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Archive for the ‘Landscape Planning’ Category

The economic downturn has hastened the move to stormwater green infrastructure (GI) approaches (e.g., permeable paving, vegetative swales, rain gardens, green roofs) as a way to combat combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in the United States. Federal policies that mandate water quality improvements in cities have commonly been met with arguments about how the new measures will not be financially feasible (even in the pre-Clean Water Act days when urban creeks might be called “bubbly” because of methane discharge from rotting waste). However, the financial argument carries weight even with regulators in today’s fiscal environment, and U.S. EPA is now signaling a willingness to be more flexible in the arrangements it makes with cities. EPA’s embrace of stormwater green infrastructure has been apparent for some time, and that trend appears to be set for the foreseeable future. Greenwire, a subscription service, reports on new guidance to regulators from EPA’s water chief, Nancy Stoner, and uses the following example of past agreements with major cities:

Over the past 10 years, EPA and the Department of Justice have sought to stop the overflows by suing cities and striking settlement agreements that require massive upgrades. As a result, at least 40 cities or sewer systems across the United States have entered into such agreements with EPA since 1999.

The agreements tend to require rebuilding pipelines, expanding treatment plants and digging underground tunnels big enough for subway trains. The tunnels act as storage tanks for stormwater that would normally pour into waterways and allow time for treatment plants to clean up the mess.

As part of its 2003 consent decree with the federal government, Washington, D.C., broke ground last month on a $2.6 billion tunnel-building project, the largest since construction of the metropolitan area’s subway system. The tunnel will be 23 feet wide and 100 feet deep and will extend 4.5 miles from the sewage-treatment plant along the east bank of the Potomac River, crossing under the Anacostia River and extending to RFK Stadium on the city’s east side. [Emphasis added.]

With eye-opening treatment options like that, it is no wonder that cities are interested in hosting GI experimentation. Hoping to head off even more tunnel construction, the Washington, D.C. Water General Manager is enthusiastic about contributing to the GI body of knowledge!

“No city or utility has ever done a sustained and large-scale pilot study of green roofs, trees and porous pavement to help in those areas,” D.C. Water General Manager George Hawkins said. “We hope to do just that.”

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The Urban Land Institute released an important report today on real estate trends to 2020, asking the question that is on everyone’s mind – what’s next? The report is tied to the 75th anniversary of ULI. Two years ago, prognosticators were looking for green shoots. Today, organizations like ULI are finally acknowledging the effects of the Great Recession/Lesser Depression as “fundamental societal change.” The major findings of ULI are summarized as:

  • Technology will reshape work places. Office tenants will decrease space per employee, and new office environments will need to promote interaction and dialogue. Offices will be transforming into meeting places more than work places, with an emphasis on conference rooms, break areas and open configurations. Developers will craft attractive environments to attract young, talented workers.
  • Major companies will value space that enables innovation. They will continue to pay more for space in a global gateway served by a major international airport, or in 24-hour urban centers. Hard-to-reach suburban work places will be less in demand.
  • The influx of Generation Y, now in their teens through early thirties, will change housing demand. They are comfortable with smaller homes and will happily trade living space for an easier commute and better lifestyle. They will drive up the number of single households and prompt a surge in demand for rentals, causing rents to escalate.
  • For most people, finances will still be constrained, leading to more shared housing and multi-generational households. Immigration will support that trend, as many immigrants come from places where it is common for extended families to share housing. This may be the one group that continues to drive demand for large, suburban homes.
  • The senior population will grow fastest, but financial constraints could limit demand for adult housing developments. Many will age in place or move in with relatives to conserve money. Developers may want to recast retirement communities into amenity-laden “age friendly” residences. Homes near hospitals and medical offices will be popular, especially if integrated into mixed-use neighborhoods with shops, restaurants and services.
  • Energy and infrastructure take on greater importance. Businesses cannot afford to have their network connections down, and more will consider self-generated power or onsite generator capacity. Developers, owners and investors are realizing that the slightly higher costs of energy- and water-saving technologies can pay for themselves quickly, creating more marketable and valuable assets. Ignoring sustainability issues speeds property obsolescence.

