Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (September 16-30)

Ivory-billed Woodpecker by John James Audubon / Audubon Society

US to Declare Ivory-billed Woodpecker and 22 More Species Extinct — 09/29/21, The Guardian
“It’s a rare move for wildlife officials to give up hope on a plant or animal, but government scientists have exhausted efforts to find these 23 species and warned that the climate crisis, on top of other pressures, could make such disappearances more common.”

Record $5 Billion Donation to Protect Nature Could Herald New Green Era of Giving — 09/29/21, The Guardian
“Last week, a group of nine philanthropic foundations made the largest ever donation to nature conservation, pledging $5bn to finance the protection of 30% of land and sea by the end of the decade.”

Forget Coworking. Your Next Desk Could Be in the Middle of a Forest — 09/28/21, Fast Company Design
“The Finnish city of Lahti takes the concept of remote work literally. In partnership with creative agency TBWA\Helsinki and Finnish design company Upwood, the lakefront city has installed a series of open-air desks for remote working out in the middle of the wilderness.”

More Americans Are Moving into Fire-Risky Areas — 09/24/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“‘Only a few clients in the last year or so have told me they don’t want to live here because the fire risk is too great,” [Dave McLaughlin] said from his own home on Malibou Lake, an affluent neighborhood where dozens of homes were destroyed in 2018 and which has seen surging sales in the past year. ‘Covid erased people’s wildfire fears.'”

Here’s What’s in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill — 09/23/21, CNN
“Here’s what we know so far about the latest version of the infrastructure package, according to the CBO report, an updated fact sheet provided by the White House, as well as the bill text and 57-page summary.”

How America’s Hottest City Is Trying to Cool Down — 09/20/21, Vox
“As Phoenix deals with a rising frequency of extreme heat waves — which can be deadly, but also cause worrisome spikes in energy demand — the city is looking to trees as part of its heat mitigation strategy. Phoenix isn’t devoid of trees, but they’re distributed unevenly across the city.”

Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest, a Memorial to Climate Change

Ghost Forest by Maya Lin / Andy Romer

In Manhattan, across the street from the Flatiron building in Madison Square Park, public artist, landscape designer, and architect Maya Lin has created the stark and beautiful memorial Ghost Forest, a set of 49 cut Atlantic white cedar trees that will slowly turn grayer over the course of six months. According to the Madison Square Park Conservancy, which commissioned the project, it represents “a memory of germination, vegetation, and abundance, and a harsh symbol of the devastation of climate change.” The trees, set in a grove within the lawn of the park, are approximately 40 feet tall and were selected to “overwhelm the human scale” and provide a bracing symbol of what the future may hold.

Ghost Forest by Maya Lin / Andy Romer
Ghost Forest by Maya Lin / Andy Romer

Ghost forests are dead woodland, remnants of past vibrant ecosystems, and are sadly becoming more common. They are found where salt water has intruded into coastal ecosystems, where hurricanes and storms have stripped trees bare, where wildfires have left charred trunks. According to Lin and the conservancy, Atlantic white cedar forests on the East Coast are “endangered by past logging practices and threats from climate change.” The trees used in this public art installation were already slated to be cut from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, cleared as part of broader ecological restoration efforts. Lin explains that it’s an “extremely vulnerable site of the Atlantic coastal pine barrens ecosystem that encompasses more than one million acres.”

Accompanying the visual experience of Ghost Forest is a soundscape Lin created that uses snippets of sound gathered from the Macaulay Library sound archive at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. She highlights the sounds of native animals once found in Manhattan. (See link on lower left side of this page).

Ghost Forest by Maya Lin / Andy Romer

While raising awareness of climate change’s great toll on ecosystems through the bleached-out trunks, the Conservancy will also also host a series of public programs focused on positive nature-based solutions that can help reduce emissions, help communities adapt, restore ecosystems, and support biodiversity. To create a sense of hope as well, 1,000 trees and shrubs will be planted in five public parks in New York City. The Conservancy states that over ten years, the trees will also store 60.5 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, more than ten times the amount produced by shipping and assembling the art work. The installation will become carbon positive over time.

Lin became famous for winning the commission to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. at the age of 21. In recent years, Lin’s interactive art works have deeply engaged with environmental and climate issues. In 2014, she created the powerful web-based piece, What Is Missing?, a virtual memorial designed to raise awareness about the biodiversity crisis — a site worth exploring in detail.

