The urban crisis brings many challenges, but also presents opportunities for landscape architects to help build more equitable green spaces and cities.
As a Los Angeles resident who doesn’t drive, navigating the city on foot and bike has always made me feel like I have the whole place to myself.
But over the last two months, Angelenos have been freckling the streets—it’s like they’ve all discovered for the first time that they’re capable of exploring this city without a car. While most beaches and trails in the city were shuttered (they have since re-opened), I noticed the LA River becoming the city’s new “it spot” for socially distant hangouts. And in a city that lacks adequate public parks, people are turning any patch of grass or sidewalk—whether it’s an elementary school yard, a traffic median, or a bit of concrete next to a parking lot—into a bit of respite from the madness.
In the midst of this pandemic, public space is decidedly having a moment. In the last month, Oakland, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee have all announced ambitious new open streets programs to create more recreational space and facilitate safe social distancing.
Parks, plazas, and other outdoor urban assets are no longer being seen as superfluous, but instead finally being recognized as essential. And so are the masterminds behind them. Since the start of the pandemic, landscape architecture has become one of the few areas for cautious optimism within the wider architecture, engineering, and construction sector, which is poised for a downturn.
Metropolis spoke with leaders in landscape architecture to see how they’re processing and responding to the health crisis. Here are the themes and ideas they’re considering right now.
Rethinking Community and Public Engagement
In March, shortly after the start of the crisis and the beginning of widespread shelter-in-place orders, an informal network of landscape architecture and urban planning firms—including Agency L+P, Asakura Robinson, City Architecture, OHM Advisors, NSpiregreen, and Interboro—convened to figure out what it means to conduct meaningful and sensitive public engagement in the era of coronavirus. The group has been discussing how to go about moving community consultation and engagement, public meetings, co-design sessions, and design charettes onto digital platforms for the foreseeable future.
In many ways, this crisis is catalyzing an overdue shift in the tools landscape architects and planners use to gather residents’ input, which has been the basis of co-design. For too long, the sector has relied on community engagement approaches and methodologies, which have inherent biases. “Public meetings have never really been inclusive,” says Brie Hensold of Agency L+P. By using digital and other tools to widen the conversation and meet people where they are, she says, landscape architects can start to make this process more equitable.
While many ideas the group is discussing are nascent, the process is already starting to yield some novel results. For its Graffiti Pier project in Philadelphia, Studio Zewde is exploring using Instagram Live with DJ hosts to engage local creatives and street artists. Many firms are also turning to Zoom to conduct community surveys and focus groups, and exploring the potential of platforms such as WhatsApp groups and even podcasts to involve a broader swath of communities in the design and planning process.
Other firms are taking a productive pause from straightforward projects and are leveraging their expertise to help local communities in other ways. For its ongoing work designing public spaces across the rural Coachella Valley of California, KDI has developed online programming aimed at extending the social interaction afforded by parks and public plazas into the digital realm. That effort has resulted in an informative, weekly Facebook Live variety show and a mariachi car parade organized for towns in the firm’s region, including North Shore, Mecca, and Oasis.
Redesigning Parks: Less Programming, More Re-wilding
Chris Reed of landscape firm Stoss and Kinder Baumgardner from SWA predict a pivot away from the highly designed, highly programmed spaces that have become popular in landscape architecture in recent years. This shift could mean more expansive spaces that are large enough to safely accommodate many functions and people while social distancing.
“We’re always advocating with clients that even though they’re interested in events and destinations, we also need to design for those moments when those activities don’t exist,” says Reed.
Regarding its current projects, Stoss is already embedding social-distancing guidelines as a design innovation. For its work on a 2.5-mile stretch of waterfront in Edmonton, Canada, the firm is experimenting with designs that create different levels of linear pathways: two or three different tracks of varying width and size could accommodate multiple streams of people simultaneously and safely.
Landscape architects also foresee the “re-wilding” of our urban green spaces, as maintenance budgets and capabilities hang in limbo. Baumgardner believes this may demand landscape techniques that “can kind of back away and let [nature] do its thing.”
Landscape Architects Need to Become Advocates
While the last two months have demonstrated that innovative landscape architecture is a critical urban asset, strapped city budgets and changing funding priorities mean its future remains a question mark. Ashley Langworthy of Biederman Redevelopment Ventures points out that a murky funding landscape will require designers to have a greater understanding and accountability around the business models, financial sustainability, and maintenance of their designs.
Landscape architects will also need to advocate and argue for the expansion of parks and recreation budgets, particularly to address the glaring inequities in parks and public space access, which the crisis has amplified. “How do we convince our elected leaders that this is important stuff?” says Baumgardner.
This hasn’t always been the sector’s strong suit. As Kathryn Gustafson once commented, “landscape architects are a shade-loving species.”
And as pilot projects like the fast-spreading adoption of open streets allow cities to quickly test and implement solutions, designers and progressive urbanists will need to insist that they provide a permanent fix. “This is an unforeseen moment to [try] things that people have been thinking about for a while,” says Reed. “And it’s up to us as designers to be advocates for these ideas in the public sphere and with our clients.”
Ryan Gravel, founder of the Atlanta Beltline and of urban design consultancy Sixpitch, remains optimistic that, if leveraged correctly, this moment can be a great time to push for ambitious and inclusive green space projects, and to build political momentum behind plans that are already in development: “I don’t buy the long-term doom and gloom for cities. Obviously, there are near-term issues to deal with, and there will be implications. But I’m still confident in the future of cities.”
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