Liberia in Western Africa. What do you think American landscape architects can learn from West African landscape architects, and vice versa?
Being global means understanding the world. We are so fortunate to be able to work in all sorts of amazing places. What we know about landscape architecture in the West is important, but it’s not everything. It’s important to tap into local culture and expertise and learn from the people you’re working with.
Our good friend, Hitesh Mehta, FASLA, who is from Kenya, worked closely with us on developing guidelines for eco-resorts and sustainability while employed by EDSA. Many of the projects we worked on together were large-scale planning developments dealing with game reserves or eco-resorts; our teams were always fully integrated with local team members.
At the onset of each project, our design charrettes involve a “six senses” process in which we spend time on the ground understanding how things work. The only way to affect the environment in a positive way is to learn from the people there and collaborate with them. It’s very straightforward. It’s very important to not bring something foreign to an environment and try to make it work in the way it would work in the West.
At the ASLA annual meeting in New Orleans, you said, “Landscape architecture in the United States is currently facing a crisis of diversity. African Americans and Latinos together capture less than 10 percent of graduating landscape architects. These demographics fail to reflect that of the wider U.S. population. U.S. census data projects that minorities, now 37 percent of the U.S. population, will constitute 57 percent by 2060.” What is the single most important thing landscape architecture firms should do to increase diversity? What should educators do? And what should ASLA, LAF, TCLF, CELA, our primary organizations, do?
It is our duty to reflect the people we are serving. Firms in our country have a responsibility. They have a responsibility to reflect their clients, they have a responsibility to the environment, and they have a responsibility to humanity. We think it’s important for firms to lead the way and not only conduct outreach but to get heavily involved in all the things related to diversity.
For educators, this means seeking diverse recruitment. Things have changed, but the needle hasn’t moved that far. Educators need to go to the next level to recruit people from all minority groups.
We have a niche to fill. We have missed an audience that wants to be heard. We need to speak to elementary, middle, and high school students, and follow them all the way through their career path to get them into landscape architecture. If that works for minorities, it’s going to work for everyone.
ASLA, TCLF, the Landscape Architecture Foundation, and CELA also have a major responsibility here to influence and build a diverse community. ASLA has led the way in this by encouraging the President’s Council to sign a Memorandum focused on expanding diversity within its ranks. Recruitment for top talent is key. A major player is CLARB as they focus on licensure to increase representation from minorities.
It’s an exciting time for the robust field to spread its reach. We are confident that a diverse voice will bring about great ideas. You said EDSA is one of the most diverse landscape architecture firms and provides a lot of opportunity for emerging professionals. What about your firm culture enables this? How much further does EDSA need to go?
At EDSA we have fostered an atmosphere that welcomes an ever-growing diversity within our teams. Because of continued outreach to raise awareness about the field of landscape architecture in schools, among young professional groups, and within the overarching development industry, we have been able to attract people from all over the world and increase our pool of diverse applicants. We’ve found that the effort needs to be intentional. We need to reach out and actually physically grab people and bring them into the fold. It’s our goal to steward this diverse talent pool and support its expansion.
It’s a great responsibility to cultivate a thriving field in landscape architecture where men and women forge the path together, where all groups, regardless of race, religion, or ethnic background are welcomed into the diverse tapestry of our company culture. This is what makes EDSA a unique, and important player in the global industry of landscape architecture.
Sponge-Worthy Design for the Gowanus Canal– The Architectural Record, 11/1/16
“A tiny new park in Brooklyn has a big job: absorbing and filtering a million gallons of stormwater each year that flows into one of the most putrid waterways in the United States.”
Our New Urban Oases – The New York Times Magazine, 11/10/16
“Just a few blocks north of Philadelphia’s Center City, with its immaculate grid designed by the city’s founder, William Penn, the landscape turns hardscrabble.”
Chip Sullivan, FASLA, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, believes there are mysteries in our landscapes that defy explanation. In an otherworldly session at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, he bypassed the usual scientific explanations, delving into mythology, mysticism, conspiracies, and irrationality. “Have you been alone in the woods and felt some strange presence? What the hell is that?,” he asked.
Sullivan wants to find out where these ideas about the landscape come from. In the early 1920s in the United Kingdom, amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins came up with the theory of ley lines, which he believed were underlying alignments of landscape forms. And in 1969, author John Mitchell revived the idea in his New Age book The View Over Atlantis, which explored the “hidden currents of the landscape.”