What Is Missing? / Maya Lin

And in Unchopping a Tree, a video memorial to the world’s forests, with music by Brian Eno and Brian Loucks, Lin highlights how quickly glorious parks around the world would be cut down if they experienced the same rate of deforestation as Amazonian rainforests. At 90 acres per minute, Central Park would be gone in just 9 minutes.

Lin told Artforum that “one could argue that none of my memorials have been monuments. Rather, they have been anti-monuments—even the Vietnam memorial. I like to reinvent things.”

Ghost Forest will be free and accessible to the public in Madison Square Park until November 14, 2021.

In Iceland, Drawing Down Carbon Dioxide Straight from the Air

Orca, Iceland / Climeworks

To date, carbon capture and storage systems, which have sought to divert and bury carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and industrial facilities, have been controversial. Often associated with the oil and gas industry, these systems are seen as an expensive and complicated solution that may only help to postpone the inevitable shift to renewable energy. But Orca, a new facility in Iceland by Swiss firm Climeworks and Icelandic startup Carbfix, promises to de-couple carbon capture and storage from fossil fuels and instead scrub excess carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere.

Using a set of fans and filters packed into boxes the size of 40-foot shipping containers, this new facility is expected to remove 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the air annually, injecting it deep into the ground, where it will eventually mineralize into rock. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that amount of carbon dioxide equals annual emissions from around 870 cars. Climeworks hopes to remove 500,000 tons by 2030 and eventually 300 million tons a year, but this would still only account for 1 percent of global emissions. For reference: in 2020, 31.5 billion tons of greenhouse gases were emitted.

At the opening ceremony of Orca, Icelandic Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir said: “this is indeed an important step in the race to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, which is necessary to manage the climate crisis.”

Orca, which in Icelandic is phonetically the same as “energy,” is entirely powered by renewable energy. According to The Guardian, the system uses fans to push air into a collector with filters that separate out the carbon dioxide. As the filter material fills with CO2, the gas is heated to approximately to 212°F (100°C), which enables concentrated CO2 to be separated out, mixed with water, and injected 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) underground in basalt caverns, where the mixture becomes hydride of sulphur (HS2) in approximately four months and then dark grey rock 20 months afterwards. The system is expected to work well with the geology of Iceland, but it’s unclear whether it can succeed in other geologies, and what amount, type, and quality of water is required to inject and mineralize the gas.

Orca, Iceland / Climeworks
Orca, Iceland / Climeworks

Another issue is the comparatively high-cost of the nascent technology: about $600 to $800 per ton of carbon storage, which is much higher than the $100 to $150 needed to make the system cost-competitive without subsidies or a corporate benefactor. The companies involved believe that as they scale up their facilities, costs can be reduced to $200 to $300 per ton by 2030 and half that again by 2040.

The Washington Post states that injecting CO2 into the ground is just one way to handle excess CO2 captured from the atmosphere. Climeworks’ 15 other installations across Europe harvest CO2 into order to recycle for other uses: It can be mixed with hydrogen to make fuels. Farmers can feed their plants CO2. Soda companies can use it to create bubbles.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that methods to actively draw down greenhouses gases from the atmosphere will be required to achieve the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C. The International Energy Agency contends that carbon capture and storage systems will need to pull 1 billion tons out of the atmosphere by 2050 to be viable in helping to achieve that goal. While Orca may increase interest and investment in scaling up machine-based carbon capture and storage, another solution that offers so many additional benefits shouldn’t be forgotten — trees.

An average tree absorbs an estimated 48 pounds of CO2 per year, so by the time it reaches 40 years old, it has stored a ton of carbon. Given the relatively long time frame for trees to sequester carbon and the world’s more immediate carbon draw down needs, many scientists and environmental groups have called for planting vast forests at a much faster pace. The United Nations’ trillion tree campaign, supported by the World Economic Forum and American Forests, seeks to “conserve, restore, and grow” one trillion trees around the world by 2030.

American old growth forest / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Scientists are also looking more broadly at tree planting as a tool to restore forest ecosystems and store more carbon terrestrially over the longer term. A 2019 study in the journal Science found that “ecosystems could support an additional 0.9 billion hectares of continuous forest. This would represent a greater than 25 percent increase in forested area, including more than 200 gigatonnes of additional carbon at maturity. Such a change has the potential to store an equivalent of 25 percent of the current atmospheric carbon pool.”