On Asia and Europe:

  • Nearly all Asian countries are going through a radical urban transformation, and many believe that the next decade of Asian urbanization will drive the global economy. By 2020, China alone will have 400 cities with populations over 1 million. Asia’s surging middle class is projected to reach an amazing 1.7 billion in 2020. Water availability—and the maturation of real estate capital markets—will be major issues.
  • In Europe, the global financial crisis has made investment capital increasingly hard to obtain. Resilient cities, those with a strong city government and high degree of market trust with investors and businesses, will be most attractive to investors. With companies operating in increasingly global markets and citizens expressing a desire to reduce their commute times, European cities must place an even greater emphasis on effective, state-of-the-art transportation systems.
And the effects on urban planning and design?

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A new series in the Chicago Tribune is shining a spotlight on a problem found in many large cities: the uneven distribution of parkland across the city and the general absence of open space in poor neighborhoods. The first article in the series does a great job of describing the overall problem and also, very importantly, making the argument tangible by giving a detailed example of a particular neighborhood. It will be interesting to see how the series unfolds, especially because Chicago’s new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, included the park allocation issue in his transition plan and because action on the problem will be challenging in this fiscal environment. The central argument in the article:

Despite former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s much-ballyhooed push for new parks and playgrounds, one-half of Chicago’s 2.7 million people still live in community areas that fail to meet the city’s own modest standard: For every 1,000 people, there should be 2 acres of open space, an area roughly the size of Soldier Field’s entire playing surface.

Many of these areas have so little parkland that it is no exaggeration to call them “park deserts,” a name that suggests a similarity to “food deserts,” where healthy, affordable food is hard to obtain.

Indeed, the park deserts extract a comparable human toll, denying children and adults a place to exercise, cutting them off from contact with nature, and robbing them of a chance to form bonds of community.

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The new documentary film, Urbanized, by Gary Hustwit premiered in Toronto on September 9. It may be coming to a city near you – check out the list of screenings here. Otherwise, you have to settle for the trailer and wait for it to be televised or become available in DVD format.

Two Norwegian bloggers, Lise Breivik and Kjersti Hagen of buildinghappiness.org, paired the Urbanized trailer with the following clip, and the result is an amazing contrast in the urban design issues/challenges facing cities in our globalized era. Detroit Wild City, by French filmmaker Florent Tillon, has been making the rounds in film festivals this year, and it is said to capture both the haunting images of ruin as well as the human dimension of people living and working in inner city Detroit. There’s an interesting interview with the filmmaker and Detroit locals here.

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Is anyone excited about U.S. politics these days, excited in a positive sort of way? I have been ignoring the weekly ups and downs regarding legislation affecting the environment, preferring to take notice only when a proposal looks likely to pass. Given that nothing is passing both houses of Congress, I’ve had time on my hands! For some time now, it has been clear that climate change was not going to be on the agenda in Washington, D.C. Climate has, in fact, been considered the proverbial “third rail” in the nation’s capital ever since cap-and-trade legislation failed. This is a sorry state of affairs, in my opinion, but climate adaptation is still a growing need at the local level, with cities taking the lead in many cases, despite dysfunction at the national level.

Nevertheless, federal funding is still critical for local government planning, making it a necessity for local government planners to know which way the federal winds are blowing. This past week, members of the American Planning Association lobbied Washington in support of legislation that would support local communities, and NRDC blogger, Deron Lovaas reported on some of the planners’ interests.

In our current political climate, no one’s talking about climate. But people do want to hear about economics and energy, which means that it’s a great time to talk about transportation solutions.  …snip…  Planners should be pushing for bipartisan solutions like high-occupancy toll lanes, ITS technology and scenario planning in their communities.

Lovaas is urging planners to focus their attention on the infrastructure bills, like the American Jobs Act, as a possible means to climate action. He continues:

Yesterday planners spent the day lobbying on the Hill, pushing for the American Jobs Act and the clean energy opportunities it presents, such as investments in innovative transit projects through the TIGER and TIFIA programs, and Project Rebuild, which will invest $15 billion in rehabilitating properties in distressed communities.

It could happen.

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Image of McHarg on this 2007 book by Margulis, Corner, and Hawthorne

It’s a curious thing, the haunting, and conflicting, influence of Ian L. McHarg on landscape architecture. He is certainly one of a very small number of widely acclaimed, internationally recognized, landscape architects of the 20th century, and his influence extended well beyond the discipline. He’s been called “legendary.” Nevertheless, landscape architecture academics (perhaps others, but that’s the group I know) have been tied in knots over McHarg for the better part of the past few decades now.