These ideas aren’t new. Chinese Feng Shui practitioners in the East have long associated the landscape with unseen energy flows. In ancient Western mythology, nature’s power has a prominent role. “The woods were once the sacred domain of the gods and goddesses. Apollo had a sacred grove, and Zeus, a prophetic oak.” The Delphic Oracle of ancient Greece sat on a tripod stool over a crack in the earth, “breathing fumes from the earth’s core” when issuing her prophecies. In Ireland, there were sacred wells, which were portals to the underworld. “Today, we throw coins into wishing wells. Why is that?”
Like Australian aborigines — with their “dream time that enables them access to a parallel reality” — landscape architects can use dreams to tap into another world of design. For example, Michelangelo apparently came up with his unique steps in the Laurentian Library in Florence in a dream. And Sullivan pointed to surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, who would dream and then quickly paint his visions.
With Robert Hewitt, ASLA, associate professor at Clemson University, Sullivan put together a group design project that unearthed his students’ dreams. He thinks landscape architects can “integrate dreams into the design process.” As an experiment, he asks designers to “put a sketchbook next to your bed and before you go to sleep focus on a a design problem. Upon waking, replay your dream, record the sequence, catalogue ideas.”
Landscape architects need to once again connect with the spiritual side, the alchemy of landscape. “Landscape architecture doesn’t turn lead into gold, but it’s the ultimate transmutation of one element into another.” With nature as a guide, landscape architects can make their studios like an alchemist’s library, divining new ways to “sublimate, bio-remediate, and distill” natural elements into new forms and substances.
Like Voodoo priests in Haiti, landscape architects can “use the genius loci, the spirit of a place,” to maximum effect. For example, he believes the crescent shape of the Mississippi River in the New Orleans delta is a sort of amplifying device, like out of Ghostbusters. “There is a reason deltas are a symbol in alchemy. They are the birthplaces of civilization.”
And he then expanded his discussion to the powerful role mythological figures can play in landscapes, given they are an ever-present undercurrent. In the early renaissance-era Nymphaeum of Italy “woodland deities were brought out into the landscape.”
Muses can be brought back to play a modern role in linking the conscious and subconscious. Today, “we need to put gods and goddesses back into the landscape. Where is the spiritual aspect?”
To boost resilience in vulnerable, under-served communities, we need to “build their adaptive capacity, their ability to work together. We need to focus on the ‘software’ of those communities,” argued architect Christine Mondor in a session at the 2016 GreenBuild in Los Angeles. Communities hard hit by population loss, declining incomes, environmental degradation, and widespread health problems in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were the focus of discussion.
Fred Brown, with the Kingsley Association, described how Larimer and Homewood, two predominately African American and poor communities in Pittsburgh, have seen a nearly 80 percent population decline over the past few decades. There, the poverty rate has hit nearly 40 percent. Asthma rates are twice the national average. And 20 percent of the school population is homeless.
Using the 2Gen model created at Harvard University, Brown’s group and others are trying to re-weave a support network for vulnerable youth. “We invest in parents to invest in kids.” See a brief video that explains the theory:
He helps under-performing schools become hubs for these efforts, and catalysts for community renewal, providing life-long learning opportunities for parents and help in meeting “basic needs.”
His broader goal is to release the “collective genius” of these communities, empowering them to forge their own path to resilience and sustainability. Larimer recently won a $30 million Choice Neighborhood grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to create a comprehensive sustainability plan, install bioswales for stormwater management, distribute cisterns for grey water reuse, and tap renewable energy. Brown is helping these communities build their “Green IQ,” so they can better take advantage of government assistance.
Brian Wolovich, a middle school teacher and city council member in Millvale — another poor community in Pittsburgh with lung cancer rates double the national average — described how he led a bottom-up community effort, with multiple stakeholder groups, to boost community sustainability and resilience.
Working with Mondor’s firm Evolve, the community forged an ecodistrict plan that resulted in residences replacing inefficient light bulbs with LEDs and adding solar panels to save on energy use, and installing rain barrels and gardens to reduce flooding. The community raised funds to build a new library, which is covered in solar panels, and came together to create a bioswale along the Allegheny River, eliminating flooding for multiple families. (Imagine Millvale documents many of these plans and projects, and Launch Millvale focuses on their local food production).
Mondor explained how she helps communities like Millvale “think like a district.” She argued that “projects alone don’t make change; you need governance.” Governance can be more effective if existing “tribes” are tapped and “leveraged to reach scale.” Communities will succeed if they can make decisions well together, cultivate “authentic” leadership, share knowledge, and create a legal governance structure.