So trees alone are also not the answer to the climate crisis, but they offer many other ecological and human health benefits beyond their ability to naturally capture and store carbon — supporting sustainable water cycles and biodiversity, providing shade, and cooling and cleaning the air. Many trees also offer usable wood: the only building material that stores carbon.

ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Metro-Forest Project, Prawet, Bangkok, Thailand. Landscape Architects of Bangkok (LAB) / Rungkit Charoenwat
ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Dilworth Plaza, Philadelphia. OLIN / Sahar Coston-Hardy

Landscape architects plan and design parks, plazas, and streetscapes, increasing the percentage of communities that are forested. A key next step is to bring the benefits of these beautiful carbon sinks to all communities in an equitable way. American Forests states that 522 million trees need to be planted and protected in U.S. cities alone to achieve tree equity.

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

Los Angeles, Wildfires, and Adaptive Design / Greg Kochanowski, GGA

Los Angeles, Wildfires and Adaptive Design: Greg Kochanowski on Creating New Futures — 09/15/21, ArchDaily
“At UCLA, I additionally became interested in landscape, particularly through an interest in a more holistic way of thinking about the built environment. This has subsequently become a passion of mine to, the point of becoming a licensed landscape architect, and has significantly shaped my personal ideology and methodology of working. I see the world holistically as a complex series of relationships between cultural and organic systems – from cities to climate, buildings to landscapes, racial inequality to ecosystems.”

SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters Project Begins In-water Construction Off of Staten Island — 09/14/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Earlier this week, the New York State Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) announced that Living Breakwaters, the $107 million coastal resiliency-slash-marine biodiversity project was now taking shape off the South Shore area of Staten Island; an area pummeled by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.”

Wildfire Destroyed His Kids’ School. So This Dad Designed a Fireproofed Replacement — 09/14/21, Fast Co. Design
“Landscape architect Pamela Burton designed the grounds of the school, creating large buffers between the campus and the surrounding natural hillsides, and using large boulders and wide patios to break up the space.”

Report: To Close the Park Access Gap, Open up Schoolyards — 09/13/21, Grist
“The nonprofit environmental advocacy group The Trust for Public Land, or TPL, estimates that 100 million people in America, including 28 million kids, don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of their home. Race plays a major role in the divide: The group estimates that, in the 100 largest U.S. cities, communities of color have access to an average of 44 percent less park space than predominantly white neighborhoods.”

Lessons from the Rise and Fall of the Pedestrian Mall — 09/09/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Car-free shopping streets swept many U.S. cities in the 1960s and ’70s, but few examples survived. Those that did could be models for today’s ‘open streets.'”

What We Talk About When We Talk About Gentrification — 09/05/21, Vox
“Our focus on gentrification might lead people to believe that it is the dominant form of inequality in American cities (our outsized focus on the phenomenon may be due in part to the fact that gentrification scholars, journalists, and consumers of digital media tend to live in gentrifying neighborhoods themselves). But the core rot in American cities is not the gentrifying neighborhoods: It is exclusion, segregation, and concentrated poverty.”

Studio-MLA and Mia Lehrer, FASLA, Win Cooper Hewitt National Design Award

Mia Lehrer, FASLA / Studio-MLA

Studio-MLA won the 2021 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for landscape architecture. The firm, which has been led by Salvadorian-born landscape architect Mia Lehrer, FASLA, for 25 years, seeks to “integrate landscape architecture, urban design, and planning to create places that inspire human connection, unite communities, and restore environmental balance.” The firm’s staff of 45, based in Los Angeles and San Francisco, includes landscape architects, planners, ecologists, and botanists.

Studio-MLA staff / Studio-MLA

On winning the award, Lehrer said: “we’re indebted to our collaborators, in particular our visionary clients, non-profit partners, and design teams for their commitment to building places that create social justice and equity, and projects that tell the stories layered within places — stories of people, neighborhoods, hope and conflict, water, air, ecology, and empowerment.”

The firm’s design philosophy is focused on creating broader impact: “Through our projects, pro bono efforts, and strategic relationships, we advocate by design. For over twenty years, our role as catalyst has educated and empowered people to translate ideas into culturally-relevant and climate-appropriate places.”