Last week, I asked a group of 30 3rd-year landscape architecture undergraduates if they had ever heard of McHarg or the book Design With Nature. I have been asking this question for several years now, but this year is the first in which no one in the class raised their hand. This result did not come as a total surprise since the number of hands raised has been very small over the last couple of years, but it still startles me. I think there’s a very good chance that students in programs across the U.S. today graduate without ever hearing about this prominent, however polarizing, figure in the profession.

My first encounter to vehement …dislike??… of McHarg among my academic colleagues came when I started teaching 12 years ago. I was photocopying an excerpt from Design With Nature to use in class when a fellow professor said something to the effect of “Argh, what a misanthrope that guy was!”  I have tread cautiously ever since, mindful of what seemed to be a mounting volume of journal articles and book chapters that have dissected McHarg’s legacy in the profession, much of which casts it in an unfavorable light. Contrasting this with what is written about McHarg from those outside of landscape architecture, and how many times his writing continues to be cited favorably today, reveals a paradox, in my opinion.

So it is with great curiosity that I observe a number of landscape urbanists prominently featuring images of McHarg and the book, Design With Nature, in their public presentations. For example, in this video of Charles Waldheim‘s November 2010 address to architecture and urban design students at the University of North Carolina, Waldheim discusses McHarg’s ideas of ecological planning, drawing a line between landscape planning of McHarg’s generation and the newer ideas of landscape urbanism. And Waldheim’s perspective is critical too, referring to the “failed McHargian project.” But the failure that Waldheim cites has nothing to do with a schism between art-based and science-based perspectives, often the root of conflict among LA academics to date, but instead is about the reliance of the “McHargian project” on planning bureaucracy. (That’s another story – the demonization of planners who are a weak force in the U.S., at least, in the face of the moneyed interests of the Growth Machine.)

When McHarg attended Harvard in the late 1940s, he found that the works of Olmsted and Charles Eliot were barely acknowledged (according the McHarg’s biography A Quest for Life). Olmsted was essentially rediscovered in the 1960s (it’s hard for current students to believe he was ever forgotten), while Eliot remains obscure for most. As the academics of the 1980s and 90s retire and what has seemed like personal baggage among some becomes irrelevant, will McHarg be rediscovered? Is that already happening?

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was the family read-aloud book this past spring. I found myself especially drawn to Twain’s description of the Mississippi River, a reminder of how much of an impact the Big Muddy had on my own childhood as I grew up along its banks. Naturally, I watched the new reports in May as my hometown flooded, and I wondered if the many miles of levees could possibly hold. The system put in place by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers largely did its job, but the river still exacted a price, eating away at the banks and attempting to carve new channels (i.e., doing what rivers do in flood events). A report in the Memphis Commercial Appeal details the costs of “bank failures” from the big flood. With federal budget cutting fever rampant in D.C., you have to wonder about how many federal dollars will be directed toward the repairs.

Corps officials estimate it will cost $222.5 million to undo the damage inflicted by the river as it tried to create new channels during the flood. If the repairs aren’t completed before the next big flood, the Mississippi could complete the course changes it began this year.

That $222.5 million sum is in addition to the projected $327.7 million it will take to fix flood-damaged levees, the $157.4 million worth of flood-related dredging needed and the estimated $70.6 million required to restore spillways and similar structures.

To pay for those and other damages, the U.S. House approved $1 billion in emergency appropriations for the corps in the energy and water bill. But the Senate has yet to approve any funds.

A retired Army Corps hydraulics engineer, Larry Banks is quoted in the article:

“We don’t control the river. The river is the control,” Banks said. “The works of the corps can tickle it a little bit and keep it manageable.”

One of the bank failures, .5 mi wide and 1 mi deep into Presidents Island near Memphis. Photo by International Port of Memphis.

