Archive for June, 2011

There’s the New Normal Economy and the New Normal Climate, and perhaps others too. Shaping up to be the environmental news of the week – NOAA’s report on 30-year climate averages – just what you’ve been waiting for! The big news is that, yes, the U.S. is getting warmer, in the day and at night. Averaged over 30 years, from 1981-2010, the change is .5 degree Celsius and serves as a baseline for future comparisons. The last 10 years have had the record temps, but this is muted when averaged over 30 years. The distribution of change is interesting.

Statewide changes in annual "normal temperatures" (1981-2010 compared to 1971-2000)

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Have any great examples of landscape design that actively incorporates ecological principles? Is the effort aspirational (trying to be more ecologically friendly, responsible), or is the relationship to ecology well defined and measurable? Is the project being monitored over time following implementation? Is the project well documented? (Email if you don’t want to leave a comment – praxislandarch (at) gmail (dot) com) I will post the best examples I receive.

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An upscale neighborhood in Hinsdale, IL has drainage problems and is considering stormwater green infrastructure (GI) solutions. The neighborhood has been around for decades, but the development boom resulted in many new LARGE houses and associated impervious surface. Now the residents have to agree to a special tax to take care of runoff issues. I found this news account (Hinsdale-Clarendon Hills Patch) of how GI is being sold to be interesting:

Under the improvements that would be installed in three phases over the next six years, rain gardens and bioswales—two methods of absorbing stormwater and directing it to natural underground seams—would be installed along the public rights of way in the area. Creech said these gardens will be “tucked in between” the road and residents’ front yards.

Though rain gardens have a reputation for appearing weedy and unattractive, those installed in Woodlands would feature prairie-style, aesthetically pleasing plants.

“For this particular development, the character of the planting is going to be more formal,” Creech said.

Tanks below the rain gardens will collect stormwater and control its distribution back into the underground water seams, according to Creech, making the project environmentally responsible, or “green.”

“We’re just attempting to direct that [water] into the subsurface seam sooner just to take it off the surface,” Creech said.

Underground water seams?  And neat and tidy rain gardens. Should be interesting. But it is a green solution, and indicative of the challenge of educating homeowners. Altering their aesthetic expectations also might have to be part of this exercise.

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How do you determine the popularity of an idea, thing, or person? Number of Google hits? Presence of a Wikipedia entry? Number of Twitter followers? Or what? All of these measures suggest recent popularity, but tend to say little about what was once popular. I wondered if the idea of “wicked problems” was still current, and the presence of a lengthy Wikipedia entry suggests that it is – to someone anyway. 65K Google results… well, reasonably pervasive. No hashtags yet!

The idea of wicked problems was articulated by Rittel and Weber in a classic article published in 1973. The phrase, wicked problem, is used

to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. (Wikipedia)

Landscape problems involving small land areas and limited numbers of users are not wicked. But many urban design, community planning, land use planning, and environmental issues are indeed wicked. And some, like climate change, are “super wicked.”  (Yes, this is official academic jargon.) Wicked problems have these characteristics (also from Wikipedia):

  • The solution depends on how the problem is framed and vice-versa (i.e. the problem definition depends on the solution)
  • Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.
  • The constraints that the problem is subject to and the resources needed to solve it change over time.
  • The problem is never solved definitively.

Wicked urban, community, land use, and environmental problems are commonly place-specific, so problem solving efforts cannot be easily transferred to new locations. Each place and problem are unique, and each proposed solution is an experiment – often a grand one. What should we do with these things? A follow-up post will consider the link between wicked problems and reflective practitioners, ala Donald Schon.

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A good graphic synopsis of climate change effects in the U.S. is found in an article by Wilbanks and Kates (2010) in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (Vol. 100, No. 4: 719-728). The figure depicts the main impacts, but details are lost at this scale. What does the future hold for your neck of the woods?

Beyond Adapting to Climate Change (Wilbanks and Kates 2010)

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And this is good news. Next summer, twenty years will have passed since the Rio Summit and the Climate Change Convention, precursor to the Kyoto Protocol. Victories in the fight to address climate change have been few and far between ever since. The strategy to address climate has been top-down and international, with the highest hopes pinned on international treaties. These efforts are tremendously important, but frustratingly slow, and, in the meanwhile, climate change is underway. Cities are experiencing the impacts firsthand, and they are now beginning to act on their own behalf, not waiting for anyone else to save them. Perhaps they can drag their states and nations along with them. As momentum builds for climate action (mitigation and adaptation) in cities, opportunities for architects, landscape architects, and planners will grow too.