In an interview with ASLA, Lehrer, who has been an advocate for climate action and restoring ecosystems, said: “I didn’t grow up in the U.S., but my parents were community activists. We all don’t have a choice but to be engaged and educated about the dire situation we’re all in.”

Studio-MLA is known for taking on highly complex large-scale landscape planning projects that involve navigating layers of government jurisdictions. They often use legacy infrastructure as an opportunity to address climate impacts, restore ecosystems, and reconnect underserved and immigrant communities. In particular, the firm has led large-scale landscape planning efforts that re-imagine outdated river infrastructure, so these systems become more ecological and accessible. The firm’s goal is to create healthier human-ecological systems at all scales.

The firm recently won a major landscape planning and design project — the River-Side Gateway Project Suite in Riverside, California, which includes a series of nine sites along seven-miles of the Santa Ana River. The project seeks to “create access to water and recreation for citizens while also designing solutions for stormwater mitigation, threatened habitat, and air quality impacts,” explained Matt Romero, ASLA, landscape designer at Studio-MLA.

Los Angeles River Downtown Design Dialogue / Studio-MLA

Another recent landscape planning project is the Upper Los Angeles Rivers & Tributaries Revitalization Plan, which proposes imaginative ways to transform the “heavily channelized waterways that meander eastward through the San Fernando Valley.” To develop the plan, Studio-MLA “mapped spatial obstacles and constraints including, but not limited to, government jurisdictions, land use, park access, pollution load, ecological habitat, water quality, flood risk, safe access, and connectivity.” This information enabled them to examine existing economic, environmental, and social impacts, and create a new equitable framework for reconnecting communities to more natural rivers and tributaries.

Destination Crenshaw in Los Angeles is also an exciting large-scale effort that demonstrates the firm’s inclusive planning and design approach. A new “community-inspired” 1.1-mile-long, outdoor museum along Crenshaw Boulevard, where a new Metro line and stations will surface, will become a “living celebration of Black Los Angeles” in the “heart of the largest black community west of the Mississippi River.” Studio-MLA, along with Perkins+Will, Raw International, and Gallagher & Associates is imagining the urban and landscape design for the project, which will include community-driven public art.

Destination Crenshaw / Studio-MLA, Perkins+Will, Raw International, Gallagher & Associates
Destination Crenshaw / Studio-MLA, Perkins+Will, Raw International, Gallagher & Associates
Destination Crenshaw / Studio-MLA, Perkins+Will, Raw International, Gallagher & Associates

Throughout Lehrer’s projects, there is a commitment to inclusive engagement, particularly with underserved and immigrant communities. In an ASLA interview, she said that through a planning process, “you can embolden people, allow them to feel comfortable that it’s their right to communicate, not necessarily demand, but to be part of a dialogue. It’s education, creating a set of tools, and allowing people to understand they can be advocates for their own needs.”

The firm’s built community and residential projects are also characterized by a deep respect for water and native plants. A prime example is the 10-acre Vista Hermosa Natural Park in Los Angeles, which was carefully designed to capture 95 percent of the precious rainwater that falls on the site through an interconnected system of “permeable paving, green roofs, grassy meadows, vegetated swales, and a 30,000-gallon cistern that supplies irrigation.” The park was designed with native plants to educate visitors about the Southern Californian landscape.

Vista Hermosa Natural Park, Los Angeles / Studio-MLA, Tom Lamb

This commitment is further reflected in a series of op-eds Lehrer wrote for THE DIRT in 2015 How to Save Water, the Californian Way (Part 1) and (Part 2) — where she offered a series of practical recommendations, rooted in a nuanced understanding of natural systems.

“In nature, creeks and streams collect rain that falls on the mountains and hillsides. Trees and vegetation soak up the water, shade the soil, and drop leaves that decompose to become habitat, a protective layer of mulch, and eventually soil. The soil acts like a sponge, holding water for long enough periods of time for native plants to make it through the summer. You can mimic nature at home by reducing impermeable surfaces, grading to keep rainwater on site, planting climate-appropriate shade trees and plants, and adding a thick layer of mulch to conserve soil moisture.”

While often working at the scale of miles, Lehrer seems to say no site is too small to make a positive impact.