Another way to scale up these valuable community-led projects is to bring in external investment in a responsible way. Eve Picker, who has launched Small Change, one of the first crowd-funding websites for real estate development projects, is looking to help under-served communities like Larimer and Millvale. She thinks these places are “ripe for development because banks don’t want to be in under-served communities; they want to be in booming ones.” Picker finances unique restoration projects others developers have missed along with “tiny houses,” which have proven popular with everyone except banks. She said some $3.5 billion has been raised from crowd-funding sites to date, but there is a $480 billion opportunity.
Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, is principal of DesignJones LLC based in New Orleans, Louisiana. DesignJones won the ASLA 2016 Community Service Award. Jones Allen was associate professor of landscape architecture at Morgan State University. Her book Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access, and Suburban Form will be published by Routledge in April, 2017.
Here in New Orleans, you have been involved in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. Ten years after the storm, what has changed? Has anything improved?
Ten years after the storm, the community has totally changed. The Lower Ninth Ward had about 18,000 residents before Katrina. Today, it has roughly 6,000, so two-thirds of the population is gone. There were over 1,000 vacant lots before the storm; now, there’s about 7,000.
There are little pockets of improvement where houses have been built, but a lot of housing still needs to be built. Improvement means there was a plan that things were going to get better.
In New Orleans, 100,000 African Americans have not returned. They’re in Houston, Atlanta, Baltimore or Los Angeles. When you lose that amount of a population, it affects the overall culture, economy — everything.
So the Lower Nine is a different Lower Nine. 6,000 remain. Some were here pre-Katrina, but there’s an influx of new people. There is a lot of vacant land that needs to become housing.
Over the past decade, has planning and design improved the lives of low-income communities in New Orleans? If so, how?
When Katrina happened, one of the responses afterwards was to shut down or restructure public housing. It’s never good to be poor or live in subsidized housing, but it was a lot easier before, because the public housing was located adjacent to Canal Street, so people were close to where they worked and other families. Someone said the underground drug culture even changed, because the city spread these people all around, whereas before they were in one place.
When you close down that much public housing, there’s a lot of people who don’t have housing. Some of the housing, like Lafitte and Magnolia Housing, still have low-income residents, but there were a lot of restrictions in terms of felony records that kept people from coming back. Public housing in the most desirable neighborhoods became market rate and mixed income.
So a large portion of the people in public housing — poor people — were shifted to New Orleans East, which is across the Industrial Canal and has little public transit infrastructure. New Orleans East is a transit desert. (This is discussed in my forthcoming book, Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access, and Urban Form). New Orleans East is not currently a job center. They just rebuilt the hospital there 11 years later. And a lot of the affluent African American community that was in New Orleans East left. So now you have a population that’s under-served and underprivileged or shifted away from resources.
For some people, New Orleans is much better. If you live in one of the nicer neighborhoods or are a young person that came from afar, there are all these tech and movie jobs. There are many new stores and restaurants.
In my opinion, Katrina was a boom for some people and a bust for many others.
FEMA’s new flood map for New Orleans marks 50 percent of the city as “safe,” meaning homeowners and commercial property owners in these zones don’t need to buy flood insurance. According to NPR, “Intermap analyzed thousands of coastal properties and found virtually no difference between FEMA’s high and low risk zones, two neighborhoods might have different insurance rates but essentially the same risk of actual physical flooding.” What does this say to you about the flood insurance system in New Orleans?
Damage from flooding in New Orleans is not all based on geography like in other places. It’s not all based on whether you’re in the flood zone. For instance, the Lower Ninth Ward is not the lowest area in the city, but the flood walls were not structurally sound. We also have to look at dredging. They dredged the Mississippi Gulf Outlet, which allowed salt water intrusion, so there was no protection from the storm surge. So there are a lot of man-made factors that influence what happened.
Flood insurance isn’t affordable. Post-Katrina a lot of people who can’t afford it have been shifted to places that are low and at risk. They’ve been shifted to New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parish. They’re living in lower areas and have to pay a higher flood rate.
It’s really complicated because much of the situation is man-made.
Last year, the city released its first ever comprehensive resilience strategy, in part financed by the Rockefeller Foundation, which emphasized environmental adaptation, equity and governance. In your experience, what differentiates a resilient community from one that is not?
Many times when these plans are done, the most affected don’t participate.
