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Archive for July, 2011

What do you do when historical data is no longer useful for predicting the future? Climate change is making the already-difficult proposition of predicting environmental phenomena even harder. Consider societal efforts to manage the flood system. The concept of a 100-year flood is based on the idea that history is useful indicator of future states and “most likely” scenarios. A 2010 paper by Gersonius et al.* tackles the question of how we might begin to plan for shifts in flooding regimes by using adaptive management strategies. This paper is at the leading edge of climate adaptation design research, and there is a need for much more.

Gersonius et al. contrast the traditional approach with an adaptive approach. They say that traditional approaches are based on the assumption “that it is possible to define a singular optimum adaptation strategy according to the ‘most likely’ or average future projection” (p.15). Big investments of public dollars are common with the traditional approach – essentially a large bet on the promise of a singular optimum strategy (one-off interventions). The paper’s authors argue for an adaptively resilient approach instead, an approach better suited to the uncertainties of climate change.

Rather than taking a traditional approach, responsible climate adaptation requires an alternative approach that attempts to assess and manage the resiliency of the flooding system for long-term future change. The aim of this approach is to keep the system within a configuration of states that give at least acceptable functioning despite the occurrence of possible changes (Walker et al. 2002**). This means that the approach acknowledges that projections are ‘always wrong’ and that it is necessary to plan for a range of possible future conditions.

The authors’ modeling results suggest that adaptation decisions that include LEARNING about future climate parameters could reduce overall costs between 5 and 17% over a single high risk traditional, or “robust,” intervention. The figure below illustrates the concept.

(a) Adaptively resilient approach contrasted with (b) traditional "robust" approach

*Gersonius et al. 2010. Managing the flooding system’s resiliency to climate change. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers ES1: 15-22.

** Walker et al. 2002. Resilience management in social-ecological systems: A working hypothesis for a participatory approach. Conservation Ecology 6:14.

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When thoughts turn to the fall semester. I miss the students and the pace, however hectic, of the academic year. A few lines from the classic book, The Courage to Teach, (P.J. Palmer, 1998) seem appropriate. Perhaps some readers are getting ready for this too?

I am a teacher at heart, and there are moments in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy. When my students and I discover uncharted territory to explore, when the pathway out of a thicket opens up before us, when our experience is illuminated by the lightening-life of the mind – then teaching is the finest work I know.

But at other moments, the classroom is so lifeless or painful or confused – and I am so powerless to do anything about it – that my claim to be a teacher seems a transparent sham. Then the enemy is everywhere: in those students from some alien planet, in that subject I thought I knew, and in the personal pathology that keeps me earning my living this way. What a fool was I to imagine that I had mastered this occult art – harder to divine than tea leaves and impossible for mortals to do even passably well! (pp. 1-2).  [snip]

After three decades of trying to learn my craft, every class comes down to this: my students and I, face to face, engaged in an ancient and exacting exchange called education. The techniques I have mastered do not disappear, but neither do they suffice. Face to face with my students, only one resource is at my immediate command: my identity, my selfhood, my sense of this “I” who teaches – without which I have no sense of the “Thou” who learns (p. 10).

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Kat West, head of the Multnomah County (Portland, OR) Office of Sustainability had a lot of sleepless nights as she considered the possibility of climate refugees inundating her region as the West and Midwest become increasingly drought-stricken. How can you plan for something that is so uncertain? What if a wave of refugees does become reality and you haven’t prepared at all?

As West helped draft the Climate Action Plan three years ago and pored over research on climate disruption, she found herself unable to sleep at night.

“Then I came to a place: I can try to make my community as resilient as possible. And that allowed me to sleep again.”

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Search online for “sprawl is dead” or “end of sprawl,” and, not surprisingly I think, you’ll find a lot of articles and blog posts (e.g., How History Killed the Suburb and Beyond the Requiem for Sprawl). The Great Recession has decimated sprawl for the foreseeable future according to a growing consensus. But talk to a group of die-hard sprawl warriors, and you’ll find them still engrossed in battle planning or, at a minimum, on guard for sprawl’s return. It’s understandable, I suppose, given the amount of passion that some people devoted to the anti-sprawl effort, but it is now time to redirect those passions. Dan Bertolet of the Citytank blog provides a handy list of “well-documented and intensifying megatrends” that suggest it’s reasonable to redirect energy.

And now there’s speculation that we’ve even reached “peak car use” in cities all across the developed world. Eric Jaffe of The Infrastructurist makes this argument yesterday, giving us 6 reasons why driving has peaked in the U.S. Can you wrap your head around that idea? It’s more amazing than the collapse of the homebuilding industry. I think these megatrends mean that we can stop railing against the bubble-fueled Growth Machine, which was a monstrous force, no doubt, and now focus on another set of forces that are also beyond our control – the ones listed in the Citytank and Infrastructurist blogs. These forces are much more in line with what planners and designers have been hoping for. Perhaps now is the time to act on those dreams, limited budgets notwithstanding.