Pandemic-era Street Spaces: Parklets, Patios, and the Future of the Public Realm

Rebar’s “walket” a prototype parklet system deployed in San Francisco’s Mission district in 2009. / Rebar

By John Bela, ASLA

On a clear fall day in 2005, a group of friends and collaborators from the art collective Rebar commandeered an 8-foot-wide by 20-foot-long metered parking space in downtown San Francisco. This two-hour guerilla art installation evolved into Park(ing) Day, a global public art and design activism event that has been celebrated every year since. In 2009, Rebar and other design studios were approached by the City of San Francisco to prototype a more permanent version of Park(ing) Day. In response, we created one of the world’s first parklets in San Francisco (we called our version walklet), and through the diligent efforts of Andres Power in the Mayor’s Office and City Planning, San Francisco’s pioneering parklet program was born.

By early 2020, San Francisco had created 70 parklets in every corner of the city, and the city’s parklet program, now part of Groundplay SF, had become a model for cities around the world.

And then came the pandemic.

After the initial period of lockdown restriction, data emerged that anything we could be doing outdoors, we should be doing outdoors. Communities around the country then began to look to outdoor spaces and the public right-of-way to accommodate outdoor dining, pick-up and drop-off, exercise, socialization, and play. Outdoor dining programs like the City of San Francisco’s Shared Spaces and the City of Oakland’s Slow Streets were launched across the country.

The proliferation of outdoor dining spaces was mind-boggling. In San Francisco alone, there are more than 2,000 outdoor dining platforms (don’t call them parklets — parklets are by definition public spaces). All over the country, almost overnight, parking spaces and streets have been transformed into places for people. While many of these spaces have succeeded in their original intended purpose of supporting local businesses and accommodating public health guidelines regarding social distancing, it may now be that they have outlived their useful lives. While many cities are making the move to make the outdoor dining spaces permanent, due the rapid nature of their creation, only a handful of these spaces live up to the original ideals of the parklet program to contribute something meaningful to the public realm.

A few of the over 2,000 shared spaces outdoor dining platforms (don’t call them parklets) on Valencia Street in San Francisco. / John Bela

Communities around the country are grappling with the future of these temporary outdoor spaces. To tackle this question, I have been in conversation with peers in Oakland, Seattle, Vancouver and other cities. My original thinking was that by default — because these spaces occupy precious curbside public right-of-way — the best outcome is that they all become parklets — that is public space, accessible during the city’s standard public space operating hours.

Parklets, by definition, are publicly accessible and open to all. They work best when their design cues create an invitation for many types of uses — from eating takeout from the adjacent restaurant or cafe, to bike parking, or simply taking a pause on a busy commercial street for a chat with friends. In fact, during the pandemic, when many of our more traditional venues of social infrastructure like schools and libraries have been closed, these smaller spaces have become that much more critical for supporting the everyday casual encounters that are the basis of social cohesion and community building.

But what I’ve learned in the course of my conversations with peers from across the country has resulted in an evolution of my previous thinking, and here’s why.

Lessons from the “Emerald City”

Inspired by San Francisco’s parklet program, businesses in Seattle became interested in building parklets and approached the city in 2011. Today, Seattle has both a parklet program and a streatery program. Seattle’s parklets are much like those in San Francisco where a local sponsor designs, builds, and maintains the space, and the city government issues the permit and ensures adherence to design standards. The streatery model is unique in that they provide commercial cafe seating during business hours as well as public access after business hours.

A Seattle Streatery, a hybrid public/private space. / SDOT

That’s right, it’s a hybrid public space. But how well does this work in practice? Do people use the streateries as public parklets after business hours? Has the city run into any issues regarding liability, or challenges with illicit behavior happening in the streateries when there is no one around to keep their “eyes on the street”?

According to my peers in Seattle, following an extensive community survey, they have concluded the following: Streateries perform well from an economic development perspective and have fulfilled a need in the city for outdoor dining, adding vibrancy to Seattle’s streets. They do provide a public benefit in terms of creating vibrant streets bustling with activity. (The city enforces strict design guidelines for streateries such as a 42-inch height maximum for surrounding enclosures that must be 50 percent transparent.) On the downside, streateries have not been perceived by the public as public space. The public amenities and invitation for use after business hours have been limited at best.

Seattle has some important lessons to share. First, private outdoor dining patios, like streateries, can contribute to economic development, social infrastructure, and create the public benefit of vibrant, safer streets when they adhere to basic good design principles. Second, the hybrid private / public space model sounds good in theory, but in practice it’s hard for an average member of the public to navigate unless there are strong design cues in either direction. In other words, don’t expect your thriving commercial district’s outdoor dining spaces to fulfill a public space need such as public gathering spaces or non-commercial community seating.