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In reading through an interesting series of posts by Andrew Revkin (here, here, and here – all behind the NY Times subscription wall, I think), I was struck by several ideas that have direct implications for planners and designers. Revkin states that science is clear on greenhouse gas function (rising CO2 levels mean a warming world), but science is much less clear about the specific effects of climate change that matter to people at the local level, in their communities and daily lives. We do not know exactly how much sea level will rise by 2100, for example. There are also many uncertainties about the sensitivity of the climate to a doubling of CO2 levels. And on the regional climate models that planners would like to see, Revkin says:

I noted many climate modelers are convinced that regional climate forecasts — another top concern of officials and the public — are unlikely to improve much even with far more powerful computers and years of extra work on simulations. (Emphasis added.)

In reviewing these points, I noted, “That’s why this is what some complexity theorists call a ’super wicked problem.’”

So here we are – faced with a need to act (adaptation, rather than mitigation in this case), a need based on threats to health, safety, and welfare, and equipped with inadequate knowledge of exactly what will happen. Revkin’s larger point is that “while the basics of the science are clear, the science on questions that matter most to society is not.” In the two follow-up posts, Revkin publishes reader responses, one of which emphasizes the political argument that data may be less important to the public than the underlying values threatened by climate change – risks to life, property, and the economy.

The other follow-up is a response by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. Louv critiques the term sustainability, which he says connotes stasis, and instead offers up “thriveability.”  Louv suggests shifting the debate to the creative and hopeful, but still rooted in concerns that matter to people on an individual basis, like the welfare of their children. And designers should appreciate the attention Louv and Revkin give to creative acts of place making that include the green, “natural” areas in cities:

… for the sake of biodiversity and human happiness, conservation is no longer enough; now we must create nature — where we live, work, learn and play. Those actions not only serve our immediate needs, but might also have an impact on biodiversity and climate change, or at least attitudes about climate change. (Emphasis added.)

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On the East Coast of the U.S. today, there was a minor earthquake centered in Virginia, my former home. 370 miles away in Central New York, it could be felt, but just barely. It reminded me of a video of Japan’s Sendai earthquake from March of this year. I am not referring to the terrifying videos of the tsunami, but the far less disturbing, but still dramatic and unusual, video of liquefaction filmed in a Chiba City park by CNN iReporter Brent Kooi. The original video has apparently been removed from YouTube because of a copyright claim. Surprisingly, I did find a shorter version of the original. Take a look. Liquefaction may sound boring, but I assure you that the image of the earth “breathing” is not. Perhaps “swelling” like an ocean wave is a better metaphor. The most dramatic images are those of the opening cracks moving back and forth with the tremors, and, in one case, water sloshing around in the crack. Less obvious to the video viewer is what was clear to Brent Kooi – the fact that pools of water were suddenly appearing all around him. Landfill in an earthquake.

 

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In a comment on this post, Svend Rumbold points out that the data about bird and bat mortality is probably based on impacts with conventional horizontal axis turbines and not the vertical axis models. Digging a little deeper into the sources for the Climatewire story, I find these things:

  • Bird and bat mortalities from wind turbines are becoming more significant problems globally because of the phenomenal increase in the wind energy industry – now growing more in developing countries than in industrialized ones. (See the Renewables 2011 Global Status Report, by REN21.)
  • Curiously, the 116-page REN21 report mentions vertical axis turbines only once, and it was in relation to ocean technology – suggesting to me that almost all of the growth in wind farms involves horizontal axis turbines.
  • The American Bird Conservancy is actively promoting bird- and bat-friendly wind projects, and the organization endorses a set of recommendations that was developed in 2007 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wind Turbine Guidelines Advisory Committee.
  • The 2007 advisory guidelines are all about landscape planning and say virtually nothing about technology choice. The emphasis is on landscape-level analysis and site selection, detailed site studies, site construction best management practices, post-construction mortality studies, and other monitoring. It seems that there is some degree of confidence that better site selection can lead to fewer mortalities.
  • U.S. politics enters the equation: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued new draft guidelines in July – guidelines that the wind industry applauds and the American Bird Conservancy opposes because most of the wildlife protection language has been removed.
  • The bat research cited in Climatewire is this:  Baerwald, E.F., G.H. D’Amours, B.J. Klug, et al. 2008. Barotrauma is a significant cause of bat fatalities at wind turbines. Current Biology 18 (16): R695-R696. The same authors published a study in July of this year where they document their bat migration research based on bat mortality on wind farms in Alberta, Canada.

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