At the beginning of June, the C40 Large Cities Climate Summit was held in Sao Paulo. Leaders from the 40 largest cities in the world met to seek information and share strategies for dealing with climate. (Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, is the current chair of the C40.) Action by cities is critical – they will be the locus of most implementation efforts, they will be the place where most change-on-the-ground happens, and they are the home of most of the people on the planet. Cities matter. And much of the change-on-the-ground will involve the built environment and urban ecological systems.

For another perspective, listen to this Seattle Public Radio interview with Grist’s David Roberts, who discusses why city leadership on climate is so promising. It is called Can Cities Solve the Climate Problem?

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Land is political. Making change happen – to protect landscape resources, to create more sustainable neighborhoods and cities, and so forth – requires that potential changemakers have political awareness, at the very least, and, better yet, shrewdness and intuition. Phil Lewis, emeritus professor of the University of Wisconsin, tells a story in his book, Tomorrow by Design, from the early years of landscape planning, before the environmental movement, that is worth repeating. Lewis demonstrated political ingenuity that is simply too uncommon. (more…)

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Some links of interest.

  • From design competition a few years ago to finished plan for an “iconic urban national park”, Gateway National Park is making the news.
  • Stormwater green infrastructure is big business and mainstream, as contracts in places as diverse as NYC and Chattanooga show.
  • More reports of emerald ash borer in New York State, while Toledo says goodbye to the last of its ash trees.
  • An answer to my question about how people handle the stream of bad news about the environment – an article titled “Do environmentalists need shrinks?” about the work of psychologist and architect, John Fraser.
  • Nice article about walkability guru, Dan Burden, in the Washington Post.

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PlaceMatters, a nonprofit that developed from the Orton Family Foundation, recently published Bridging the Divide Between Science and Planning: Lessons From Ecosystem-Based Planning Approaches to Local and Regional Planning in the United States. There are six case studies in the report, chronicling the efforts of a partnership between PlaceMatters, the Packard Foundation, and NatureServe to better integrate ecosystem science into community planning. The subjects of the planning efforts are quite varied, and the locations range from Maine to Hawaii. The report is a welcomed contribution, especially given that there are not enough documented cases like the ones detailed here. I was struck, though, by a key finding:

Throughout all of the case studies and lessons, one underlying theme becomes apparent: although good data, robust models, and a logical decision process all matter, the politics matter even more. How effectively a community planning process unfolds is determined in large part by who participates, how they participate, and what power they each wield. How effectively such a planning process incorporates good scientific information depends on how much credibility the experts and their tools have in the process. In other words, community planning efforts are not exercises in abstracted rationality, but rather they are fundamentally political processes involving multiple parties with divergent interests. All community planning processes and decisions, not to mention subsequent implementation, are subject to the politics of their communities, and any approach to EBM that fails to recognize this is much less likely to produce effective implementation of a scientifically appropriate plan. [Emphasis added.]

Whoa, how was this not known from the outset? Because of the gulf between the science of the landscape and the real world of land use decision making. And this is precisely why efforts like this are needed, and why the title, Bridging the Divide is so appropriate. Using scientific knowledge to enhance land use decision making is valid and important, but the local politics of place have to be acknowledged from the get-go, or the planning effort will be doomed.

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And you get an article in the New York Times. (The shooting stick reference is found in this earlier post.) The Times featured a proposal by the architectural firm, Taller 13 Regenerative Architecture, to daylight three rivers in Mexico City and turn the now-buried rivers into urban amenities. If you read between the lines, the article reveals both the promise of this landscape urbanist vision (a bold re-imagining of the cityscape that is intoxicating in its sweep) and the pitfalls if the proposal is totally unrealistic. At some point, bold vision has to meet scientific knowledge, technical expertise, and implementation savvy. From the article, “Prophets and young dreamers are rarely very good at diagnosis.” Where is the balance found between dreamy proposals and practical issues of implementation?

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