Landscape Solutions for Smart, Healthy, Resilient Cities

By Barbara Deutsch and Heather Whitlow

Barbara Deutsch, FASLA is the CEO of the Landscape Architecture Foundation.

Heather Whitlow is Director of Programs & Communications at the Landscape Architecture Foundation.

In a smart, sustainable, and resilient city every space must be multi-functional. Even in dense cities like New York, only about 12% of the land area is occupied by buildings. The other 88% is landscape; outdoor spaces that include parks, streets, and public and private open spaces. These spaces play a vital role in the life of cities. Human beings need to be outside. We need to connect with one another and nature. Urban areas are also part of much larger systems and can exacerbate or help to mitigate issues like water quality, heat islands, species flows, and the changing climate. The smartest cities make these connections.

The era of single-use spaces is rapidly coming to an end. We can no longer afford to squander space and resources with streets that are just for motor vehicles, sea walls and levees that only hold back water, and lawns that serve just aesthetic and sometimes recreational purposes. All of these spaces can be designed to meet various environmental, social, and economic needs, including transportation, recreation, water management, habitat creation, equitable access, and more.

Landscape architects have long been designing for these multiple benefits, and their broad training and systems thinking makes them well-equipped to tackle new challenges brought on by a changing climate, increasing urbanization, and growing inequity. Cities are landscapes and should be planned and designed using a landscape approach; one that considers the larger systems and flows of water, energy, waste, species, and people and how they are nested at various scales. The landscape approach results in distinct multi-functional spaces that are so well resolved that the design intricacies may not be apparent at first glance. These landscapes respond to their context to facilitate connections, transitions, circulation, and views, in addition to addressing key project goals. When form and function are seamlessly integrated, typical users may not even realize that a landscape is anything more than a wonderful space.

Take, for example, Hunter’s Point South in Queens, New York. This 30-acre mixed-use development uses a landscape approach to flood protection, which offers a new model for waterfront resilience. The 11-acres of waterfront park were built in two phases that opened in 2013 and 2018. In addition to the new open and recreational spaces along the East River, the park provides connections to surrounding communities, and spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline. The park also safely caps and contains contaminated soils from the formerly industrial site and provides new roadways and sewers for the coming residential development.

Most notably, the park manages water: stormwater runoff from the new development ,and anticipated flooding along the East River from storm surges. The augmented shoreline includes gabion edges, new wetlands, and topography changes to withstand flooding. The park also provides an overflow catchment area for up to a 6-foot storm-surge flood event in cases where a surge breaches the existing concrete bulkhead. This storage is provided by a multi-purpose synthetic turf oval lawn ringed by concrete retaining wall with steps for seating. The design was tested during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 while the project was still under construction, and it proved able to withstand the force of water with no damage to the park’s infrastructure, and planting areas were able to quickly bounce back after salt water inundation.

Houston’s Buffalo Bayou is another example of landscape infrastructure that provides a wealth of public amenities. The slow moving river is, in fact, a drainage corridor that is an essential part of the region’s flood control system. Following a 2002 master plan, a system of linear parks have been created or renovated along the banks of the bayou, often in conjunction with channel improvements. When Hurricane Harvey came in 2017, the bayou and its parks suffered little to no damage from the 27 trillion gallons of water that were dropped on Metropolitan Houston. A strictly hard engineering approach might have held up just as well, but it would not provide the recreational facilities, cultural programming, restored habitat, and other public amenities that the park system offers.

Landscape solutions can also help to mitigate temperature extremes, such as the daytime heat found in the hot desert climate of Tucson, Arizona. The expansion of the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture building offered an opportunity to demonstrate classic low-cost arid land design techniques. A scrim on the building’s southern exposure is covered with climbing native vines to reduce solar heat gain. A sunken courtyard with native plants, mesquite trees, and a pond creates a cooler microclimate for outdoor gathering. Cisterns capture runoff from the roof and site, HVAC condensate, and drinking fountain greywater for reuse in irrigation. The site also creates habitat for wildlife and serves as a learning laboratory.

These projects demonstrate the value of a landscape approach at the site, neighborhood, or regional scale. The Landscape Architecture Foundation’s Landscape Performance Series has over 150 case studies that showcase measurable environmental, social, and economic benefits of exemplary landscape projects. There is also a Fast Fact Library of landscape’s multiple and sometimes surprising benefits from scientific literature. These include stress reduction, attention restoration, shorter hospital stays, greater job satisfaction, noise mitigation, reductions in crime, and willingness to pay more for goods and services. We hope that these resources will help you make the case for sustainable landscape solutions in your community, with clients and developers, or to policymakers.

To realize the multiple benefits that landscape solutions provide, cities should ensure that their planning and policy initiatives are driven by a landscape approach. Landscape architects can play a key role in this from the concept stage of a project or program, through design and ongoing management. They are uniquely trained to consider systems, context, and the interrelationships between people and their environment and with each other. This perspective is invaluable not only on design teams, but also in planning, policy, economic development, transportation, and other sustainable development initiatives.

Outdoor systems and spaces serve critical functions and are a vital part of each community’s character and brand, meaning, and memory. In a smart and resilient city, buildings are located to create these multi-functional spaces, rather than spaces being the leftover area from the placement of buildings. When development uses a landscape approach, cities and their spaces support natural and cultural processes and resources, and better outcomes for all.

Featured Projects:

Hunters Point Waterfront Park was designed by SWA/Balsley, Weiss/Manfredi, and ARUP.

The 2002 Buffalo Bayou Master Plan was developed by Thompson Design Group, Inc/EcoPLAN. An early conceptual master plan was done by SWA, which also did a 2012 Master Plan Update and designed the Sabine Promenade and Buffalo Bayou Park sections of the park system.

The University of Arizona’s College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture landscape was designed by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects.

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