The French Quarter and Garden District, which actually happen to be on the higher land, are economically valuable. People come to the city to be there. But New Orleans East is valuable, because the people who actually shape much of the culture, and make the art and music, serve the drinks, and shuck the oysters, live there.
Resiliency plans only work to me if they’re going to be resilient and sustained, if they’re going to create community stewards and stakeholders. I’m using all that design outreach language, but, you know. The most effective plans are co-generated with the community, because they are the ones who are going to be impacted by what happens.
People realize we’re living with water. But the question is: how do we protect the landscape, but also protect the rights of everyone?
Earlier this year, Louisiana received $95 million from the Rebuild by Design competition to adapt to climate change. Some of those funds will also help the tribal Houma community on Isle de Jean Charles, whose land has submerged by an amazing 98 percent since 1955, move to a new location. Given New Orleans is experiencing both sea level rise and sinking land, can you imagine this city conducting a strategic retreat in places, or have to move communities wholesale to new locations?
Right after Katrina, there was the “green dot plan,” which basically asked, “Why should people be allowed to come back, for instance, to the Lower Nine? Why should people be able to come back into a place that would flood?”
We are experiencing sea level rise and coastal erosion. A lot of that erosion is man-made because of dredging and shipping channels.
For me, the solution is rethinking density and diversity and helping people realize they’re going to have to live closer together with different people. We also have to densify so you can move people together safely, but keep them in the same region.
When Katrina occurred, a lot of people moved to Baton Rouge, because they thought that was safe. Now we just had flooding in Baton Rouge. We want to stay in our state and region. We should — it’s rich in heritage and culture and unique.
But we’re going to have to rethink how we live on the land. We’re going to have to be more sustainable in terms of how we use our resources and infrastructure. Right now, we all want to spread out and live in our own space. Sea level rise, flooding, coastal erosion are fighting against that way of living.
On a panel at the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) summit on the new landscape declaration, you discussed the concerns you have with landscape architecture students and professors helicoptering into low-income communities to help with a project for a semester, often not to be seen again. What can landscape architecture programs do to more deeply engage and connect in these places where they want to help?
Professors need to do a lot of preparation before the semester starts. They need to take time to bring the community into the preparation, understand the situation, create a partnership with the community, and then come up with an action plan of what you’re leaving. A design studio is really about the students learning. They only have a semester, so what value are these 20 or so students really going offer for these communities?
Yesterday at the ASLA Annual Meeting, we hosted a field session called Beyond the Edge. We visited three communities dealing with critical life and death situations. One is living on a landfill, the other one’s living next to the port, and the other one is dealing with a prison population. My trepidation was whether it was even a good thing to bring the field trip there.
My trepidation was: will I be bringing these people in to gawk? After a lot of discussion with members of the community, they wanted people to come. So we were able to meet with them, and they actually invited us into their homes. We went to a community college and talked with community members. We came up with a follow-through so we could reach out to them after this session.
In a nutshell, that’s what should happen if you’re going to do engagement. You have to really work with the community beforehand. The field session generated so many ideas, a lot of positive energy, and was good experience for the attendees and community. People who went on the session came up to me saying, “Thank you.”
It’s good for students to understand first hand and learn how to relate to other people. Our profession can solve problems. But you can’t helicopter in and out. You have to think about what you are leaving them, what’s going to happen after your semester’s over, because some pretty plans are not going to help them. You have to help the community translate them into some sort of reality.
At the LAF, you also said, “If we,” meaning landscape architects, “as a whole, truly want diversity, we need to focus less on statistics and instead recognize and praise diversity and lift it up.” What are some specific ways landscape architects can better lift up diversity?
It’s important to look to the future and reach out to young people and increase the number and the diversity within the profession. But in order to do that, young people need to see people who look like themselves. That was my point about recognizing and using the diversity we have in the profession to further increase diversity.
Firms can use their diversity. If you have women, or people from diverse cultures in your firms, put them in the forefront sometimes, so that clients and communities can see and say, “Oh, there’s somebody like me,” or, “This profession is diverse.”
And try to increase the diversity in your firm and also work in diverse communities. Your firm might not be diverse, but if your projects are in communities with people different from yourself, you’re actually letting the community know this profession is out there. You can get people to start thinking, “landscape architecture can help solve my problems, and the problems in my community. Maybe this is something that I want to do.”
Use the diversity you have, increase your diversity, and work in diverse communities.