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Building Resilient Regions (BRR) at UC Berkeley and the University of Buffalo Regional Institute have developed a Resilience Capacity Index. They ranked the resilience of metro areas across the U.S., and the map is displayed below. How does your metro area fare? The basis for the ranking criteria are described on the BRR site.

Resilient Regions Overall Ranking

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When a community’s best hope for site redevelopment is a Kwik Trip. News from the Twin Cities. This relates to a prior post on the land use effects of a weak economy. The American landscape is shifting. I do not believe that we are talking about this enough and analyzing the implications – for communities, for our professions, for education.

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I say broadly! Several posts in this blog are directed at new graduates and job seekers (check the Recession Watch category to the right). This one follows in that vein. It is common for landscape architecture education to be narrowly tailored and made to conform to accreditation standards. This means that the end goal of landscape architecture education has been traditional design practice, even if that goal is unstated (there have always been alternative career paths). Curricula are developed to facilitate this outcome and maintain accreditation. What happens if the likely outcomes for graduates are something other than traditional design practice, as is happening now? What does that mean for the value of LA design education? If traditional LA practice were the only use for a LA education, we’d be doomed. As a pragmatic type, I’ve struggled with this question. But I’ve decided that a design education, and a landscape architecture design education in particular, is a tremendous opportunity for students these days – even if the slim job offerings say otherwise. Why would I say that? (more…)

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In days of tight municipal budgets, all costs have to be scrutinized. The job of Parks and Rec departments across the country includes the maintenance of large expanses of lawn. This practice has long been questioned by the ecologically minded (couldn’t there be a greater mix of cover types?). For the past few years, mowing has been reduced in many places, often to a chorus of complaints, but water provision is also a consideration. For example, news from Helena, Montana (pop. ~30K) about the new Centennial Park, a traditional active rec park, being built in 3 phases on 60 acres (first phase construction began last summer):

The budget also increases water funds for the city’s parks. Of about $80,000, Centennial Park is expected to receive about $60,000 worth of water. The city  is looking to lay sod and start planting in the park soon, and Alles said he  thinks the park may be open for use by the end of the summer.

Looks like it is time to dust off the xeriscaping manuals. Public education about alternatives to lawn, and design to make the alternatives beautiful, will have to accompany changes to park planting and maintenance if ecologically beneficial changes are to take root. Otherwise, when (and if) city coffers are filled again, the default mowing and watering will make a return.

Update: A new study in the Journal of Applied Ecology further supports the idea of lawn conversion in city parks.

The study recommends planting more trees on lands currently maintained as lawns. Doing this on just 10% of lawn space would increase [citywide] carbon storage by 12%. (from Treehugger.com)

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2010, 2005, 2007, 2009, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2004, 2001. What do these years have in common? They are the top 10 hottest years (in descending order), according to NASA, since records began in 1870. 2010 and 2005 are tied for being the hottest years (combined land and ocean surface temperatures). So what was going on in 2008? I guess it’s the data point that “proves” nothing is going on?  😉

What can physical planners and designers do to help people, especially city-dwellers, adjust to a future of deadly heat waves? Designers already have the knowledge and skills to create comfortable outdoor spaces, but can heat-mitigating designs be ramped up to a scale necessary to save lives? How would we do this? What more do we need to know? All new research begins with a review of what we already know, and I have an initial summary of research literature for this topic. If this interests you, click here to read more. The diagram below (click on the image for a better view) is referenced in the link. And if you experienced a snowmageddon or snowpocalypse last winter, you might summon up that memory now as an escape from the high temps of July and August.

Framework for reducing urban vulnerability to extreme heat (Wilhelmi and Hayden 2010)

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Jack Dangermond (esri.com)

I’m tempted to say “I ♥ Jack Dangermond,” but … I do REALLY like him! He is the very inspirational president of ESRI, Environmental Systems Research Institute, the company that produces ArcGIS software, and he is a landscape planner from way back. The profile in the NY Times reveals his personality beautifully. He has somehow managed to keep his company privately held since its founding 42 years ago. He could have sold out so easily many years ago, but he is passionate about his work. When I met him a few years ago at a small specialists’ conference, we heard that he had just pulled an all-nighter on a big project – not because he had to, of course, but because he was so caught up in it that he wanted to. (FYI – If you are a job-seeker, you should really read the article. Jack discusses interviews and what ESRI looks for in new hires.) (more…)

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