Van-city Speaks

But what can we learn from the Queen of the Northwest? As a social democracy, everything is better managed and more beautiful in Vancouver, Canada, so it’s no surprise that this city is leading the way for all of us regarding the future of outdoor public and private spaces. Vancouver’s parklets are very different from San Francisco’s or Seattle’s in that they are designed, funded and built by the city. This has been good for adherence to design standards and ensuring high quality and beautiful parklets. The downside is that due to limited city funding and staff capacity, there were only a handful of parklets created each year.

A Vancouver parklet, a dedicated community serving public space. / City of Vancouver

In response to a growing demand from restaurants and cafes, Vancouver also created a curbside patio program for commercial outdoor dining. Prior to the pandemic, six patios had been approved by the city. When the pandemic hit, the city created a temporary expedited patio permit process. Since June 1, 2020, the city has approved over 400 temporary patios on private and city property.

A typical Vancouver patio designed for commercial outdoor dining. / Google Streetview

Following the initial success of the parklet program, but acknowledging the inherent obstacles of city-led parklets, the city stopped accepting new conventional parklet applications and instead focused their energy on a pop-up plaza program in partnership with local business districts, which has resulted in the creation of 20 nicely-designed plazas with broad public support. Vancouver found that for about the same amount of time and money as a parklet, they could create much more generous and useful pop-up plaza spaces. The second initiative is a community focused parklet program, created in partnership with social service organizations in underserved neighborhoods like the Downtown Eastside. These parklets are designed and built by the city and programmed and managed with a dedicated community partner to offer such programs as health clinics and safe injection sites.

A well-designed and maintained social service parklet in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. / City of Vancouver, BC.

What this means is that as a citizen of Vancouver navigating the city’s streets you have lots of choices. You can choose to pay for seating and experience the buzz and vibrancy of the commercial outdoor dining happening in one of the city’s 400 patios, or you can walk a bit further down the street and hang out at the free public seating in a city-sponsored pop-up plaza or a parklet.

One of the 20 city-led pop-up plazas that provide public seating, shade, bike parking, and public programs. / City of Vancouver.

From my point of view, this is the right balance of public and private use of the curb lane in the public right-of-way. We all want thriving, economically-vibrant commercial districts AND we want meaningful investment in high-quality and well-maintained public spaces in our neighborhoods. The role of the Vancouver municipality has been to be the referee — to ensure that in any given neighborhood or commercial district there are both public and private seating options.

The Upshot

So while my original view was that outdoor dining should be redesigned and converted to public parklets, I now see the powerful and important role that well-designed patios can play in adding to the social and economic vibrancy of our streets. What I don’t support is trying to force these tiny curb lane spaces to be all things for all people. Attempting to saddle commercial patios with public seating or public-use requirements both dilutes their ability to serve their primary commercial purpose and sends confusing signals to the public.

Nor do I support continuing to allow the free-for-all use of the curb lane that has occurred during the pandemic and which has resulted in the proliferation of low-quality, poorly designed, and potentially dangerous commercial outdoor dining platforms. Many of these spaces feel opaque and claustrophobic, blocking visual access to ground floor retail and obstructing city sidewalks.

Businesses who want to use curb lane space for commercial outdoor dining must recognize the immediate benefit of the use of the public right-of-way for their businesses and compensate cities for the use of the space. By pricing the curb appropriately, cities can generate revenue to support and invest in public realm improvements and city staff time to manage their outdoor space programs. Also, patios must adhere to basic good design principles like 42-inch height maximum for surrounding enclosures; 50 percent transparent walls; and a direct, accessible connection to the adjacent sidewalk in order to generate the public benefit of vibrant, lively streets.

This outdoor dining platform is porous, accessible, light filled, and designed with simple and durable materials by designer Léa Saito for the Bon Nene Japanese restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission district / John Bela

With the revenue generated from commercial outdoor dining patio permit fees, cities can then invest in the parklets and pop-up plazas that can continue to fulfill a crucial role for everyday, informal social encounters that form the basis of social bonding and community cohesion. Parklets and pop-up plazas work well when there is a dedicated sponsor or steward — like a community organization, or an adjacent sponsor which has an established take-out business model like an ice cream shop or cafe — who is in charge of daily maintenance and programming of the space. Public space is a verb, not a static object. Public spaces must be cultivated and maintained to flourish and grow so that they are best able to contribute meaningfully to a city’s social infrastructure and a diverse, inclusive, resilient public realm.