“Top tech companies now expect their campuses to do the heavy lifting in retaining talent,” argued Aaron Ross with BNIM in a session at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Along with Ross, Stephen Spears, FASLA, Design Workshop, and Rene Bihan, FASLA, SWA Group, showed how leading tech companies are trying to hold on to their top talent by creating exciting little bits of urban life in suburban environments. These firms are attempting to further merge work and home and create spaces for fun as well. And they may be creating new models for working that may filter out to other suburban corporate campuses in coming decades.
In northwest Austin, Texas, one of the booming tech hubs of the south, Design Workshop transformed an out-dated 1980s IBM campus into a new headquarters for Charles Schwab, which features a sustainable landscape design with more natural stormwater management, and a neighboring community called The Domain for those employees to work, live, and hang out (see image above). There, an old IBM chip manufacturing plant became 1.5 million square feet in office space, 1.9 million square feet of retail, and 2.5 million square feet of multi-family housing. “Schwab benefits from having these amenities so close by.”
Design Workshop focused on connectivity. Workers at Schwab can now easily take a quick walk via nature trails to the office or to a bar after work for happy hour. Inside the new community, particularly the night-life corridor, there are “purposefully-narrow” streets set in grids that create a sense of intimacy and community. “The injection of social life into a corporate environment is a paradigm shift.”
For the Pacific Center campus in San Jose, BNIM created a new campus master plan and added two new buildings in a space next to Louis Kahn’s famed Salk Institute. Pulling in the existing nature trails that wind through the valley into the new campus, BNIM wove elements of the surrounding landscape into the new development, which features 250,000 square feet of new office and lab space. The landscape is the inspiration for the ecological design found in small outdoor “chill spaces.” The landscape became a “virus” that infected other places on campus, said Ross.
Employees, who are mostly scientists, wanted more intimate spaces rather than larger gathering spots. “They want to get out of the building and immerse themselves in nature.” Still, a new central lawn provides a “flex space,” and a new soccer field is “utterly packed.”
Beyond integrating architectural bioswales and native plants, they also created a small garden tended by a local non-profit, which harvests the produce and then sells it to the campus’ cafeteria.
Bihan quoted one CEO who said: “no one ever had a good idea while sitting at their computer.” Famed Apple CEO Steve Jobs “loved walking meetings.” The new understanding among big tech firms out West is “landscape is the great enabler.”
In SWA Group’s newest corporate campus projects, “urban planning and campus landscape design merge. Campuses are infilling to boost walkability.” They are also going beyond offering goodies like on-site food and sports fields; they are becoming “informal, contained, and urban.”
For the San Antonio Station project in California, SWA Group developed a campus “on spec” for a developer who then leased it to the top-secret lab of one of the leading Silicon Valley company (Bihan asked that the firm remain unnamed). They transformed the mid-century Mayfield Mall by architect Victor Gruen, which later became a training center for Hewlett-Packard, into 500,000 square feet of office space by using tactical urbanist strategies, strategically cutting into the building and turning a parking garage into spaces for enjoyment.
SWA Group “designed places for people to play, just like how they engage in a city.” And they were more “focused on context — the specificity of the corporate culture — not how the design looks.”
It’s a bit of “urban place making” in a “suburban context.”
This well-edited exhibition is perhaps the best of NBM’s recent triptych of landscape architecture exhibitions, which included a survey of the landscape photography of Alan Ward, FASLA, and a retrospective of Oehme van Sweden’s work. The curious flow of the exhibition enables discovery. Around each corner are Halprin’s surprising drawings and dioramas, and photographs graciously donated by some of the country’s leading architectural photographers.
The exhibition moves through 35 sites chronologically, from his early residential work through to his first forays into the public realm, from the hallmarks of his Modernist designs to his post-Modern work in the late 70s and early 80s, and, finally, his capstone projects before his death in 2009.
Some themes emerge. Throughout his career, Halprin enjoyed partnering with artists. He purposefully created room for art works, knowing they add rich, pleasing layers. Gould Garden in Berkeley, California, created from the late 50s to 1960, shows one of his early partnerships with artist Jacques Overhoff, who molded bas-relief panels in concrete around Halprin’s pool.
Halprin believed in cities. When many people abandoned the urban cores after the race riots, Halprin saw opportunities for regrowth. His Portland open space sequence, with its three-part necklace of Modernist parks, was created from 1965-70 and demonstrated his early commitment. Moeller argued “it changed perceptions of downtown Portland.” And New York Times architecture critic Ada Louis Huxtable, who was not generous with the compliments, called the sequence “one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance.” (The sequence is now on the National Register of Historic Places, but it is in need of major repair. A $4.5 million rehabilitation effort begins next year).
Halprin was all about “animating the landscape through choreography,” particularly the movement of water. The first thing you see when you enter the exhibition is a 10-foot-tall watercolor drawing of water moving around rocks. But if you look closely, you will see Halprin drew arrows to indicate the currents’ directions; he was mapping the choreography of a shore eddy.
Moeller thinks Halprin was deeply influenced by his wife Anna, who was a dancer. “He adapted her ideas by ‘scoring’ for human activity.” In his UN Plaza in San Francisco, he applied a design approach he called “motation,” which is described in the exhibition as “scoring how perception of the environment changes depending on the speed and motion of the observer.”
The exhibition, of course, includes beautiful photographs of his masterpieces: the Frankin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., which is a culmination of his life-long collaboration with artists; Freeway Park in Seattle, which creates a sense of movement through water and sculpted concrete and initiated a new landscape type — the park over a highway; and Sea Ranch in California, which showed how ecological community design should be done.
Sea Ranch in particular is made fresh by new photographs that show how Halprin ingeniously used berms reminiscent of military forts to both hide buildings and pools and create wind blocks. As Birnbaum explained, “Halprin was one of the first to think of landscape as infrastructure.”
Many of Halprin’s landscapes are under threat of demolition or a slow death from a lack of maintenance. Birnbaum hopes this exhibition will help “raise awareness of their value.” It’s a bit ironic given Halprin’s influence can be found in so many contemporary projects. Birnbaum even sees his impact on the High Line in New York City, where James Corner choreographed a continual dance between observer and observed.
“The United States will be a majority-minority country by 2043,” said Kona Gray, ASLA, a principal at EDSA, at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Unfortunately, landscape architects have been slow to adapt to this new reality, as the profession is still overwhelmingly white. Soon they must realize that “diverse firms will hold the competitive advantage.” This is because increasingly-diverse clients want to see someone who looks like themselves on the other side of the table.
ASLA’s plenary hosted a dynamic and diverse panel, with Gray, a firm principal and African American; Ron Sims, a former deputy secretary of the department of housing and urban development and African American; Mark Rios, FASLA, a founder of Rios Clementi Hale, and a “hybrid” gay man of European and Mexican heritage; Diana Fernandez, ASLA, a landscape architect with Sasaki Associates and a Dominican who emigrated to the U.S. at a young age; and Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, a principal at OLIN and Caucasian.
Each panelist brought a unique perspective on diversity:
“Diversity is what makes life interesting,” Rios argued. Much of his work is in Los Angeles, where 54 percent of the population doesn’t speak English at home; instead they speak one of 224 languages. He said diversity can be celebrated through “authentic, genuine, appropriate, complex, layered, rich stories.” These stories can be told through ecological and cultural diversity in landscapes.
Fernandez, who “grew up in the ghetto,” said “landscape architects haven’t caught up. A diversity of design means a diversity of creative experiences.” Diverse landscape architects can “better relate to the diverse people they serve.” She wants more diverse firms to step up their engagement in underserved multiracial communities.
Landscape architects “should embrace other cultures because other cultures have something to share,” said Gray, who grew up in Liberia, western Africa. His firm, EDSA, encourages diversity and finances a scholarship for minorities. This is all part of an effort to better “respect other cultures and mirror the people we serve.”
Diverse firms may do even more to help diverse communities. For Sims, it’s critical that landscape architects help those communities most in need, which are also those with the least amount of green space and trees. “Zip codes are a life determinant. We can map tree canopies, and the places with more trees have improved life outcomes.”
Sanders, who perhaps acted as a bridge to the largely-white audience, argued that “embracing change is hard. We retreat to habits of the mind. We are not separate from each other, but it takes work for most people to see others as the same. It’s vitally important that we connect with the common core of humanity. Every life matters and everyone deserves respect.”
Asked by Gray what firms can do to boost diversity right now, each responded:
Rios: “Diversity has to be a deliberate decision. Figure out what you can do to contribute. Write it down like a business plan. Set goals to make your practice more diverse and act on them.”
Sanders: “The opportunity to be on this panel has been transforming for me. I’ve signed up for a course at the university on hidden bias. Every firm needs to do something.”
Fernandez: “Sasaki conducted a survey on diversity and discovered it had a lot of work to do. Our profession realized it didn’t reflect the people it serves. There was a lot of candid conversations. There needs to be conversation around implicit bias.”