Landscape architects and urban designers have a crucial role to play in shaping the future of the use of outdoor spaces. As upholders of design quality, we can ensure that the next generation of commercial outdoor dining patios are well-designed and contribute to a high-quality and vibrant public realm.

As stewards of public space and the public realm, we can ensure that in any given neighborhood or commercial district, there are beautifully-designed public spaces, with generous public seating and lively programming, to create invitations to all city residents to socialize and spend time together.

This beautiful outdoor dining platform was designed and created by Cotogna in San Francisco’s Jackson square. / John Bela
John Bela, ASLA, sitting in the outdoor dining platform designed and created by Cotogna in San Francisco’s Jackson square. / Superworks

John Bela, ASLA, is an urban strategist and designer based in San Francisco. Bela co-founded Rebar, the creators of Park(ing) Day. A founding partner and design director at Gehl San Francisco, he left Gehl in 2021 to form his own design advisory and consulting practice: Bela Urbanism + Design. He is a licensed landscape architect in California.

Celebrate the 15th Anniversary of Park(ing) Day

Park(ing) Day at SPUR in San Francisco, 2009 / Colleen McHugh

On Friday, September 17, the ASLA community will participate in Park(ing) Day, the annual global event that encourages landscape architects, students, ASLA chapters, and all people who care about the quality of the public realm to re-imagine our streetscapes one parking space at a time.

This creative transformation of parking spaces into parklets and inventive alternatives to an automobile-dominated environment helps communities see the incredible potential of streetscapes, which can comprise up to 80 percent of public space in cities.

This year also marks the 15th anniversary of Park(ing) Day! Rebar, a collective of landscape architects, planners, and designers, created the first Park(ing) Day installation in 2005, and the first annual Park(ing) Day event in 2006.

Park(ing) Day was first conceived of as a user-generated, open-source event created by and for many people. The event has led to a global movement that has enabled communities re-imagine their streets, increase social connections, and improve health and well-being. In many communities, Park(ing) Day has led to new permanent parklets, plazas, and an expanded public realm.

The innovative models created through Park(ing) Day also laid the groundwork for the re-design of streetscapes in the wake of COVID-19. Communities have responded to the need for social distancing and concerns about the safety of indoor environments by taking back streets. Temporary parklets, patios, and street plazas have proliferated. Curbside space has been repurposed for dining, commerce, or green space. Vehicles have been banned, and streets turned over to pedestrians and cyclists. Now the goal is to make many of these improvements permanent!

According to landscape architect John Bela, ASLA, co-creator of Park(ing) Day, “many communities are grappling with what happens next with ‘temporary’ outdoor spaces. Landscape architects have a special role to play in shaping the future of these spaces and balancing the use of our streets and public right of way.”

This year, ASLA’s Park(ing) Day challenge will highlight how landscape architects design imaginative public spaces in streetscapes that adhere to safe, socially distant principles — all within the confines of a parking space (or two).

Ways to participate:

  • Take photos of street parklets, patios, and plazas designed by landscape architects and designers in your community. Please be sure to include the designer’s name if you know it.
  • Build out a traditional Park(ing) Day space that is a model for re-imagined curbside activity.

Then, on September 17, post your images on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #ASLAParkingDay.

Learn more about issues related to racial justice and equity in streetscape projects. Some of these issues are explored in Safe Streets Are Not Safe for Black Lives by Dr. Destiny Thomas in Bloomberg CityLab.

ASLA will highlight the best posts from students, firms, and chapters across our national communications platforms. Have fun (safely, of course)!

A More Accessible and Equitable Reflection Riding in Tennessee

Canopy walk in the framework plan for Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Through a new framework plan, the 317-acre Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee is being re-imagined as an accessible, equitable educational center that tells the story of the incredible biodiversity of Tennessean landscapes. Once a drive-through arboretum, Reflection Riding is poised to become an important model for ecological restoration and wildlife conservation, with expanded enclosures for wolves and eagles. As part of a six month planning process, SCAPE Landscape Architecture developed a proposal that will re-orient and create new buildings, offer a new entry sequence and visitor center, prioritize restoration areas, and expand a forest school and kindergarten, canopy walks and trails, and a native plant nursery.

“We are fortunate we can work with clients that align with our ethos and values. Reflection Riding is focused on some of our key priorities: access, education, and conserving and restoring natural landscapes. This is what landscape architecture in the 21st century should be,” explained Nans Voron, senior associate at SCAPE, in a phone interview.

The framework plan celebrates the vision and legacy of John A. Chambliss, who founded the arboretum in the early 20th century. SCAPE and the arboretum sought to maintain Chambliss’ core values, rooted in “his deep love and respect for the landscape.” But they also sought to make the arboretum more accessible and equitable through a more welcoming entry sequence and expanded educational programs geared towards underserved communities that live nearby.

New proposed visitor center in framework plan for Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

In its first few decades, the arboretum was designed as a drive-through loop. Later, once cars were excluded, horses became a means of exploring the landscape. With the new ecological restoration goals, the horses stabled on site will eventually be phased out.

“My impression is that many people who live near Reflection Riding don’t know it exists,” Voron said. This could be a result of the gates that limit access at the entrance; the horse-back riding in the arboretum, which may be viewed as exclusive; and confusion about the arboretum’s connection to a neighboring national park.

With a redesigned entrance, SCAPE hopes more visitors will feel the arboretum is also a place for them. A new visitor center will make all the educational options more easily understood. The existing forest school and kindergarten will approximately double in size and be moved closer to the entrance, where an expanded native plant nursery, which offers plants for sale to the public, will also be located.

Revamped native plant nursery in framework plan for Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Trails throughout the arboretum and nature center will be made ADA accessible, and a new “Braille trail” for blind and low vision users is being considered. SCAPE proposes a series of learning stations along shorter loops organized around themes such as geology, hydrology, and the role of this landscape in the Civil War.

Learning station (at right) in framework plan for Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center / SCAPE Landscape Architecture
New loop trail system in framework plan for Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

While the framework plan is rooted in a comprehensive analysis of the many complex natural systems found within the arboretum, which range from creeks and streams to meadows, wetlands, and forests, Voron said SCAPE focused in on some key restoration opportunities in the wetlands around Lookout Creek and the many small streams that feed into it. “There are currently two artificial ponds; we instead propose restoring the wetland and tidal landscapes so they can create more wildlife habitat and also better accommodate more water in the wet season.”

Priority restoration areas in framework plan for Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Elevated canopy walks now exist in the arboretum but will be extended into the restored wetlands and redesigned to offer greater flexibility, a lighter footprint, and a higher elevation to accommodate for climate change. “The new canopy walks will be more resilient and offer a different experience,” Voron contends.

In forested parts of the arboretum, there have been continual efforts to remove invasive plants. New plans to scale up the native plant nursery create opportunities to accelerate the restoration of the natural landscapes and make the arboretum a showcase for restorative design. Another goal is to invite researchers to study ecological change, making the arboretum a true learning laboratory.

Lookout Mountain geology outlined in the framework plan for Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

New enclosures for the animals protected in the arboretum’s wildlife center won’t function like a typical zoo. “While the animal enclosures will be accessible to the public during business hours, Reflection Riding won’t be caging animals in small pens. You may or may not see the wolves and raptors when you visit.”

Nature center in the framework plan for Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Voron explained that the new plan for the wildlife center was challenging, because “each species has many requirements, and some couldn’t be adjacent to others.” Different species of native eagles and other raptors will be carefully separated from various kinds of native wolves. “The goal was to limit disturbances to each species.”

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

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“‘Should it not be remembered that in setting a garden we are painting a picture?’ So asked Beatrix Farrand in her 1907 Scribner’s essay ‘The Garden as Picture.’ A pioneering American landscape architect whose career spanned the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and two world wars, Farrand wrote, ‘The two arts of painting and garden design are closely related, except that the landscape gardener paints with actual color, line, and perspective…while the painter has but a flat surface on which to create his illusion.'”

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

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“According to San Clemente landscape designer Jodie Cook, although grass requires potable water and turf doesn’t, that’s too narrow a comparison. Other elements of the water cycle are a major issue. Plants, even grasses, create water themselves. ‘When you put turf down and replace a living plant, you’re removing moisture from the environment,’ she explains. ‘You’re removing atmospheric water.'”

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“The growing practice of acknowledging Indigenous land ancestry is a positive change, but tribal stewardship must be the end goal.”

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